Powder Horns: Portals to the Past

Rationale and Background

This lesson is intended to reach 4th and 5th grade United States History students on two levels. It is designed to spark their interest in history as well as the lives of people during the French and Indian War period. In addition, having students create a powder horn allows for self expression and shows personal identification with some aspect of the content. Research shows that these types of connections help students to internalize and remember much of the knowledge and skills teachers are trying to foster.

"Necessity is the mother of invention." In this lesson students learn an excellent example of how basic need led to an invention. This idea is applicable to every historical time period, as well as current day. A frontiersman of the colonial era would not be without his gun. This was an essential item to surviving life in a dangerous and often uncharted land. As a result, he needed a way to carry small amounts of gun powder in order to shoot his gun as he hunted or fought as a soldier. Indians and other travelers also needed the powder horn for several different reasons. Thus began the use of the powder horn during the French and Indian war time period of the mid 18th century.

Most powder horns were hand crafted from cows' horns by hollowing out the soft, pulpy internal material. A hole was burned into the small end to make a spout and the larger end was plugged tightly with a piece of wood carved to fit. The end result was a durable, water tight means to carry gun powder for an inexpensive price. Not all powder horns were used for gunpowder though: they were also used as canteens and for transporting colonial necessities like salt and tobacco. Some were also used strictly for decoration.

Once the outside was scraped smooth with a blade it made a fine surface for etching which is to cut a pattern, design or words into the object. Once the engraving was complete, the owner often rubbed ink into the grooves to make it stand out. If actual ink wasn't available, colonials used many different items such as grease, wax, soot or even gunpowder dust.

Horns are categorized usually one of two ways. One way is to group them by where they were made as shown by what is on the horn. For example, there are New York horns, Boston horns. Another way is to designate horns by the content engraved on them. For example, there are Rhyme Horns, Map Horns, Location Horns (showing a place like a Fort), Campaign Horns or Name and Date only Horns among other designations. They often used phonetic spelling and interesting abbreviations.

One very popular rhyme was: "I Powder With my brother ball /a Hero Like I Conquer all" (from Samuel Lounsbury's horn made at Fort No. 4 on June 20, 1757).

Other rhymes refer to England and have a more international spirit:

The Horn is Don (done)
So make no more fon (fun)
Ye lion and ye unicorn
Both fighting for the Crown
The Lion beat the Unicorn
All round the English Town

Yankee Doodle cum(come) to Town
Wareing (wearing) Linen Breeches
He Made the Red Coats Leave the Sound
And filled up all his Ditches

The engravings on powder horns whether amateurish or professional looking provide a unique look into the lives of men from the start of the craft during the French and Indian War period through the American Revolution. There are some common themes and even known carvers that can be discerned across many powder horns. Patrick Henry's "Give me Liberty or Give me death" has appeared on powder horns.

By the 1830s, more modern inventions like the metal flask replaced the powder horn. The brief time period of expression through carving a powder horn for the common person was over. Yet descendants are left with their words which reveal their beliefs, hopes fears, and journeys. This was a wonderful means of expression for those with talent and even those without.

For New Hampshire teachers, it is a way to engage students in the history of the lives of people who lived in their state, yet were an important part of the historical events they read about in their textbooks. Many powder horns were made in New Hampshire by men stationed at Fort No. 4 who went on various military campaigns. In this lesson, students will have a chance to see pictures of surviving horns not only from NH but other areas as well.

These rhymes and other verses, pictures and sayings all provide a portal to better understand the lives of people during the 18th century. As one writer put it, engraved powder horns are a "vital link to the spirit of the 18th century adventurer" (Eileen Silva Kindig The Black Powder Journal Vol. 3 No. 1, January/February 1998). Students will hopefully catch that sense of adventure and excitement through learning about powder horns and by making their own.

Sources

Drums A'Beating, Trumpets Sounding: Artistically Carved Powder Horns in the Provincial Manner 1746-1781 by William Guthman. CT Historical Society, 1993.

Engraved Powder Horns of the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War Era by Nathan Swayze. Gun Hill Pub. Co., 1978.