Powder Horn of John Mahard

John Bush American

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 372

This is a rare horn from the French and Indian War, embellished by John Bush, one of the first major engravers of the Lake George School and the only Black American known to have decorated horns.

Bush engraved this example while he served in the Massachusetts provincial militia at Fort William Henry on Lake George. Popularized by The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Copper's novel (1826), the fort's siege and its capitulation to the French and their Indigenous allies in 1757 form a particularly grim episode of the War. Although Bush escaped the fate of other occupants of the fort, who were massacred contrary to the terms of the capitulation, he died a prisoner of war shortly thereafter, while he was in French custody. Completed a year prior to the fort's fall, this is the only surviving horn that he is known to have decorated for a fellow militiaman in his company.

In eighteenth-century Colonial America it was common practice to carry gunpowder for one’s personal use in powder horns, receptacles actually made from the keratin sheaths of cattle horns. These sheaths were not only hollow and naturally water proof, their twisted shapes also ensured that they would fit snugly when carried against one’s body. What is more, their conical structure provided a narrow point through which the gunpowder could be conveniently poured down the barrel of a musket or longrifle. The exterior surface of such powder horns could be left blank or decorated.

This horn is important for its ornamentation, which is both original and graceful in execution, and for its historical significance as well. The ornamental motifs and the lettering are characteristic of the horns decorated by John Bush. These works all date to the beginning of the French and Indian War (1754–63), a conflict that opposed the British and the French and their respective Indigenous allies in North America. Bush was then serving in the Massachusetts provincial militia to help the British, and stationed at Fort William Henry, a strategic stronghold on Lake George.

Powder Horn of John Mahard, John Bush (Colonial American, Massachusetts ca. 1725–ca. 1758), Cowhorn, wood, iron, Colonial American

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