Weeping Willows School House

Schools in the Pennsylvania Forest

Many of the volumes in our American County Histories collection outline the formation of the first schools in a given county or parish. The History of Northampton County, Pennsylvania, with Illustrations Descriptive of its Scenery, by Captain Franklin Ellis in the Pennsylvania section of this collection describes how the mostly religiously minded settlers from Ireland, Scotland, and Germany established free schools for their children.

Schools In The Forest

If the earliest settlers, upon their arrival here, gave their first attention to the question of religious worship, they did not long postpone that of schools; for they believed that education made better citizens, and enhanced the ability and usefulness of its possessor.

As early as 1673, the Assembly had passed an Act, making it obligatory upon parents and guardians to teach every child in their control to read and write; which is all the comment that is necessary on the progressive spirit— as touching educational matters—which actuated the people of Pennsylvania, even at that early time.

In this county, the establishment of schools— almost with the building of the first forest homes— became a question of which all saw the importance; and it was met in the most liberal and enlightened manner by the Moravians who were numerically strong—numbering more than five hundred, within the Forks of the Delaware, by the year 1746— and were likewise, many of them, people of the highest cultivation.

Their policy was as far-sighted as it was benevolent. Not only did they establish schools for children of their own faith, but separate ones, at which the children of the Irish Presbyterians, and of the Germans alike, might attend, free of expense.

Not less than fourteen of this last-named class of schools had been established by them among their neighbors, before the close of the year 1745; and they left upon the education of Northampton county an impress which has never entirely disappeared.

Both the Scotch-Irish and the German settlers, were, in general, people of some education, and they were not lacking in an appreciation of the advantages accruing to a community through a general diffusion of knowledge. They were not dilatory in the establishment of schools for themselves, but these were of a character far inferior to those which were under the management of the Moravians. Usually, their term of teaching covered only a few weeks of the winter season; for the Germans, in particular, were a people who subordinated all other questions, except that of simple religion, to the one of material accumulation; and neither pupils nor teacher could, in summer, be spared from the labors of the field.

In any locality where a sufficient number of families lived near enough to each other to render the project of a school practicable, all would assemble at some central point, armed with axes, hand spikes, mauls, and wedges, to erect a school house; and while some felled the trees, others notched the logs and put them in their place, and still others split clapboards or shingles for the roof. Some sought out and hauled shapely stones for the fire-place, and some prepared the sticks and mud for the chimney.

When the house was completed, it was almost invariably a cheerless and uncomfortable one, deficient in light, and, in fact, deficient in every necessary quality except ventilation; but it answered some sort of purpose as a school house, and was most commonly compelled to do duty as church also.

Northampton County 1851

Northampton County as it appeared in 1851


History of Northampton County, Pennsylvania, with Illustrations Descriptive of its Scenery, by Captain Franklin Ellis and published in Philadelphia in 1877.
Photo at the top is Weeping Willows School House, Chester Co. I was unable to locate a photo or drawing of one of the original Scotch-Irish or German schools in Northampton County.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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