Sunday, February 19, 2017

Meriwether Lewis and Two Tomahawks

I went to the Antique Arms show in Noblesville to catch up with my friend, gunmaker Marvin Kemper. We share an interest in Indiana's frontier sheriff and gunsmith Colonel John Small (1759-1821). I got lucky to write some magazine stories about Col. Small recently, and Marvin has crafted (or has plans to craft) reproductions of nearly every John Small rifle, pistol, and tomahawk known to exist -- including the "Grouseland Rifle," Indiana's Official State Rifle.

We talked at his table while he paused to chat

with passersby, answering questions about his work and the flintlocks he had on display. After 20 or 30 minutes, a tomahawk on his table caught my eye. I recognized this tomahawk.

"Is that...? Did you build a Lewis tomahawk?"

"I just finished it," he said, with a smile that held both humility and pride.

The original Meriwether Lewis tomahawk had remained with

his descendants until it was sold to a private collector in 2015. Cowan's Auctions, which brokered the sale, noted: "There is strong circumstantial evidence that this tomahawk was carried by Lewis on [the Lewis & Clark Expedition]. Its history after the trip is indisputable."

Cowan's also noted: 

"The Lewis tomahawk is the only surviving weapon that can be reliably identified as belonging to any
member of the Corps of Discovery other than a long rifle that belonged to William Clark. Clark's rifle was not carried up the Missouri."

That "Clark Rifle" was crafted -- and signed -- by gunsmith John Small.

Although Cowan's questioned who made the Lewis tomahawk, Jaeger and Dresslar's book on John Small says they believe that the craftsmanship is consistent with John Small's work, and that he may well have been the maker of the Meriwether Lewis tomahawk.

Marvin picked up his reproduction. I held out my hands and said, "May I?"

I admired his work. The striped curly maple haft. The

forged steel blade and the "pipe bowl" (the original still has burnt tobacco caked on the inside). The engraved diamond-shaped and silver wire inlays. On the underside, an inlaid plate with the engraving "Made by M. Kemper."

I knew this tomahawk. I'd studied pictures and the stories around its original. I rolled the hawk over in my hand to look at the silver medallion inlaid into the steel blade. I was looking for the initials I knew to be there on the original: "ML" --  for Meriwether Lewis.

What are these initials? It doesn't look like "ML." I don't have

my glasses. I turned the blade into the light. This looks like "JJ." I looked at Marvin with a question in my eyes. I didn't want to be the one to tell him he messed up the medallion.

"It's yours," he said. "Thanks for all the work on the stories."

There are moments when words refuse to come and a guy is struck mute.


Unknown said...

I'm almost bereft of words. Such a rare affirmation of decency and kindness, and honour and gratitude still present in this world. What a treasure and a gift, and an heirloom. Looking for 'MJ' and finding 'JJ' instead. Ahh. In my imagination, unavoidably placing myself there in your stead, I have just embraced Marvin.

In an email you mentioned having this tomahawk, but not the joyful means you came by it.

And I'm certain you must have paid the kindness forward, and given someone else a similar joy?

Joe, thank you for sharing this.

Joe said...

Thanks, Peter. Most definitely try to pay this forward. And I drive south a couple times a year to have lunch with Marvin. He is a fine fellow.