American Rifleman | The Guns of Thanksgiving

Main image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

When we think of Thanksgiving today, we often think of scenes from the illustrative arts of NC Wyeth, Jennie Brownscombe, or Norman Rockwell. Puritan pilgrims in black with high buckled hats, thunderbolts and a small selection of invited Native American guests.

Unfortunately, these fanciful images are far from the actual reality of what Thanksgiving was like in the 17th century in Jamestown, Virginia and Plymouth Colony. In this age of information, through the ability to read and process the actual journals, journals, and archaeological evidence of these intrepid pioneers, we can draw a more historically accurate and vivid representation of what things might actually have looked like.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

First of all, the pilgrims themselves bore no resemblance to the 1904 heroic statue of Augustus St. Gaudens entitled “The Pilgrim” that stands in Philadelphia. (An earlier, similar work called “The Puritan” has been in Springfield, Massachusetts since 1887.) Second, the 17th century Virginia and Plymouth gun inventories barely show thunderbusses that didn’t really come into their own until the 18th century. Third, the Native Americans who attended the Plymouth Harvest Festival in 1621 were two to one superior to the pilgrims.

The subtle fact about Thanksgiving and the guns that were there is that many guns were there. A staggering number of weapons to be precise. Captain John Smith of Jamestown, Virginia, wrote in 1609 that they owned 24 cannons and 300 muskets, far more than the number of men currently available to use them. Firearms were perhaps the only commodity the early colonists had in abundance.

Matchlocks were preferred by many European New World researchers because they were cheaper to source and easier to maintain than wheelock arms.

Matchlocks were preferred by many European New World researchers because they were cheaper to source and easier to maintain than wheelock arms.

The types of weapons they used to defend their small enclaves were largely the same types of weapons used in Europe at the time. Matchlocks were the first types of long sleeves developed in the 16th century. In general, a 10-hole smooth bore that fired a 12-hole round bullet fired matchlocks using a slow match, a burning length of rope and hemp impregnated with saltpetre to aid in burning.

Pressing the trigger or the lever brought the burning match into contact with the exposed powder in the frizzy pan on the breech of the weapon and began the chain of events that eventually flew the round lead ball down the barrel. Some matchlocks have been unearthed by archaeologists in Jamestown, but far more snaphaunce has been found. This corresponds to the written inventories of Jamestown (as well as Plymouth from 1620), in which almost 1,000 snaphaunce muskets were shown against only 47 existing matchlocks.

The snaphaunce was developed in Scandinavia and the Netherlands (Holland, Belgium and Flanders) at the end of the 16th century. It was the first lock that contained a piece of flint held in a vise-like hammer (called a cock). When it was fired, the flint fell on a Frizzen, causing a shower of sparks to fall into the pan and ignite the ignition charge. While the snaphaunce wasn’t as prone to sudden weather changes, it was a marked improvement over trying to keep a burning ember going while trying not to spill any loose loading powder that could trigger an unfortunate chain of events.

An early 17th century Spanish snaphaunce-lock fowler. This snaphaunce, based on the principle of hitting flint against steel to create sparks, originated in Spain around 1600. It was replenished and disbanded in Mexico.

The Spanish Miquelet Castle was also found in various archaeological excavations at colonial sites. Again, his presence wasn’t as widespread as the snaphaunce campaign, but it was timely. The most expensive arm of the time was also the most common pistol of the time: the wheel lock. The wheel lock was an action that used an intricate coil spring tensioned by a wrench (or wrench) attached to a wheel. When the wheel was set in motion by squeezing the trigger, it twisted its jagged edge against a piece of pyrite or flint held tightly in the jaws of the hammer and showered the frizzy pan with the sparks it took to ignite the suction charge .

An Italian Wheelock pistol in the NRA National Firearms Museum.

An Italian Wheelock pistol in the NRA National Firearms Museum.

As a collector of antique timepieces, I can give you a tip that you may want to forego if you take your favorite Hamilton or Waltham with you, as the sudden and severe recoil shock tends to do this fragile work a disservice. Wheelocks suffer the same fate, making them extremely expensive, prone to breakage, but preferred by those who could afford them.

A Wheelock action is one of the main pieces of artifact recovery on the Jamestown Settlement website and is currently being demonstrated using an example of an English doglock, also believed to be the colonists’ common arm. The Doglock had an external safety lock that also acted as a hammer trigger. They pulled the trigger and the bolt lifted out of the notch in the back of the lock, causing the rooster to hit the frizzen with its flint. This type of lock soon evolved into the flint lock that we know so well and that has been in use on both continents for over 100 years.

This rare Thomas Matson Doglock around 1650 with a gun barrel is one of the first guns made in America.  This weapon served English colonists near Boston and was likely used to defend fortifications.

This rare Thomas Matson Doglock around 1650 with a gun barrel is one of the first guns made in America. This weapon served English colonists near Boston and was likely used to defend fortifications.

What we know for sure is that the weapons of Thanksgiving, like the holiday itself, have evolved significantly over the past few centuries. Originally, Thanksgiving was a festival to celebrate a successful harvest, which usually takes place in September. The original colonists of Virginia (1607) and Pilgrim (1620) continued the tradition of the harvest festival and also thanked them for surviving the previous year.

Most US presidents, starting with George Washington in 1789, issued proclamations on a specific day to commemorate Thanksgiving. Abraham Lincoln chose the last weekend in November to celebrate the holidays in 1863. Ulysses Grant made it a federal holiday during his tenure.

The Doglock Action.

Some time later, it was argued that the Lincoln wished the holiday to be on the fourth Thursday of the month, while others argued that it should be the last Thursday of the month. (Once in a decade or so, November has five Thursdays) The contest lasted until the Franklin Roosevelt administration (1933-1945), where the Republicans held until the fourth Thursday while the Democrats honored the last Thursday of the month. Politically, not much has changed here, has it?

But don’t let this historical revisionism overshadow your cherished ideas about Thanksgiving. As Charles Dickens wrote in another cherished holiday epic, “The wisdom of our ancestors is in the parable; and my unholy hands will not disturb or the land is finished.” So enjoy your turkey and wish you a Happy Thanksgiving Day. We all owe a lot.

Comments are closed.