The Bone Ring

Photograph of ring belonging to William Channing Clapp. It is light brown in color, with the number 44 carved on it.Stored in the archival collection of the Dorchester (MA) Historical Society is a ring, brown in color and lightweight, with the number forty-four carved into it. Until recently, not much was known about the ring’s origins. An old label stored with the ring lists it as a Civil War identification ring pertaining to the 44th Regiment. It is kept in the archives at the William Clapp House, one of three properties owned by the Dorchester Historical Society.

My husband and I have been live-in caretakers of this house for over seven years. It was built in 1806 by William Clapp (1779-1860), an active member of the Dorchester community, whose family owned a tannery and was involved in a variety of agricultural pursuits. Over a period of 150 years, four generations of William’s family resided in the house, including William’s grandson, William Channing Clapp (1843-1921).

During the Civil War, William Channing Clapp served with the 44th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Company G. Since William was associated with the 44th Regiment, it seemed likely that the ring was connected to his service. However, the full story about this ring remained unknown until recently, when a descendant of William Clapp donated a number of photographs and family papers to the society.

Among the donated items was a stack of letters written by William Channing Clapp while serving in the military. He wrote approximately forty letters to his family between October 1862 and May 1863. The majority of the letters were addressed to William’s older sister, Rebecca Dexter Clapp (1841-1865), and their father Lemuel Clapp (1815-1883). He wrote about the camp conditions where he was stationed in New Bern, North Carolina, and provided details about the battles he participated in with his regiment. His letters also revealed how much he missed his family; in one letter, William asked his father Lemuel to “write often, for I am always ready to hear from home.”

In a letter to his sister Rebecca, dated 27 January 1863, William wrote, “I have made a ring of beef-bone to send home; do you want to wear it? It is of value on account of not having tools to make with.” In other letters to Rebecca, William wrote that he used a bayonet, knife, and file to make the ring, and that he carved the numbers with a knife and placed a sealing wax on it. For Rebecca, this ring must have been a treasured gift from her brother. However, her response to William about this present remains unknown. Rebecca’s letters were likely destroyed while William was stationed in Washington, North Carolina, during the Confederate siege of that town in the spring of 1863. In a letter to his sister dated 28 April 1863, William told Rebecca that he burned the letters he received from their family, in case he was captured.1

During the Civil War, a number of soldiers spent their downtime carving objects using material easily available to them, such as animal bone and gutta-percha, a hard rubber made from a tree sap used on furniture and other items. These objects were kept as personal mementos and sent home to loved ones. For some soldiers, creating these items became an important undertaking. Leroy Warren, a member of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Company C, kept a diary and wrote about the “bone-dust trade” carried out by Union prisoners of war held at Parish Prison in New Orleans, Louisiana. The bone-dust trade pertained to the creation of various trinkets, such as rings and decorative pins, using beef bones acquired from their rations. As with William Channing Clapp’s ring, sealing wax typically was applied to the lettering and images on these objects to give definition to the carvings.

The bone-dust trade became a lucrative endeavor for those incarcerated at Parish Prison. When the residents of New Orleans learned about the decorative items worked on by the prisoners, they began purchasing them. Even those assigned to guard the Union soldiers traded with the prisoners to have items made. The trade provided prisoners money with which to purchase sought-after items, such as oranges, molasses and tobacco. Warren noted that each bone ring would sell from twelve cents up to two dollars—so the value of just one ring could potentially equal the purchase price of a gallon of molasses.2

William Channing Clapp’s son, Frank Lemuel Clapp, was the last member of the Clapp family to reside in the William Clapp House. He sold the house to the Dorchester Historical Society in the 1940s, but remained as its caretaker until his death in 1953. A large number of Clapp family possessions that were in the home at the time of Frank’s death were distributed among surviving members of the family. Other items, including the ring, became a part of the Dorchester Historical Society’s Clapp collection. Since William Channing Clapp’s letters were not initially part of the society’s archival collection, the members who first catalogued the ring had very little information about it, aside from its likely association with the 44th during the Civil War. With the recent donation of William Channing Clapp’s letters, the full story of the ring and William’s military service may now be preserved as part of the Clapp family history.



1 Letters from William Channing Clapp to Rebecca Dexter Clapp, 27 January 1863, 5 February 1863, 12 February 1863, and 28 April 1863. Clapp Collection, William Channing Clapp Civil War Correspondence, collection 2023.0007.016, Dorchester Historical Society, Dorchester, Massachusetts.

2 Lawrence Wilson, ed. Itinerary of the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1864, with Roster, Portraits, and Biographies (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1907), 344-346.

Eileen Pironti

About Eileen Pironti

Eileen graduated with a B.A. from Saint Anselm College, and received an M.S. from American University. She wrote about her ancestors’ participation in the colonization of Nobles County, Minnesota in “‘An Invitation to the Land’: Reconstructing James and Eliza Conlon’s Migration to Minnesota,” which was published in the Summer 2011 issue of American Ancestors magazine. Eileen's interests include Irish and 19th century New England research.View all posts by Eileen Pironti