May/June 2015

Featured in this issue's "Treasures From the Past" is a rifle once owned by mountain man James P. Beckwourth who went west with William Ashley in 1824 and stayed in the Rocky Mountains trapping beaver during the heyday of the fur trade.

Jeff Hengesbaugh of Glorieta, New Mexico is the owner of the firearm and knows more about it than me, so I'll let Jeff share his journey about how he came into possession of the rifle and his conclusion that the rifle was once owned by a renowned character who emerged as an icon from the western fur trade era.
James Blake

The Beckwourth Rifle and a Search for an Early Hawken by Jeff Hengesbaugh

There was no Jim Beckwourth connection when I purchased the Plains rifle at the Tulsa gun show. I was initially attracted to the firearm's perfect Hawkens profile.

Close-up, despite my 'gut' reaction, there was no 'famed' scroll trigger guard, improved breech or a barrel stamp in the Hawken tradition.

It was however, a classic Plains rifle in every sense of the term. Massive in size, full stocked, large caliber and steel mounted. A long tang disappeared under a stout leather repair on the wrist. The firearm was worn and mellow with age. "Any history," I asked smiling. The dealer looked up, bothered by being bothered. "It's been in the family, we live in Missouri," then silence. I paid the price without bartering.

Firearms experts and Hawken collectors have consigned the entire first generation of flintlock Hawken Plains rifles to historical oblivion. None, according to their knowledge have ever been found.

My training was in science, not firearms. Science or common sense does not support the 'all or nothing' theory, yet the mystery of these lost rifles remains.

Using the 'scientific method', credited to the philosopher Descartes in the 17th century, I created a simple hypothesis and tested it by provable observation and deductive reasoning that the purchased rifle could be a foundation flintlock possibly made by J. Hawken & partner J. Lakenen in the early 1820's. The Beckwourth signature was discovered during this six-year process.

I should have the story and evidence completed in August and a small publication entitled, "The Beckwourth Rifle and a Search for an Early Hawken", will become available.

Photos Credits: Ron Paxton
Illustrations: Whitney Martin

Contact for Beckwourth Book: Jeff Hengesbaugh, or P.O. Box 268, Glorieta, NM 87535

Thanks to MUZZLELOADER Magazine & David Wright, who made the initial contact.

Click the thumbnails below to see larger images.

The Signature

Jim Beckwourth spent a few years in school in St. Louis and wrote in a legible hand. But was it possible to compare a young man's name engraved on the bottom of a gun barrel to much later in life when he signed a last will and testament on paper as an old man? Wendy Carlson, expert hand writing analyst provided the answer.

It is interesting to consider the plus and minus imprints stamped or cut into the barrel. The minus was carefully stamped in the middle of the J.P. letting. Beckwourth may have used it as a seal on his signature as well as a second form of identification should his rifle been lost and needed proof of owner ship.
Jeff Hengesbaugh

Click the thumbnails below to see larger images.

The 'Rabbet'
by Jeff Hengesbaugh

For Beckwourth to take this 'Plains' rifle West in the early 1820's, it needed to be a flintlock. The image shows two rifles. The one on top is Beckwourths, the bottom rifle is also a converted flintlock used for comparison. Both rifles clearly show the 'rabbet' or groove carved in the wood above the lock mortise to accommodate the inside shoulder of the 'flintcock' (see illustration) and a forward 'notch' or damage caused by the percussion hammer (see illustration) not initially designed for either rifle.

Click the thumbnails below to see larger images.

About the Author: James Blake has devoted years of study to America's past, people, places, and material culture. His search for knowledge began at a young age and continues to his adult life. James has had the opportunity to work with experts, collectors, museums, and organizations on a variety of history based projects. James' column "Treasures from the Past" will present a comprehensive study of 18th and 19th century material culture and ethnography. We hope that you will enjoy this column as much as we do! To find out more about James and his art, visit James' website:

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