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Charlestown School in the 17th century.

By Frank Mortimer Hawes.
in presenting this account of the first school of Charlestown, we trust that the time given to musty old records has not been spent unprofitably. If the story awaken in the reader's mind an interest commensurate with that which held us to the task, our labors will be amply rewarded.

Although settled a year or more previous, Charlestown was incorporated—to use the date in our Court Manual—August 23, 1630. The bounds of the town had no definite limits, but we learn that, March 3, 1636, they extended ‘eight miles into the country, from the meeting house.’ In September, 1642, a part of Charlestown was set off and incorporated as the town of Woburn, and May 2, 1649, the indefinitely designated ‘Mistick Side’ became the town of Malden. The territory that remained extended as far as the bounds of Reading, and included (not to mention more remote districts) besides ‘the peninsula,’ a large part of Medford, portions of Cambridge and Arlington, and the whole of Somerville. This was, practically, the Charlestown of the seventeenth and a part of the eighteenth century, as there was no further diminution of territory until 1725, when Stoneham was made a township. [16]

Our story begins, as far as the records are concerned, June 3, 1636, when ‘Mr. William Witherell was agreed with to keepe a schoole for a twelve month, to begin the 8 of the VI. month, & to have £ 40 for this yeare.’

Frothingham, in his History (page 65), makes this comment: ‘This simple record is evidence of one of the most honorable facts of the time, namely, that a public school, and, judging from the salary, a free school, at least for this twelve-month, was thus early established here, and on the principle of voluntary taxation. It may be worth while to remember that this date is eleven years prior to the so often quoted law of Massachusetts, compelling towns to maintain schools.’

A brief word on this first-named school teacher of Charlestown will not be amiss. Rev. William Witherell (the name admits of various spellings) came from Maidstone, Kent, Eng., in 1635, under certificate from the mayor of that place, where he had been schoolmaster. He was bred at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, took his degree of A. B. in 1623, and his master's degree in 1626. In the ship Hercules, which sailed from Sandwich, there came with Mr. Witherell his wife, three children, and a servant. Savage adds that, after preaching in Duxbury, he became the minister of the second parish of Scituate in 1645, that several children were born to him in this country, and that he died April 9, 1684. A recent genealogical note in the Boston Evening Transcript gives his age as twenty-five in 1627, when he married in Canterbury, Eng., Mary Fisher. That he was for several years the schoolmaster of Charlestown appears from the following:—

‘11: 12 mo. 1636. Mr. Wetherell was granted a House plott with his cellar, selling his other house and part of his ground.’

‘12: 12 mo. 1637. About Mr. Wetherell it was referred to Mr. Greene and Mr. Lerned to settle his wages for the Yeare past in pt and pt to come & they chose Mr. Ralph Sprague for a third.’

‘28: X mo. 1638. John Stratton was admitted a townsman & has liberty to buy Mr. Wetherell's house.’ [17]

1641. Mr. Wethrall's name appears in a list of those to whom an assignment of ‘lotts’ was made.

In a general town meeting, 20: 11 mo. 1646, ‘it was agreed yt a Rate of £ 15 should be gathered of the Towne toward the Schole for this Yeare & the £ 5 yt Major Sedgwick is to pay this Year (for the Island) for the Schole, also the Towns pt of Mistick Ware for the Schole forever.’ Thus early we have mention of an income derived from rentals, bequests, etc., which were to grow into a very respectable school fund. From time to time we shall have occasion to refer to this.

As far as we can now determine, the first mention of a schoolhouse was at a town meeting, held 1: 11 mo. 1648 (or, new style, January 11, 1649), when it was agreed that the seven selectmen should see about and order ‘a fitt place for a Schole house and it to bee sett up and built at the Towns Charge.’ The following month it was voted ‘to lay out for the Towne use upon the Windmill Hill a place for a Schole house and a place for the Scholmaisters house, and Mr. Francis Willoughby & Mr. Robert Hale were desired to lay them out.’

‘1: 3 mo. 1650. It was agree by all ye Inhabitants of the Towne that the Towne would allow unto a Scholmaister (to be agreed with by the officers) by a rate made to that end to make up the rent for Lovell's Island £ 20 by the year, besides the Schollers pay. Agreed that a Schole house and a Watch Tower be erected on Windmill Hill & to be paid by a general rate & that Mr. Francis Willoughby, Mr. Ralph Mowsall, Mr. William Stilson & Mr. Robert Hale are chosen to agree with a convenient number of Carpenters that the work be carried on as speedily & frugally as may be.’

‘3: X mo. 1651. The rate of the Towne gathered by the two constables Swett and Lowden of £ 53 about the Scholhouse & meeting house is brought in & the most of it disbursed to workmen as appears by accounts.’

Frothingham (page 5) makes the comment that the church and the schoolhouse stood side by side quietly diffusing their beneficent influences. The poet Whittier, in the closing stanza of ‘Our State,’ expresses a similar idea:— [18]

Nor heeds the sceptic's puny hands,
While near her school the church-spire stands;
Nor fears the blinded bigot's rule,
While near her church-spire stands the school.

It would seem that a procrastinating spirit, in the matter of providing school buildings, early displayed itself in this community. The demand was an urgent one. The selectmen are given full power to choose a site and erect the structure. A month later two influential citizens are selected to help the Fathers of the town in their arduous task. More than a year passes, and nothing has been done. The citizen committee is doubled, and the instructions, amounting almost to a command, urge that the work be done ‘speedily.’ A year and a half from this time, or three years lacking a month from its inception, the house is completed and the bills are paid.

As the sum mentioned (£ 53) included repairs on the meeting house, probably we never shall know the exact cost of Charlestown's first school building.

Before we leave this subject, let us look at the picture that is presented from another point of view. Two hundred and fifty years ago that one little Forge gleamed feebly down by Charlestown City square. The appliances, how crude! But the sparks struck from that rude anvil in the wilderness, struck in the white heat of conviction, have flashed and flown till every hill has been illumined with the brightness and every valley has become a shining track. Huge workshops, in brick and stone, have risen on every hand, but not enough to meet the demand, and the hundreds of anvils ringing, ever ringing, resound the larger life, the larger hope—and the forearm of the state is strengthened, ever strengthened. Listen to the ringing and the singing of the anvils as the sparks fly upward and the wise smith never tires!

The next schoolmaster of whom we have any mention was a Mr. Stow, who, 6: 3 mo. 1651, ‘is to have what is due to ye Towne from ye Ware and the £ 5 which the major (Sedgwick) pays for Pellock's Island the last year 1650, also he is to regr. & take of such persons (as send there children now & then & not constantly) by the Weeke as he and they can agree.’ This was [19] the Rev. Samuel Stow, a graduate of Harvard College in the class of 1645. He was the son of John and Elizabeth (Biggs) Stow, of Roxbury, and was born about 1622. In 1649, at Chelmsford, he married Hope, daughter of William Fletcher. Of their seven children, a son, John, was born in Charlestown June 16, 1650. As early as 1653 he was the minister in Middletown, Ct., and March 22, 1670, he and his two brothers were enumerated among the fifty-two householders and proprietors of that place. In 1681 he seems to have been settled in Simsbury, Ct. Judge Sewall, in a letter dated November 16, 1705, writes that the Rev. Mr. Samuel Stow, of Middletown, went from thence to heaven upon the 8 May, 1704.

‘30: 3 mo. 1657. A town rate, amounting to £ 100, for va-. rious purposes, includes an item of £ 7 “to Mr. Morley, Scholemaster” ; said rate is to be made out and collected of the Inhabitants by the Constables.’ Frothingham (page 155), under date 1659, says that twenty acres in wood and three and one-half acres in commons were assigned to Mr. Morley. Wyman's History informs us that John Morley was the schoolmaster one year from April 26, 1652, and again also in 1657. He, with his wife Constant (Starr), was admitted to the Charlestown church in 1658. He is said to have been the son of Ralph Morley, of Braintree. His mother may have been the widow Catharine Morley ‘who sojourned thirty weeks with John Greene, of Charlestown, at two shillings and sixpence per week.’ John Morley died January 24, 1660-1, and in his will bequeathed his estate at Lucas and at Chesthunt Leyes, Hertford county, Eng., first to his wife, and secondly to his sister, Mrs. Ann Farmer. The will of the wife was probated in 1669.

In 1660 one thousand acres of land, in the wilderness, on the western side of Merrimack river, at a place commonly called by the Indians Sodegonock, were laid out by order of the General Court of Massachusetts Colony, for the use of the town of Charlestown. The rental of this tract of land helped to defray the annual expenses of the school.

November 26, 1661, Mr. Ezekiel Cheever entered upon his labors in behalf of the Charlestown grammar school. This [20] worthy pedagogue of ye olden time later won a deserved reputation as head master of the Boston Latin School, which position he accepted immediately on leaving Charlestown, January 6, 1671. Mr. Cheever was born in London January 25, 1614. He attended the famous Christ's Hospital School in 1626, and entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1632-3. He came to this country in 1637, was teaching in New Haven in 1638, and in Ipswich from 1650 to the time of his appointment to Charlestown, where his salary was £ 30 per annum. An increase in salary seems to have been the cause of his going to Boston, for there he received twice that amount. Mr. Cheever died in Boston August 21, 1708, at the advanced age of ninety-four. His connection with the Latin School continued thirty-seven years, and his labors as an instructor of youth covered nearly twice that period. Judge Sewall, in his diary, writes: ‘August 23, 1708, Mr. Cheever was buried from the schoolhouse.’ Dr. Cotton Mather preached the funeral sermon, which was printed and re-printed. His body was consigned to the Granary Burial Ground. The book with which Cheever's name, as a writer, is associated is ‘The Accidence.’ It was probably written while he lived in New Haven. ‘It passed through no less than eighteen editions previous to the Revolution, and was used generally as an elementary work. It has done more to inspire young minds with a love of the Latin language than any other work of the kind since the first settlement of the country.’ Mr. Cheever was twice married, the second time, while living in Ipswich, to Ellen Lathrop (November 18, 1651). When a resident of Charlestown, according to Wyman, his daughter Elizabeth married (1666) S. Goldthwait. There were other children, and his descendants at the present time would be hard to enumerate.

There are not many references to Ezekiel Cheever on the Charlestown records; most of them relate to the payment of his salary, which seems to have been furnished in small amounts, according to the condition of the town treasury. For example: ‘December 30, 1664. Paid to Mr. Ezekiel Cheever by order fifty shillings in current pay in full payment.’

The following reference to the school was during his administration: [21] ‘16: 12 mo. 1662. Mr. Thomas Gould and Mr. Solomon Phipps were appointed to run out the lines and bounds of a farm formerly laid out by Court order to maintain Charlestown Schoolhouse.’

‘17: 12 mo. 1661. It was ordered that Mr. Solomon Phipps should furnish the schoolhouse with severall necessaries belonging to the same, and with a house or barn for the housing of the cowes and hay. . . . so as the said Solomon and Mr. Cheffer the school-master shall see fitt & of necessity to be done & that the said Solomon shall be paid for his work according to the true value thereof.’

12: 11 mo. 1665 (church record). Reference is made to Mr. Cheever's scholars who are required to ‘sit orderly and constantly in the pews appointed for them together.’ ‘December 19, 1669. Appeared before the selectmen Mr. Cheever desiring a piece of ground or house plott might be granted him whereon to build a house for his family.’ Finally, and most interesting of all these entries, November 3, 1666, Mr. Cheever presented the following petition to the selectmen (quoted by Frothingham, page 157):—

1. That they would take care the schoolhouse be speedily amended, because it is much out of repair.

2. That they would take care that his yearly salary be paid, the constables being much behind with him.

3. Putting them in mind of their promise at his first coming to town, viz., that no other schoolmaster should be suffered, or set up in the town so as he could teach the same, yet now Mr. Mansfield is suffered to teach and take away his pupils.

This complaint of good Master Cheever would seem to be proof positive that the chief source of his income was not from the town treasury, but from the pockets of his patrons. We like to think that at this early day there may have been an ambitious boy or two, fired by the zeal of this worthy pedagogue, who sturdily trudged twice a day across the Neck, from some newly-cleared farm in Somerville, to the little schoolhouse on Town Hill.

[To be continued.]

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