This past summer, while preparing for a presentation about the History Colorado Cecil A. Deane War Relic Collection, I stumbled across an 1853 English-patented Adams-Beaumont revolver (WR.1379.1). This revolver is one of only approximately 1,500 manufactured in the United States by the Adams-licensed Massachusetts Arms Company of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. Five hundred were distributed to the U. S. Ordnance Department in 1857. The others were sold to the public. The lack of any military inspector marks on this revolver would indicate it was one of those sold commercially.
Curious about the piece, I did a little research and found in the History Colorado 1898 Catalogue of War Relics this entry: “Belonged to ‘Wild Bill’ Wm Hickman” and “was given by H.J. Bonnick—McRae’s Battery—a veteran of the Battle of Valverde, N.M.” This entry made me want to learn more. Here is what I found about the five-shot, double action revolver documented as belonging to Wild Bill Hickman.
William Adams “Wild Bill” Hickman (1815-1883), was a Utah pioneer—Mormon by faith—husband to ten wives, father to thirty-five children, Indian fighter, trader, rancher, lawman, attorney, militiaman, express mail courier, miner, government guide, spy for Brigham Young, alleged murderer, and outlaw. By his own count William Hickman killed fifty-five men in his lifetime.
Outside of Utah, William Hickman gained recognition for his guerilla fighting tactics during the Mormon War of 1857-58. As one of the Mormon militiamen, he helped to deter approaching federal troops by running off and stealing Army livestock, burning grazing land in front of approaching troops, and torching U.S. supply wagons. He is credited with having set fire to Fort Bridger and Fort Supply, acts that stranded U.S. troops in southwest Wyoming (Utah Territory in 1857) over the bitter cold winter without adequate food or provisions. One of the soldiers who endured those harsh winter months was a private in Company G of the 2nd United States Dragoons—Henry J. Bonnick (1838-1910). So far my research was adding up; the listed donor of the gun in our collection is H. J. Bonnick.
When troops finally entered the Salt Lake valley in the spring of 1858, they established Camp Floyd, some 40 miles southwest of Hickman’s hometown of Taylorsville. In time Hickman befriended soldiers at the camp, eventually becoming a government guide. Although Hickman told Brigham Young that he was spying on the troops, Young interpreted his interactions with the military as a betrayal, and had him excommunicated from the church. In retaliation, Hickman published his autobiography, Brigham’s Destroying Angel, Being the Life, Confession and Startling Disclosures of the Notorious Bill Hickman, alleging that he had murdered men who were deemed enemies of the Church of Latter Day Saints at the behest of Brigham Young. Neither he nor Young would ever be convicted of any of the murders. However, for having slandered the Mormon prophet, Bill Hickman would be disgraced and outcast from the Mormon community for the rest of his life. For having escaped the hangman’s noose, he would be outcast from the Gentile community as well.
Various historic references describe William Hickman’s revolvers. Unfortunately, I’ve only found one that claims he possessed an Adams-Beaumont. That is the entry from our own catalog. Others have either not been specific, or have referred to them as Colt-manufactured.
To be sure, the Colt was a very popular revolver throughout the West at this time. Harry W. Gibson states “so dominant was this weapon that few references have been found to any other brand of revolver in Utah before the Civil War” (Frontier Arms of the Mormons, Utah Historical Quarterly, 1974). Gibson writes that the Colt was mentioned frequently in Mormon diaries and journals prior to 1857, and almost every Utah militia muster roll after 1853 reserved a column for recording them.
This, of course, does not preclude the possibility that Hickman might have obtained an Adams-Beaumont revolver sometime during his lifetime. However, if the gun in our collection did indeed belong to Hickman, how it was obtained by Henry Bonnick is a mystery.
Henry Bonnick remained at Camp Floyd until the summer of 1861. With the start of the Civil War, Company G was reassigned to Fort Craig in New Mexico territory. There they served as artillerymen in McRae’s Battery along with members of the 3rd US Cavalry. Their role in the New Mexico campaign culminated at the Battle of Valverde in February 1862. In May, Bonnick mustered out of the military. Before the end of the year he would be married. He and his wife, Mary, settled in Center, Kansas, where Henry worked as a carpenter. The couple had five children before moving to Denver in 1886. As far as I have been able to determine, Bonnick and Hickman’s paths never crossed again.
Unfortunately, we have no record of when, specifically, Mr. Bonnick donated the revolver to our museum. It could have been anytime between his arrival in Denver in 1886 and 1898, the year the War Relics catalog was published. At that time, museum standards had yet to be firmly established. Very often only minimal provenance about an object and/or a donor was recorded. Over time, objects were sometimes relabeled repeatedly as numbering systems evolved. Could a mistake have been made associating the donor of one revolver with the donor of another? When an insufficient amount of information about an object has been recorded, or the information has been misplaced, twelve years is plenty of time for memories to fade and errors to occur. It could very well be that the gun Henry Bonnick donated to the museum was not an Adams-Beaumont revolver at all, but rather a Colt revolver that had belonged to Hickman. It could just as easily be that the Adams-Beaumont revolver was in fact the gun Bonnick himself used during the Utah and New Mexico campaigns, and had never belonged to Hickman. Finally, of the many possibilities that exist, although I haven’t been able to prove it, I also haven’t disproven that WR.1379.1 “Belonged to ‘Wild Bill’ Wm Hickman” and “was given by H.J. Bonnick—McRae’s Battery—a veteran of the Battle of Valverde, N.M.”
James S. Peterson, Curatorial Assistant for Artifacts
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Stephen H. Hart Library and Research Center
History Colorado Center
Denver, CO 80203