It was a mere mention in a genealogy book that caught my eye: “Mr. Prince, at fifteen years of age, entered the armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, as an apprentice, and worked his way up to the position of inspector.”
The armory at Springfield? I wondered, what is that?
In the years since discovering this small bit of family history, I’ve learned that many Americans don’t know what the Springfield Armory is, even though it holds a critical place in our history. It is the site where nearly all the arms that protected America from 1796 to 1968 were built, maintained, and stored. Without the armory, America would have been at the mercy of her enemies. Without the armory, America might not exist.
The history of this facility goes back to General George Washington who used an early brick building there in Springfield as an arsenal for the American Revolution. It was the same site where Shay’s Rebellion took place in 1787, an incident that became the impetus for the Continental Convention to ratify the United States Constitution. Without resolute laws, it was feared the new nation would disintegrate before it had a chance to take root.
It became obvious to those in power in the United States government that if America was going to remain “free and independent,” it would need more weapons to back up its declaration of strength. With its position high on a hill and away from enemy-accessible seaports, Springfield, Massachusetts was chosen by George Washington and Henry Knox as the best location. A smaller armory was set up in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, but it was destroyed during the Civil War.
At first, production at the Springfield Armory was limited but ramped up sharply in 1799—the same year my ancestor went to work there. By 1804, the facility was producing 3,500 new muskets per year. They also repaired damaged ones, some that the British regulars under General John Burgoyne tried to destroy after the surrender at Saratoga, New York.
The War of 1812 increased the demand for muskets. The armory responded by developing cutting edge machinery to create even more weapons.
The work for the armorers was difficult. They often started at 4 AM and then toiled until long after dark. Hammering, filing iron bars on grindstones, working over the blazing forge, planing wood stocks, filing down the gun barrels—it was all labor intensive. And according to payroll records, they worked six days a week.
Typical daily rations were “18 ounces of bread, 1 and 1/4 pounds of beef or 3/4 pounds of pork, 1 gill of rum, whiskey, or other spirits; to each hundred rations were added four pounds of soap, 2 quarts of salt, 2 quarts of vinegar, and 1 and 1/2 pounds of candles. One fourth of the meat had to be fresh.”
Although armorers sometimes lived in barracks on the grounds, they were not a part of the military, but private government employees. In fact, a law was passed in 1800 that exempted armory workers from military service—partly to draw potential workers to their ranks.
What is truly interesting about this facility is the social impact on the community of Springfield and West Springfield, right across the river.
Historical accounts of the armory kept in the Springfield Museum state: “The West Springfield folk had objected to having a scurvy lot of armorers amongst them, and the old-time inhabitants of Springfield gave evidence in their social life that they felt much the same, however business might profit from the presence of the governmental activities. The newcomers were mechanics, guiltless of landownership, many of them unmarried, and either Methodist or Baptist in religion; the old settlers were small farmers or tradesmen, conventionally carrying on the family names and traditions, and Congregationalist to a man. No wider social gulf could yawn between people of the same race and language, nor could it be deeper than the difference of religion made it, in an age when ecclesiastical solidarity was the basis of all social order.”
Within fifty years, however, the two classes of individuals began to meld into a cohesive community. “It came to be a boast of the Springfield Townsmen that he was descended from the old time armorer stock.”
|Armory Building, Springfield|
It became the typical melting pot that personifies the United States of America.
Researching information about the armory for my novel, The Legacy of Deer Run, became a personal journey into the life of my own ancestors.
Newspaper records in the archives of the Springfield newspaper occasionally showed snippets of my third great-grandfather’s life. Since he lived to be 92, there was a fair amount of information about him. His photograph, which was taken in the 1860’s with his twin brother, appeared in the local newspaper. In their 80’s at the time, they were fairly famous as the oldest living twins in the country.
Occasionally there would be the mention of him showing calves or horses at the local agricultural shows. There were reminiscences of him working at the armory and the names of some of his friends that worked there. Ultimately in his obituary in 1876, this former armory worker was described as “The venerable Daniel Prince.” As a young man, he likely experienced class discrimination from the merchant class. Yet his legacy was described as “venerable.”
When touring the Springfield Museum for my research, I explained to the historian that my ancestor’s family had come to Springfield from Williamsburg, a small community in the hills north of the river city of Springfield, where the merchants lived.
His eyes widened and he smiled. “Oh!” he said. “So you’re descended from the hill people.”
I looked at him proudly. “Yes,” I said. “Yes I am.”
The Springfield Armory is now a National Historic Site. For more information visit: http://www.nps.gov/spar