By ZEINAB NAJM
DEARBORN — A colonial-era artifact that became part of Dearborn’s history was returned to its home Jan. 15 after being stolen almost 67 years ago.
The 261-year-old Nowlin Powder Horn — stolen in 1952, a day before it was scheduled to go on display in the Commandant’s Quarters — was tracked down after an investigation by the FBI and Dearborn Police Department begun in 2017.
The powder horn was made from an ox horn on June 30, 1757, for Lt. Abel Pruned at Fort No. 4 in Charleston, New Hampshire. It features Prindel’s name, rank, and the following poem:
“I powder with my broth ball
Aheroe like do Conquer all
Tis best abrod with foreign foes to fight
And not at home to feel their hateful spite
Where all our friends of every sex and age
Will be exposed until their creuel rage.”
Also known as the Prindel-Nowlin Powder Horn, the horn was used in battle during the French-Indian War, American Revolution and the War of 1812 and then for holding gun powder while hunting for bears and wolves in Michigan.
After Prindel had used the powder horn, William Nowlin possessed it next and craved his own initials on it. The powder horn was passed down to his grandson John Nowlin, who was one of the earliest settlers of Dearbornville — now Dearborn — coming from New York in 1833.
In 1947, the powder horn was sold to the Detroit Historical Museum for $75 and in 1952 the museum loaned it to the Dearborn Historical Museum to be displayed at the Commandant’s Quarters. It was stolen from the Dearborn museum a day before it was to be included in the Saga of a Settler exhibit.
The powder horn was sold for about $13,000 in 1991 through Christie’s Auction House, but it was not detected because no one was seeking its whereabouts.
It wasn’t until Dearborn Historical Museum Curator Jack Tate presented Police Chief Ronald Haddad a stack of documents asking for the Police Department to take a look at the case.
Police had conducted investigations in 1952 and 1979 with no leads, so when Haddad agreed to further investigate he joked that the case was not cold or cool but frigid due to the age of the case.
“I said, ‘Where are we going to find this powder horn?’ But I could see the passion and (Tate) felt a great indignity for the community for all these years being robbed of this artifact. So, I graciously and politely took his paperwork and turned it over to our detectives.”
Tate thanked all those involved for bringing the powder horn back to Dearborn during a Jan. 15 press conference at the Commandant’s Quarters, 21950 Michigan Ave.
“This item disappeared from this museum about the same time I walked through the door for the first time in January 1953,” Tate said. “It’s been a subject of conversation here all these years since and I just feel very fortunate to still be here when it returned.”
Police Detective Stan Kulikowski was assigned to the case and admitted that the original report from 1952 was never found after digging through records.
In 2017, the Police Department contacted the FBI for assistance, which led to finding the powder horn in November.
The Detroit and Philadelphia divisions of the FBI’s Art Crime Team were able to locate the powder horn in Pennsylvania before it was set to be auctioned off from an estate of a person who recently died.
FBI Special Agent Jack Archer from the FBI Art Crimes Team in Philadelphia said during the investigation there was no way of telling how many people had possession of the item before it was located by law enforcement.
“I find powder horns to be incredibly important pieces of American history because those who carried them are able to leave their impressions about that time period carved on these particular artifacts,” he said. “These are living embodiments of the life of this time.”
Dearborn Historical Museum Assistant Chief Curator Andrew Kercher said the powder horn is a significant artifact for the community and regional community in southeast Michigan.
“William Nowlin wrote ‘The Bark Covered House’ in the 1870s and the book chronicles his journey here to Dearborn in the 1830s when he was an adolescent, about 13 years old,” Kercher said. “When he arrived to Dearborn to this area it was still filled with bears and wolves. He experienced a Dearborn unlike anything that we know today.”
FBI Detroit Bureau Special Agent in Charge Timothy Slater emphasized the importance of partnerships with the museum, state and law enforcement, community members and private sector to recover things like the powder horn.
“I want to thank Chief Haddad and his staff for the resilience and tenacity that it took to spend this many years staying after this and I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the FBI agents here in the state of Michigan and certainly those from the state of Pennsylvania and the Art Crime Team that is such a unique capability to have that provides so much value for our community,” he said.
Detroit Historical Museum CEO and Executive Director Elena Rugh said the Nowlin Powder Horn will be part of the Frontiers to Factories permanent exhibit at the museum until the spring.
“This isn’t a day we thought would ever come,” she said. “The artifact was desired by us at the museum and our leadership because of the prominent mention in the ‘The Bark Covered House’ and also just because of the strong local connection it had in Dearborn. It truly portrayed what it was like in the Michigan frontier at that time.”
(Zeinab Najm can be reached at [email protected].)