Historic Resource Study
NPS Logo

James Dexter, a Biographical Sketch


Note: Most of the primary research for this biographical sketch was generously provided by Dr. Daniel Rolph at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). Dr. Rolph had taken a personal interest in Dexter and had a research file on him. His initial interest focused on the name Oronoko, which, he explained, became popular in Abolitionist circles after 1688 when Aphra Behn published her novel, Oroonoko or, The Royal Slave in London. In James Dexter's manumission papers, dated 1767, he was called "Oronoko royal Slave."

James Oronoko Dexter until recently remained an obscure century African American in Philadelphia. Gary Nash referenced Oronoko Dexter in his Forging Freedom The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community 1720-1840 (Harvard University Press, 1988) as one of six Philadelphia free blacks who petitioned the State of Pennsylvania in 1782 "to fence in the Negroes Burying Ground in the Potters field." This reference later fit in with material gathered from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers by Dr. Daniel Rolph at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Henry Dexter left "Oronoco," his Negro boy, to his son James by his will of 1749. (WPA-Ph4-Will Books I-K, 44) Henry Dexter had invested in real estate just before his death by building several houses on Elbow Lane "within 2 doors of the White Horse" and opposite the Presbyterian burying-ground, where he lived. He was buried at Christ Church on February 5, 1750.

The estate of James Dexter manumitted Oronoko in August 1767, presumably in his early manhood. The legal document, witnessed by Asheton Humphreys, Charles Thomson and Christopher Marshall, named Joseph Yeates and "Oronoko royal Slave" as the two parties who provided 100 pounds to the executors to pay off James Dexter's creditors. According to the certificate that Isaac Zane left in 1787, James Dexter died in debt, so that the executors possibly required Oronoko, who had been hired out to a local tavern keeper, to buy himself. Joseph Yeates, referenced with Oronoko on his manumission, was a well known tavern keeper in 1767 with a license to run the "Three Tun" on Chestnut Street between Second and Third Street, later called "Fountain Inn."

By the 1790 census James Dexter, a free black man with seven other household members, lived on the west side of North Fifth Street. While he was not recorded in Clement Biddle's 1791 directory, he did appear in the 1791 tax assessment (identified as a Negroe) in the same location, next to Ebenezer Robinson, a brushmaker, listed in the 1791 directory at 82 N. Fifth Street. Robinson purchased the corner 20 by 80-foot lot at Fifth and Cherry Streets from Caleb and Joshua Cresson in 1766, (Ph Co Deed Book I, 3, 482) and settled there. Three years later he purchased the adjoining 20-foot lot to the north, again from the Cresson brothers (Ph Co Deed Book GWR 6, 275). He insured a new, "very plain" two-story house "two doors above Cherry" in 1791, possibly built for James Dexter. (Contributionship Book 2, 253) Robinson signed an anti-slavery petition in 1783 and may have had personal connections with Dexter. To date, however, no such connections, other than the physical proximity, have been found.

From 1794 to 1798 James Dexter listed himself as a coachman at 84 N. Fifth Street. It is not clear whether he served as coachman for Robinson. Dexter disappeared with no further record after 1798. Dr. Rolph's efforts to find a death notice for him came to naught.

John Pemberton, a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker merchant and traveling religious preacher, by his will probated in 1795, bequeathed 50 pounds a year for James Oronoko Dexter during his natural life. A month before his death in Germany, Pemberton wrote a codicil to his will that added 35 pounds to the 15 pounds he originally allocated to Dexter. Thus he more than doubled the annual bequest, which suggests the special place Dexter had assumed in Pemberton's final thoughts. In his will, recorded in April 1794, Pemberton noted that Dexter was living with him. At first this was confusing: did Dexter live in two places? Likely not: John Pemberton probably drafted his will in the 1780s, when Dexter, as noted in the 1787 testimony of James Pemberton, was living with John Pemberton. When preparing for his extended missionary trip overseas in 1794, Pemberton probably officially recorded his will. This precaution was a wise one, as he died in Germany in 1795.

John Pemberton also left money in trust for James Dexter and Absalom Jones for the "Society of Black People for support of the Poor," possibly also known as the Free African Society. Pemberton had known Dexter for many years, at least since the year of his manumission in 1767. John's brother, James Pemberton, had vouched for him in 1787, in a certificate in behalf of James Oranque Dexter. This revealing document was authored primarily by John Pemberton's father-in-law, Isaac Zane who stated that he had known Dexter, for more than ten years and could vouch for "his humanity in assisting and Relieving those of his own Colour under difficulty." James Pemberton vouched for Zane's testimony and added that Dexter "has lived in the family of my brother John Pemberton several years at annual wages." During that time he observed Dexter's "steady prudent conduct, diligence in business, & faithful attention to the interest of his master since, as before his late long absence from home." (PA Abolition Society (PAS) Papers, PAS MSS Collection, Vol. 1, 69)

Isaac Zane also revealed that after establishing his freedom in 1767 Dexter "fixed on a young woman of reputation" to marry, he "being desirous to settle." The unnamed owner of this woman gave his consent for their marriage, but he held her "in so high estimation" that Dexter could not afford to buy her from slavery. Zane explained that "for some time" Dexter "declined further proceeding, until at length through the interposition, and influence of a friend [John Pemberton?} he was prevailed upon to take fifty Pounds for her freedom, which was paid to her possessor by Oronoque having by his industry gained thirty pounds of the money, and the other part was lent by two of his friends, whom he carefully repaid declining to marry until he had done it;..." Dr. Rolph's research showed that "Noake of the Said City" [short for Oronoke?] purchased from William Jones, grazier, a woman "named Priss, aged about 25 years," on December 23, 1767. John Pemberton stood as a witness.

Besides the petition in 1782 signed by "Oronoko" Dexter, there is one more surviving document that shows that he persisted for some time with his boyhood name. A letter from Phineas Bond to "Oronoake" in January 1784 was addressed "Oronoko at Mr. John Pemberton's." (Both spellings are on the document.) Bond starts "I received your letter and immediately made inquiry of several Persons formerly acquainted with Polydore, whom you wrote about..." This suggests that Dexter had learned to read and write, presumably at a Quaker school. John Pemberton's 16-page will endowed the "Schooling for People of Colour," among his many philanthropic entries. (Dr. Rolph also located information on Polydore and his wife Rose, not included in this summary.)

The 1787 certificate noted that James Dexter lived with his wife for many years before her death. The 1795 tax record and city directory indicate that a Sarah Dexter lived on Hoffman's Alley. Her placement in the tax assessment listing suggests that she may have lived at the back end of the lot listed as 84 N. Fifth Street, James Dexter's address for most of the decade (1790-1798). The 1801 Directory listed her as a washerwoman, a common occupation for poor single women. Whether Sarah Dexter or Richard Dexter, shoemaker, who lived elsewhere according to city directories, were children of James Dexter has not yet been determined.

Coxey Toogood
Revised August 2003

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 05-May-2004