Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Flintlock Firearms of the Colonial Age

                Since the early interactions between Europeans and Native Americans, flintlock weapons were always a major commodity. They provided an easier method to hunting for the Native Americans and for the colonists, it created new markets of trade for those weapons. In 1624 The French and Iroquois signed a treaty for trade between themselves (essentially guns for fur) and thus made Montreal a new trade capital for the French in the new world. In 1639, unsupervised trade caused the Dutch to pass a law prescribing the death penalty for bootlegging guns to the Native Americans (Hamilton). These weapons were not all the same though. Most firearms were made by individual blacksmiths or gunsmiths. This meant that all of these flintlocks had individual designs on the side and butt of the rifle. Some with patterns of the crown, others with a serpentine figure that wrapped around and some with depictions of hunting dogs chasing game. These designs can help tell us a story about who the firearms belonged too. Lots of the materials used for these designs came from French furniture. This tells us that not only were these materials recycled from other things but the raw materials needed to make the gun parts were scarce and not easily obtained, even with the extensive trading going on.
Flintlock side plate.
(photo by John Cardinal)
Last week at the Fort St. Joseph site I found what we believe to be a piece of a side plate of a flintlock. It depicts a dog running towards something, similar to that of a piece found in a book published by T.M. Hamilton. The piece itself appears to be made of a copper alloy and is very well preserved. When copper oxidizes, which happens a lot in archaeology, it turns a greenish color. Since this piece was found in a swamp, and has been sitting in wet ground for years yet there is not one spec of green corrosion on it. Originally I had no clue to what the piece was and thought it wasn't anything, but when I dropped it accidentally on my trowel it made a distinguishable sound that made me know it was not just a random piece of iron. I showed my professor and he knew what it was and was surprised at how well the condition of the side piece was in. Normally there’s much more corrosion and/or damage. This piece is almost intact, no corrosion and has a brilliant depiction of a hunting dog on it. Personally, it makes me want to find the other side of the piece, it's like I've been given a jigsaw puzzle but with only one piece missing.  It's exciting but frustrating at the same time. But I haven't given up and I know I'll find the piece or others similar to it by the end of the field season.
An exciting find!
(photo by John Cardinal)
                After conducting further research at the library I found a match to the side plate. Hamilton's second book, Guns of Fort Michlimackinac, provided what is almost an exact match of my side plate. Following the end of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), Britain’s control of the former lands of New France created an escalated demand for hunting/trade firearms. The growing Hudson’s Bay Company helped to fill this need by expanding production of its “Northwest” or “Mackinaw” trade gun.
                During the colonial era over 73,000 of these firearms were built and distributed all over the new world (Servin). Making this the "Model T" of firearms for the colonial era. The design on the firearm is of Fort Michilimackinac, which narrows down the search of the gun designer, which was more than likely a French Blacksmith by the name of Jean-Baptiste Amiot. He designed most of the side plate designs for this region and more than likely was distributed to Fort St. Joseph.  Finding the other side of this side plate could possible provide further information of who made it and where it possibly came from. This could provide further data on how the French fur trade worked around Michigan and the Great Lakes.


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