Mary Patton: The Art of Black Powder


Mary Patton's Grave

Sherry Shook send me an interesting email tonight about Mary Patton, local heroine. I thought I’d pass it along. With the price of black powder going up the ying/yang, maybe those of you who are handy would like to start making some ( and the explosion would rock the Tri-Cities).

Here is some interesting info that I ran across today on Mary Patton and the art of making Black Powder.   Enjoy !!

Mary McKeehan Patton, pioneer gunpowder manufacturer, was born in England in 1751 and immigrated with her family to Pennsylvania in the late 1760s. McKeehan served an apprenticeship, possibly under her father, David McKeehan, and learned the art of gunpowder making. In 1772 she married John Patton, an Irish immigrant, who served as a private in the Pennsylvania militia early in the American Revolution.

The Pattons manufactured gunpowder in the Cumberland County region of Pennsylvania. Following the birth of two children, the couple sold their Carlisle powder mill for cash and migrated to the Overmountain region of North Carolina, now East Tennessee. With the help of family friend Andrew Taylor, they established a mill on what became known as Powder Branch, adjacent to the Taylor homeplace.

Patton earned her place in history by providing over five hundred pounds of gunpowder to the 850 Overmountain Men led by Isaac Shelby and William Campbell for the battle of Kings Mountain during the Revolutionary War. Essential to the victory over Major Patrick Ferguson’s British troops was Patton’s gunpowder. After the war, Patton continued to make and deliver gunpowder to local customers.

On December 15, 1836, Mary Patton died and was buried in Patton-Simmons Cemetery near Sycamore Shoals, Tennessee. The family tradition of gunpowder manufacturing continued until after the Civil War, when the powder mill was sold.


From The Foxfire Book, Volume 5 – © 1979 The Foxfire Fund; Published by Doubleday Books

“Black powder is and isn’t hard to make depending on which end you look at it from. It is a long and tiresome task if you make more than ten pounds at a time.

“Out on the West Coast, as in some southern states, the trend by the government is to prevent its sale with mountains of red tape. Making your own black powder, however, is not unlawful as yet, as far as I know.”

“By weight measure, black powder is made of seventy-five parts saltpeter finely ground, fifteen parts charcoal, and ten parts sulfur. All ingredients must be fine ground separately. This can be accomplished with either a mortar and pestle, or with a hand-cranked flour mill. Never mix all three ingredients before grinding unless you want to turn your mill into a deadly grenade, or your mortar into a cannon that can blow off your fingers or even your hand.”

“Then the ingredients can be mixed with a small amount of water so the mixture comes out with biscuit-dough consistency. Usually when I mix the ingredients, I add just enough stale urine to make the batch bunch about like biscuit dough. The urine, substituted for water, gives the powder more oxygen and higher performance.”

“Flowers of sulfur is ideal for gun powder, and it can be bought in most drug stores in four-ounce bottles or pound cans.”

“It can also be found in pure deposits around volcanoes, and in early times, because it was found where molten lava issued from the earth, the sulfur condensed around the rims of the volcanoes was called brimstone.”

“Today, in certain places around the world, sulfur is recovered from un- derground deposits by pumping live steam underground through pipes. The sulfur melts and, being lighter than water, is easily pumped out at another point close by. Then it is pumped into big ships that haul it to industries all over the world. That’s why you can buy a hundred-pound sack for about three dollars in most places.

“Saltpeter, the chemical that produces the oxygen for the other ingredients when lit off, can he made by putting urine and manure of any kind in a big cement tank mixed with water until you have about three hundred gallons mixed up. Then you put on a tight lid and let it sit for about ten months. You have to have a drain pipe and valve at the bottom, and a stainless steel filter screen installed beforehand or you’ll have one big mess on your hands. At the end of that time, you run the liquid that drains off through ashes into shallow wooden trays lined with plastic sheeting and let them stand for evaporation in the sun. When the water evaporates, potassium nitrate crystals (saltpeter) will form in the bottom of the trays.”

“In the old days in cities, most outhouses were fitted with trays or drawers under the seats that could be pulled out from behind the building. They had night-soil collectors who were paid so much every month by the outhouse owners to keep those drawers emptied, and they’d come around with a special wagon into which they dumped the contents. When the wagon was full, it was hauled out to where another fellow bought the contents and dumped it into concrete tanks where the bacteria works it just like yeast works wine or bread dough. Then the liquid was run through ashes into shallow tiled or plain concrete evaporating trays or basins to recover the saltpeter.”

“Today, saltpeter can also he bought in most drug stores in bottles or cans.”

“Charcoal provides the carbon needed when the powder is lit off. When burning, the carbon assists in making potassium carbonates and carbon sulfates during the one one hundredth of a second that it is burning. Most of this is released at the muzzle of a smoke pole in the form of powder smoke. Some remains in the barrel in the form of fouling and should be swabbed out about every third shot if the shooter wants the round ball to continue to shoot true.”

“The charcoal should never be made from hardwood as hardwood has too much ash. Such woods as chinaberry, willow, cottonwood, soft pine with no knots, or redwood and Western cedar make the best grade charcoal. A fifty-five-gallon drum with a snap-on lid and a match-stem-sized hole in the lid set over a fire Pit is a good charcoal maker. Take the wood and chip it or cut it into inch chunks and put a bucketful in the drum. Then build a hardwood fire under the drum and when smoke begins to spurt from the vent, light the wood with a match. When the flame goes out, your charcoal is made. Rake the fire out from under the drum, plug the vent with a bit of asbestos fiber or a nail that fits in tight, and let the drum sit overnight to cook. You can then crush and powder the charcoal with a mortar and pestle, or run it through a hand-cranked grain grinder to a flourlike fineness. ”

“By the way, Just yesterday I took time out and made batch of powder, and this time, when I mixed the ingredients, I added homemade alder charcoal instead of redwood and improved the powder’s performance 100 per cent. I recently bought a tight little sheet-metal heater stove for camp cooking and by accident discovered that getting a load of alder going good and then closing it UP tight and dampering it until it went out and turned cold converted the alder into nice pure charcoal. ”

“When making black powder, never add any other ingredients or explosive powders unless you wish to turn your muzzle loader into a grenade that can kill you or cripple you for life. Keep your black powder stored in steel, airtight cans in a cool, dry place, and out of the reach of children. My parents failed to do that, and I’ve carried powder marks on my face for the last thirty years. A ten-year-old may think he knows what he’s doing, but ten years don’t give him enough prudence to think many things out ahead of time before he lights that match.”

“The nice thing about shooting black powder is that commercial black costs about two cents a round, and homemade about a half-cent a round. ”

As the demand for powder grew in the Southern Appalachians, fairly large operations came into being for its manufacture. As Jim Moran told us, “Powder was made in this area. The big powder mill that was around here is gone now–the place burned up and all. But it was on Boozy Creek, and it was operated back in the early 1800s and possibly before by the Hughes family. They were also gunsmiths. They were somehow connected with the blockhouse which was on the Wilderness Road. That was where Boone wintered after his son was bushwhacked on the Wilderness Road. Now that was quite a settlement around there. One winter I went up on Timbertree Branch near the blockhouse site and there were about ten or fifteen cabins around there made out of poplar logs. They were only about twelve feet square–didn’t have any windows or anything in them. I think they were the residue of that holdup of immigration when those people got that far and they were afraid to go on. I went back over there about five years ago, but there’s none of that left there now.”

“But these Hughes, they ground that powder on millstones. I found that out. I know one man who found the old order book for the powder mill. He had it photostated. That mill blew up twice. One time they found shoe tacks in the charcoal. The story was that it was sabotaged. One time it blew a fellow’s hand off.”

“Willow charcoal is what they used for the powder. And then saltpeter- you know you hear about saltpeter caves. Over around Saltville they’ve found a lot of the vats and stuff where they leached that out from bat guano. That was done during the Civil War. In fact, they’ve uncovered one of those caves in the last ten years or so and found the vats still intact in the cave. That’s Saltville, which is about thirty-five or forty miles north of here. And the same thing in Big Stone Gap. Powder for the Battle of King’s Mountain was made on Powder Branch near Erwin, Tennessee.”

Another of these operations was located in Mammoth Cave. Recently, in a remarkable experiment there, potassium nitrate crystals from saltpeter were produced again in the traditional method. Carol A. Hill, one of the coordinators for the Saltpeter Research Group, describes the procedure that was used that day:

“Before the 187Os, caves were the primary source of nitrate used in the manufacture of gunpowder. Saltpeter mining was one of the first major industries of the new frontier, and one of the principle objectives of exploring new territory was to find saltpeter caves. Caves were mined by individuals and also commercially for national defense purposes during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Many homesteaders in the Virginias, Kentucky, and Tennessee had their own individual saltpeter caves and from them would make their own gunpowder in home-constructed V-vats or ‘hoppers.’ 

“Making a V-vat entailed using a peg-and-hole construction. The holes were made with a hand auger; the pegs by whittling down the end of a log with a hatchet and then by trimming with a knife . The frame was then pounded together with a wooden mallet . A froe was used to make the side boards. Bolts of wood that were straight-grained and well seasoned were the best for this purpose. The glut was used as a wedge to split the log base of the collecting trough. The trough was then hewn out with a foot adze and hatchet. After the hopper was constructed, twigs were laid in the bottom of the vat, and then wheat straw was laid on top of the twigs and along the side boards to help keep the vat from leaking.

“Cave dirt was tested for its nitrate potential by the following procedure: A footprint or mark was made in the dirt and left for twenty-four hours. If the print was scarcely visible by the next day, then the dirt was deemed high in niter. A mattock was used to break up the cave dirt, and a wooden saltpeter paddle was used for digging and scraping The dirt was removed from the cave in gunny sacks and poured on top of the twig and straw in the V-vat. Buckets of water were then poured over the saltpeter dirt to leach it of its nitrate or ‘Mother liquor’. The mother liquor (also sometimes called ‘beer’ would run down the sides of the V-vat and into the split-log base and out into the collecting trough. A dipper gourd was often used to transfer the mother liquor into a container. This same liquor was poured again and again over the saltpeter dirt because releaching caused more nitrates to be dissolved. According to the old reports, releaching went on until the solution was of sufficient density to float an egg.

“The next step was to combine the mother liquor rich in calcium nitrate with wood ashes that contain high amounts of potassium hydroxide. The best woodashes for this purpose were made by burning hardwoods such as oak and hickory. The mother liquor was either poured directly over the woodashes or the woodashes were leached in barrels and the leachate directly combined with the mother liquor. Upon combination, a white haze could be seen , and this white precipitate (calcium hydroxide or ‘curds’ as it was called) would slowly sink to the bottom of the barrel. If the solution contained an excess of calcium nitrate, the product was termed ‘in the grease.’ An excess of woodashes produced a condition called ‘in the ley.’

The wood ash leachate was poured into the mother liquor until the white curds could no longer be seen precipitating out of solution. The remaining solution thus contained the still soluble potassium nitrate. This solution was dipped out into an apple-butter kettle (or”evaporator’), and a fire started under the kettle. Turnip halves were then thrown into the boiling solution to help keep it from foaming and to take up the dirty brown color. Oxblood (or alum) was also added to the boiling liquid and caused the organic matter to rise to the top of the liquid and form a scum which, with continued boiling, was constantly ladled off. After a few hours of boiling, the hot liquor was poured through cheesecloth in order to filter out the remaining scum and organic material. Upon cooling, fine, bitter, needle-shaped crystals of niter (potassium nitrate) formed in the liquor. These crystals were then collected and dried. Potassium nitrate crystals were far superior to calcium or sodium-nitrate crystals because they are non-deliquescent (do not take up moisture from the air) and, hence, would not make the gunpowder wet and unusable. The nitrate crystals thus obtained had to be further refined and purified. This purification procedure was done either by the individual and homemade into gunpowder, or it was done after the saltpeter crystals were sent to a refinery where the final gunpowder was made.”

Ckeck out the link to Appalchian Treks about Mary Patton :

That’s where I got the picture from.


Filed under Miss Sherry's Notes, rev war reenactment

6 responses to “Mary Patton: The Art of Black Powder

  1. Sherry

    Thanks for the picture This info was too good not to pass along !!


  2. Linda Odom

    Whatever happened to stories of Michael Hyder who also made gun powder on Powder Branch?


  3. Chrystal Adama

    I just came across this blog. I really enjoyed it. I just found out recently that I am a direct descendant or Mary Patton. She was my Great Grandmother six times removed. Planning at trip this year and taking the kids to see it!


  4. Caitlyn McJunkin-South carolina

    I don’t know if I’m related to her or not, but I really enjoyed it, thanks this article helped me with a project.


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