Silversmiths of New York City—The Forbes Family
By Jean Stacy Gore, Great-Great Granddaughter of William Forbes, Silversmith
Silversmithing is an art that has been practiced for hundreds of years, in fact has been documented as far back as 301 AD. A silversmith is one who makes objects from silver by heating and hammering them into the desired object. A silversmith also repairs objects made from silver.
During the colonial times, silver for metalworking was not readily available in America. It was mined in Mexico and South America and sent to Europe. The Europeans did not want the colonists to have too much wealth so they limited the amount silver and silver coins sent to them. And there was a law that said the colonists could not make their own coins. All this changed when in 1652 the first American mint was built in Boston. The possession of and having the use of coins was a proclamation of independence from England. Silver coins had more value than paper money and could be used to make more than coins.
Since they did not always have access to mined silver the silversmiths, at times, melted down some of the silver coins they had to make objects to be used in the home. They also purchased old silver pieces from individuals and melted them down to make needed silver objects. If you see Coin Silver or a “C” stamped on an object this indicates it is coin silver. Coin silver is an alloy of 90% silver and 10% copper. Sterling silver, more commonly known as standard silver, is what jewelry and silverware are traditionally made from and is 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper.
Being a silversmith in colonial times was considered a “luxury” trade because most people did not have enough money to have items made from silver in their homes. They had things made from wood, pewter or other materials that were not as expensive as silver. You did not go to school to learn to be a silversmith. You began working with a silversmith around age 14 as an apprentice to learn the trade.
William Forbes, first in the line of Forbes Family of Silversmiths, came to America from Scotland, 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. He died in New York City in 1744.
One of William and Maria’s sons, Gilbert Forbes worked as an ironmonger and gunsmith. He was christened in New York City 25 Jul 1725 in the Dutch Church, New York City and died 07 Mar 1769 in New York City. He is buried in the Trinity Churchyard, New York City. Gilbert married Philander Haley 28 Apr 1748. She was born 15 Dec 1723 in New York City and died 09 Jan 1795. Gilbert and Philander had 11 children.
Gilbert has been reported to have been a silversmith but no actual evidence has been found of this. He may have sold silver goods by silversmiths in his shop. He is listed in the Revolutionary War records as having donated lead from his windows to make bullets for the war. Gilbert was admitted as a Freeman of New York City on 14 April 1747 as a carpenter. He was also a High Constable for New York City, 1756-1758 and Alderman for the West Ward, 1766-1768.
Three of Gilbert Forbes’ sons achieved fame or notoriety. His son, Gilbert Forbes, was involved in a plot to kidnap/assassinate George Washington in June, 1776. Sons William Garret Forbes and Abraham Gerritze Forbes were founders of the Forbes Family of Silversmiths in New York City, about 1785 and Forbes family members continued to design and make all types of coin silver products until the late 1800s. As the Forbes silversmithing family grew the sons apprenticed with their fathers and/or uncles before either joining them or going out on their own to manufacture silver products.
Abraham Gerritze Forbes, 1763-1833, married Jane Young, 1789 and worked in New York City from 1785-1805 as a gold and silversmith. He was listed in the New York City directories as a gold and silversmith, 1790-1805. Abraham Gerritze Forbes worked with his brother, William Garret Forbes and nephew, Garret Forbes from 1805-1809 at 90 Broadway, NYC. He married Jane Young, 1789 and had one son. He married Rebecca Courser in 1792 and had 6 children. Abraham was made a freeman of New York City in 1789 and appointed as City Marshall from 1789-1802. His hallmark is: A G F
Benjamin Gilbert Forbes, son of Abraham G. Forbes worked as a silversmith in New York City from 1816 to 1825. He partnered with Merritt Fordham in New York City in 1827. Abraham was listed in Longworth’s 1834 and 1842 City Directories as being a silversmith in New York City in 1829. He is listed on the 1850 Census with his occupation being silversmith. Benjamin was born in 1793 in New York City, married Electa Cornelia Nichols and had 2 children. His hallmark is F&F.
William Garret Forbes, son of Gilbert Forbes and Philander Haley, and brother of Abraham G. Forbes was born 15 December 1751 in New York City and died 1 January 1840 in New York City. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. He married Catherine Van Gelder, daughter of Gelyn Van Gelder and Maria Hyer on 06 November 1771 in New York City. She was born 03 September 1749 in New York City. They had 9 children. Three of their sons, Garret, John Wolfe and Colin Van Gelder Forbes were silversmiths.
William Garret Forbes was made a freeman on 3 February 1773. He was listed in the New York City Directory in 1786 as a member of the Gold and Silversmith’s Society. From 1786-1809 he is listed in the New York City Directories as a gold and silversmith. He joined the Mechanic’s Society in 1802. William Garret Forbes designed and manufactured many different types of silver ranging from trays, tea services and silverware. His designs were patterned after English designs but he was also influenced by his Dutch and Scottish descent. Many of his silver pieces are currently available for sale at auction houses and on eBay on the internet. William Garret Forbes is a proven Patriot for the Daughters of the American Revolution. He served as a relief for the powder house guard, April, 1775 in New York City. His hallmark is W. G. Forbes. (See photograph for an example of a tea pot by William G. Forbes, pictures provided by “eBay seller robertcharlessilver”)
William Garret Forbes was joined by his son, Garret Forbes. They worked together at 90 Broadway, NYC from 1805 to 1809. After 1809, son, Garret Forbes worked alone as a silversmith at 316 Broadway, New York City. He was appointed as a U.S. customs weigher and tax collector in New York City from 1817 to 1839. Garret was born 2 Sept. 1785 and died 18 Apr 1851 in New York City. Garret Forbes hallmark is: G. Forbes. (See photograph for spoons which are samples of the work of Garret Forbes. He also made other items of silver such as tea pots and trays but it is rare to see items of his work.)
John Wolf Forbes, another son of William Garret Forbes and Catherine Van Gelder was born in New York City in 1781 and died 28 Dec. 1864 in New York City. He married Elizabeth Clark in 1803 and had 8 children. He entered the silversmith trade in 1802 working at 415 Pearl Street and later at 421 Pearl Street. He was very successful in New York City working until 1831 as a silversmith and jeweler. John Wolf Forbes preferred to make his silver pieces for individual clients. He did not engage in selling silver pieces to retailers for resale. John Wolf Forbes hallmark is: I. W. F. or I W Forbes
Some of John Wolf Forbes silver is very ornate with animals as finials, handles and the spout of a tea pot/coffee pot being the head of an animal with the mouth open. He used a lot of leaves and flowers on his pieces. His silver pieces can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The White House has 3 pieces of his work. One is an Empire style plateau which is a three piece silver and mirror centerpiece to sit in the center of a table, made between 1820 and 1825 during James Monroe’s presidency and a pair of meat dishes, 1810-1820 with an engraved torso crest of the Bayard family of New York. These items were donated to the White House by private individuals. The plateau is a French Empire design and it is presumed John W. Forbes copied its design. According to a letter from the Office of the Curator at the White House dated 8 September 2000 he made two of the plateaus. The one in the White House and the other was a smaller version given by the citizens of New York to Governor DeWitt Clinton in 1825 on the opening of the Erie Canal. Much of John Wolf Forbes silver is in private collections and museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City but does come up occasionally for auction at auction houses and on eBay. (See photograph for spoons made by John Wolf Forbes, from a Private Collection.)
Colin Van Gelder Forbes, son of William Garret Forbes and Catherine Van Gelder, married Elizabeth Bullock in 1798. They had 9 children. Their sons, William Forbes and Colin Van Gelder Forbes, Jr. followed in the footsteps of their ancestors as silversmiths.
Colin Van Gelder Forbes worked with his father, William Garret Forbes as a silversmith during 1800 and 1801. He partnered with John Lockwood in 1806 as Forbes and Lockwood. From 1808-1818 Colin Van Gelder Forbes worked as a silversmith and watchmaker at 72 Gold Street. He used the mark of C.V.G.F. He became a partner with his silversmith brother, John Wolfe Forbes in 1819 at 90 Broadway. They were listed as C. & J.W. Forbes and J.W. Forbes and Company with a star and two anchors. Colin manufactured flat ware and tea sets. His work ranged from very plain to ornate. Hallmarks used by Colin Van Gelder Forbes included both "C. Forbes" and "C.V.G.F." (See photograph for ornate and plain teaspoon ends from a private collection.)
From 1826 to 1836 Colin Van Gelder Forbes was in a partnership with his son, William Forbes, a silversmith as Colin V.G. Forbes & Son. In 1835 Colin was again a partner with his son, William Forbes as Colin Van Gelder Forbes & Son. Colin Van Gelder, Jr. joined his father, Colin Van Gelder and brother, William Forbes in 1835 as a silversmith.
Colin Van Gelder Forbes, Jr. son of Colin Van Gelder Forbes and Elizabeth Bullock married Felicity Ann Skillman. They had 2 children. Colin was born in 1806 and died 3 Feb 1865 at Point of Rocks, Virginia during the Civil War. Following William Forbes partnership with his father, Colin Van Gelder Forbes, he worked alone from 1836 to 1864 as a silversmith in New York City. He manufactured and sold silver for himself and companies such as Ball, Tompkins & Black. William Forbes hallmark is: W Forbes.
(See photograph for hallmark when working for Ball, Tompkins and Black. See photogaph for examples of William Forbes silver: three-piece repousse coin silver tea set with pictures provided by The Silver Trade Route; advertised for sale by shrinkflyer; coin silver porringer made for Ball, Thompkins and Black with pictures provided by eBay seller 925pa; pitcher made for Thomas Jefferson Forbes by his father, William Forbes, from a private collection; and spoons made by William Forbes from a private collection.)
Thomas Jefferson Forbes, son of William Forbes and Jane McLachlan apprenticed with his father, William Forbes about 1843 in New York City. He worked for a short time with his father but soon left the silversmith trade and became a bookkeeper.
William Forbes, last silversmith in the Forbes family, retired in 1864 and moved to Rahway, NJ where he farmed. William was born 11 March 1798 in New York City and died 10 October 1888 in Rahway, NJ. He married Jane McLachlan in Albany, NY on 16 October 1826 and they had 10 children. The retirement of William Forbes in 1864 to his farm in New Jersey ended the era of the Forbes Silversmiths of New York City. Their coin silver pieces are found in private collections, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of the City of New York and come up for auction at auction houses and eBay.
Information for this article came from a family history written by Isabelle McLeod Forbes Stacy, in the possession of her great-granddaughter Jean Stacy Gore. Isabelle is the daughter of William Forbes, the last Forbes silversmith in the Forbes family of silversmiths. Additional information came from The Magazine Antiques, titled THE FORBES FAMILY OF SILVERSMITHS, by Rachel B. Crawford, March, 1973 and April, 1975, AMERICAN SILVERSMITHS – Rootsweb, Ancestry.com, Family Search and miscellaneous genealogical information from other Forbes researchers.
It should be noted here that you may see silver from Forbes Silver Company. The Forbes Silver Company has no connection with the original Forbes Silversmiths of New York City—1785-1864. This company was established in 1894 and was a division of the Meriden Brittannia Company in Meriden, Connecticut. At that time, they made only silver-plated hollowware. In 1898, the Forbes Silver Company and the Meriden Brittannia Company combined to form the International Silver Company.
Edmund P Hogan in: An American Heritage: A book about the International Silver Company 
You may also see the names of other Forbes Silversmiths but they are not part of the Forbes Silversmith family of New York City.