to make saltpetre from urine of men and beasts — Lexington-Concord Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin

Today, the Lexington-Concord Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers the actions of the General Court of Massachusetts on June 6, 1639 toward making their own gunpowder.

Did you ever wonder how the early colonists obtained their gunpowder — in the early days for hunting and later during the revolution?

Take a look at this information from A History of American Manufactures, from 1608 to 1860, by John Leander Bishop, published in 1864:


The earliest reference to the manufacture of gunpowder in this country, is found in an order of the General Court of Massachusetts, of June 6, 1639, when Edward Rawson was granted 500 acres of land at Pecoit, “so as he goes on with the powder, if the saltpeter comes.”

In June, 1642, to promote the public safety, “by raising and producing such materials amongst us as will perfect the making of gunpowder, the instrumental meanes that all nations lay hould on for their preservation, &c, do order that every plantation within this Colony shall erect a house in length about 20 or 30 foote, and twenty foote wide within one half year next coming, &c., to make saltpetre from urine of men, beasts, goates, henns, hogs, and horses’ dung, &c.”

This injunction to preserve organic matters for the formation of nitre beds, was conformable to the practice required of the citizens of London and Westminster, by royal proclamation in 1626, and with that of Sweden, in the present day, where every peasant is required by law to have his compost shed or nitriary, and to furnish the State a certain quantity of saltpetre, yearly.

It was enforced by subsequent orders, and by considerable fines.

In May, 1666, Richard Wooddey and Henry Russell, of Boston, having made preparations for saltpetre and powder works, were granted certain privileges by way of encouragement.

A powder mill was built at Dorchester, previous to 1680.

A law of the General Court, enacted previous to 1704, prohibited the exportation of gunpowder, and authorized “the undertakers of the powder mill,” to impress workmen by a warrant from the magistrate, as in the case of a public work.

The numerous French and Indian wars, and the nature of colonial life and trade, created a vast demand in England for gunpowder for America.

During Frontenoe’s expedition, in 1696, it sold for a pistole the pound.

In 1761, the London Society of Arts, to stimulate its production, offered a premium for nitre imported from America.

Four years after, expectation was a good deal raised in England, by news that a “sulphur mine” had been discovered near Albany, and some powder manufactories, it was said, were about to be erected in the province.

A mill at Rhinebeck, in September, 1775, supplied powder at £20 per cwt.

We have met with no account of more than one powder mill built before the Revolution, which found the Colonies quite unprovided with this “instrumental meanes.”

As the exportation of powder and its materials from England, was prohibited by an order in Council, of October 19, 1774, the utmost encouragement was given to their manufacture by the Continental Congress and the several State Conventions, assemblies, and Committees of Safety.

A resolution of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, December 8, 1774, states, that the ruins of several powder mills existed there, and many persons understood the business.

It recommended the restoration of one or more of the mills, or the erection of others. Hence, the manufacture of powder appears to have been attempted, at least in that Colony, previous to the erection, in 1775, of a powder mill at East Hartford, Connecticut, which has since been spoken of as the first in this country.

This was built by William and George Pitkin, under an Act of the Assembly regulating their erection, and giving a bounty of £30 each for the first two powder mills erected, and £10 for every cwt. of saltpetre made during the next year.

Liberty was at the same time given to Jedediah Elderkin and Nathaniel Wales, to set up a powder mill at Windham.

About the same time a powder mill was erected at much expense at South Andover, Massachusetts, by Hon. Samuel Phillips, who the name year founded the Academy at Andover, which bears the name, and has repeatedly received the benefactions of the family.

This mill, and another at Stoughton, supplied large quantities of powder to the army.

The former blew up in 1778, and the proprietor, ten years after, erected a paper mill at the place, conducted by Phillips and Hughes.

One or more powder mills were built in Pennsylvania, before that of Col. Pitkins.

The committee of the City and Liberties, in 1775, established a large saltpetre works on Market street, Philadelphia, under the superintendence of Messrs. Biddle, Clymer, Allen, Mease, L. Cadwallader and Dr. Rush, to which the local committees were requested to send persons to be instructed.

Congress, the same year, published a manual giving several methods of making saltpetre, in which experiments were made by Thomas Payne and Captain Pryor. Saltpetre works were set up in Boston, by Dr. Whitaker, and by others, in different places.

The Council of Safety caused the erection of several saltpetre and gunpowder factories in Pennsylvania, including the Continental Powder Mill, at French Creek, which exploded in March, 1777. They allowed $8 per cwt. for gunpowder.

A powder mill was built early in the war at Morristown, New Jersey, by Col. Ford, and being amply supplied with saltpetre by the inhabitants, afforded considerable supplies when they were most needed.

The Provincial Congress of New York, in 1776, offered premiums of £100, £75, and £50, for the first three powder mills, capable of making 1000 lbs. per week, erected in the State.

Henry Wisner built a powder mill and published a method of making it.

Maryland, in 1775, authorized a loan of £1000 toward the erection of one or more saltpetre works, and half a dollar per pound for the product. A like sum was voted to build a provincial powder mill.

Saltpetre works were the next year in operation in Cecil County, under John Mingle, and in Hartford County, under Amos Garrett.

The tobacco houses in Maryland and Virginia, were also dug up, and the earth lixiviated for nitre. It yielded about an ounce to the quart, and produced much enthusiasm for a time.

The discovery of a “sulphur mine” in Virginia, was announced to Congress in 1775, and a messenger was dispatched for samples of the mineral. Many similar discoveries were made elsewhere.

Nitre was manufactured in April, 1776, at Warwick and Petersburg, and the Provincial Congress resolved to set up a third factory in Halifax County, under Commissioners, who were to receive 1s. a pound.

It appropriated £500 for a powder mill in the same county.

A Virginian, also, published directions for making gunpowder.

North Carolina offered £25 per cwt, for saltpetre, and £200 for the first 500 weight of gunpowder equal to English powder of 85s. the cwt.; also, £100 for the first 1000 lbs. weight of refined sulphur.

As early as 1707, South Carolina passed a law to encourage the manufacture of saltpetre and potash; and in November, 1775, voted premiums of £200, £150, £100, and £50, respectively, for the first works that produced each 50 lbs. of good merchantable saltpetre.

Sums of £200, £100, and £50, were offered for the first sulphur works, producing 100 lbs. of refined sulphur, which the State agreed to take at 5s. per lb. over and above the premium.

Georgia, also, encouraged the manufacture of saltpetre, sulphur and gunpowder.

These efforts, made under the pressure of a stern necessity, resulted in the permanent establishment of the manufacture of powder in several States, of which a striking example is stated in the text.

They were, however, inadequate to the immediate necessities of the war, and considerable supplies were procured from the West Indies and elsewhere, to which end the commercial restrictions were somewhat relaxed.

Much gunpowder was also obtained opportunely by capture.

The first tariff laid a duty of ten percent, on gunpowder, but admitted saltpetre and sulphur free.

The price within a year or two fell to £3.12, or $16 per cwt. for powder, for which merchants paid in England, after deducting the drawback,  75s. or 76s.

Some sulphur was obtained  from the interior of Virginia, but chiefly  by importation; and in 1791, saltpetre was cheaper in Philadelphia than in London,

In 1793, the gunpowder magazine in Philadelphia, which then received none but American powder, contained nearly 50,000 quarter casks, manufactured in that State.


The Lexington-Concord Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows with an advertisement for gunpowder, circa 1850.

Lexington-Concord Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin