The Powder Horn: An Object that Tells Its Own Story

By Caitlin Cummings

This week HHS is excited to highlight a unique object from its Permanent Collection that resonates with the themes of sacrifice & liberation that are inherent to our country’s celebration of both Memorial Day, and the upcoming Fourth of July. What we have here is an 18th century powder horn, spanning nearly 12 inches in length, 4 in height, and 3 in diameter. Despite some minor surface damage, the powder horn is in remarkably good condition, and preserves an incredible arrangement of detailed carvings that essentially tell us the story of the horn’s original owner and of his participation in the French & Indian War. unnamed-1

This scrimshaw (a type of engraving or carving done in bone or ivory) covers the entirety of the powder horn, and depicts battles of the French & Indian War as well as a map that includes Albany, New York, and Fort Henry at Lake George among other places. A close examination of the powder horn reveals that a red color has been added to particular areas of the makers design, specifically in the mountains, under the horses’ stomach (to add depth to the shading), and within the sails of the ships. At the smaller end of the horn lies its wooden cap that has two holes punched on either side, most likely allowing its owner to string it and wear it across his body. On the opposite end, there are two more holes carved into the horn, and the edge has been delicately engraved to form a scallop-like shape.

This powder horn was found in the home of James Graham by Mr. Alexander Petrie, and was donated to HHS by his grandson, Mr. Arthur Terrell. When the power horn came into our collection a number of years ago, it was believed to have been made by Graham himself circa 1760 (most likely as a commemorative piece). A key part of the scrimshaw that helped track down the story of this horn (and further solidify Graham as its owner) was the engraved text that read, “Honi soit qui malypi”. This phrase is a slightly abbreviated version of the Anglo-Norman maxim that translates to “May he be shamed who thinks badly of it”. The phrase’s most famous use was as the motto of the British chivalric Order of the Garter, and it aimed to inspire fealty and good faith in those who adopted it.

imgresHere, the motto appears on a representation of the garter as it surrounds the shield of the Royal Coat of Arms. Below it reads the French phrase “Dieu et mon Droit” (“God and my Right”) which is also found below the inscription on the powder horn.

This phrase, “Honi soit qui mal y pense,” was also later the motto of the 35th Royal Sussex Regiment of Foot (an infantry regiment of the British army) which was established in 1701. The purpose of raising this particular regiment was to meet the rising threat of war with France, and the unit was sent to America to fight in the French and Indian War in 1756 (two years after it began). The unit served as one of the garrisoned troops at Fort William Henry in Lake George, NY and is remembered most for the events that happened there. In August of 1757 the 35th Foot, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel George Monro, was overwhelmed by French Forces and forced to surrender to General Montcalm. The unit was permitted to evacuate the fort with their weapons, but the Native American allies of the French were sent after them quickly. Native Americans attacked the retreating unit and their once organized march soon dissolved into chaos as many men fled into the woods and remained lost for a number of days. As a result of this fateful day at Fort Henry, 185 soldiers in the 35th Foot were killed and many more were wounded. This somewhat traumatic event was later depicted in James Fenimore Cooper’s book Last of the Mohicans (1826), and recreated on the silver screen in the 1992 film of the same name.

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Luckily, the 35th Foot had its opportunity for revenge against General Montcalm when, in 1759, they fought as part of General Wolfe’s army at the Battle of Quebec. With their steady fire, the 35th was able to break the Régiment Royal Roussillon (a French infantry unit) and run the French out of the same Fort that had been taken from them just two years earlier.

After understanding the story of the 35th Foot and its important role in the events surrounding Fort Henry, James Graham’s powder horn begins to make much more sense. Although we cannot say for certain, it is highly likely that much of the design on the powder horn was inspired by Graham’s own experience with the 35th regiment. It is highly likely that Graham was a soldier in the 35th and could have easily been a part of the unit during the surrender of Fort Henry, the Battle of Quebec, and several other military conquests that were carried out by the British during the French & Indian War. This powder horn, whether it was made during the War or right after, continues to serve as a visual diary of specific places and events that were important to its owner. Regardless of his level of involvement, it is clear that James Graham took the 35th Regiment’s motto to heart; his detailed, delicate, and carefully designed engravings are physical reminders of this soldiers’ journey, and more importantly, his devotion to his brothers in arms.

References:

honi soit qui mal y pense.” Oxford English Dictionary, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

Sherman, Kevin. 35th Regiment of Foot, 1757. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

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