Known more for his impact after death than for any particular achievement in life, Providence native Ebenezer Knight Dexter remains one of the city’s most influential figures, having bequeathed the majority of his estate to the town for the establishment of a military training ground and an almshouse for the poor.
Born in Providence on April 26, 1773, Dexter enjoyed the advantages that came with being a member of a prominent, wealthy family. His mother, Phebe Harris, and father, Colonel Knight Dexter, both had family that dated back to the original settlers of Providence, and his father was a part of the town’s business elite. In his younger years, Ebenezer acquainted himself with several prominent men, including Rhode Island Governor James Fenner, U.S. District Court Judge David Howell, and Rhode Island Senator David Howell, Jr. In addition to his successful career in real estate and trade, his connections to Rhode Island’s political elite helped him to gain the position as U.S. Marshal for Rhode Island.
Because of his success in business, Dexter was able to retire at an early age. In retirement he lived quietly, and it was not until his death in 1824 that he made his biggest impact on Providence. In his will, Dexter left the town of Providence two separate plots of land that were to be used for the benefit of those living in the area. One, a nine-acre lot on the West Side, between Cranston Street and High Street, became the Dexter Training Ground and per his wishes, was to be used as a gathering spot for townspeople and as a training site for the state militia. Notable uses of the site include the failed attack by the Dorrites during the Dorr Rebellion in 1842 (the fuse to the cannon, aimed at the state arsenal, was extinguished by mist in the air), and as the point of muster for the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored) during the Civil War in 1863.
The second plot of land that Dexter left to the town was his 40-acre Neck Farm on Providence’s East Side. Feeling “an ardent desire to ameliorate the condition of the poor, and to contribute to their comfort and relief,” Dexter wanted an institution built on the property that would aid the destitute of Providence. For 129 years, Dexter Asylum gave food, shelter, and opportunity to the city’s poorest citizens, in exchange for their labor. In 1957 the property was sold to Brown University and the buildings were demolished soon thereafter. All that remains today of Providence’s first indoor relief facility is the imposing eight-foot high, three-foot thick stone wall, built in 1832 to surround the asylum.