Setauket School Days, the U.S. Constitution and Civil Rights

By Beverly C. Tyler


One of the earliest schoolhouses in Setauket stood, until January 1870, near where the Caroline Church carriage shed is located. This small, one-room schoolhouse served all of western Setauket and was School District Number Two in the Town of Brookhaven. The

school was taught through the winter term by a succession of male teachers, the last one being George W. Hawkins. Mr. Hawkins was paid $189.57, plus $6.58 for library expenses, for teaching from October 1, 1868 until April 1, 1869. In October 1869, a new one room

schoolhouse opened on the Village Green and on January 25, 1870, the old schoolhouse was auctioned for $75.00 to Isaac Smith. The old school was then moved to its present location at the intersection of Main and Lake Streets in Setauket and enlarged. Since the new school on the Village Green was to have new equipment, the old student benches and the pot-bellied stove were also auctioned for $43.75. The auctioneer for the sale of the school and equipment was Carlton Jayne.


The West Setauket schoolhouse, pictured in 2002, was originally one story, but after being moved to its current location, the roof was raised and a second story added.

This early schoolhouse was the subject of controversy in 1843 when school trustee, Captain Joseph Swift, this writer’s great-great-grandfather, engaged Miss Nancy T. Cleaves to teach the summer term. At the time, a great deal of fault was found with Captain Swift for employing a woman to teach. One term seemed to have removed all opposition, for she

continued to teach the summer term for a number of years. The year Miss Cleaves began teaching was also the year that George W. Hawkins was born.


Portrait of Nancy Cleaves, first female teacher in Setauket

Nancy Cleaves was born February 10, 1815. She was educated at Miss Hannah Goldsmith’s School for Young Ladies, Eldridge Street, New York. She continued to attend school at the Abbott’s Institute in New York during the winter term and to teach the summer term at Setauket through 1847.


Miss Cleaves had a great influence on John Elderkin, a noted editor and professional journalist, who was born in Setauket in 1841. At a ceremony on December 3, 1897, John Elderkin presented a painting of Miss Cleaves to the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library and he spoke about her contributions to the community as a teacher and his memories of attending the school each summer.


“Usually she (Miss Cleaves) was the first to appear at the schoolhouse to welcome us as we came trooping in, with our books under our arms and appetites sharpened for the playground, play, I am sorry to say, in those days being more attractive than study. How little any of us then appreciated what Miss Cleaves was doing for us! Miss Cleaves was constantly studying during her whole life, and her knowledge of literature, science, philosophy, rhetoric and astronomy was phenomenal and distinguished by accuracy and the

readiness and facility with which it was communicated to others, in conversation or in the school room. On clear, starry nights she would take her pupils out into the open air and point out all the principal stars, planets and constellations which might be visible, accompanied with such explanations as astronomy then afforded. These excursions in the geography of the heavens left a deep and lasting impression, and gave an enlarged conception of space and matter and the grandeur of the physical world.”


In the fall of 1847, Miss Cleaves opened a private school for boarders and day pupils in her Old Field home which was known as “the old castle.” Her home in Old Field no longer exists and another home was built on the site prior to 1900.


School days during the 1800s were not always as fondly remembered as they were by John Elderkin. Schoolhouses were small, one room and often overcrowded. Students ranged in age from six to fifteen. The school was drafty and during the winter the students near the stove would be too warm and the ones near the walls would often be very cold. In many of

the schools, teachers would be employed for only one year. The ability of the teachers varied a great deal and in a number of cases, the teacher was dismissed soon after the school year began.


About the same year that a new schoolhouse was opened on the Village Green, Miss Nancy Cleaves moved to the house just to the south of the Elderkin Hotel, now the Setauket Neighborhood House. She died there on July 22, 1876. The portrait of Nancy Cleaves, painted by James Fagan, now hangs in the original part of the library along with the paintings

of Thomas G. Hodgkins and his niece Emma S. Clark. According to John Elderkin, “the very existence of the [Emma S. Clark Memorial] Library is due more to the inspiration of her life and example for its foundation than to any other cause.”


The Three Village area is not only fortunate to have such a long and varied history, but to have so many stories that bring the past to life. In this current climate of protest over the treatment of African Americans, both as slaves and as second-class citizens for almost 400 years, it is important to realize that women have also been treated as second-class citizens in America for virtually the same time period. Women received the right to vote in America following the passage of the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution which was passed by Congress June 4, 1919; ratified August 18, 1920. We are now only a few weeks away from the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.



National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania plans to reopen to visitors beginning Wednesday, August 5, 2020, with FREE ADMISSION through September 5, 2020.

Timed tickets for entry are required. They will be welcoming visitors Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Opening on August 26, the Center’s newest exhibit, THE

19TH AMENDMENT: HOW WOMEN WON THE VOTE, will be included with entry. This exhibit will trace the triumphs and struggles that led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and will feature some of the many women who transformed constitutional history—including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, and Ida B. Wells—and will allow visitors to better understand the long fight for women’s suffrage. As detailed by Nancy Gertner, Senior Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School and Gail Heriot, Professor of Law, University of San Diego School of Law in a web site article for the National Constitution Center, “[by the time the 19th Amendment was ratified] Only seven states barred women from voting entirely. . . Adding women hugely expanded the electorate. A funny thing happens when new voters come along: Politicians start caring about their views.

When politicians see that roughly half their constituents are women, they start caring immensely.”


We are only a few months from our national election. There is no better time to learn more about our United States Constitution. You can visit the National Constitution Center virtually right now and learn about the Constitution and the amendments that were designed to give African Americans and women equality in government, voting, business and in community life. Discovering the facts of the passages and implementations of the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution it becomes clear that we are still have a long way to go to achieve equal treatment for all citizens in America.


Artifact highlights in the exhibit include original copies of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments

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