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Making the Case: Lincoln’s Personal Powder Horn From the Black Hawk War

February 5, 2023

by Donald Ackerman

In the field of political and historical Americana, new “discoveries” occasionally surface. Sometimes these are artifacts that we know were made, but have not come to light. An example of this would be a ticket to the 1864 National Union Party convention that nominated Lincoln for a second term. In the case of Lincoln’s appointment to be Postmaster of New Salem, this was probably destroyed when personal papers housed in the “Grimsley trunk” were burned. There are also objects that surface that fall into the category of “totally unexpected”. The acquisition of such artifacts, whether expected or unexpected, add to the “thrill of the chase”.

When discoveries are made, it is important to keep an open mind in regards to authenticity. Yes, there are fakes out there and efforts to deceive. Personally, I like to give things the “benefit of the doubt” while keeping “a wary eye”. In determining authenticity, we rely on provenance as well as a close physical examination of the item in question. Some items come with extensive provenance which, ideally, consists of documents that date back to the origin of the piece. In rare cases, this provenance is sufficient to convince all parties involved that the object is real and as represented. Most of the time, though, the provenance is sketchy and post-dates the time the piece was produced. It sometimes consists solely of “family lore” which is generally unconvincing and often erroneous. Many items have no provenance whatsoever. What to do then? In such a situation, the item needs to “stand on its own”. Does it have the requisite signs of age, acquired over a long period of time and not artificially induced? Is it the type of thing that was produced at the time? Is the method of construction and materials used typical of the period? Is the wording or vernacular of the period? Are the design elements similar to known & accepted exemplars? Are there any elements that seem out of place, constituting anomalies? Be the “devil’s advocate” and see if you can poke holes in it. If need be, get some expert opinions. If the item passes all tests, chances are it’s real. 

Recently, we uncovered an exciting discovery which, based on the abovementioned guidelines, gives all indications of being “the real deal”. Here is a basic description:

14.25” long powder horn with threaded wooden spout, turned wooded plug and two imbedded brass suspension rings. Intricately carved by a highly-skilled artisan, the base reads: “ Capt. Abraham Lincoln His Horn 1832”. Some creative scroll work in close proximity reads “David M. Pantier Made This”. A “war eagle” occupies the central portion. He holds a sword and a bow & arrows in his talons. A shield marked “Might” is superimposed on his chest. A series of rays fill the background with a flowing riband that reads “Huzza New Salem Boys Hoorah”. The carving is highlighted with dark brown ink or dye that ranges in intensity to yellowish-brown and red. Lincoln’s name is placed within concentric lines below a series of triangles. Each letter of the inscription is embellished by triangular serifs, an unusual and labor-intensive feature. Originally accompanied by a wooden stopper, no longer present.  Condition: Exhibits age commensurate with an 1832 origin. Corrosion to metal components. Several small sections of missing laminate with some incrustations. Black grime or residue surrounding the tacks holding the plug in place. 

Lincoln served in the Black Hark War from April 21, 1832 to July 10, 1832. He was elected captain of his company of the 4th Regiment Illinois Mounted Volunteers when it mustered in.  There were 68 men in the company, most of whom resided in Clary’s Grove. He supplied his own horse (stolen the day before he mustered out) and possibly a musket. Research suggests Lincoln’s musket was a Model 1822 experimental percussion by Jean Linossier II of France, sent to the United States for field testing. Lincoln had neither sword nor pistol. Soldiers had to supply their own accoutrements. Those that supplied their own horses and muskets were paid additional salary, as documented by mustering-out officer Robert Anderson, of Fort Sumter fame. Lincoln was briefly disciplined for discharging his musket contrary to regulations, within 50 yards of the encampment. In 1848, Lincoln gave a speech in Congress commenting humorously on his service in the Black Hawk War, while ridiculing the Democratic Presidential candidate, Lewis Cass. Lincoln admitted that he did not break his sword like Cass, but bent his musket accidentally (no doubt a facetious comment) and was bloodied by mosquitos. In later years, Lincoln claimed his  greatest sense of satisfaction derived from his election as captain of his company in the Black Hawk War. Parenthetically, a powder horn that belonged to Lincoln’s father, Thomas, still exists. 

David M. Pantier (1808-1889) was, like Lincoln, a resident of New Salem.  He was discharged on June 7, 1832. Lincoln signed his discharge papers on September 26, 1832, certifying he had served honorably. On October 27, 1834, while still living in New Salem, Lincoln and Pantier served as election clerks for the Congressional election held that day. Their friendship continued after Lincoln moved to Springfield. Lincoln represented Pantier in circuit court in Bloomington, Illinois on April 22, 1852, in the case Flagg & Ewing v. Pantier. Judge David Davis presiding. The case was carried over to the next term. On September 28, 1852, Lincoln won the case for his client. Pantier was one of “Herndon’s informants”. On July 21, 1865, he wrote to Herndon and related the story of how, during the Black Hawk War, Lincoln was forced to carry a wooden sword for two days as punishment for his troops drunken behavior. Pantier’s biography, published in 1879’s “History of Menard and Mason Counties, Illinois” states: “.. Mr. Pantier served in the Black Hawk War under Capt. Abraham Lincoln and tells many interesting anecdotes of those times.” Pantier’s father, “Uncle Jimmy” Pantier, was a prominent Illinois politician in the 1820s and 1830s. He interrupted Lincoln when he was giving a political speech in Petersburg. After some pleasantries, Lincoln reached out and offered him a seat on the speaker’s platform and finished his speech. 

Like many historical artifacts, the provenance is incomplete. The research and documents that accompany the horn indicates it surfaced in 1978 or 1979 at an Albany, New York gun show. An elderly visitor to the show carried it in a paper sack with some gun parts & accessories and sold it to one of the exhibiting collectors for a very modest amount, said to be $75. He, in turn, flipped it to another dealer, Arthur O’Grady of Syracuse, New York. The horn was covered entirely in black grease or soot, obscuring the design and inscriptions. O’Grady decided to clean it up with soap & water when he discovered what lay underneath. It then passed to Richard T. Zeusler of Rochester, New York who sold it in 1986 to Donald Hendrick of Waverly, New York who then sold it that same year to John T. Breth, Jr. of Williamsville, New York, It resurfaced at a military auction in 2021. It is assumed that Lincoln likely returned the horn to Pantier prior to being elected President in 1860. Possibly hung over a hearth, it became covered in black residue, its significance lost to its owners. 

The horn displays signs of age that would be impossible to replicate in a convincing manner. The name of David Pantier and his personal history are very obscure. Even if a faker knew of Pantier, he would not add Pantier’s name to the carving, as it would diminish the value. He also would not cover the horn with black pigment, hiding the design and inscriptions, then sell it at a gun show for next-to-nothing. He would be unlikely to know the use of the “war eagle”, clutching a sword and a bow & arrows, rather than the more traditional olive branch & arrows. The lettering and numbers are very typical of the period. The use of triangular serifs on the letters is also a sign of authenticity, as it is labor-intensive and not something that most fakers would think of doing. The maker of his horn was very skilled and obviously had a lot of time on his hands. Lincoln’s company did not see any combat and spent most of the war marching back and forth. Pantier’s grandfather, Philip Pantier, was a Kentuckian who know Daniel Boone, a celebrated maker of horns. That skillset might have been passed down to David Pantier. 

While the horn “speaks for itself”, scientific testing was done in November 2021 by Aaron Shukar, a noted specialist in ERF (x-ray fluorescence) spectroscopy technology. His report accompanies the provenance. Its conclusions: “XRF analysis shows that both the red and the black pigmentation on the powder horn are likely different forms of iron oxide… Two areas of red were investigated – the lettering and the decoration from the eagle – and show similar results to one another…Lime is also found as an impurity with some iron oxide pigmentation and is not unexpected. The lime may also be related to the use of a lye mixture that can be used as a caustic solution to ‘etch’ the iron-based color into the horn…The results show the red pigment used for the lettering and decoration are likely based on a red iron oxide in an aluminosilicate clay-based matrix. The black pigment and the pigmentation around the plug are likely based on an earthen black iron oxide with some evidence of manganese ferrite, in an aluminosilicate clay-based matrix… The evidence of clay mixed with the pigment is typical as an extender and bulking agent for pigment. In addition, some of the pigment source can be found in association with clays so it is not unusual to find them in close association. The high calcium may be an indicator of a lye/lime mixture added to the pigment to make it caustic. This can allow the pigment to ‘burn’ itself into the horn matrix, making it more permanent… I have looked at several powder horns before and period pigment tends to be different forms of iron oxide… All of the black areas on the body of the horn are colored by mineral based iron oxide… I have seen this on other powder horns as well.” The caustic etching referenced in the report is most apparent on the second “N” in “Lincoln”. 

Perhaps some new evidence might emerge in years to come (perhaps another example carved by Pantier). In the meantime, based on historical research and careful analysis, this appears to be the “real deal”.