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.