Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Jacob and Samuel Hawken:

Jacob, born in 1786 was the older of the two brothers.  Samuel was born in 1792. Although popular legend has it that Jacob Hawken established his St. Louis gun shop in 1807, payroll records at the Harper's Ferry Arsenal show that he was employed at the arsenal from at least April 1808 until as late as February 1818.  The first evidence of Jacob Hawken in St. Louis is a deed for half a "certificate" for 160 acres of land outside of New Madrid, Missouri, dated August 21, 1818.  At this time he became partners with an established St. Louis gunsmith, James Lakenan.  This partnership would last until Lakenan's death on August 25, 1825.  

Samuel Hawken had established his own gun business in Xenia, Ohio.  In 1821 Samuel and Jacob's father died.  Shortly thereafter Samuel's wife died and Samuel relocated to St. Louis.  There he set up his own business, independent of Jacob and Lakenan.  It wasn't until Lakenan's death in 1825, that the two brothers apparently became partners.  

The brothers were not only skilled gun-smiths, but old fashioned craftsmen who could and would make just about anything.  Invoices and other records show that the brothers shop was not a rifle production factory, but rather an all-purpose shop in which all sorts of services, tools and metal items could be purchased.  Restocking guns, gun repairs and cleaning appears to have been a large part of their business. They manufactured substantial numbers of iron and brass axes and tomahawks, fire steels, iron arrow points and gun worms, and on one occasion even making basket handles for 16 swords.  Services even included shoeing a horse.  It is not until after 1848 that "sundries" do not appear in any amount, suggesting that manufacture of rifles had become the primary activity by that time.  

The earliest record of a Hawken Rifle is a custom gun made by Samuel Hawken for General Ashley in 1823.  Although the Hawkens had been supplying various goods and services to the American Fur Company from the 1820's, the sale of rifles or guns of any sort is not indicated on surviving documents.  The earliest clearly documented sale of a production Hawken Rifle was an order for 18 rifles by the American Fur Company in 1831.  At least some of these rifles were probably percussion.  Subsequent production of Hawkens was extremely limited, probably generally not more than about 120 rifles per year.  Peak production of the shop occurred during the 1849 Gold Rush, and even then probably did not exceed 200 rifles per year.  Hawken rifles were very expensive for the time, but were extremely high quality arms, reflecting the care and skill of two of the best gunsmiths in St. Louis.  Production levels were maintained through the mid-1850's then began to decline as "modern" breech-loading rifles such as the Sharps Rifle gained in popularity.

Jacob Hawken died in 1849.  His death during the period of peak production must have been a serious blow to the shop.  Samuel Hawken continued the business till around 1855 when he retired.  The shop passed to his son William Hawken and Tristam Campbell.  Although retired, Samuel apparently continued to work at the shop from time to time.  In 1856 William Hawken and Tristam Campbell dissolved their partnership, and William continued the business alone.  From 1860-1864 William Watt and William Bennett operated the shop.  Phillip Gemmer was the final owner starting in 1865 through into the late 1870's.  These latter owners continued to capitalize on the Hawken reputation, stamping guns produced in the shop as "Hawkens" even though the Hawkens family was no longer involved with the business. 

Samuel Hawken would die May 9, 1884, at the age of 92 in St. Louis.  

For more information about Jacob or Samuel Hawken, or about their gun ship see the following:

The Hawken Rifle: Its Place in History, by Charles E Hanson, Jr., published by the Fur Press, Crawford, Nebraska, 1979.  Probably one of the best sources of documentation of the types of rifles carried by the mountain men, production of rifles by the Hawken brothers, and origin of the myths regarding the "Hawkens Rifles."  

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