Thursday, January 7, 2016

Jonathon Dickinson, Planter, Merchant, Adventurer

By Lauren Gilbert

Jonathon Dickinson was born in Port Royal, Jamaica in 1663.  He was the son of Captain Francis Dickinson and his wife Margaret Crooke.   Captain Dickinson, who, while serving in the forces under Admiral Penn and General Venables, had participated in the taking of Jamaica from the Spaniards in 1655, was rewarded with two plantations totaling almost 20 square miles, named Barton and Pepper.    Because of the cost of starting up a sugar plantation on undeveloped property, Francis established a store.  As he made money, he invested in his plantations and acquired more land.  His sons Jonathon and Caleb appear to have worked in both store and plantation.    The family were Quakers, which did not always work in their favour.  However, Captain Dickinson achieved success in both spheres.  In 1685, Jonathon married Mary Gale, who was the daughter of another prominent merchant, a match that may have been at least in part made to consolidate their fathers’ interests.

On 6/7/ 1692, a massive earthquake virtually leveled Port Royal, which cause a great deal of hardship for the entire community.  In 1696, Jonathon decided to open a branch of the family business in Philadelphia.  (His selection of Philadelphia may have been influenced by his religion.)  His brother Caleb remained with their father to manage the plantations and their merchant business.  Jonathon, with his wife Mary, 6-month old son Jonathon and his slaves, were part of a group of 25 that boarded “Reformation” and embarked on August 23, 1696, in conjunction with several other ships and the frigate “Hampshire” commanded by Captain Fletcher.    Unfortunately, the ships were unable to stay together.  On September 22, 1696, a violent storm, possibly a hurricane, struck and “Reformation” ran aground on the coast of Florida, near what is now called Jupiter Inlet.

  There began a journey of extreme hardship and privation as the survivors traveled north on foot.  Dire experiences as captives of local natives and the destruction of their food supply were only part of the difficulties experienced.  Dickinson and 18 other survivors (including his wife and child) finally made it to St. Augustine on November 15, 1696, where they were rescued by the Spanish and, after a period of recovery, were given safe passage to Charleston in the Carolinas, the most southern of the English colonies.  After another difficult journey up the east coast, he, with his wife, child and slaves, finally made it to Philadelphia in April of 1697. 

After a difficult period, due to health issues and financial losses during the shipwreck and  subsequent journey, Jonathon established his merchant business, but did not experience immediate success.  He had some failures and financial difficulties.  However, thanks to the Quaker community and his connections in Jamaica, he did finally start to achieve some success as a merchant.    He traded in a wide range of commodities, including dry goods, spices, gunpowder and slaves.  He also began investing in real estate in Pennsylvania, and traveled to establish trading links.  Jonathon became one of the largest slave owners in Philadelphia, and the slave trade was a significant part of his business activities in Jamaica and Philadelphia.  (It is interesting to note that there were already abolitionist activities among the Quakers in Philadelphia at this time; however, there seemed to be a great many Quakers, including Jonathon Dickinson, who continued to own and to trade in slaves.)

In 1698, Jonathon introduced mahogany for use in the construction of furniture.  Ahead of his time, it was a difficult sell because there were so many woods suitable for furniture available for a much lower cost.  He persevered and finally found a few buyers, notably in 1701.  Ironically, as the popularity of mahogany grew in England, the wood became more popular in the colonies and the wood ultimately became extremely fashionable and highly prized in the colonies after Jonathon’s death.

In 1699, Jonathon published a journal of the experiences of the party resulting from the shipwreck of “Reformation”.  Entitled “Jonathon Dickinson’s Journal or, God’s Protecting Providence. Being the Narrative of a Journey from PORT ROYAL IN JAMAICA TO PHILADELPHIA between August 23, 1696 and April 1, 1697.”  The book was very popular among Quakers at that time and was reprinted 15 times, with later reprints in Dutch and German.

In 1702, leaving their two oldest sons with friends, Jonathon took Mary and their youngest son John to Jamaica for what was planned as a visit.  His father and brother were still working the family’s plantation and mercantile interests.  In 1704, Francis died.  Jonathon and his family stayed on to help manage the plantation with his brother Caleb, achieving some prosperity.  During their time in Jamaica, Mary gave birth to their first daughter.  In 1709, he, Mary (who was pregnant again) and their son embarked on “Happy Return” to go back to Philadelphia.  As it turns out, the name  “Happy Return” was something of an irony, as the ship was blown off course near Cuba, and captured by the French.

Jonathon and his family were held in Saint-Domingue for a month.  They seem to have been treated well and allowed a certain amount of liberty, as he apparently moved around enough to note some opportunities and (presumably) to make some contacts.  After their release, they visited other islands, including Antigua and Martinique, where he established trading connections.  Their fifth child Hannah was born in Guadalupe.  They finally made it back to Philadelphia in 1710.   Jonathon did not leave Philadelphia again.

On his return to Philadelphia, Jonathon turned his experiences in the islands to good use.  In addition to broadening his trade, he also established a political career, becoming at one point Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Colony and serving two terms as mayor of Philadelphia.  He was elected by the Common Council of Philadelphia, and served from October 7, 1712-October 6, 1713 and October 1, 1717-October 6, 1719.

Mary died November 30, 1719.  In addition to this grief, Jonathon suffered poor health for some time, including severe bouts of gout.  He also experienced cash flow problems resulting from many issues, including the South Sea Bubble.  He died in Philadelphia on June 16, 1722, at roughly 59 years of age.  Jonathon’s will took over four decades to probate, thanks to the efforts of his children to work around it and other problems, and all of his children died before probate was completed.  While debt and problems consumed the Pennsylvania part of his estate, his brother Caleb’s sons inherited his Jamaican estate.  Although Jonathon had had six children, five of whom lived to adulthood, his line died out as his grandchildren died without surviving children of their own.  However, his brother Caleb’s line continued and Jonathon’s nephews lived in England as wealthy absentee planters.

Jonathon Dickinson's journal is still available and is an interesting read.  In Martin County, near where it is believed that "Reformation" wrecked, a beautiful park and preserve is named for him, with a plaque in his honour.

Please note: I relied heavily on Jason Daniel’s thesis for the biographical data for this blog.   It is a fascinating study, and the financial information provided is priceless.

Sources include:
JONATHON DICKINSON’S JOURNAL or, God’s Protecting Providence.  Being the Narrative of a Journey From PORT ROYAL IN JAMAICA to PHILADELPHIA between August 23, 1696 and April 1, 1697.  Evangeline Walker Andrews and Charles McLean Andrews, editors.  Port Salerno, FL: Florida Classics Library, 1985.
On line:  “Quakers and Slavery-History Tour, Old City Philadelphia” by Pamela Moore, 2011.  Read here:  ‘The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).  VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I. I.  Travelers and Explorers, 1583-1763, “Jonathon Dickinson.”  Read here.  Robinson, Maurice J.   HIDDEN HISTORY OF PONTE VEDRA.  Arcadia Publishing, Oct. 16, 2012.   Read here.  Anderson, Jennifer L.  MAHOGANY: THE COSTS OF LUXURY IN EARLY AMERICA.  Harvard University Press, 9/17/2012.  Read here.

Huntly  “The Story of Jonathon Dickinson.”  Published 9/25/2012.  Read here.

Legacies of British Slave Ownership.  “Frances Dickinson, Profile & Legacies Summary.”   Read here.   “Jamaica Plantation Records from the Dickinson Papers 1645-1849.”   Read here.  “MAYORS OF THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA 1691-2000, Colonial Mayors of Philadelphia 1691-1776.”  Read here.

Reis, Jonathon R.  “The Life and Times of Jonathon Dickinson.”  Read here.  Daniels, Jason.  “Atlantic Contingency: Jonathon Dickinson and the Anglo-Atlantic World, 1655-1725.”  University of Warwick, March 2013.  Read HERE.

Lauren Gilbert's first published book, HEYERWOOD: A Novel, was released in 2011.  She is working on her second, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, for release this winter.  She lives in Florida with her husband, and is planning to attend the Amelia Island Book Festival in February.  Please visit her website HERE 


  1. Excellent post, Lauren. I love reading this time period and I'm always amazed at how people managed to survive catastrophes. Thanks for the research!

  2. And we think we have stress in our lives. A Quaker sea captain fights the Spanish - a Quaker slave trader - making trading connections while in captivity. A world of contradictions. Fascinating.

  3. This was especially interesting. This family had enough adventures to fill a bookshelf.

  4. I wonder what it would have been like to be a slave, have all these privations on the journey along with the family and still be a slave at the end of it!


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