Thanks to our newest partner, Burwell School Historic Site / Historic Hillsborough Commission, over 50 new records are now available on our website. These materials focus primarily on Margaret Anna Robertson Burwell; the Burwell family; and The Robert and Margaret Anna Burwell School. These materials, which include diaries and letters, provide a look into 19th century life and education in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Margaret Anna Robertson Burwell
Margaret Anna Robertson Burwell, who went by Anna, is noted as an early pioneer for women’s education in North Carolina. She was born in and raised primarily by her maternal aunt, Susan Catherine Robertson Bott, in Virginia. Leading up to her arrival in the Old North State in the mid-1830s, Anna had received a good education, acquired teaching experience, married Presbyterian minister Robert Armistead Burwell, and had two children (Mary Susan Burwell and John Bott Burwell). While pregnant with their third child in 1835, Anna and her family moved to Hillsborough, North Carolina after her husband was called to be the minister of the Hillsborough Presbyterian Church.
Their first two years in Hillsborough, the Burwell family survived on Robert’s income as a minister. With an additional child and eventually more on the way, however, Anna decided to supplement her husband’s income by teaching after a local doctor asked her to undertake the education of his daughter. You can dig deeper into Anna’s life during this period by reading her digitized diaries on DigitalNC.
The Robert and Margaret Anna Burwell School and Continued Women’s Education
With Anna’s mind set on teaching, the Robert and Margaret Anna Burwell School (also referred to as the Burwell School) was opened in 1837. From its opening to its closure in 1857, Anna taught classes, handled student accounts, managed the school as well as her household.
During its 20 years of operation over 200 young women from North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, New York, and Florida were taught in accordance with the school’s mission to “qualify young ladies for the cheerful discharge of the duties of subsequent life […] [and] to cultivate in every pupil a sense of her responsibility for time and for eternity.” To complete their mission, The Circular [1848-1851] shows that the students took classes such as Lessons on Astronomy, Watts on the Mind, Parsing Blank Verse, Philosophy of Natural History, and Botany.
Though the Burwell School closed in 1857, the family was not finished contributing to women’s education in North Carolina. In fact the same year the Burwell School closed, the Burwells assumed leadership of the Charlotte Female Seminary (now Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina). Fourteen years after assuming leadership of the Charlotte Female Seminary, Anna passed away at the age of 61. Possibly due to his wife’s death, Robert and their son John left Charlotte, North Carolina and assumed ownership of a different girls’ school named Peace Institute (now William Peace University in Raleigh, North Carolina).
Property History After the Burwell Family
Following their departure, the property was rented out by the Burwell family to various individuals until 1862. In November 1862, members of the Collins Family (from Somerset Place near Edenton, North Carolina) bought the property and lived there during the Civil War. Seven years later in 1869, the property was auctioned off as a result of the Collins Family being unable to afford to keep the home. The winning bid was placed by David Parks.
From 1869 to 1895, the home changed hands between the Parks brothers, David and Charles. It is believed that during this 26 year period designer Jules Kerner was hired to raise the first floor ceilings and add the Victorian embellishments found on the interior and exterior of the home.
In 1895, Charles Park sold the property to a local dentist named John Sanford Spurgeon and his wife Carrie Spurgeon. The couple brought in even more exciting updates during their lengthy ownership which included the addition of electricity and plumbing. The home stayed in the Spurgeon family for 70 years until the children of John and Carrie decided to sell it in 1965.
The property was obtained by the Historic Hillsborough Commission, a non-profit organization established by the North Carolina General Assembly, in 1965. After acquiring the site, the Commission began to restore the existing buildings including the Burwell home, brick classroom, and “necessary house.”
Officially opened to the public since 1977, the Burwell School Historic Site continues to follow its mission 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.”
To learn more about the Burwell School Historic Site, please visit the Burwell School Historic Site website.
To learn more about Burwell family history, please visit the Burwell School’s Our History page.
To view more materials from Hillsborough, North Carolina, please click here to view NCDHC’s Hillsborough related records.
Information from this post was gathered from the materials uploaded in this batch, the Burwell School Historic Site’s website, previous Burwell School Historic Site site coordinator Carrie Currie, and from Ashlie Brewer’s knowledge from her internship at the site in summer 2022.