Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Pitcairn-Putnam Pistols

The Pitcairn-Putnam Pistols
  On May 27th, 1879, the widow of John Putnam, grandson of Revolutionary War hero Major General Israel Putnam, who died in 1790, gave these pistols to the Cary Library in Lexington, Massachusetts. Later on they became the property of the Lexington Historical Society and are now displayed in the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington. A 1901 biography of Putnam, written by William Farrand Livingston,who had access to Putnam's papers, furnished the following background for these pistols:

   Although Putnam was not present at the battle of Lexington, the pistols which he carried in the American Revolution were a trophy of that eventful day. They were none other than those of Major Pitcairn who had discharged one of them when he gave his soldiers the order to fire on the minutemen who were drawn up on Lexington Green. Later in the day when the British were retreating, Pitcairn's horse was shot under him, and in the haste of dismounting in order to escape his pursuers, the British officer left his weapons behind him. They were captured by the Americans and, a few weeks later, were offered as a gift to General Washington, but he declined them. They were then presented to Putnam and were his constant companions during the rest of his military career. These silver mounted and handsomely engraved pistols are now kept in the Cary Library at Lexington, having been given to the town by the widow of John P. Putnam of Cambridge, N.Y.

   However, because of a sharp-eyed observer of the pistols and additional research by J.L. Bell, it now appears most likely that these pistols actually belonged to Captain William Crosbie, commander of the Grenadier Company of the 38th Foot. since the crest on the escutcheon plate of the pistols is not that of the Pitcairn family but of the Crosbie family. Crosbie was on the march to Concord but would have been with Smith's column when the confrontation at Lexington occurred and he would have been with Pitcairn when the Marines and Grenadiers searched Concord for military stores. On the retreat from Concord, the Grenadiers marched along the roadway. It was not the practice for Grenadier Company commanders to be mounted but it is possible that Crosbie obtained a mount somewhere on the march.
   In 1827, these pistols were shown to three surviving members from Captain Parker's company who had been at Lexington Green that April day in 1775. One of them said he recognized them from their peculiar construction and ornament and said he saw Major Pitcairn fire them before any other shot was fired. Obviously an identification some 50 years after the event must be viewed with caution; but it is entirely possible, if not probable, that Pitcairn did carry pistols very similar to those now displayed in Lexington. It's also possible, but rather improbable, that Pitcairn acquired these pistols from Crosbie either through loan, purchase, or a gambling debt.
  The pistols are magnificent all steel pistols made by Christie & Murdoch of Doune, Scotland, which had become a major center for making pistols sometime in the late 17th century. A Doune pistol is a uniquely Scottish pistol, particularly recognizable because of its scroll butt, intricate engraving and inlaying throughout, and a flintlock firing mechanism. The pistols were made all of steel or steel with a rams horn butt  - supposedly because of the shortage of suitable woods in Scotland. Originally designed for the hot-tempered Highlanders, the pistols have no trigger guard and no safety catch. They fire a half inch ball with deadly accuracy and were sold in pairs for right and left hand use. Highlanders were known to throw them at their enemy if the initial discharge had failed to stop them.
   By the mid 1700s these pistols had become famous throughout all of  Europe and were particularly desired and favored by Highland Scot's officers and other officers in the British Army and Marines. The pistols were not only desirable as a fashion statement but they could be drawn and fired quickly, had all the accessories needed built in, were very sturdy, and were very deadly.
  Major Pitcairn's family home was about 50 miles from Doune.
  So I think it highly likely Major Pitcairn carried Doune pistols, whether his or someone else's on April 19, 1775 when he confronted those "peasants" on Lexington Green.
   It's also possible that minutemen observed Pitcairn armed with a pair of Doune pistols, which are very distinctive, at Lexington and when Crosbie's pistols were captured or discovered, they assumed they belonged to Pitcairn.

   In the spirit of you never know what you are going to come across when you start researching something, I offer this.:

   On September 29, 1835, John Putnam paid a visit to Aaron Burr to gain written proof of the authenticity of his grandfather's pistols. Burr had served as an aide to General Putnam for several months in 1776 and 1777  and should have been very familiar with the pistols. Burr had become immobile with a stroke in 1834 and all he could manage was a very shaky signature. He died in September 1836 after another stroke.

Aaron Burr's signature on certification of authenticity for the Putnam pistols.

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