The Frontier Partisan Muse has sent me back out onto the Great Plains and into the Shining Mountains, in a blinding flare of synchronicity. I’ll explain that in more detail in a later post. Some cool stuff…
I was actually headed back to Africa (and I’ll get there; the country north of the Limpopo River is calling), but I knew I had to take a Western detour when a new biography of Jim Bridger hit this month. I am preparing a new podcast series on this greatest of American Mountain Men and scouts. One of the interesting features of this excellent new bio is the exploration of young Bridger’s apprenticeship. Most accounts simply note that he was apprenticed to a blacksmith to learn a trade.
Well, yeah. But there’s a little more to it than that. Young Jim learned at the shoulder of the most respected and renowned gunsmith on the western frontier in the first two decades of the 19th century.
I’ll let the Contemporary Longrifle Association explain:
Initially, in the late 1790s, Philip Creamer was a classically trained gunsmith living in Taneytown Maryland where he built rifles in the famous “Emmitsburg School” style. But soon after settling the estate of his deceased father around 1805, he relocated to the western frontier regions of St. Clair County Illinois near St. Louis.
There he not only built and repaired guns for local settlers, but numerous account entries for his work are found in the ledgers of the influential trading firm “Bryan and Morrison” located in nearby Cahokia. This was the outfitter that collaborated with and supplied Manuel Lisa’s 1807 expedition, and there is a strong possibility that some of the guns they provided Lisa were locally manufactured by Creamer.
In fact it is strongly believed that Creamer may have played a significant role in the initial design and development of what would become known as the famous St. Louis plains rifle especially because of his role in supplying firearms to some of the earliest western expeditions.
By early 1809, William Morrison, co-owner and representative of “Bryan and Morrison,” along with other prominent local citizens including the fur traders Jean and August Chouteau, Ruben Lewis (the brother of Louisiana territorial governor Meriwether Lewis) and William Clark (U.S. Indian agent and Brigadier General of the Louisiana territorial militia) had joined Lisa in forming the Missouri Fur Company. At this time, Bryan and Morrison’s Cahokia store ledgers not only indicate that Philip Creamer still made and repaired rifles for them, but that through them he was likely supplying rifles to the men of the Missouri Fur Company as well.
The rifle below is a Creamer rifle purported to have been built and carried by Jim Bridger. It is in the collection of the Museum of Native American History in Bentonville, Arkansas. I am always very leery of such claims, and the provenance is suggestive but not definitive on this one. Nevertheless, the rifle — converted at some point from flint to percussion — does show the characteristics of the classic plains rifle.
Whether this is really the rifle or not, it is highly likely that when Bridger went up the Missouri River in 1822 with Gen. William Ashley’s fur trading/trapping expedition, he carried a rifle he built with Creamer.
Creamer firearms were wielded by some very famous hands, indeed. William Clark (that Clark) owned at least one Creamer rifle.
Clark also owned a Creamer pistol.
Creamer was renowned for his dueling pistols. Again, the Contemporary Longrifle Association:
…Creamers reputation quickly spread throughout the frontier. It was soon a colloquialism that a man of dependable reputation and character was “as sure as a Creamer lock.” This in turn earned his work a special place in the hearts of gentlemen compelled to defend their own reputations on the field of honor, to the extent that men about to engage in such affairs were known to seek Creamer out beforehand so he could personally put their pistols “in the most perfect condition” for dueling.
Sometime, presumably between 1817 and 1824, a local collection was taken up and Creamer was persuaded to make a pistol for the then Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun. It’s a matter of record that Calhoun not only accepted the gift, but that he was so taken with its workmanship and quality that he wrote to personally inquire about Philip Creamer and how he had learned to make pistols like that, an inquiry that the proud gunsmith absolutely refused to reply to on the grounds that he was “no showman or stud-horse to be advertised.”
Creamer made a pistol for one hellion of a Frontier Partisan who knew a thing or two about dueling. You’ve probably got his picture in your pocket. Yep — Old Hickory Andrew Jackson himself…
Modern gunmaker Bob Browner recreated the pistol:
Note the rear sight way back at the breech. Unusual.
Jim Bridger was noted as a fine shot, among men for whom excellent marksmanship was a common trait and a point of pride. His youthful work with the finest of firearms doubtless was a factor in the development of that skill.