Book Review: The Dog Head Sword of Succasunna: Forgotten Family Patriots and Loyalists in the Revolutionary War by John Lawrence Brasher (Shelby Printing, 2016)
Artifacts hold a special place in our appreciation for history. When we see, or better still, touch, an object that came from another era, we feel connected to that era and to the people who lived then. Someone from another time touched the same object, perhaps in exactly the same way, and it’s as if some part of them truly rubs off on us.
The majority of artifacts are anonymous in that we don’t know who made them, saw them, used them, appreciated them. Even deeply personal objects, clearly distinctive and owned by a sole individual, perhaps bespoken, are more often than not disconnected from their original owners. This leaves our imaginations free to feel whatever connection we wish, but it is also frustrating because we know that there was a person connected to the object, a person with stories that we want to know, stories that may exist if only we could find the sources to consult.
When the artifact has a clue that could identify the original owner, the urge to solve the mystery can be irrepressible. This is what led John Lawrence Brasher on a long quest and eventually to write a book on his experiences and findings. A sword had been in his family for generations, an elegant silver-mounted sword with many distinctive features. And it was engraved with a set of initials. While sometimes this type of marking is an immediate key to the mystery, this case proved to be less straightforward.
The author’s chronicle of his various avenues of research serves not just as an interesting retrospective, but as a useful guide for this sort of investigation. Besides the obvious research into family history, which branched out into local history as possible changes in the sword’s ownership became apparent, there was extensive study of the sword itself, for identifying the maker could lead to identification of the purchaser. Although it shares features with many other artifacts, the sword is unique, with no identical example known to exist. There are more things to look at than swords, though; bowls, flatware, candlesticks, combs and other items rendered in silver are all liable to bear stylistic signatures of their makers. Comparing the sword’s workmanship techniques and ornamental features with not just other swords, but all manner of surviving silver objects, leads to a reasonable conclusion about the maker, a silversmith who worked in the part of New Jersey where the author’s ancestors lived. Documents associated with area silversmiths show that they were taking and filling orders for swords during the military buildup that occurred as the American Revolution began. The pieces begin to fit together.
A substantial portion of the book, but not the majority, is devoted to family history that isn’t related to the American Revolution. An at least equal portion, however, is focused on analysis of the sword itself, with detailed photographs and assessment of specific aspects its craftsmanship. Another portion is focused on silversmiths and their work, using both documents such as account books and receipts, and surviving examples of their products. And then there’s the study of individual participants in the American Revolution who were likely candidates for bespeaking and owning an elegant silver-mounted sword, looking at their military service on both sides of the conflict, for the man who carried this sword into battle could have been a Patriot or a Loyalist.
This is not a book that everyone needs, being focused on a very specific topic. It is, however, very useful to those with an interest in bladed weapons, in New Jersey history, and in the diverse types of research that can be pursued on a single object. Far from a simple family history, The Dog Head Sword of Succasunna is a study not only of an artifact, but of the stories with which it is intertwined. We need more of these. Artifacts are inanimate objects that nonetheless radiate life, and it is the calling of researchers to discern and divine the connections these objects have with real people, thus animating them and giving them much deeper significance than would otherwise be apparent.