American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Memory, Exhibit Object Focus

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Powder Horn Map

Powder horn inscribed with map
[Powder horn inscribed with map
of Hudson and Mohawk river valleys]

Cow or ox horn, polished
and finely engraved, ca. 1757
Geography & Map Division

One of the most fascinating cartographic formats represented in the Library's holdings is a collection of eight powder horns inscribed with maps, dating from the time of the French and Indian War and the American Revolutionary War. For soldiers, hunters, or frontiersmen in the late colonial period, powder horns were indispensable companions to their muskets. Fashioned out of cow or ox horns, they made convenient containers for carrying and protecting gunpowder. Usually handmade, these horns were often inscribed with rhymes, references to particular campaigns, names of forts or towns, diary entries, or maps. Because maps were scarce at the time, it is possible that map-inscribed powder horns served as guides for their owners, but it is more likely that the map images provided records or mementos of the areas that the owners traversed or the campaigns in which they were involved.

The powder horn shown here is undated and unsigned, although it is believed to date from between 1757 and 1760. It shows the Hudson and Mohawk River valleys, as well as Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario, waterways that served as the major arteries of travel between New York City (portrayed pictorially at the bottom of the horn) and the St. Lawrence River Valley to the north, and the Great Lakes to the west. Numerous towns and forts along the route are named, and houses, windmills, boats, and other details enliven the design. The horn also bears a British coat of arms, suggesting the owner was an American colonial or British soldier.

This powder horn was part of the Peter Force Collection, which the Library of Congress purchased by an act of Congress in 1867. Force (1790-1868) was the preeminent collector of Americana (including maps) during the first half of the nineteenth century.

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