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This blog follows the reconstruction of the Revolutionary War Public Armoury on the James Anderson site

Reconstruction of the Blacksmith's & Public Armoury

March 2, 2012

Workmen in the Armoury

As we begin to set up the Armoury for operation, it is interesting to draw from the existing record a picture of the workmen in the shop between 1778 and 1780.  The makeup of the workforce is rather intriguing.

As you might expect in a large shop, there are journeymen, sometimes called “jobbing smiths”- skilled workmen who do not own shops themselves, but work for wages.  Several are familiar Williamsburg names that show up in other parts of the city and in other documents. There are apprentices, although during the war the apprenticeship system seems to have fallen apart, and young people are employed in the Armoury to do specific work.  James Anderson advertised for “…eight or ten healthy boys as apprentices…” and occasionally refers in the documents to “..apprentices in the shop…”.  Traditionally an apprentice was bound by indenture, but no records of those indentures survive for Armoury apprentices.  Perhaps during the war, indentures were not always formalized. 

Three advertisements placed by Anderson in the Virginia Gazette.

One entry in the Armoury daybook reads:

 Delivered Mr Nuthall, Mr Hubberd, Mr Brooks,
Claiborn Evens, Dick, Peter, Frank Ferguson, Joseph Moody,
Wm Lenox, aprons

While this puts names to the workmen, I believe that you can also infer some personal status in the listing.  Three of the workmen are identified as “Mr.” probably meaning that they were adult journeymen (over 21 years of age) .  Four of the workmen are identified by first and last name, probably indicating that they were minors and likely, apprentices, and two workmen are identified only by a first name, probably indicating that they are skilled slaves.

It is important to note that among the ranks of enslaved workmen, there are individuals who are quite accomplished tradesmen and not simply laborers.  One account entry in particular highlights the value of these skilled slaves to the Armoury:

 John Brooks a Soldier Came to work
August 20th 1779 @12/ pr Day

 Dick, a Negro Blacksmith Came
To Work August 20th @ 20/ pr Day

What this says is that on August 20, 1779, two workmen were added to the shop- one a soldier, and the other a slave.  Comparing the pay rates for the two men, it is noteworthy that the slave’s labor commands a significantly higher rate (20 shillings per day) than his soldier counterpart (12 shillings per day).  My suspicion is that John Brooks is hired to clean guns- a task that should be familiar to every soldier, whereas Dick is a skilled blacksmith.  While Dick, as a skilled smith, may have received benefits that common laboring slaves would not, the cash wages that he earned went to his owner, noted elsewhere in the accounts as Harrison Randolph.  Payment to the owner for the work of a slave is illustrated in a different entry for Natt, another skilled blacksmith:

 To Cash paid Mr Thos Pate for hire of Natt 40/ /

Some of the workmen were specialists hired for particular work.  Among those specialists:

 John Gregory Came to work
Octr 28th 1778 @ 12/ pr Day

While not much is known about John Gregory, an entry in the Williamsburg Public Store accounts reveals his specialty:

 To Sund(ry)s Del(ivered)d John Gregory a File Smith
at work in Mr Anderson’s Shop

John Gregory was a “filesmith”- he manufactured or recut files for use in the Armoury.  Files are an essential finishing tool that, prior to the war, had largely been imported.  With diminished trade during the war limiting availability of files, Anderson hired a workman to supply that essential tool to the shop.

 Also we have this entry, relevant to our upcoming construction at the Armoury site:

 Mr Nathaniel Nuthall Came to work
June 25th 1779 as Tin Man

There may be an additional interesting story about our tinsmith as research continues.  A Nathaniel Nuthall serving in North Carolina was court martialed for some sort of ill behavior in early 1779, a few months before this Nathaniel Nuthall began work at the Armoury.  Is it the same man?  While we are not certain at this point, we don’t see the name Nathaniel Nuthall in the records very often.  We will share more about him should the story get interesting.

We can also identify workmen who show up at the Armoury in groups, and they add an interesting element to our story here.  The accounts reveal that on

 Septr 22 1778
Ten French Men Came to work

Later pay entries refer to the men as “French Gunsmiths”.  Initially I thought that they were armourers from French regiments stationed nearby, but curator Erik Goldstein reminded me that there were not any French regiments in Williamsburg at that particular time.  There is a very fascinating story that is still being pieced together regarding these French men.  More on that later.

And the last group:

 March 15
To 7 Gallons Rum @ 45/ 15.15..0
Issued to the highland Prisoners & others employed in cleaning Arms
From the 22nd Feb to this date pr the Govrs order

The Governor ordered that Highland Prisoners of War were to receive 7 gallons of rum as a soldier’s ration while they were cleaning arms.  I won’t at this time question the wisdom of placing enemy prisoners of war in a room full of guns with 7 gallons of rum at their disposal, but this does raise some interesting questions.  How does a Scottish Highlander come to America to fight for the British, and end up in an American Armoury, drinking rum and cleaning guns that will be used to defeat the British?  You will have to wait to hear the whole story.

So, standing outside of the Williamsburg Public Armoury in 1779 and listening through the window, you might hear a conversation in Gaelic, French, an African dialect, perhaps a New England accent, and a southern drawl.  You could hear the conversation of young boys, of old men, skilled workman, educated and illiterate workmen, passionate supporter of the cause, drafted soldier, or forced laborer.  In short, this armoury had a lot in common with a twenty-first century workplace- diverse people, with differing skills and interests, varying backgrounds and ambitions, coming together to accomplish their days work.  And important work it was!

-Contributed by Kenneth Schwarz, Master Blacksmith.

Funded by a generous gift from Forrest E. Mars Jr., of Big Horn, Wyoming.

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  1. Very interesting I look forward to the back stories you have alluded to during your research. Thanks!!

  2. Ken,

    Very interesting. Since I am Scotch/Irish I am curious as to how the Highlanders got there and why they were “trusted” with the guns and rum. I have my own ideas about it, but will hold off until as Paul Harvey used to say for “the rest of the story.”

    • Jim – We know a little about the Highlanders at the Armoury. In 1776 the Royal Highlanders (42nd Regiment of Foot) and Fraser’s Highlanders (71st Regiment of Foot) sailed to join General Howe’s forces in America. Two troop transports were taken by American privateers, and all placed aboard the transport “Oxford”. The Highlanders later overwhelmed their American captors, and sailed for Virginia to join Lord Dunmore’s forces. Virginia Navy Captain James Barron climbed aboard the Oxford claiming to be a pilot, pulled his pistols out and recaptured the ship without a shot fired. He sailed the Oxford to Jamestown, and marched the 220 Highland prisoners to Williamsburg.
      Edmund Randolph described them to Thomas Jefferson:
      “Among them, we are told, are many valuable Artificers. Measures are in Agitation to reconcile them to prosecute their different Occupations in this Country. Some of them are violent vs. America, others tolerably moderate, and many from contending Passions curse the Parliament and Congress in the same Breath.”
      The fierce reputation of Highland soldiers no doubt intimidated the small population of Williamsburg, and it was quickly decided to separate the Highlanders into smaller groups and march them into the back country to be held as prisoners of war. Apparently some of them, perhaps the “valuable Artificers” were kept behind in Williamsburg, and used to clean weapons for the Armoury, as in this February 1779 record from the Williamsburg Public Store:
      “To ½ Gal Rum for the Highland Prisoners employed in cleaning Arms 1..2..6.” Most of the Highland prisoners in Virginia were exchanged back into British hands in 1778, but the Highlanders in Williamsburg stayed behind, for reasons unknown.

  3. This was a most interesting article. I am anxious to read more on this subject.
    Can’t wait to visit in July to see all the progress. I am so greatful for this website since I live 500 miles away and only get to Williamsburg twice a year, this helps me stay connected. Thank you again

    • Marie~
      We have been so excited to find a wider (and very engaged) audience for all that we have learned about the Armoury and its operation. During the winter months when visitation is down, it is especially encouraging to be able to have lively discussions with web visitors. This website benefits us all!

  4. It is fascinating, the amount of information you are able to find from a period so long ago. Are the original records your are searching all in hard copy, or are you also able to access computerized data. Especially, how did you make the connection between the names NUTHALL in North Carolina and Williamsbug?

    • Albin- Most of the records used to learn about the workmen come from a surviving daybook from the Armoury. The daybook records chronological transactions in the shop from 1778-1780, including payments to the workmen. Within those accounts, I can identify about 60 workmen who were paid at various times. the maximum number of workmen in the shop at any given moment seems to be around 40. There was a significant amount of transient labor through the shop during this time.

      As for the Nuthall connection to North Carolina- that was turned up by one of our colleagues at Colonial Williamsburg’s Rockefeller Library. As I have said before, the strength of this project is the coordinated efforts of all of the talented staff here. Few institutions have the depth and range of skills assembled here at Colonial Williamsburg.

      Also, the internet has made primary sources available in ways that researchers twenty years ago couldn’t imagine. One of the most important documents to the appearance of the Armoury- a proposal for rebuilding armoury facitilies at Point of Fork in 1783- I found in the Virginia State Library with an internet search. It has been a great tool for discovery!

      I am guessing by your name that we are old friends and colleagues- I only know one Albin D-ski. Good to know that you are keeping an eye on us!

  5. Ken, Yes, your right, its me. This entire project has been fascinating. In case you all have not already thought of it, this project would make a great book. Especially, the decision process behind taking the archeological and historical evidence and then turning that into new structures. An interesting tangent to that is the difficulties (and I am sure there must have been many) of balancing modern building codes for a public facility with historical accuracy. Not to mention keeping a project of this scope within budget. Kudos to you and your associates for pulling it off.

  6. I agree on the Book Idea (never have enough books on history esp. Blacksmithing). I haven’t heard her mentioned lately but what is Eleanor’s living arrangements now that the Tin Shop is losing it’s shape?

    Can’t wait to see the Blacksmith Shop up close. We should be in Williamsburg April 13-14th if the trip goes as planned.

    • Albin and Dale- This project has produced enough research for several books on various subjects. I do intend to pursue publication once the shop is open for business. At the moment my attention is necessarily focused on construction and operation. I plan to use our research as the basis for publication in the next phase of my career.

      Currently, Eleanor has comfortable accomodations in the kitchen with access to food and water. She ahs many folks here watching out for her. If only I were so lucky… With spring weather approaching, and our imminent move to the Armoury, her ultimate quarters will be determined soon.

  7. Garland,

    Thanks for the information. I wonder if the reason some stayed was that they felt they had something in common with the American Colonies fight for independence since the Scots had been fighting for and to protect their independance since 1296. Is there any record of these Highlanders staying permanently?

    • Jim – we are going to have to dig a lot deeper to find out if any of the Highlanders stayed. The Virginia Committee of Safety records list the names of all of the Highlanders and which county they were to be marched off to, but there is no official record of any Highlanders staying in Williamsburg, although we know they were here. Likewise, the men of the 42 and 71st regiments were exchanged back to the British forces in 1778…but the Armoury Highlanders were still at the Armoury cleaning guns in 1779. They don’t seem to show up in Richmond in 1780 when the Armoury was moved there.I suspect there is more to the story.

  8. Garland,

    Thanks for the additional information!! I hope that at some point you can learn what happened to the Highlanders that were still working in the armoury in 1779. It would be very interesting (for me) to be able to have an interpreter playing the part of a Highlander, along with others in the armoury, once a full tour can be offered when the project is completed.

    Just like many of the other exhibits that talk about specific individuals, by putting a face on the site it makes it more a personal experiance for the all of us who visit and love CW.

    Thanks again!!

  9. Interesting different angle on the armoury. Researching the “who” now makes it a little more personal. This leads to so many questions about the men working there. Where would all of these workmen have boarded (especially during peak production)? Where there rooms to let in Williamsburg so they could be nearby? How did they spend their wages? I have others, but there is only so much space! This is kinda like doing a genealogical study-only on a building. There are so many avenues that open up to you as you uncover each new artifact, written or physical.

    • Mimi – When James Anderson formally agreed to take on the responsibility of the Public Armoury, his contract said that he was to be compensated for the expense of lodging his workmen. The house we now call the Anderson house was his rental property, formerly used as a tavern. Our best guess is that he housed his workmen in the old tavern and thus it continued to generate a revenue for him. Ken found an account that mentioned Anderson renting a room to William Finnie, Deputy Quartermaster General, and as Finnie already had a beautiful house in Williamsburg, we assume this room was used as an office and was probably on the first floor of the old tavern as well.
      Hopefully down the road we will be able to re-work the Anderson house to show the barracks, mess hall and other spaces we think were inside. Just an idea at this time…


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