Tag Archives: Colonial




For almost two hundred years the flintlock firearm was the state of the art for the military around the world. First developed by Marin le Bourgeoys for King Louis XIII of France around 1610 they continued to be refined and developed until the mid-19th century when percussion caps became more the norm.

The flintlock pistol was normally used in conjunction with another weapon, sword or cutlass and would fire one shot before having to be reloaded. They ranged from six inches up to twenty and were mostly smooth bore. Effective and powerful in the short-range their greatest deficiency was that time it took to reload. For those that have never done it here are the steps:

Load the flint into the lock.

Half-cock the cock

Pour the proper amount of black powder down the muzzle

Tamp it down

Wrap the ball in a patch, usually linen or cotton

Put the ball in the muzzle

Tamp the ball and power down with the ramrod

Prime the flash pan

You are ready to fire!

Now imagine that in the middle of a fight, probably not going to happen which is why you would normally carry more than one.

Not only is the load process time-consuming, but the actual flick that makes the spark can sometimes be an issue. They wear out, and if not produced right is just plain ineffective.  Of course, keeping your powder dry was a major issue. Even when it was you would have to constantly clean the powder residue from the weapon to keep it functioning. Since most of the pistols were made by hand the parts were mostly not transferable from one to another. So if something broke, you may be out of luck.

Still, though they were good weapons and were integral in not only the military but taming the new frontiers found on the American Continent.

By the Ledger Book

By the Ledger Book

By the Ledger Book

What you see above is a ledger from a small colonial business in Virginia. If you looked close you would see all the normal debits and credits that you would expect in a ledger. Now imagine if instead of a wallet you carried your own personal ledger book? Not so far-fetched.

In a time before ATMs and banks hard currency was very hard to find and when you did find it parting with it was not something you enjoyed doing. In New England people used a sort of ledger system for most personal and business transactions, sort of like using Bitcoin. Here is how it worked.

Let’s say you were a young man who decided to do some work on your neighbors farm. You work ten hours. When the day was over you would both take out your ledger books, you would write down that Farmer John owed you for ten hours of work. Farmer John would write in his book that he owed you for ten hours of work. On the way home you stop at the butchers to buy some dinner and decide on a nice ham. The butcher may want to sell you the ham for $5 (just an example), well you don’t have any hard currency but you and the butcher agree that since Farmer John owes you for ten hours, the butcher can lay claim to five of those. You both makes the notes in your ledgers and you have dinner.

Sometime later the butcher needs help with rounding up sheep for the slaughter. He looks in his ledger and sees that now Farmer John owes him that five hours, so he goes and collects by having Farmer John help him for five hours. All accounts are square and not a single piece of copper or paper has actually changed hands.

Simpler? No, not really but when everyone is on the same page it can be effective.



The Colonial Internet

In the modern world if you need news you can turn to your phone or computer, maybe even the TV (I know, really?) and find out what is going on in the world fairly quickly. If you want to know what your neighbors are up to, friends and family, you can always go to Facebook or Twitter to find out who’s doing what to whom at any hour of the day.  Besides gossip and outrage we have also seen the Internet used to spark resistance and rebellion to perceived outrages and threats. Heck, we have even seen Twitter used to spark governmental overthrows.  But if you lived in 1775, on the eve of the American Revolution, how would you get your news and know what was happening all around you.  That is where the local tavern came in.

More than a place to get a pint or grab a quick meal, the tavern was the center of social life for the community (some will say Church, and that may be true in some places) and it was here that news was traded and gossip spread. Men would gather from all over to talk about the news of the day, even taking turn reading whatever newspapers were available.

It was in taverns that the American Revolution took shape and form. The City Tavern in Philadelphia and the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg are among the most famous. In the back rooms men would meet and voice their concerns and plan their actions. It was in places like this that the first calls for a general continental congress were raised, and here that men would meet after their militia outings. Face to face, person to person, thoughts were shaped and ideas were formed.

The taverns were very much the Internet of Colonial life, a social place where you could keep up with neighbors and the world outside. Hear the news and plot your rebellions. The picture above is of the King’s Arms Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg. Today it serves as a family restaurant that stays as true as possible to the feeling of the taverns of the colonial era. You can’t book mark it like a Google search, but you can sure make reservations!




The New World was rich with resources which drew the interest of those in the Old World. For the Spanish Central and South America gave them gold, more gold than anyone ever thought existed. This gold fueled the Spanish Empire and caused the other nations in Europe to take notice.

France, England and The Netherlands looked upon North America with interest, some hoping to find the same gold that the Spanish found in the south, some hopping to find something even more valuable. One that they found, were beavers.

Yes, beaver, or more accurately their fur, spurred a gold rush of a different kind in North America and became a flash point for generations as France and England wrestled for control of the resource. The key though was relations with the Native Americans whose land this trade crisscrossed.

France looked upon the natives as partners in the endeavor, they did their best to treat them fairly and not subjugate them. Of course this was not purely altruistic. The French never colonized in the numbers that the British did and keeping on good terms with the natives was truly in their own self-interest,

The British took a slightly different view on the fur trade. They looked upon the natives as subjects and where the French were fairly free wheeling in their dealings, the English looked for a much more regimented structure and as their population grew, conflict with the natives and the French was inevitable.

And this all came on the back of the beaver and the incredible military uses that the little buggers provided. What? No military value? OK, then it must have been because of the beaver has a special gland that provides eternal life? No? Not that either huh? Yes, their fur was prized, and most of it went to the creation of hats. Yes, hats. The photo above shows a beaver pelt and the end product, a beaver pelt hat. A pelt and hat that would eventually lead to the founding of the United States of America.


Major Washington’s Journal

In 1753 the Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, sent Major George Washington (then only 21) into the Western reaches of the Colony to warn the encroaching French that they were trespassing on land that was claimed by Virginia for England. The land in question would eventually become Ohio.

Washington and his small expedition was to deliver an ultimatum to the french garrison at Fort Le Boeuf not far from Lake Erie. He was received by the French commander who told Washington that he would forward the request to his superiors in Quebec, but in the meantime they were going nowhere.

When the expedition kicked off Washington was sure to take experienced woodsmen, explorers and interpreters with him as he was about to get his first taste of the true frontier. On his tour he dealt with rain and snow, visited a number of French forts and even some native villages. Putting his skills a s a surveyor to the test he even created one of the first maps of the Ohio River Valley that would prove useful later. Realizing that he was not going to get the answer he was looking for Washington headed home.

As soon as he returned to Williamsburg Washington wrote out the official report of his trip and handed it over to Governor Dinwiddie who immediately saw it as a tool to warn people about the encroaching French menace. Dinwiddie had the journal published in book form and in broadsides and excerpts even showed up in newspapers in the colonies and back in England. Over night Major George Washington became a name well-known at home and and in the social circles in London.

The picture above is of one of the original copies of the published journal.

Side note. Dinwiddie would send Washington back to the Ohio River Valley on a second expedition to parley with the French. This one did not go as well and George Washington may well have accidentally started a world war that would end with the French leaving the New World and the British American colonies on a slippery slope to revolution. Too bad he didn’t keep a journal of THAT adventure!

Jefferson Indian Peace Medal

In the days before the American Revolution the great European powers that spent time traipsing around the wilds of North America presented the leaders of the various native tribes with silver medals that were to be seen as symbols of friendship and to single out the leaders as special people. They were effective tools that tied the leadership of various tribes to the major powers.

In the wake of the Revolution it was decided that the United States of America would continue the tradition. Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, saw the medals as just trinkets that were the continuation of a long-standing European tradition to give small presents to treaty negotiators, one that was harmless and really had no meaning. Sort of like when you stop at a truck stop and buy a spoon with the name of  whatever state you are visiting.

When Jefferson, as President, sent Lewis and Clark on their great adventure to the Pacific Ocean they were loaded down with these medals in 1804 through 1806. Along the way as they handed out the medal to the various tribes they encouraged their “new friends” to send back or turn in any such trinkets they had received previously from other Europeans. There is no record to indicate how many were returned. Odds are not many.

The medal above is one of these medals. The original medals were made of thin silver plates connected with a small silver band. On the front was President Jefferson and the back the crossed tomahawks and clasped hands indicting peace and friendship. Each successive President would strike their own medallions though whether or not the worked in promoting friendship… well that may be another story.


A Soldier At Rest Part Two

The gentleman in the picture above is one of wonderful staff at Colonial Williamsburg. I did not catch his name but the “character” he played had an interesting evolution. He played his character at different points in time, anywhere from when the trouble with Britain were beginning to the role he had in the picture above. A Continental soldier after the war. That is a good place to start with this conversation.

Pensions and land grants were two methods used to entice young men to join the Continental Army. As early as 1776 Congress passed the first of the pension laws which promised half-pay for a period of time to any one that served in The Continental Army. With the caveat that the only men eligible were those that lost a limb or that were rendered unable to earn a living after the war. So a start.

In 1778 General Washington convinced Congress to amend that to include half-pay for 7 years to all officers that remained in the service until the end of the war. Enlisted men who stayed would be eligible for an $80 annuity after the war.

In 1780 Congress amended the act again to provide the half-pay for 7 years to the orphans and widows of Continental officers who died in service.

Later in 1780 it was amended again, once more at the insistence of Washington, to give officers half-pay for life.

After the near revolt of the officer corps at Newburgh, NY in March 1783 a new pension act was passed giving the officers full pay for 5 years payable in hard money or interest bearing annuities. Officers could choose which they wanted

The pension laws would be changed another six times over the years. In 1828 Congress provided for full pay to surviving officers and enlisted men without any further requirement of disability or financial need. In 1832 they extended further, full pay for life for all officers and enlisted men who served at least 2 years in the Continental Line, the state troops or militia, the navy or marines. Men who served less than 2 years but at least 6 months were granted pensions of less than full pay.

Fifty six years after the start of the war everyone who fought was now eligible for a pension.The final actual pension legislation regarding the American Revolution was passed in 1878. this last one extended lifetime benefits to any widow whose husband served at least 14 days or participated in any engagement during the war.

In the next entry in this series, a couple of weeks down the road, we’ll look how the men (and widows) collected those pensions and how many of them never were able. All part of what happened to the Continental soldier when he was finally able to rest.

Keep Your Powder Dry


Gunpowder changed the way that lives were lived and wars were fought, no one can deny that. From guns, to bombs, to fireworks, to any number of uses it gives a great amount of bang for the buck (pun intended). The only problem is that once it gets get, it quits banging. So for ages people have been coming up with ways to keep their powder dry and most popular  was the good old-fashioned cow horn. It was waterproof and easily obtainable, just eat a cow and usually you get two!

During the French & Indian War American and British forces took the old-fashioned powder horn to new heights by engraving them with military themes. The smooth surfaces were perfect for engraving and anyone that has been to war knows the old adage, “hurry up and wait.” So the men had plenty of time to be creative.

The powder horn above was a custom job that was carved for a veteran of the 1758 siege of Louisbourg (Nova Scotia, yeah, we invaded Nova Scotia once). The horn contains a map of the city showing where each artillery battery was located, shows ships in the harbor firing on the city, a hunter with his dog, and a light infantry man firing his weapon at Native Americans. (It was a different time!)

In the center of the horn is a distinctively carved tree, this style of tree was like a signature for the artist, who unfortunately remains unidentified, but his work has been seen several times.


Book Review: Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring


I come to this book with a confession. After seeing the first several episodes of the AMC series TURN, I wanted to know everything I could about the characters. So I came to this book to find out more. What I found was a bit surprising, but in the end I guess the show did its job by getting to find this book.

Now, to the book. Rose tells a gripping tale of intrigue as Washington attempts to build an intelligence service that will give him an edge against the British.  Reading the tale it is surprising that what he built was not only effective but vital in winning the revolution.

While it would be easy to try to read this as a spy novel, it is not. It is the story of real and flawed men that have to make decisions that literally could mean life or death. Abraham Woodhull, who is the main character in the show and one of the focuses in this book, is not an irreproachable patriot that will do anything for the cause.  He is man who argues with Washington over wages, and expenses and actual quits his post several times.

Even so, the way that Rose presents this man you feel for him. The pressure he is under is real and palpable, and because of that you tend to want to forgive him and by the end tend to admire him somewhat. It is to the author’s credit that he can capture the insecurity and uncertainty of the time, while at the same time humanize those that may tend to have history do otherwise to them.

Read the book for the truth, watch the show for the drama.

The Symbol of Domination


The New World brought untold riches to the powers of the Old World. Gold, silver, furs, tobacco, and many, many other resources became the currency of conquest. There was however one other resource that can not be left off that list, souls. Religion, as is almost always the case, became a weapon and resource in the New World.

The natives that lived in North America had beliefs and religion of their own, but that didn’t really matter. The Catholic Church, under the auspices of both Spain and France saw the natives as savages and pagans. They sought to “rescue” their souls for God.

To do so they established missions all through the New World. These missions often became the center of life for many of the Europeans living in the frontier and became crucial to not only gaining support of the natives, but converting them to Christianity.

In particularity unsafe or contested areas, some times these missions would become forts and used as bases to attack enemies and to aggressively spread the word of God.

Not all native tribes took to the missionaries very well. They saw no reason to change their traditions and beliefs, just for favors from the Europeans. For the most part, along with trying to convert the natives, their was an effort to make them more like the white man by encouraging them to move from the hunter/gatherer society they had always known to an agrarian based society. All too often the attempts to “civilize” the natives lead to bloody conflict that never ended well for them.

The crosses that are shown in the picture above came were found in the area of one of the old mission/forts. Where the meaning of cross to some is death and rebirth, to others it could just as easily be about the end of way of life.