Culminating Project Title
Primed to Fire: An Archaeological Study of the Percussion Caps at Historic Fort Snelling (21HE99)
Date of Award
Culminating Project Type
Cultural Resources Management Archaeology: M.S.
College of Liberal Arts
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.
Keywords and Subject Headings
archaeology, percussion caps, firearms, forts, Fort Snelling, conflict
The goal in undertaking this thesis project was to examine percussion caps recovered from Historic Fort Snelling to try and better understand weapon utilization, their association with structures and activity areas at the fort, and potential availability. Located at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers near St. Paul, Minnesota the fort was built in the early 1800s to assert the United States’ political and economic objectives in the region. Over its tenure the fort has had a long history of service, with mission objectives constantly changing over the years. The fort was key to the foundation of Minnesota as a state, and for that reason the old “historic” fort was restored in the mid-1900s. Today the fort operates as a living history museum with reenactors telling the stories and history associated with the old fort.
A few years prior to the construction of Fort Snelling percussion caps were invented and forever changed the world of firearms. At the height of their usage, they provided users with a reliability and durability that prior to that time had only been hoped for. Eventually percussion-based firearms became the standard firearm for many soldiers, including those stationed at Fort Snelling. The percussion caps that have been recovered through archaeological excavation have added a little more to the history of the fort in understanding weapon utilization, their association with structures and activity areas at the fort, and potential availability. The research in this thesis examines the distribution of caps across the fort, the types of caps used, elements of entanglement, and experimental archaeology to test the reliability of “scar” marking on the crown of caps to associate them with individual weapons.
The results of this study have found percussion caps in a fort setting to be useful in determining areas where firearms were present in the compound. Additionally, the physical characteristics of percussion caps give only limited insight into their manufacture and origin, unless a maker’s mark is present. Lastly, experimental archaeology dealing with the study of “scar” markings on the crowns of percussion caps confirms that the hammer and nipple configuration on percussion-based firearms leaves distinctive identifiable characteristics unique to each paired assembly and has the potential to track a weapon’s movement though the examination of caps with matching patterns.
Fehr, Spencer, "Primed to Fire: An Archaeological Study of the Percussion Caps at Historic Fort Snelling (21HE99)" (2021). Culminating Projects in Cultural Resource Management. 41.
I would like to thank all of those individuals and groups who made it possible for me to research and write this thesis. Each one of the following has made vital and necessary contributions, which without I could not have succeeded. First, I would like to thank my committee chair Dr. Rob Mann for his continual patience, ideas, and guidance through the entire process. Similarly, I would like to thank my other thesis committee members Dr. Mark Muñiz and Dr. Jeremy Nienow for their individual expertise and insights into helping polish and round out this work. I would like to express my upmost gratitude to the Minnesota Historical Society for providing access to the collections on which this work was founded on. This includes but is not limited to Pat Emerson for initially opening the door to MNHS for me and Nancy Hoffman for her continual petitions and advocation to get me access to the collections during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jeff Boorom, Stephen Osman, Matt Flueger, Mike Penrod, and George Elmore all provided expert advice regarding either Fort Snelling and/or military practices of the 19th-century. Mathew Mattson was generous with his time and resources to provide invaluable knowledge of muzzle loading firearms and supply the comparative assemblage of modern percussion caps used. I am also indebted to Laura Koski for creating and providing the professional maps of the cap distribution through the fort, which helped interpret the use of firearms and practices undertaken by its occupants.
On a personal note, I would like to thank my family including my parents Keith and Natalie who have always encouraged me to pursue what I love. My in-laws, Randy, and Tori Baker, who opened their home to my family while I attended school and conducted research. The three boys who I cherish, Lucas, Garrett, and William who are my true joy in life. Finally, I would like to thank my beautiful wife Hannah without whom none of this work would have been possible. She has been the rock and anchor of our family as she has managed to continually raise our three boys, navigate the struggles of childhood cancer with our oldest, and still provide all the love, support, encouragement, and insights necessary to complete this undertaking. Thank you all so much! Any errors or omissions are, however, solely the responsibility of the author.