Ken Gottry - Cambridge NY History

The Pitcairn Pistols, the ones that fired the Shot Heard Round the World to start the American Revolution, were once the possession of John Pope Putnam who lived on South Park Street in Cambridge, NY.

On April 19, 1775 at Lexington, British Major John Pitcairn fired the Shot Heard Round the World and the American Revolutionary War had begun. One hundred years later, the Pitcairn pistols could be seen in a house in Cambridge.

As Major Pitcairn and his troops returned to Boston following the skirmish at Lexington, his horse was shot and threw him. He was forced to march the rest of the way. 

Legend has it that his horse had taken with it his brace of richly decorated Scottish scroll-butt pistols. The pistols were later presented to American General Israel Putnam who used them throughout the war.

The pistols were made by the famous John Murdoch of Doune. However, the crest on the escutcheon plate is not that of the Pitcairn’s. Some historians hold to the legend of General Putnam and the Pitcairn pistols, but other historians theorize that there was an error in identifying from whose horse the pistols were taken.

General Putnam was allegedly carrying these pistols on June 17, 1775 at Bunker Hill. One of the British soldiers mortally wounded that day was Major Pitcairn. Ironically, the much-admired Pitcairn was buried at the Old North Church, the starting point of Paul Revere's Midnight Ride.

General Israel Putnam was born in Danvers, MA in 1718. In 1740 he moved to Pomfret in northeastern Connecticut. He served with distinction during the French and Indian Wars, including a major campaign near Glens Falls. Shortly after the Battle of Lexington, Putnam was named Major General, making him second in rank to George Washington. He died in 1790 in Brooklyn, CT.

On May 9, 1786 John Pope Putnam, grandson of Israel Putnam was born in CT on his grandfather's farm. In 1805 John moved with his family to Williamstown, MA where he graduated from Williams College in 1809. He studied law in Albany and in November 1812 he opened his law practice in Cambridge.

On January 5, 1813 he married Elizabeth, the second daughter of Jonathan Dorr, a distinguished physician and surgeon of Cambridge. Dorr's Corners, the community at the intersection of Main Street and Route 313 bears his family's name.

John Putnam disposed of his law practice in 1826 and was engaged in other businesses until his death on October 10, 1867.

The Pitcairn Pistols, which his grandfather had received in the Revolutionary War, were located in Putnam's home on South Park Street at the time of his death. In 1875, his widow Elizabeth lent the pistols to the Town of Lexington for exhibition as part of the Centennial Celebration.

In 1879 Mrs. Putnam decided to donate the pistols to Lexington, where they are now on display at the Lexington Historical Society.

On September 29, 1835 Aaron Burr signed the following affidavit documenting the Pitcairn Pistols

"I hereby certify that from inspection of a pair of mounted pistols in the possession of John P. Putnam and this day made known to me by him, I believe them to be the same pistols which were carried and used by Major General Israel Putnam in the war of the Revolution that I was aid-de-camp to General Putnam and believe I often saw said pistols in his possession".

On May 12, 1879 the 84 year-old Elizabeth Dorr Putnam wrote the following letter to the Trustees of the Cary Library in Lexington:


A few months ago I received a line from your friend and townsman, Hon. Charles Hudson, saying that he was very desirous of obtaining the “Pitcairn Pistols” in my possession, to preserve them with other relics of the 19th of April 1775, and asked me on what terms I would part with them; but believing that they had a moral or political value not to be estimated by dollars and cents, I had refused to sell them, though I had had liberal offers.

On reflection I have thought that no place was so appropriate to have them preserved as the one where they were discharged upon the patriotic citizens of Lexington in the morning, and where they were captured in the afternoon of the same day; and that no people were more deserving of the nation’s  gratitude than those who adventured to confront the oppressors of freemen for the benefit of all the colonies, than those of your historic town; I have from patriotic considerations concluded to make them a free will offering to the citizens of Lexington – hoping that they will tend to keep alive that true spirit of devotion to country, to liberty, and the rights of man which have made our country the Asylum of the oppressed.

With these feelings, and for this object I cheerfully tender you these memorials of the opening scene of the Revolutionary Drama.

On May 27, 1879 William Cutter of the Cary Library Trustees wrote Mrs. Putnam:

The Trustees of the Cary Library in behalf of the Town of Lexington have received through our townsman Hon Charles Hudson the Pitcairn Pistols, a gift from you to the town.

The Trustees in accepting this gift for the town, have voted to send this letter of acknowledgement.

They are accordingly accepted with profoundest gratitude to their generous donor, which, in consideration that she had already refused the pecuniary offers of others for them, cannot be too highly commended for her patriotism and sacrifice in presenting them to this historic town, and in thus distinguishing our citizens with her particular favor.

No place is so appropriate for their preservation as Lexington, where their use by the commanding officer of the British on the morning of April 19, 1775, is already so famous, and where their capture was effected in the afternoon of the same day. The Trustees of the Cary Library have placed your important gift with other relics of that eventful occasion, and enclose a copy of the printed inscription prepared to accompany them. The letter of presentation, the certificate containing autograph of Aaron Burr, and the other articles received with the pistols are preserved with them.

Those of you who have followed my research of the history of the Cambridge schools may well recognize the name of John Pope Putnam.

In 1872, the Cambridge Washington Academy, located at the corner of Academy and Pleasant Streets, was closing. The East-enders and the West-enders tried in vain to unite and form a single school district for Cambridge.

The West-enders purchased the Academy building and established the Union Free School of the West District. At the other end of the village, the East-enders converted the former home of John Pope Putnam into the Putnam Institute, which became the Union Free School of the East District.

The Putnam home was located on South Park Street where Whipple City Pizza is today (2005).