A year’s passed and I’ve finally finished researching and re-cataloguing the museum’s collection of maritime small arms and accessories. All up, I’ve looked at nearly fifty guns, swords, knives and pikes, as well as one walking-stick rumoured to house a sword. Sadly, it turned out to be a simple cane, and thus fell outside my brief.
I’m now entering my research results into “The Museum System,” the museum’s central database where information on an object’s provenance, condition, storage location and so on are collated. Once the data has received a stamp of approval from the curatorial team, it will be available to the public through our e-museum.
When I started out the project, a historian friend of mine (who clearly spends too much time shrouded in documents) joked that objects are boring and only significant for three reasons: 1. they’re rare 2. they’re typical, or 3. they belonged to someone important. He’s kind of right, but I’d argue that the way these three factors intersect makes objects interesting and insightful, and a valuable supplement to written material.
In my research I’ve tried to explore the stories behind the objects, and see how they might illustrate some important themes.
One major focus area of the museum is the strong maritime links between Australia and the United States, celebrated in the museum’s USA Gallery.
It’s easy to forget what cosmopolitan places the colonies were, especially in the heady years of the gold rushes. And as people traversed from place to place, they brought their sidearms with them for personal protection. The frontiers of our settlements were not so very different from the fabled ‘Wild West’ of the United States.
One pistol held by the collection—and yes, the story of its owner—brought home how close the Australian colonies and America were in the nineteenth century. It is a flintlock ‘coach’ pistol produced by J. Harding, a London manufacturer active between 1815 and 1840. For stylistic reasons I suspect this pistol was produced in the late 1830s. Harding manufactured similar pistols for use by Her Majesty’s Coach Service and three examples are held in the British Post Museum and Archive.
This particular pistol, however, was for civilian use, and is believed to have belonged to Francis Williams Deane, an American sailor who travelled between the gold-rushes in California and Victoria in the mid-nineteenth century. The museum holds a number of objects associated with Deane, including a daguerreotype portrait, and his naturalization, death and marriage certificates.
Deane was born around 1820 in Raynham, Massachusetts. After travelling to the Californian rushes in 1848, Deane came to Sydney as master of the Bark Milwood. The following year, Deane returned to America to join the ‘forty-niners’ on the Yuma diggings in Arizona.
Diggings in Arizona and California were reputed to be fairly safe places for new immigrants, but around the time Deane arrived, a number of arrivals from the south had been causing trouble. One local miner explained there was an influx “of the worst element in the world, chiefly from Sydney and other Pacific Ocean ports… this matter seriously changed and endangered current affairs in California.” In response to a string of thefts in 1851, locals in San Francisco rose up and formed the famous “Committee of Vigilance Committee,” several hundred strong. In a flurry of activity, the Vigilantes hung 4 Australians, and drove several dozen others from California.
Deane was not Australian, but, perhaps due to his earlier Antipodean sojourn, is rumoured to have fled town “a pier jump ahead” of the Vigilantes. He departed (permanently) for Victoria, and it is tempting to wonder whether he armed himself with this pistol for protection.
Deane was naturalised in 1854 in Williamstown, Victoria, a place known for its strong maritime community. On his naturalization certificate he was described as “a master mariner who arrived from the US on board the Mary & Ellen and who intends to purchase land and establish himself in the said colony.”
Deane married a local, but never abandoned his ‘Yankee’ ways. According to a district historian, “Captain Deane called his home Yosemite… it was his habit to ride round the streets of Williamstown on a small skewbald pony, complete with Mexican saddle and savagely rowelled spurs. A heaving line [lasso] was coiled on the pommel like a lariat, and jammed on the head of the pilot would be his shiny stovepipe hat.” Deane died in 1898.
Deane’s single-shot, muzzle loading coach pistol seems small and awkward in comparison to a second pistol associated with both Americans and the Victorian gold rushes. It is a Colt Second Model Dragoon Revolver, which fired six shots and was known for its large bore and great stopping power. Colt revolvers were popular amongst civilians and soldiers because of their unique (at the time) double-action firing mechanism. Previous mechanisms required the shooter to manually ‘cock’ the pistol before firing the trigger. The ‘double action’ cocked and fired the pistol simply by pulling the trigger, which significantly increased the gun’s rate of fire.
Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company was established in Hartford, Connecticut in 1847. It’s initial focus was on the production of revolvers for use in the Mexican-American War of 1846 – 1848, but it soon expanded its operations. Three models of the Colt revolver were manufactured, with the second model being made between 1850 and 1851. Approximately 2550 of these were produced, making them the least common of the three. This pistol’s serial number- 9253- indicates that it was manufactured in 1850.
According to its previous owners, the pistol was “found in pieces under the dirt floor of a shed in Ballarat.” There is a chance- admittedly a small one- that it was used in the miner’s uprising at the Eureka Stockade in 1854.
The uprising began in response to the high price of mining licenses and the uncertain returns of digging. Some miners equated the purchase of licences with taxation, and argued that gold diggers were being subjected to taxation without representation.
In October 1854 the murder of a Scottish miner by a local hotelkeeper led to increasing civil unrest, which culminated with the formation of the Ballarat Reform League in November. Among other things, the League demanded the removal of the licence system, and manhood suffrage. On the 3rd of December, after a tense stand-off, miners and government troops clashed at a hill occupied by the League. A subsequent commission determined that 22 miners were killed, and at least twelve more were wounded. Other accounts put the figure as high as 27.
Because of the Reform League’s demand for universal male suffrage, the uprising at Eureka has sometimes been described as the “birthplace of Australian democracy.” This Australian claim makes it is easy to forget what an international endeavour the uprising was. The thirteen miners were charged with treason in the uprising’s aftermath included Irishmen. Scots, an Italian, and a Jamaican. The first of the thirteen tried, John Joseph, was an African American who hade come from New York. As with the other twelve, Joseph was acquitted. His defence, however, held a unique racial element: the defence argued it was impossible for “a simple nigger” to oppose Her Majesty the Queen.
Joseph was not the only American involved. The prominent American businessman George Francis Train, who was based in Melbourne, had imported a consignment of Colt revolvers to the colony. They sold well, and when tensions arose in Ballarat, miners sent a request for Train to forward a further stock of Colts, on loan, to the diggings. Train refused to help, and, ever the entrepreneur, proceeded to lease six wagons to transport government troops and supplies to Ballarat.
Despite Train’s tardiness, a group of up to 200 American miners based in Ballarat organised themselves into the “Independent California Rangers Revolver Brigade.” Rafaello Carboni, an Italian who described events at the stockade, noted members of the Brigade were armed “with a Colt’s revolver of large size, and many had a Mexican knife at the hip.” The Brigade missed the skirmish, having left the stockade the previous evening in an attempt to intercept government reinforcements (incorrectly) rumoured to be en-route to Ballarat.