Captain Elias Pelletreau, Long Island Silversmith, Part 1

Editorial Staff Art

By MABEL C. WEAKS; from The Magazine ANTIQUES, May 1931.

Southampton, Long Island, is the place where Captain Elias Pelletreau was born, May 31, 1726. There, today, in the old cemetery, may be seen an ancient brown tombstone thus inscribed: “On Memory of Capt. Elias Pelletreau who died Nov. 2, 1810 in the 85, year of his age.” That he was a patriot is attested by the bronze  marker of the Daughters of the American Revolution and by the United States flag above his grave. Something of his more intimate history we learn as our eyes encounter the neighboring tombstones of his two wives, that of the Reverend Silvanus White, who had officiated at his first wedding, and those of his various relatives and of the townspeople among whom he lived and worked for almost a century.

Fig. 1– Breakers (1748) Made by Elias Pelletreau, aged 22 years, at the close of his apprecnticeship. Height: 4 5/8 inches. From the First Congretional Church of Groton, Connecticut

The Southampton of the present is a fashionable summer colony that offers an excellent market for fine silver and other costly wares, as many an exclusive shop attests. But one wonders how the eighteenth-century community could have supported a craftsman who supplied the luxuries of life. It is hope that this question will be answered presently.

Fig. 2– Two views of the Howell Tankard (c.1750) Maker’s mark E.P. inrectangle on each side of upper joining handle. Height 6 5/8 inches; base diameter: 5 1/4 inches top, diameter: 4 5/8 inches. From the collections of Pelletreau descendant. 

Three generations of Pelletreaus were silversmiths in Southampton. John Pelletreau (1755-1822) worked with his father Elias and continued the business during the twelve years that he survived his parent. It has been thought that he used exclusively his father’s mark E P, shaded Roman capitals in a rectangle; but a recently discovered piece, accepted as his workmanship and bearing his mark, has weekend that belief. John’s son, William Smith Pelletreau, used the mark W.S. PELLETREAU, capitals in a rectangle. William’s work is of such distinction that a large water pitcher made by him has reproduced by Tiffany and Company with credit to the maker of the original.

This William Smith Pelletreau, silversmith and son, William Smith Pelletreau, Jr., who was an historian, and who carefully preserved the records of his family. Among these was a series of daybooks in which his great-grandfather, Captain Elias Pelletreau, carefully entered his business transactions, including his orders for silver. On the death of William, Jr., in 1918, these volumes were scattered, only one of them being received by his niece and executrix, Mrs. John Biddle Clark. This volume, covering the period from 1766 to 1775-with occasional  entries as late as 1783-was presented by Mrs. Clark to the Long Island Historical Society, Brooklyn, New York, in 1922. Three other daybooks fell into the hands of antiques dealers, from whom they were purchased in 1927 and 1928 by Morton Pennybacker of Kew Gardens, Long Island, for his collection of historical books and manuscripts. Eventually they will be a part of Mr. Pennypacker’s proposed gift to the public library of East Hampton, Long Island, and will thus find a permanent home near the place whose business activities they record.

Fig. 3– A Tankard Engraved with Monogram “A T” (c. 1750) Very similar to the Howell tankard, and similarly stampled with the maker’s mark. Height: 7 inches. From the Mabel Brady Garvan Collections, School of Fine Arts, Yale University. 

Captain Pelletreau referred to his daybooks as No 1, No. 2, No.3 and so on, and they will be thus designated in this article. The period of time covered by each as follows:

         No. 1. 1748 or 1749-1758. This book has not been found

No. 2. 1759-1765, with occasional entries as late as 1805 (Photostat copy in the New York Public Library).

No. 3. 1766-1775, with occasional entries as late as 1783; some of them in the hand of John Pelletreau.

No. 4. 1776-1801

No. 5. 1801-1810, with additional entries by John Pelletreau until 1822, and by Charles Pelletreau until 1860.

The present study is based upon daybooks No. 2 and No. 3 and the family papers in possession of the Long Island Historical Society, covering the period prior to the Revolution.

Fig. 4– Bulbous Can with Scrolled Handle (c.1760) Maker’s mark E P in rectangle on each side of upper handle. Height: 5 3/8 inches; diameter at top: 3 1/4 inches. From the collection of a Pelletreau descendant. 

Elias Pelletreau, born May 31, 1726, as has been related, was the son of Francis Pelletreau and his wife, Jane Osborn Pelletreau. He was of Huguenot ancestry, a great-grandson of Paul Pelletreau of Acres in Saintonge-now the Department of Charente Inferieure, France-and a grandson of Elie Pelletreau, who emigrated to America in 1686. On June 20, 1698, Elie and his brother Jean, were made freemen of the city of New York, where they were engaged in the business of whalebone cutting and candlemaking. It was probably an interest in the whaling industry that attracted Francis, son of Elie Pelletreau, to Southampton, as early as 1717, when he was but seventeen years of age. The place was, at the time, a trading centre of importance and derived considerable revenue from drift whales that had been cast upon the shore. Whalebone, whale oil, and candles were local commodities, which even Captain Elias was glad to add to his stock.

Fig. 5– Bulbous can with Scrolled Handle (c.1760) Marked with usual E P. Similar to can of Figure 4. Height: 5 9/16 inches; diameter at top: 3 inches. From the collection of George C. Gebelein. 

Francis Pelletreau must have prospered as a merchant in Southampton. When, in 1737, it was necessary for him to undergo an operation he went to London for the purpose, after having made a will in which he bequeathed to his son, Elias, his houses and lands, his watch, sword, gun, and one half his personal estate. It was a wise provision. The traveler died in a London hospital, September 27, 1737.

Young Elias, after a year’s schooling in New York under John Proctor, was apprenticed, November 19, 1741, to Simeon Soumain “of the city of New York Gold-Smith,” for a term of seven years dating from January 12, 1741, “to be Taught the Art of Mistery of a Gold Smith.” After the expiration of his apprenticeship, he was married to Sarah Gelston, daughter of Judge Hugh Gelston, at Southampton, December 29, 1748. The records show that he was made a freeman of the city of New York, August 31, 1750; but shortly thereafter he returned to Southampton where in a shop attached to his dwelling on Main Street, he wrought at his craft during his whole life, except for the period of the Revolutionary War, when he was a refugee in Connecticut.

Fig. 6– A page from Pelletreau’s Account Book 

He made not only silverware, but jewelry and tortoise-shell articles as well. Entries in the daybooks mention necklaces of gold beads; knee and shoe buckles of silver, pinchbeck, and brass; seal rings; mourning rings; shell rings; watch seals; silver brooches “wrate with a Crown on top”; shell snuff boxes; and buttons of gold, silver, brass, stone, and shell. He also did engraving and repair work, added lids to tankards, took bruises out of plate, rectified and cleaned watches, and mended spectacle bows. Not the least of his activities was the cultivation of a farm of one hundred and twenty-five acres on which he raised wheat, corn, and oats. To this he added the care of cows and sheep, and scowing.

He had the assistance of at least one apprentice, Silas Howell, and of farm laborers hired by the year and by the day. Much of his silver and jewelry was paid for in farm labor, tailoring, weaving, spinning, manufactured articles of merchandise, coal, tobacco, and professional services. Occasionally he sold calfskins and cowhides, bought tickets in New London and Hartford lotteries, and invested in maritime “adventures.” He credits Maltby Gelston, October 29, 1763, “By a Venter Bought of him Ship with Cpt Stephen Sayers.” With all this, he found time for military service. In 1761 he received a commission as lieutenant in the Southampton company in the Suffolk County regiment of militia, and on May 22, 1765, he was commissioned by Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden as “Captain of the first Company of Militia Foor for the Townshio of Southampton in the East Batalion of the Regiment of Militia… whereof Richard Floyd Esq is Captain.”

A careful study of the daybooks reveals that Captain Pelletreau made the following articles of silver: tankards (both flattop and domed types), porringers, teapots, coffeepots, milk pots, cream pots, cans (or mugs), half-gill cups, gill cups, half-pint cups, pint cups, sugar cups, pepperboxes, sugar tongs, strainers, teaspoons, tablespoons, soup spoons, cream spoons, coffee spoons, pap spoons, knives and forks, shoe knives, snuffers, tobacco boxes, snuffboxes, silver-headed canes, silver-hilted swords, clasps and corners for Bibles, clasps for singing books, clasps for needlecases, thimbles and seals. Much of the work-but not all-was executed to order for patrons in all parts of Long Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York City. Captain Pelletreau had representatives in various places to whom he sent the products of his craft for sale on commission at one shilling sixpence per pound. Thus, under date of October 18, 1763, we find the following entry in his accounts:

Nathaniel Williams [of Huntington, Long Island] to Gold & Silver work Left with him to make Sale of ye whole amount                                ₤66-15-11

William Ustick, a hardware merchant of New York, who had married Captain Pelletreau’s cousin, was helpful to Elias in selling his work and in purchasing supplies for him. In a letter written by Ustick to the Captain, June 16, 1763, the former says:

I recev,d yours by Androw Barn & I Now Send By him 1 Doz Shoe Chapes @ 11/6 pr Doz & the pattern of ye Spout of a old fashion tea pot your Rolers are not Done I,II Send them as Soon as they are Done, Mr Jacob Townsend Desires you to mark the mugs IMT…

Captain Pelletreau’s New York City patrons included William Butler and Mrs. Elizabeth Beekman (spelled “Bakman”), for whom he made tankards in 1767 and 1770 respectively. Prominent among his patron on Long Island were General William Floyd, signer of the Declaration of Independence, to whom he lent money for the trip to Philadelphia; Brigadier General Nathaniel Woodhull, who died of wounds received following the Battle of Long Island; Honorable Ezra L’Hommedieu, member of the four New York Provincial Congresses, and delegate to the Continental Congress; Colonel Abraham Gardiner, in whose home in East Hampton Major Andre and other British officers were billeted; Selah Strong, delegate to the first, second, and third New York Provincial Congresses; Samuel Townsend, Esquire, whose home in Oyster Bay was occupied by the British as headquarters; Thomas Sanford, father of the Honorable Nathan Sanford, Chancellor of the State of New York and United States Senator; Aaron Isaacs, grandfather of John Howard Payne; and Captain Richard Smith, who was perhaps his largest customer. Captain Pelletreau’s accounts with these people were so carefully recorded that their descendents will be able to fix the purchase date of their family heirlooms.

The earliest known examples of Pelletreau silver are three Communion beakers (Fig.1), the property of the First Congregational Church, Groton, Connecticut. They were made, apparently, in the last year of Elias’ apprenticeship, 1748, as that was the year in which they were presented to the church at Groton. They are described by E. Alfred Jones in his The Old Silver of American Churches (1913), but have not heretofore been pictured. Note the prominence of the maker’s mark above inscriptions, and the handles, which are unfortunate later additions.

While beakers are very rare today, tankards exist in considerable numbers. Captain Pelletreau’s records show that he made forty-three of these vessels in the period from 1759-1775. Some of his covered tankards, both of the flat-top and the domed or “high-top” types, have survived. One of the latter is owned by the Greenfield Hill Congregational Church at Fairfield, Connecticut, and is illustrated by George H. Merwin opposite page 41 of his book, Ye Church and Parish of Greenfield, the Story of an Historic Church in an Historic Town, 1725-1913 (Greenfield, 1913). It is described by E. Alfred Jones in The Old Silver of American Churches (page 2), where is quoted its inscription: This/ The Gift of Mr. / Samuel Bradley/ to the Church/of Christ in/ Greenfield/ AD 1768.

A fine example of Captain Pelletreau’s flat-top tankards (Fig. 2) is in the private collection of a descendeant, who purchased it from Robert Ensko, after the latter had acquired it directly from the Howell family. It is engraved on the body with the coat of arms of the Howell family of Southampton, Long Island, and on the handle with the initials AHE. Hence it was doubtless owned by one A. Howell, whose wife’s Christian name began with the letter E. Both Abner and Captain Arthur Howell of Southampton were patrons of Captain Pelletreau, but as the name of the latter’s wife was Susannah and that of the former’s was Eunice, the tankard probably belonged to Abner and Eunice Howell. Daybook No. 2 records that, in 1766, Captain Pelletreau made a tankard for Abner Howell; but by the will of his father, Josiah Howell, Abner inherited one in 1752. It would appear, therefore, that the present Howell tankard was made for Josiah prior to 1752, and that the initials on the handle were engraved when the piece passed to the son. If so, it is  one of the earliest surviving examples of Captain Pelletreau’s work.

The Pelletreau tankard in the Mabel Brady Garvan Collections (Fig. 3) in the School of Fine Arts, Yale University, is very like the Howell specimen; but it lacks a coat of arms or other inscription on the body, and the end of the handle, instead of being plain, is engraved with a conventional border. On the flat lid are inscribed the initials AT in a monogram that has every appearance of being contemporary.

Until within a few years, the tankard thus carefully itemized was in the possession of Miss Grace Ford Havens of East Moriches and Brooklyn, Long Island, who eventually sold it to James A. Stewart, who, in turn, parted with it to some unrecorded owner. It cannot be the tankard in the Garvan collection, since the latter bears the initial AT, not HS. But though the piece has temporarily disappeared, its history should be recorded. Hugh Smith, the eldest son of Colonel Josiah Smith and his wife, Susannah Gelston Smith, was born November 13, 1769, Anna, daughter of Nicholl Floyd, and sister of General William Floyd, the Declaration of Independence. He died October 4, 1792. Miss Havens is a direct descendant, being the daughter of Joseph Conklin Havens and Nancy F. Smith, great-great-granddaughter of Hugh Smith, original owner of the tankard.

Further examples of drinking vessels made by Captain Pelletreau are his bulbous cans or mugs. Two of these are known to the writer, one (Fig.4) owned by a descendent of Captain Pelletreau, and the other (Fig. 5) by George C. Gebelein of Boston. They are almost exactly alike; both have the customary scroll handle with acanthus leaf decoration, and their measurements vary but slightly. This type of can was introduced into England about 1725, and continued to be made throughout the century. The cans made by Pelletreau for Jacob Townsend of New York in 1763 were probably this type.

The custom of melting old silver and “fashioning” new articles out of it is exemplified in Captain Pelletreau’s account with Doctor Charles Peters.

It is very likely that the old tankard was of English make, and possibly of better style and workmanship than the one which Captain Pelletreau “fashioned” from it.

(To be concluded)