An Interesting Relic at Portage.

By Mark Tully

Above the mantle in the kitchen of the Old Indian Agency House in Portage, Wisconsin hangs an old, weathered gun. According to their records it was purchased at a flea market many years ago for $12 and is cataloged as a fowling piece.

At first glance it appeared to us to be a British long land pattern or "first model brown bess" musket. In early August of 1996, Rita Frederick, Curator of the Old Indian Agency House, allowed Ken Vallier, Mark Weber and myself to take down and handle the gun. Upon closer examination we found several curious details that help shed some light on the history and origins of this interesting old relic.

The most outstanding feature of this unique weapon is the lock (see below). It is approximately 7" long and the tail is still clearly marked "Tower, 1741". This indicates it was made at the Tower of London Armory in in London, England during the second quarter of the 18th century. The lock was originally of military issue as a faint crown and broad arrow can still be seen under the bolster where the pan used to be. This mark indicates British government ownership, and tells us that the lock probably came from an old British "long land service" pattern musket -- commonly known as a first model brown bess.

map of the northwest

Lock of musket at the Old Indian Agency House, Portage, Wisconsin.

As you can see by the illustration the lock has been converted to percussion by the removal of the pan, hammer (often erroneously called the frizzen), cock and feather spring. A bolster, mounted flush with the face of the plate, and a crude percussion hammer have been substituted -- probably the handiwork of some local blacksmith. As the percussion lock was first invented in 1828, this conversion tells us that this piece saw service well into the 19th century -- perhaps more than 100 years of use!

The barrel is iron, 42" long, smoothbore and of .69 caliber. It appears to be a replacement, as the original barrel for a gun with this lock would have probably been 46-48". The barrel may have been cut down and the front sight re-soldered, but the barrel does not fit the barrel channel very well, especially at the breech, so it is doubtful the barrel is original to the stock. Also, there are no markings of any kind on the barrel (government proof marks would be present if the barrel were of the same vintage as the lock) and the .69 bore is smaller than the more typical .75 of early British military arms.

There is a sighting groove engraved in the breechplug tang -- a feature commonly seen on both civilian and military arms. This groove is off-center on the tang, but it does line up with the front sight (often referred to as a bayonet lug). The sight groove appears to be an original feature of the barrel and not a "home-made" modification. The stock is also of typical brown bess styling. Approximately 9 -1/2"of the fore-end has been replaced and two loops of wire secure it to the barrel. The repair reaches to within one-half inch of the muzzle so that the gun can no longer accept a bayonet. The first ramrod pipe or "loop" is attached to the replaced wood and does not match the others, being larger in diameter and of earlier styling. The second and third loops appear to be original to the stock and are quite small in diameter -- just barely big enough to accept the iron rammer which is still present.

Most of the other brass hardware is also of first model brown bess styling. The sideplate features the typical rounded profile, and additional grooves have been filed into the lockplate screws so that they have a star-like pattern. This could have been an attempt at adding a decorative touch to the gun -- perhaps indicating Native American ownership at some point in its history. There is, however, no evidence of additional decoration on the gun, so the screw slots may have simply become worn down and new ones cut to facilitate removal of the lock for cleaning. The grooves are so well worn as to make removal of the lock virtually impossible.

The triggerguard also appears to be from a brown bess, but is smaller in proportion than what is commonly seen on martial firearms. There is no hole in the guard for a sling swivel, but a small indentation on the side opposite the lock could indicate a hole was there at one time, but was braised shut many years ago. This may simply be a casting flaw, but the size and placement hint that it is indeed a filled sling swivel hole. There is a large hole (approximately 1/8" diameter) through the forestock that could also have once held sling swivels.

The buttplate tang is about four and a half inches long but is missing the typical rounded decoration on its tip. A brass escutcheon is set into the wrist of the stock, but neither piece features any markings that might indicate military origins.

The very early date of the lock and other first model brown bess hardware tells us that this gun was probably manufactured prior to the American Revolution. The smaller than normal bore and other details suggest that the gun may have once been an officer's weapon, but the lack of any government proof marks on the barrel seem to indicate that this is probably not the case.

Though it's exact origins remain a mystery, this old firearm is more than likely an early trade gun that was built around cast-off military parts. It is probably typical of what the early explorers and traders would have carried as they pushed across the Midwestern wilderness. It is easy to imagine a gun like this being carried across the Fox/Wisconsin Portage in the calloused hands of an early trapper or trader -- it may have even seen service in the hands of the local militia during the Blackhawk War.

Though it has no real value from a collector's viewpoint, this old gun's long history makes it an important and interesting relic of America's past, and it is fitting that it has found a home on the wall of the Old Indian Agency House.