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.
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.”
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.