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Charlestown School in the 17th century.

By Frank Mortimer Hawes.


Mr. Benjamin Thompson, who had been in charge of the Boston Latin School, for some reason was offered a secondary position in the same, and declined. He gracefully exchanged places with Mr. Cheever. January 30, 1671, the Charlestown records say: ‘Mr. Benjamin Thompson began to teach the schoole in this Towne.’ The agreement between him and the selectmen reads as follows:—

1. That he shall be paid £ 30 per annum by the Towne and to receive 20 shillings a year from each particular scholar that he shall teach, to be paid him by those who send children to him to school.

2. That he shall prepare such youths as are capable of it for the college, with learning answerable.

3. That he shall teach to read, write & cypher.

4. That there shall be half a year's warning given mutually by him and the Town before any change or remove on either side. The school was in Mr. Thompson's hands until November 7, 1674. It was during this time, May, 1672, that the Rev. Thomas Shepard, of Charlestown, in his election sermon, said: ‘Let the schools flourish; this is one of the means whereby we have been, [33] and may still be preserved from a wilde wilderness state through God's blessing upon the same, and from becoming a land of darkness and of the shadow of death. Cherish them therefore and the College in especial.’

At this time, also, 17: 2 mo., 1673, ‘it was voted that the persons hereafter mentioned were appointed to look after ye boys and keep them in order in ye meeting house upon ye Sabbath & Lecture Days, 24 persons being ordered to set two for each month with them.’ The list included many of the solid men of the town, and a similar vote was passed for several years thereafter.

Mr. Thompson (Tompson) achieved no little distinction as a schoolmaster, physician, town cerk, and even as poet. He was the son of the Rev. William Thompson, and was born in Braintree July 14, 1642. He graduated from Harvard College in 1662, the second in his class, and was appointed to, the master's place in the Boston school August 26, 1667. While teaching there, he had among his pupils the celebrated Cotton Mather, and thus ‘had the honor of helping forward that precocious youth, who, in burdensome gratitude, enlivens his “Magnalia” by references to his old master's poetry.’

After leaving Charlestown, we next find Mr. Thompson teaching in his native town, where he engaged March 3, 1678,9, at a salary of £ 30. The town is to give him a piece of land to put a house on, and every child is to carry to the schoolmaster one-half cord of wood, besides the quarter money every year. 1688, Mr. Benjamin Thompson, physician and schoolmaster, is mentioned on the Braintree records, and 1696 he is the town clerk of that place. He was keeping school in Roxbury from 1700 to 1704. Mr. Thompson was twice married, first, to Susanna Kirtland, of Lynn, secondly, to Prudence Payson. He died April 13, 1714, in his seventy-second year, leaving eight children and twenty-eight grandchildren. Of these, a daughter, Susanna, was born in Charlestown June 10, 1673. The birth of a daughter, Anna, February 21, 1676, is also assigned to Charlestown. If so, the family must have lived here after his services as schoolmaster had ended. [34]

Benjamin Thompson has been styled by some the first native American poet. His versification was considered smooth and correct. Perhaps his most famous work was ‘New England's Crisis,’ a long poem on King Philip's War.

November 16, 1674. ‘Mr. Thompson, having resigned up his charge in this town as schoolmaster ye 7 instant, this day ye Selectmen, with the advice and consent of the Reverend Mr. Thomas Shepard and Rev. Mr. Joseph Brown, did unanimously agree to give Mr. Samuel Phips, of this Towne, a call to the said work, who was accordingly sent for, & the matter being proposed, viz.: that he should accept of the sd service for half a year upon tryall. For which time he is to instruct Youth in Grammar Learning, & to fit such for ye College who are capable of it as farre as ye time will admit; that he shall also teach to read, write, & cypher. In consideration whereof he shall be allowed £ 30 per annum from ye Towne & 20 shillings per annum from each schollar taught by him, to be paid by their parents or guardians. All which was accepted by him ye next day, being ye 17 November, and upon the 18 he began to keep school. Attested by Laurence Hammond, Recorder.’

A more extended account than has been accorded to his predecessors is due to Samuel Phipps, for without doubt he has the distinction of being the first native of Charlestown to teach in her schools. Then, too, as one of the pioneers in the work, he set the pace for that great army of young men who ever since have trained themselves for the battle of life by first showing the young idea how to shoot.

He was the son of Solomon Phipps, before mentioned, a prominent and useful citizen of that time. His name is the second on the list of those who graduated from Harvard College in 1671. Isaac Foster, also from Charlestown, stood first, and Samuel Sewall (a name distinguished in our Colonial history) came third. The rest of the class, eleven in number, were Samuel Mather, Samuel Danforth, Peter Thacher, William Adams, Thomas Weld, John Bowles, John Norton, and Edward Tylor. In 1680, a year after he entered upon his labors as school teacher, he had fifty-three pupils. His services on Town Hill continued until June, 1684. [35]

Mr. Phipps was thrice married, but the mother of his eleven children appears to have been the second wife, Katherine, daughter of John Brackenbury. He always resided in Charlestown, and, to judge from the records, deserves to be ranked among her most famous citizens. It was here that he joined the church, March 9, 1684. He held all the offices in the gift of his fellow townsmen, serving as constable, town clerk or recorder, town treasurer, selectman, and representative to the General Court. This last distinction he enjoyed, in all, twelve years. He was Clerk of the Courts for Middlesex county from 1689 to 1722, and for a time was Register of Deeds for the same. He also served as captain of the militia. Mr. Phipps died August 7, 1725. His interest in the Charlestown school is evinced from various entries in the records, some of which we quote later on.

Taking up, in chronological order, the various references to the school during the Phipps regime, we learn somewhat of the school fund and of the disciplining of the schoolboys.

January 4, 1875. ‘Voted that Lotts forfeited to ye Towne be given to a free schoole in Charlestown forever.’ The same day it was ‘agreed that Lovell's Island should be & remain to the use of the school in Charlestown forever, and not to be alienated from it to any other use.’

January 17, 1675-6. John Cutler, Jr., one of the constables, was thus instructed:

That you allow no boys to sit in any other place in ye meeting house but those appointed for therein, viz., the boys' seats in ye long benches in ye southwest alley, and therefore that you fetch them out of the galleries & from before the Pulpit or elsewhere, & place them in ye place above said.

That you endeavor to prevent playing & all irrelevant carriage in time of Worship.

That you prevent there unnecessary frequent running out of ye meeting house in time of exercises, & particularly there running out before prayer be done & ye Blessing pronounced, which is also a particular order from the General Court.

That you permit them not to sit in time of prayer, but to stand up, & during the whole exercise there hats to be off.

That you return a list of names of such boys as will not be [36] reclaimed from there disorders by you, that they may be proceeded with as ye law in yt case directs.

Frothingham, against the year 1679, says: ‘The ministers complained in their sermons of the general decay of schools, and an effort was made to restore them.’ This may explain our next extract from the records.

March 10, 1678-9. ‘At a general meeting of the Inhabitants it was put to a voat to ye inhabitants of this Town whether they would make a free School in this Town by allowing £ 50 per annum in or as money & a convenient house for a schoolmaster who is to teach Lattin, writing, siphering, & to perfect children in reading English. It was passed with a general voat by ye holding up of their hands, as Attests James Russell, Recorder.’ The seventh of April following ‘it was agreed with Mr. Samuel Phips to keepe the Free Schole of this Towneon the terms as was voted at the Towne Meeting (in March), wch is for the Yeare ensuing wch yr begins the 14th of this Instant Aprill. Per John Newell, Recorder.’

March 6, 1681-2. ‘It was agreed with Luke Perkins to inspect ye Youth at the meeting house in time of Worship for this yeare ensuing, for which he is to have £ 3 for this yeare, one-half money & the other halfe Towne pay, provided he be careful in his office.’ It thus appears that the fathers were tired of doing police duty on the Sabbath, and were glad to hire a substitute for about a shilling per week! Perhaps the most interesting item that the records furnish us at this time is the account of the building of a new school building, which, as far as we know, was the second schoolhouse erected in Charlestown. 30 March, 1681-2. ‘Then agreed with the brothers Nathaniel & Samuel Frothingham that they build a sufficient frame for a schoole of 20 ft. square & 8 foot studd within joints with a flatish Roofe and a Turret on it for the bell, and likewise a mantle-tree of 12 foot long, & to raise sd frame by 17th of May next, and to furnish all the carpenter worke about it by the middle of June next. And the Selectmen doth promise to finde them with boards, shingls, and nayls, and to pay them for sd worke thirteen pounds, one-half money. Attest Jno. Newell, Recorder,’ [37]

Also agreed, April 26, 1682, with Xtopher Goodwin, Jun., ‘to doe the mason worke belonging to ye new schoolhouse, viz., to build ye Chimnie & underpin ye house, to fill the walls with clay & brick, and to point the roof with lime, he finding all materialls belonging to it, as brick, stone, & Lime, etc., etc. Sd Goodwin is to have ye stone & brick of ye old house, & for so doing his worke substantially he is to receive five pounds, one-half money, the other Townespay.’

This new building, built in part, perhaps, from the material of the old, probably stood on or near the same spot as its predecessor, which had done service since 1651. Fifteen years after its erection, 1666, it was ‘much out of repair,’ but, thanks to Master Cheever's urging, it was made to do service sixteen years longer. Frothingham, page 185, makes a mistake when he says this new building was only twelve feet square, and ‘Somerville, Past and Present,’ has copied the error.

April 3, 1684. ‘Agreed with Michael Long to inspect the Youth on the Lord's Day & other times of Religious Worship for 25 shillings and 15 shillings in towne pay for one year.’ From this decrease in salary, may we infer that the duties were growing less arduous?

Mr. Phipps' successor was Mr. Samuel Myles (Miles) who, July 17, 1684, entered upon his labors as master ‘of the Free School of this Towne.’ The following contract is dated August 11 of that year—

‘Agreed with Mr. Samuel Miles, schoolmaster, to pay unto him £ 50 per annum for his faithful performing of that place. By Teaching & p'r'fating Youth that are committed to him, wh. sum is to be payd quarterly, the one-half in money, and the other in corn at money price. Likewise to allow him 5 pounds per year for house rent, to be payd in Towne pay, which agreement is to continue for one year.’

December 6, 1686. ‘Mr. Samuel Phipps, as Town Treasurer, is empowered to lay out the 25 pounds money belonging to the Free School, Provided he take sufficient security therefor.’

From Sibley's ‘Harvard Graduates’ we learn that the Rev. Samuel Miles was the son of Rev. John Miles, a Baptist preacher, [38] who, in 1663, formed a society in Rehoboth, the oldest Baptist church in Massachusetts. He died in 1683, while his son Samuel, according to his will, was a student at the college. After graduating in 1687, young Miles continued to teach in Charlestown for a while, for it appears that the town was obliged to pay him his salary up to October of that year. About this time he became an Episcopalian, and we next find him connected with King's Chapel, Boston. In 1692 he visited England and brought away gifts for his chapel left by Queen Mary, then deceased, and also from King William. Some of these substantial evidences of royal favor are still treasured in Boston and elsewhere. In 1698 the wardens of King's Chapel, for the third time, apply to the Bishop of London for an assistant, and, in mentioning Mr. Miles, speak of him in most flattering terms as ‘well liked of all of us,’ and as ‘a good liver and a painful preacher.’ April 15, 1723, he laid the corner-stone ‘at ye new North Church.’ After a ministry of nearly forty years, he died March 4, 1728.

The receipt by which Samuel Myles, of Boston, in Co. of Suffolk, etc., Clerk, for and in consideration of £ 28 current money pd by Nath'l Dows, of Charlestown, treasurer of said town, doth remise, release, and forever quit claim unto said Town, etc., etc., the amount of its indebtedness to him ‘from the beginning of the world unto the present time,’ is a curious specimen of legal writing of that day. It was signed 27 March, 1699, and witnessed by Jno. Cutler and Thomas Parks.

We are not without evidence that the colonists of the stricter sort did not relish any return to Episcopacy. Was it Samuel Myles' influence that caused the May-pole to be set up in Charlestown? Frothingham, page 221, says, under date of May, 1687, ‘the May-pole was again cut down, and it was noised about that Samuel Phipps, one of the selectmen, led and encouraged the watch to cut it down.’

During the Andros persecution Charlestown had its trials along with other communities. Mr. Phipps, too, for a while suffered from unpopularity. Much against his wish, he was appointed constable. August 9, 1686, he complained to the government of the town's action, and asked release from the fine, on [39] the ground that he was a master of arts and kept a grammar school. He was accordingly excused, but the town rebelled and again chose him to the office. It appears that his excuse was considered a thin one, for, said the people, ‘if the instruction of two or three youths in a private way in his house, as his other occasions will permit (for his private benefit) in grammar learning, at the desire of their friends, will give him the reputation of keeping a grammar school, so be it.’

We have given this incident, not as a piece of historical gossip, but to show that the youth of Charlestown, as in Cheever's time, did not get their education wholly from the Town Hill school.

April 20, 1691. ‘Agreed with Mr. Jno. Emerson to be schoolmaster in this Towne for the education of Youth, viz., in Lattin, writing, ciphering, and perfecting in English, & for encouragement in sd work, the Selectmen promise the sd schoolmaster, Mr. Emerson, 25 pounds per annum, one-half money & the other half as money. And such Youth as do enter under sd schoolmaster his Tutorage, they are to pay as he and their parents or overseers do agree for, and as to some poor children that may come, as sd Mr. Emerson and the Selectmen may agree therein, and the above sd twenty-five pounds is to be payd quarterly from May the 4th following.’

May 9, 1695. ‘Voted that what is rising annually upon the account of the school in this Town shall be payd annually to a schoolmaster, & no more towards keeping a gramer & writing school, and the sd schoolmaster to have the benefit of the scholars to make up his sallary, and the management thereof to be left to the selectmen.’

December 7, 1696. ‘Then ordered the Town Treasurer to pay Mr. John Emerson, schoolmaster, besides the Rent of Lovels Iland, 8 pounds as he had Last Yeare.’

November 2, 1697. ‘Then ordered Town Treasurer to pay for a bushel of Lime to repaire the school house.’

February 1, 1698. ‘To Xtopher Goodwin for work at the Schoolhouse, and to Mr. Emerson 8 pounds.’

May 17, 1698. ‘Let unto Josiah Treadway the land formerly [40] for the school fenced in and improved by the schoolmaster. It being all the land belonging to the Towne from the lower end of the schoolhouse on a straight line to Timothy Cutler's barn, containing 30 rod, more or less, for a term of seven years, 5 shilling for the first year, and 10 shilling per yeare thereafter.’

January 6, 1698-9. ‘Xtopher Goodwin, for work at schoolhouse (4-6) four and sixpence.’

January 23, 1698. Treasurer's account:—

Mr. John Emerson, Dr.
To Rent of Lovell's Is., £ 10.
To Money pd being for year 1697, £ 8.
To Rent for the Island, £ 10.
To money being rent for school land, £ 8.
Total, £ 36.

From the Emerson Genealogy we learn that Rev. John Emerson, of the class of 1675 (Harvard), was the son of Nathaniel1 (Thomas2) Emerson. He was born in Ipswich, 1654, and died in Salem February 24, 1712. His grave is in the Charter street burying ground. He served as a chaplain in the Indian Wars, and taught school at Newbury, Charlestown, and Salem. August 25, 1699, the selectmen of Salem called him from Charlestown, at a salary of £ 50, to teach Greek, Latin, writing, cyphering, and to perfect such in reading as can read a chapter competently well. The following regulations at Salem were, doubtless, not unlike those in other communities at that day. The school bell was to be rung at 7 a. m. and 5 p. m. from March 1 to November 1, and at 8 a. m. and 4 p. m. from November 1 to March 1. School was to begin and end accordingly! Comment and comparisons with present-day methods are unnecessary.

Mr. Emerson married, in 1699, Sarah, widow of John Carter, and daughter of Richard and Joanna Stowers, of Charlestown. A daughter, Sarah, born to them August, 1695, married Hon. Richard Foster, Jr. (nephew of Isaac and grandson of William and Anne [Brackenbury] Foster). Through his wife, Mr. Emerson's name is connected with numerous real estate transactions in Charlestown. His widow long survived him.

March 4, 1699—00. ‘Voted that the selectmen, with Mr. [41] Samuel Phipps & Lt. Eleazer Phillips, be a committee to bargain and agree with a gramer schoolmaster for the yeare to keep a free school & the Selectmen to, Raise by way of Rate on the Inhabitants what shall be wanting beside what is already given for that use to make up the sailery that shall be agreed upon to be given to sd schoolmaster.’

March 8. ‘Agreed that Mr. Samuel Phipps & Lt. Eleazer Phillips go to Cambridge or elsewhere & inform themselves by the best advice they can get of a suitable person for a schoolmaster, & if they see meet to agree with one, this to be done with all expedition.’

This unseemly haste is explained, perhaps, by a reference in Hutchinson Collection, page 553. Frothingham says, page 214, ‘So watchful were the public authorities of the common schools that in 1691 Charlestown was presented to the county court for its neglect, while it was in search of a competent teacher, and only saved itself from a penalty by a quick bargain.’

May 22, 1700. ‘According to vote in March the selectmen and committee agreed with Mr. Thomas Swan to keep the school in this Towne, to teach children belonging to this towne Lattin, writeing, scifering, & to perfect them in Reading English, & forthwith to enter upon said work & continue for the space of one whole yeare from the day of the date hereof. In consideration of which service, faithfully performed, it was agreed that he be paid £ 40 money for the year, to be paid quarterly. Nathl Dowse, Recorder.’

Various orders to the town treasurer to pay Mr. Swan are found upon the books, the most interesting being that of October 27, 1702: ‘To Mr. Thomas Swan 15 shillings money disbursed by him for wood for the schooling of pore children.’

Thus ends the account of Charlestown school in the first century of our history. It remains to add that, at the opening of the eighteenth century (Frothingham, page 243), at annual meeting in March, it was voted, if there should be a county school settled by the General Court, that this Town would raise £ 40, in order to provide for it, if it be settled in this town. Apparently nothing ever came of this. [42]

Neal's ‘New England,’ page 613, asserts that there was hardly a child of nine or ten years old throughout the whole country at this time but could read and write and say his catechism. If this be true, from the account which we have attempted to present, it may be judged whether Charlestown was faithful or not to its duty.

(To be continued.)

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