In 1756, a soldier by the name of Doc John Lee was stationed at the head of Lake George, where a provincial regiment had been sent from Albany to defend New York from the French and to construct the fort that would be named William Henry.
Like every other soldier, Lee carried a powder horn, and like many of them, he may have occupied his idle moments with carving the horn, etching the images and words into its surface that would make it distinctively his own.
Or, quite possibly, he may have asked a master of the craft who also happens to have been garrisoned at Lake George to carve it for him, says Anna Arkins, Fort William Henry’s Collections Manager.
“Powder horns often detailed individuals’ military journeys, engraved with campaign maps, details of frontier forts, and even animals,” said Arkins. Lee’s horn is engraved with a landscape scene and the text of a love poem.
Donated to Fort William Henry by a Massachusetts family in 1961, this particular colonial powder horn was severely damaged by a 1967 fire that consumed the reconstructed fort’s west barracks.
Through the efforts and financial support of historian and maritime archaeologist Joseph Zarzynski, a director of the The French & Indian War Society at Lake George, Inc., the powder horn was cleaned and preserved by Dr. Kathy Abbass’ Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (Abass was project archaeologist for the Land Tortoise, the 18th century radeau discovered in Lake George in 1990, and is credited with the discovery of Captain James Cook’s Endeavour in Newport Harbor.)
According to Zarzynski, the conservation of Lee’s powder horn came about almost by accident.
“Back in 2014, I arranged with Melodie Viele, the Fort William Henry Museum’s director at the time, to conduct an artifact conservation workshop at the Fort William Henry Conference Center. The presenter, a museum conservator and collections specialist from Florida, asked me to go into the museum’s collection and select several artifacts to be used as teaching objects. One of those I chose was a burned powder horn. As a result, I have always been intrigued by the artifact,” said Zarzynski.
Zarzynski continued, “In 2021, the board of The French & Indian War Society at Lake George voted unanimously to have the John Lee 1756 powder horn professionally cleaned.”
The powder horn has since returned to Fort William Henry and is now secured in the museum’s renovated artifact storage room and entered into its new material culture cataloguing system.
“Even in its damaged state after the 1967 fire, it is a wonderful example of a powder horn fashioned at a frontier fortification during the French & Indian War,” said Zarzynski.
According to museum Director Lindsay Doyle, the powder horn is among the collection’s more prized artifacts. “It was one of the first pieces donated to Fort William Henry, and one of the reasons why it was so highly valued was that the owners’ name could be found in the roster books of 1756,” Doyle said.
Fort William Henry remains open daily through October 30.
Special “Fort by Firelight” tours will be conducted October 14th & 15th. For information, visit their website or call (518) 668-5471.
Photos, from above: a colonial powder horn after being cleaned by the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project; and the powder horn was damaged by a 1967 fire in Fort William Henry’s west barracks courtesy Fort William Henry..