Malachite’s Big Hole
A Mountain-Based Flintlock Conversion Service in 1834?
Was Nathaniel Wyeth planning to offer conversion of flintlock guns to percussion as a mountain based service to hunters and trappers starting in 1834? Statements in his journals provide a tantalizing suggestion that this may have been the case.
In the summer of 1834 Wyeth brought up an outfit with goods, both to supply the Rocky Mountain Fur Company at the 1834 Rendezvous and then to proceed onward and establish a post for his own Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company on the Columbia River. However, when Wyeth arrived at rendezvous, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company defaulted on its contract with him, leaving Wyeth stuck with an unanticipated surplus of trade goods. After trading what he could, Wyeth then proceeded on to the confluence of the Snake and Portneuf Rivers where by early August he established Fort Hall. Splitting his men and supplies, Wyeth then continued on to the Columbia River. During the winter of 1834-35 Wyeth and his men were extremely busy. They established Fort William on Multnomah Island at the mouth of the Willamette River, commenced a farming operation about forty miles up the Williamette River, started harvesting and packing salmon for shipment back east, and spent time trapping on the south side of the Columbia River (Sampson, Vol 5 1966 Article on Wyeth). The following entry is from Wyeth’s journal dated December 9, 1835.
"9th. Same camp During all this time traded but one Horse, but fared well enough for food as we obtained as many dogs as we could eat during the time Gully my Indian having lost his horse went out to hunt him and as I believe with a determination to quit me he found his horse and sent it to camp by an Indian with word to send his things with some trifling excuse but I kept the Horse and things the Indian whom he sent said he would go and take the Horse for which I gave him a flogging and he went off during this time we percussioned 3 Rifles our powder being so badly damaged as to render flint locks useless [underlines are mine] In this vicinity there are Elk and Deer as we trade their meat and skins of the Inds. in small quantities the grass here is good and here I cashed some goods our horses being to poor to carry them on."
From the sentence in the journal entry above there doesn’t seem to be any alternative interpretation to what they were doing to the rifles-that is converting them from flintlocks to percussion locks. Wyeth doesn’t explain in what way the powder is damaged-presumably by moisture.
At the time of this journal entry Wyeth and his men were hunting on the west side of the Cascade Range in the vicinity of the Deschutes River, on the south side of the Columbia River. This is near the present day community of The Dalles, Oregon. Locally, December is one of the wettest months, however, the area receives nowhere near the amount of precipitation received on the the west side of the Cascades. Under these conditions drying wet gunpowder might have been difficult, but certainly not impossible. However, wet powder wouldn’t perform significantly better in a percussion rifle then in a flintlock. In either case the powder would need to be dried to perform reliably. Thus it would seem that the damaged powder was merely an excuse to convert the flintlocks to percussion.
There are no references to percussion locks, or caps in the inventories that Wyeth took with him (Fort Hall Accounts, 1834-1839). There are multiple explanations as to why these items might not show up on Wyeth’s inventories: sections of the inventories which included these items may have been lost, or have not been published; or perhaps Wyeth didn’t feel it was necessary to list items he had along for “personal” or “professional” use. It is probably that Wyeth and at least some of his men were carrying percussion lock rifles in 1834-35 because during a previous expedition to the mountains in 1832-33 Wyeth’s party was equipped with percussion rifles (see Wyeth, entry for August 15, 1832 ). That Wyeth personally held a low opinion of flintlocks is apparent from his journal entry of August 18th, 1833: “….We saw some large bands of elk but our hunters were more conceited than good which I have generally found to be the case with the hunters in this country they are not willing that a new hand should even try, and are far from good shots themselves and commonly have miserable flint guns which snap continually and afford an excuse for not killing….” (Wyeth, entry for August 18, 1833)
The tools and supplies necessary to convert a flintlock rifle to percussion are rather specialized. It is not likely that such conversions could be performed on the fly, unless this was a contingency which Wyeth had planned for prior to leaving Independence on April 28, 1834. In any case, Wyeth’s party clearly had the necessary equipment, supplies, skills and the tools to perform conversions.
The fact that Wyeth found converting three rifles to percussion more efficient or more desirable in some way than simply drying the powder suggests that converting a rifle, at least while in possession of appropriate tools and supplies was a rather routine process. Wyeth provides no description of procedures whereby the three flintlock rifles were converted. The simplest way of converting a flintlock would have been to modify the existing lock with a replacement percussion type hammer and use a screw-in bolster with a nipple. The rifle barrel at the touch-hole would have been drilled out and threaded for the bolster. The flintlock’s steel or frizzen would have been removed, and the lock filed out in area of the pan so that the bolster would fit. And finally the curve of the percussion hammer may have required adjusting so that the hammer would fall directly and squarely on the nipple.
This discussion then leads to a speculative question, why did Wyeth have the parts, tools and men with necessary skills to convert flintlocks to percussion along with him, especially when considering that Wyeth and at least some of his men were already equipped with percussion rifles at the outset? While the journal entry implies that percussioning the rifles was a rather routine operation, the fact that it warranted mention in Wyeth’s journal also indicates that for Wyeth it was in some way a special event. I would suggest that he may have been planning to offer a flintlock to percussion conversion service at the post he intended to establish on the Columbia River but actually constructed at Fort Hall.
By the early 1830’s the percussion ignition system was a widely used, reliable and proven technology. However, hunters and trappers in the mountains were resistant to adapting the new technology and were for the most part still using weapons with flintlock ignition systems (Hanson, page 24). Wyeth would have observed the prevalence of flintlock guns in use by the hunters and trappers on his fact-finding expedition in 1832-33.
Wyeth was an inventor, an innovator, a big time dreamer and in other respects was the early 1800’s equivalent of a techie. In the 1820’s Wyeth made numerous inventions related to winter ice harvesting. These inventions made Wyeth moderately wealthy and turned Boston into a center for exporting ice through out the southern United States, the Caribbean region, and even as far as Calcutta, India. (Cummins, Richard O., 1950) In 1829 Wyeth joined the “American Society for Encouraging the Settlement of Oregon” approximately ten years before there was any widespread public interest in Oregon emigration. After being a member of the society for several years it became apparent to Wyeth that the society was never going to convert its goals into actions. In the meantime Wyeth’s own ideas were developing which would lead to his establishing the Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company (Sampson, William, Vol V, 1966 Article on Wyeth). As envisioned, this company was to have a continent spanning reach. Wyeth intended to establish a commercial and trading base on the Columbia River. With such a base and resupply by ship up the Columbia River, Wyeth felt that he would obtain such large savings on transportation and wages so that his company would be able to control a major share of the fur trade in the Northern Rocky Mountain region. In addition, inferior grades of salmon were selling in Boston at $16 a barrel, and Wyeth proposed to pay the freighting costs by return cargos of salmon, with the furs to provide the profit. With the exception of the salmon, this was nearly the same plan which John Jacob Astor had attempted to implement more than twenty years earlier with Astoria (Lavender, 1964).
Wyeth clearly embraced technological advancement, was undaunted by unconventional thinking, and was keenly aware of business opportunities. From Wyeth’s perspective, it would be natural to think that the hunters and trappers of the northern Rocky Mountain region would desire the latest technology in firearms but only lacked the opportunity to acquire them. A conversion service would fulfill this supposed need. Thus the wet powder may have been simply a pretext to provide a demonstration of this service.
Cummings, Richard O. The American Ice Harvests: A Historical Study in Technology, 1800-1918. The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 16, No. 2 (May, 1950), pp. 222-223
Hanson Charles E, Jr. The Hawken Rifle: Its Place in History, published by the Fur Press, Crawford, Nebraska, 1979.
Lavender, David. The Fist in the Wilderness, 1964, published by the University of Nebraska Press.
Sampson, William R. in The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume V; Chapter on Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth: Hafen, LeRoy, editor, published by The Arthur H Clark Company, Glendale, California, 1966
Wyeth, Nathaniel. Journal of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth's Expeditions to the Oregon Country:First Expedition-1832.
Wyeth, Nathaniel. Journal of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth's Expeditions to the Oregon Country:Second Expedition-1834.
From Fort Hall Accounts 1834-39, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, OR. Invoice of Goods Remaining at Fort Hall in store uncashed 1834
From Fort Hall Accounts 1834-39, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, OR. Invoice of goods Cashed at Ft. Hall by Capt. N. J. Wyeth
From Fort Hall Accounts 1834-39, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, OR.
Invoice of Goods taken down to the Columbia by Capt J. N. Wyeth on his Voyage to Columbia