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Hugh Orr

Hugh Orr, an early mineral collector of strictly American specimens, was born in Lochwinnoch, Scotland on January 2, 1715, the son of Janet Orr and Robert Orr (probably cousins). Robert Orr was a maltster, meaning he made beer and operated the Strands Inn public house in Lochwinnoch. Both of Hugh's parents remained in Scotland when he emigrated to America in 1737 (at the age of 22).

Hugh Orr was brought up in the trade of a gunsmith and door-lock filer, and became an inventor and ironworker. In June 1740 he settled at Bridgewater, in Massachusetts, establishing a shop where he manufactured scythes, axes, shovels, muskets (the first to be made in the Colonies), and cannons. He set up the first trip-hammer ever constructed in Massachusetts, and he succeeded in spreading the manufacture of edge-tools through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

In 1748 he made 500 muskets for the province of Massachusetts Bay, believed to have been the first weapons of the kind produced in the country. During the revolution he was actively employed in casting iron and brass cannon and cannon-balls, for which, in conjunction with a Frenchman, he constructed a foundry. In Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania, Vol 1 (Kent family) there is a note that:

"May 15, 1777, Colonel Hugh Orr is directed to complete twenty cannon, twelve-pounders, for the Continental ship Raleigh, to be sent by Captain Thompson to Providence, where he was to receive a quantity of pig iron from the ship Columbus."

He also originated the business of exporting flax-seeds to his father in Scotland. He was the inventor of a machine for cleaning flax-seed, and another for the manufacture of cotton. With the growth of his business interests Hugh began to purchase land, largely from his in-laws, mainly in the Bridgewater area. His increasing prosperity meant that he was able to help his less fortunate relatives. The “Native Soil Manuscripts Index” provides several examples of his initiative and possibly philanthropy.

Hugh Orr married Mary Bass (born 21 March 1724) in East Bridgewater on 4 August 1742 and had at least three children: Jannet Orr, Susanna Orr (born 1752; died 20 December 1836) and Robert Orr (born1746; died 5 Feb 1811). As Colonel Robert Orr this son was the armorer at Springfield. Other children named by varying sources include Hugh, James, Charlotte, Matilda, Rosanna, Jean/Jane, Bethia, Margaret and Bathsheba.

Orr was a staunch supporter of the Revolution, and afterward served some years as a member of the Massachusetts state senate. He was admired as a man of high character, with a kind and sympathetic nature. Despite his common-school education, he had a keen interest in minerals, and in the discovery of new ore deposits. Thatcher (1804) wrote of him:

"His knowledge of minerals and ores was so extensive that from nearly every newly discovered mine in the country he was immediately furnished with specimens of its quality, and a few years previous to his death he was in possession of a valuable mineral collection."

He died December 6, 1798, in Bridgewater. As with most other early American mineral collections, the disposition of his is unknown. It was most likely dispersed or in large part discarded by his heirs.

THATCHER, J. (1804) Observation upon the natural production of iron ores, and some account of the iron manufacture in the County of Plymouth. Massachusetts Historical Society Collection, 9, 264.
Orr, Hugh (1717-1798), Dictionary of National Biography, Volumes 1-20, pg. 1161.
The Orr Name Study website
WILSON, W.E. (1994) The history of mineral collecting 1530-1799. Mineralogical Record, 25 (6), 241 pp.
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