William John Bessac’s Silver Teaspoon
One of my brick walls, genealogically speaking, is finding the first immigrant to America in my Martin line, or even finding where he came from. (I’ve mentioned my great-grandfather, George Martin, in my previous post about his wife, Julia Carhart Martin Durfey in post #7). There are at least four cousins who have tried to solve this mystery, with no luck. We know George’s father was named Robert, as was his father before him. We know when each was born, and we know whom they each married. But we can find nothing beyond Robert Senior. One source, a book known for having a lot of inaccuracies, says Robert Senior came from Northern Ireland. A Federal Census record says he was born in New York (1768- 69). But he married a Swedish lady (Elizabeth Utter) in a Dutch Reformed Church in Albany, NY. Robert Sr. and Elizabeth named their children Margery, Martha, Mary, and Robert Jr. Robert Jr. and his wives named their children Harriet, Charles, George, Elizabeth, and Henry. These names don’t shout out any particular nationality to me.
An Ancestry DNA analysis has put me in touch with another cousin, and she has struggled with the same brick wall. So I believe it’s time to expand the search. Robert Martin Jr. had three sisters, two of whom married, and they may have descendants living in the same general area. One of these is Martha Martin Bessac.
A Google search easily located her husband, William John Bessac, whose father was a French fur trader, living in Hudson, NY, but traveling north with goods to trade, and back with furs. His son, William John Bessac (not to be confused with his younger brother, John William Bessac!), worked as a silversmith from 1810 to 1825. And let me just say I love Google—it turned up an eBay offering of a silver teaspoon made by the very same William John Bessac!
I haven’t searched for Bessacs to call, hoping to find one of them who has researched their family, and who may just have more information on Martha Martin. But I do now own a genuine “coin silver teaspoon” made by William John Bessac! And this led me to non-genealogy research. It got me thinking about what this spoon may have been used for. Did it stir sugar into tea, as we might use it today? Well, now, wait a minute. Did they even have refined sugar back then? Or did they just have honey and maple syrup to use as a sweetener? It turns out, they probably had plenty of sugar—the Caribbean was the largest producer of sugar in the world at that time (and that was responsible for importing enormous numbers of slaves to work the plantations). But it seems that the first teaspoons were developed for skimming the floating tea leaves off the top of the tea, not for stirring sweeteners into it.
What does it mean that my spoon is a “coin silver” teaspoon? Spoons were made in three basic ways. One way was to cut a spoon-shaped blank out of a flat sheet of silver and pound the bowl into shape (or use a spoon “press”) and then just finish up the edges. Another way was to heat the steel and form it into shape with tongs and a hammer. And the third way was to start with silver coins and melt them down. But coin silver doesn’t have to have started out as a coin. Anything that was not Sterling Silver, was called coin silver. While it was 90% silver, that was 2.5% less than Sterling, and therefore considered less valuable. So while coin silver may not have started as a coin, it had the same composition as silver coins of that time.
You’ll also notice the “Maker’s Mark” impressed onto the back of the handle, guaranteeing that it was a genuine Bessac spoon. On the other side of the handle you’ll notice the engraved monogram. There were several reasons to do this. One may have simply been pride of ownership. (Paupers had no silver spoons).
Another may have simply been proof of ownership—it’s much less likely that a spoon would “walk off” if it was so marked. And if lost, it could easily be returned by the finder. It also turns out that silver spoons were frequently given as baptismal gifts. How nice to receive a spoon with the babies initials engraved on it!
So, while I may be no closer to finding the Martin line’s origin, I now have a very nice silver spoon with a direct connection to my three times grand aunt, Martha Martin Bessac, and I’m much more knowledgeable about silver spoons– and I may have started a new collection!