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Engraving (Powder Horns)

Every farmer, trader, and trapper on the frontier needed dry powder and a musket for protection and for hunting. He would buy a horn large enough to hold at least one pound of powder, boil it and remove the pith, scrape and rub the surface, fit a wooden plug to the large open end, trim the tip, and fit a stopper to the opening. He would often seal the wooden plug end with paint or pitch. When it was finished, the horn measured from twelve to twenty inches.

1755 Massachusetts Surgeon's Mate William William's Horn

Horns were light, durable, waterproof when properly sealed (they would float if dropped in water), non-breakable, and, because of their contours, comfortable to wear slung over the shoulder on a strap that rested against the wearer's side.


Beginning with King George's War (1744–1748), owners began to decorate the surfaces of their horns. Some of the influences that inspired the designs and verses were the rigors of frontier living, the brutal reality of warfare and the enemies that soldiers faced in combat.  The earliest horns retain traditional European designs, but that changed as the work of a few carvers showed evidence of a transition. The freedom with which these few makers selected styles, designs, and subjects suggests that a new approach to powder horn decoration was in the making. The majority of skillfully carved horns were produced during the years 1754 through 1763 suggesting a definable school of horn carvers referred to as the Lake George School.

1748 Samuel Crosby horn.JPG

1748 Samuel Crosby's Horn

Most Lake George School horns were engraved at a string of forts from Albany to Lake Champlain and up the Mohawk River to Lake Ontario, where the most important battles for control of North America were fought between English and French forces and their Native American allies. Inspiration for the calligraphy of the Lake George School would seem to be engraved trade cards, labels on trunks, and engraving on official military and civil commissions, bonds, currency, deeds, prints, and book title pages.

The carver who appears to have set the standard for Lake George style engraving was born in Shrewsbury. His name was John Bush (b. 1725), son of Georges Bush (his mother's name is unknown), a prosperous farmer from the North Parish of Shrewsbury (now Boylston). Georges, a free black, was born in South America or the Caribbean and immigrated to Massachusetts Bay early in the eighteenth century.

John Bush served as a clerk for a Shrewsbury company in the colony's militia and provincial forces starting in 1747, spending the winter of 1755-56 at Fort William Henry. Literate and possessing a steady hand, he fashioned exquisitely engraved powder horns on the Lake George frontier.

1755 Massachusetts Surgeons Mate William

1755 Massachusetts Surgeon's Mate William William's Horn

On August 9, 1757, he was captured when the fort fell to French and Native American forces.  John Bush died the following year aboard a ship carrying prisoners to France.  But his unequivocal creativity survived and inspired other artists to further develop his unique style of powder horn engraving that flourished in New England through the end of the American Revolution.  

1756 Lt David Baldwin horn.JPG

The finest Bush horn is the David Baldwin example carved at Fort William Henry and dated October 18, 1756. It has all the master's best characteristics, including superb illuminated lettering of the word "WAR," incised chevron borders, scrolled floral and geometric borders, fine copperplate calligraphy with wing-like serifs, and a scalloped throat with cherubs and crosses.

Copyright 1989 by William H. Guthman. The material presented here is part of a larger work by Author Guthman.

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