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.