Swords in the Virginia Muster of 1624/25
An article by Sean A. Flynt
Seventeenth century British colonists arrived in Virginia Colony armed and armoured largely for warfare in the Old World. However, they soon adapted to uniquely American threats and conditions, discarding or recycling their cumbersome plate armour and relying more on firearms and less on edged weapons.
To make certain points in this article I'll pick on the colonist Thomas Flynt, who gravely disappointed at least one modern relative by not reporting a single sword among his possessions. Flynt was unmarried at the time of the muster and living with five other men in an outlying area of the Elizabeth City community. The six men had use of eight muskets but, at first glance, appear to have been unarmed for close-quarters combat. Were swords in such short supply in the colony?
Quantity of Swords
We know that in 1608 Captain John Smith reported that swords outnumbered men in Virginia1. We also know that prospective colonists were expected to take with them their own swords, firearms, and other military supplies2. That practice should have at least maintained the surplus described by Smith, even assuming a certain amount of breakage, loss, capture or illicit trade to local natives. But independent counts of arms listed in the muster consistently find that firearms outnumbered swords almost two-to-one. In fact, although the colony had almost one firearm per adult male, only a little over half the colony's men could have taken up a sword if they had wanted or needed to do so.
What became of the sword surplus described by Smith and almost certainly increased by the appalling mortality rate among the colonists? Surplus armour is known to have been altered and reused in various ways or simply discarded by the colonists3. Some 17th and 18th century Scottish dirks have blades made from broken or cut-down sword blades, and broad, heavy hanger blades might have many civilian uses after the end of their military lives. We'll never know for sure, but it seems likely that many of the colonists' surplus swords were converted to dirks, knives or other tools.
The muster does not record what kinds of swords the colonists owned. Other contemporary documents and modern archaeology help fill in this information, however. The 400-plus swords in the colony at the time of the muster likely took many forms.
Basket-hilt swords of the early Anglo-Scottish style seem to have been common in the colony. Simple cutting swords of the cutlass, hanger, and falchion family also seem to have been favored in colonial Virginia4. The appearance of compound hilts in the archaeological record points to the popularity of rapiers and/or slender cut-and-thrust swords, at least in the early years of the colony. One formal portrait of the legendary John Smith shows him wearing such a weapon, but contemporary accounts (circa 1609) record Smith's use of a falchion in one of his most famous colonial skirmishes5.
A short, sturdy cutting sword such as Smith's falchion would have been a good choice for the colonial environment, and likely would have been the most economical choice as well. Samuel Purchase's 1622 list of the goods colonists should bring with them recommends one sword at a cost of 5 shillingsthe same price as the two iron skillets he recommended, half the price of one heavy wool suit and just under one-third the price of one "compleat, light" armour. By contrast, a musket was very expensive at 1£, 2s. It is significant that although Purchase reckoned that armour for half the men was sufficient, he expected each man to have a firearm and a sword.
Made In America?
Iron ore and wood for fuel were readily available in the Virginia Colony. The Virginia Company hoped colonists would exploit these resources, become more self-sufficient, and even export surplus iron, but the colonists tended to be more interested in finding precious metals6. The colonists eventually set up iron foundries, but, according to historian James Holland, America didn't produce steel in significant quantities until the end of the 18th century. Throughout the colonial period, he writes, "cutlers carried a full line of imported edgeware which they ground and serviced as part of their trade".
So, it is most likely that all the steel arms in the colony at the time of the muster were imported. This is reflected not only in the "BYOS" advice to prospective colonists, but also in the archaeological evidence, which includes items such as a rapier by Johannes Wundes of Solingen7. Virginia Colony attracted some Europeans, who might have brought with them arms and armour from their homelands, but Continental arms also seem to have been commonly available in Jacobean England and Scotland.
The Sword In Decline?
Early on in my research, and early in this article, I wondered if Thomas Flynt and his like-minded neighbors were unarmed once they had fired their slow-loading muskets at advancing enemies. I doubt it, but they apparently didn't rely on swords as secondary weapons. Samuel Purchase's advice notwithstanding, perhaps these men had abandoned their swords as they adapted to the colonial military context.
In addition to 15 swords, 18 firearms, four partizans, four coats of plates, and two corselets, a 1620 shipment to the colony contained almost 140 knives as well as axes and hatchets8. The muster contains no category for such common tools which could have served as secondary weapons. Flynt and other colonists might already have learned to value their multipurpose knives and hatchets over the comparatively cumbersome, single-purpose sword for daily carry and close-quarters fighting.
There is little question that the martial value of the infantry sword declined as firearm and bayonet technology advanced. George Nuemann notes that by the first half of the 18th century, the sword was one approved choice among several (including the hatchet, knife, and socket bayonet) as the colonial American soldier's secondary weapon. The process that valued those weapons more or less equally at first, but eventually crowned the bayonet, was underway at least by the late 17th century9. The Virginia Muster of 1624/25 suggests that this process may have begun within a few decades of the first colony's founding. So, although these early colonists often are stereotyped as dandies unprepared for the rigors and violence of frontier life, they may actually have been in the vangaurd of a military technological revolution.
About the Author
Sean Flynt is a writer and editor living in Birmingham, Alabama. He is interested in Western arms and armour of all periods, but especially those of 16th through 18th century Britain and Colonial North America.
1. Peterson 69
2. Peterson 322
3. Straube xii
4. Chartrand 24
5. Hume, Virginia Adventure 228-229
6. Holland 21-23
7. Peterson 7
8. Hatch 114-117
9. Chartrand 24
The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities
Briggs, Henry: A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affaires in Virginia
Chartrand, René: Colonial American Troops 1610-1774 (1), Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2002
Hatch, Charles E., Jr.: The First Seventeen Years: Virginia, 1607-1624, Williamsburg: Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebration Corp, 1957
Hecht, Irene W.D.: "The Virginia Muster of 1625/5 As a Source for Demographic Data", The William and Mary Quarterly vol. 3.30, number 1, (1973), William
and Mary College: 65-92
Holland, James A.:A History of Metals In Colonial America, University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1981
Hume, Ivor Noël: Martin's Hundred, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982
Hume, Ivor Noël: The Virginia Adventure, Roanoke to Jamestown: An Archaeological and Historical Odyssey, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994
Jester, Annie Lash: Adventures of Purse and Person: Virginia, 1607-1625, Order of First Families of Virginia, 1964
Kelso, William M., et al: Jamestown Rediscovery, The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities
McGurk, J.J.N.: "Life in the Elizabethan Army" British History Illustrated volume 2, number 6 (1976), Historical Times, Ltd. London: 16-25
Murphy, Cullen: "Jamestown Revisited" Preservation, volume 50, number 4 (1998), The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington, DC: 40-51
Neumann, George C.: Swords and Blades of the American Revolution, Harrisburg, Pa. The Stackpole Company, 1973
Peterson, Harold L.: Arms and Armor in Colonial America, 1526-1783, Mineola, NY. Dover Publications, Inc., 2000
Straube, Beverly A.: "Introduction to the Dover Edition" Arms and Armor in Colonial America, 1526-1783, Mineola, NY. Dover Publications, Inc., 2000: ix-xii
Tyler, L.G.: Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 1959
Virtual Jamestown: Virginia Muster of 1624/25
Special thanks to Beverly Straube of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project.