Wednesday, September 2, 2009

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.


  1. Great site. Thank you for all of your work.

  2. WOW!. I never knew my father's family...George Patterson Mordecai, III....and just now I am learning about my great part to your great writing.
    P.S. I'm a fiction writer now, although I taught Creative Writing and literature for 17 years at Cornish College of the Arts....feel free to contact me:

    many, many thanks for everything.

  3. P.S. I am A. Page Faulkner Mordecai, one of my brothers is Geo. Patterson Mordecai IV...

  4. Hi Q. E. D. Qed! I *think* your Mordecais are a different family from the Mordecais who ran the school. It's an unusual surname, but not a unique one, in the early 19c. American South.

  5. I just found you and I'm VERY excited! I've been doing family research for years, the hard way, and just started pouring through and now the web 'at large'. I finished Emily's book last year after a cousin found it. We are descended from Rachel Mordecai's stepson, Gershon Lazarus (Larendon). :) I look forward to digging into your blog for any Lazarus details you may have found. As you know, all the families intermarried (and intramarried - is that even a word?) so I expect I'll take nuggets from every page! Please feel free to contact me if I can ever do anything to contribute to your project!

  6. Looking forward to reaching F for Fitts, as it's my middle name. :)

  7. Soon now! And there are a bunch of students named Fitts.