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Port Royal Historical Research and Simon Benning, Pewterer

Relevant historical documents for 17th-century Port Royal, which are housed in the Jamaica Public Archives and the Island Records Office in Spanish Town, were microfilmed for use by the Port Royal Project.  The documents, which detail land patents, wills, and probate inventories from 1660-1720, allowed us to determine the owners of the site's building lots, and among other things, to review the contents of households and businesses at the site as well as throughout Jamaica.  The documentary research also allowed for a comparison of the Jamaican historical data with the archaeological record and with contemporaneous documents, both from other English colonies and England herself.  Specifically, students and project staff have studied the 17th-century records of Bristol in England and Boston, Massachusetts.  As a result of this research, common cultural elements characteristic of 17th-century English sites, regardless of location, have been identified.

While the documentary record was an integral part of our research, it had little direct relevance to our investigation until it could be tied with the building lots being excavated.  In other words, until an excavated land plat could be associated with a given person at the time of the Port Royal earthquake in 1692, it was difficult to direct and focus the documentary research.   And while it is relatively easy to trace, using documentary evidence alone, previous ownership of land if said land is occupied / exists as real estate today, it is impossible to trace previous land ownership if the land in question sank in a bay over three centuries ago!  Moreover, with an urban environment, such as was at Port Royal, in which there was no consistent method of identifying maps / property in deeds and patents, the problem of identification is compounded.  In such cases, as shown below, the  recovered artifacts, especially those with identifying marks, are the missing pieces that make up the puzzle.


During the excavations of the Building 4/5 complex at the underwater site of Port Royal, 25 pewter plates were found in one of the rooms. Twenty three of these narrow-rimmed plates have a distinguishing maker's mark and one of two ownership marks. The ownership marks (discussed below), which were also found on silver forks and spoons and a silver nutmeg grinder recovered from the same room, reveal that these objects were owned by a man and his wife, who presumably occupied the building at the time of the earthquake. While it has since been determined that the most likely candidates for the stamped initials are a Nathaniel Cook and his wife, Jane, the story presented here focuses on the mark of the maker, a pewterer named Simon Benning. In many ways, the story of Mr. Benning is a microcosm of the story of Port Royal itself.

drawing of Simon Benning's markrecovered stamp on item made by Simon BenningSimon Benning's name was first encountered in "Port Royal, Jamaica," by Pawson and Buisseret (1975:105, 183).  There was no reason to find out more about the life of this post-medieval pewterer until the excavation of Room 5 in Building 1 yielded a pewter platter with an unusual and unidentified touch mark: a pineapple surrounded by an oval rope braid, with the initial 'S' to the left of the pineapple and the initial 'B' to the right.  We were reasonably confident that this was the touch mark of Simon Benning, for there were no parallels in the standard references on English pewterers (Cotterell 1963; Peal 1976, 1977).  We also knew that in the 17th century, the pineapple was commonly identified with Jamaica, and that it was incorporated into the seal of Jamaica in the 1660s. Twenty-two more Simon Benning pewter plates recovered from Room 2 in the Building 4/5 complex provided the incentive to find out everything possible about Simon Benning.


The next step was to locate Simon Benning's London will, which was found in the Perrogative Court of Canterbury. In the 17th century, this court handled the probates of all individuals with estates in two or more parishes, for individuals who died overseas / at sea, or for any individual who had property both in England or Wales and in the colonies (Walne 1964:19). Simon's will was written on 19 February 1656, and in it he states that he was a pewterer about to embark on a voyage to Barbados. He left property to his brothers, William, Francis, Tobias, and John, and to an individual by the name of John Duffield. Simon Benning was apparently presumed to be dead by his family, for the will was executed 25 June 1664.
Simon's will is significant for a number of reasons. Together with Tobias' apprenticeship records, it establishes Simon's immediate family members and places the family in Tottenham, Middlesex. Simon was a pewterer, and despite the rigid rules of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers, it appears that some individuals managed to learn the trade without this being recorded in the company. Indeed, more information has recently come to light regarding Simon: he was apprenticed in London to John Silk in February 1650 and probably served the full term of an apprenticeship (seven years) before emigrating to Barbados in February 1657 (Carl Ricketts, pers.comm. 2001). Due to the regulations of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers, it is doubtful that Simon could have ever been a freeman pewterer in England (Hornsby et al. 1989:10-14). This is, perhaps, one of the reasons he left for Barbados. (John Silk is listed in Cotterell 1963:No. 4285, where it is noted that he was elected to the Office of Renter Warden in 1652, to the Office of Upper Warden in 1655, and to the Office of Master in 1658. His touch appears on two London touchplates.)

Simon Benning was clearly young and unmarried and likely went to Jamaica via Barbados, which was a thriving colony in the 1650s (Dunn 1972:46-116). When Simon wrote his will in February 1656, it was less than a year after Admiral Penn and General Venables, who with the help of several hundred citizens and indentured servants recruited from Barbados, had captured Jamaica (Black 1958:50). In the 1660s, many more Barbadians moved to the larger island of Jamaica, situated strategically in the center of the Caribbean, since there were more opportunities to prosper (Dunn 1972:153-155). Simon Benning spent six or seven years in Barbados and so is likely recorded in the island's public archives. It is probable also that he practiced his pewterering trade and, perhaps, was married there.

 . . . . CONTINUES INTO THE 1670s

The first reference to Simon Benning being in Jamaica was found in a land patent record in the Jamaica Public Archives. The various plat books, along with the grantors' deeds records, are the basic sources for determining who owned what land and how it changed hands through the years. Although these records are indispensable, they can be contradictory and confusing when used to reconstruct consecutive lots on a street for a given time period. From the plat records, we discovered that in 1663, Simon was patented a small piece of land on Queen Street. A plat of land facing northward on to High Street was also patented to him in 1665. This, we found out also, was where his future pewter shop would be built. Two adjacent lots were acquired in 1667 and in 1670.


. . . . AND ENDS IN THE 1680s

We next found Simon Benning in the 1680 census taken at Port Royal.  His household occupants at that time included five white males, two white females, one white male infant, and two black females.  Until we found and examined Simon's Jamaican will, other than Simon and his wife, we could not identify the other individuals mentioned.

Simon Benning's Jamaican will was written on 8 March 1683 and was entered, soon after his death, into the Island Record Office in Jamaica on 17 December 1687.  Only four of the 10 individuals counted in the 1680 census are tentatively identified: Simon Benning, his wife, Susanna (who was appointed the executrix of the three underage children), two sons, Symon and Thomas, and a daughter, Sarah.  Simon is one of the five white males counted, and Symon the son (also spelled Simon) must be the white male born in Jamaica.  If this son, or any child, had been born in Barbados, he would have been at least 23 years old and would not have been underage at the time of the writing of the will in 1683.  Following this reasoning, it was further assumed that Thomas and Sarah had not yet been born.  Mary Benning, the daughter of Tobias Benning, was given £30, so she may have been living in Jamaica with the family, for she is not listed as being of London but only as being the daughter of Tobias Benning of London, who we knew died in 1664.  If Mary was living with her uncle, she would be the second white female identified in the 1680 census.  The other white males in the household were likely either apprentices or workers. The two black females were obviously slaves.

Simon Benning's Jamaican will also provides information on the property that he bequeathed to each of his children. Symon, the eldest son, although underage, inherited the house, shop, and tools on High Street.  Thomas inherited two houses, or taverns, on High Street, and Sarah received a parcel of land on High Street, containing houses, yards, and tenements that were leased out.  In addition to an annual support of £50, Simons' wife, Susanna, received 120 acres of land in St. Elizabeth parish.

All of the properties listed in the Port Royal Plat Book, except for the property on Queen Street, are accounted for in Simon's Jamaican will.  The property holdings that were distributed indicate that Simon Benning was a prosperous man.  Furthermore, and of equal significance, it shows that he, like many of the merchants and businessmen of Port Royal at this time, had begun to invest his money in land holdings that were to become the large sugar plantations of the 18th century.

We also found Simon Benning's probate inventory, which provides detailed information on the only definitely identified pewterer working in Jamaica in the late 17th century.  To fully appreciate Simon's inventory, we wanted to examine it in terms of what was going on in the pewtering trade at this time in England.  A copy of it was thus sent for comments to Dr. Ronald F. Homer, a well-known authority on English pewter, who noted first of all that it was written in the standard form of inventories of the time and that it resembles those inventories of many contemporary English provincial pewterers.  Dr. Homer found it interesting, however, that Simon's inventory details his pewter molds individually.  In English inventories, these are usually lumped together, typically in the range of 800 to 1200 lbs (Ronald F. Homer, pers. comm. 1989).  Dr Homer also noted that Simon was a prosperous man compared to his fellow pewterers in England; his inventoried estate of £360 pounds is at the top end of the worth of English provincial pewterers of the period, which generally ranged from about £100-400.  The presence of mirrors and bedstead curtains in his home indicates a comfortable lifestyle.  Dr. Homer was particularly interested to see that the values given to the metal and molds were almost the same as those found in England.

Benning's molds were made for the casting of plates and dishes.  The entry of 26ct: 45li of pewter at 1s per pound is significant, for it must relate to his stock of new wares ready for sale, which would equate with the then current English price.  At that price, it would be equivalent to 2957 plates, a very large amount of stock.  This is in addition to the 250 rough, unfinished plates noted.  The large stock of pewter on hand indicates a surprisingly large scale of business, greater than that of English pewterers of comparable total worth.  When it is noted that only one lathe (wheel and spindle) is mentioned in the inventory, it also represents an enormous investment of time (Ronald F. Homer 1989, pers. comm.).  The pewterer's tools, such as molds, anvils, iron working tools, lathe, grind stone, and scales, are all common tools of the trade.  That copper and brass are also noted in Benning's inventory indicates that he, like many pewterers, also worked in these metals.


pewter plates attributed to Simon BenningIt was at this stage of the research that we were back analyzing the 34 pewter plates bearing the Simon Benning touch mark.  When we found that first pewter plate in Building 1, we were confident in attributing the new mark to Simon Benning.  As a result of the excavations, we were able to connect a previously unknown touch mark to a pewterer known to have lived in Port Royal.

Over the next eight years of excavation, we found 27 more Simon Benning pewter pieces.  Forms represented and shown here include 26 narrow-rimmed plates, one larger narrow-rimmed dish, and one even bigger broad-rimmed charger. (Note the distinctive hammering marks in a concentric pattern on the surface of the pieces.)


Twenty of the 25 pewter plates recovered from Building 5's Room 2 were made from the same mold, had the Simon Benning mark, and had one of two sets of ownership marks on them.  One set of plates has both the pineapple touch and the ownership mark 'NCI' on the reverse (below left).  Numerous knife cut marks are present on these plates, which appear very used and worn.  The other 11 plates have considerably fewer cut marks and appear to be little used.  This set has both the pineapple touch and the owner's mark 'IC' (below right).

The mark 'NCI' indicates that a man with the initials 'NC' and his wife, 'IC,' were the owners of the plates.  It seems then that IC-marked plates are the initials of the wife.  As they appear alone, it is possible that the wife had a new set of plates made for her use after her husband had died. Our research into the historic documents of the time indicated that the ownership marks belong to Nathaniel Cook and his wife Jane.

Simon Benning died in 1687. The probability that five years later there would still be 11 plates showing few signs of use seemed low.  Simon Benning's son, Symon, who inherited the house and shop, must have taken over his father's pewterer's trade. The problem was to find a written record to confirm this hypothesis.

A search of the grantors' deeds records in the Island Records Office, which contain mortgages, bonds, and indentures, yielded two records of interest, one of which validated the hypothesis: "Benning to Bradford," entered on July 15, 1696, begins with "Symon Benning, of Port Royall on the island of Jamaica, pewterer of the one part . . . ."  The speculation that had first formulated from the archaeological data had led to the seeking out of additional documents long past the year that Simon Benning, Sr. had died.  There were two Simon Bennings, pewterers - father and son. The Simon Benning pineapple touch in Jamaica has a date range of 1663-1696.

After selling all of his property in 1696, what happened to Symon Benning, Jr. remains unanswered.  It is known, however, that his sister, Sarah, married and moved to South Carolina, along with other former Port Royal residents (Claypole 1972:244).  As noted by Dunn (1972:150-151):

By the end of the century when the buccaneers had left, most of the small planters were gone also. Jamaica, the one English island which seemingly offered good prospects to ex-servants and and small freeholders, had been taken over entirely by the large planters consolidated the arable land into huge plantations manned by armies of slaves.


Directed historical research resulting from the attempt to answer specific archaeological questions was presented above.  Such research shows how public documents, such as wills, probate inventories, deed transactions, and guild records, contribute to our understanding of archaeological data.  One record is seldom conclusive, and quite often, one record is meaningful only in the light of another document.  Each document adds to the story, one piece at a time.

We have seen how documents are not always where they should be, and that craftsmen in the colonies practiced their trade without going through the prerequisite training required by the crafts guilds in England. The only lead to finding out about Simon Benning appeared on an index card in the Worshipful Company of Pewterers of London. As brief as this notation was, it directed the search to finding his London will and the apprenticeship and free status records of his brother Tobias Benning in the Worshipful Company. Each of these provided significant details concerning the Benning family. Once in Jamaica, the patent records and inventories in the Jamaica Public Archives and the wills and grantors' deeds in the Island Record Office completed the story of the family's life in Jamaica.


Citation Information
Last Updated May 21, 2001
Donny L. Hamilton
2000, The Port Royal Project: Historic Research, World Wide Web, URL, Nautical Archaeology Program, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.