1st Continental Rifle Regiment

Sotheby’s Catalogue Note regarding the silver hand seal of the 1st Continental Rifle Regiment.

Sotheby’s, Important Americana, 24-25 January 2014.

Catalogue Note: Lost to time for over two hundred years and recently rediscovered, this silver seal is one of only two surviving objects related to the famous 1st Continental or Rifle Regiment, the first American unit to be raised, equipped and paid directly by the Continental Congress. Also known as the Continental Rifle Regiment, it was organized on January 1, 1776 from remnants of Thompson’s Pennsylvania Riflemen (then serving at the siege of Boston). The 1st Continental served with great distinction during the 1776 campaign, fighting valiantly against overwhelming odds during the battles of Long Island, Throg’s Neck and White Plains, and playing decisive roles in the American victories at Trenton and Princeton. In the ensuing years of the Revolution, it fought in nearly every major battle fought by Washington’s main army (Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, and Yorktown) and was disbanded in 1783 at the close of hostilities.

Colonel Edward Hand (1744-1802), its first commander, was one of General George Washington’s most valued and trusted subordinates. (1) Upon assuming command of the regiment, Colonel Hand, to promote in his riflemen a sense of esprit de corps, commissioned the fabrication of a regimental standard according to the specifications prescribed by General George Washington’s General Order of February 20, 1776:

As it is necessary that every Regiment should be furnished with Colours, and that those Colours should, if it can be done, bear some kind of similitude to the Uniform of the regiment to which they belong, the Colonels with their respective Brigadiers and the Qt. Mr. Genl. may fix upon such as are proper, and can be procured.–There must be to each Regiment, the Standard (or Regimental Colours)…The Number of the Regiment is to be mark’d on the Colours, and such a Motto, as the Colonel may choose, in fixing upon which, the General advises a Consultation amongst them. The Colonels are to delay no time, in getting this matter fix’d, that the Qr. Mr. Genl. may provide the Colours as soon as possible… (2)

A March 8, 1777 letter from Colonel Hand to Jasper Yeates describes the design selected for the 1st Continental’s flag:

Our standard is to be a deep green ground, the device a tiger partly enclosed by toils [a net], attempting the pass, defended by a hunter armed with a spear (in white), on crimson field the motto ‘Domari nolo.’ (3)

Through Hand’s lobbying effort, Congress authorized spending $9000 to provide uniform and other martial equipment for the Rifle Regiment. (4) The colonel subsequently wrote to James Milligan to oversee the contracting of distinctive green uniforms, a regimental standard made to the description noted above and a “regimental seal.” Milligan paid a good sum for the flag and the seal, being reimbursed 29 pounds, 13 shillings and 6 pence for the pair. (5)

Seals were of circular or oval form and crafted from either silver, gold, copper alloy or soft mineral. Those intended for heavy use were typically mounted on turned handles of hardwood, ivory or precious metal. Seals were used to ensure a document’s privacy and authenticity and their primary military use was for the authentication or notarization of important documents, such as discharges, that were frequently forged. (6)

While the maker of the 1st Continental’s seal is unknown, he was likely a leading silversmith working in the greater Philadelphia area. The stamp itself replicates the device found on the field of the regimental standard as described in Hand’s letter of March 8th. Both the standard and seal have ‘P.M. / 1st Rt.’ Superimposed above the device, for ‘Pennsylvania Militia, 1st Regiment’ (Milligan not realizing that Hand’s 1st was a regular Continental regiment, not Pennsylvania militia). Below the device is a scroll bearing the patriotic motto DOMARI NOLO or ‘I will not be subjugated’. As with the standard, the seal was entrusted to the successive regimental commanders and carried through the entire war, as evidenced by Hand’s May 12, 1777 letter to Lieutenant Colonel James Chambers, the new commanding officer of the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment (as the 1st Continental was redesignated in 1777):

Dear Sir,

I take this Opportunity of Sending you my Acct. Current with the Regt. I also send you several Acc[oun]ts. of Recruiting produced by the Officers…..I took every Pain in my Power to have the Accts. of the Regt. settled but could not accomplish it. I inclose the Amt. of the Sum Capt. Grier stands Accountable to the Regt. for, and also the Amt. of his Abstract of August 1776; lodged with me. I leave it with Mrs. Hand to be Delivered to your Order, as also the Regimental Colours & Seal.

No. 15 The Seal was Sent by C [aptain James]. Ross against Mr. [Frederick] Hubley in the Qr. Mastr. G[enera]ls Bill No. 4 you can pay by his Acct… (7)

Irrefutably authenticating this seal to the 1st Continental Regiment is Private Christopher Hartong’s surviving discharge paper from the regiment dated Long Island, July 1, 1776, which bears the wax impression from this seal next to Colonel Hand’s signature. (8)


(1) Hand (1744-1802) originally came to Pennsylvania in 1767 as a surgeon’s mate in the 18th (or Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot, having earlier completed his medical studies in Edinburgh, Scotland. Part of the 18th Foot, Hand included, were stationed at Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh). In 1772, Hand obtained an ensign’s commission, serving simultaneously as a company officer and regimental surgeon. When the 18th Foot returned to Philadelphia in 1774, Hand sold his commission and resigned from the army, married, and took up the practice of medicine in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Mark M Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, NY: David McKay Co, Inc., 1974), 484-485, 1099.

(2) The Library of Congress; George Washington Papers, Series 3g, Letterbook 1, p. 185.

(3) Latin for ‘I will not be subjugated; letter, Hand to Judge James Yeates of Lancaster, in Pennsylvania Archives. 2d series, X (1890), 12.

(4) Peter Force, American Archives, v. 5: 1178 and v. 6: 1202.

(5) National Archives, Record Group 93, M246. Muster rolls, payrolls, strength returns, and other miscellaneous personnel, pay, and supply records of American Army units, 1775-83; reel 80, folder 3, 162.

(6) Thomas Simes, The Military Guide for Young Officers. 2d ed. London: J. Millan, 1776, 172-173; Bennet Cuthbertson, Cuthbertson’s System, for the Complete Interior Management of Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry, Bristol: Rouths and Nelson, 1776; unauthorized, revised printing from 1st edition of 1768, 135-136, 141-142.

(7) University of Wisconsin Spec. Colls., Draper Manuscripts, ‘U’ Series, v. 1, Edward Hand Papers, Ltr, Hand to Chambers, May 12, 1777.

(8) National Archives, Record Group 15, Pension Applications of Revolutionary War Veterans; Pennsylvania; S.22810 of Private Christopher Hartong of Captain Charles Craig’s Company, discharged at Long Island on 1 July 1776 (discharge is found on page 22 of this file).

Sotheby’s offers thanks to Revolutionary War material culture expert James L. Kochan of Frederick, Maryland, who kindly granted us permission to publish a heavily abbreviated version of his forthcoming article on the subject, along with his photographs of the seal and related documents. Kochan is the author of numerous books, including Soldiers of The American Revolution, 1775-1783, 2007, and the recently published reference work, Insignia of Independence: Military Buttons, Accoutrement Plates and Gorgets of The American Revolution, 2012.

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