January 8th marks the 198th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. I'll not try to repeat the story of that important, one-sided victory for the fledgling United States. That has been chronicled by many others. Instead here is the story of one man who was there, and the powder horn that he carried into battle.
Early powder horns with good provenance to the War of 1812 and earlier eras are quite rare. Many that have survived did so because of well executed inscribing and carving that propelled the horn into the realm of folk art as much as historic artifact. Other horns only survived by chance. Simple horns, carried by common soldiers are the rarest and are usually the most difficult to document. The horn that is the subject of this article has an impeccable provenance, yet it is a simple horn, carried by an ordinary man during an extraordinary moment in history.
Thomas Whitwell was the quintessential American frontiersman of the late 18th and early 19th century. He is remarkable only by the extraordinary amount of documentation pertaining to him that was recorded in legal and governmental records of his time. In an era when few left a trace on the written record, evidence of Whitwell’s life stretches from
Massachusetts to and several states in between. Most of the details of Thomas Whitwell’s life have been discovered through the diligent research of his fourth Great-Grandson, Dr. David Whitwell. That research, coupled with family oral traditions, has pieced together a compelling story of tragedy and adventure. Louisiana
Thomas was born in 1774 and was only a toddler when he was “bound out” to his maternal Grandfather at Charlotte Courthouse,
. His father had died suddenly and his newly remarried mother left him and his older brother in the care of relatives when she departed for the Virginia wilderness with her new husband. In 1791, when Thomas was seventeen he was either released or fled an apprenticeship with William Johnson. Family oral traditions are that Thomas was “shanghaied” and later jumped ship in Kentucky . On 12 December 1791 the Boston Gazette reported that the ship Generous Friends had arrived in Boston Boston from Africa. A few weeks later a Thomas Whitwell received two official “warnings” from authorities to leave the city. Thomas was listed as “white” and his last residence as “ Boston Africa”. The family stories of abduction and jumping ship appear to be true, and on a slaver no less!
Thomas next appears in
where he joined his older brother, Mother and Stepfather. He married Polly Anderson there in 1798. By 1802 he was in Mercer County, Kentucky . Just before the War of 1812, Thomas moves again to recently opened lands along Yellow Creek in Barron County, Kentucky . It is here in 1814, at the age of thirty nine that he and his brother-in-law and best friend, Elkanah Anderson, would join Captain Ellis’s Company of Militia. Dickson County, Tennessee
Ellis’s company was one of about thirty companies of
West Tennessee militia that were raised in the autumn of 1814. William Carroll of Jackson’s staff was sent home to recruit a new force to assist in the defense of . Carroll succeeded in raising three regiments. Ellis’s Company, raised in New Orleans was made a part of Colonel John Cocke’s 2nd Regiment. (This John Cocke is not to be confused with General John Cocke of the East Tennessee Militia during the Creek Indian War.) Carroll’s command made a torturous 1,300 mile, month long journey down the Dickson County, Cumberland, Ohio and Mississippi rivers and reached on December 20, 1814. New Orleans
|Thomas Whitwell's Powder Horn (Photo: Shane McKinnon)|
The horn is rather small in size with a total length of approximately 9 inches. Though relatively small, the volume of the horn would comfortably hold the one quarter pound of powder that militiamen armed with rifles were required to provide for themselves under the Militia Act of 1792. The base of the horn is 9 inches in circumference and the hardwood base cap appears to have been originally attached to the horn body with metal tacks. Although the tacks are missing from the 14 evenly spaced holes, the tale-tale signs of the tack heads are visible around the holes. The base cap is not lathe turned but is hand carved with the base and sling button carved from a single piece of wood.
To prevent (or to repair) cracks the horn spout has been reinforced with lead. It appears that the spout was cast and bored then slid over the spout mouth atop a previous sheet lead repair. There is no way of determining if the lead spout was applied when the horn was in use by Mr. Whitwell. The horn lacks a stopper or sling.
Inscriptions on the horn body are rather crude. The various lines of the 1812 era inscription appear to have been added in stages. There is also speculation that the horn originally belonged to Mr. Whitwell’s father, also named Thomas. This is due to the date “1775” which seems to be out of context with the rest of the inscription on the horn. This is a year after the birth of Thomas Jr. and the year of Thomas Sr.’s death.
The lines are inscribed from the base towards the spout and are generally justified on the left near the base cap. They read:
|Drawing of War of 1812 Inscriptions on the Powder Horn|
|Close-up of Inscription (Photo: Shane McKinnon)|
The War of 1812 era inscription is followed by this:
THIS iS MY FOTHER’S HOrN
Wm. WHiTWELL 1818
William Whitwell was Thomas’s oldest son. It is not clear whether the “This is my father’s horn” was carved by Thomas, referring to Thomas Sr., or by William in reference to Thomas Jr. Changes in the style of carving suggest it is the former. From Thomas down, the horn passed through a five-generation un-broken line of descent. Each descendant-owner inscribed a line on the horn to celebrate their generation. Some put their names and date of acquisition; others added their name and birth date. The last descendant-owner that appears on the horn is also the only female. She added her name and birthday:
LETA WILMA WHITWELL
Leta Whitwell Johnson inherited the horn sometime after the death of her father in 1947. After many years of correspondence with Dr. David Whitwell, who descends from Thomas through a different line, she decided to pass the horn to him to keep it in possession of a Whitwell. David was granted the horn in 1975 and drove from
California to to secure the treasure. It was rescued from the Johnson family barn. The loose base cap and long cracks in the horn are the result if it being stepped on by a cow at some time before its rescue! The horn also shows signs of earlier repairs. Oklahoma
Although some may be disappointed that additional lines and names were added to this horn after its first historic inscription, those carvings are indicative of the significance and importance each succeeding generation has placed on this treasured family heirloom. Without that family perception of importance this artifact may never have survived to surpass its standing of heirloom, to become an artifact of national significance.
This article originally appeared in: Military Collector & Historian; Spring 2008, Vol. 60 Issue 1, p2 (the journal of the Company of Military Historians)