Robert W. de Forest – Captain of Philanthropy, Part 1

Robert W. de Forest – Captain of Philanthropy, Part 1

A Pioneering Heritage

The Provident Loan Society’s first president, Robert Weeks de Forest, came from a family of adventurous (and prosperous) pioneers. He was born on April 25, 1848 in Greenwich Village, New York, and is a direct descendant of Jessé de Forest, a French Huguenot and leader of the Walloon emigrants who first settled what was then called New Amsterdam.

The de Forest family patriarch is remembered for his role in founding New York City by the Walloon Settlers Monument, a commemorative monolith in Lower Manhattan’s Battery Park that was given to New York City by the people of France.

The early Walloon settlers sailed into New York harbor in 1637, selected sites to live, and cleared the land to farm. Jessé’s son,  Isaak de Forest, had received a grant for a strip of land on Harlem Creek, near present-day First Avenue and 126th Street. Isaak raised tobacco and became a brewer of malt liquors in the 1650s. As one of the first entrepreneurs in New York City, Isaak eventually became a Great Burgher and one of the “most affluent inhabitants of the city.”

Isaak’s son David de Forest continued the entrepreneurial spirit. In 1694, he sailed up the coast into what is now Connecticut, where he and his descendants prospered in the Stratford area. Many family members fought in the Revolutionary War, and there were three de Forest captains in the Continental Army.

 

Making a Name in NYC

In 1815, the de Forest family moved from Connecticut to New York City’s Greenwich Village and became shipping merchants under the name De Forest & Sons. Lockwood de Forest, in particular, prospered and became notable among the New York importers and shippers in the early half of the century.

Lockwood had several children, including Henry G. de Forest, who was born in 1820. Henry became a prominent lawyer and married Julia Mary Weeks in 1847. They had several children and their first child, Robert Weeks de Forest, took his mother’s maiden name as his middle name.

Robert would often tell stories of his childhood, riding a big wheel bike and flying kites in a meadow that is now Madison Square Park. In his youth, he dreamed of becoming an artist, but his father convinced him to study law instead. He graduated from Yale University in 1870, was admitted to the bar in 1871, and joined his father’s law office the next year, where he became very successful with clients of great wealth and power.

In 1872, he married Emily Johnston, daughter of the wealthy businessman John Taylor Johnston, who gave the young couple a townhouse at 7 Washington Square Park, where they lived with their four children until Robert’s death.

Although de Forest was a lawyer by profession and interested in many business enterprises, his primary devotion throughout his long life was to social, civic, and cultural activities. It was this compassion, aided by his many prominent business and social connections, that led to the founding of the Provident Loan Society, which I will discuss further in my next blog.

About the Author
Tom Klem is Provident’s in-house historian and archivist, responsible for cataloging and electronically preserving their historical documents, press articles, and correspondence dating back to the 19th century. A dedicated magician since he was 13, Tom is the former archivist and current chairman of the Society of American Magicians.

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