Captain Duncan’s Horn

Early in 2005 a powder horn came up for auction in England. It was described as having belonged to Captain Richard Duncan, our company’s commanding officer! Former Yorker, John Houlding, had a friend of his visit the auction house to photograph the horn and evaluate it for us. Steven Wood was former curator of the Museum of Edinburgh in Scotland and certainly no amateur. In his opinion the horn was genuine. Steven thought that the horn would sell for something in the range of twenty thousand dollars. At the day of auction, a TV personality from Antiques Roadshow in the UK also viewed the horn and declared it a forgery. It sold for about the originally estimated value of close to three thousand dollars. Without a detailed study by a truly independent expert, we will probably never know. As the photos that follow show, it is a beautiful thing. We were all surprised at the folk art like quality of the engraving. It clearly copies the style of the commercial horns of the period that featured elaborate engraved coats of arms.

Here is the official description from the auction catalogue:

Item 287. A RARE REVOLUTIONARY WAR POWDER-HORN, dated 1778, approx. 13in. long, the body engraved with the Royal Arms, ‘GR’ cypher supported by a unicorn and a lion with the inscription ‘Capt. Rich. Duncan / in John Johnsons / Regt. 1778.’, the frontal aspect of a mansion house, and flowering foliage, turned nozzle, wooden base mounted with a brass brooch in the form of a flower-head, and suspension cord.

Captain Richard Duncan commanded a company in the 1st Battalion of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York between 1777 and 1783. The ‘Royal Yorkers’ were commanded by Sir John Johnson and operated on the Canadian frontier where they conducted many successful campaigns and raids into rebel territory. Duncan, like many other loyalists, had been under open arrest during the early stages of the war and it was not until late in the campaign season of 1777 that he was able join Royalist forces. One most notable raid took place in 1778 when a force drawn from the regiment supported by Kanehsatake Indians recovered Sir John’s papers from the grounds of Johnson Hall in Johnstown where they had been buried when he had been forced to flee two years earlier. The inclusion of a mansion house in the decoration on the present powder-horn may be commemorating Duncan’s participation in this raid. The regiment was disbanded in December 1783 and the troops, being loyal to the crown, were allowed to winter in barracks in Montreal whilst preparations were made to settle them and their families in Quebec Province away from rebel persecution. A series of military townships were created in order that troops could be quickly raised in the event of American attacks, Duncan’s company occupying Royal Township No.4 at Williamsburgh. £1000-1500

The detail and engraved wording is quite remarkable.

The wording here is:

Here is the coat of arms, rough and many ways like we picture the regiment to have been.

The wording on the horn continued on the reverse side. Its difficult to see today so we enhanced it for this view.

The horn is well made as the following detail shots indicate.

Note the unicorn engraving.

Just visible under the glare from the photo flash is the elaborate manor house.

As Gavin noted: “The mansion house decoration makes some sense to me. Richard’s family reputedly had a beautiful home in the Niskayuna region near Schenectady. I wouldn’t be surprised if Richard yearned after his home after he was forced to abandon it as a persecuted loyalist and decorating his horn with its image would be understandable/believable.”

The horn is today in the hands of some English antiques’ dealer who got himself a bargain at the auction. It would have been a wonderful artifact to have in our possession or at least here in Canada. Unfortunately we only learned of the auction a few days before it took place and Steven’s
estimate of its value was beyond our reach, so we were unprepared to take advantage of the Roadshow expert’s declaration that it was a fake. There was not time to organize an attempt to win it home.

Allan Joyner