Editor's Note: This query was received via telephone transmission. A reader who lacks a computer called in regard to his grandfather's shotgun, which is labeled "Cherokee Arms of Knoxville, Tenn." What is the story behind this supposedly local arms manufacturer?
It's funny how things change. The phrase "Cherokee Arms" might have alarmed local settlers about 220 years ago. But as is the case repeatedly in history, what was once considered a dangerous prospect, like Cherokee Arms or Che(z) Guevara--strikes later generations as an appealing trademark.
This one was a puzzle, at least to begin with. Some spot-checking turned up no Knoxville business called Cherokee Arms. Though there were some small gunsmiths in Knoxville, like Burrier's 19th-century workshop on Market Square (they also made sewing machines and ice-cream makers), Knoxville never produced a well-known arms manufacturer.
However, Internet research discloses that Cherokee Arms was a brand applied to guns produced by the H. & D. Folsom Arms Co. of New York--for regional distribution by C.M. McClung, the wholesale giant headquartered on Knoxville's Jackson Avenue. A distributor of all sorts of hardware, McClung was not a manufacturer, per se, but was often closely involved with manufacturers, who sometimes created or modified products just for McClung's market. McClung had a broad a heavily rural market, by the way--their motto was "Just over at Knoxville," perhaps chosen to seem disarming, so to speak, for their far-flung customers.
As you may recall, most of their old main headquarters complex burned down in a spectacularly appalling fire in 2007. There's a good chance your grandfather's gun passed through those walls.
Calvin McClung (1855-1919), who was head of that company, is the same Calvin McClung for whom the Calvin McClung Historical Collection is named. His personal library became the foundation for our regional-history collection, operated under the auspices of the Knox County Public Library. There's a handsome portrait of him in the lobby, on the third floor of the East Tennessee History Center.
And that august institution turned out to be the place we found some information about Cherokee shotguns. In the McClung Collection's rare-books collection, they have about a dozen well-used old C.M. McClung catalogues. (The founder of the library saved a lot of interesting historical artifacts, but didn't necessarily save the catalogues put out by his own firm; the ones the library keeps appear to be used catalogues collected from retailers around the region.)
The C.M. McClung Co., which was founded in 1884, always carried shotguns. In their earliest days, they carried the well-known brands. An 1891 catalogue displays a variety of Winchester and Remington shotguns and rifles. But sometime around 1900-1905, they started advertising the Cherokee, "Ejector and Non-ejector," in 12, 16, and 20 gauge. They seem to have been introduced as an economy model, mainly a single-barrel of "fine blued steel... oiled walnut stock, rubber butt plate, half pistol grip." In a ca. 1905 catalogue, the non-ejector Cherokee is advertised at just $7, the equivalent of maybe $150 today.
To offer some perspective, though, other shotguns in the same catalogue, with Damascus steel, were going for 20 times that rate.
With the Cherokee, you could pay for longer barrels almost like rope: a 30 or 32-inch barrel was standard, but a 34-inch barrel was 50 cents extra, a 36-inch $1 extra.
The catalogues feature drawings of the shotguns, mostly showing detail of the open breach. It may interest you to have a look at them to see which of them resemble your gun. Most of the catalogues aren't dated, but we found listings of the Cherokee in catalogues number 20, 50, 61, 70, 90, 110, and 120.
The introduction of the word "Cherokee" as a shotgun brand came at an apparently stylish time for the memory of the long-vanquished aborigines. Cherokee wasn't necessarily a popular word in the 19th century, but in the very early 20th century, it proliferated. Whether due to romanticism or remorse for the tribes our ancestors drove away, suddenly everything was being named for that absent civilization. The recently renovated Cherokee Building on Church Street and Cherokee Country Club, as well as several businesses, appeared from the same era as McClung's first listing of the Cherokee brand. Cherokee Boulevard came just a few years later.
The Cherokee shotgun, almost always presented as a simple single-barrel was never a major emphasis of McClung's catalogues, always accounting for less than 10 percent of its shotgun listings. But it was a durable entry, making a regular appearance in those interesting pages at least through the 1930s.
Another McClung brand used on guns in the early days was the Cranberry, apparently named after a famous iron supplier in North Carolina.
McClung seems to have stopped carrying the Cherokee shotgun by the 1960s, probably earlier. The company dissolved in 1970.
A side note: Henry Folsom, chief of the company that seems to have manufactured the Cherokee shotgun, got in some trouble in the summer of 1900, when, while handling some of his wares in their store on Broadway (that is, that other Broadway, in Manhattan), accidentally shot and killed one of his clerks. No word on whether it was a Cherokee model.
We're no Antiques Roadshow here, but we hope that answer, our best at the moment, will suffice. Be careful with that thing.
Yr. Obt. Svt.,
Z. Heraclitus Knox, Gn.Sn., M.O.
Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis. Send all your queries, big or small, to editorATmetropulseDOTcom.