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Isaiah Lukens (long)

July 12 2012 at 7:23 AM
DT Fletcher  (Login DTFletcher)
Group #188948

Been jamming with Isaiah Lukens.

Isaiah Lukens pic.jpg

One of the first breaks we ever got in the search for the Meriwether Lewis air gun was when, in 1977, Henry M. Stewart, Jr., discovered at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia an auction catalog for the estate of Isaiah Lukens, a Philadelphia clock maker who died in 1846. It included several air guns, one of which, listed as item 95, was a large gun made for, and used by Messrs Lewis & Clark in their exploring expeditions. It was "A great curiosity." The maker was not named. With this, much attention was given to some air guns with the Lukens mark on the receiver.

However, Michael Carrick, through research at the Library Company of Philadelphia, found that Lukens is not known to have been in business in Philadelphia before 1814. Further, in 1803, at 23 years of age, he was still an apprentice to his father, a horologist (clock-maker), in Horsham Township, fifteen miles north of Philadelphia.

The final blow to the idea of Meriwether Lewis carrying a Lunkens air gun came when, in the journals of Thomas Rodney, Lewis's air gun was described in enough detail to determine that it was a Girandoni-style air gun. ( I'm pretty sure that this was also first brought to light to the air gun community by Mr. Carrick.) Although there have been some holdouts, its pretty much agreed by all that Isaiah Lukens did not make Meriwether Lewis's air gun. Since then, Isaiah has received scant attention. However, none of this means that the Isaiah Lukens estate accounting was wrong. After all, there is no mention of the maker. Lets read it again, item 95, a large air gun "made for, and used by Messrs Lewis & Clark in their exploring expeditions." The key words here are "made for." If Lukens didnt make Meriwether's air gun then who did and how would have Meriwether come to know that such a thing existed?

For a couple of years, prior to his explorations, Meriwether Lewis was a personal secretary to the President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. His functions included advising the President on military matters, so, there every reason to believe that Meriwether would have been a avid consumer of books on military matters. Especially any recent conflicts involving England would be a prime subject for study. So, its a pretty good assumption that Meriwether would have read any book that covered the 1792-1795 British expedition to the Low Countries fighting the French Revolutionary Army (Napoleon is not yet on the scene.) One well-known book on this campaign was written anonymously. Here's the title page.

austrians with air guns title page.jpg

In the portion describing the 1793 campaign, there is this:
austrians with air guns.jpg

So, by 1793, the English Army, under the Duke of York, was aware of the fact that the Austrians were using a new secret air gun. There is every reason to believe that Meriwether Lewis, in the normal course of his work for the President of the United States, would have also been aware of this same information from this book.

The next step then would have been Meriwether Lewis making an inquiry about obtaining one of these modern, secret air guns for himself. To make this happen, he most likely would have contacted one of his friends in Philadelphia, then the main port for imported goods (mostly from England) into the United States, to see if such an item could be obtained. Its entirely possible that Meriwether would have contacted Isaiah Lukens or his father (being a watch maker in circa 1800 Philadelphia almost certainly would have required contacts in London for watch-making tools, supplies, etc)

Was a Girandoni-style air gun being produced in London by 1800/1801? The knowledge of the Girandoni-style air gun spread quickly after Girandoni's death in 1799. Thomas Bate produced Girandoni-style air guns are usually dated as prior to 1800. Staudenmayer had his own shop up and going by late 1799. So, it appears to be, yes, a Girandoni-style air gun could be acquired in London by no later than 1800.

Could Meriwether Lewis afford such an expensive purchase? Besides being the private secretary to the President, (from the Oregon History Projec

"Meriwether Lewis was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, on August 18, 1774, the son of wealthy plantation owners William and Lucy Lewis. Meriwether never got to know his father, who died while in the service of the Revolutionary Army... As the oldest son, Lewis inherited the family plantation, almost 2,000 acres of land worked by two dozen slaves. Historian Stephen Ambrose writes that although the youthful Lewis was good at running the family plantation, what he really wanted to do was "roam and explore.""

So, even though one writer has speculated "Captain Lewis and, in any case, as a new airgun from such a distinguished maker, it would have been far above the affordability of an army captain" the true answer seems to be, yes, the independently wealthy Captain Lewis could easily afford to special order an air gun from London.

On page 26 of Contributions of Philadelphia to Lewis and Clark History by Paul Russell Cutright, Isaiah Lukens is listed as one of Meriwether Lewis' friends with whom he visited in 1807. However, the only evidence presented for this is the previously mentioned estate auction listing. But, even if Lukens was not personally presented with the air gun by Lewis himself, Lukens was in the right place at the right time to have acquired it.

Is it possible that the air gun listed in the Lukens estate auction actually could have been "made for" Captain Lewis? I think the answer has to be yes.

This message has been edited by DTFletcher on Jul 12, 2012 7:52 AM

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