Powder horns

John P. French's Masonic Powder Horn

Masonic Powder Horn, 1750-1830. John P. French. Special Acquisitions Fund, 76.10

The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library holds nearly two dozen powder horns in its collection. Some are from the era of the American Revolutionary War and bear carvings that reflect that use; some feature carvings of Masonic symbols. This unusual double powder horn is particularly intriguing because it exhibits both types of carvings.

Powder horns, made from animal horn (often cow or oxen), were used by soldiers in the field to keep gunpowder dry and secure. The holes at the tips of the horns were used to pour powder into a paper cartridge or directly into the barrel of a musket. Many were carved with designs that were meaningful specifically to the owner. The words “John P. French His Horn” are carved into the surface, identifying this horn’s owner. On this fascinating object, French showcased his Masonic affiliation, his interest in slogans, and possibly his personal hobbies.

Masonic Powder Horn, 1750-1830. John P. French. Special Acquisitions Fund, 76.10

One of the slogans that appears on the horn is “Don’t Tread On Me” above a snake. This phrase was first used in South Carolina in 1775 by Christopher Gadsden, then-Lieutenant Governor of the state. It was inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 “Join or Die” political cartoon showing the colonies as pieces of a snake, indicating that union between the British colonies was necessary for survival. The slogan became well-known after it was used on naval flags during the Revolutionary War. Another phrase that adorns French’s horn is “Freedom and Victory.” While there is no one known usage of this slogan, the ideals align with the goals of the American Revolutionary War.

Masonic Powder Horn, 1750-1830. John P. French. Special Acquisitions Fund, 76.10

The majority of the carvings on this double powder horn are connected to Freemasonry, perhaps a sign that the fraternity and its teachings held special meaning to French. The slogan “Cemented with Love” appears, which refers to the tight bonds that Masons encourage and enjoy with their brethren. In this apron in the museum’s collection, another Mason has chosen the same phrase to decorate his regalia.

Along with this Masonic slogan, French applied around two dozen symbols from the teachings of Freemasonry to his horn. Some symbols are common to all forms of Freemasonry, such as a trowel, a gavel, a coffin, a beehive, and two pillars called Boaz and Jachin. One is a stone archway often represented in Royal Arch Freemasonry, the first four degrees of the York Rite. This arch is topped by a figure identified as “Hiram.” Hiram Abiff is a significant character in Freemasonry’s third degree.

Masonic Powder Horn, 1750-1830. John P. French. Special Acquisitions Fund, 76.10

In addition to symbols representing his political and Masonic interests, French also carved what appears to be a hunting scene, featuring a dog, a bird, a deer, a mountain lion, and a man holding a rifle. Perhaps these symbols reflect a pre-war activity.

Unfortunately, even with the helpful addition of a middle initial, the name “John French” was so common at the time of the Revolutionary War that we cannot establish the owner’s identity from military records. French appears to have been a member of the fraternity, but we cannot ascertain to which Masonic lodge he belonged. While we do not know where John P. French lived or very much about him, the symbols he chose to carve on his powder horn give us a sense of what he valued.

POW Powder Horn

Rollins powder horn cropped 77_11_2 web large
Powder horn, ca. 1863, Henry S. P. Rollins (1832-1869), Tyler, Texas, National Heritage Museum, 77.11.2. Photo by David Bohl.

Thirty years ago, when the Museum was just beginning to build its Masonic collection, staff purchased a Civil War-era powder horn decorated with Masonic symbols.  It also bore this evocative inscription: “H. S. P. Rollins Prisoner of War Tyler Texas Captured at Sabine Pass Sept 8th 1863.” Purchased at a New England auction, the horn came to the museum with no known history. Our files contained descriptions of the battle at Sabine Pass--where fewer than fifty Confederate soldiers captured two U.S. gunboats and several hundred soldiers and sailors-- but it did not tell us who H. S. P. Rollins was or where he came from.

Drawing on some of the great resources available on the Internet (thank you, Google books!), museum and library staff not only identified the powder horn’s maker as Henry S. P. Rollins of Exeter, New Hampshire, but also discovered that he played an important role in the battle that led to his imprisonment. During what was, in many ways, a badly managed battle on the Union side, Rollins’ performance earned him special notice.  In his report on the battle, Frederick Crocker, the Acting Volunteer Lieutenant in charge of the U.S.S. Clifton, commended Master’s Mate H. S. P. Rollins and a fellow shipmate “for the gallant manner in which they fought their guns and performed every duty.” 

In spite of  his efforts, Confederate troops captured Rollins and marched him to the prison camp   along with 350 other Union men. One prisoner later described the Camp Ford as: "… four acres-barren of timber and grass. Sand blows desperately." 

Rollins survived his imprisonment, only to die of stomach disease in New Hampshire a few years after the war.  Records preserved at the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire show that Rollins received his degrees at Star in the East Lodge, No. 59, of Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1861.  The following year, he served his lodge as Tyler.

Many thanks to Roberta Langis of the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire.


Texas Beyond History, “From Training Camp to Prison,” University of Texas at Austin, http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/ford/prison.html

"Capture of the United States Steamers Clifton and Sachem: Report of Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Frederick Crocker," Edgartown, Mass., April 21, 1865. In Annual Reports of the Navy Department: Report of the Secretary of the Navy, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1865, p. 401-2