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Horn of Plenty

Don Johnson | May 1st, 2013


This powder horn sold for $74,750 at Cowan’s Auctions on May 1. “It was one of a few map horns that detailed British ships in the New York harbor and the number of guns on each,” said Jack Lewis, Cowan’s director of historic firearms and early militaria. Cowan’s photo.

A bit of mystery didn’t hurt the bidding when an elaborately engraved powder horn from the French and Indian Wars sold for $74,750 (including buyer’s premium) at Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati on May 1. “That has to be a record for the past five years for powder horns,” said Jack Lewis, Cowan’s director of historic firearms and early militaria.

Some things about the horn were certain. It was carved by Samuel More, presented to Dr. Henry Livingston Sr. (1714-1799), and was being offered to the public for the first time. The detailed imagery of the map on the 15¼" horn showed the carver’s keen knowledge of the area depicted and his cartographer-like abilities. What’s more, it was clear that the maker had time on his hands. Probably More carved the horn while incarcerated by the British at Saratoga Prison or aboard a floating hulk in New York harbor. His confinement may have been for refusing to fulfill the militia service required of all able-bodied men in the colonies by the Crown.

The powder horn mapped the northern colonial frontier from New York City to the French domain of Canada, when much of that area consisted of uncharted wilderness. The Hudson River served as the focal point, with villages, royal forts, and significant English homesteads all illustrated. Added to that were depictions of British warships with notations regarding the number of guns for each. Also shown were important waterways, some natural wonders, and the obligatory heraldry of King George II.

“Comparing the quality and accuracy of Mor’s [sic] work to printed maps from that time, it appears evident that the artist-carver had personally viewed the sights and locations he subsequently engraved on the horn,” the auction catalog noted. The horn also bore an inscription that it was carved by “Samuel More” while a prisoner and includes the notation “Henry Livingston His Horn.”

The powder horn was presented to Livingston in 1756 at Saratoga, according to the auction house, but its whereabouts following the Revolutionary War are uncertain. It remained in the consignor’s family for generations. The Cowan’s sale represented the first time it became available to the public.

Livingston had settled on farmland on the outskirts of Poughkeepsie in Dutchess County, New York. A successful country squire who owned property maintained by slaves, he grew in wealth and stature over time. He was county clerk, a member of the Provincial Assembly, and served as a captain in the Dutchess County militia during the French and Indian Wars. During the Revolutionary War, Livingston was a staunch Whig. He died in Poughkeepsie in 1799.

There remains some mystery to the powder horn. Its original wooden plug is carved with an “H” and a “P.” The catalog noted, “The family has speculated, perhaps fancifully, that H may have stood for Henry Livingston, and the P for a close relative named Philip Livingston. Philip Livingston was a first cousin of Henry, two years his junior and, significantly, one of the four signers of the Declaration of Independence from New York. Both men were politically active and outspoken members of the Whig Party. The joint initials have been taken to mean a symbolic commitment of the two elder Livingstons to the Whig cause.”

Wes Cowan, president of the auction house, described the powder horn as exceptional. The price, he added, was indicative of the market for top-tier items. “Collectors continue to search for truly great things,” he said.

One additional historical note, albeit detached, is worth adding. One of Livingston’s sons, Henry Livingston Jr. (1748-1828), is believed by some to be the uncredited author of  “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the poem more commonly known as  “The Night before Christmas” and generally attributed to Clement Moore.


Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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