Thursday, April 6, 2023

Artifact Spotlight: Commodore Samuel Barron’s Sword from the First Barbary War – Part 1

By William Clarkson
HRNM Educator

Visitors to military museums are likely to encounter a variety of edged weapons on display. Some are great examples of the development of arms, fighting styles, and doctrines over time. Others are associated with important events or individuals. Today we look at one unique example in the collection at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. In this two-part blog we will discuss an early 19th century sword from North Africa. This first part will focus on the context and association of the sword and why it is in the collection. Part two will consider the conservation process, undertaken by our colleagues at Naval History and Heritage Command’s Conservation Branch.

Commodore Samuel Barron Sword (Yataghan) in HRNM’s collection, shown here with scabbard. (HRNM)

This type of sword is called a yataghan, or yatagan, and is of Turkish origin. The sword features a single edged recurved blade, without a guard, and a distinctive flared pommel. The pommel’s shape is reminiscent of the end of a bone and harkens back to earlier yataghans, some of which used sheep thigh bones for their hilt. They were used widely in areas under Ottoman control and influence, which by the mid-17th century extended from the Caucasus to Anatolia and the Arabian Peninsula, and west into the Balkans, Egypt, and North Africa. While a functional and effective weapon, as firearms began to supplant other combat arms, many yataghans became more ceremonial and decorative, like the example above.

Here we see an illustration of an Ottoman Janissary with a sword (yataghan) thrust through the belt in the traditional fashion. This early 19th century illustration is by artist and archaeologist Otto Magnus von Stackelberg. (Wikimedia Commons)

HRNM’s yataghan is approximately 30 inches long and fits within a 26-inch scabbard. As noted previously, the single edged blade curves forward, giving the sword its distinctive shape. The blade bears a stamped seal, possibly a maker’s mark, or denoting the original owner. The grip of the sword is wood wrapped in textile, and the flared pommel covered with decorative silverwork. Likewise, the base of the blade is ornamented with silverwork extending a short distance from the hilt. The scabbard is made of wood (which you will see in part 2 of this spotlight) and sheathed in sections of ornate silverwork. While some yataghans are adorned with religious or mythological imagery or text, the decorative elements of this sword are primarily a foliate motif with garlands, flowers, and palmettes. However, it is this sword’s presumed personal association that places it in the realm of U.S. naval history and in the HRNM collection.

Details of the decorative work of the pommel (left), hilt and lower blade (center) and scabbard (right) (HRNM)

The sword was donated by members of the Truxton-Barron family (two names well known in U.S. naval history), who maintain that it was gifted to Commodore Samuel Barron by the Bey of Tripoli in the closing stages of the First Barbary War, sometime in late 1804 or early 1805. Samuel Barron was born in Hampton, Virginia, in 1765 and served in the Virginia Navy during the latter stages of the American Revolution. He then served the young United States Navy in the Caribbean during the Quasi-War with France between 1798 and 1800. In September 1804, Commodore Barron arrived in the Mediterranean (on the orders of President Thomas Jefferson) aboard the frigate USS President to take command of the squadron in operations against hostile forces operating out of Tripolitania. Unfortunately for Barron, he was continuously unwell and spent much of his command bedridden in Syracuse. Before he relinquished command of the squadron to Captain John Rodgers on May 22, 1805, he authorized diplomat Tobias Lear to conduct and conclude peace negotiations with the Bey (Pasha) of Tripoli. These negotiations ended hostilities and resulted in a peace treaty signed in June 1805.

U.S. Navy ships under Commodore Edward Preble bombarding Tripoli in August 1804. Painting by Michael Felice Corne. (NHHC)

After turning over command, and the end of the war, Commodore Barron returned to the United States. He was not active in naval service again until July 1810, when he was appointed to command Gosport Navy Yard (now Norfolk Naval Shipyard) and oversee the construction and outfitting of gunboats for the U.S. Navy. However, his tenure was cut short by his untimely death on October 29, 1810, at the age of 45. Despite the death of Commodore Samuel Barron, artifacts like this yataghan highlight an important period in the early history of the U.S. Navy. The intersection of the Navy, individuals, and global events illuminate the times and experiences that such individuals took part in and shaped. Part two of this series explores the methods by which artifacts, such as this sword, are conserved and prepared for display. Stay tuned to read about the processes and methods our colleagues at NHHC’s Conservation Branch employ to protect and maintain these artifacts for HRNM and our fellow NHHC Museums.

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