Flash in the pan: The archaeology of gunflints in Alberta

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Regional Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

Did you know that for over 200 years, guns around the world had a specific part made of stone that archaeologists have found evidence of in Alberta? Gunflints are chunks of rock that generated sparks to ignite gunpowder. Their use in guns first appeared in Europe in the early 1600s. Most of Alberta’s earliest guns were muskets, which began replacing bows and arrows in the province in the late 1700s.

Gunflints reveal lots of information about fur trade life in Alberta and they tell archaeologists important details about when guns first arrived and who first brought them. Patterns of gunflints at archaeological sites can show where gun repairs took place or where the flints were stored. Historic records of the number of traded gunflints can tell us which forts were specializing in certain tasks and how many hunters or trappers they were supplying. In general, gunflints are interesting historic artifacts that are often the only preserved record of a weapon technology, flintlock firearms, that ultimately changed the West.

Muskets had a metal piece called the flash pan that was mounted on the outside of the gun and held a small pile of gunpowder protected from wind and rain by a movable lid (a ‘frizzen’). When the trigger was pulled, the gunflint pushed the frizzen, opened the flash pan, and created a spark. A small explosion of gunpowder on the outside of the gun (the ‘flash in the pan’) was then sent through a hole to a larger load of powder inside the musket barrel. This explosion then launched the musket ball towards future food or enemies.

Diagram of how flintlock guns worked (by Todd Kristensen).

Flintlock guns were used in North America before 1650, and, in parts of the West, gunflints were used well into the late 1800s. While a technology called percussion caps began replacing the flintlock in the mid-1800s in North America, guns were still hard to come by and flintlocks had a certain durability that kept them in use.

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Heritage Marker Unveiling in Peace River

The Municipal District of Peace No. 135, which has been celebrating its centenary in 2016, hosted the unveiling of the two latest Provincial Heritage Markers on August 24. The first marker details the rich history of the region’s fur trade and the competition between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, as well as the crucial participation of First Nations people as trappers and provisioners. The second marker highlights the history and growth of agricultural settlement in the area at Shaftesbury Settlement. The unveiling was attended by Leah Miller, Board Member of the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation, who brought greetings from the Board and Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ricardo Miranda.

Leah Miller, Board Member of the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation at the unveiling of the Shaftsbury Settlement Heritage Marker.
Leah Miller, Board Member of the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation, at the unveiling of the Shaftesbury Settlement Heritage Marker.

The Shaftesbury Settlement marker was installed at the St. Augustine’s Mission Site in September 2015, while the Peace River Fur Trade marker was installed at the site of the McLeod’s Fort Cairn on Highway 684 in December 2015. The Provincial Heritage Marker Program promotes greater awareness of the provincially-significant people, places, events and themes that have defined the history and character of our province. The public plays an important role in the program, and we welcome applications from groups or individuals who want to propose topics and locations for future markers, including our popular urban/trail-sized markers, suitable for placement in towns, parks, and other locations with pedestrian traffic. For more information about the program, please visit our website.

New Peace River Fur Trade Heritage Marker at the site of McLeod's Fort Cairn on Highway 684 in the Municipal District of Peace No. 135.
New Peace River Fur Trade Heritage Marker at the site of McLeod’s Fort Cairn on Highway 684 in the Municipal District of Peace No. 135.

Written By: Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer