The Most Prolific Planemaker of the 18th Century

Francis Nicholson is generally regarded as the most important figure in early American planemaking. He was the first documented planemaker in the Colonies, he was inventive and original, and he appears to have been highly prolific: An astonishingly large number of his planes survive.

But I believe it’s time for a reconsideration of Chelor’s significance. An exhaustive survey by Ingraham found that over three quarters of the surviving planes with Francis’s mark were made after he moved to Wrentham. Further, the number of surviving planes with Chelor’s mark actually exceeds the number of Francis’s planes with the Wrentham stamp. Taken together, these facts suggest that Chelor may have been responsible for an explosion of productivity in Nicholson’s shop during the Wrentham years. In fact it seems likely that Chelor was by far the most prolific planemaker of the 18th century.

We’ve seen that Chelor innovated and experimented with new planes and new techniques, and that his output was prodigious. It seems his significance in early American planemaking is unrivaled. But he was not just a virtuoso planemaker. He was a successful businessman who was respected in his church and in his town. He appears to have been literate, a rarity among enslaved persons. As Richard DeAvila has speculated, it is possible that Chelor helped to purchase the freedom of at least one other enslaved black man. Abolitionist sentiment in Massachusetts gathered rapid momentum in the years immediately following the end of Chelor’s enslavement, and the colony outlawed slavery in 1783, the year before Cesar died. It is not outlandish to speculate that Chelor may have lent his authority, his standing in the community, and his resources to the abolitionist movement.

–Steve Voigt, excerpt from “The Legacy of Cesar Chelor,” in Issue Nine


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