Gunsmiths of Lawrence County
Last week, Readers, you learned a lot about John Small and his impact on Lawrence County’s history long before Illinois was even granted statehood status. We just couldn’t move on without providing a footnote about John Small and the early gunsmiths in Lawrence County.
As a militia captain and sheriff, Small helped organize and lead a volunteer citizen army. He provided the first ferry service across the Wabash River from Vincennes, Indiana to what would later become Westport, Illinois in 1797. He built the first mill in the territory, necessary for encouraging settlers to the area, and started a town.
But John Small was also a talented silversmith. At the request of Gov. William Henry Harrison, Small made the Indiana Territorial Seal, later to become the Indiana State Seal. He was also an accomplished gunsmith creating pistols and long rifles used for protection and hunting. A John Small rifle is Indiana’s state gun. One was owned by William Clark and is said to have been carried by him on the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Coast.
The water mill at Smallsburg gave Small the ability to grind rifle barrels and edge tools such as axes, scythes, tomahawks and knives. The weapon he carried probably earned him the name “Big Knife” by the Native Americans.
William M. Small, John’s son, was working at Smallsburg in 1821 as a gunsmith, following in his father’s footsteps. He later moved into Lawrenceville. An ad, from the Star Spangled Banner, June 11, 1847 (an early Lawrence county newspaper) stated that he would make “guns to order of any type from a trigger to cannon, as well as create county and private seals.”
The importance of gunsmithing on the Illinois frontier is clear. Guns put food on the table and kept enemies from the door. There were two gunsmiths listed in the 1850 census for Lawrence County: Wm. Small, of course, and Archy Moore.
E. Shilling advertised in the May 3, 1856 American Banner that he carried on the gunsmithing business on the Northside of Main Street first door east of the well- known American Hotel. (Main street was later renamed 11th street.)
Later John Trombly advertised in the Rural Republican in 1877-1880 that he did general repairing and was a practical gun and locksmith. At first his shop was located at Propes Wagon shop but later when Propes moved, his ads said he was at a shop near the water mill in Lawrenceville.
These early gunsmiths were necessary to the county’s development, and we didn’t want to forget about John Small or the other gunsmiths’ contributions.