Inn Keeper Taught First Schools on Long Island

Footnotes to Long Island History

Inn-Keeper Taught First Of Schools on Easter L.I.


Thomas R. Bayles


            The first schools in the early settlements of eastern Long Island were patterned after those of New England in almost every respect, because most of the teachers came from there.

            The first school was established at Southampton two years after the settlers first landed in 1640.  The schoolmaster was Richard Mills, the inn-keeper.  It was said of him that “he was a fair penman and possessed a tolerable knowledge of arithmetic.”

            In East Hampton, Charles Barnes, one of the early settlers, became the first schoolmaster.  His salary was 30 pounds a year, paid in “beef, oyle, pork, hides, tallow and whalebone.”  In 1682, 34 years after its founding, there were 29 pupils in the East Hampton School.

            In Huntington, the first record of a school is in 1657, when James Houldsworth was engaged to teach their school.  A lengthy contract was drawn up and he engaged to teach for four years, and the people agreed to build him a “sufficient” house and furnish him a tract of land, also to pay him 25 pounds a year.

            The first school appeared in Hempstead in 1675, and the following year Jamaica started its first school in the old stone Presbyterian Church.  The teacher, Richard Jones, had the privilege of using the church provided he kept it clean and decent, and that no windows were broken.

            Brookhaven Town had its first school at Setauket in 1678 with Robert Ryder as the teacher, and in 1687, Francis Williamson was engaged as teacher at a salary of 30 pounds a year, with one thirds to be paid by the parents of the children.  Payments of all kinds were usually made in produce of some kind in those days.

            School was held in the home of the teacher at first, but in 1704 the town gave him privilege of using the town “meeting house” at Setauket, provided he had it cleaned every Saturday, and made good any damage done by the scholars.  As the settlement grew a separate school building was needed, so in 1718 the town trustees ordered that a sum of 38 pounds be raised by tax and a school building built.  As settlements were made in other parts of the town, some schools were established, but usually by private subscription rather than by public tax.

            In 1813, the villages were divided into school districts by law, and within a short time small, one room school buildings about 20 by 24 feet in size were built in all the villages.  These were at first heated with a fireplace at one end, and in later years when stoves came into general use, by a stove in the center of the room that took in a large stock of wood and three out lots of heat, in the center of the room at least.  The children sat on benches without backs in the middle of the room and around the sides were high slanting desks at which the pupils stood while doing their work.

            In many locations the school was located in a desolated place, as one old writer said, “where beans and buckwheat would not grow.”  The pay of the teacher was small for many years and it was the custom for him to board around at the homes of his pupils.  As late as 1890, the teachers salaries were small and the writer has a contract made for that year by the trustees of the Middle Island school with the teacher and his pay to be seven dollars a week.

            One of the early school books was the American Reader, published in 1818 by the Rev. Herman Daggett, pastor of the Middle Island Presbyterian Church.  A common school arithmetic was published in 1850 by a “Committee of Practical Teachers” in Suffolk county.  There were no dictionaries, so both student and teacher had difficulty in spelling correctly, which accounts for the variations in spelling found in the early documents in our town halls.  When we look at their neat and beautiful penmanship, however, we must have a great admiration for their clear, legible handwriting.

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