Excerpts from Folk Art of Early America: The Engraved Powder Horn, by Jim Dresslar (Dresslar Publishing Company)

To get a proper perspective of the importance of powder horns on the early frontier, one need only reflect on life in the American settlements in the 17th and 18th centuries. People who lived along the East coast had a good quality of life, for the most part. They enjoyed the reward of their labors and the opportunities of the skills. They had the means to purchase necessities; their homes, clothing, firearms and other items of every day living were likely to be of good quality.

On the other hand, there was a group of people who for one reason or another, could not adapt to this style of living. Many were too poor, some hoped to start a new life, but some just possessed the spirit of adventure to see what opportunities lay on the other side of the mountain. Some of these men traveled into the unknown country to see first hand what it had to offer. Many of the adventurers were so overwhelmed by the vast beauty of the land that they returned to their eastern homes, picked up belongings and family, and departed for a new life over the mountain and down the river.

Life is so different today, it strains the imagination to realize the hardships those people endured to extend the American frontier. There was constant war between the native Indians and the white settlers; often families possessed only the clothes they wore, an axe, a few hand tools, their gun and powder horn. Many times they lived in slapped-together lean-tos until they were able to build a more permanent structure.

Oxen and cattle horns were ideal for the soldier and frontiersman to fabricate an ideal container to carry and dispense his gunpowder. It was a fairly simple procedure to form the horn into a watertight, portable, easy to use container. After carefully selecting the horn of proper size and shape, it was boiled until the pith could be removed, making it hollow. It was then scraped smooth on the outside, and a hole drilled through the pointed-or spout- end. This was plugged with a small wooden stopper, and it was from this end that the powder charge was measured. A wood plug was carved for the butt of the horn, and was attached to the horn with wooden pegs or tiny metal nails. Less usual was a type of friction fitting of the base plug, which was then glued into place. Lastly, some type of attachment for a shoulder strap, like staple, different types of screws or turned knobs, was added to the horn base.

The simple powder horn of the early frontier evolved into personal works of art out of necessity. Soldiers, and perhaps groups of hunters, had to have an obvious way of identifying their horns. Sometimes only initials were used. If the owner was literate, or knew someone who could copy letters, dates, names and places, those were engraved onto the horn. Eventually, they were decorated with animals, mythical creatures like mermaids or griffons, birds, snakes, various styles of flowers and veins, and all sorts of geometrics. To make their horns more personal, the men often engraved rhymes; and example might be: "Steal not this horn / For fear of shame / For on it lies / The owners name"

By the end of King George's War (1744-1748), the engraved powder horn had evolved into a highly sophisticated personal item. During the early part of the French & Indian War (1755-1764), decorated powder horns were fashionable! Next to his wife and children, a soldier's powder horn was sometimes his most cherished possession. By trading favors with friends and fellow soldiers he might have his powder horn engraved in a professional manner. The carvings might include his name and the date, intricate maps, detailed coats of arms, personal and/or political sentiments, not to mention the wonderful, elaborate calligraphy.

A goodly portion of the men chose to carve their own horns, and were limited only by their talent and imagination. Many times the professionally engraved horn did not convey the personal qualities of those engraved by the individual owner whose aura and personality can be felt even today when they are lovingly held and admired. Map horns became popular during the several wars fought on this [U.S.] continent in the 18th century. It was a unique way to keep track of one's location in relation to forts, lakes and rivers. This style of carved horn became so popular that, although still practical, the maps were fancily decorative and were produced in all the major cities in the Colonies as well as Canada and Europe. Sieges against forts sometimes lasted long enough for a soldier to complete a horn from start to engraved finish. But for the most part, the horns were engraved after the fact, and included commemorative facts about a particular battle or campaign. These carvings had a two-fold purpose: First, it was probably the most important event in the man's life, and second, the engraved data was proof of his participation. The golden age of the engraved powder horn was during the last half of the 18th century. After the War of 1812, the earlier high art form disappeared; the exception was the Kentucky-born Tansel family.