( Joshua Wilbur )

by Richard Slaney

       The planemaker "JO; WILBUR" was Joshua Wilbur Jr., housewright of Newport, Rhode Island. Joshua was born in 1758 in Swansea, Massachusetts, the second of ten children.(1) His father, Joshua Wilbur Sr. of Swansea, was a loyalist during the American Revolution and was imprisoned "for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the state.''(2) At the age of 16, Joshua Wilbur Jr. left his parent's farm in Swansea and moved to Providence, Rhode Island.(3) He came to Providence in 1774 to begin an apprenticeship to David Burr, house carpenter of Providence.(4) In the 1777 Rhode Island Military Census establishing eligibility for military service, the name of Joshua Wilbur appears next to the name of David Burr.(5) He was probably living with David Burr in 1777, a common practice for an apprentice at that time. Unlike his father, Joshua Jr., 17 years old at the outbreak of hostilities in 1775, supported the American cause. In 1778 and again in 1780, he served three months of active duty in Col. Barton's Regiment of Rhode Island Militia.(6) The city of Providence in the revolutionary war years 1775 through 1783 was never occupied by enemy forces and no military battles took place there. Joshua served his country, but he continued to learn and then work at the carpentry trade in Providence during the war years.(7)

     By 1784 he had returned to Swansea, Massachusetts. He married in 1784 in Swansea,(8) and a 1786 land deed refers to a Joshua Wilbur Jr. "of Swansea, House Carpenter."(9) In 1785 or shortly thereafter Joshua moved to Newport, Rhode Island. His first child was born in Newport in 1785. (10) Land deed evidence at Newport for the years 1788 through 1802 shows that he was working as a housewright.(ll) In 1800, he built in Newport a Federal style three story mansion house that still stands today.(12) The magnificence of this one house suggests that Joshua was more than just a house carpenter. A better term to use to describe his work would be carpenter-builder, a skilled and industrious worker capable of designing, planning and executing all aspects of the building process. His knowledge of architectural design elements and his experience in building with wood must have served him well when he tried his hand at toolmaking.

   Joshua was 27 years old and already working as a housewright when he came to Newport in 1785. Whatever success he met with at Newport as both a carpenter-builder and a toolmaker did not stop him in 1799 from buying 11 acres of land with a dwelling house, plus a 3 l/2 acre wood lot, back in Swansea, Massachusetts.(13) In 1802, at the age of 44, he left Newport and moved his family back to Swansea. Surprisingly, Joshua and his family did not remain for long in Swansea, but moved again sometime around 1805 to Exeter, New York.(l4) Exeter, New York in 1805 was a rural town, sparsely populated, in central New York state near present day Cooperstown. The Town of Exeter was incorporated in 1799, and Joshua Wilbur is remembered as one of sixty "pioneers of Exeter''.(15) One explanation for his moving to Exeter would be the availability of cheap land. Joshua died in Exeter, N.Y. in 1836. He is buried next to his wife Elizabeth and daughter Fanny in the Sculyler Lake Cemetery, Town of Exeter, Otsego County, New York. (16)

   In the early Rhode Island and Massachusetts documents I researched, Joshua Wilbur is referred to as a housewright or a carpenter, never as a toolmaker. How does one prove that "JO: WILBUR" the planemaker and Joshua Wilbur the Newport housewright are one and the same. The proof lies in New York state. When Joshua moved at the age of 47 to rural Exeter, N.Y., he took with him his "JO; WILBUR" planemaker stamp and his number stamps used on the heel end of a plane. I have a Wilbur sash plane that was found with twenty other planes, all 19th century New York made planes. This one sash plane has 19th century characteristics and is later looking than the Wilbur planes that are found in Rhode Island. I believe this sash plane was made in New York sometime after 1805. Also, other Wilbur planes have been found In New York state. A fillister plane was found in 1985 around Ithaca and two bench planes with a mix of 18th and early 19th century characteristics have recently been found in upstate New York.(17 It is also significant that the spelling of the Wilbur name on Joshua's gravestone in New York is the same spelling that the planemaker used, "WILBUR." In researching the life of Joshua Wilbur, one finds among the primary sources several variant spellings; Wilbar, Wilbur, Wilbor, Wilbour, Willbour. Yet in the two places that were most important, the gravestone and the planemaker stamp, the spelling is the same.
    Joshua Wilbur lived and worked in Newport, Rhode Island from 1785 through 1802. The planes he made when he was living in Newport are notable for their high level of craftsmanship, their consistency of detail and most of all for their adherence to the traditions of Southeastern New England planemaking. On his planes we find flat chamfering along the top of the plane, the moderate relief at the back of the wedge finial, the flat chamfering at the toe and heel ending in a step and turn out, and the chamfering back at the front of the wedge slot.

      Despite his obvious abilities as a planemaker, it is doubtful that Wilbur was ever able to make a living in Newport solely as a toolmaker. Did he come to Newport in 1785 hoping that he could? I think he did. He had spent ten years in Providence and must have noticed how successful Joseph Fuller was in catering to the tool needs of the Providence craftsmen. His location stamp, "IN NEWPORT", was his way of saying that good American made planes could be bought in Newport as well as in Providence. Yet, judging by the number of "JO; WILBUR" planes that exist today, probably less than fifty, it is unlikely that Joshua during his Newport years was ever a full time planemaker. His planemaking was probably something he did to supplement his work as a housewright. (I want to thank two friends, Barry Weaver and Bob Bills, for helping in my search for "JO;WILBUR.")

Article Images:  plane, nose, and flute information 


l. John Reid Wilbor and Benjamin Franklin Wilbour, The Wildbores In America, (1933), Vol. 1-p84, Vol. IV-p266. (Note: There is some confusion about the exact year of his birth. The year 1756 is indicated by several primary source documents, but I have used 1758 because Joshua is the 2nd of ten children, his older brother William having been born July 29, 1756.) 

2. Ibid., Vol. 1-p84

3. Joshua Wilbur, "Petition for Pension Benefits," Oct. 16, 1832. See Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files, (Waynes-boro, Tennessee, 1992) to reference all the original documents in the Joshua Wilbur pension file. 

4. Ibid. 

5. The Rhode Island 1777 Military Census, (Baltimore, 1985), p67 

6. Wilbur, "Petition for Pension Benefits" 

7. Ibid. 

8. Vital Records of Swansea, Massachusetts to 1850, (Boston,1992), p249 

9. Bristol County Land Deeds at Taunton, Massachusetts Courthouse, Vol. 66-p49

10. Vital Records of Swansea, Massachusetts to 1850, p261 

11. Newport Land Deeds at Newport, Rhode Island City Hall, Book 4-pl68, Book 7-p22, Book 7-p237, Book 7p290, Book 8-p324, Book 8-p592 

12. Antoinette F. Downing and Vincent J. Scully Jr, The Architectural Heritage of Newport Rhode Island, 2nd ed. (New York, 1982), plll, p459. See also Newport Land Deeds, Book 8-p592 

13. Bristol County Land Deeds, Vol. 78-plll 

14. Wilbur, "Petition for Pension Benefits" 

15. Edwin P. Bacon, New York Geographical and Historical, (Oneonta, New York, 1902) 

16. Research done by Barry Weaver, Barrington, Rhode Island. The cemetery information was confirmed by Mrs. Dale Dyn, town historian of Exeter, New York. 

17. Seth Burchard of Ithaca, New York, found the fillister plane and Bruce Bradley of Newark, New York, found the two bench planes. 

18. The early "JO; WILBUR" plane is in the collection of Bob Bills of Portsmouth, Rhode Island.