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The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an ironmaster  succinctly as “a manufacturer of iron.” And uncritically applied, Edward Smith (c.1771-1857) of 312 Cooper Street, owner of the Cumberland Furnace would surely qualify as an ironmaster. But a more nuanced understanding of the title might undermine his credentials—or better—lead to a fuller understanding how the role of the ironmaster and the organization of the charcoal iron industry changed between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In the seventeenth century, investors in colonial iron working ventures seldom possessed substantial technical knowledge of the smelting process; rather, they possessed capital and the desire to invest in what they saw as a potentially lucrative growth industry. By 1700, England could no longer smelt sufficient iron to meet her growing production needs and at the same time European political conflicts rendered her import supply of iron from abroad insecure. As a result, establishing a colonial iron industry was viewed primarily as a way of supplying English manufacturers with a ready and steady supply of raw material and only secondarily as a way of supplementing the availability of utilitarian iron goods in the colonies. When the Company of Undertakers for the Ironworks led by John Winthrop the Younger (1606-1676) elected to establish an ironworks in Massachusetts, they recruited skilled and knowledgeable European ironmen like Henry and James Leonard of Pontypool, Wales to establish and manage their ironworks.

Mercenary, itinerant, and of dubious social standing, Henry Leonard—commonly acknowledged as New Jersey’s first ironmaster—apparently never owned his own ironworks although he sometimes held some small interest in a venture. Rather, he was hired to employ his technical knowledge of iron smelting in the establishment and operation of smelting and fining facilities for wealthy gentlemanly patrons. In Massachusetts, Henry worked at Braintree (est. 1645) and Lynn (est. 1646) for Winthrop and the Company and at the Rowley Village ironworks (est. c.1668) on behalf of “a wealthy company of Salem”. After his financial and social ruination in Massachusetts, Leonard and his family fled south to Monmouth County, East Jersey near Shrewsbury where he operated Col. Lewis Morris’ Tinton Falls Iron Works (est. c.1675).

Edward Smith presents a sharp contrast to Leonard. Descended from the first settlers of West Jersey’s Fenwick’s Colony, Smith was born to a large, wealthy Salem County family at Smithfield, a 1000-acre plantation on Alloways Creek. That in his adulthood he was a successful iron merchant is certain; he maintained a residence at 156 N Front Street and a business at 4 North Wharves where he sold stoves, cut nails, and bar iron imported from Russia, Sweden, and England. In fact court records indicate that he was considered something of an expert with regard to the evaluation of iron products like bar iron, bolt iron, and hoop iron. However, his direct involvement in iron smelting appears more limited.  In 1814 he held an interest in the R.D. Wood and Company foundry in Millville, New Jersey. And c.1821 he purchased and financed repairs to the 17,000-acre Cumberland Furnace property that produced pig iron, stove plates, and bar iron for Smith until 1840.

Considering his apparently late entry into the iron business—Smith was 43 in 1814—the operational demands of managing the furnaces at Millville and running the shop in Philadelphia, and the 50-mile journey separating the two establishments, Smith likely had little direct participation in or profound technical knowledge of iron smelting. In many ways Smith seems more like Leonard’s gentlemanly employers during the seventeenth century. While he undoubtedly had some small knowledge of the industrial processes required to smelt iron, his greatest contributions to the venture were investment capital and a network of social contacts in Philadelphia, southern New Jersey, and likely England that he could employ to identify buyers and win contracts.

The differences between the ironmasters Smith and Leonard are telling of the early development and maturation of the charcoal iron industry. In its earliest days during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries when bloomary forge production prevailed, the iron industry was inefficient, initial capital costs were relatively low, and sufficient iron to meet the needs of the local market could be produced by relatively few workers on an ad hoc basis. This production arrangement and the near absence of skilled iron workers in the colonies promoted the social status of men like Henry Leonard who possessed the technical knowledge of iron production seemingly beyond the level that their class, level of education, or social affiliations might otherwise merit.

By the nineteenth century, in order to compete in a thriving international industry, capital investments to remain competitive and access to market connections became substantially more important to a successful ironworks than the technical knowledge of any one man. By the nineteenth century, after more than a century of iron production, skilled iron workers were relatively common across the Mid-Atlantic Region and the ability to profitably manage an iron-working business consisting of producers, consumers, buyers, and sellers in the face of sometimes sharp domestic and international competition became the defining accomplishment of the ironmaster.

Sources

Ancestry.com

Barton, Bill. “Leonard Siblings Henry, James, Philip, Sarah & Thomas in America and Some of their Descendants.” Ancestry.com. March 8, 2013. http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~bart/LEONARD3.htm.

Boyer, Charles S. Early Forges and Furnaces in New Jersey. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963.

Gilpin, Henry D. Reports of Cases Adjudged in the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: P.H. Nicklin & T. Johnson, 1837.

Gordon, Robert B. American Iron, 1607-1900. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Mulholland, James A. A History of Metals in Colonial America. Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1981.

Pierce, Arthur D.  Iron in the Pines. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1957.

Sebold, Kimberly R. and Sara Amy Leach. “Historic Themes and Resources within the New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail Route, Southern New Jersey and the Delaware Bay: Cape May, Cumberland, and salem Counties.” National Park Service: Southern New Jersey and the Delaware Bay. March 29, 2013. http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/nj2/index.htm.

Swank, James Moore. History of the Manufacture of Iron in All Ages, and Particularly in the Unites States from Colonial Times to 1891. Philadelphia: The American Iron and Steel Association, 1892.

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