The Burwell School Historic Site
The Burwell School Historic Site is owned and operated by the Historic Hillsborough Commission, a 501c(3) non-profit organization. The Commission was created by an act of the 1963 North Carolina General Assembly. The Commission's members are appointed by the Governor. Our mission is: "To maintain and preserve the Burwell School Historic Site; to interpret the history of 19th century Hillsborough for the enrichment of the public; and to celebrate and promote the culture and heritage of Hillsborough and Orange County."
Backstory and Context
The Burwell School Historic Site preserves the setting for one of the state’s earliest schools for girls, The Burwell Academy for Young Ladies. Today, the site's two-acre property encompasses the Burwell residence (ca. 1821, 1848), the original brick classroom building of Robert and Margaret Anna Burwell’s school (ca.1837- 1857), and a rare brick "necessary house" (ca. 1837).
During the antebellum (pre-Civil War) era, the 2-acre property was the Presbyterian manse and the home of The Rev. Robert Armistead Burwell (1802-1895) and his wife, Margaret Anna Robertson Burwell (1810 - 1871), their family, and the enslaved members of their household. From 1837 - 1857 the site was also the lively and bustling home of the Burwell's school for girls. Mrs. Burwell's diaries and letters give us entertaining, poignant, and illuminating information on 19th century life and her own struggles.
The Burwell family travelled from their home state of Virginia in 1835 when Robert was called to be the minister of the Hillsborough Presbyterian Church. They brought their two young children, John and Mary, and an enslaved servant girl, Lizzie. Anna Burwell, a memorably energetic, educated and accomplished woman, so impressed a local doctor that he asked her to undertake the education of his young daughter as she schooled her own children. From this small beginning grew the Burwells' landmark school, which the Burwells operated as a means of supplementing Robert's modest clergyman's income. For two decades, through the births of ten more children, the Burwells undertook the education of more than 200 young women in a program designed to make them “thorough scholars and useful members of society."
The school accommodated day students from Hillsborough and boarding students from North Carolina, Virginia, and and even Florida, Tennessee and New York. An 1851 edition of the school’s catalogue, likely written by Anna Burwell, outlines a broad course of study that included religion, philosophy, penmanship, grammar, geography, geometry, chemistry, and astronomy. Board and tuition were $67.50 per semester. The catalog defined the school’s mission: “to seek to cultivate in every pupil a sense of her responsibility for time and eternity,” through a philosophy of “not how much but how well.” Students ate plain food, exercised twice daily, made their own beds and helped wash the dishes. Daily prayers, regular letter-writing to home, and occasional trips into the village filled spare moments. Anna Burwell handled all the accounts, taught classes, and managed the school and the household.
The Burwells' lives, characterized by devotion to Presbyterian principles of piety, hard work and education, included great sadness as well. Three of their four daughters died of illnesses in their teens or twenties, and two of eight sons died as a result of injuries in the Civil War. As a former student, Lavinia Cole, wrote: "They found sorrows where they looked for joys."
Their contributions to women's education in North Carolina continued throughout their lives. At least seven students of their Hillsborough academy later started their own schools, one of which grew into Mitchell Community College in Mooresville, NC. In 1857 the Burwells assumed leadership of the Charlotte Female Seminary, now Queens University. After Mrs. Burwell's death at 61, Robert Burwell and his son John assumed ownership of Peace Institute, a girls' school which is now William Peace University in Raleigh, NC.
From 1835 - 1841 the Burwell household was also home to Elizabeth Hobbs, a Burwell family slave sent from Virginia with Robert and Anna Burwell to work for them in Hillsborough. "Lizzie" was required by Mrs. Burwell to do "the work of ten" in her own words, and her years in Hillsborough were sometimes lonely and even harsh. However, she was a talented seamstress possessed of drive and determination; she later married, bought her freedom, and became a successful businesswoman and the confidante of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.