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Powder Horn Maps of Colonial America

I have always been interested in the colonial era of American history. I was excited to come across a unique form of cartographic artifact during this time: the powder horn map. Powder horns were made from cow or ox horn and used for carrying gunpowder. Embellishing these animal horns with maps was a popular activity with frontiersmen and with soldiers serving in British Colonial America, especially during the French and Indian War (1754 – 1763) and the American Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783). The Geography and Map Division’s collection includes five horns of British origin dating from the French and Indian War era, three American-engraved horns from during the Revolutionary War, and one believed to have been made or carried by a Pennsylvania frontiersman sometime between 1790 and 1810. Several of the horns are inscribed with the names of their owners.

The finely engraved horn below depicts two of the most important transportation routes of colonial times: the Hudson-Champlain route, following the Hudson River and Lake Champlain from New York to Canada, and the Mohawk Valley route, following the Mohawk River from Albany to near Lake Ontario. Dated between 1757 and 1760, this horn shows the names of many towns and forts along these routes, punctuated with images of houses, windmills, and boats as well as the British coat-of-arms. Secured by a strap attached at each end, powder horns were worn across the shoulder, with the horn’s curve making it ideal for carrying close to the body, making the map readily accessible.

Powder horn with hand-drawn map of the Hudson River (above Albany), Mohawk River, Niagara region, and Lake Ontario in New York Province. 1757-1760.

Powder horn with hand-drawn map of the Hudson River (above Albany), Mohawk River, Niagara region, and Lake Ontario in New York Province. 1757-1760. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Made about two decades later, the horn below shows Yorktown and the York River in Virginia, and is one of the Division’s three horns made during the American Revolution. It has engravings of several ships, a flowering vine, a school of fish, and the Moore House and gardens, where General George Cornwallis negotiated the British surrender after the Battle of Yorktown. This horn also has an inscription with the name of the owner: “James Downae his horn, made by E. Crosby – 1781.”

Lord Cornwallis surrender. Created by E. Crosby, 1781. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Lord Cornwallis surrender. Created by E. Crosby, 1781. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

In the 19th century, powder horns were eventually rendered obsolete with the development of new gun technologies, though apparently not before this photograph was taken during the Civil War! Beautiful as well as practical, the nine powder horns in the Division’s collection can give us a brief glimpse into the lives of the soldiers and frontiersmen of colonial America.

Two unidentified soldiers in Mississippi battle shirts with double barrel shotguns, knives, and powder horns. Photo, between 1861 and 1865. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Two unidentified soldiers in Mississippi battle shirts with double barrel shotguns, knives, and powder horns. Photo, between 1861 and 1865. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Restricting Soviet Travel in the U.S. During the Cold War

The following guest post is by Ryan Moore, a cartographic specialist in the Geography and Map Division. The rise of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union resulted in substantial limitations on where travelers could visit in the opposite nation. When Joseph Stalin, the leader of the USSR, died in 1953, […]

Places in Civil War History: Aerial Reconnaissance and Map Marketing

This is part of a series of guest posts from Ed Redmond, Cartographic Specialist in the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, documenting the cartographic history of maps related to the American Civil War, 1861-1865. The posts will appear on a regular basis. Aerial reconnaissance was first used in 1861 by the War Department […]

Places in Civil War History: The Battle of Rich Mountain

This is part of a series of guest posts from Ed Redmond, Cartographic Specialist in the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, documenting the cartographic history of maps related to the American Civil War, 1861-1865. The posts will appear on a regular basis. At the conclusion of the Civil War, the U.S. War Department […]

The Advance of 6th Armored Division in World War II: Maps Donated by Veteran Robert S. Bond

The following guest post is by Ryan Moore, a cartographic specialist in the Geography and Map Division. Robert S. Bond was a forward artillery observer for the 6th Armored Division in World War II. He landed with the division in Normandy, France, and advanced into Germany. Along the way, he participated in the fighting in […]

Places in Civil War History: Tensions in Northern Virginia and Defending Washington

This is part of a series of guest posts from Ed Redmond, Cartographic Specialist in the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, documenting the cartographic history of maps related to the American Civil War, 1861-1865. The posts will appear on a regular basis. As the nation moved towards an increasingly inevitable “war between the […]

Phillips Map Society Event Explores World War I Mapmaking

The following guest post is by Ryan Moore, a cartographic specialist in the Geography and Map Division. In World War I, the detail and accuracy of maps improved rapidly over the course of a few years and greatly enhanced the power of military forces. Maps, however, were only as good as those interpreting them, and […]

Modest Monuments: The District of Columbia Boundary Stones

The oldest set of federally placed monuments in the United States are strewn along busy streets, hidden in dense forests, lying unassumingly in residential front yards and church parking lots. Many are fortified by small iron fences, and one resides in the sea wall of a Potomac River lighthouse. Lining the current and former boundaries […]