Background and Purpose
Block Three of Independence Mall, between Arch and Race and Fifth and Sixth Streets, has been set aside for the National Constitution Center, in accordance with Independence Park's General Management Plan. This historic resource study was scheduled to inform the archeological work that the National Historic Preservation Act (1966) requires prior to construction on federal property. This report still has the potential to provide insights on the results of those field investigations, completed in 2002 by the firm Kise Straw and Kolodner.
The historical summary of Block Three's development given in Kise Straw and Kolodner's Archeological Sensitivity Study of the National Constitution Center Site Block 3, Independence Mall Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (April, 1999), pp. 11-17, provides an introduction to the 18th century story. It summarizes settlement, beginning with the first known dwelling in c.1756 through to 1795, when the city directory, Hogan's Prospect of Philadelphia, lists residents by streets. Hogan's Prospect will be integral to this study, as well, but heavily augmented with a variety of other period sources to furnish some depth to the 18th century life on the block.
This report is the third and final historic resource study prepared by this writer for Independence Mall's three blocks. Each block has demonstrated unique aspects of Philadelphia's growth in the eighteenth century. Block One has the distinction of having residents of note in local, state and national history. Financier of the American Revolution, Robert Morris, and the first two United States presidents, George Washington and John Adams, for instance, each in turn lived at 190 High Street. Block Two is distinguished by prominent patriots, early national manufacturers, and numerous United States Congressmen, who took rooms on Sixth Street when Philadelphia served as the nation's capital. Block Two is also noted for its ownership by one prominent Quaker family, that of William Hudson, whose heirs divided up and sold the block in the late eighteenth century.
The strong Quaker presence on Block Two is carried over to Block Three with the Cresson family who were intermarried with William Hudson's heirs. Presumably this familial connection gained Caleb and Joshua Cresson ownership of the northern half of Block Three designated as S. Emlen's in the c. 1745 Parsons survey of Philadelphia.
Block Three's eighteenth century historical record is less accessible than the documentation for Blocks One and Two, largely due to its location farther from the government center. The record does show the settlement pattern, the type of occupations of the residents, and something of interest on the few late 18th to early 19th century individuals of note on the block. Together with the reports for the other blocks, this comparative and detailed look at Philadelphia as it spread west beyond Fifth Street in mid-century will form a base line of research for studying the city and the significant people who populated it during the century.
Methodology and Scope of Project
The city directories (1785, 1791-1801) and the U.S. Census of 1790 were key tools in the analysis of the block. The street-by-street listing in Hogan's Prospect (1795) for Philadelphia served as a key to identifying cross street markers for the block. The 1790 federal census provided a head count of slaves and free blacks on each street, but omitted their names. Hogan's 1795 directory marked Af., for African, before households occupied by black citizens. However, since the city directories charged a fee, many residents may have chosen not to be listed. Obviously, in the narrow back alleys, in the simple, often overcrowded two-story dwellings on Block Three many individuals remained unlisted.
Block Three, like Block Two, was settled by the working class, predominantly craftsmen, during the middle to late eighteenth century. On this block several families occupied their properties for as long as two decades. A check of the 1785, 1795 and 1801 city directories made this point evident. City surveys, land deeds, insurance surveys and city directories helped to locate these residents. Knowing the names and addresses of occupants proved critical in the effort to identify Block Three in the South Mulberry Ward tax assessments.
Tax assessment records are difficult to use effectively because they list names without indicating where each block begins or ends within the multi-block ward, or what route the assessor took. Cracking the mystery of the tax assessors' record, however, is well worth the effort, as it provides information not otherwise available. The assessor indicated the prior landowner if he still received ground rent, and the current owner, useful in deed searches. The assessor listed the resident, if different from the owner, his occupation and race (if not white), the dwelling value, the presence of other than family members in a household, including slaves and servants, and, finally, whether the owner had horses or cows. Some assessors made note if dwellings or shops on the property were wooden. From this layered evidence, certain tentative conclusions and assumptions can be drawn that help to understand the life styles and development patterns on the block.
The South Mulberry Ward tax assessments, while rewarding, also were problematic. From year to year the sequence of names listed changed, or the spelling of names varied wildly. Spelling in the 18th century typically followed a phonetic system, so accents could alter the record. In this study German names were the hardest to verify in other sources.
An effort to expand the biographical story of individuals listed on the tax assessments had limited success. When checking the taxpayers' names against the index to Pennsylvania wills, 1682-1834, it became evident that some names were also common in several outlying counties, making it questionable which, if any, will related to the Block Three person taxed. Sometimes this confusion was cleared by the will's reference to family members, executors, or witnesses, who also were associated with Block Three through mention in deeds, city directories and the tax record.
Time did not allow for a thorough deed search for Block Three. Additional work in Philadelphia land records might shed light on the extent of early construction and the occupations of the individuals buying and selling. The deeds inspected for this report gave no interesting landscape details. Research efforts proved particularly frustrating for the Arch Street lots, because the majority of owners were absentee landlords. The city surveys did not provide enough information to identify when and to whom the lots changed hands, so that the history of property development remains relatively general.
To prepare for the creation of Independence Mall State Park during the 1950s and 1960s, all the buildings and inner streets or alleys on Block Three were obliterated. Block Three also lost footage on its east and west sides with the planned widening of Fifth and Sixth Streets. Thus, surviving foundations from the 18th century on those street fronts were largely covered over by the widened street and sidewalk surfaces. Back buildings and yards with their buried privy pits, however, remained in the way of the current construction, and in selected situations, the uncovered artifacts from these areas will be the subject for archeological analysis.
Summary of Significance
Like the two other Independence Mall blocks, the combined historical research and archeological investigation of Block Three provides an unprecedented focused study of Philadelphia's initial growth patterns. While there is no evidence of nationally significant individuals on the block, the research gives insights on the families who settled there. It confirms previous evidence that German immigrants tended to reside north of Arch Street, and that a heavy influx of craftsmen at mid-century gravitated to the edge of town, where real estate typically was more affordable. At that date only the first graves in the Second Presbyterian Church's burial ground on Arch Street above Fifth Street stood in the way of the housing boom of mid-century.
The real estate developers and owners on Block Three built numerous plain two-story dwellings with a low average tax assessment. It was a block of the middling to lower sorts, and as such, offers a rare opportunity to analyze the archeological remains of their trades or domestic lives. With this analysis we can better appreciate the largely hidden lives of these individuals who contributed to Philadelphia's formative years.
The Cresson family developed the northern half of the block. In preparation of lot sales they laid out public alleys that made a significant difference in the rapid settlement of the block. The many opportunities for construction along these interior throughways seemed to draw carpenters, bricklayers, brick makers, painters, and others who served the building trades, to be long-term residents on the block. As the century closed, the progress toward concentrated development had evidently nearly reached saturation.
The Cresson real estate is where a significant pattern of both Quaker and African American settlement emerged. Family and religious connections are evident in many of the Cresson land sales, particularly on Cherry and Sixth Streets. Deeds and wills together record that the Cressons were intermarried with the prominent Quaker families, Hudson and Emlen, who owned Block Two. Caleb Cresson insured a large three-story house on the north side of Cherry Street at Hoffman's Alley where he lived until his death. While one of the richest residents on the block, he followed the Quaker preference for a simple lifestyle, as indicated by his house insurance and the simple pleasures recorded in his short diary.
Cresson's neighbors along Cherry Street, the Robinson, Smith, Cathrall and Hewlings, were practicing Quakers with a tradition of tolerance and good works. Two of these residents, Ebenezer Robinson and Benjamin Cathrall, signed the 1783 address to the Continental Congress that petitioned the nation's new leaders to "discourage and prevent so obvious an Evil" as the slave trade to the African Coasts. These were people who had freed any slaves in their ownership. In 1775, prior to the Revolution, Quakers had elected to ban slavery and work "for the relief of an oppressed part of our fellow Men." Likely this explains the sizeable number of African American households resident in Quaker-owned properties in the Cresson section of the block.
Altogether the census of 1790 listed a total of 58 black residents on the block, 45 of whom lived in the Cresson section between Cherry and Race Streets. The census for Block Three listed no slaves, probably because of the high occupancy of Quakers and Germans. As real estate values rose with the rapid development during the capital city decade, the poorer families on the block likely moved to new, less expensive neighborhoods. In 1821, South Mulberry Ward running west from Fourth Street between Arch and Race had over 1300 tax paying residents, only 99 of whom were people of color, one of them the aged Robert Venable.
Robert Venable, James Dexter and Israel Burgoe are three African Americans on Block Three who left further mark of their lives in the historical record. All three distinguished themselves as founding members of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 1794. Robert Venable was resident on Sixth Street as early as 1779 and remained at this address for over three decades. The 1795 Hogan's Prospect listed him as a white washer and African. Venable was able to purchase the property, 79 North Sixth Street, sometime before 1813, when a city survey identified him as owner of the lot.
W.E.B. DuBois, in The Philadelphia Negro, recorded that Robert Venable had served as a slave for a better family and was a man "of some intelligence." Dubois cited the antiquarian, John Fanning Watson, who interviewed Venable in 1830, when he was in his nineties. Venable then recalled attending Christ Church as a child, which may suggest that wealthy and white Thomas Venable, buried at the church in 1731, was once Robert Venable's owner. Robert Venable's connection to Nicholas Rash, brewer, who purchased the lot from the Cressons in 1772 and built and insured the simple house where Venable lived, is yet to be understood.
Like Venable, James Dexter was a founding member of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, but he also was a leader in its creation. At his plain two-story house on Fifth Street in 1792 Dexter chaired the first meeting of organization for the church and went on to take charge of the building committee and serve on the first vestry. His leadership in the establishment of St. Thomas' Church in 1794 drew such interest during the preparation of this report that his house site on Fifth Street received a special archeological study in 2003.
Dr. Daniel Rolph, Head of Reference Services at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, shared his earlier research on Dexter's life. In his youth James Dexter was called Oronoko as a slave of Henry Dexter, and then of his son, James Dexter. Prominent Quakers assisted Oronoko to purchase his freedom in 1767. By 1787 he had taken the name James Dexter, when his life was intertwined with such Quaker leaders as John and James Pemberton, and Isaac Zane. Isaac Zane and James Pemberton testified in behalf of James Orongue Dexter that year. They vouched for his "sobriety and steadiness," and his "humanity in assisting and Relieving those of his own Colour." They concluded that "his conscientious principles" rendered him "a Truly worthy Character."
James Dexter's devotion to church and community received significant recognition in the will of John Pemberton, probated in 1795. One of the wealthiest and devout Quakers of his generation, Pemberton gave generously to schools and the support of the poor, including African American, Native American and women. Among his bequests he left "To James Oronoke Dexter, Absalom Jones [In Trust] for Society of Black People for support of the Poor." James Dexter thus shared this honor with one of the foremost civic and spiritual leaders of the black community, Absalom Jones, first pastor of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church.
James Dexter spent eight years at 84 North Fifth Street living as a coachman. In 1790 he shared the plain-two-story house with seven others. Ebenezer Robinson, signer of the 1783 Quaker petition to Congress against the slave trade, owned the property. Dexter in 1798 moved to 34 North Fifth Street, to Independence Mall's Block Two, where he set up as a fruiterer. This move may have been made possible by the comfortable lifetime annuity John Pemberton left him by his will.
Benjamin Smith Barton, MD (1766-1818), famed naturalist and botanist, lived next door to James Dexter from 1795 to 1797, at 86 North Fifth Street. From this address he published a memoir on the rattlesnake and other serpents. In 1800, some two years after moving a block away, he published his Elements of Botany, said to be the first of its kind in the Western World. In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson arranged for Barton to tutor Merriweather Lewis in how to collect specimens prior to embarking with William Clark on the expedition across the American continent.
Redding Howell, prominent surveyor and mapmaker, lived at 88 North Fifth Street for over two decades. The Pennsylvania government commissioned Howell to prepare a map of the state, which President George Washington purchased while resident in Philadelphia.
Robert Evans, house carpenter, was Howell's Fifth Street neighbor to the north. Evans presumably practiced his trade on his own large lot by building three substantial brick houses along Fifth Street and small tenements on both sides of the 10-foot alley at the back end of his lot. He stood out among the many carpenters and men in the building trades on Block Three by his longstanding residency and his large real estate holdings at Fifth Street and Cresson Alley.
When Philadelphia served as the nation's capital, United States Congressmen and office holders lived on Block Three while serving their office. In 1796 three House members and one senator, all from New England, boarded at 81 North Sixth Street, at the south corner of Cressons Alley. City directories show that six clerks lived on the block, a few of them in the employ of the federal government. John Harper, a blacksmith and sawmaker, may have struck the first coins for the newly established U.S. Mint (April 1792). As recalled in 1844 by Chief Coiner for the Mint during the War of 1812, John Harper produced dismes (an early coin, variation of a dime) in the cellar of his shop "at the corner of Cherry and Sixth Streets" before the building to house the Mint at Seventh and Filbert Streets was ready for service.
Women ran several households on the block during the 18th Century. Out of a count of 113 dwellings in the 1795 tax assessment, fourteen heads of household were women. Some of these were widows or spinsters, while the rest had no particular heading. The tax assessment indicates that several of these women took in boarders, a typical livelihood for widowed or unmarried women.
In 1760 owners of an Arch Street lot advertised their property as "pleasant and airy" and "convenient for building." This call for development quickly found a market. In the 1795 tax assessment only one Arch Street lot remained vacant. Surveyor John Hills' map of Philadelphia in 1796 shows the block completely built in the Cresson section, and with only four gaps along the four frontages of the Arch Street lots. By 1801, there were no vacant lots left and many of the original lots had been subdivided. The 1857 Hexamer Insurance Atlas (see Kise Straw and Kolodner, Archeological Sensitivity Study, figure 7) indicates how little physical change had occurred to the lot divisions from the turn of the 18th century. The relatively few changes on this block worked in the favor of the archeological investigations. A wealth of artifacts uncovered during the extensive dig remain to be studied and analyzed to enrich our awareness of the complex social history on Block Three during the 18th Century.
Last Updated: 05-May-2004