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Back in the "good old days"
even the teachers couldn't spell

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By Charles W. Brewster

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.

Bridget Graffort--Gift of Daniel street--Lot for first town school house--Ichabod Plaisted--Early school history--Samuel Keais--Style of the early town records.

Click to see site given by Bridgett Graffort

IN digging up subjects in our Rambles, to introduce new acquaintances to our readers, sometimes one appears uncalled, with whom we have had no previous acquaintance. Such is the case with an apparition now before us, who has been quietly resting for a century and a half. She bears the name of Bridget Graffort.

In the year 1700, we find that Bridget Graffort, of Portsmouth, the widow of Thomas Graffort, made a present to the town, which is expressed in the following terms:

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Bridget's Gift of Land

"For divers good causes and considerations me herewith moving, but more especially for the love and affection I have unto the town of Portsmouth, the place of my birth, I have given unto the said township of Portsmouth forever all the bye way or street from the Fort at Strawberry Bank in said town, taking its beginning from the corner of the house of Ichabod Playsted, and so running easterly nearest to the river of Piscataqua, as it is now being laid out and fenced, being in the broadest part about thirty feet, more or less--together also with that highway or lane from my new dwelling-house to the house of John Hoddey mariner, being about twenty feet wide, as now laid out and fenced. As also one lot of land in my great field for erecting a school house and conveniences thereunto for the use of the same, which lot of land is to be forty-six feet front towards the south, and eighty-eight feet north in said field abutting upon the lot sold by my late husband, Thomas Graffort, merchant, to the east to John Dennett and others, my land in said field."

Ichabod Plaisted, whose house is referred to by Mrs. Graffort, was a man of some note. He was High Sheriff of Salem, Mass., and owned this house in Portsmouth. He was connected with the Rindge family, and a handsome portrait of his portly form, arrayed in the apparel of a royal Sheriff, was preserved in the family of Jacob Sheafe, Esq., until destroyed in the fire of 1813. Daniel Rindge occupied a house on the corner of Daniel and Market streets a hundred and twenty years ago, and it is probable that Ichabod Plaisted was the owner of that location before him; and that the gate which opened from the "great field" was at the place where Daniel street now connects with Market square.

In 1735, the above-described school house lot was purchased of the town by Ebenezer Wentworth, who gave in exchange the lot of land with a small school house upon it, the spot where the present brick school house in State street now stands. By the above description of the lot first given to the town, it appears that it was situated on the north side of State street, not far from Chapel street, and probably within a few rods south of the present site of that noble structure, our new high school house. It also appears that what is now Daniel street, extending from the Fort, (which was probably the ledge of rocks on which the old State House was sixty years afterwards built, on Market square, near the North church,) was then being fenced, and was the gift of Mrs. Graffort to the town. For half a century after Daniel street was opened it bore the name of Graffort's lane. One thing is certain, that the real founder of the State street school house was Mrs. Graffort, and as a tardy act of justice should it not even now bear her name?

In December, 1684, Thomas Graffort was married to widow Bridget Daniel, who was the daughter of Richard Cutt. To her reference is made in his will. Thomas Daniel, the first husband of Bridget Cutt, was the buildder of the old Wentworth house in Daniel street, which was removed in 1855, to give a location for our high school house.

There is a singularity in the course of events that led our city authorities unwittingly to select, as the site of our high school house, the very spot which more than a hundred and fifty years before had been the residence of one who donated a lot in front of her house for a like purpose, but which the town did not improve as directed.

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Early School Records from 1696 In turning over the musty volumes of our town records, which for many years have been in quiet repose, we find some interesting matters relating to the introduction of public schools into Portsmouth. At the time widow Bridget Graffort presented a lot of land for a public school house in the year 1700, there does not appear to have been any school house owned by the town. Schools for boys had been patronized by the town, but the teachers received some further compensation from the parents. The town clerk was doubtless a man of average education, or he would not from year to year have been elected to his office. The following literal extracts from his records are curiosities in more respects than one.

There may be earlier records of public school movements, but we have not found any made prior to 1696.

On the 16th of March in that year, among the votes passed was the following:

"That care be taken that an abell scollmaster be provided for the towen as the law directes, not visious in conversation: and yt Mr. Joshua Moody and Mr. Sam'l Penhalow be desired in behalf of the towen to treat with some mett persons for yt servis, that thirtey pounds mony pr anum be allowed sd scoll- master as a sallery to be raised as ye law directs. The persons hereafter named desent against the vote for sd scollmasters sallery:

"John Pickrin, sen'r Nathaniel Berry Lazarus Noble
Henry Sherburn Robert Briames Hugh Banfield
John Pattridg Francis Graves Tho. Avery
Tho. Beck John Benson, sen'r John Philbrook
Georg Walker Richard Sloper Lenord Weeks
James Lovet Joseph Berry Aron Moses
Benjamin Cotton John Jonson, jn'r Andrew Samson

It does not appear that any public school was established in that year. The next year the following proceedings were had:

"May ye 7th, 1697. At a meeting of ye sellecttmen agreed with Mr. Tho. Phippes to be scollmaster for the towen this yr insewing for teaching the inhabitants children in such maner as other schollmasters yuosly doe through out the countrie: for his soe doinge we the sellectt men in behalfe of ower towen doe ingage to pay him by way of rate twenty pounds and yt he shall and may reseave from everey father or master that sends theyer children to school this yeare after ye rate of 16s for readers, writers and cypherers 20s, Latterners 24s." room.

"May 5th, 1698. At a meeting of the sellect men this day Mr. Phipps ower scollmaster informing yt he has disburst 50 shil. for a house to keep scoll in at ye bank which he saith the towen ought to reimburst him again; agread that the case be refered to the commissioners yt assisted last years acco't and that the bargain made be declared to them with wt is a leaged by Mr. Phipps as to the payment of fiftey shillinges, and if the commissioners shall judg it rationall then to be paid by the towen, otherwise not."

"At meeting of the sellectmen May 5th, 1699. The day above sd the sellectmen and Mr. Phipps have agread and said Phipps doth promise to prosed in keeping scooll this yeare insuing from the date forward unto the years end according to the agreement last yeare made with them: and to have ye same sallerey in all respecs as last yeare: and if it soe happen that the commishoners should not allow any thing for wt sd Phipps has desbursted on ye hows for the scool in at the banck last yeare, that then wee sd sellect men in behalf of our town doe promise to pay unto sd Phipps forty shillings more yn his twenty pounds sallerey for this yeare insuing, but if any thing be alowed by the commissioners then the same to be alowed the yeare and noe forty shillings to be pd."

"At a meeting of the sellectmen the 19th of June, 1699, agread with Mr. Tho. Phips schoolmaster of our town that he prosed in keeping scholl in the town on ye termes as formerly viz 24s for a Latting scholler, 20s for a writer and cypher and 16 for a reader qualified as formerly; and the sd Phipps for his sattisfaction shall be paid by ye sellectmen 20s in mony by way of publick rate besides the pertickuler sumes aforementioned and shall allsoe be alowed 50s by ye towen for his house rent; the time to begine the 5th day of May."

"May 5th, 1700. Agreement with Mr. Phipps for keeping a school renewed, the town allowing him L6 of the public money."

"March ye 26: 1701. At a meeting of ye sellectmen and comite apoynted by ye towen to tack care for ye providing of an abell scoolmaster soe qualified in learning and good maners as to teach ower youth in reading writing and syphering, the tonges and other learning as may fit ym for ye colledg, then agread yt we will alow and will pay in behalfe of ye town such scoolmaster for his settellment amonst us fortie pounds pr annum: then also agread that we request ye honorable ye Leutt governor Pattridg and Mr. Georg Jeffrey to youse thayer atmost indeavors in enquiring out and procquring such fit person and send him forth with amonst us in order to his further settellment."

"At a meeting of ye sellectmen and commite: May ye 12th: 1701, for settling of a scollmaster--Voted that whear as Mr. Daniel Grenlefe of Newbery has been with us in order to a settlement as a scoolmaster and is at present at Newbery, yt we doe forthwith send to him to have his answare in comings amonst us in order to a settelment, yt we alow him forty pounds per anum while he abides amonst us in case he comes and dully performs his offise to ye satisfaction of the towne: Voted that Mr. William Cotten and Capt. John Pickering doe forth with hire a howse at ye bank as neare ye towen fort as may be for ye keeping of a scool in for this yeare or until ye townes school howse be fitted up: Mr. Grenleaf being com and present with us we have agread with him to alow him forty pounds per anum while he continews with us and faithfully performs ye offis of a schoolmaster and hoe lickwise doth promise and engage to continue with us this yeare for ye above consideration and so teach all towen children and servants as are able compettently to read from thayer Psalters."

In 1702, no record of school proceedings is made.

In 1703, it appears that Daniel Greenleaf had left the school and town. Mr. Joshua Pierce was sent to Ipswich, to make enquiry into the qualifications of Josiah Cotton. It does not appear that he came; for

In 1704, the town empowered the selectmen "to call and settell a gramerscoll according to ye best of ower judgments and for ye advantag of ye youth of ower town to learn them to read from ye primer, to wright and sypher and to learne ym the tongues and goodmanners," &c. Mr. Cotton was again sent for, but not accepting the invitation, the messenger returned with Mr. William Allen of Salisbury, who engaged "dilligently to attend ye school for ye present yeare, and to tech all children yt can read in thaire psallters and upward." He asked a dismission in six months.

The town this year also voted six pounds by way of "incoridgment" to Nathaniel Freeman, to assist Greenland, the Plains and Sagamore Creek, "provided he use his dilligenc and care to scholl thos parts."

We find no further record respecting the schools until 1708, when the following votes were passed, directing the building of the first public school house in Portsmouth:

"At a generall towen meetinge held this fifth of Apriell, 1708: Voted that the sellectmen tack care to build a scool howse apon the land Mrs. Bridget Grafort lately deceased gave for the youse of ye towen for a scool howse.

Voted that the sellectmen take care to build a scool howse in some convenent plase one ye south side of ye milldam.

December ye 23: 1708. The selectmen ordred that Capt. John Pickring tack care and agre with Left. Pears or any other person for erectting and building a scool howse one ye south sd of ye milldam, sd howse to be of ye same dimentions ye former sellectmen agread with ye sd Pears for and to be fernished as in theire sd agrement spesifyed in all respects and to be paid soe much as sd former agrement spesieth: thirty pounds whear of to be paid out of ye present towen rate, besides ye money in sd Pearses hands and ye remainder out of ye next years towen rate, and ye sd howse be finished at or before ye 15th of Apriell next insuing the dat above sd."

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First Public School in 1707

It thus appears that the old south school house, in front of the site of the Haven school house, was the first public school house ordered to be built.

By one of the above votes it appears that the Widow Bridget Graffort died about the year 1707 or 8. The value of her gift of a school house lot, in its tendency to draw the attention of the town to the ownership of a school house, a matter which had been neglected for over seventy years, is of more value than the land itself. It does not appear, however, that the vote to build a house on the lot given to the town was complied with.

A small school house, owned by the Wentworth family, had been for some time previous to 1735 standing on the site of the present brick school on State street. In 1735, the town exchanged the lot given by Mrs. G. for the Wentworth school house. It is probable that in that very house Mr. Phipps kept his school, as it is not known that any other school house was erected in the vicinity of Market Square for many years after 1735. Mr. Phipps' residence was the first erected on the glebe land, a few rods west of the South Church.

The town clerk who kept the above records from 1695 to 1714, was Samuel Keais, who was also in that time a selectman and a representative to the General Assembly at Newcastle. The improvement in spelling in the succeeding records shows that the advantages of schooling were duly realized.

In 1713, a vote was passed requesting the selectmen to build a school house at the south side of the mill-dam.

In 1732, it was voted that an enlargement be made at the west end of the grammar school house. [The house at mill-dam.]

In 1737, it was voted that the school master south of mill-dam shall keep his school in December and January near Randle's farm. It was voted that the selectmen provide wood for the school at the Bank, at the town's expense. It was also voted, that a school be kept two months in the year on the north side of Islington creek.

The third town school house was that erected in School street, in 1751. It was removed several years since to give place to the Bartlett school house. The original structure, modified into a dwelling-house, is still to be seen on the east side of Auburn street, No.15, the most southerly house now standing there.

In days before newspapers were printed, there were but few opportunities for learning to spell. The following we take from our town records, as specimens of the entries two centuries ago. The town clerk had heard of such a place as Boston, but had probably never seen it in print.

In 1663--It was "voted that the Selectmen have power to lay out the hiwase for the town."

1663, Sept. 3.--"At a generell town meten this day, the towen in generell have referede the case of Goodwife Evens to the selectmen in case she bee sent from Borstorne Jale, consarnen hir keepen in the towne or senden hir to hir husband."

We find by another record that Mrs. Evans had been charged with witchcraft.

When we look at the limited means of education enjoyed by our ancestors a century ago, and compare their opportunities with those now enjoyed, it should excite a more determined zeal in our young men to be useful according to the better circumstances in which they are placed.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
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