previous next

Charlestown schools within the peninsula Revolutionary period

Frank Mortimer Hawes

We have seen that Mr. Sweetser's resignation as master of the grammar school went into effect March 6, 1750 (O. S.). The day before, a committee, consisting of James Russell, Ebenezer Kent, Edward Sheafe, Jr., Samuel Bradstreet, and Samuel Henley, ‘met to see about a new master and perhaps a second man to teach writing.’ Mr. John Rand was engaged to finish out the term until May, at twenty shillings per week. This committee reported that ‘it is for the interest of the town to have two masters, one for teaching Latin, the other for writing and arithmetic, as it is impossible for any one man to teach the children of the town in both capacities.’

In May the town voted a marvelous sum, as compared with the amounts of previous years,—£ 900, old tenor,—for two schools within the Neck; and as if to satisfy our curiosity, the record [44] explains that this is equivalent to £ 120 lawful money. On the fifth of June, as the committee had secured no teachers, they asked for more time. July 6, 1750, Mr. Timothy Goodwin, no doubt a native of Charlestown, was hired to teach in the old town house, as it was desired to put the school building in repair. This engagement evidently did not hold, for it is recorded, along with a second request for more time, that the committee have agreed with Mr. Matthew Cushing to keep the grammar school, at a rate of £ 60 lawful money, and that he began June 12; and with Mr. Abijah Hartt to keep the writing school, at the same rate, and that he opened his school July 19. We are also told that the old town house can be fitted up for about £ 34. This sum is accordingly voted, and it is understood that this building will be for the use of the Latin school.

I have been unable to learn anything of these two teachers. Mr. Cushing, we have seen, was keeping a private school in Charlestown at the time of his appointment. He was doubtless descended from Matthew Cushing, one of the early settlers of Hingham. The history of that town mentions a Matthew, son of Solomon and Sarah (Loring) Cushing, born April 4, 1720, a graduate of Harvard College, 1739, who removed to New York, and died there in 1779. This may be the Charlestown teacher.

Evidently there were two sides to the school question, and many were dissatisfied with the way Mr. Sweetser had been treated; for at the next May meeting, 1751, the town voted to have but one schoolmaster within the Neck for the present year, and it is recorded that there will be no appropriation ‘until the choice of a schoolmaster be made.’ The meeting then and there, ‘by hand vote,’ elected Mr. Seth Sweetser as master of the grammar and writing school for the year ensuing, and his salary was fixed at £ 500, equivalent to £ 66 13s. 4d., lawful money. ‘He accepts, and will begin when the other master's term expires.’ Mr. Cushing was paid in full up to the date when he was dismissed, and Mr. Hartt received £ 30, lawful money, in full to July 19, 1751.

Under the same date, the record continues: ‘Considering the disorder of the youth of this town, not only on week days, [45] but on the Lord's Day, it was voted to visit the school every three months with one of the ministers of the town, & to use our best endeavors to put a stop thereto, & to begin to-morrow, the day Mr. Sweetser takes possession. Accordingly, the selectmen, with Rev. Mr. Hull Abbott, visited the school, and told the scholars they were determined the guilty should not go unpunished; after which Mr. Abbott exhorted them in a solemn manner & concluded with prayer.’

October 19. ‘The selectmen with Rev. Mr. Prentise visited the school & think the method will have the desired effect. The visit ended with prayer.’

There is frequent mention of ‘visiting day’ up to 1775; after that date, to the end of the century, though not a matter of record, except at intervals, it was evidently a custom held in high respect. The august body of selectmen was sometimes increased on these occasions by the presence of the overseers of the poor. One of the ministers was always invited, and often he was accompanied by his deacons. From these visits we learn that the schools were in session six days in the week. Frequently the hour set was 10 o'clock on Saturday.

The two ministers whom we have named for many years exercised their hortatory powers on the Charlestown boys. The following digression may not be uninteresting. In 1733 the town built a ministerial house for Mr. Abbott, ‘50 ft. by 19 ft. and 18 ft. high, with a gambrel roof, three stacks of chimneys, & a room 10 ft. square at the backside for a study.’ On the death of Mrs. Abbott in 1763, there was a public funeral, and the amount raised was £ 414 4s. 10d., or, in lawful money, £ 55 4s. 7d. At the funeral of the worthy gentleman himself, who was buried at the expense of the town, some of the charges were: For twelve gold rings, £ 8; for Lisbon wine, Malaga wine, and W. I. rum, £ 5 16s. 8d.; for lemons, sugar, pipes, and tobacco, £ 3 8s. 6d.; gloves, £ 40 1s. 6d.; deathshead and cross bones, fifteen shillings. The Rev. Thomas Prentice died June 17, 1782, and that day a special town meeting was called, to see what action the citizens would take ‘relative to the funeral.’ [46]

Late in 1751 this little community suffered from a visitation more terrible than that which came upon Master Sweetser's boys,—the smallpox broke out, though not for the first time. A petition read at town meeting the following May shows that the people of the outlying districts tried to keep the disease from spreading among them. ‘Forty inhabitants (without the Neck) prayed that the meeting may be adjourned without the Neck by reason of the smallpox being in town. Voted that this meeting do not adjourn without the Neck.’ Later on, however, the point seems to have been carried, for June 9 ‘it was voted to adjourn the town meeting to the Common by reason of the Infection.’ In 1764 there was another smallpox ‘scare,’ and April 4, in reply to the question ‘whether the town will give the inhabitants leave to go into innoculation for themselves & families at all,’ it was voted in the affirmative.

March 4, 1754. It was voted that the old town house be improved for a spinning (girls') school. The next May Mr. Daniel Russell was made chairman of a committee of three for this school, and £ 64 was appropriated for repairs. One hundred and fifty pounds was also voted for renovating the meeting house, schoolhouse, and other public property. This is the first evidence, so far as I find, that the daughters of the town were getting any direct benefit from the taxes that were paid by their fathers. It was an experiment that probably did not last long.

The amount of £ 500, or its equivalent, £ 66 13s. 4d., lawful money, was voted annually for the grammar master until 1764. July 2 of that year, ‘it was voted that, instead of an addition being made to the present school, the committee make such repairs as are of necessity & likewise repair the Old Town House suitable for another master whose business shall be to instruct in writing & cyphering, & that the sum of £ 50, 1. m., be raised to procure one.’ This sum was afterwards increased to £ 55, and in January the bill for repairs on the schoolhouse amounted to £ 14 11s. May 12, 1766, upon petition of William Harris, writing teacher, desiring an addition to his salary, the town agreed to give him the same as the grammar master received. The [47] amount for each remained at this figure, £ 66 13s. 4d., lawful money, until 1775. That year we do not find any sum appropriated for the schools. In fact, the town records show no entry of the selectmen's proceedings from April 7 to November 24, 1775. February 10 they voted to make their usual spring visit the following Friday morning. The next item relating to the town school is under date of March 6, 1776, less than a fortnight before Evacuation Day, when it was voted that Mr. Harris have an order for his salary in full as writing teacher to April 19, 1775. This entry seems to us a significant one. From that Thursday morning, September 1, 1774, when the Old Powder House was surprised and rifled of its stores by the British, excitement ran high in Charlestown, Cambridge, and the immediate neighborhood. The historian Frothingham has left us a vivid picture of the harrowing events which tried men's souls. All through the succeeding fall and winter there were meetings of anxious men in council. Minutes of their proceedings had to be sent to similar bodies in other sections, inquiries answered, resolutions drafted. Altogether, Mr. Sweetser, the faithful guardian of the grammar school, as clerk and corresponding secretary of these conventions, may well have had his mind diverted from his pupils. On the nineteenth of April, we are told, the scholars were dismissed and Charlestown school closed. When it opened again—we are not told exactly when—the scourge of war had done its fearful work. The four hundred buildings clustered at the foot of Breed's Hill were practically wiped away. On that memorable seventeenth of June, Frothingham says, ‘The conflagration spared not a dwelling house,’ and a population of two or three thousand were rendered homeless. But from the day of the Concord and Lexington fight, when thrilling incidents occurred on our own soil of Somerville, the inhabitants had abandoned their homes on the peninsula, and the place was practically deserted. On account of the menacing position of the enemy's ships, no attempt to bring back order and domestic quiet was made until after the Evacuation.

The two school buildings which have interested us so long thus ended their careers of usefulness at the same time. The last [48] item we find concerning either of them is under date of October 15, 1770, when Captain Foster was made chairman of a committee of three to make repairs on the floor of the writing school. Hon. Josiah Bartlett, M. D., in his historical sketch, delivered at the opening of Washington Hall in 1813, tells us somewhat exactly where these two structures were located on Windmill or Town Hill. At the town meeting of May 16, 1776, it was voted not to raise any money (for schools), ‘supposing the town income will defray the charges that will unavoidably arise.’ Expenses had to be brought within the smallest figure, and the schools suffered in consequence. October 10 of that year, however, things were looking somewhat brighter, for it was decided to raise £ 60 for the schools within and without the Neck. But no attempt at re-building or finding permanent quarters for the Charlestown school, which for several years after this was reduced to one, was made the year of the battle, or even the next. We will leave this part of our subject, to speak of the two teachers to whom frequent reference has been made.

Captain William Harris was the only son of Cary Harris, of Boston. He was born July 2, 1744, and married in 1767 Rebecca, the daughter of Thaddeus Mason, Esq. (Harvard College, 1728). He died October 30, 1778, at the early age of thirty-four. Of his six children, the eldest, Thaddeus Mason Harris, D. D., born in Charlestown in 1768, and a graduate of Harvard in 1787, was one of the distinguished divines of his time. For many years he was settled over the church at Dorchester, where he died in 1842. William Harris must have begun his school duties in Charlestown in 1765, for December 7, 1767, the selectmen voted him £ 1 16s. for ink ‘for two years past.’ We have seen that his services ended with the disbanding of his scholars April 19, 1775.

[To be continued.]

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: