Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What is a Saltpeter Man?

Back in the early days of firearms, the propellant used was black powder. One of the components of black powder is a substance called saltpeter (or saltpetre, in British spelling). Saltpeter is more accurately known as potassium nitrate. Of the three main components of gunpowder, this one was the hardest to obtain in Europe, during the renaissance period. In fact, during the earliest years of gunpowder manufacture in Europe, no one was sure if saltpeter was a mineral that could be mined, or was it something that could be cultivated. The name comes from the Latin words, "Sal Petrae", which means "salt of rock", since it has the appearance of a layer of salt encrusted on rocks. Since saltpeter is white in color and since Europe during the early renaissance, got their saltpeter from Asia, it was often referred to as "Chinese snow".

A sample of saltpeter.

With the rise of gunpowder usage in various European kingdoms, it became necessary for governments to secure their sources of saltpeter. For instance, during the reign of Henry VIII in England, most of the saltpeter used for gunpowder manufacture in England was imported. Many countries realized that these supplies could easily be disrupted and therefore looked to produce it domestically. This gave rise to a specialized profession: saltpeter men.

Saltpeter men were people who were trained to extract saltpeter from nitrated earth (we will study this process in detail in subsequent posts). Since it was such a vital ingredient, saltpeter men were actually given special privileges by governments. For instance, in France, the saltpetermen were issued royal warrants by the king, called droit de fouille (translated as "the right to dig"), which allowed them to dig any soil that they suspected contained nitrates, without compensating the owners. In England, similar laws were enacted as well. In fact, in 1646, a new law was passed in the English parliament that allowed saltpetermen to dig in likely places and if any person refused to allow them to dig on their property, that person could be prosecuted by the courts! They were also allowed to demand carts belonging to other people, to be used to transport the saltpeter, and exempt from any taxes or tolls on any of the roadways in England. In theory, the owners of the land that the saltpetermen were digging, were to be compensated for any damage caused by digging, but often, the compensation amount was not enough to cover the damages caused. Saltpetermen were not a popular sight in many areas and many were either beaten up, or bribed by farmers to stay away from their land.

A man digging saltpeter earth in a barn.

Saltpetermen were allowed to dig practically anywhere, including palaces and churches, with the full protection of the British King and many a landowner dreaded the sight of saltpetermen walking in and tasting his soil. In one incident, saltpetermen walked into the church in Chipping Norton and ripped out the seats and tore up the floor, leaving no place for people to sit or kneel in church.

We will study more about saltpeter production in subsequent posts, but suffice it to say that quite a few countries had laws for barns and cellars to be built without flooring, so as to allow saltpeter to form in there. In America, in 1642, a law in Boston declared that "every plantation within this colony shall erect a house in length 20 or 30 foote, and 20 foote wide within one-half year next coming. &c., to make saltpeter." This law was actually based on a similar law passed by the King of England in 1626, that required citizens around London to do the same thing. Similar laws existed in Germany and Sweden as well. In fact, Swedish barns were not allowed to have paving stones until about 1830 or so and farmers were required to supply a certain amount of nitrated earth every year, as part of their taxes!

In the next series of posts, we will study the production of saltpeter throughout the centuries. I promise it will be a very interesting read.


  1. Replies
    1. Good point. I should add a line or two describing the origin of the name. Thanks for the tip.

  2. It seems such a piddling thing... :)

    1. Yep, I'll get to the piddling bit in a few posts :).