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.
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:
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.