Thomas Fortune (Forten) (?-1774)

Thomas Fortune (Forten) was a literate “free born” African American, and a third generation inhabitant of Philadelphia dating back to the early founding of the city. Thomas’ father was also a “free” African American; however, he was born enslaved, and later gained his own freedom. Thomas’ grandfather was an enslaved African brought to the small settlement of Philadelphia in the colony of Pennsylvania during the 1680’s. Thomas had an affluent sister named Ann Elizabeth.

Thomas Fortune (Forten) was a journeyman sail maker in the sail loft of Robert Bridges, a prominent Philadelphia business owner. While still employed by Bridges, Thomas branched out, and started a side-business making sails for his own “circle of customers,” and keeping his own accounts. “In August 1770, he got an order from merchant Lambert Caldwalader…For making a sprit sail for Caldwalader’s boat and supplying the twine, grommets, and canvas…” (Winch, Julie, A Gentleman of Color, pg 22).

Thomas saved his money, and invested it advancing loans for interest, including loaning out money to some well-respected white citizens recorded in the Proprietary Tax list of Philadelphia county from the 1700’s; For instance, in the tax list of 1774, James Cannon a white educator, had 10 pounds belonging to “Thomas Fortune.”

James Cannon was a professor of Mathematics at the College of Philadelphia, and he held a degree from Edinburgh University. “Cannon would emerge as a leading radical and become one of the principal framers of the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution.” (Winch, Julie, A Gentleman of Color, pg 23).

Thomas Fortune (Forten) married another African American woman named Margaret Waymouth they had 2 children, Abigail and James Forten, who became a wealthy African American business owner, and altered the family surname from “Fortune,” to "Forten.”

Thomas brought his young son James to work with him at a very early age, and began teaching James his valuable trade; however, tragically Thomas died of illness around 1774, when his son James was only 7 years of age.

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