History is as much a story of things as it is a story of people. Long after a person is no more, the material possessions accumulated over a lifetime linger. Museum professionally typically deal in the detritus of lives long past. One man’s trash is another’s exhibit. And yet the further we recede from the present, the fewer and fewer things related to a particular individual survive.
Nevertheless, some objects have a strange afterlife, as the following will prove.
By some strange confluence of fate, the personal possessions of one man who served on board Constitution 186 years ago have found their way to the museum one by one.
The story begins with a powder horn. Acquired in 2003 the horn is etched with a scene of Constitution doing battle with a British ship, a gun named “Big Will”, and the name “J. Lord, Gunner.”
Gunner John Lord first joined the navy during the War of 1812. Warranted as a gunner in 1817, he served on board “Old Ironsides” during a long Mediterranean cruise between 1824 and 1828. Sometime during the cruise he contracted an illness, and he succumbed to it in 1829. He was only 40 years old.
For some years, the powder horn sat on display in the museum, an interesting historical curiosity and fine example of sailor-made art.
And then in 2006, a man in New Hampshire pulled an old-looking French English Dictionary out of his neighbor’s trash. On the fly leaf was written a name and “U.S Frigate Constitution/ August 27th 1825” and on the end “J. Lord U.S. Navy.” The man kindly donated the book.
The late J. Welles Henderson, a prolific collector of sailors’ stuff, purchased some of Lord’s possessions (perhaps as early as the 1950s), and when his own collection was auctioned in 2008 the museum acquired these items too. Two rare clothing bags, a shirt, a leather-bound chest, and a small wooden box inlaid with the name of Lord’s daughter Caroline all allow us to tell Lord’s story in depth.
All the collection now lacked was an image of the man himself. In the age before photography, portraiture for anyone not rich, famous, or both is extremely rare. Imagine our excitement and delight, then, when a small watercolor portrait was brought to our attention by a great friend of the museum. Labeled “J. Lord Gunner on the Constitution” in a period hand, we can finally put a face to a name. He wears an undress uniform of the 1820s, complete with cap. His pleasing countenance is just as we’d expect of man who seems to have made so many friends in his short life. To those friends and relations we owe the remarkable survival of so many of his things.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.