In 1803, the U.S. frigate Philadelphia sparked a major international incident when it ran aground in Tripoli harbor. Barbary pirates quickly overran the ship, taking its 307 sailors captive. The incident was the latest chapter in an increasingly violent conflict between America and Tripoli.
Pirates from the city had repeatedly plundered American merchant ships over the previous two decades, seizing their goods and enslaving their crews. President Thomas Jefferson had resorted to blockading the city after years of failed negotiations.
Jefferson was heavily criticized in public for the capture of the Philadelphia, but he managed to eventually rally support for increasing the war effort. A new tax was passed to raise money for the nascent American Navy, and, in 1804, 11 American warships sailed for the Mediterranean. Tripoli held out for several months, but its leader eventually sued for peace.
The Americans won the release of the Philadelphia crew, safe passage for American merchant ships and, for good measure, two 7-foot gold Miquelet lock muskets, which were presented to Jefferson.
First time travelers
Today, one of the Miquelet muskets is considered a “national treasure.” The whereabouts of the second is unknown. The remaining musket is one of four treasures in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History firearm collection. Previously, the only way to view the collection was to travel to Washington.
But for the next three years, the weapons will be on display at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. The exhibit marks a period of increasing cooperation between the Smithsonian and the Cody museum.
The Buffalo Bill center has been a Smithsonian affiliate since 2008, but until recently, that was an association mostly in name, said Warren Newman, the center’s firearms curator. The center worked for four years to bring the firearms collection to Wyoming. It marks the first time the collection has left Washington, Newman said.
“I think it is greatly significant,” Newman said. “These are the most historic and important firearms held by the national museum. It enables a large number of people in the West, who are never going to make it to D.C., to see them.”
The firearms collection is the second such Smithsonian exhibit to travel to Cody. In 2010, the center hosted the Smithsonian’s “Wild West Warriors” exhibit, which featured Thomas Moran’s “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” and Gertrude Kasebier’s photos of the Lakota Sioux traveling in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
Marguerite House, the center’s public relations director, said the relationship between the two museums is growing. The Smithsonian offered its expertise to help with the firearms exhibit, while the center did the conservation work to prepare the weapons for display.
“The interesting thing about the Smithsonian affiliates is that it takes the Smithsonian out to the people,” House said. “It gives us authenticity and clout for folks that may not be familiar with us.”
A national collection
There are 65 firearms in the Smithsonian’s national firearms collection, 64 of which are on display in Cody. One gun was deemed unfit for travel.
The collection includes patent models that were never produced. There is the Josselyn chain revolver patent — equipped with 20 individual .22-caliber rifle cartridges hanging on a chain meant to rapidly pass through the weapon’s chamber — and the Special Purpose Individual Experimental Rifle, which fired a “flechette,” or dart, capable of penetrating a sniper’s body armor. Its problem: The rifle’s designers never accounted for the fact that the wind could blow the dart off course.
Some of the weapons come from around the world, like an Albanian flintlock pistol, which is embellished with silver, and a Japanese flintlock. The Japanese model’s flintlock is enclosed in a metal sheath, Newman said. On every other model he has seen,the flintlock is attached to the outside of the weapon, he said.
But the stars of the exhibit are the four “national treasures.” A Jaeger rifle that once belonged to Catherine the Great sports the Russian empress’s likeness in gold atop the rifle’s receiver. The weapon boasts a velvet cheek piece on its butt to reduce the shock when it is fired.
“I thought I’d seen every kind of gun, but I’ve never seen one with a velvet cheek piece,” Newman said.
There is the pepperbox pistol presented to Gen. George B. McClellan by the Duke of Wellington during the Civil War to show support of the Union. The multi-bladed folding knife comes with 100 blades, including a shaving knife, scissors, saw blade and .22-caliber pistol with five shots. Many visitors have taken to calling it, unfairly in Newman’s view, a Swiss Army knife on steroids.
And then there is Jefferson’s musket. The weapon was fired “extensively” by the country’s third president, Newman said. The curator said he was unsure of the story behind what prompted the Bey of Tripoli to present the weapon to Jefferson.
“I guess it was one of those things where he didn’t want enemies forever,” Newman said.
Peace between the Americans and the Barbary pirates did not last long, however. By 1807, pirates from nearby Algiers were plundering American ships again. Eight years later, the Second Barbary War began. Guns perhaps make poor peace offerings.