J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Dr. Dexter’s Boys

When Lydia (Woods Dexter) Curtis died at the end of 1772, her three surviving sons were all in their late teens, of age to be apprentices. They may therefore have left the household of their stepfather, Dr. Samuel Curtis.

Lydia was from a large and established family in Marlborough. The boys’ paternal relatives in Dedham were also rich enough to take them in if that seemed like the best course. (In 1771 their grandmother there offered to pay “the Charge of Rideing” for one boy so that he could recover from an illness through “moderate exercise.”)

Two of those Dexter boys went into medical professions, and it’s possible that Dr. Curtis helped to train them. But it’s also possible those sons were inspired entirely by their father, Dr. Ebenezer Dexter, and wanted little to do with Curtis. Here’s what we know about the next generation of Dexters.

William (1755-1785) went out to Shrewsbury, perhaps to train under Dr. Edward Flynt, who had treated his father in his last illness. In February 1775, at the age of nineteen, William married a local woman named Betsy Bowker, age twenty-one. Their first child, named Ebenezer after William’s father, arrived eight and a half months later.

By then, Edward Flynt and William Dexter had enlisted as surgeon and surgeon’s mate for Gen. Artemas Ward’s regiment of the Massachusetts army. The young man’s handwritten commission signed by James Warren for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress appears above. Dexter served in the Continental Army through the siege of Boston and accompanied the regiment down to New York under Col. Jonathan Ward.

Betsy Dexter, according to her 1843 application for a pension, was living at her father’s house in Shrewsbury all this time. William “returned after warm weather in 1776,” she recalled. He had reached the age of majority that April, and I wonder if he inherited his father’s estate in Marlborough. (It’s worth recalling that Dr. Curtis decided to leave town and go to sea the next spring.)

According to his wife, William brought his little family home to Marlborough in December 1776 and set up his own practice as a physician. William and Betsy had children in 1777, 1778, and 1779, all of them living to adulthood. But like his father, William Dexter died young, at age thirty. His widow Betsy remarried ten years later to a man named Edward Low and settled in Leominster, living until 1846.

Samuel Dexter (1756-1825) became an apothecary, married Elizabeth Province in Northampton in 1790, and settled in Albany, New York. She was a daughter of John and Sarah Province of Boston, and thus a sister of the David Province whom George Gailer sued for helping to tar and feather him in 1769, when she was six. How she got to Northampton is a mystery. Samuel and Elizabeth had five children, three living to adulthood. Samuel was the longest-lived of the brothers, and Elizabeth died in 1846.

John Dexter (1758-1807) worked as a quartermaster sergeant for the Continental Army for several years under Col. Timothy Bigelow of Worcester. On 3 Mar 1783 he married a woman from Marlborough named Mary Woods, likely a cousin on his mother’s side, with a justice of the peace from Stow rather than a local minister presiding. John and Mary Dexter’s first daughter arrived in late December, and three more children followed by 1794.

John was a tanner. He gained the militia rank of ensign under Gov. John Hancock. In the 1790s the Dexters moved to Berlin. Then John “went into Trade,” and in 1802 he moved the family into Boston. John died five years later, Mary in 1823. The children all lived well into the latter half of the nineteenth century, but none had children.

John Dexter’s third child was John Haven Dexter (1791-1867), who apprenticed at Benjamin Russell’s Columbian Centinel but then went to work in the mercantile firm of Amos and Abbott Lawrence. J. H. Dexter wrote two books (Mercantile Honor, and Moral Honesty and A Plea for the Horse) and also left several manuscripts of genealogical information and gossip about his family and fellow Bostonians, some helpfully transcribed and published in 1997.


J. L. Bell said...

In an 1874 letter, John Haven Dexter described his childhood years in Boston this way: “We occupied from year to year a large number of places for residence in town and city, till the entire dissolution of our family, the writer being the only survivor. I received but little or no school education.” That sounds like a poor family barely getting by.

However, by “only survivor” J. H. Dexter could not have meant that all his relatives died when he was young. His mother survived to 1823 and his three siblings until the 1860s. He was the “only survivor” of that family when he wrote in 1874.

Dexter recalled becoming a newspaper apprentice around age twelve, which would have been the year after the family came to Boston. He shifted to the mercantile firm at age nineteen.

Anonymous said...

"Their first child, named Ebenezer after William’s father, arrived eight and a half months later."

I am sure the friends and neighbors were counting. My mother told me "Remember, the first child can come any time ... it is only the others that take nine months."