John Pearson (1811?–1883)
John Pearson was a renowned gunsmith noted for his early work with Samuel Colt in developing the first working revolver. He later worked as a gunsmith in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and Fort Smith (Sebastian County).
John Pearson was born in England around 1811 and, by the 1830s, had immigrated to the United States, where he established himself as a tradesman and gunsmith in Baltimore, Maryland. He was operating there when Samuel Colt began developing his design for a revolving pistol that could fire multiple rounds before being reloaded. Colt worked with several contractors, but Pearson was his favored gunsmith and consultant, and Colt would bring him designs to build with hand tools and early machinery. As one biographer noted, “With Pearson, Colt expected not only quality and speed, but also improvements on the original plans.”
While Pearson and Colt held an obvious mutual respect, the gunsmith was irked by Colt’s tendency to be late on payments. In one letter, Pearson wrote, “I have got our pistol to work very well and am getting it ready for stocking and part of the others but I am out of money and the rent is due today and I want some more wood for the fire so you must send me some money immediately or I shall be lost.” By May 1836, Pearson was at the end of his patience, writing in his final letter to Colt: “I shall expect some money next week or I wil [sic] stop work for I can get Half a Dozen places to work and get my pay every week. You are in a Devil of a hurry but not to pay your men.” Ultimately, Pearson chose to leave Baltimore and move west.
By the fall of 1837, Pearson had set up a gunsmithing and cutlery shop in Little Rock on Main Street near McClain and Badgett’s Store. Within two years, however, Pearson sold his Main Street shop to a man named H. Griffiths, advertising the move in the Arkansas Weekly Gazette on July 17, 1839, where he wrote that anyone with weapons in his shop needed to pick them up “or I shall be under the necessity of selling it for the repairs; as I wish to close my business as soon as possible.”
The gunsmith moved to Van Buren (Crawford County) and then to Fort Smith (which was then in Crawford County), perhaps anticipating business at the U.S. Army base there. The 1850 U.S. Census recorded the thirty-nine-year-old gunsmith as living with his wife, Mary (aged twenty-eight), a native of Ireland, and their children John A. (aged five) and Sarah J. (one), as well as eighteen-year-old Daniel Spangler, listed as a gunsmith and possibly an apprentice to Pearson. That census showed him owning $4,000 in personal property. His business in Fort Smith apparently thrived, as the 1860 census reveals that he owned $6,000 in real estate and $2,000 in personal property amid a growing family of three sons and three daughters, young Sarah apparently having died during the previous decade. His son John, then fifteen, was listed as a gunsmith in 1860 as was son William ten years later. (His son John Albert Pearson Jr., who enlisted at age fifteen in the Third Arkansas State Troops just after Arkansas seceded from the Union, became the last man to be appointed as an officer in the Confederate States Marine Corps during the Civil War and may have been the only Arkansan to serve as a Confederate marine officer.)
Pearson served the Confederacy as a master armorer during the Civil War, which appears to have disrupted his business, but by 1868 he was back at his trade, advertising in the November 14 Fort Smith Weekly Herald under the headline, “Reconstructed/John Pearson/The Old Gun Maker at Fort Smith” that “being Reconstructed is now offering for sale the choicest of Rifles and Shot Guns that has ever been brought to this place.” He continued working into the 1870s, advertising regularly in the Tri-Weekly Fort Smith Weekly Herald and other local newspapers for his business at 79 Garrison Avenue.
His real estate holdings apparently survived the war, as a Weekly Arkansas Gazette article in May 1868 reported Pearson selling to Jacob Klink “a lot twenty-five feet front by one hundred feet deep, adjoining his residence on Garrison avenue between Green and Howard streets, for the snug little sum of $2,300 cash. There is nothing on the ground but the old shanty used by Mr. P for many years as his gunsmith shop.”
The 1880 U.S. Census shows John and Mary Pearson living with their youngest daughter, Kate, at 180 Green Street in Fort Smith. John Pearson died on August 2, 1883, and Mary died on January 17, 1892. They are buried in unmarked graves in the Pearson family plot in Fort Smith’s Oak Cemetery.
A 1900 Arkansas Democrat article under the headline “Cheats Genius/Revolver Pistol Invented by/John Pearson” made the claim that Pearson, not Colt, designed the first revolver and stated that “the invention of the revolver was the introduction or entering wedge to the repeating shooter in all its modern form from the single shooter to the machine gun.” The veracity of this claim is unclear.
For additional information:
Bennett, Swannee, and William B. Worthen. Arkansas Made: A Survey of the Decorative, Mechanical, and Fine Arts Produced in Arkansas, 1819–1870. Vol. 1. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990.
“Cheats Genius.” Arkansas Democrat, October 3, 1900.
Wilson, R. L. Colt: An American Legend. New York: Abbeville Publishing Group, 1985.
Mark K. Christ
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated: 02/19/2020