October alias Robert Barclay

1787 - 1861


October, alias Robert Barclay, was an enslaved boy living and working on Unity Valley Pen (St Ann), Jamaica. He was manumitted in 1795 by David Barclay (q.v.) and removed to Philadelphia, with 29 other freed persons from the estate, where he was placed under the care of Society for Improving the Condition of Free Blacks.

David Barclay (1729-1809) was a banker and merchant as well as a committed Quaker and pacifist. He cultivated close links with Quaker communities in Pennsylvania and was a good friend of Benjamin Franklin. An active philanthropist, he was a keen advocate for abolition of the slave trade and called for the gradual end of slavery in the Caribbean. Nonetheless, his bank had close links to the West India trade and financed plantation mortgages, a connection that created a moral dilemma for Barclay.

Sometime around 1785, David Barclay and his brother John took possession in lieu of debts of a 2000 acre cattle pen named Unity Valley in St Ann, Jamaica. Barclay was determined to manumit the 30 enslaved people living and working there. He instructed his attorney in Jamaica, Alexander Macleod of Spanish Town, to carry out the manumission but Macleod refused, stating that such a measure although to be applauded would be very unpopular on the island. Instead, he manumitted two - Hamlet and Prudence - and employed them on the pen at wages of 17l. per annum. A year later Macleod wrote to Barclay lamenting the failure of the experiment, claiming that both were “so relaxed in their labour”, that he “thought their example would be very disadvantageous to the owners of the estate.” Barclay concluded, “This was to be expected, when two slaves among thirty had their freedom; but supposing all of them had been on the same footing, and to have been paid according to their respective merits, there then would have been competition among them, as among all other labourers.” In 1795 he dispatched his agent William Holden to Jamaica with instructions to enact the manumission of all 30 enslaved people and then move them to Philadelphia, where they would be placed in apprenticeships by Barclay’s Quaker acquaintances.

William Holden arrived in Jamaica on 10 March 1795 and was met by Alexander Macleod, who accompanied him to Unity Valley Pen. Holden described two of the enslaved people there as “so infirm and diseased as not to be fit for removal” but made arrangements for the remaining 16 adults and 12 children to be manumitted and taken by ship to Philadelphia. According to Holden’s account, on arriving at the wharf in Kingston the group initially refused to board the ship, having “unanimously declared they had altered their minds, and would not go, because they had been informed that ‘they were to be sold to the Spaniards’.” It took much persuasion but after “some considerable time” everyone boarded. The voyage was “short and pleasant” and they arrived in Philadelphia on 22 July, “all in high spirits”. Holden delivered the group to James Pemberton and Thomas Parke of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, who housed them temporarily in the African Methodist meeting house.

One of the youngest was an eight year old boy called October who was renamed Robert Barclay soon after his arrival in Philadelphia. On 26 September 1795 he was apprenticed to John Chapman for the term of 13 years, “to learn the trade of a Windsor Chair-maker, to be taught to read and write, sound in clothes, &c. and have freedom dues.” He was still in place when visited by Thomas Parke in 1799. According to the terms of his indenture, he would be free to leave his situation in 1808 at the age of 21. David Barclay’s later account gives no information on Robert Barclay’s parentage nor whether attempts were made to keep him in contact with other members of the Unity Valley group.

October is likely to be the Robert Barclay who traded as a cabinet maker at 334 South Street, Philadelphia in 1838. In the 1850 census he was living in Spruce Ward, age 59, a painter, born Jamaica, with his wife Eliza age 48, children Elizabeth age 24, George age 19, Sophia age 16 and Mary age seven. Also in the household was a nine year old boy named Robert Potts. In 1860 he was living in the 7th Ward, age 70, still listed as a painter, with his wife Ann E. Barclay and daughters Sophia age 25 and Mary age 16. Robert Barclay died of “Congestion of Brain” on 12 August 1861 at 705 Minster Street, Philadelphia and was buried four days later at Olive Cemetery. In 1923 the human remains from the cemetery were reinterred at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania. Robert Barclay has descendants living in Newport, Rhode Island, today.


David Barclay, ‘An Account of the Emancipation of the Slaves of Unity Valley Pen, in Jamaica’ (1801) pp. 5-8, 10, 14, 17.

Register of Trades of the Colored People in the City of Philadelphia and Districts (1838) p. 4.

1850 and 1860 US censuses online.

Familysearch, Pennsylvania City Death Certificates, 1803-1915 [database online].

‘Legacies of slavery and freedom’, http://www.littleoctober.com/newport/ [accessed 11/05/2021].

We are grateful to Keith Stokes for his help compiling this entry.

Further Information

Elizabeth, Sophia, George, Mary

Associated Estates (1)

The dates listed below have different categories as denoted by the letters in the brackets following each date. Here is a key to explain those letter codes:

  • SD - Association Start Date
  • SY - Association Start Year
  • EA - Earliest Known Association
  • ED - Association End Date
  • EY - Association End Year
  • LA - Latest Known Association
1787 [SY] - 1795 [EY] → Enslaved

Pen owner David Barclay order manumission 1795.

Relationships (1)

Enslaved-manumitted → Previous owner
Notes →
David Barclay order manumission...

Addresses (2)

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA - United States of America
105 Minster Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA - United States of America