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Colonial Students

Posted on 30 March 2012

by Jim Marquardt


There’s so much controversy flying around about education and teaching that we found it fascinating to read an old issue of the Long Island Forum which carried an article describing colonial era schools. According to the writer, Nathaniel A. Howell, Southampton instituted the first school on Long Island in 1642, two years after English settlers came ashore at Conscience Point in North Sea. The first schoolmaster, Richard Mills, was also an innkeeper, “a fair penman and possessed a tolerable knowledge of arithmetic.” No mention of a teaching certificate. Charles Barnes became the first schoolmaster in East Hampton, his salary of 30 pounds a year (about $150) paid in “beef, oil, pork, hides, tallow and whalebone.”

Things were a little better for James Houldsworth who managed Huntington’s first school in 1657. The town fathers agreed to build him a “sufficient” house and pay him 25 pounds in the form of “butter, merchantable trading wampum, well strung,” or in commodities “as will suit him for clothing.” Parents who sent their children to the school “should bring firewood…when ye seasons shall require it.” At Setauket in 1687, Francis Williams’ salary of 30 pounds was paid one-third by a tax on the people and the rest by parents of the scholars. One poorly paid teacher remarked, “It is little they pays and little I teaches them.”

In her definitive history, Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty, Dorothy Zaykowski wrote that the village built its first school house in 1786 on the corner of Madison and Jefferson streets. She describes the space as “neatly papered” with wooden floors “scrubbed and sanded with beach sand every Saturday.” In 1795 trustees Samuel L’Hommedieu, Henry Dering and Noah Mason supervised schoolmaster Jesse Hedges.

According to Zaykowski’s book, small private schools in Sag Harbor taught subjects not available in public schools, such as “navigation, surveying, advanced mathematics and languages.” In 1804 Major John Jermain helped establish the private Middle School House at Church and Sage streets. A Miss Leigh opened a School For Young Ladies in which girls “may be instructed in both the solid and ornamental branches of an English formal education.” Solomon Parker started a school in 1807 for young gentlemen who “have a wish to render themselves qualified for the Navy of the United States or for the Merchant’s Service…”

The Long Island Forum article noted that there were few books in colonial schools, and schoolmasters employed the Bible to teach the alphabet, spelling and reading. Paper was a luxury, and when students could get it, they had to frequently sharpen their quill pens. Books were rare for over a century until the New England Primer was published in 1800, and Herman Daggett of Brookhaven came out with the American Reader in 1818. A Committee of Practical Teachers in Suffolk County published a common school arithmetic in 1850, announcing, “Arithmetic is founded on the fundamental principles of increase and decrease.” An economist couldn’t have said it better, or more succinctly.

Teachers thought that each printed page was so important that it should be memorized. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” describes discipline in those days. Hard to believe now but there were no dictionaries, so even teachers had difficulty in spelling. That’s why early colonial documents contained wide variations in spelling and word usage, and illiteracy was so common that no one felt it was a disgrace. Some early practices bear an uncanny similarity to our modern world; wealthy families retained clergymen or other educated persons to tutor their young sons at home in preparation for college interviews, usually at Harvard or Yale.

Education of girls was considered unnecessary beyond the three Rs, but the Quakers thought otherwise, and in 1799 Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Quaker mother ran a boarding school for young women in her East Hampton home. In 1813, NY State law created school districts with each town electing school commissioners and inspectors. Cost per pupil in 1835 on the East End averaged $1.50; in 1872 it had increased to $7.00.

Desks in colonial schoolhouses took the form of rough, pine-board shelving built along the classroom wall with benches of long, backless boards. Sometimes wells were dug so that thirsty students could lift water in a bucket and dip a drink with a common ladle. One educator in the 19th century, Dr. Franklin Tuttle of Southold, made a fine point, “The true office of the teacher is not to instruct but to educate…It is not his business to tumble facts into the child’s mind as if it were a sunken lot to be filled up.” Dr. Tuttle would seem to be on the side of today’s teachers who argue against “teaching to the test.”

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One Response to “Colonial Students”

  1. Spot on with this write-up, I truly think this site needs much more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read more, thanks for the advice!


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