Counting guns in early America.

Author:Lindgren, James


Probate inventories, though perhaps the best prevailing source for determining ownership patterns in early America, are incomplete and fallible. In this Article, the authors suggest that inferences about who owned guns can be improved by using multivariate techniques and control variables of other common objects. To determine gun ownership from probate inventories, the authors examine three databases in detail--Alice Hanson Jones's national sample of 919 inventories (1774), 149 inventories from Providence, Rhode Island (1679-1726), and Gunston Hall Plantation's sample of 325 inventories from Maryland and Virginia (1740-1810). Also discussed are a sample of 59 probate inventories from Essex County, Massachusetts (1636-1650), Gloria L. Main's study of 604 Maryland estates (1657-1719), Anna Hawley's study of 221 Surry County, Virginia estates (1690-1715), a sample of 289 male inventories from Vermont (1773-1790), and Judith A. McGaw's study of 250 estates in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (1714-1789). Guns are found in 50-73% of the male estates in each of the eight databases and in 6-38% of the female estates in each of the first four databases.

Gun ownership is particularly high compared to other common items. For example, in 813 itemized male inventories from the 1774 Jones national database, guns are listed in 54% of estates, compared to only 30% of estates listing any cash, 14% listing swords or edged weapons, 25% listing Bibles, 62% listing any book, and 79% listing any clothes. Using hierarchical loglinear modeling, the authors show that guns are more common in early American inventories where the decedent was male, Southern, rural, slave-owning, or above the lowest social class-or where the inventories were more detailed.

The picture of gun ownership that emerges from these analyses substantially contradicts the assertions of Michael Bellesiles in Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Arming America). Contrary to Arming America's claims about probate inventories in seventeenth and eighteenth-century America, there were high numbers of guns, guns were much more common than swords or other edged weapons, women in 1774 owned guns at rates (18%) higher than Bellesiles claimed men did in 1765-1790 (14.7%), and 87-91% of gun-owning estates listed at least one gun that was not old or broken.

The authors replicated portions of Bellesiles's published study in which he both counted guns in probate inventories and cited sources containing inventories. They conclude that Bellesiles appears to have substantially misrecorded the seventeenth and eighteenth century probate data he presents. For the Providence probate data (1679-1726), Bellesiles has misclassified over 60% of the inventories he examined. He repeatedly counted women as men, counted about a hundred wills that never existed, and claimed that the inventories evaluated more than half of the guns as old or broken when fewer than 10% were so listed. Nationally, for the 1765-1790 period, the average percentage of estates listing guns that Bellesiles reports (14.7%) is not mathematically possible, given the regional averages he reports and known minimum sample sizes. Last, an archive of probate inventories from San Francisco in which Bellesiles claims to have counted guns apparently does not exist. By all accounts, the entire archive before 1860 was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire of 1906. Neither part of his study of seventeenth and eighteenth-century probate data is replicable, nor is his study of probate data from the 1840s and 1850s.


Law professors, social scientists, and historians are now trying to answer a question that no one thought to ask before: How widespread was gun ownership in early America? Perhaps the best single source of information about what people owned in seventeenth and eighteenth-century America are appraised lists of assets at death called probate inventories--detailed, yet notoriously incomplete. These inventories were used to disclose property available for creditors, to achieve any necessary title clearing, and to ensure a proper distribution of assets among the members of the large families (1) that prevailed in early America. (2) Historical economists, such as the late Alice Hanson Jones, pioneered the use of these cold legal records to infer ownership patterns and behavior in early America. We use these records to estimate levels of gun ownership in early America.

This Article has several goals, both factual and methodological. First, we report high levels of gun ownership in every probate database we examined in early America--chiefly Alice Hanson Jones's collection of 919 inventories throughout the American colonies in 1774, (3) the probate records of Providence, Rhode Island in 1679-1726, (4) and the Gunston Hall database of 325 Virginia and Maryland estates, 1740-1810. (5) These counts of guns are especially high when we compare them to other commonly owned items, such as other weapons and books. For example, in the itemized personal property inventories of white males in the three databases listed, gun ownership ranges from 54% to 73%. Because the Jones database is weighted to match the entire country in 1774, we can estimate that at least 50% of all wealth owners (both males and females) owned guns. We also show that our counts are generally consistent with other published counts of guns, including those of Alice Hanson Jones, Gloria L. Main, Anna Hawley, Judith McGaw, and Harold Gill.

Second, we show how historians and economists using probate records can improve their inferences about who owns guns by using control variables of other commonly owned objects. Because inventories are often incomplete, it makes more sense to compare relative levels of ownership than to note absolute levels of ownership. Here we are explicitly extending the work of Gloria Main and Anna Hawley. In early American probate inventories, guns are much more commonly owned than cash of any kind or Bibles and religious books--and nearly as common as all books combined. Guns are also much more common than swords, cutlasses, spears, tomahawks, or other edged or bladed weapons.

Third, we bring more sophisticated multivariate modeling techniques to our analysis of probate records than have been previously used in this field. Using hierarchical loglinear modeling, we show that guns are more common in early American inventories in which the decedent was male, Southern, rural, slave-owning, or above the lowest social class--or sometimes where the inventories were more detailed.

Fourth, we partially replicate the probate gun study in perhaps the most celebrated American history book of the last year, Michael Bellesiles's Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. (6) It was welcomed to the cover of the New York Times book review section with an enthusiastic review by Northwestern colleague and Pulitzer Prize-winner Garry Wills. (7) The Philadelphia Inquirer chose it as the best nonfiction book of the year. (8) On April 18, 2001, Columbia University awarded Arming America a Bancroft Prize for history.


    1. Anna Hawley in Virginia

      Probate inventories are usually regarded as the best source of information about what items of personal property were owned in early America, but they are incomplete. The problem is how to interpret this incompleteness. One scholar, Anna Hawley, has suggested that guns might have been excluded from inventories by law as well as custom. (9) She notes that because guns were required by law to be supplied by adult males as part of their militia service, in at least one state's statutes (Virginia's (10)), guns were not subject to distress or execution by law. Thus, guns might not have been required to be listed on probate inventories because they were not available to creditors in any event. (11)

      Two other biases in probate records are usually noted--age bias and class bias. (12) Older people die more frequently than younger adults and may own more and different assets. Richer decedents are more likely to have their estates probated, though even the richest decedents may not have their estates probated or their inventories recorded.

      Many researchers, such as Alice Hanson Jones in her study of 919 inventories from 1774, try to minimize these biases by weighting their samples. (13) Jones weights older estates less than younger estates, and adjusts her weights to try to reflect all wealthholders, not just those likely to be probated. (14) Further, presenting results by social class allows us to understand, at least partially, the influence of wealth on gun ownership. On balance, Jones thinks that inventories understate assets: "I believe that the American colonial inventories, at least in 1774, are more likely under--rather than over--statements of total wealth." (15)

      An underused approach to assessing the frequency of individual items is to compare them with items known to have been widely owned. This is a partial solution to the problems of undercounting, grouping assets in classes, and assets disappearing from estates before counting. A priori, a substantial majority of propertied white males should have owned most of the following: Bibles, books, cups, chairs, (16) hats, knives, axes, and lighting (candles, candlesticks, or lanterns). Using control variables should allow us to determine if estate inventories are good places to determine ownership during life and to assess what really constitutes a small percentage.

      Although Anna Hawley's article is not about guns, she compared the frequency of common items in 221 probate inventories in Surry County, a relatively poor agricultural Virginia county, from 1690 to 1715. She notes that in this county, the staple crops--tobacco and corn--needed to be hoed several times a year, (17) yet only 34% of Surry estates list any...

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