Forbes Avenue, Forbes House, Forbes Memorial Chapel, Forbes Place; the Forbes name has been branded across for more than three centuries. Who were they? Why did their name have such an impact? Are there any descendants left in East Haven today?
The answer to the last question was found through a chance telephone call to Harry H. Forbes, who lives, not on Forbes Place, but on Mansfield Grove Road.
“I really don’t know much about my family,” Forbes said, “My grandfather died when my father was only nine, so a lot of the family history got lost then.”
Forbes grew up in Morris Cove, went to Nathan Hale School, and enjoyed the pursuits of children in the Cove following WWII.
“I spent 34 years working for the Superior Court for Juvenile Matters, raised two kids, and retired,” Forbes said. “It’s ironic that after all those years, I chose to retire in East Haven, where it all began.”
While Forbes may not know much about the ancestors, his sister, Suzanne Acerra, has been the keeper of the family photos for years. Recently, she began to dig into the past for answers to her question 'who were the Forbes?'
She has two sons who still live with their families in East Haven. Her nephew, Frankie Forbes, lives in Momauguin, and has provided the Forbes clan with one more generation for the family tree through his son, Frankie Junior.
So where did the Forbes come from and who were they. The quick answer is that they came from Scotland, but that's just the beginning of the story. James Forbes was the first of that name to arrive in Connecticut, and he didn’t come voluntarily.
James, the son of the Scottish Laird of Culloden, found himself as an officer on the losing side of an armed uprising against the British. Officials decided it was time to rid themselves of the troublesome Scots, and had 8,000 of them transported to New World colonies.
James ended up in the Hartford Colony in 1654. There he married and raised a large family. It is his grandson, Samuel, however, who was to become the founding Forbes in East Haven. That young man, who shows up in the annals of the town in 1728, heard the call of the sea and moved to the area to build ships.
Samuel married into the powerful Thompson family and had four sons; Samuel, Isaac, Jehiel and Levi. All would be involved with the shipyard that Forbes built at the mouth of the Quinnipiac River.
Samuel not only built ships, but captained them, as well, to add to the growing family fortunes. Ironically, in view of his grandfather’s mode of arrival in the New World, Samuel was one of the captains the British officials hired in 1755 to help transport 40,000 French Canadians out of Canada to the southern colonies. Samuel and his sloop, the Dove, transported 114 Acadians to Connecticut where they were forcibly resettled.
It seems, though, that he was a complex man who also donated the land to the town for the construction of Christ Episcopal Church. Many of his descendants would be vestrymen and parishioners of that church.
Samuel was one of the four Town Selectmen elected at the first town meeting in 1787 after East Haven became an independent town. His son, Isaac, was also appointed to be a town constable that day.
The family originally owned land in the western part of town. Their shipyard stood where the old Yale boathouse would later be built, and it was connected to their homes by a footbridge. They were instrumental in getting a road built in front of the homes that led to the ferry crossing of the Quinnipiac. It would soon become known as Forbes Avenue. It still follows the roadbed laid down in the 1700s.
“I remember my grandmother, Rhea, telling us that our ancestor’s family home was diagonally across from the shipyard,” Harry Forbes said. “She also said it’s still standing, a stone building that used to have a church next door.”
The stone mansion of Samuel’s son, Jehiel, does still stand at 153 Forbes Avenue. It’s now used by a plumbing and heating company. A former Episcopal church has been attached to the western wall. The house was badly damaged when the British invaded New Haven in 1779. It had a cannonball in the exterior wall for many years and was only a blackened shell when the British left town.
The sons that followed Samuel, and their succeeding generations, took very different paths. Of his son Samuel, there is almost no record. He married and had only two living children. The line probably died out very quickly.
Jehiel’s sons were seafarers and ship captains like him. It appears that many of them moved on to New Bedford where they continued to build ships, although there is an impressive tombstone in the Old Cemetery with his name and that of several family members.
That leaves us with Isaac and Levi. Their successors had a far-reaching impact on East Haven. For the most part, these families would remain in the background as farmers and businessmen who were all quite successful. However, when they did step into leadership positions, the results would be noteworthy.
Isaac’s descendants would move more toward the center of East Haven and would intermarry with families like the Tuttles, Bradleys and Moulthrops.
One of these was Willet B. Forbes. By the late 1800s, he had acquired land in the heart of East Haven, off Main Street near the Old Stone Church. Here he built an estate that had a private road leading up to the home. That road is now known as Forbes Place, running from Main Street to the Saltonstall Highway. Following his death, his wife divided the property into building lots and sold them to families who created the handsome homes lining the street today.
His daughter, May Forbes Nickerson, built an imposing home on the northwest corner of Main and Forbes which eventually became the Lamb Funeral Home; then a Chuck’s Steak House; and was then torn down to make way for the current CVS drugstore.
Two blocks east, on High Street, lived another limb of the Forbes family tree. William C. Forbes, another of Isaac’s grandsons, had established a flourishing farm and had developed a grist mill on Lake Saltonstall. This part of the family had joined the Old Stone Church and he served as a deacon. His son, Alexander W., inherited the mill and set about buying up all the other grain mills around the lake.
In 1882, he sold all the land he’d purchased to the New Haven Water Company so they could start supplying piped water to area residents. He also served in the General Assembly for three terms and was a pillar of the Old Stone Church, as was his son, Frederick A. He was a grain dealer and prominent civic leader who owned a grist mill on Sanford Street, near where it dead-ends into the Saltonstall Highway.
This brings us to the descendants of Captain Samuel’s last son, Levi, the founder of the line that lives on in East Haven. Our story starts with Hudson Bradley Forbes who was born in 1832 and died in 1914.
In several of the city directories, he lists himself as a farmer, but he was considerably more than that. He was a Town Selectman for three terms in the 1860s, then came back for three terms as First Selectman from 1879 to 1881. That means he helped plan and oversee the annexation vote to cede the western third of the town to New Haven.
He also owned the Forbes House Hotel in Morris Cove where he played host to the tourists of the Gay Nineties who flocked to the seaside treats of the Cove. He and his wife, Ellen, had one son, Frederick H. Forbes, who married and then died within months of the birth his son, Harry Hudson Forbes Sr.
Young Harry was raised by his mother, with some assistance from Grandfather Hudson. He survived WWI, married and died young, as had his father, leaving a nine-year-old son, Harry Hudson Forbes Junior, who was raised by his mother, Rhea. Rhea was the grandmother who had left the photos for Suzanne Accera and filled in the family information while she lived with them.
That clue with the names, of course, was what allowed us to connect Samuel and his clan of happy shipbuilders with Harry Hudson Forbes III in present-day East Haven.
When Forbes said over the telephone “I don’t know much about my family because my grandfather died when my father was nine,” he had added that “I do know my grandfather, father and I all have the same name.”
That was the moment it all came together. From 1728 to 2012, the direct father-to-son links forged the longest unbroken chain of generations we've been able to find in East Haven. Now Harry and Suzanne know 'who were the Forbes.'