One of the fun blogs I've been following is Le Loup's Woodsrunner's Diary.
I know I've said it before, but I still get a kick out of seeing folk reenact the early American frontier period elsewhere in the world. Not unlike that watching the Europeans and Yankees talking about our Southern Civil War experience, but all happy and heartwarming instead of mournful.
(somebody cares - it's so sweet!!! :) )
Butsoanyhow... Le Loup, this is for you - a mountain crossbow -
I went and found the book I remembered seeing, but I think I may have mislead you. Here's the details -
Source - Guns and Gunmaking Tools of Southern Appalachia* by John Rice Irwin.
The items in the book are almost universally housed I believe at the Museum of Appalachia**, so they're the folks to write if you want more information.
Respecting their copyright, I don't want to just duplicate everything in there, but here's the highpoints -
1. Pictured item is the assumed the earliest (most all the others look comparatively modern.) Found in Green county, TN in the 1930's in an area originally settled by German folk. The author describes it as "1700s" based on the stock shape.
2. Stock is poplar, bow was replaced by the gentleman who found it. He says it was "of red cedar" but I can't tell from context if he meant the original, the replacement, or both. I think he was referring to the original. "Black haw" is mentioned by one source as a better bow wood, and hickory is recommended for the "arries." :)
3. One source interviewed (no date is given, but within the last generation or two) mentions the old timers he remembers hunting with them - mostly small game but also deer and (black) bear.
"And the folks back before my time hunted with them. They's so poor they couldn't get hold of a rifle gun, and if they did it was hard to get powder and lead. If a feller back then had a gun, he's a big man.. ... Yes sir, them people up on Newman's Ridge could never have made it way back yonder it it hadn't been for having those crossbows."
4. The above bit about the comparative rareness of firearms is in direct contrast to everything else I've read about the 1700's frontier, and the author of the book also introduces this chapter by saying "None of my research , nor any of the commentaries I have read relative to the pioneer-frontier period of our country, mentions the crossbow as having been used in early America." - then mentions a couple arguable relics from the Revolutionary period by Gene Purcell. (To be fair, he's saying that not from skepticism but excitement - an "oh my gosh what is this?!" moment)
Still, I am assuming that the overall picture goes something like this -
a. Original settlers come in with purchased sundries like you discussed, including a fairly typical assortment of contemporary arms.
b. Although there is a rise of local industry, it may not have been able to keep up with rising demand as population increased.
c. Post Revolutionary War, and especially post War of 1812 it looks like there's a rise of the romantic archetype of the American frontier rifleman turned elite soldiery, possibly borrowing from the English romantic yeoman archer archetype. The side effect is that all the associated goodies (pouches, rifle stocks, riflemen's coats, so forth and so on) work their way into the mainstream, and get all tarted up.
.... many of my modern American friends may recognize this process. ;)
d. Post Civil War, the Southern economy is in shambles. And as bad as the South in general is.... the Appalachians being both geographically and culturally somewhat isolated means its even worse there.
At this point, I'd like to point out the bow itself and the firing mechanism in particular is much cruder than a medieval crossbow (ain't it fun having history fan friends with huge toyboxes to show off?) - despite the former being not substantially harder to manufacture.
Therefore, I'm inclined to think the "old timers" our source mentions aren't Colonial at all, but rather somewhere between 1870 and 1940, and their crossbows an improvised adaptation rather than a continuing tradition of any great size.
So um..Loup? Mea Culpa. Hope this makes up for it. :)
* Fair warning LL, most of what's in the book is way post colonial period - mid 19th c. is about as early as it goes, and the greater part of it looks early 20th c.
** fun story about the M of A - Daddy tells me the old family still is on display there. I feel so proud!! :)