The First Official Pistol-maker of the United States during the Revolutionary Era

Author: Allen Kozloski

The American Revolution and war with England resulted in the need for firearms. Individual artisans rushed to meet this demand. The colonial assembly passed legislation that reflected this demand: “A bounty of 5 shillings will be paid for each stand of arms ‘with a good lock’ made in the colony.” –Connecticut General Assembly 1775. (North, 1916, 174).

One artisan, Simeon North of Berlin, Connecticut, responded to this opportunity, seeing it as his patriotic obligation. In 1781, sixteen-year-old Simeon, soldiering a rifle, marched from Berlin to Old Saybrook hoping to enlist in the Continental Army. Upon his arrival, he discovered peace negotiations were underway and was not mustered into the ranks of the Continentals (North, 1913, 25). Although he did not serve as a soldier, Simeon North would make it his life’s mission to arm the military of the United States in case it came under threat in a future armed conflict.

North was born to an affluent family, a descendent of one of the original five founders of Berlin, whose wealth came from the production of farm equipment. Using his family’s money, Simeon purchased a sawmill and convert it to manufacture pistols. On March 9, 1799, Simeon secured his first government contract to produce 500 pistols within a year. This order secured North’s place as the first official pistol maker of the United States. Since the North family had no previous experience in gunsmiting, he used the 1777 Charleville Flintlock Pistol as a model for his guns. While Simeon was not a revolutionary inventor of a new type of gun, his importance lies in the shift from the handicraft era of manufacturing to large-scale production. The production of 500 pistols within a year is a monumental task to be undertaken by any skilled artisan, much less a newcomer to the industry.

In the handicraft era of manufacturing, firearms were produced in smaller quantities by blacksmiths, while contracts were sealed by handshakes and the personal assurance to fulfill a quota. This business model will guide North during the transitional era of manufacturing. By compartmentalizing jobs, employees such as fillers, fitters, and woodworkers will each be assigned to construct individual parts of the pistol. Through repetition, early models of North’s pistols achieved a high degree of precision and were a reliable sidearm for military forces.

By 1813, the demand created by another war, surpassed North’s means of production forcing him to build a larger factory in Middletown, Connecticut with a greater waterpower supply that the Berlin factory had from Spruce Brook. When the factory was constructed in 1816, North began work on a contract for 20,000 pistols marking a key shift in handicraft to industrialized mass production.

Figure 1: Personal Collection of Allen Kozloski

Around 1816, he invented the mode of milling iron and turning gun barrels. The milling machine was believed to be first utilized in the Middletown factory. While the milling machine revolutionized firearm production and was insurmountably valuable in the field of precision and interchangeability, North would not initially receive credit for this invention. This is due to two reasons: the first being the first rifle to achieve true intangibility is the 1848 Halls rifle of Harpers Ferry, while the second is the fact Simeon North never filed a patent for one of his firearms or the milling machine used in production.

North’s contributions were overlooked until recent works, such as From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States by David Hounshell recognized North’s importance to the field of manufacturing as a pivotal figure influencing the introduction and advancement of machining tools and the concept of interchangeable parts.

In a letter to the war department North states. “Sir, I believe it is the duty of every American citizen to unite and assist the government at this time in repelling the unjustifiable, tyrannical and imperial orders and decrees heaped upon us by the war powers of Europe, and you may depend that nothing shall be waiting on my part to support the rights of the Union: every branch of this business shall be crowded to the greatest extremities.”(Jeska, 1993,5 ).

North’s letter shows both his devotion to arming the military and the sacrifice of personal gain over the new nation’s collective security. By not filling a patent, he would aid other manufacturers to meet the firearm demands of the military.

While North was late to fulfill several of the deadlines of the enormous arms contracts, the apologetic tone of his assurance that he is taking all possible measures to hasten production proved invaluable in securing future contracts from the military. North success is also due to the demand for firearms and the limited manufacturers capable of fulfilling large orders. Simeon North’s success as an early pioneer of interchangeability of parts and his precise large-scale production is the result of the necessity of the United States to arm itself to resist European powers during the revolutionary period.

Recommended for further reading:

Gordon, Robert B. “Simeon North, John Hall, and Mechanized Manufacturing.” Technology and Culture 30, no. 1 (1989): 179-88. doi:10.2307/3105469.

Hounshell, David. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. No. 4. JHU Press, 1985.

North, Catherine. History of Berlin Connecticut. New Haven: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Company, 1916.

Simeon North, Robert Jeska. Early Simeon North Pistol correspondence with comments by Robert Jeska. Plainwell MI. 1993.

S.N.D. North, LL.D. and Ralph H. North. Simeon North, First Official Pistol Maker of the United States: a Memoir. Concord: The Rumford Press, 1913.

Hidden History in the Great Swamp

Author: Robert Pawlowskichurch sign

There are sometimes problems taking history outside the classroom. You can do it the easy way, or you can do it the hard way. Let me explain. The easy way is that you go to a beautifully preserved colonial village like Farmington. You can amble comfortably along a Main Street lined with perfectly preserved eighteenth-century treasures. You have an informative brochure to show you the way.

Or you can head out to the Great Swamp Society’s 1712, now hidden, settlement in Berlin, and “build your own,” as they say. This is our version of “hidden history.” It’s history the hard way.

map

Here are some of the rules of thumb, axioms, methodologies and techniques you’ll need to be successful. First, “hidden history” comes in pieces. It’s not in one place, not on one path, or in one era. It makes you think hard. It always starts with a church and ends with a cemetery. There are always brooks or small rivers with dams in between that connect them. There are always old mill buildings converted to trendy condos along the way. There is usually a train station and generic retail nearby. Last, what you learned in history class always applies, but in ways you never imagined.

waterfall

     We’ve suggested a little reading and provided a simple map. Don’t gorge yourself on names and locations. They interfere with “hidden history.” Just bring your creativity, common sense, sangfroid, and good humor.

To whet your appetite though, you should know that the Great Swamp Society was a rare and incredible community. In 1712, its founders broke away the First Society of Farmington who established the First Church. Independent of their ancestors, they built a fort, a church and incredibly successful microeconomy. Between 1725 and the Revolutionary War they ran huge farms, built more that twenty mills, taverns and tanneries along the dozens of swamp streams, roads and rivers. They traded timber and horses for molasses, sugar and probably salves, with the West Indies. They distilled rum and drank lots of it. They had lots of children – 16 or 17 in some cases. Just about all of them, had slaves, too. And they did it all in the Great Swamp.

mill condo

Take the Christian Lane exit off Route 9, south. Head right over to the Second Church at 312 Percival Avenue. (If you’ve been alert enough to this point, you have a GPS and a tablet to get you there and some basics on the church). The most interesting thing about the church besides its classic Puritan architecture and impeccable wooden construction may be its message sign. The message reads: “Truce is Better Than Friction.” What hidden historical irony. If only they got it about three hundred years ago they could have resolved the bitter dispute that drove half of their congregation to build their own meeting house on the other side of town.

narrow river

The mill building itself is late 19th century vintage. And, like a lot of them that have survived, it has been turned into trendy condos. Before we ponder the why, how and who (hidden history) questions that may apply to it, lets get to the water. A relatively small river, the Mattabasset, cascades off a high dam that makes Paper Goods Pond behind it and flows between a deep embankment along the rear edge of the property. It’s clear from the height of the falls and the angle of the first sluiceway there, thats how the stream gets squeezed into a narrow channel, before it widens again, that there were at least two to three very early mills here. You notice that there are old concrete foundations here and there along the river. Pilgrims, as you know, didn’t do concrete. Think Samuel Brownson, saw mills, grist mills. Think hydropower turbines. Think paper cups.

old mill site

The trendy condo factory is asking us some tough questions. The main one is, of course, “How much do these trendy condos cost?” We can figure that out fast, using a “hidden history” version of prosopography called condography. We do it here by reading the parking lot. How many parking spaces are there? What kind of cars? Equals average income per unit estimate. Multiply by 2.5. You don’t need a spreadsheet. It’s basically common sense. You can also ask at the sales office. There are three similar, humble single-family houses looking at you from across the street. They are identical, but disguised. How? Who lived there originally? When were they built?

worker cottages

Next, stop at Fred’s Deli, a small old store, with a hand painted sign, with customers from the small houses around it. How much do Fred’s grinders cost? More or less than the average for the Berlin area? Well, they cost about the same, but are much bigger. A solid “rule of thumb” is that people in small houses eat bigger grinders. To test the thesis, get the Pastrami Bomb.

fred's deli

Ahead, our last look at the Mattabasset shows you how transportation systems, rivers, roads and rails often follow the same routes with villages and towns clustered nearby.

Then over to the Christian Lane Cemetery, a marvelous place. They are always connected by water at the opposite end of the path from the church. At the church water means life, baptism, youth, hope and sermons. In between the water offers power and fishing. They put cemeteries near worn out streams because they know it is peaceful. And, because the land around them is cheap. Why? Right. It’s swampy.

cemetery sign

     But what happened to the Great Swamp Society? No trace of it here but these glued and bandaged gravestones rotting in this forsaken lot. Mary Hart’s marker is knocked over, lying in a bed of freshly dug dirt. She was Gen. Selah Hart’s wife dead over 250 years ago. No distinguished Colonials or Puritan churches here to commemorate the Great Swamp Society’s incredible community. Why is Christian Lane lined with junk car lots, recycling plants, Budget Rental trucks, animal control operations and small manufacturers that spread out all over the beautiful flat land and defile the Mattabasset? Did the Society do something terribly wrong? And, where did Mary Hart go? Cemeteries are always a dead end. Usually.

mary hart

There is just one last question, maybe the most important one. The CT Paranormal Searchers, a group that has studied this cemetery, wonders: “Do the spirits of early settlers still remain at this place?” Do you think maybe that’s the answer?

For Further Reading:

Berlin Historical Society. “The History of Berlin” www.berlincthistorical.org

CT Paranormal Searchers. www.ctparanormalsearchers.weebly.com cy1171@messiah.edu.

North, Catharine M. History of Berlin, Connecticut. New Haven: The Tuttle Morehouse & Taylor Company, 1916.

Pawlowski, Robert E. “The Great Swamp Society, The Role of Land, Location and Slave Labor in the Evolution of a Mid-18th Century Farmington Microeconomy”