Powder Horns: Portals to the Past

Grades: 4-5

Subjects: Social Studies

Concepts: Using historical artifacts to learn about the past

Skills: Analysis, creative self-expression

Materials: Sample pictures of powder horns, oak tag, cardboard, string, fine tip markers

Time: 1-2 class periods

Focus Questions

  • What do artifacts like powder horns reveal about the people and the time period of the French and Indian War?

Instructional Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Explain what a powder horn was and why it was used.
  • Describe at least three types of etchings soldiers made on them.
  • Defend the argument that historical artifacts are an important way to learn about the past.
  • Create their own design on a powder horn revealing their understanding of the era.

Rationale and Background
Connection to the NH Framework Proficiencies

Introductory Activity

  1. Tell students that they are going to do some detective work today. Explain that this is something historians and archaeologists do in order to analyze the past.
  2. Discuss with students why it is important to seek out and evaluate things from the past and establish how this adds to our understanding of history.
  3. Introduce today’s “historical artifacts” which are powder horns from colonial times. Tell them the goal is gaining a deeper understanding of how people lived during the 1700s. If possible, have a real one to display. Otherwise, hold up a large sized picture of a powder horn (Click these powder horn images to enlarge). To increase student interest, point out that they will be looking at examples from New Hampshire. If time allows, bring students to the New Hampshire Historical Society where a Fort No. 4 horn is on display (see Thomas Hastings horn in the main exhibition, “New Hampshire Through Many Eyes”).
  4. Next, show students the parts of the powder horn to familiarize them with this invention. Explain how powder horns were made (see rationale and background).
  5. They are ready to begin some investigative work.

  6. Have students view a series of powder horns by taping pictures around the room so students can view them. Tell students that several pictures were done by Rufus Grider a very talented artist who lived from 1817-1900. He created drawings that represent the engraving on the horn as if it were unrolled. Be sure to display the pictures of powder horns in areas around the room where students can approach and make an up close inspection. The teacher could arrange it as if the students are visiting a museum or art gallery. If classroom space is an issue, then the powder horns can be shown on an overhead projector.
  7. Ask students to circulate and gather around the pictures and encourage them to write down more questions about what they are seeing. Students will write questions like: what were powder horns used for (to carry gunpowder for soldiers, water, salt, tobacco etc.)? What are they made out of (cows horns)? Why aren’t they all the same length (some probably broke and were shortened. Also, the cows’ horns are different lengths)? What kinds of things did soldiers put on them (poems, maps, drawings)? What do these art works and writings reveal about the men of the time (it shows where they have been, what they were feeling/thinking. It also shows their artistic skill)?
  8. Next, bring the whole class back together. Develop students’ analytic skills by having them hypothesize the answers before you discuss them. Then answer their questions. Explain how there are many types of horns with different types of uses (see rationale and background). Try to connect the content of this discussion with the overall unit on Colonial America and/or the American Revolution. For example, when trying to get students to understand frontier life and the French and Indian Wars connect the invention of powder horns to the theme of colonists creatively confronting their challenges in a variety of areas like housing, government and economy. Once students have a solid understanding of the role of powder horns in colonial times, students are ready to create their own artifact.

Instructional Resources or Materials

Instructional Procedure

  1. Tell students they are going to construct their own powder horns. The goal is for each student to express what they believe to be an important part of life during colonial times. To get the artistic juices flowing, students could imagine that they live at Fort #4 in NH or have been assigned as one of Robert Rogers’ Rangers. Or, they could be a British soldier in America to fight the war against France and the Indians. They could choose a specific event or person in the time period to write about or it could be more general.
  2. Next, have each student decide what kind of “etching” he/she wants on the powder horn. It could be a drawing, map, poem, song etc. Tell students that these will be displayed when they are completed.
  3. Have students write a rough draft or rough preliminary sketch in their notebooks.
  4. Have students create an outline of a powder horn. Remind them that it’s okay that they are different because cows horns were different from each other too. Have students cut out the outline and trace it onto oak tag. Have students use a fine marker to “etch” their design. For more of a 3-dimensional effect students could glue the oak tag onto a cardboard cutout of a powder horn.
  5. Students could use color if they choose. Or it could be decorated.

  6. Use a single paper punch or narrow implement to cut out holes at either end. Feed string through the holes, and tie them off making a handy way to hang them on the wall. Be sure to allow time for class members to share and view each other’s work. This is an opportunity for students to teach each other not only what they learned about the time period, but also to share through their self-expression, their personal connection to an event, person or location.

Concluding Discussion questions

  • Brainstorm other ways that people were able to express themselves during this time period.
  • In particular, ask: In what ways did women express themselves artistically? One option for an extension activity is to have the students make colonial quilts or samplers.
  • Ask: What kinds of “artifacts” do students have that would help future historians understand their lives?


Formal assessment includes:

  • Writing quality questions in notebook and participating in answering them
  • Constructing a powder horn

Informal assessment includes:

  • Being engaged in the discussion

Curriculum Modifications/Extension