Forbes of Iron
Updated: Feb 22, 2021
For two generations, the Forbes of Connecticut built forges and foundries, supplied the new American nation with a wide variety of iron product for war and industry, and became a financial and commercial center for the entire area.
Samuel Forbes (1729 – 1827) was born in Simsbury, Connecticut, in 1729 to John Forbes (1695 – 1759) and Abigail Westover Forbes (1702 - 1755) of Simsbury. John was the son of James Forbes (1665 – 1713) and Catherine Fothergill Forbes of Hartford, Connecticut. James Forbes was most likely the son of Captain James Forbes of Caithness, the second son of Duncan Forbes (1572-1654), Provost of Inverness and first lord of Culloden.
The Forbes family moved to Canaan, Connecticut, where Samuel went to work for his father and his partner, Richard Seymour, in an iron forge on the Blackberry River. His father John bought the forge in 1751.
On one of his trips to his mother’s hometown of Simsbury, John Forbes met Abigail Westover (1702 - 1755.) Forbes sold his Hartford properties, moved to Simsbury, and married Abigail on December 15, 1726. In 1737, Forbes and Abigail with their three children, Sarah (born 1727), Samuel (1729 - 1827) and Elisha (1731 - 1765), moved back to Hartford. In 1742, John visited friend Richard Seymour’s East Canaan iron forge, which was built in about 1739. Forbes became a partner and built a log cabin nearby for his family. His sons Samuel and Elisha went to work for their father and his partner at the iron forge on the Blackberry River.
In 1746, John established a blacksmith shop for his then 17-year-old son Samuel. The blacksmith business flourished and by 1749 John purchased more land in the Blackberry River area. In 1751, John bought out the Seymour Iron Works. In 1754, Samuel married Lucy Peirce of Killingly, Connecticut, and in the next year was born Abigail, their only child. In 1755, brother Elisha married Hannah Mills and the first of his eight children was born in the following year. John Forbes’s wife, Abigail, died on in 1755 and he turned over most of his East Canaan properties to his son, Samuel. Later that year, he sold the bulk of his land on both sides of the Blackberry River to him. By 1759 when John died, the Seymour Iron Works was completely in Forbes hands with John owning a quarter interest, elder son Samuel with a quarter interest, and younger son Elisha with the remaining one-half interest. After John’s death, Samuel and Elisha Forbes became equal partners in the iron industry and they expanded their iron works industries.
For example, in 1760, the Proprietors of Norfolk offered Samuel a 999-year lease on 80 acres of land on which "to build an Iron Works." To that he added a parcel of land on the Haystack and Blackberry Rivers for a dam and a mill. After establishing this Norfolk forge, Samuel sold it to Thomas Day, Sr., in return for selling to him its entire output of bar iron. Samuel Forbes provided the necessary iron ore for Day, as well as for his and his brother’s two forges in East Canaan. In 1762, Forbes partnered with Ethan Allen to establish a blast furnace in Lakeville. As part of the firm Pettibone & Forbes, he also owned two iron ore beds in Salisbury. He also acquired several blast furnaces in Norfolk, Connecticut, and a nail mill in nearby Washington, Connecticut.
The Forbes brothers’ partnership lasted until 1765 when Elisha "died by the kick of a horse" in Williston, Vermont (near Burlington). Eventually, Elisha’s two heirs sold the half interest to Samuel: one-quarter from Elisha’s wife in 1774 and one-quarter from Samuel's nephew in 1790.
At age 36 in 1765, Samuel Forbes became the sole proprietor of the business he once shared with his brother. He concentrated on three principal directions at his East Canaan forge complex on the Blackberry River. He expanded his by developing and training his own loyal employees; investing in the sources of products needed for iron production such as iron ore beds, charcoal and other supplies; developing a corps of manufacturers' representatives, or agents, also known as commission men, to sell his products; and standardizing the specifications of his products rather than to tailoring the items to the specific needs of his clients. This last innovation proved to be very effective when the American colonies declared war against Great Britain.
By 1775, Forbes’s Lakeville blast furnace, which he had developed in 1762, had been sold to former Boston merchant Richard Smith. However, he was charged with being loyal to Great Britain and he fled to London, England. Therefore, Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull commandeered the Lakeville furnace and ordered Colonel Joshua Porter, who lived nearby, to become overseer. He also “drafted” Samuel Forbes to return as ironmaster. Using ore primarily from Salisbury Ore Hill, the furnace produced an extraordinary amount of heavy and light cannon, cannon balls, grapeshot, huge cast iron kettles for soldiers’ meals, pig iron and other cast iron products during the Revolutionary War. In addition to his role as ironmaster at the Lakeville furnace, Forbes also sped up production at his East Canaan forges, producing thin iron rod used principally for making swords, sabers, bayonets, knives, daggers, thin metal musket parts, and nail rods for nails. Forbes returned permanently to East Canaan by the end of the war in 1781.
During the Revolutionary War, Forbes made the acquaintance of another family involved in iron-making. John Adam started an iron slitting mill in Taunton, Massachusetts, in 1777. His son, John Adam, Junior, (1755 – 1826) was involved in the production and, in a communication dated March 4, 1755, requested that Forbes supply him with a pair of wrought iron rollers for producing nail rods. He also asked Forbes to deliver a separate letter to his daughter, Abigail Forbes (1755-1836). The communication appeared to be successful since Adam Junior married Abigail at the Forbes homestead on August 6, 1780. Forbes made his son-in-law a partner in his business to create Forbes & Adam.
After the Revolution, the new United States of America experienced an expansion that required nails and spikes for building houses, barns, and mills. Business was so good, that Forbes & Adam expanded their operations to Washington, Connecticut, about 25 miles south of East Canaan. Their expanding business attracted many interesting clients. For example, castle-like Newgate Prison (named for Newgate Prison in London), was built in 1790 on the grounds of an old copper mine shaft. The state of Connecticut decided that the inmates should be kept busy making nails and so it started purchasing nail rod from Forbes & Adam.
Forbes & Adam also supplied refined iron for the United States Armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, established in 1794. The partnership also worked with Eli Whitney (inventor of he cotton gin) when he invented a process for making muskets with interchangeable parts for the federal government. In 1801, New York Times reported that: “…he was able to astound President Jefferson and members of the War Department by assembling a workable musket from piles of standardized parts heaped on a table in Washington, (D.C.).”
Forbes & Adam also produced iron anchors for both commercial trade and the United States Navy. Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert was so pleased with the partners’ wok that he requested more anchors from Forbes & Adam. In the course of the period of 1799 and 1800, Forbes & Adam produced an astonishing number of anchors to various shipbuilders, including Abraham Burt (57 anchors with a total weight 36,841 pounds), Daniel Harrington ("special" anchors with a total weight 14,044 pounds), and Isaac Mix (35 small anchors under 300 pounds each for a total weight 7,227 pounds.)
Forbes & Adams also owned parts of many iron ore beds in the area: Ore Hill (sometimes called Old Hill), Davis Mine, Chatfield Ore Bed, and the South Kent Ore Hill Iron Mine. The partners also owned large blocks of diversified woodlands that produced charcoal. With their combined iron businesses, Forbes & Adam provided steady employment for at least 50 men in their East Canaan iron works: ore diggers, transporters, tree cutters, charcoal makers, ore breakers, bloomers, forgemen, anchorsmiths, machinists, hot rollers, slitter operators, general transporters, handy men, general maintenance personnel, and a bookkeeper.
In addition to their iron works, Forbes & Adam diversified into other businesses, such as paper mills, grist mills, sawmills, and even a cider mill. Samuel Forbes also owned a general store on his "home lot," which was established before 1768. Forbes & Adam also lent "for cash on demand with interest."
A story relayed in the book Men of Iron: Forbes & Adam (1980, by Kenneth T. Howell and Einar W. Carlson) demonstrates the impact Samuel Forbes had on the region. By 1795, Forbes & Adam shipped a large proportion of their forged iron products through the port of Hudson, New York and they invested heavily in that city’s Columbia Bank. In fact, in the summer of 1800, Forbes was called upon to bail out the bank. He had received a letter from Columbia Bank Cashier James Nixon that the president of the bank implored him “on bended knee” to deposit “at least $25,000 in cash by tomorrow morning when we open the door at 9 o'clock” in order to avoid a run on the bank by the other investors. He collected about $27,000in cash from himself and partner Adams and he himself set off by horse-back by four o'clock in the morning to the Columbia Bank at Hudson, 40 miles away. At five minutes before nine o’ clock arrived, stood beside the president and cashier at the door of the bank, and loudly declared, “I'm glad to see so many people here who are putting their money into this bank, just as I am depositing $27,000 in cash, as I would much rather have my money in this safe bank than I would trying to hide it at home.” The crowd dispersed, leaving Forbes as the only one who entered the bank with the president and cashier.
Samuel Forbes died in 1927 at the age of 98. In his will, he directed that his final assets be divided into nine shares: three shares to his partner and son-in-law, John Adam, and one share each to his six grandchildren Samuel Forbes Adam (1783 – 1854); Lucy Forbes Walker of Lenox, Massachusetts; Sally Forbes Beckley, Canaan; John Adam III; Leonard Adam (1788 – 1835), and William Adam. John and Abigail’s children Samuel and Leonard followed their father into the iron trade. Samuel F. Adam is credited as the builder of the first blast furnace in East Canaan.
The Samuel Forbes Homestead at 89 Lower Road in North Canaan, Connecticut, was built about 1754, was altered significantly over time, and since 1992 has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For more information, read Men of Iron: Forbes & Adam, by Kenneth T. Howell and Einar W. Carlson, published in 1980 by the Pocketknife Press, Lakeville, Connecticut.
The Beckley Furnace was built in 1847 by John Adam Beckley, great-grandson of Samuel Forbes and grandson of John Adam, Jr., the founders of the Forbes & Adam Iron Company. The furnace was designated as Connecticut's only Industrial Heritage Site in 1946 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
To learn more, see Men of Iron: Forbes & Adam, by Kenneth T. Howell and Einar W. Carlson, published in 1980 by the Pocketknife Press of Lakeville, Connecticut.