The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: On Loan

Major Samuel Selden’s Powder Horn: A Revolutionary Map of Boston

We expect to see maps on paper, not on animal horns. Maj. Samuel Selden might have thought this as he etched a map of Boston on his powder horn, which is dated 9 March 1776. During the Revolutionary War, soldiers used animal horns to hold their gunpowder. They filled them at the larger end and funneled the powder into their weapons. Not all militiamen had their own powder horns, so men like Selden carved unique designs on them in order to claim them as their own.

Selden was a member of Connecticut's Provincial Assembly and became a major in the colony's militia during the war. He served under George Washington's direction during the siege of Boston. His powder horn depicts the sites of American fortifications as well as the positions of the Continental Army just before the British evacuated the city.

Even if we did not know Selden's background, his carvings convey his allegiances. A ship labeled "Amaraca" displays a Continental Union flag. Another flag depicts the Liberty Tree, the tree near the Boston Common where locals met to protest British rule. Alongside his name, Selden also inscribed the words: "made for the defense of liberty."

Selden's map is a pictorial map rather than one focused on the area's geography. His detailed carvings feature individual ships in the harbor and houses lining the Boston neck. Crosshatching adds depth to the water and makes his lettering stand out. In contrast, a 1775 powder horn housed at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center features a more traditional map of Boston. Instead of pictures, this map traces shorelines. Unlike Selden's, however, a British soldier carved this powder horn. He inscribed the words: "A Pox on rebels in ther crymes [their crimes]."

1775 powder horn

Photo courtesy of Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

Just six months after Selden carved his horn, the British captured him at the Battle of Kip's Bay during their campaign to take control of New York City. The prison's conditions were poor. Less than a month later, Selden fell ill and died on 11 October 1776.

Selden's powder horn, as well as that of his British counterpart, is currently on display in the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center's exhibition at the Boston Public Library. The exhibition, We Are One: Mapping America's Road from Revolution to Independence, uses maps to explore the events that led thirteen colonies to forge a new nation. We Are One demonstrates that maps, from Selden's carving to early European maps of the new nation, were central to the revolutionary process. The exhibition features maps as well as prints, paintings, and objects from the Leventhal Map Center's own collection and those of twenty partners, including the British Library and Library of Congress. Visit to explore geo-referenced maps from the exhibition.

The exhibition will be on display at the Boston Public Library through November 29, 2015. We Are One then travels to Colonial Williamsburg from February 2016 through January 2017 and to the New-York Historical Society from November 2017 through March 2018.

The Leventhal Map Center also hosts the NEH-funded American Revolution Portal database. Researchers can access maps from the Massachusetts Historical Society, British Library, Library of Congress, and other institutions in one search. Users can download images for research and classroom use. Access these resources and learn more about We Are One at

Find out more about the Society's own map collection at their upcoming exhibition: Terra Firma: The Beginnings of the MHS Map Collection, which opens on 2 October. Through 4 September, visitors to the MHS can learn more about the American Revolution with exhibition: God Save the People! From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill.


Image 1: Selden, Samuel, 1723-1776. [Powder horn scribed by Samuel Selden.] Lyme, Conn., 1776. 1 powder horn: ivory; 37 x 21 x 13.3 cm. Massachusetts Historical Society.

Image 2: Detail of above.

Image 3: E.B., [Powder Horn with Map of Boston and Charlestown]. [Boston], 1775. Scrimshaw horn, 14 x 3.5 x 3.5 inches. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 26 August, 2015, 8:00 AM

A Patriotic Shawl for Mrs. Andrew

On Wednesday, 24 April 1861. the following story ran in the third column of page two of the Boston Evening Transcript  (Vol. XXXII, no. 9507):

"APPROPRIATE PRESENTATION TO MRS. GOV. ANDREW. A large and elegantly wrought shawl, patriotic in every feature, was this morning presented to Mrs. Gov. Andrew, by Messrs. R. H. Stearns & Co., Summer street. It is of the finest worsted, in red, blue and white stripes, with thirty-four stars and the Union shield of the same material, so arranged as to give the whole a symmetrical appearance and an exceedingly fine effect. It was designed and executed by a lady in Newton, and for its novelty and appropriateness to the times is well worthy of examination. It may be seen for a few days in Messrs. R. H. Stearns & Co.’s window, 15 Summer street." (View the original page online through Google News.)

In May 1922, Edith and Henry Hersey Andrew, the children of Gov. & Mrs. Andrew, gave the shawl described in the Transcript to the MHS and it has been part of our collections since that time.  Currently Anne Bentley, our art curator, is preparing the shawl to be loaned to the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts. The shawl, along with other MHS artifacts, will be displayed as part of the ATHM's upcoming exhibition Homefront & Battlefield: The Civil War through Quilts and Context, which is scheduled to open in spring/summer 2012.  Anne's recent work with the shawl has given many MHS staff members a chance to view the item up close.  It is an interesting and intricate piece, as you can see in the detail photograph below. 


You can contact the library staff if you are interested in making an appointment to view the item at the MHS.  Naturally it will not be available for viewing here during the time it is out on loan, but can otherwise be made available to researchers on an appointment basis.

Photography by Anne Bentley, Curator of Art



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 26 April, 2011, 8:00 AM

Surgeon's Kit on Display

A fitted case containing surgeon's instruments belonging to William Swift, M.D., United States Navy, in the War of 1812 is on display in the USS Constitution Museum’s newest exhibition: “All Hands on Deck: A Sailor’s Life in 1812.”  

William Swift (1779-1864), an 1812 graduate of the Harvard Medical School, served in the U.S. Navy from 1812 until his retirement in 1861. He sailed to the coast of Africa in the frigate Chesapeake, and was serving on her when she fought the British vessel Shannon in Boston Harbor, 1813. He later served as naval surgeon in the brig Syren.

The kit was given to the Society by Dr. Lucy H. Swift, 26 October 1991. The MHS also holds Dr. Swift's papers (Ms. N-162): see the collection guide for more information.

Curators at the USS Constitution Museum have installed Swift's surgeon's kit in their "Aftermath" area that very effectively illustrates the realities of war at sea.  You can see it there through December 2010. The grand opening of the exhibit, featuring Boston mayor Tom Menino, will be held on 3 July at 11 a.m.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 25 June, 2009, 4:58 PM