In 2021 the Department of Arms and Armor acquired a powder horn with fine engraved decoration by the hand of John Bush (ca. 1725–1757), one of the first major engravers of the Lake George school and the only Black American known to have decorated powder horns. Little was known of his life until recently. By contrast, his works have long been admired for the original style and graceful execution of their ornamentation and are highly regarded as examples of the finest colonial American folk art ever engraved on horn. The acquisition of this precious horn represents a major addition to The Met’s holdings of some fifty-four American powder horns, and an opportunity to showcase and celebrate Bush’s achievements.
The Museum’s horn is one of a small number of examples that can be securely identified as having been embellished by Bush. Among these, The Met’s is of particular significance because its ornamentation features most of the stylistic singularities that distinguish Bush’s works from those of other horn engravers, including some of whom he may have directly influenced.
The identification of Bush as the engraver of the Museum’s horn rests on an oral family tradition, which credits him with the decoration of another, similarly ornamented horn, and on archival evidence, which establishes that all horns decorated in the same distinctive style (and that bear place names and dates) were carved at Fort William Henry on Lake George in 1756, where Bush was stationed at the time. The evidence is analyzed and discussed in an excellent article by Lee A. Larkin published in 2000. By rigorously reviewing the characteristics of the horns that had previously and sometimes incorrectly been attributed to Bush, and by establishing solid criteria to tell his style apart from others’, Larkin’s article provides a solid foundation for recognizing Bush’s hand and the horns that he embellished.
In colonial America, the gunpowder required to load and shoot a rifle or musket was commonly kept in a container made from the keratin sheath of cattle horns, which was carried at the hip or against the chest. Light, durable, and waterproof, a powder horn was convenient for keeping the gunpowder safe as well as for loading one’s weapon. Because cattle horns have conical shapes, powder horns naturally taper to a point at one end. By cutting off the tip and carving out some of the material around it, the extremity could be turned into a spout, with which one could conveniently pour gunpowder down and into the muzzle of a gun’s barrel. The broad end, or base, of a powder horn was fitted with a wood plug, which was permanently secured in place by nails, to prevent the gunpowder from escaping. The opposite end, or spout, was fitted with a removable stopper.
While a finished powder horn typically had a plain surface, the need for its owner to be able to distinguish it from other horns, and claim it where necessary, was a good reason to add the owner’s name on the body. This was done by engraving it, a task that could be carried out by the owner or by a person who seemed better qualified and was inclined to do the work. John Bush was among the latter. Like many of early horn engravers, he decorated blank horns during his spare time while he held another job. Engraving horn was not his profession.
Bush was born into a free, literate, and landowning Black family that was established in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, by 1731. Charles W. Thayer and Melinde Lutz Sanborn have studied Bush’s life and family and published their findings and analysis in 2007. Their research shows that Bush had joined the Massachusetts provincial militia by no later than 1747, when he was first listed at Fort Shirley and would have been about twenty-two years old. During the French and Indian War (1754–63)—a conflict that opposed the British, the French, and their respective Indigenous allies—Bush was stationed at Fort William Henry, a strategic British stronghold on Lake George, by November 1755. He was a private in Major James House’s company. By March 14, 1756, Bush had transferred to Captain Joseph Ingersoll’s company where he served as a clerk, a high-paying position that required literacy and bookkeeping skills. Bush remained at Fort William Henry until August 8, 1757, when the fort’s garrison surrendered to the French and their Indigenous allies after a devastating siege.
Although part of the garrison was massacred, contrary to the terms of the capitulation that guaranteed that all of the fort’s occupants could leave unharmed, Bush was not killed. According to a letter from his father, which is based on hearsay, he had been taken by Native Americans to Canada, information that proved to be correct. While Bush’s life was spared by his captors, he died shortly thereafter in the fall of 1757, on a ship from Quebec to France, along with many other prisoners of war. He was about thirty-three years old.
The available record, which shows that the prisoners who disembarked from the ship named Le Robuste at La Rochelle, France, had next to no clothes, a sight that prompted the local French shipowners and merchants to raise money so that the prisoners would no longer look as miserable and indecent. This strongly suggests that all, regardless of race, had been poorly treated and deprived of the most basic necessities during the voyage. Many died over the following weeks, even after hospitalization. Upon his return to Massachusetts, a survivor provided the Boston News-Letter with a list of comrades who had died in Quebec and en route to France, which the newspaper published; John Bush’s name is included with the specification that he had died on board. Bush was a victim of the brutality of a war between two European colonial powers and their allies, which ended with French defeat and an expansion of the British Empire into Canada.
All of the horns that exhibit the hallmarks of Bush’s distinctive style appear to have been engraved while he was serving at the British fort of William Henry. The name of John Magherd on The Met’s horn appears to be a phonetic transcription of John Mahard, the name of a corporal who served alongside Bush in Major House’s company. The Museum’s horn appears to be the only surviving example that Bush embellished for a fellow militiaman who served in the same company as he did.
The Mahard horn exhibits all the trademark features of Bush’s style. These include a copperplate calligraphy with tendrils sprouting from capital letters and the head in profile with a lambda-shaped chest; the occasional use of patterns of dashes or hatching to fill the spaces between the letters and these tendrils; the slightly arched serifs at the bases of the letters, and the form of the capital A letter; the lines with double arrowheads; the bands of zigzags; the bands of addorsed triangular designs, floral scrollwork, and shell-like scrolls; the form and size of the digits; and, last but not least, the use and distinctive placement of punched-carved dots and similarly small triangular designs throughout. Another distinctive example, the William Williams horn in The William H. Guthman Collection of American Engraved Powder Horns at Historic Deerfield exhibits the same features, which are discussed at greater length in Larkin’s article.
Other horns are decorated in styles that resemble Bush’s, but that in some respects also depart notably from Bush’s work. They appear to be the production of at least two other engravers who were influenced by Bush’s original style and were also active in the Lake George area, namely, Samuel Lounsbury and Nathaniel Selkrig. In Larkin’s words, Bush may be rightfully viewed as “the fountainhead of the Lake George school” of horn engravers. Since he died under tragic circumstances at a young age, his oeuvre is understandably small; at this time, only six horns that he decorated are known. Given the fate of Fort William Henry’s garrison, it is remarkable that so many have survived at all.
Thanks to the research of Thayer and Lutz Sanborn, useful information is available on Bush’s background. It is known that Bush’s parents, George and Priscilla, took up residence in Shrewsbury by no later than 1731 and that they owned land there before 1734. No records indicate whether they had ever been enslaved. The sources show that Bush had nine siblings. The family attended the First Congregational Church and at least eight of the children were baptized after reaching the age of fourteen. All members of the family were literate. Due to his education, John Bush was eligible, after serving in the militia for some time, for promotion to the role of his company’s clerk. This position carried specific responsibilities such as calculating the time served by soldier and the resulting pay, which in return entitled Bush to a higher pay. In fact, only commissioned officers earned more than the clerks.
The muster rolls that Bush compiled and his signature on his will show an elegant, confident handwriting, which must have served him well not only in a clerk’s capacity but also as an engraver of powder horns. The documents by his hand and the horns he engraved are written or inscribed in clear copperplate script. As Thayer and Lutz Sanborn note, other aspects of his engraved work, including elaborate borders and flourishes, bear similarities to copybooks that clerks would have studied. In short, Bush’s original style may have had much to do with his training and knowledge as a clerk. It is not known how and where he and his siblings gained their literacy.
The surrender of Fort William Henry to the French and their Indigenous allies brought an end to Bush’s activity as a soldier and a powder horn engraver. It deprived him of his freedom and ultimately led to his death while he was a prisoner. In addition to calling attention to his artistic talent and contributions as an inventive and influential Black American engraver, the Mahard horn is also a poignant historic document, which invites an examination of, and reflections on, the lives of a free Black resident of a Massachusetts town and his family in colonial America. John had three brothers, two of whom were old enough to take part to the French and Indian War as well. Both served in the Massachusetts militia and also lost their lives due to a conflict rooted in the colonial ambitions of two rival European states.