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ETTER, BENJAMIN, watchmaker, silversmith, office holder, militia officer, and shipowner; b. 1763 in Braintree, Mass., son of Peter Etter; m. first 19 May 1789 Mary Bessonett in Halifax; m. secondly there 8 Jan. 1798 Margaret Elizabeth Tidmarsh; m. thirdly there 14 March 1818 Sarah Holmes; d. there 23 Sept. 1827.

Benjamin Etter’s father emigrated to the Thirteen Colonies from Bern, Switzerland, in 1737, settling first in Philadelphia and later, in 1752, in Braintree, where he earned his living as a weaver. Peter Etter remained loyal to the crown after the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, and with the evacuation of Boston in March 1776 he and his family of seven left Boston for Halifax in one of the transports carrying troops and civilian refugees. By 1780 Benjamin was working in Halifax as an apprentice with his elder brother Peter, a watchmaker. In 1784 he received a grant of 100 acres in Chester Township, but since he failed to improve the land it was escheated in 1811. Peter Jr, who had served at Fort Cumberland (near Sackville, N.B.) as a sergeant in Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Goreham*’s Royal Fencible Americans during the abortive uprising of Jonathan Eddy* in 1776, left Halifax in 1787 to establish a business in Westmorland County, N.B. Benjamin was placed in charge of the Halifax shop but, as he had completed his apprenticeship, he soon began working independently as a watchmaker in a shop on Hollis Street.

In 1789 Etter was listed as one of the original subscribers to the Nova-Scotia Magazine, printed by John Howe and edited by William Cochran. On 19 May of that year he married Mary Bessonett, the daughter of a watchmaker, and afterwards he took on Mary’s brother Daniel as an apprentice. On 14 June 1794 he advertised in the Halifax Weekly Chronicle as a watchmaker and jeweller on George Street, but four years later a notice in the Royal Gazette and the Nova-Scotia Advertiser, describing him as a watchmaker, jeweller, and silversmith, announced that he had “removed to Lower Side of the Grand Parade, corner of Barrington and George Street, adjoining Mr. Richardson’s” and listed an extensive stock of watches, jewellery, silver, military accoutrements, and many other imported goods for sale. By 1799 he was occupying Richardson’s store as well, and on 1 October of that year he entered into a partnership with James Tidmarsh, brother of his second wife (the partnership was dissolved in 1803). In 1802 he took as an apprentice William Anderson Black, son of the Methodist preacher William Black.

Etter was a prominent figure in Halifax society. On 31 March 1795 he had been appointed clerk of the market, from 1796 to 1808 he was an officer in the Nova Scotia militia, and he served as an honorary aide-de-camp to Prince Edward* Augustus, commander of the forces in the Maritime provinces. He was evidently prosperous financially, for by 1800 he and James Woodill had purchased the armed brig Earl of Dublin and obtained her letters of marque as a privateer. Her first cruise proved successful and with his profits he joined William Duffus and others in buying the 135-ton armed schooner General Bowyer, a former American privateer, prize to the Earl of Dublin. With 14 guns and a crew of 80, the General Bowyer captured two schooners, the Peggy and the Nancy, the Spanish ship Nostra Signora del Carmen, and a quantity of specie including gold bullion, all in one profitable cruise “against H.M.’s enemies.” It was probably because of the profits he made in privateering that Etter was financially comfortable enough to build in 182021 one of the finest houses in Halifax, Belle Vue, at the corner of North and Gottingen streets.

In the Acadian Recorder of 29 May 1813 Etter announced his retirement in favour of his son, Benjamin B. Etter, and Thomas Hosterman, silversmith, who continued the business until the partnership was dissolved in 1815. Benjamin Sr, who had had at least 19 children by his three wives, died on 23 Sept. 1827 and was buried in the cemetery of St Paul’s Church, Halifax.

Etter advertised silver tea-services and other pieces in the round, but only sturdy “Old English” table and dessert spoons, sugar-tongs, and teaspoons with delicate bright-cut engraving are in public and private collections, struck with several variations of ‘his marks, including B. Etter, B.E., H, HX, an anchor followed by N.S., and a lion passant. His spoons, evidently cut from rolled silver and beaten to form, are well proportioned and graceful, sometimes engraved with a feather-edge or chased. Several circular engraved watch-papers, removed from the backs of watches he repaired, have survived, but apparently no attempt has been made to identify any watches made by him.

Donald C. Mackay

Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), wills, 4: ff.223–25 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 5, 1213; MG 100, 139, no.24 (C. St C. Stayner, “The Etter family”); RG 1, 444, nos.47, 69. St Paul’s Anglican Church (Halifax), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials (mfm. at PANS). Nova-Scotia Magazine (Halifax), 1 (July–December 1789): iv. “United Empire Loyalists: enquiry into losses and services,” AO Report, 1904: 68687. Acadian Recorder, 29 May 1813, 29 Sept. 1827. Royal Gazette and the Nova-Scotia Advertiser, 6 Nov. 1798, 2 Oct. 1799. Weekly Chronicle, 14 June 1794. Halifax almanac, 17951815. Jones, Loyalists of Mass. J. E. Langdon, American silversmiths in British North America, 1776–1800 (Toronto, 1970); Canadian silversmiths & their marks, 1667–1867 (Lunenburg, Vt., 1960). Loyalists in N.S. (Gilroy). D. C. Mackay, Silversmiths and related craftsmen of the Atlantic provinces (Halifax, 1973). N.-S. calendar, 17951801, 181415. N.S. directory, 186469. Stark, Loyalists of Mass. (1907). Akins, Hist. of Halifax City. Harry Piers, Master goldsmiths and silversmiths of Nova Scotia and their marks . . . , ed. U. B. Thompson et al. (Halifax, 1948). Howard Trueman, The Chignecto Isthmus and its first settlers (Toronto, 1902; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1975). G. E. E. Nichols, “Notes on Nova Scotian privateers,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 13 (1908): 11152.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Donald C. Mackay, “ETTER, BENJAMIN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/etter_benjamin_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/etter_benjamin_6E.html
Author of Article: Donald C. Mackay
Title of Article: ETTER, BENJAMIN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: October 22, 2014