Early Americans Knew How to Tote Their Own Horns
The Tansel family of Kentucky were early powder horn engravers who horns can be identified by their distinct style. This Tim Tansel-engraved powder horn, measuring 14 inches in length, features a typical fish mouth engrailed edge, with raised ring and an engraved “E. Pluribus Unum” saying and dated 1841. It also sports an eagle and soldier on horse. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)
So much of what is created merely out of necessity becomes collectible for its ornate beauty. Early settlers needed a waterproof container for the gunpowder required by their flintlock rifles. Initially, they used metal powder containers but many soon turned to the cheaper and often more easily accessible powder horn.
Early American powder horns were ideal for the hunter by their very nature. There were plenty of cattle with horns that could easily be converted into a hunting accoutrement. The horns of mature steer were the most desirable because they were long, graceful and light in color.
The horn also satisfied a settler’s needs because it was waterproof, lightweight and could float on water. Also, it would not shatter if dropped on the ground and it was typically inflammable. The curvature helped it to fit snugly on the human body and the spout was easily accessible.
There are two main types of powder horns: sporting and military. Sporting horns were typically decorated with hunting-themed detailing. The screw-tip style horns usually fell under the sporting category. Engravings that depicted forts, battles and patriotic slogans adorned military horns. Military horns are much easier to find in today’s market.
A beautiful caramel-colored horn with rich engravings and bearing the names Simeon Stearns and John Stearns and is dated 1766. The name John Stearns was engraved by a different hand. Engraved images include a deer, dog, bird and head of a sea-horse. Interestingly-shaped horn with a long extended lobe. This is an early horn, dating to just after the French and Indian War, it is not known whether Stearns served in the militia. This horn sold for $4,025 in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)
Carved with “Charles Treat His Horn Made September 2 Roxbury 1775,” is 14 inches long, has a deep yellow-to-brown color and is adorned with ships, forts and a city with soldiers at war. In 1775, Roxbury, Mass. was squarely at the center of armed Patriot resistance to the Crown. Still, there is no record of Charles Treat having mustered in the local militia, despite his horn having been carved a scant six months after first blood at Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775). This horn garnered $3,450 in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)
Europeans also used powder horns, but they were generally more ornately decorated than their American counterparts. Often, the European aristocracy spent large sums of money on gorgeous Rococo powder flasks that served as a badge of rank.
Horn engraving is one of the earliest forms of American folk art, and engraved powder horns are highly coveted by collectors because of their origin. Some artwork is so distinct that an expert can identify a particular engraver.
A few of the earliest horns can be dated to back to as early as 1745. As the use of cartridges increased around the time of the Civil War, powder horns became obsolete. The Industrial Age brought about the popularity of mass-produced items and hand-crafted items became a thing of the past.
Despite their long history and intricate detailing, they are often undervalued in the collecting market. There are certain qualities that can add value to the powder horn. Horns dated back to the French Indian Wars are known to realize the highest prices. The value decreases as the age decreases from the War of 1812 to the Mexican Wars and beyond.
A Tansel-carved powder horn again features the “E. Pluribus Unum,” saying. This horn, dating to circa 1810, also features a deer and bear and is attributed to the Tansel family. This horn sold for $9,775 in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)
The owner’s name and the location of where it was made were often carved into the horn and these are sure to increase the value. Misspellings of the owner’s name and the location have been known to actually increase the authenticity of the horn and in turn increase the value. These turn up quite frequently as illiteracy was so common at the time.
As with most militaria collecting, fakes and reproductions are quite common in engraved powder horns. Craftsmen make new powder horns for re-enactors and tourists. An expert will be able to tell the difference between a fake and the real thing. It is helpful to look for a yellow coating that is caused by oxidation over a long period of time.
Dr. Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series “History Detectives” and is a featured appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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