Bite the Bullet: An Impressive Collection from the Mohawk Valley Campaign

I recently attended the Third Annual Conference of the American Revolution Mohawk Valley Conference in Fort Plain, New York where I met an eighty-seven-year-old gentleman named Skip Barshied. Previously he had sent me a letter telling me of the large number of artifacts that he collected at the site of Fort Paris in Stone Arabia, New York. He has exclusive permission from the property owner to metal detect the site and has been doing so for decades. Skip does not own a computer, but sent me a photograph of what appeared to be a large quantity of human-chewed musket balls. I have seen a great deal of private collections, but THAT got my attention. According to Skip, the fort was built in 1777 and used until 1781. It is listed on the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center website as:

A strong palisade with a blockhouse on the western side, enclosing the 1737 house, farm, outbuildings, and trading post of Isaac Paris, with barracks for 100.

Skip indicated that the fort was attacked during the Battle of Stone Arabia in 1780 by Sir John Johnson’s Loyalists and British regulars. Skip’s collection includes many battle-related items such as impacted musket balls, grapeshot, hand grenade fragments and more, but he also has many artifacts related to daily life within the fort like lead pencils, whizzers, ceramic sherds, and much more.

These items are important in interpreting the activities of the people in the fort. However, as I mentioned earlier, there were twenty-six musket balls that appear to be chewed by humans. I have never seen that many associated with a single site. Some had deep impressions made by molars, but most appeared to have numerous canine and incisor teeth impressions.

Why did soldiers chew on musket balls? Lead is cool, sweet and was soft enough to bite on without breaking your teeth; in the eighteenth century they did not know about lead poisoning. There are several reasons musket balls were chewed. The first is the most assumed reason: biting the bullet to bear pain. Deep molar impressions indicate that the person was bearing down on the lead ball very hard. This is usually associated with dealing with pain.[1] Jeptha Root Simms recorded this first-hand account from a Revolutionary War soldier:

Near West Point he saw a sergeant, a corporal, and two privates stripped and flogged one cold morning, each receiving one hundred lashes upon his bare back. … The latter did not utter one word of complaint; but each taking a leaden bullet in his mouth, bit upon it as the punishment was inflicted.[2]

The second reason is to alleviate thirst. Thomas Mellen, a soldier at the Battle of Walloomsac (Bennington), stated:

  … I soon started for a brook I saw a few rods behind, for I had drank nothing all day, and should have died of thirst if I had not chewed a bullet all the time.[3]

Typically one would not use molars to bear down on the ball, but would lightly chew on it with canine and incisor teeth.[4]

A final reason was to increase lethality or at least to be used as a psychological weapon. Lt. John Waller of the British Marines wrote to his brother soon after the Battle of Bunker Hill:

The army is in great spirits, and full of rage and ferocity at the rebellious rascals, who both poisoned and chewed the musket balls, in order to make them the more fatal.[5]

I did not see any evidence of Skip’s chewed musket balls having been fired, so most likely fall into the first two categories. Were the molar-chewed lead balls associated with punishment of soldiers to maintain discipline or with treatment of wounds inflicted during the battle? When dealing with the latter, everyone assumes the soldier was biting a bullet during an amputation, but that is not the case. Typically during an amputation, the patient is lying down. Taking a small lead ball in one’s mouth during such trauma could very likely create a choking hazard, especially if the patient passes out. Usually surgeons would give the patient a strip of leather or a piece of wood that could not be swallowed to bite on.

The incisor-chewed musket balls are most likely associated with thirst or just boredom. The latter reason created a huge world market for chewing gum, which is certainly much safer than chewing on a lead ball.

Please note that the site is still private property today and the owners only allow Skip to search for artifacts. All others will be dealt with as trespassers.

 

[1] Daniel M. Sivilich, Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification: A Guide (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 108-109.

[2] Jeptha R. Simms, The Frontiersman of New York (Albany, NY: G. C. Riggs, 1882), 1:590.

[3] Caleb Stark and John Stark, Memoir and Official Correspondence of Gen. John Stark, with Notices of Several Other Officers of the Revolution (Concord, NH: G. Parker Lyon, 1860), 67.

[4] Sivilich, Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification, 109-110.

[5] J. L. Bell, “Both poisoned and chewed the musket balls,” http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2012/06/both-poisoned-and-chewed-musket-balls.html, accessed January 15, 2013.

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Bite the Bullet: An Impressive Collection from the Mohawk Valley Campaign

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15 Comments

  • Question, how can you tell if a musket ball has been fired after 240 years, if they had shot and missed their target wouldn’t it just fall to the ground after it reached its max distance and with 200 years of wear from the elements wouldn’t it be hard to tell if it had been shot or not I’m just curious. Not that I’m disputing your knowledge about it but just wondered.

  • “The leader, on each side, immediately blows the small whistle he carries for the occasion, in imitation of the ancient trumpet, as the last signal of engagement. Now hot work begins — The guns are firing; the chewed bullets flying; the strong hiccory bows a twanging; the dangerous barbed arrows whizzing as they fly” James Adair

  • Lead is soft and deforms easily. Even a “soft” hit has a small level of being misshapened. But many musket balls hit solid objects like trees, enemy soldiers, fences, rocks, etc. There is an entire chapter in my book “Musket Balls and Small Shot Identification: A Guide” on identifying impacted musket balls.’

    Dan S

  • I have a 1756 Oofficers Carbine Fusil once owned by Oriskany battle survivor Capt. Henry Harter. It was made at Minories London and sent over for the French and Indian war and used by Capt. Harter in both wars.

  • I’ve also seen the theory that a chewed bullets improved accuracy from a musket; very similar to the dimples on a golf ball. Thus making them more lethal to their adversaries.

    • That’s not a good theory.
      Dimples on a golf ball reduce drag by affecting the wake behind the ball. To do so effectively, the dimple size, depth and pattern has to be very carefully designed – and golf ball manufacturers put a lot of effort into getting this right. Learn more by reading up on “golf ball dimpling”, bearing mind that fluid flow is a very complicated subject.
      Putting dimples of random depth and shape into a musket ball by chewing on it will certainly affect the ball’s flight, but not in a predictable way – it’ll probably reduce accuracy far more than it will increase velocity.

  • I attended a lecture given by an archaeologist investigating the site of an encampment at Little Meadow used by General Braddock’s troops on their way to defeat in the Battle of the Monongahela. The archaeology crew was finding unfired shot that never-the-less was smashed nearly flat. The lecturer said the shot looked like someone bit down and crunched them between their teeth. There was the clear impression of a tooth in the lead, a very large tooth. He said you could even see the cusp marks in the metal. It took some investigating to determine how the tooth impressions were made in the lead balls, but he concluded the culprits were clearly pigs. He reasoned the pigs probably chew on shot for the same documented reason soldiers suck on lead shot. It tastes sweet.

    • While I can’t prove it with primary source documentation, I suspect some men put a musket ball in their mouth for the same reason I suck on a pebble–it keeps the mouth moist and lessens the sensation of thirst.

  • This was an interesting discussion. I wonder if anyone could tell me how large a wound a musket ball would make at close range. My third great-grandfather was shot in the “belly” by a militiaman in August, 1778 in what is now Arkville, NY. He died a day or so later. I’m sure it was a painful death since he didn’t have anything to relieve the pain and I doubt that he had any lead balls to chew on.

    • Many of the muskets, fowlers, etc. used fired a ball approaching three-quarters of an inch in diameter. When that ball hits something–even soft tissue–the entry wound would be the diameter of the ball but the ball immediately begins to flatten out to an even greater diameter and continues to deform and may even break apart as it passes on its way into/through the body. If it exited his body, that hole would have been even larger. Obviously, such a projectile does considerable damage to whatever it encounters. Your ancestor certainly had a grievous wound that might prove fatal even today. You can hope that he fell into a coma.

  • Thank you, Mike. The officer in charge of the troops at this event admitted to questioning my ancestor some time after the shooting — and the land-lady of the inn in which he died testified that the officer threatened him with a raised tomahawk while questioning. Talk about adding insult to injury. This event is recorded in George Washington’s Papers in the Library of Congress.

  • In reading James P. Collins’ autobiography, “A Revolutionary Soldier” (Arno Press, 1979), I came across the following on page 52: “We were soon in motion [battle of King’s Mt.], every man throwing four or five balls in his mouth to prevent thirst, also to be in readiness to reload quick.” I can easily imagine these being bitten during the adrenaline rush of battle.

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