The Cast Iron Castaway

Cannon, mid 18th to early 19th Century
Possibly Spanish
Wood and cast iron; 22 1/2 x 35 3/4 x 22 1/2 in.
Bowers Museum Purchase
Buried treasure unearths a secret yearning to explore in the hearts of sailors and landlubbers alike. The truth though, is that if treasure hunting was easy or especially rewarding the entire world would be combing the desert with metal detectors. What’s more, many of the best finds have happened quite by chance as is the case with the Bowers Museum’s own mysterious cannon.
The cannon displayed in its replica gun
carriage c. 1982. The cannon now rests
further down the carriage to minimize stress.
In the early 1950s in Dana Point’s Doheny Cove two young men discovered something metallic in the sand and began to dig. Though they did not find gold or silver, the two young men did strike iron in the form of a cast iron cannon. But time beneath the sands, and possibly beneath the waves, was not kind to the cannon. There was no photographic record of its appearance, but as one might imagine the damage was extensive. The surface of the cannon is so heavily worn that it now has the appearance of porous stone; any wooden framework surrounding the original cannon is long gone; no evidence of any markings on the outside of the cannon remains; and the trunnions, the two pegs which would have held the cannon into its wooden framework, are both gone. Every specific indication of what kind of cannon this may have been has been stripped away, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that hope of identification is lost. 
Cannons are often denoted by the weight of the shot they fired in pounds. At 2 ½ feet in length and with a barrel aperture of only 2 ⅛ in., had our cannon fired cannon balls it would have been a 1-pounder. Rather than firing a solid shot, though, based on the size of our cannon it was almost certainly a grapeshot-firing swivel gun, a relatively lightweight muzzle-loaded cannon which would be mounted on the deck of a ship. On land, it would have been carried by a horse- or man-drawn galloper carriage for mobile use. The truck that the Bowers cannon is displayed on today was designed sometime between 1950 and 1980 and does not necessarily reflect the type of housing the cannon would have had. 
A swivel gun mounted on the American topsail schooner Lynx
© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons
Computer-generated image of an Armstrong pattern gun 
developed by Dr. A.R. Collins
Inspecting the length of the barrel, we can see that reinforcing rings line the cannon’s length. These bands, the proportions of the cannon, and the design of the knob at the breech-end of the cannon are consistent with the Armstrong cannon pattern developed over the early 18th Century by John Armstrong, England’s Surveyor General of Ordnance. His goal was to create a standardized design which could be reproduced cheaply at multiple sizes. Bronze which had historically been used for cannons and was the superior material for cannon design was exchanged for the cheaper cast iron, and the traditional coat of arms cannons were marked with was removed. The design was further modified throughout the 18th Century, but despite sometimes spontaneously combusting while firing, Armstrong’s utilitarian cast iron cannons were a success. To date they are one of the most prolific cannon designs. The Bowers cannon is almost certainly a late 18th Century ancestor of this design commonly used on ships until the early 19th Century, and it may also explain the lack of markings on the barrel. By the 1850s, distinctive rifling techniques were being incorporated into cannon design. Even after the severe surface erosion our cannon suffered this rifling would still be evident, meaning that our cannon was almost certainly made before then.
Detail of 82.2.1
Regional historical factors also narrow down when this cannon may have been left in Dana Point. There were no Spanish naval expeditions of the Alta California coast between that of Vizcaíno in 1602 and the beginning of Alta California’s Camino Real in 1769. Furthermore, Dana Point originally served at the harbor for Mission San Juan Capistrano which was founded in 1776. Though it was a natural cove, it is improbable that the cannon was left there before then. What is more likely is that the cannon was either dropped from a ship or that it was left on the beach during a delivery and forgotten about sometime at the height of sea trade to the mission during the early 1800s. One final explanation for our cannon being left on the beach of Dana Point remains, best introduced by Dana Point’s California State Historic Site no. 189 plaque: 
“Here in 1818 Hipolito Bouchard, flying an Argentine flag, anchored his fleet here while raiding the mission.”
The Argentinian privateer Bouchard is best if not technically accurately known as California’s only pirate. While pillaging Mission San Juan Capistrano, it is documented that Bouchard used several of the smaller cannons on his ship, La Argentina. Whether one of these cannons was left on Dana Point’s beach during his escape, is unknown.
Argentinian stamp featuring Hipólito Bouchard and La Argentina
In 1981 following a heavy storm five cannons washed up on Goleta Beach, California. Exhaustive stylistic, archival, historical, metallurgical, and radiocarbon analyses turned up no results. Often research generates more questions than answers. What we do know is that the cannon dates between the mid 18th and early 19th Centuries and that the design is one of the most repeated across the entire world at that time. While the history of this cannon may have rusted to speculation beneath the sands of Dana Point, the cannon itself remains as a testament to a wonderful and untapped past; in this case hidden just beneath our feet.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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Tuesday, 18 February 2020

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