James Forten (1766-1842)

By Al Dorof

This article was previously published at the Southwark Historical Society.  It has been reprinted with permission.

Portrait of James Forten by unknown artist
Portrait of James Forten by unknown artist


James Forten would be considered a remarkable man in any era, but especially so in Colonial Philadelphia. Born a free man, Forten became one of the most successful sail makers at a time when most African Americans were still slaves, was an astute real estate speculator, invested in stocks and other financial ventures, became a respected money lender and financial adviser who was admired for his fairness, and was an outspoken abolitionist and pioneering supporter women’s rights.

Forten was born in Philadelphia on September 2, 1766 to Thomas and Margaret Forten (1722-1806). His paternal grandfather lived and died as a slave in the Pennsylvania colony. Thomas managed to become a free man at some point, but Margaret might have been a slave during her early life. Under Pennsylvania law at the time, had Margaret had children while still in bondage, they would have been slaves, too. So Margaret waited until she was 41, when she was free, to give birth to her first child, Abigail, in 1763. She was 44 when James was born. The family lived on Third Street near Walnut Street in the Dock Ward.


Privateer and Prisoner
Thomas Forten was a master tradesman who worked as a sail maker for Robert Bridges. Bridges rented a loft on the top floor of a warehouse on Willing’s Wharf belonging to Thomas Willing and Company. Thomas taught his young son the basics of his trade at the Bridges sail loft. Thomas died in late 1773 or early 1774 when James was seven years old, and Margaret was left to support the family, probably as a domestic servant. Still, she managed to send James to a Quaker school for African Americans, which was run by abolitionist Anthony Benezet. But with just two years of schooling, James was forced at age nine to work full-time as a chimney sweep and later in a grocery.

In 1781, at the height of the Revolutionary War when James was 14 years old, he signed on as a powder-boy on the Royal Louis, a privateer captained by Stephen Decatur, Sr. (1752-1808). The ship had a crew of 200, 20 of whom were African Americans. The fledgling American Navy was in no position to challenge the British naval forces, the most powerful in the world at the time. To supplement its small fleet, the Continental Congress authorized private ships along the East Coast to attack and seize British commercial vessels. American privateers captured about 2,280 enemy ships, compared to fewer than 200 seized by the Continental Navy; they provided more than two million pounds of seized gunpowder to the Continental Army. A crewmember could earn as much as $1,000 from the ships and cargo seized and sold by privateers.

Forten’s first cruise on the Royal Louis was a success, but the second was a disaster. The British captured the Royal Louis and took its crew prisoner aboard the H.M.S. Amphion, captained by John Bazely. Impressed by Forten’s “honest and open countenance,” Bazely assigned Forten to look after his 12-year-old son Henry on the voyage to New York harbor, where the privateer crew would be transferred to a prison ship. The two boys quickly formed a close friendship, and Henry urged his father to spare Forten when they arrived in New York. Bazely asked Forten whether he would change allegiance, accompany Henry back to England, be educated with him, and pursue a trade in freedom. Forten declined, explaining that he could not betray his country.

Bazely made sure that Forten would be included on the list of prisoners of war to be exchanged for British citizens captured by the Americans. This spared Forten from being sold as a slave in the British West Indies, the typical fate of blacks taken by the British. On October 23, Forten became prisoner number 4102 aboard the H.M.S. Jersey, an infamous prison ship. After seven months, he was released and made his way back home to Philadelphia on foot.


Master Sail Maker and Business Owner
After the war ended, Forten’s sister’s husband, William Dunbar, a merchant seaman, persuaded him to join him on a voyage to England aboard the Commerce, which sailed in April 1784. When they arrived in London, Forten decided to stay on and find work as a sail maker in one of the many shipyards and sail lofts along the Thames. After a year of training and experience, Forten returned home and apprenticed himself to Robert Bridges, his father’s old employer, at age 19. Within a year, he was promoted to foreman. Not surprisingly, the white tradesmen in the sail loft bridled at the prospect of being bossed by a man of color. But Bridges used all his authority and the respect his workers had for him to accept Forten as their foreman.

In November 1792, Bridges loaned Forten 250 pounds on favorable terms to buy a two-story brick house and lot on the south side of Shippen (now Bainbridge) Street, close to George (now American) Street. Forten shared the home with his mother Margaret, sister Abigail (1763-1846) and her husband William (unknown-1805), and their children, Nicholas (1786-1852), Margaret (1785-1852), and William Jr. (1792-unknown). What motivated Bridges to make the generous loan? Certainly it indicated his respect for Forten’s skill as a master craftsman. Perhaps he was also grateful to Forten for the new type of sail hoist he invented, which enabled ships to rig sails more quickly while also improving maneuverability.

When Bridges retired in 1798, he sold the business to Forten. Although Bridges had children who might have inherited the firm, he had higher hopes for them. He encouraged his sons to become merchants or lawyers rather than craftsmen, which they did. And he intended his daughters to marry up, which they did. Forten had the experience, business acumen, and ambition to manage and expand the sail loft, and he did.

At age 32, Forten ran one of the most successful sail lofts in town, supervised more than 40 apprentice and master tradesmen, and had the respect—and contracts—of the leading merchants and ship owners along the waterfront. Within a decade, he added to his wealth by diversifying. He started by buying, selling, and renting real estate. He bought a lot in Southwark in 1803, built a house, and rented it out. In 1806, he bought a three-story brick house at 336 Lombard Street, which became the Forten family home. In 1809, he acquired a second house on Lombard, between 10th and 11th Streets. In 1812, he invested in a lot in Blockley Township on the west side of the Schuylkill River and another house in the city on 9th Street. From 1816 to 1820, he added to his real estate holdings in Southwark, Philadelphia, and the suburbs. He used the profits of his real estate sales and rents to buy bonds, mortgages, bank and railroad stocks, and shares in various companies. He also made loans to friends, neighbors, and business associates. Forten became one of the wealthiest men in Philadelphia, white or black.


Champion of Social Justice
Having established himself as a respected man of business, Forten turned his attention to raising a family. In 1803 he married Martha (Patty) Beatte in at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas at Fifth and Adelphi (now St. James) Streets, just south of Walnut Street. She died the following year. Forten married again in 1805, taking Charlotte Vandine (1785-1884) as his wife. Charlotte was a teacher and an outspoken abolitionist.

The Forten’s had nine children, several of whom were named in honor of Forten’s business associates and patrons and most of whom followed their parents’ lead in supporting abolitionist and suffragist causes: Margaretta Forten (1806-1875), Charlotte Forten (1808-1814), Harriet Davy Forten Purvis (1810-1875), James Forten, Jr. (1811- circa 1870), Robert Bridges Forten (1813-1864), Sarah Louisa Forten Purvis (1814-1884), Mary Theresa Forten (1815-1842), William Deas Forten (1823-1900), and Thomas Willing Francis Forten (1827-1897).

Mindful of the rare opportunities he enjoyed to master a trade and achieve success, Forten made a point of hiring black apprentices and journeymen in his sail loft. Black and whites were integrated into his business, worked side by side, and were paid equivalent wages. His business was described as an academy where, in the words of a commentator at the time, the “best class of colored youth of Philadelphia and surrounding States” were trained. Forten even allowed his employees to board at his house on Lombard Street. Census records showed that many more people than Forten’s immediate family occupied the home: 15 people in 1810, 18 in 1820, and 22 in 1830!

In 1813, when freed slaves moved north in search of work, Philadelphia politicians proposed a bill to require that all newly arrived blacks register with the state. Forten wrote and published a pamphlet, Letters from a Man of Color, to protest the plan, arguing that it would perpetuate the general opinion that blacks were not equal to whites and would violate the rights of all free people. The bill did not pass.

In 1817, Forten joined abolitionist leaders Reverend Richard Allen, founder of Mother Bethel African American Methodist Episcopal Church, and Absalom Jones in establishing the Convention of Color. The Convention’s 3,000 participants denounced the American Colonization Society and its plan to repatriate freed slaves to Africa, where they would presumably enjoy a better life and more opportunities for self-determination. Forten also argued against the Convention’s proposal to help ex-slaves find a better life in Canada. The Convention was a pivotal event that shaped black resistance to any plans to repatriate freed slaves anywhere outside the north.

Forten’s advocacy of black rights was an inspiration to a radical New England abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, who began publishing the Liberator, an influential anti-slavery newspaper, in 1831. Forten was an early supporter, helping the newspaper to stay afloat financially and contributing a series of letters under the name of “A Colored Philadelphian.”

Forten’s wife and children shared his passion for social justice for blacks. His wife Charlotte and daughters Margaretta, Sarah, and Harriet were founders of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, the first biracial organization of women’s abolitionists in the nation. Sarah also contributed articles and poems to the Liberator. The Fortens founded and financed at least six abolitionist organizations, bought freedom for slaves, and were active in the Underground Railroad.
At age 75, James Forten fell ill and died at nine o’clock in the morning of March 4, 1841. A “vast concourse of people, of all classes and complexions, numbering from three to five thousand” accompanied his coffin to its graveyard at Saint Thomas Protestant Episcopal Churchyard, which has since been removed to Lebanon Cemetery at 18th and Wolf Streets. He left an estate of $1.6 million in current valuation. Forten’s legacy is inestimable.

Vallar, Cindy. Pirates and Privateers: The History of Maritime Policy, 2007. http://www.cindyvallar.com/forten.html

Winch, Julie. “‘You Know I Am a Man of Business’: James Forten and the Factor of Race in Philadelphia’s Antebellum Business Community,” Business and Economic History, volume 26, number 1, pages 213-28, Fall 1997.

Winch, Julie. “‘A Person of Good Character and Considerable Property’: James Forten and the Issue of Race in Philadelphia’s Antebellum Business Community,” Business History Review, Volume 75, number 2, pages 261-96, Summer 2001.