Starting the New Year with a Bang!
by Claudia Houston, Historian, New Bern Historical Society
In April 2023, the New Bern Historical Society will celebrate its 100th Anniversary with an exciting exhibit in the Duffy Gallery of the North Carolina History Center. The exhibit will feature storytellers from New Bern's history including local journalist, author, and historian Gertrude Carraway, who produced a widely published list of New Bern “Firsts.” Ms. Gertrude’s “First” below is a tale of deceit, naivete, and greed that has been largely forgotten over time.
“First revolving gun made here.”
In the New Bern Guidebook of 1934, Ms. Carraway wrote that New Bernian John Gill made the first revolving gun in 1829. She would later write, “Although his weapon was never patented, the first revolving gun is said by national experts to have been made by John Gill at New Bern. Only recently is he beginning to receive due credit for his remarkable invention.…”
John Gill was a watchmaker, silversmith, and inventor. He lived for many years in an old Dutch Colonial house on Burn (now Bern) Street known as the Hargett-Groenendyke House, which is no longer standing. His home and shop were later located on Broad Street near St. Luke’s Hospital. Gill apprenticed under distinguished silversmith David Murdock.
Mr. Gill’s gun was the precursor to the six-shooter made famous by Samuel Colt, but Gill’s invention had fourteen chambers. Friends advised Gill to obtain a patent for his invention, but others knew he had little money and told him not to waste his funds. The dates are unclear, but Gill eventually traveled north to apply for a patent. He got as far as Baltimore before becoming very ill.
Local historian John D. Whitford, another noted New Bern storyteller, reported in his Rambles About Town column in the November 1882 New Bern Weekly Journal, “Gill was confined by illness for some time and while thus situated happened to meet one of Colt’s friends to whom he exhibited the gun. This friend afterwards brought Colt to see it and the gun was taken to pieces and every part of it minutely examined and criticized.” Gill reported they told him that he would not get a patent and would be wasting his money to try.
When Gill finally recovered, he traveled to Washington and found that Samuel Colt had arrived before him, and in February of 1836 Colt obtained a patent for a revolving six-shooter. Gill was convinced until his death that Samuel Colt stole his plans, reaping the financial benefits of Gill’s own invention.
New Bern rallied round Gill, with many local and respected citizens attesting to either ownership of or handling of the gun, including John Whitford. The Matthews family of New Bern owned Mr. Gill’s original revolver model in January of 1861, but it was reported to have been stolen by Union soldiers during the Union occupation of New Bern in 1862. Sadly, John Gill died with little money and no property.
It should be noted that while many online references still name Samuel Colt as the inventor of the revolving pistol, the US Patent Office credits John Gill with the invention and Samuel Colt with the patent.
Ms. Gertrude's list of "Firsts" can be found here.