Columbia family's sword offers glimpse of the American Revolution

When B. Owen Williams was 5 years old, he inherited a short sword from his grandmother.

“I would play with this,” Williams said. “I would play buccaneer.”

The sword traveled with Williams as he moved from New York to Massachusetts and finally to Columbia.

“Like a stamp collection, from time to time I would take it out and look at it.” Williams said. “I saw it as a connection to the past.”

Made in the third quarter of the 18th century, the silver-hilt short sword was created for Jonathan Pettibone, whose name is engraved deeply in the hilt. A colonel for the 18th Connecticut Regiment during the American Revolution, Pettibone left the sword to his son, Jonathan Pettibone, an ensign during the war. From its beginnings to now, the sword has been handed down through the family, with Williams being the latest to inherit it — and the last.

In October, Williams and his wife, Martha, donated the sword to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

“It seemed like the right time,” Williams said. “It needed to be some place people could see it.”

For the young museum – it opened in Philadelphia on April 19 – the sword is a treasure.

“We have other swords, but this is unique,” said Phillip Mead, chief historian and director of curatorial affairs at the museum. “Within the scope of our collection, we have a few that are identified to a unit … very few are so clearly identified to an individual as this.”

As both Pettibones were engaged in the American Revolution, the sword likely saw battle in New York, and possibly even in Boston, if the sword passed hands to the younger Jonathan Pettibone before the death of his father, Williams said.

“We know it had to have been in New York,” Williams said. “The question is did it go with the son to Bunker Hill.”

“It saw part of the war with each of them,” Mead said. “The fact that it belonged to these two officers, a father who passed it down to his son …makes it really special.”

Crafted in Connecticut, the sword is signed not only by its owner, but by its maker, Joseph Copp, Mead said.

“Even though done by a non-expert engraver, you still see pride in the workmanship,” Mead said, noting “a little flair” in how the letters “t” were crossed and other small touches.

Mead doubts the sword was ever used in battle, as it was really meant for fencing if used in combat and there is little history of fencing in the American Revolution.

“It was probably drawn to direct troops, to gesture or to accompany verbal orders,” Mead said. “All officers were required to have a sword. It served as a significance of rank as well as a weapon.”

Though Mead said the sword was in “beautiful shape,” Williams said his care of the sword was “not wonderful, but it had survived.”

“It wasn’t beautifully encased to show the neighbors,” Williams said. “It was much more private.”

The more Williams learned about his family’s sword, the more he realized it was time to share his piece of history.

“We settled on the Museum of the American Revolution,” Williams said, rather than historical societies that have larger time periods to represent. “Clearly this museum is only going to focus on the American Revolution.”

It will go on display next year, Mead said, in an exhibit dedicated to the campaign around New York City in 1776 between Gen. George Washington and British Gen. William Howe.

“It was something that just rattled around,” Williams said of his family sword. “I found out it was of interest to other people.”

“Sometimes you see an object and it just rings with the story of the period,” Mead said. “When I first saw this sword, it did that for me. This is one of my favorite things we’ve added and favorite things in the collection.”

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