Gregory Dexter (1610-1700), born in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England, was admitted to the highly competitive and highly prized company of stationers in London in 1639. Information on his early life is scanty, but his level of literacy and his professional success indicate that he received a sound education. Dexter became a printer for the famous English writer John Milton, and he also became the printer for Roger Williams. Among the works of Williams printed by Dexter was The Key into the Language of America. Although Dexter was one of London’s finest printers, he was also a parliamentary partisan of the Puritan persuasion, and some tracts that he published brought down upon him the wrath of royal censors.
In 1644, Dexter joined Roger Williams in Providence. Although he gave up his printing business, he became prominent in the town as the fifth minister of the First Baptist Church and an active participant in town meeting affairs. He seems to have had a hand in everything that concerned the fledgling community. Dexter’s biographer, Bradford Swan, notes that leadership in Providence was sorely needed. Many of the early settlers were there because they wished to flee the government. Such people were not inclined to help fashion a new government, even one that promoted participation and democracy.
Dexter stepped in, negotiated land disputes, and functioned as a town clerk.
He served the colony during several challenging crises. In one, he continued to hold meetings when Roger Williams had to return to England in 1651 to quash an attempt by William Coddington to separate the island towns of Portsmouth and Newport from the colony and rule them as governor for life. Coddington got the English government to agree to this arrangement, and Williams returned to undo it. Until Williams returned, successful in the mission, Dexter kept things together and even served as president of the mainland towns of Providence and Warwick in 1653 and 1654 during the Coddington secession. He was also one of Williams’s staunch allies against the claims of William Harris in the Pawtuxet land disputes.
In one of his landholding adventures, Dexter was granted a monopoly for the extraction of lime in the wooded area in the northern part of Providence, and he began pit mines to remove lime. Colonial America had many uses for lime, not the least of which was making mortar for buildings. Dexter’s Lime Rock quarry in Lincoln, with its extended activity under the Harris and Conklin families, is one of the oldest continuous businesses in America, dating back to the 1660s.
It is believed that Gregory Dexter died in 1700, near the age of ninety. A master printer and a champion of religious dissent and parliamentary power in Old England, he was a colony builder and a supplier of materials for more substantial homes in New England. In each case, his contributions had a long-lasting effect.
Rev. Gregory Dexter was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1997.
For additional information:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.