Holding Down the Fort (Sort of).

By Mark Tully

It's the little details that contribute to the overall authenticity of an encampment. Of Tent pins, Charles James' A New and Enlarged Military Dictionary states: "Tent-pins; pieces of wood, which are indented at the top, and made sharp at the bottom, to keep the cords of a tent or marquee firm to the earth." 1

Several tent pins that match this description have been excavated at various 18th-century military sites. The Fort Ligonier site yielded a total of seventeen wooden tent pins and pin fragments. Most were incomplete, but at least one is virtually intact and is distinctly notched or "indented" near the top as described by James (fig. A).2 The notch on this particular specimen still shows rope wear!

six tentstakesTent pins matching James' description can also be seen in the Bowle's and Carver engraving Military Architecture, describing all parts of a Fortification. These pegs appear to be wooden, and once again feature a notch at the top (fig. B).3

In the Washington Memorial Chapel Museum at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, there are several tent pins that reportedly belonged to George Washington's Marquee (see fig C). They range in length from approximately 7 to 9 inches long and are made from a dark hardwood. All feature a notch in one side to hold the ropes or loops of the tent. The nearby Visitor Center at Valley Forge Historical Park has George Washington's campaign marquee on display inside a huge glass case. Tent pins identical to those in the Memorial Chapel Museum secure the various ropes and loops on the marquee.

Metal tent pins may have also existed during the American Revolution. A metal pin, reportedly from the Revolutionary period, is shown here (fig. D). It measures approximately 11" long and has a large eye at one end.4 This may not be a tent pin at all, and to me it looks suspiciously like an eye from a gate hinge. It's provenance and exact date are unknown, so I would think twice before rushing out and having a set of these made.

The Fort Ticonderoga museum has several metal points on display that are said to be tent pin points. It is speculated that the rest of the peg -- having been wood -- has long since rotted away, leaving only the metal points. Because of the huge quantities of these that the British army would have used (78,000 for one campaign alone5), and because only two or three of these have apparently survived, I personally think these were points from a cheveaux de frize and not tent pins at all. They are shown here none-the-less with a conjectural outline of what the round pin may have looked like (Fig. D).6


1) From Kehoe, Colonel Vincent J-R, A Military Guide, volume four, part 9, page 39. The second edition of James' Dictionary (from which this quote comes) was published in 1805.

2) Grimm, Jacob, Archeological Investigation of Fort Ligonier, Pittsburgh, 1970. Tent pin fragments are shown on pages 92 and 109.

3) Military Architecture, Describing all Parts of a Fortification, engraved by Bowles and Carver, reproduced from the original engraving in the Fort Ticonderoga Museum.

4) "Come all you Gallant Heroes" exhibit catalog. Rockhill Research Collectio, p 34, catalog item number 190.

5) Calculation based on Lochée's Essay on Castrametation: "[Tents] for the private men are made of strong cloth, and are large enough to lodge 5 men... These tents are fixed by means of three poles and 13 pegs." 30,000 British, German, and Loyalist troops were on Long Island in 1776, so there would have been about 78,000 tent pins on hand. Pins were apparently not issued annually as they only show up occasionally on supply returns and not always on the same annual returns for the number of tents issued (WO 1/890).

6) The Military Architecture print shows a cheveaux de frize. The caption on the engraving states that it is "... armed with iron at the top".