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Charlestown schools within the peninsula Revolutionary period

By Frank Mortimer Hawes

In giving our brief sketch of Mr. Sweetser, we are not able to state precisely when his term of service ended as schoolmaster. January 20, 1755, he was chosen town clerk till the March meeting. In May, 1761, and perhaps earlier, he was serving in that capacity permanently. He held this office until his death, which occurred suddenly January 15, 1778. His school labors, like those of Mr. Harris, may have ended with the disastrous events [65] of 1775. An obituary notice of him may be found in the Boston Gazette, under date of his death. Seth Sweetser, Jr., born February 5, 1704, was of the fourth generation from the original settler of the same name, who came to this country from Tring, Hertfordshire, Eng. He graduated from Harvard College in the class of 1722, and, with the exception of the year 1750–'51, was schoolmaster in his native town from July, 1724, for fully fifty years thereafter. He was held in high esteem by his fellow-citizens, and served on many important committees prior to and during the first years of the Revolution. The name of his mother was Sarah Clark. He married Hannah Bradish, who is said to have died in 1800, at the advanced age of ninety-four. They had thirteen children, of whom Henry Phillips Sweetser was prominent in Charlestown affairs for many years. This was the father of Colonel John Sweetser, styled architect by Wyman, who built for John Olin, Jr., in the early years of the last century, the house at the top of Winter Hill, once occupied by Edward Everett, and for many years owned by John S. Edgerly. Later, as most people know, it was extensively repaired by Mr. Hittenger, its next owner, who left its style of architecture as we now see it.

Another teacher of this period was Robert Calley, but we are at a loss just when to place him. He may have acted as substitute or assistant for Mr. Sweetser during the last years of that gentleman's career. We are indebted to Wyman for our account of him. He was the son of Robert and Lydia (Stimpson) Calley, and was born in Charlestown June 4, 1726. He was twice married, and the father of six children, most of whom died in infancy. He was on the tax list from 1748 to 1763, and his widow in 1771 was No. 44 on a list of valuations. His mother was the sister of Rev. Joseph Stimpson, a former teacher of Charlestown, mentioned in an earlier article of this series, and the cousin of Seth Sweetser. The most interesting thing about this Robert Calley is that he left a manuscript diary in eight volumes. Wyman made an extract of the genealogical material therein contained, and this little book is to be seen in the library of the Massachusetts Genealogical Society, Somerset street, Boston. If the original [66] manuscripts are in existence, no doubt they throw much light on the schools at this time. In his abstract the compiler says: ‘There was evidently a large recess in the duties of Mr. Calley as schoolmaster, and that may account for his occasional neglect of orthography; that detracts, however, but little from the merits of his work. He was otherwise apparently a cabinetmaker.’

Wyman's invaluable work also mentions a John Hills, teacher, son of Thomas Hills, of Malden; graduate of Harvard in 1772; married Elizabeth Kettell in 1774; and died January, 1787, leaving four daughters. Perhaps he did not teach in Charlestown, for I find no mention of him on the town records.

May 5, 1777, the town voted ‘to fix up the block house for a schoolhouse.’ If there was no building suitable for housing the school after the battle of Bunker Hill, the query rises, what was done with it during these two years? By the next May (1778) the town had so recovered from the shock of war that £ 140 was appropriated for schools, and the annual sums voted for 1779 and 1780 were £ 500 and £ 400, respectively. In December of the last-named year—how impossible is it for us to cope with these figures!—the books show that £ 6,400 were apportioned among the schools, £ 3,651 19s. to the one within, and the balance to the three beyond the peninsula! This estimate, of course, is in the inflated currency of the period. The salary of Timothy Trumbull, who was the teacher that year, is put down as £ 1,300. To get some idea of values, we read that Peter Tufts, in 1781, for twenty days spent for the town as an assessor, was voted £ 403 2s. The next year, for eighteen days of similar service, he received £ 4 16s.

From time to time the town clerk serves up for us items of repairs, as, February 5, 1781, to John Turner, £ 30 for work at the schoolhouse. October 17, 1782, the town warrant calls for a new school building, but it does not seem to materialize. Instead, John Edmands is hired to work on the old house, and gets his pay February 3, 1783. Later that month it is proposed to remove the meeting-house from the hill and set it somewhere for a school building. Isaac Mallet, Peter Tufts, Timothy Tufts, [67] David Wood, Jr., and Eliphalet Newell are made a committee to select a site, and it is decided ‘where the old schoolhouse stood is the most suitable place to put the present Meeting-house on.’ It is voted to move it. September 1, 1783, Mr. Mallet and Mr. Hays are a committee to see what repairs are necessary for the schoolhouse. The next January Deacon Frothingham receives thirty-six shillings for building the school chimney. October 25, 1784, the selectmen are given power to cut off from the present schoolhouse what is an encroachment on the street, and make of it an engine house, also to fix the other part for a new schoolhouse as soon as possible; and November 1 John Hay and Henry P. Sweetser are appointed to fix the old meeting-house for a school.

‘Voted, 6 March, 1786, to have a grammar (Latin) schoolmaster in this town.’ (Query: Had there been no school of this rank since the days of Seth Sweetser?) Mr. H. P. Sweetser was added to the committee to see about a grammar master.

June 19, 1786. ‘It is voted to sell the old schoolhouse, which is not worth repairing, and build a new one, and to raise £ 100 to build it. Mr. Harris, Samuel Swan, Jr., and H. P. Sweetser, are a committee to build the school, and sell the old one to Captain Calder, and to set the school on Town Hill.’ July 17 this committee is enjoined to go about their work immediately. Captain Calder is to have the old house for £ 10, lawful money, as it now stands, ‘and two or three days to give his answer.’ August 7 it is voted to reconsider the former vote in regard to building a new schoolhouse, and give directions to the committee to put the old one in repair. As this committee desired to be excused, David Wood, Jr., Captain Cordis, and Samuel Henley, Esq., were chosen in their places. These are all the items I find on the subject, and I must confess my mind is in some doubt as to what were the exact school accommodations on the peninsula after the Revolution.

Timothy Trumbull was town clerk and schoolmaster, 1780–‘82. The account of him in Wyman would seem to need verification. He was the son of James and Phebe (Johnson) Trumbull, and was born in 1754. At one time he was living in [68] Andover, where he married (1778) Frances, daughter of Joseph Phipps. Wyman makes brief mention of three children, but does not allude to his son John, of Norwich, whom I find referred to on the selectmen's books. Evidently Mr. Trumbull fell ill in 1782, when his family was not with him, for Jonathan Bradshaw received out of the rent for the school lot £ 3 8s. 7d. for boarding him four weeks and four days. In their anxiety, the selectmen sent a messenger, Mr. Wyeth, to Norwich to confer with the son about boarding his father ‘for the ensuing winter. As no convenient place amongst us can be found, if you will take him and provide, the selectmen will see to it that you are paid.’ But the worthy town fathers were relieved of their responsibility in a different way, for November 4, 1782, we read: ‘It is voted to pay Frances Trumbull £ 15 for her late husband, Timothy Trumbull, keeping school; and the next February there is a balance of a few more pounds to her account.’ Administration on Mr. Trumbull's estate was granted D. Wood November 7, 1783, and the inventory amounted to £ 140.

Another entry showing the philanthropic spirit of the times is not entirely foreign to this paper. ‘Voted, November 2, 1789, that Ruth Jones be put to school to some person who will prepare her for a schoolmistress at as cheap rate as can be!’

The next teacher was Samuel Holbrook, who also succeeded to the worthy position of town clerk. Like his predecessors, he received the annual compensation of £ 10 for this office. He must have served in both capacities for a period of nearly five years, but Wyman omits all mention of him. We have consulted the printed genealogy of the Holbrook family, but are unable to place him. His salary of £ 100 as schoolmaster was soon increased to £ 110. The town seems to have been behindhand in paying him for his services, but July 29, 1786, he received an order from the town treasurer for the balance due him to the twenty-fifth, being an amount nearly equal to two years salary. March 5, 1787, Mr. Holbrook retires as town clerk, and is given a vote of thanks. The next May we find Samuel Payson serving as town clerk and schoolmaster, with the usual compensation for both. His term of office extended well into the next decade. [69]

The annual appropriations, over and above the school funds, for all expenses, both within and without the Neck, gradually increased from £ 100 in 1781 to £ 185 in 1786. After that, until 1790, the amount fell off to £ 150. About this time the books show that the town had some difficulty in meeting its bills, and, like other communities, was engaged in various lottery schemes for some years. In 1790, and long before, the warrant for town meeting names the schoolhouse within the Neck as the voting place.

As for the school fund during all the years which we have been considering, it seems well to close with the following extracts:—

‘July 27, 1762. Agreed that Peter Tufts, Jr., improve the school lot belonging to this town now in his possession, for the same rent as before, viz., £ 3 4s., 1. m., per annum for six years.’

‘February 6, 1769. Voted that the school lot be set up at vendue. February 27 it was leased out to the highest bidder, who proved to be Daniel Cutter, of Medford, for five years, at £ 7 17s. 4d. per annum.’

‘February 14, 1774. Mr. Peter Tufts, Jr., hires the town farm at Stoneham for seven years.’

‘March 7, 1783. Jack Symmes is allowed to have the school lot one year for £ 5 6s. 8d.’

‘Voted, March 1, 1784, to send letters to Joseph and Nathan Adams, who now improve the town farms, that they will be let next Monday at 3 P. M. at Mr. Whittemore's. Finally, agreed with Silas Symons to improve the town farm at Stoneham, lately improved by Captain Adams, for the next five years.’

Whether the school lot and the town farm or farms were the same or not, we shall endeavor to show in another chapter that such extracts have a bearing on the important change in school methods adopted by the town of Charlestown soon after 1790.

[To be continued.]

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