Updated: Mar 6
Before the Forbes family of colonial New York was making its mark on the silver trade, brother Gilbert was making his mark in quite a different way – as a co-conspirator in the plot to abduct and kill Continental Army General George Washington.
William Forbes (1678 – c. 1744), progenitor of the line of Forbes silversmiths, was the son of Alexander Forbes, 4th of Torhendry, a silversmith in Aberdeen. Alexander was the great grandson of Robert Forbes, 1st of Meikle Wardes, and great-great grandson of Arthur Forbes of Meikle Wardes, a cadet of the Lairds of Pitsligo. (Tayler, Alistair and Henrietta. 1937. House of Forbes. Edinburgh: Third Spalding Club.)
William settled in New York City about 1703, married Abigale Valentine and had 3 children. Following Abigail’s death in 1711, William married Marytje [Maria] Paulding in 1713 and had 10 children. William worked as a cordwainer (shoemaker) and died in New York City in 1744. His son Gilbert Forbes, the elder, learned the ironmonger and gunsmith trades. He was also a High Constable for New York City, 1756-1758 and Alderman for the West Ward, 1766-1768. Gilbert’s two younger sons William Garret Forbes (1751 – 1840) and Abraham Gerritze Forbes (1763 – 1833) were founders of the Forbes silversmiths in about 1785. The Forbes family members continued to design and make all types of coin silver products until the late 1800s.
The eldest son, also called Gilbert (1749 - 1790), continued in his father’s trade as a gunsmith. In 1775, New-York Journal notes that his shop is located “at the Sign of the Sportsman in the Broad Way, opposite Hull's Tavern in New-York” and that he “makes and sells all sorts of guns, in the neatest and best manner; on the lowest terms; has for sale, silver and brass mounted pistols, rifle barrel guns, double swivel and double roller gun locks; common do. 50 ready made new bayonet guns, on all one size and pattern.” (The New-York Journal or the General Advertiser, March 16, 1775.) His business brought him in contact with two of the most influential men of his day: Royal Governor of New York William Tryon and Mayor of New York City David Mathews.
Tryon was born in Surrey, England, in 1729 and rose in the ranks of the British Army. In 1764, he was appointed acting lieutenant governor of the Province of North Carolina. He became Royal Governor in 1765 and gained notoriety for suppressing the Regulator Movement (which opposed his increased taxation) from 1768 to 1771. He became the Royal Governor of the Province of New York in 1771. After the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, New York was torn between devoted British Loyalists and American Rebels. In fact, more than half the New York Chamber of Commerce were avowed Loyalists, also known as “Royalists” or “Tories.” (McCullough, David. 2005. 1776. New York City: Simon & Schuster.)
By October 1775, Tryon was forced to seek refuge on the British sloop-of-war HMS Halifax in New York Harbor and then set up an offshore headquarters on board the 74-gun ship HMS Duchess of Gordon. In February 1776, Governor Tryon appointed fellow Loyalist David Mathews as the Colonial Mayor of New York City.
On April 13, 1776, General George Washington and the Continental Army arrive in New York City and begin their occupation of Manhattan. With the governor offshore, governance of the Province was then conducted New York Provincial Congress. The Congress adjourned on November 4, 1775, and appointed a “Committee of Safety” to sit during its recess. However, the Congress had still not fully endorsed independence from Great Britain and, consequently, merchants continued to supply the British ships still in the harbor. Washington wrote to the Committee of Safety arguing that its mere existence was proof enough that the former Colonies and Great Britain are at war. He further insisted that communications with Tryon should cease. (George Washington to the New York Safety Committee, April 17, 1776.)
In the meantime, Gilbert Forbes is intent on selling guns and spreads the word through the Loyalist taverns. A millstone maker named Webb informs him that he could get three guineas apiece from the Governor, aboard the HMS Duchess of Gordon. He enlisted the aid of Mrs. Beck, a tavern-keeper near the Fly Market, to send Tryon nine rifles and eleven smooth-bore guns. He was told that the Mayor, David Mathews, would deliver them during a prisoner exchange and that Mathews would pay Forbes the money. (Committee on Conspiracies, “Examination of Gilbert Forbes,” June 29, 1776. Calendar of Historical Manuscripts, Relating to the War of the Revolution in the Office of the Secretary of State, Albany, NY, Volume 1. 1868. Albany: Weed, Parsons and Company.)
According to Mathews, he went onboard the HMS Dutchess of Gordon by permission of General Putnam to obtain from the Governor Permission for Lord Drummond to go to Bermuda.
As he was about to leave, the Gov “put a bundle of paper money into his Hands” and pay
Gilbert Forbes “for some Rifles & round bored Guns which he had made for him & for others which the said Forbes was to make and to tell Forbes that he did not want any more Riffles.”
(Committee on Conspiracies, “Examination of David Matthews,” June 23, 1776. Calendar of Historical Manuscripts, Relating to the War of the Revolution in the Office of the Secretary of State, Albany, NY, Volume 1. 1868. Albany: Weed, Parsons and Company.)
Mathews also noted that Forbes “mentioned a scheme of raising a Company and requested to know whether he would have a Commission.” (Ibid.) Soon after that, Forbes met with a Sergeant Graham who told him that he was “discharged from the Royal Artillery” and was employed by Governor Tryon to speak to Forbes about enlisting men for the Kings Service and that he “exerted himself in that Business & raised a number of men he should have a Company.” (Committee on Conspiracies, “Examination of Gilbert Forbes,” June 29, 1776. Calendar of Historical Manuscripts, Relating to the War of the Revolution in the Office of the Secretary of State, Albany, NY, Volume 1. 1868. Albany: Weed, Parsons and Company.)
According to his own testimony, Forbes “received upwards of a hundred pounds from Mr˙ Matthews, the Mayor, to pay those who should inlist into the King' s service, who, alter inlisting, were to go on board the King' s ships, but if they could not get there, were to play their proper parts when the King' s forces arrived.” (Court Martial for the trial of Thomas Hickey and others, Proceedings of a General Court Martial of the Line, held at Head-Quarters, in the City of New-York, by warrant from his Excellency George Washington, Esq, General and Commander-in-Chief of the forces of the United American Colonies, for the trial of Thomas Hickey and others, June 26th, AD. 1776.)
Forbes became so successful in recruiting soldiers that he was able to infiltrate General Washington’s own Life Guard. This elite group was formed in March, 1776, with the mission "to protect General Washington, the army's cash and official papers." The official name of the unit was "His Excellency's Guard," or the "General's Guard." Enlisted soldiers referred to the group as "The Life Guards." The first Life Guard to be enlisted was William Green, who went on to recruit Thomas Hickey, Michael Lynch, Johnson the fifer, and a private named Barnes.
With these Life Guards on the British payroll, Governor Tryon and Mayor Mathews hatch a daring plan: to abduct General Washington and hang him for treason.
However, as with many secret conspiracies, word leaks out. In this case, the plot was uncovered by William Leary, a foreman of the Ringwood Iron Mill, sixty miles north of Manhattan in Goshen, New York. According to his own testimony, he had been sent to New York City by his boss, mill owner Robert Erskine, to track down a missing employee named William Benjamin. Benjamin was suspected to be involved in a Loyalist plot. He found Benjamin at a boarding house – along with other disaffected workers James Mason, James Ramsay, Christopher Wyley, and George Gammel. Leary pretended to have also run away from Goshen and Mason suggested that he join them in signing an oath in allegiance to the British Crown. Mason told him “he was to swear before a Gentleman in this town to go on Board of the Man of War that he Mason and his Companions had so sworn and were to receive wages & Provisions untill they would be able to get there.” He further explained that the individual who administered the oath was “a Gentleman employed by the Mayor or Governor of the town” – a person by the name of Gilbert Forbes, a gunsmith who was a "short, thick man who wore a white coat." (Committee on Conspiracies, “Examination of William Leary,” June 23, 1776. Calendar of Historical Manuscripts, Relating to the War of the Revolution in the Office of the Secretary of State, Albany, NY, Volume 1. 1868. Albany: Weed, Parsons and Company.)
Leary immediately notifies the American authorities and is called before the brand-new
Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies, chaired by John Jay. On June 20, 1776, the Committee arraigned and examined William Leary and James Mason of Goshen, NY.
Based on their testimony, Jay ordered Mathews' arrest for "being engaged in a Conspiracy against the Authority of the Congress and the Liberties of America." Mathews was arrested at his home in Flatbush on June 22, 1776. He was questioned by the Committee the next day.
This lead to the arrest of several members of the Life Guards and the organizers of the conspiracy – including Gilbert Forbes. The “Court Martial for the trial of Thomas Hickey and others” commences on June 26, 1776 and Hickey pleads not guilty. During questioning, many witnesses give conflicting statements and attempted to qualify their actions.
William Green admitted that Gilbert Forbes recruited him but “was pleased with the notion of getting some money from the Tories, and agreed to the scheme, with a view to cheat the Tories, and detect their scheme.”
Gilbert Forbes claimed that Green “supposed I was his friend, and immediately proposed to inlist some men into the King' s service” and “in repeated applications from him, I at last fell into the scheme.”
Isaac Ketchum reported Hickey informed him that “eight of the General' s Guard were concerned, but mentioned only Green by name” and that “one Forbes, a tavern-keeper, was to be their Captain, but that the inferior officers were not yet appointed, lest the scheme should be discovered.”
Even though he plead not guilty, Hickey provided no defense. Instead, he justified his taking money “for the sake of cheating the Tories, and getting some money from them, and afterwards consented to have his name sent on board the man-of-war, in order that if the enemy should arrive and defeat the Army here, and he should be taken prisoner, he might be safe." The court unanimously convicted him breaching the Rules and Regulations for the government of the Continental Forces and sentenced him to be hanged.
Newspapers across the country reprinted a letter dated June 24, 1776, that reported that “a most barbarous and an infernal plot has been discovered among the Tories.” The reported plan was “to murder all the staff officers, blow up the magazines, and secure the passes of the town.” The writer notes that Gilbert Forbes, gunsmith, in the Broadway, was taken between 2 and 3 o’ clock on Saturday morning and carried before our Congress.” The letter continues “Several been since taken, between 20 and 30, among them our mayor, who are all now under confinement.”
On June 29, 1776, British General William Howe, and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, arrive in New York harbor from Boston. On August 26, 1776, the British recaptured New York City and placed the city under martial law. William Tryon regained his ceremonial title as Royal Governor but the true power was in the hands of military commander James Robertson. In early 1777, Tryon was appointed as major-general of the provincials and he commander a series of raids against the colonists. He returned home to London, England in 1780 and died there in 1788.
In September 1776, David Mathews escapes from his prison cell in Connecticut. He secretly travels to Manhattan where Tryon again appoints him as Mayor. When the British lose the war in 1783, Mathews escaped to Great Britain. He submitted a claim for compensation to the Royal Commission in London for the forfeiture of his estate in the colonies. In his application, he claimed that "He had formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his guard prisoners, which was not effected by an unforeseen discovery that was made." (McBurney, Christian. 2016. Abductions in the American Revolution: Attempts to Kidnap George Washington, Benedict Arnold and Other Military and Civilian Leaders. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company) In 1786, Mathews was appointed Attorney General of Cape Breton Island and later interim administrator of the colony. He died in 1800.
Gilbert Forbes was imprisoned first in the New Goal in the northeast of the Commons and then on July 19, 1776, was sent to Litchfield Gaol in Connecticut. Gilbert Forbes was last reported as v=being seen in New Jersey in 1785: “The Jersies swarm with some of the most abandoned miscreants from Nova Scotia, among whom is a certain Forbes, who was concerned in the memorable Plot of 1776…What a pity these people should be introduced to a country which has great need of more virtue and less vice." (Notices from New Jersey Newspapers 1781-1790 by Thomas B. Wilson: Marfy Goodspeed Sept. 21, 1785. Political Intelligencer, Elizabeth Town.)
He was still imprisoned as of May 1777, when his mother Philander Forbes petitioned the Council of Safety for the State of New York for better accommodations: "he has lately informed me by letter that on Governor Francklen being brought to Litchfield he was removed from above to below stairs to a very uncomfortable and unhealthy Room having no light or air but what enters through a hole about six inches square, in consequence of which he begged me to apply to the Convention of this State to grant him some Enlargement from his present confinement." (Calendar of Historical Manuscripts, Relating to the War of the Revolution, in the Office of the Secretary of State, Albany N.Y., Volume II. 1868. Albany: Weed, Parsons, Printers.) "Governor Francklen" is, of course, William Franklin (ca. 1730/31-1813) who was the last of New Jersey's royal governors. He was the "natural" (i.e. illegitimate) son of Benjamin Franklin.
Gilbert Forbes is believed to have died in 1790 at the age of 45.
While Gilbert Forbes tarnished the name of Forbes in America, his family of the the Silversmith Forbes of New York burnished the name through their thriving silver trade for the next 100 years.
Special thanks to Jean Stacy Gore, author of Silversmith Forbes of New York, for her assistance.
1776 by David McCullough. Published in 2005 by Simon & Schuster
Abductions in the American Revolution: Attempts to Kidnap George Washington, Benedict Arnold and Other Military and Civilian Leaders by Christian McBurney. Published 2016 by McFarland & Company.
Calendar of Historical Manuscripts, Relating to the War of the Revolution in the Office of the Secretary of State, Albany, NY, Volume 1. Published in 1868 by Weed, Parsons and Company.
Court Martial for the trial of Thomas Hickey and others, Proceedings of a General Court Martial of the Line, held at Head-Quarters, in the City of New-York, by warrant from his Excellency George Washington, Esq, General and Commander-in-Chief of the forces of the United American Colonies, for the trial of Thomas Hickey and others, June 26th, AD. 1776.
The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch. Published in 2019 by Flatiron Book.
“How a New York governor once plotted to assassinate George Washington” by Larry Getlen. Published by the New York Post on December 29, 2018.
“Plotting the ‘Sacricide’ of George Washington” by Gary Shattuck, Journal of the American Revolution, July 25, 2014.
Turncoats, Traitors And Heroes: Espionage in the American Revolution by John Blakeless. Published in 1998 by Da Capo Press.