Rock Island Auction Company

Lot 3290: Silver Mounted Jacob & Samuel Hawken Percussion Half-Stock Rifle

Auction Date: December 6, 2020

Incredibly Historic, Iconic, and Documented Silver Mounted Jacob & Samuel Hawken Percussion Half-Stock Rifle Inscribed for George W. Atchison in 1836

Price Realized:
Estimated Price: $85,000 - $130,000

Incredibly Historic, Iconic, and Documented Silver Mounted Jacob & Samuel Hawken Percussion Half-Stock Rifle Inscribed for George W. Atchison in 1836

Manufacturer: Hawken
Model: Percussion
Type: Rifle
Gauge: 54
Barrel: 36 1/4 inch octagon
Finish: gold inlaid/brown/casehardened/coin silver
Stock: walnut
Item Views: 4168
Item Interest: Very Active
Serial Number:
Catalog Page: 171
Class: Antique

This incredible rifle is easily among the finest Hawken rifles in existence and is arguably the finest. It is coin silver mounted with "Kentucky rifle" style furniture unlike the more common later Hawken rifles and has been identified as inscribed for riverboat captain and owner George W. Atchison in St. Louis in 1836. The rifle is covered in the April 1981 issue of "Muzzle Blasts" and also featured in "America: the Men and Their Guns that Made Her Great." As laid out in the included documentation, the rifle was later owned by E.R. Butterworth beginning in 1870s and remained in the Butterworth family until 2017. The family loaned it to the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. The museum display board headlined "THE FINEST HAWKEN RIFLE" is included. The rifle has seven groove rifling, a gold band at the muzzle, a dovetailed blade front sight, dovetailed buckhorn rear sight, "J. & S. Hawken" signed in a silver panel on top of the barrel between the rear sight and breech, light floral engraving at the breech, additional gold bands on the breech plug, a long upper tang that reaches back almost to the comb and has floral engraving, a scroll and bird engraved lock signed "JAS GOLCHER/WARRANTED" (a rather unusual "shotgun" style of lock uncommon but not unknown on Hawken rifles) secured by a screw into the breech plate rather than cross screws entering from the left flat, an adjustable single set trigger (again uncommon), a half-length stock with checkered wrist, fairly low and long cheekpiece, engraved silver furniture and inlays, a horn inlay around one of the silver accents, and six pearl inlays on the left side. The engraved and pierced four-piece patch box is the well-known "National Road" pattern, and includes an important detail relevant for Captain Atchison: an anchor on the finial. The designs on the left stock flat include an arrow piercing two hearts and a six-pointed star. The comb plate also has a heart shaped piercing among the designs, and the toe plate has two additional heart shaped piercings suggesting romance may have been related to the presentation or purchase of this rifle. The most important piece of silver is of course the cheekpiece inlay which is inscribed "G. W. Atchison/St Louis/1836." The rifle is pictured and discussed on pages 30-31 of "America: The Men and Their Guns that Made Her Great" edited by Boddington in "The Hawken Saga" chapter by Ressell. The text reads: "Captain George W. Atchison was one of the pioneer boatmen of the upper Mississippi river. His name is listed in the St. Louis directories from the 1830's through the 1850s'. As was the common practice in the riverboat business, the captain of a boat was often her designer and builder, so we find many prosperous and influential men in the position of riverboat captains in the early years of the most essential business of water commerce. . .Atchison's rifle was a magnificent silver-mounted half-stock J. & S. Hawken rifle bearing a cheekpiece inlay engraved 'G. W. Atchison St. Louis 1836.' This remnant of the middle fur trade era attests to the fact that either the 'Hawken's' reputation made it a worthwhile item to give as a gift or that the owner thought enough of its reputation to outfit himself with the very best. This fancy piece probably never saw more exciting adventure than sporting use up and down the riverbanks of the mighty Mississippi." Note: the book has the photo of this rifle and the Moses White Hawken accidentally switched at the top of the pages. "Genesis of Steam Navigation on Western Rivers" by George Byron Merrick and William R. Tibbals notes: "The Atchison brothers, George W., Joseph, and Pierce, were also prominent in steamboat circles during the forties and fifties. They were Kentuckians, coming to the upper river from the Ohio. Joseph died in 1850 of cholera, on board his boat, the ‘Highland Mary,’ This disease raged that season the length of the river, claiming hundreds of victims, principally among the deck passengers. The dead were taken ashore and buried in shallow graves on the islands, from which they were torn at the first "rise" of the river and seen no more. The remaining Atchison brothers transferred their business to the Missouri soon after this calamity, taking the ‘Highland Mary’ with them.” The authors also list: “Atchison, George W. 1836 capt.’Dubuque,’ at Dubuque; 1839 capt. ‘Glaucus;’ 1842 capt. ‘Amaranth.’ During his river service he built and owned, wholly or in part, ‘Irene,’ ‘Ione,’ ‘Glaucus,’ ‘Governor Dodge,’ ‘Amaranth,’ and ‘Missouri Belle.’ Atchison, Joseph. 1845-47 capt. and owner ‘Lynx;’ 1848-50 capt. and owner ‘Highland Mary;’ died 1850 of cholera, on board his boat. Atchison, Mark. 1842 capt. ‘Ohio,’ at Galena. Atchison, Pierce. 1845 capt. ‘Fortune;’ 1855 capt. ‘Golden Era;’ died at St. Louis, 1855 or 1856. Atchison, W. H. 1847 capt. ‘Kentucky,’ at Dubuque.” "Notes on G.W. Atchison, steamboat captain" from N.D. Rossbacher are included with the rifle and contain printed "clippings" of various newspaper articles and other sources referencing Captain Atchison. The details of the life of Captain George W. Atchison vary depending on the source examined in part due to confusion due to what appears to have been at least two or three men by that name active in the region in the 1830s-1850s as well as some variations in the spelling of the surname such as “Atcherson.” Regardless of his specific life details, Captain George W. Atchison was a pioneering figure in river traffic on the Mississippi and Missouri. He was the captain and owner of multiple steamboats in the 1830s-1850s, many of which sunk or were destroyed. His steamer Aramanth appears to have been the inspiration for an unlucky steamboat by the same name in Mark Twain's famous book "The Gilded Age." Some sources indicate he was already the partial owner of the steamboat Winnebago in 1830 alongside Joseph Throckmorton while others indicate he came to Fort Armstrong on Rock Island the following year as a soldier from the East and then participated in the Black Hawk War and joined the. In that war, Captain Joseph Throckmorton's other new steamer Warrior was pressed into service by the military and used to decimate the Sauk and Mesquakie at the Battle of Bad Axe as they attempted to flee across the river back into Iowa. The included pages from “Gould’s History of River Navigation” from 1889 lists “Captain George W. Atcherson” as “one of the pioneer boatmen on the Upper Mississippi. While not the first, he was early engaged in the navigation of steamboats. The Winnebago came out in 1830, in which he was interested with Captain Throckmorton, and continued to run her on the Upper Mississippi for several years. He had three brothers, John, Mark and Samuel, all of whom were engaged on the river at later periods and under his influence and assistance. His only child, George N., also followed the river as the only profession he ever engaged in, but died before his ability as a boatman was developed. The father was not a fast practical boatman, although an excellent builder and built several of the best boats then afloat. In fact, the Irene, the Ione, the Glaucus, the Governor Dodge, the Amaranthe and before these, the Missouri Belle, are all names that will revive pleasant recollections in the minds of many travelers on Western waters in the earlier years of steam navigation. Captain Atcherson often commanded his own boats and was one of the most genial and attentive masters to his passengers that was then on the river and even up to the present day but few boats are more popular than were Captain G. W. Atcherson’s.” The Davenport Democrat Gazette on March 30 (copy included) and the Rock Island Argus on March 31, 1888, in articles titled “Entered Port Eternal” provide similar details of his life but also contradict one another in terms of when and where he died. The Gazette indicates he died on his farm in Missouri “a few years ago” indicating his death was prior to 1888 while the Argus states both that he “died at New Orleans the first of the week” and says he died on his farm in Missouri later in the article. Further confusing matters, the Newton Daily Republican in an included article from April 6, 1888, indicates he had died around that time. The more detailed Gazette article indicates he was from Vermont, enlisted in the Army in 1830 and was stationed at Fort Armstrong in 1831, was discharged due to disability following the Black Hawk War and immediately entered the river trade. The Argus indicates he entered the trade “when he came from St. Louis as clerk on the steamer Winnebago, which arrived at Fort Armstrong with supplies in the fall of 1832.” The articles then detail the loss of several of his steamboats in various accidents in the 1830s-1850s. In the winter of 1834-1835, he is listed as having built the Belle of Missouri which sank on its first voyage south after a collision with another steamboat. The George Collier, built in 1835 could not pass through the locks at Louisville, Kentucky. In 1838, his steamer Governor Dodge sank at island 21 in its first year. The Corsican sunk near Baton Rouge. He sold the Glaucus and Ione, which were built for the upper river trade, to Captain Spencer Field. Atchison ran two steamers named Amaranth in the Missouri and New Orleans trade. The first was launched in 1841 and sunk in 1842. His steamer Missouri burn up at St. Louis in 1851. In 1853, he built the Belfast which he sold to Captain James Goslee and the boat later sunk at Tompkin's Bend. He also owned 20 lots from the original survey of Davenport, Iowa, which he sold to local fur traders and land speculators Antoine Le Claire and George Davenport. Despite the articles reporting he retired to a farm in Missouri in 1853, he appears to have remained active for at least a few more years based on an included advertisement listing him as the master of the Belfast running from New Orleans to St. Louis and Cairo in 1856. While the loss of so many vessels may seem surprising, the rivers and steamboats were dangerous. Accidents, many deadly, were very common on the Mississippi in the 19th century. The river was shallower and less predictable in many stretches than it is today and mechanical issues also led to steamboats going up in flames or even exploding. The high profits, even with the risk of losing steamboats, crew members, and passengers, kept men like Atchison active. St. Louis was the main entrepot of the river trade along both the upper Mississippi and the Missouri River. The traffic on the upper Mississippi brought finished goods from St. Louis upriver through the Rock Island Rapids near our facility to Galena and returned downriver with primarily "raw" goods, including lead, furs, crops, and livestock. There was also traffic on the lower river between St. Louis and New Orleans. Steamboat captains were important local figures and held a lot of sway within local commerce. Their steamboats considerably improved river traffic, especially going upstream, compared to earlier wind and man powered vessels, but as Atchison's life demonstrates, it was not without its dangers. The heart elements on the rifle suggested a romantic connection and some digging through Atchison family genealogy resources does identify a George Washington Atchison of Jefferson County, Illinois, southeast of St. Louis (b. in Georgia c. 1808 - d. December 14, 1888) as marrying his first wife, Mary Stanley, in or around 1836, but these details do not appear to align with the period newspaper articles which suggested he died in March of 1888 or prior. This fantastic rifle would have certainly been an excellent gift for the groom. The same man appears in records as volunteering for military service in Jefferson County, Illinois, during the Black Hawk War in 1832. Another "G.W. Atchison" is buried in St. Louis and listed as living 1817-1851 further confusing matters. Regardless of the specifics of Captain G.W. Atchison's personal life, he clearly led an eventful life as a riverboat captain operating multiple steamboats up and down the Mississippi River as well as the Missouri River, and all of the sources agree upon that. Even without any connection to this interesting historical figure, this rifle is easily one of the most valuable Hawken rifles extant. Its extensive embellishment alone would make it one of the most ornate rifles to ever come out of the Hawken brothers' shop in St. Louis, if not the most ornate, making it one of the most desirable Hawken rifles in existence alongside those of famous western figures like Kit Carson and Jim Bridger. Add to that the inscription and the fact that this rifle is one of the earliest dated Hawken rifles, and you have an incredibly scarce and desirable historical artifact.

Rating Definition:

Fine. The silver furniture, inscription panel, and inlays/plates display very attractive aged patina throughout with some areas turned a dark blue. The gold bands remain bright with some slight loss on the lower flats at the muzzle. The barrel displays a plum brown patina overall and has some vice/tool marks and mild overall wear. The blued rear sight has one of the "buckhorns" partially broken off. The upper tang has traces of an old blued finish and distinct engraving. The lock has dark patina, crisp engraving and markings, and traces of original case colors. The lead pearl inlay on the cheekpiece and the horn inlay on the bottom of the butt have minor cracks but the inlays remain complete. There is an old repaired chip at the front of the lock backed with cloth and a crack across the front of left flat, but the stock is otherwise fine and has some subtle figure mainly in the forend, areas of dark varnish, a small chip at the heel on the right, slight slivers absent at some edges, partially hand-worn checkering, and general mild wear. The lock and set trigger remain mechanically fine. This is arguably the finest Hawken rifle ever known and is also one of the earliest dated examples making it especially desirable. The fact that it is tied to an interesting riverboat captain in the early days of steam navigation on the country's biggest river, and you have an irreplaceable historic firearm worthy of the most advanced museum or elite private collection. This is sure to be a rifle treasured for many years to come.

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