Wednesday, December 9, 2009

10.-14. The Alstons (Caroline, Charity, Eliza, Emily, and Martha)

There were five girls named Alston in the Mordecai rolls:

Caroline M. Alston, Eliza Alston, and Emily Alston are all listed as being from Warren County NC, and are all listed with "Th. W. Alston" as their guardian in the ledger. Caroline attended from the school's opening in 1809 through the end of 1811; Eliza was only there for 1809; Emily was there one term longer than Eliza, leaving in mid-1810.

Martha Alston is listed with Alfred Alston as the adult on the account; she attended after the girls above, and for much longer than any of them, being at the school from early 1812 until mid-1817.

Charity D. W. Alston is listed with an H. G. Williams possibly associated with her account. She was at the school for half of 1812, then returned later for three terms, 1814 through mid-1815.

Alston's a common North Carolina name--when I taught in Durham, I had several students named Alston. Because there were so many Alstons in Warren County and surroundings, and because many names were recycled within and between generations, it's hard to pin down which girls these are in the family trees. Warren County records show a Charity D. Alston assigned to Robert T. Cheek as her guardian in 1807 (he payed her board and tuition that year). Same records show a Joseph J. Williams assigned as guardian of a Caroline Alston, "orphan," in 1808. The guardian of the first three girls is probably Thomas Whitmel Alston--but there were at least a couple men with that name floating around!

The Alstons are related in various ways to the Norfleets, the Plummers, the Branches, and other families who sent children to the Mordecai school. More on them later.


Martha Alston was, according to the Mordecais' family correspondence, a Warrenton girl; she was a local and one of the school's longest-running students. As such, the Mordecais took a stronger interest in her life after school. In 1821, teacher Caroline Mordecai Plunkett referred to her as "good natured in appearance" and "handsome." We learn from family letters that Martha was sent to Philadelphia in 1822. In 1824, she married a Mr. Burgess (fellow Mordecai alumna Lucy Plummer Battle attended the wedding). In 1850, Lucy Plummer Battle visited with Martha and her daughter (Lucy Burgess) while staying in Warrenton.

Heading back into the genealogical websites, Martha Alston's husband was a John Burford* Burgess (or Burges), b. c. 1797. In the announcement of their marriage bond, Martha is referred to as "daughter of the late Thomas Alston." This researcher has her as Martha Janie Alston, born in 1802 as daughter of Thomas Whitmell Alston (1756-1809), and Lucy Faulcon (1763- ). This makes her the sister of Alfred Alston (1791-), who married another Mordecai girl, Mary Ann Plummer (1795-).

*UPDATE (9/7/10): Jordan Kearney, a reader and descendant of Martha Alston, sends this correction and further information (with promise of further information):

"The three other Alstons were Elizabeth Alston, Caroline Medora Alston and Rebecca Emily Alston, all daughters of Samuel and Elizabeth Faulcon Alston...They were double first cousins to Martha Jane Alston Burges. I also have information concerning Rebecca and Lucy Ballard....John Lovatt Burges was the husband of Martha Jane Alston."

Thank you, Jordan Kearney! The whole idea of putting up this blog is to tap into the wealth of information that family historians and others have, and gather it here for a fuller picture of the Mordecai students as a cohort. I appreciate your contributions and look forward to further exchanges.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

7, 8, & 9. Frances, Jane, and Sarah Alexander

Unlike sisters Eliza and Margaret Adam, and sisters Penelope and Ann Albertson, I have no idea whether any or all of the Alexander girls were related. I don't know much about them, period, and such a common last name doesn't bode well for learning more, but here goes.

Frances Alexander attended the Mordecai school for one session, the first half of 1810.

Jane Alexander of Mecklenburg Co., VA attended the Mordecai school for three-and-a-half years, mid-1814 to the end of 1817. The name "Mark Alexander" is associated with hers in the ledger.

Sarah Alexander of Mecklenburg Co. VA attended the Mordecai school for five sessions, not continuous: she was there from mid-1812 to mid-1814, and then again for the second session in 1815. A "Col. Alexander" is associated with her account in the school ledger.

Mecklenburg County VA borders Warren County NC. Mark Alexander isn't a difficult name to track down in Mecklenburg County. A Mark Alexander (1792-1883) was a Congressman from that county, born on a plantation near the county seat Boydton, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1811). He seems a bit young to be the father of any girls at the school; but maybe he's an older brother?

The Congressman Mark Alexander was married to Sallie P. Turner, the daughter of North Carolina senator and governor James Turner. Sallie Turner's older half-sisters Mary and Rebecca Turner definitely attend the Mordecai school, 1812-1815. More on them later.

Mark Alexander's father was also Mark Alexander (d. 1824), and his mother was Lucy Bugg (d. soon after 1792). He seems to have had a half-sister Lucy Jane Alexander (1803-1862), who was called Jane or Jenny, and who married Lawson Henderson Alexander (c.1789-1842, apparently a cousin) in 1823 and settled in Arkansas later in life. She apparently had four children, Nancy, Lucy, Marcus, and Sarah Jane. Is this the Jane Alexander who attended the Mordecai school? Seems very likely.

Would love to hear from any Alexander family historians who can disentangle any of this!

UPDATE 5/15/13:  I have heard from an Alexander family historian!  Frances and Sarah Alexander might be the daughters of Mark Alexander's brother, William Lee Alexander, who died in 1806. 

Monday, October 26, 2009

5. & 6. Ann and Penelope Albertson

Sisters, again. Ann and Penelope Albertson attended the Mordecai school together for two years, 1815 and 1816; then Penelope was also enrolled for part of 1817 and part of 1818. They're listed as being from Elizabeth City NC, and the ledger connects them to a William Albertson.

Searching around online for more details.... roughly chronological:
*Their parents: William Albertson married Penelope Sutton in August 1800, in Pasquotank Co., NC.

*Miss Ann R. Albertson married James S. Relfe on 13 June 1819, and Ann is listed as "the eldest daughter of William Albertson Esq of this city," in the Pasquotank County records. Assuming she was born within two years after her parents' wedding, that makes her 17-19 years old. It also means she was a teenager when she attended the Mordecai school.

*I also find William Albertson as the publisher of a newspaper in Elizabeth City, 1821-1825.

*From the Digital Library on American Slavery, we find petitions from Ann Albertson Relfe, Penelope Albertson, William Albertson, and James S. Relfe, all filed in North Carolina in 1826. The petitions could be any kind of legal request made in court--perhaps all four inherited or sold slaves that year, and the paperwork turns up for that event. (Additionally, an Emeline Albertson and a Benjamin Albertson are also found in 1826 NC filings.)

*Miss Penelope S. Albertson and a Mrs. Priscilla E. Bailey, both of Elizabeth City, are both listed as subscribers to a book, Miscellaneous Poems by Eliza Crawley Murden, published in Charleston in 1827. Mrs. Priscilla E. Bailey was the former Priscilla Brownrigg, and a fellow Mordecai student. (Much more on her when we get to the Bs.) So Penelope was still single in 1827.
More as I find it, but these details paint the beginnings of a picture--Ann was a teen, and Penelope was a bit younger, when they attended the Mordecai school. Two-and-a-half years after she finished school there, Ann married; Penelope waited at least nine years after leaving school to wed, if she ever did. Penelope was interested in the work of a Southern woman poet, enough to subscribe to the publication of her verses. And both young women were involved in a court petition involving slaves in 1826--probably an inheritance, or a sale on their behalf.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

4. Susan Adams

Some of the students on the roster don't have much detail to work from. The fourth name, Susan Adams, is one of the sketchier figures. What we know: Susan Adams was enrolled at the Mordecai school for two terms in 1811; the name "Dr. Robert Moore" is attached to her account, and the town of Hicksford VA may be related to her as well.

Hicksford is in Greensville County, Virginia, a little north of the North Carolina border. It's now called Emporia, but there's still a Hicksford Avenue and Hicksford Historic District there.

Checking with the genealogical resources online: There was a Susan Adams born to Jeremiah Adams and Elizabeth Grigg of Bedford Co. VA, sometime after 1798 (both parents were born in 1776 in Virginia, and Elizabeth was born in Hicksford). That Susan was one of ten children. A bit slim a connection, though, for such a common name. So Susan Adams may not be someone we can track down definitively, at this point. But she was a Mordecai student in 1811, so she was probably born around 1800, and she may have had an uncle or guardian named Dr. Robert Moore.

Friday, October 2, 2009

3. Margaret Jane Adam

This week's student is the sister of last week's: Margaret Jane followed Eliza Ann Adam to the Mordecai school beginning in 1812... and stayed for eleven sessions, or five-and-a-half years, which makes her one of the longest-enrolled students at the school.

Recapping the story, now from Margaret's perspective--she was just a baby when her father, Scottish-born merchant Robert Adam, died in 1801. An older brother was eventually made guardian of the young Adam girls. After Margaret finished her days at the Mordecai school, she returned in 1818 to see the school's final examination, as a spectator. By then, she was mourning the death of her sister Eliza Adam Cameron.

In 1821 Margaret married Dr. William Moffat (or Moffitt, or Maffitt) of Fayetteville, against her family's wishes. Her first baby, Eliza*--maybe named for Margaret's late sister?--was born in 1823, and the pregnancy left Margaret in delicate health. She was in Wilmington seeking restoration later that year. In the early years of their marriage, William adopted a five-year-old nephew, John Newland Maffitt; a lively little boy added to her duties and probably didn't improve Margaret's health situation. (The nephew was sent to school in the north after a few years, and became a successful naval officer, serving in both the US Navy and the Confederate navy.)

By the end of 1827 Margaret Adam Moffat was feeling even worse. Another confinement resulted in a throat infection that required part of her palate to be removed (ouch), and Margaret was left speechless by the surgery. Margaret's inheritance seems to have been spent by Dr. Moffat, who may also have been cruel towards her, according to comments in the Mordecai letters.

*Eliza Maffitt became Mrs. Thomas Lewis Hybart in 1843. Eliza was a close correspondent of John Newland Maffitt when the two were young adults. Eliza was widowed within a few years of marrying Thomas, just long enough to have two sons with him (William in 1844 and Thomas in 1847). Both her sons fought for the Confederacy, and Thomas died from typhoid fever during the war, in 1864, when he was only 17. Eliza died after 1880.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

2. Eliza Adam (1798-1817)

By alphabetical chance, the second student to write about from the Mordecai school is one that we can know a great deal about. But sadly, the reason we know so much is that she didn't live long; she didn't even outlive the school itself.

Eliza Ann Adam of Fayetteville was born in 1798. Her father was Robert Adam (1759-1801), a wealthy Scottish-born merchant, but she was very young when he died. Arriving in 1809, Eliza was one of the first Fayetteville girls at the Mordecai school, an 11-year-old who became a great favorite of the Mordecai family. Samuel Mordecai even called her "his little adopted sister." Solomon Mordecai said of her, "no one that could appreciate the value of an affectionate disposition could feel otherwise than attached."

Eliza's younger sister Margaret joined her at Warrenton in 1812, the year Eliza finished her studies there. In 1813, Eliza was sent to the North to "polish" her manners in Boston. Soon, she was engaged to John Adams Cameron (1788-1838), a UNC alumnus and wounded veteran of the War of 1812, one of the prominent North Carolina Camerons.

This engagement was the beginning of the end for Eliza. She took an overdose of laudanum, apparently in hopes of avoiding the match. But she survived the overdose and the scandal, and the marriage proceeded as planned, taking place on 13 January 1815. In 1816, Eliza Adam Cameron's daughter was born. Eliza's health was further damaged in the pregnancy (and probably by her continuing unhappiness with the marriage). She took a course of mercury and other treatments, but nothing slowed her deteriorating health. When John Cameron's business required a trip to Europe, it was decided that Eliza might benefit from a sea voyage. They arrived at Liverpool, then took another sea journey to Greenock (her father's birthplace on the coast of Scotland).  She stayed with an aunt near Ardrossan, where Eliza Ann Adam Cameron died in 1817, still a teenager. (The Cameron Family Papers from 1817 have several reports of Eliza's final days.) (Edited for clarity after an anonymous comment, 10/30/14)

Her widower, John Adams Cameron, married again the following year. In 1822 he was appointed consul to Brazil. In 1831 he continued his diplomatic career in Veracruz, Mexico. John A. Cameron was appointed to the new US District Court of Florida. Judge Cameron died by drowning when the steamship Pulaski was lost at sea in 1838.

Eliza's only child, Mary Elizabeth Cameron (1815-1845), married Dr. Halcott Pride Jones (1815-1889) in 1838, and had at least four children--the first, Eliza Adams "Lizzie" Jones (1839-1911), named for her long-dead grandmother, the Mordecai student.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

1. Narcissa Abernathy

The first Mordecai student, alphabetically, is the wonderfully named "Narcissa Abernathy." From the school's records (mostly the ledger), I can say for certain that she was from a place called "Brunswick" and that a William Abernathy was her parent or guardian, and that she stayed at the school for its last two semesters: spring and fall of 1818.

"Brunswick" can mean two different likely hometowns: Brunswick County NC is in the southeastern part of the state, near Wilmington and the South Carolina border. Brunswick County VA is just over the NC/VA border from Warren County. Both places sent students the Mordecai school, but the Virginia Brunswick was closer, and has the added factor of an Abernathy family that was prominent at the time. So I'd probably assume she's a Virginia girl.

Let's see what the genealogical forums have to say: It seems there was a Narcissa Abernathy whose parents were William "Poplar Mound Billy" Abernathy (d. 1844) and his wife Nancy; who had sisters Marianne, Dionysia, and Arianna, and brothers William and Willis; who married her cousin James Abernathy Jr. by 1822, in Greensville County, VA. The couple moved to Giles County TN around 1827, and had about five children (Virginia, Martha Ann, John, William, and Samuel). She would have been widowed around 1845.

Those dates and details would make sense for a Mordecai student--a lot of Mordecai girls married in the early 1820s and moved west soon after. Is it her? I wouldn't know for sure without some family history or letters mentioning her being the same person; but I think this is a good tentative match, given her unusual name and the matches in age, placename, and father's name.

Proper Introductions

Today is the first day of school in our local district--which seems the best day to start a blog about a school.

In 1996, I defended a dissertation about the Mordecai school in Warrenton, North Carolina--a girls' school that was in operation from 1809-1818. Because it was run by the Mordecai family, and because the Mordecai family's papers are in several large collections in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Durham, it was unusually possible to construct a complete list of the school's alumnae--about 500 women born roughly between 1795 and 1805, who all attended the school for at least one half-year term. The students were often from prominent families, and part of the project involved following their later lives.

But now, thirteen years later, so much more "following" is possible, thanks to online search engines, and the remarkable flourishing of family history websites in particular. So, I've decided to revisit the Mordecai alumnae, alphabetically, a few at a time, in this blog. I expect to write a few entries a month, covering one or more names at a time. Whatever I find, I'll report it here. In time, this blog will serve as a more complete record of the Mordecai students' lives than the dissertation ever could have.

Why am I doing this? Well, because I can. And because it's a chance to explore the possibilities of presenting historical work online. And finally, maybe, to connect with others online who are interested in the same group of women--or even in just one of the women--and who may enjoy sharing information about their lives.

A final caveat: much of what is available online about the Mordecais and their school isn't particularly accurate. It's tempting to romanticize the work of a family educating girls in the Early Republic, in the South; and the Mordecais in particular were very engaging writers, always popular with the scholars who read their letters. My dissertation was about looking past the romantic stories and really looking at the evidence from the school's decade of operation.

I can only recommend and endorse heartily the work of my friend Emily Bingham, whose book Mordecai: An Early American Family (Hill and Wang 2003) is good solid history (and a mighty fine read, too). Anything else you find, especially if it makes the school sound like a brilliant institution of higher learning, is probably 99% nonsense. The facts: the average age of the students was about twelve; most stayed for a year or less; the vast majority spent just enough time to learn a little grammar and math, maybe a few geography facts, maximum. It was an interesting, flawed, complex venture, or at least I think so, or I wouldn't have spent years of my life immersed in it.