Check your old guns: Do you have a Hill?

PHOTOGRAPHER:
This advertisement appeared regularly in the Gloversville Intelligencer during the 1870s and ’80s, signifying Lemuel Hill carried on a fairly large business. (Photo submitted)

One night during 1838, Albany businessman Oliver Mead’s store was burglarized. Mead took an advertisement in the Albany Evening Journal hoping to recover his missing goods. He offered a $20 reward for the items, among them “a rifle made by Hill of Johnstown,” suggesting Hill’s rifles were well-enough known to be identifiable.

This is the earliest printed mention I found referencing Johnstown’s multi-generational Hill family of gunsmiths.

Volume two of the reference work, “The New York State Firearms Trade” states, “Lemuel G. Hill was born in England circa 1812, the son of Samuel W. Hill, also a gunsmith. The family moved to Johnstown in 1821. Lemuel first worked for his father, who is said to have died there in the 1840s.”

Another authoritative reference states, “Samuel W. Hill of Johnstown was the son of J. J. Hill, a maker of flintlock rifles in the same town. Hill had a son, Lemuel G. Hill, who also made guns at Johnstown.”

Thus three generations of the Hill family resided in Johnstown from 1821 to Lemuel’s death April 30, 1895.

It follows that all three Hills and their spouses should appear in local cemetery registers, but so far I’ve only located records on Lemuel’s family, located on Lot 518, Section O of the Johnstown Cemetery on Perry Street.

The Aug. 26, 1895 Daily Leader noted, “A fine white marble headstone has been erected in our cemetery to the memory of Lemuel G. Hill.”

Lemuel, being of the most recent generation, more information about him remains. According to his May 1893 Fulton County Republican death notice, Hill “affiliated with St. Patrick’s Masonic Lodge #4 F & AM on October 20th, 1864.”

He was an ardent Methodist, frequently noted for holding prayer meetings at his home. On Jan. 11, 1892, he was mentioned in the obituary of a Mrs. Van Sickler. “By her death, Lemuel Hill, who joined the church in 1840, is left the oldest member.”

In a lengthy article entitled, “Johnstown Village, Its Businesses and Businessmen,” in the Jan. 19, 1871, Gloversville Intelligencer, the reporter noted, “At number 154 Main Street we come to the shop of Mr. Lemuel G. Hill, the gun maker of Johnstown. He keeps a fine lot of single and double guns for sale and is prepared to do jobbing work (gunsmithing) in the way of repairs on short notice.”

Backing up this statement are 1870s era advertisements Hill published in the Intelligencer, complete with woodcuts of rifles and shotguns. On Dec. 2, 1872, for example, Hill’s notice stated, “Sporting men, attention. The subscriber takes this method to notify the sporting men of Fulton County that he has just returned from New York with the largest and most important stock of sporting goods ever offered in Fulton County, comprising all the latest patents.”

Several Lemuel Hill firearms in private collections are combination barreled guns featuring one rifle barrel and one shotgun barrel, a not-uncommon 19th-century alternative to owning two guns. Combination guns were difficult to build, testifying to Hill’s craftsmanship.

When Lemuel died, he left his second wife, plus two daughters and two sons by his first.

The funeral at his home, 422 North Market Street, was followed by a Masonic service at the Methodist church. The May 4 Fulton County Republican, reported “Reverend Livingston referred to the deceased in a beautiful manner, setting forth his many excellent traits of character, dwelling on his upright life and honorable business career.”

Returning briefly to 1838, why did Albany merchant Mead expect someone might recognize his stolen rifle?

Some explanation is required: in those times, military firearms were assembled in the Springfield and Harper’s Ferry government arsenals, or if purchased by contract, at Remington’s or Eli Whitney’s plants. These were heavy, rugged muskets, built to endure battlefield abuse. Civilians, however, wanted lighter, more accurate and handsome rifles they could be proud of, so they commissioned reputable gunsmiths to build these by hand to personal specifications. Most important, gunsmiths were proud of their work and usually stamped their name and often their address on the barrel. Sometimes owners even had their own name engraved on the lock, barrel, or patchbox. Thus, Mead’s Hill rifle might have been easily identifiable.

Many years ago I examined a Hill rifle owned by Stone Arabia Revolutionary War veteran John L. Nellis, 1762 — 1841. The long, octagonal barrel was stamped “S.W. Hill, Johnstown, N.Y.” and the full-length stock, fitted with the usual metal patchbox, was a lovely piece of figured maple shaped in the ‘Kentucky’ style.

To build such a rifle, Hill and Nellis would have discussed Nellis’ preferences and then agreed on a price. The lock and trigger mechanism might have come from manufacturers in Albany or New York.

Early on, the Hills probably rifled their own barrels, but later more likely purchased them from nearby sources like Remington.

Hill installed whatever type of sights Nellis preferred, chambered the barrel for his chosen caliber, then mated all the metal components with the hand-carved stock.

How many custom-made rifles the various Hills constructed over seven decades while also selling factory-made goods, is of course unknown, but perhaps Leader readers should remove that dusty old muzzle-loading rifle hanging over the fireplace and give the markings on it a close look: there’s a Hill rifle for sale on a collector’s website right now, offered at a scary price.

By Patricia Older

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