Weapons and Militia in 18th-Century Williamsburg

Military Interpreter Stewart Pittman talks about a company of 14-year-old boys who rob a booby-trapped Magazine and arm themselves with blue-painted muskets in 1775. He also answers some popular questions about musket firing and accuracy.

Learn more: The Magazine


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on History.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Stewart Pittman, and at Colonial Williamsburg he’s a Military Interpreter.

Lloyd: I understand you work mostly at the Magazine.

Stewart Pittman: That’s right.

Lloyd: Doing what?

Stewart: For the most part, I interpret the military experience, everything from the weaponry to the history. The evolution of the militia throughout the colonial period, the construction of the Continental Army.

Lloyd: I noticed when you came in -- your rifle, or musket, or however one properly says that -- is not the usual color.

Stewart: No. I brought with me today an example, a replica, of an Indian trade musket. This is a type of firearm that’s being produced here in the colonies. It’s inferior to anything that’s coming out of Europe – rifles, shotguns, civilian hunting tools. It was basically here for trade with Native Americans. It’s painted blue.

Now, we have a lot of the original inventories for the Magazine, what was there, and there was one incident that took place shortly after Lord Dunmore fled Williamsburg involving a group of young men who called themselves the Boys’ Company. They pretty much went into the Magazine and removed 50 Indian trade muskets. It says in the inventories that their stocks were painted blue. Most likely that was to cover up shoddy workmanship, or, perhaps just to increase interest for Native Americans.

Lloyd: I noticed you were being nice there when you said the Boys’ Company “ … went into.” I will take it that what you would have said was “broke into.”

Stewart: “Broke into,” yes. I’m sure any one of them, and their captain was only 14 years old, was that they just went in, rather than broke in.

Lloyd: Uh-huh, and just happened to pick up these 50 muskets?

Stewart: Yes, muskets.

Lloyd: And carried them off. To what purpose?

Stewart: Essentially, they’re too young to be in the militia or the independent companies; generally you had to be more than 16 years of age. They’re very young, excited about the political and military problems that were building up in 1775, and decided to take matters into their own hands, quite literally. There are a couple of accounts of seeing these young men march around in Williamsburg and in many cases, they’re regarded as better at performing the “manual of arms,” or operating the firearms, than most of the adults that were coming in for militia duty.

Lloyd: I would imagine that would be generally true. Boys take a more intense interest in doing what they’re doing. And adults are not as focused, generally, I think.

Stewart: I would agree with that. At the very least, it’s better than doing chores.  

Lloyd: (Laughs.) And it’s more fun. Now, one account I read of the Boys’ Company said that two or more, I read two; I’ve also read three, of the boys who went in were injured. Does that jibe with what you’ve …

Stewart:  Yes, apparently there was what’s referred to as a spring-gun that was loaded with shot. It was aimed towards the door, so that anyone that would force the door would cause this firearm to discharge upon the intruder. It was kind of a low blow actually. A lot of the city fathers wrote a great deal about this, complaining to the Governor. They blamed the Governor for the spring-gun. And, basically, they were just irritated that the Governor didn’t say anything to anyone about this. Obviously, the doors were locked and the doors when they were forced -- when the gun fired, it would’ve been very, very easy to avoid the kind of injuries that were incurred. I believe one young man lost a few fingers.

Lloyd: No one was killed, though…
Stewart: No one was killed.

Lloyd: In fiction, you’re still having accounts of spring-guns at least into the 20th century. You know when somebody breaks into a house or a bank or something and gets shot. Nobody’s there, I mean, it’s a booby trap.

Stewart: Yeah.

Lloyd: I didn’t know it started that early.

Stewart: It may have been set up by one of Dunmore’s agents. It could even have been set up by some of the sailors that were sent there to remove the gunpowder earlier, in April of 1775.

Lloyd: But that would have meant that no one had been in the Magazine for an extended period, right?

Stewart: Essentially, yes. The Magazine wasn’t really visited that often, particularly during peacetime.

 Lloyd: Yeah, but it was getting not-very-peaceable in peacetime. It was a touchy period.

Stewart: Right, very dodgy. For the most part they were still using the militia and then the independent companies. And those men were required to procure their own firearms. Usually they used their own hunting tools, like their shotguns, or rifles. And buy their own gunpowder, their own lead for shot.

The Magazine was used to support the militia. It was also used to create armies. And so, typically, you see the peak use of the Magazine during any kind of war period. For instance, the French and Indian War was a very busy time for the Magazine. So we haven’t quite gone into a full-blown American Revolution at the Magazine, but we’re getting ready: we’re taking inventories of what’s there, deciding what we need to buy, what we need to repair. But we aren’t to the point where we’re building standing armies and equipping those armies with what’s stored in the Magazine.

Lloyd: Twice you’ve referred to militia and independent companies. What’s the difference?

Stewart: The militia is controlled by the government. There are militia laws in place that are renewed, usually annually, that determine who’s in the militia, what you have to buy if you’re in the militia, what kind of fines or physical punishments are enforced when you don’t buy the right amount of gunpowder or you don’t have a working firearm in your home.

When Lord Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses, essentially, he made it impossible for any new laws, including the new militia laws, to be passed. So the militiamen were still there, were still interested in preserving peace and order within their own communities, counties, cities, and took matters, again, into their own hands and formed what were referred to as the independent companies -- kind of like elite militia. They weren’t obligated by law to act like a citizen-soldier police force. They were there for the protection of their own homes and property and worked as a group to help protect each other.

Lloyd: And so an independent company was a militia after the law ran out.

Stewart: Right. Independent of the government.

Lloyd: Okay, now that makes sense. Independent because they do not answer to the Governor.

Stewart: Mm-hmm, and in many cases they operated as a democracy. Their officers were more figureheads, like chairmen, rather than people with actual rank. If they had a slave rebellion somewhere, an independent company would form up, and they’d vote democratically how to best handle the situation. With a militia, the militia captain would say, “You, you, you, you, and you! Go there and take care of that.”

Lloyd: Yeah, okay. Somehow, democracy and an armed force does not spring instantly to mind. That’s a difficult concept, I think.

Stewart: It must’ve been terribly and difficult and frustrating for them, particularly with the political climate at the time.

Lloyd: Back to the Boys’ Company. What would you call them? They certainly couldn’t be a militia. Were they their own independent company?

Stewart: Essentially, yes. They governed themselves. No one ever, everyone kind of overlooked the removal of those 50 blue trade muskets. They just let those young men march around and do what they wanted to do.

Lloyd: Is there any record that the Boys’ Company was ever in a battle or a fight, or said to, or did they just march around?

Stewart: Not as the Boys’ Company. Their captain, who was named Henry Nicholson, eventually joined a cavalry regiment and was at Yorktown, at the Siege of Yorktown, as a cornet player. I believe he may also have been the quartermaster – the guy in charge of supplies.

Lloyd: So he really was interested in the Army…

Stewart: Oh, yes, he remained in the Army for all – the best accounts that we can come across – he remained until his regiment was either dissolved or he was unable to be in that regiment anymore.

Lloyd: Why would you be unable to be in a regiment anymore?

Stewart: For a cavalry regiment, there could be a number of reasons. First and foremost, perhaps your horse gets shot out from under you. There could also be various and sundry health reasons. I don’t know, actually, why he wasn’t able to. One or two accounts I’ve been able to find about Henry [Nicholson] is that he was there until either he couldn’t be there or wasn’t needed anymore.

Lloyd: You answered my question. If someone shoots your horse out from under you, it’s very difficult to be in the cavalry.

Stewart: It’s rough, you’ve got to be a fast runner, I guess.

Lloyd: (Laughs.) Well, you could be. There are any number of people from the Revolutionary War that I’ve read about who had their horses shot out from under them. That apparently was not an uncommon experience. It’s hard on the horse, but …

Stewart: Definitely.  

Lloyd: And I’m still trying to get into my head that if there’s no war, not many people visit the Magazine. So the Boys’ Company forced the door and here’s this shotgun that’s been there for a couple of months?

Stewart: Perhaps. Dunmore fled Williamsburg in June of 1775. The best example of people being in the Magazine around that period of time would’ve been earlier in April when the gunpowder was actually removed under Dunmore’s orders. So it could’ve been there for two months. Two-three months.

Lloyd: I can’t let you go without asking you, what do kids want to know from you?

Stewart: First, one of my most popular questions is, “Can I shoot the musket?” When I’m out giving a musket demonstration, you know, I’m not actually shooting bullets, but I’m using gunpowder and it makes a big noise – lots of smoke, it stinks. Kids love that. And of course they want to stand up and shoot the gun. And unfortunately in a museum, we just can’t do that. But the next best thing is letting them hold it while it’s unloaded.  They get a kick out of that.

Lloyd: So would I.

Stewart: It’s a lot of fun.

Lloyd: I don’t want to -- yeah I will. Kids get a big kick out of the Magazine and coming around and doing things, and holding the musket and watching you fire it and the bang. How about adults?

Stewart: Adults usually have more experience with firearms. They want to know – obviously they know they can’t shoot the gun, that I can’t give it to them and let them shoot it. But they want to know what it’s like. They want to know about accuracy. They want to know about speed and loading and firing. And those are pretty straightforward questions to answer. It takes 15 seconds to load a musket. The recoil – the kickback – on the weapon is a little bit stronger than a 12-gauge shotgun.

Lloyd: How accurate is it?

Stewart: Can’t hit the broad side of a barn with it. Military firearms, particularly in the 18th century, were built more for speed. And unfortunately, you have to compromise. The faster the weapon is, in general, the less accurate it is. You have to use a looser-fitting bullet. You have to push the bullet down through the muzzle – it takes a long time. If it’s a loose fit, it happens a little bit faster. So maybe you could hit a man-sized target with a Brown Bess musket at 75 yards, but you’d be a very unfortunate target or a very lucky shot or maybe a combination of the two to hit anyone on purpose at greater than 75 yards.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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