The discovery of William Black

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, July/August 2012 |

When the late southern decorative arts expert and author John Bivins Jr. published his 1968 book on early North Carolina firearms, he noted that, “among surviving implements…of early America and the South, few art forms have stirred the imagination more than the American longrifle.”1 Created by craftsmen working in rural communities, long rifles could be objects of both beauty and utility on the early American frontier. Expert gunsmiths combined the skills of the blacksmith, brazier, silversmith, and wood carver to create this singular art form.

Figs. 1-1c. Long rifle by William Black (1785-1827), Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, 1813. Initialed “W. B.” on the patch-box plate (1b) and dated “1813” on the lock-bolt side plate (1c). Maple, iron, brass, and silver; overall length 61 ⅜ inches. Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts at Old Salem, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; photographs by Kenneth Orr.

Bivins illustrated twenty-five artistically significant North Carolina rifles attributed to sixteen gunsmiths working across the state. However, one particularly magnificent rifle, which he selected as the cover illustration for the book, puzzled and bedeviled him. Because the maker was unidentified, the rifle has been known only by the engraved initials on its patch box, “W.B.” Bivins opined “without reservation” that the maker “was one of the most significant gunsmiths in piedmont North Carolina.”2

Fig. 2. Detail of a long rifle signed by “SMB,” Mecklenburg County, 1810-1820. Initialed “SMB” on the patch-box plate. Maple, iron, brass, and silver; overall length 61 ¼ inches. While the identity of SMB is currently unknown, he may be a member of William Black’s family. Private collection.

After forty-four years, new research has identified “W.B.” as William Black, a master gunsmith who lived and worked on McAlpine Creek in Mecklenburg County, near present-day Charlotte. Born into a Scots-Irish family that migrated from Pennsylvania to Carolina in the mid-eighteenth century, Black was part of an extended clan that included gunsmiths John Black (1763-after 1838) and Samuel Black (d. 1831). The Blacks were prolific and often reused the same names-John, Samuel, and William, in particular-which complicated the identification of the rifle maker, a problem compounded by his marriage on January 26, 1807, to a cousin, Amelia Black (d. 1837), who was the daughter of yet another William Black (1764-1826).3 Definitive proof of the identity of “W.B.” is contained, however, in a deed documenting William C. Query’s sale of eighty-seven acres on McAlpine Creek to “William Black, gunsmith” in 1821.4

Mecklenburg County fostered one of the most sig¬nificant schools of early North Carolina rifle making. During the American Revolution the area was a hotbed of pro-independence activity, and William Black’s fellow Scots-Irishman Isaac Price (1747-1811) established one of the first official armories for American forces. In the 1770s Price began taking apprentices, including, in 1778, the previously mentioned John Black “an orphan…aged fourteen years and three months to learn the Gunsmith’s Trade.”5 Perhaps Price’s most important apprentice was another orphan, Zenos Alexander (1771-1826), whom he took on in 1787 to train in both gunsmithing and goldsmithing, an agreement that documents Mecklenburg County’s earliest silversmiths.6 Whether Price trained Wil¬liam Black is unknown, but it is clear that he established a regional school of rifle makers that grew to include such expert craftsmen as Christian Arney (1795-1840) and Isaac Thompson (see Fig. 3), in addition to members of the Black family.7
The W. B. rifle shares many of the hallmarks of the Mecklenburg group, especially the decorative combination of elaborately engraved brass and silver. Many rifles in the group feature the S-scroll brass patch box finial seen on Black’s rifle (see Figs. 1b, 2, 3). Although a gunsmith usually signed his name on the top of the barrel, Mecklenburg school rifles are commonly signed on the lid, or door, of the patch box, as is the case with the initials “W.B.” engraved on Black’s masterpiece. The date 1813 on the lock-bolt side plate is almost certainly the date of manufacture.

Fig. 3. Detail of a long rifle by Isaac Thompson (b. 1802), Mecklenburg County, 1820. Engraved “Isaac Thomp¬son” on the barrel and “IT” on the patch-box plate, and dated “1820” on the powder-pick holder. Maple, iron, brass, silver; overall length 61 inches. The similarities between the William Black rifle and this one signed by Thompson when he was only eighteen years old, suggest that Black may have trained Thompson. Private collection.

Also characteristic of Mecklenburg school rifles is the decorative engraving “mirrored” on each side of the hinge between the patch box lid and finial as well as the presence of decorative flanges at the tips of the trigger guard extension, the toe plate, and the rear ramrod pipe (see Fig. 1e). In addition, typically, on the forestock Black used four brass “double” ramrod pipes and five silver barrel wedges; the barrel wedges fit through engraved escutcheons on the left side of the barrel with identically engraved false wedges on the right side. The rococo floral relief carving on the left side of the stock extends from the butt plate to the wrist, with additional carving around the rear ramrod pipe and around the barrel tang on the forestock. There is a pronounced comb on top of the buttstock, with an incised line from the butt plate terminating in a carved tab, or teardrop, at the wrist (see Fig. 1d). Also typical f Mecklenburg rifles is the form and location of the patch-box lid release, a small button in the upper side plate near the butt plate. With few exceptions, these details are unique to piedmont North Carolina rifles.8
When William Black died in 1827, at the age of forty-two, his estate was typical of the pros¬perous Scots-Irish farmers and craftsmen who inhabited Mecklenburg County.9 He owned five enslaved African Americans and three tracts of land totaling 530 acres. His possessions included comfortable furnishings, a riding chair and two wagons, plentiful livestock and farming equipment, a set of wheelwright’s tools, and an even more valuable set of smith’s tools. His estate sale included two rifles and shot bags, one valued at only five dollars, while the other was acquired by his cousin James M. Black for the staggeringly high sum of $25.25, making it one of the most costly items in Black’s estate.10 It is tempting to assume that the carved and engraved masterpiece discussed here might well be the firearm acquired by Black’s kinsman in 1827.

ROBERT A. LEATH is chief curator and vice president of collections and research at Old Salem Museums and Gardens. WILLIAM W. IVEY, an independent scholar, is the author of North Carolina Schools of Longrifles, 1765-1865 (2010).

1 John Bivins Jr., Longrifles of North Carolina (G. Shumway, York, Penn., 1968), p. 1. 2 Ibid., p. 90. 3 Brent Holcomb, Marriages of Mecklenburg County 1783-1868 (Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1981), p 21. 4 Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Deed Book 23, p. 177, on microfilm, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh. 5 1778 Mecklenburg County Court Minutes, as quoted in Bivins, Longrifles of North Carolina, pp. 166-167. In 1832 Black recalled that during the Revolutionary War he was “put into armory with one Isaac Price for the purpose of repairing firearms and making swords for the horse troops & mounted militia”; see Pension application of John Black, Abbeville District, South Carolina, 1832, S9280, Southern Cam¬paign Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters, 6 George Barton Cutten, Silversmiths of North Carolina 1696-1860, rev. Mary Reynolds Peacock (North Carolina Department of Cul¬tural Resources, Division of Archives and History, Raleigh, 1984), pp. 3-5. 7 William W. Ivey, North Carolina Schools of Longrifles 1765-1865 (William W. Ivey, Asheboro, N.C., 2010), pp. 210-213. 8 For more on the rifles in Figs. 2 and 3, see ibid., pp. 214-227. 9 For William Black’s obituary, see Catawba Journal, Charlotte, North Carolina, October 2, 1827. 10 “A vandue list of the property belonging to the Estate of William Black, dec’d, November 20, 1827,” William Black, 1827, Mecklenburg County Estate Files, North Carolina Office of Archives and History.