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Genealogy of Communities: Seminaries and Other Educational Communities

Understanding terminology is essential for researching educational communities. In the late 1800s, seminaries appeared across the country. For years there have been academies, colleges, and universities. Students and others associated with these institutions, were counted in various ways and there are techniques for researching them.


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Today, a seminary is an institution dedicated to religious training. Originally seminaries were something sort of between a co-ed high school and a college. They were not always residential so they are less likely to appear in census returns but, as most researchers know, there is an exception to every rule. Residential does not always imply dorms. Local residents took in boarders ranging from teachers to students to cleaning staff.

Seminary histories serve as excellent research tools. A good tool for locating them is the Internet Archive. In addition to speeches and the cost of tuition, seminary histories list students by name and hometown.

The Shelby Seminary is the history of a seminary founded in Shelbyville, Illinois, in 1854. It covers the history of the school from the day the doors opened until 1869. This marvelous little publication goes a step further and identifies where alumni and faculty were in 1869. It explains who married, who converted to a different religion, and what they chose as occupations.

We might not think to look for Parkhurst T. Martin in Shelbyville, Illinois. He was born in Jersey, Ohio (Licking County) on March 1, 1838. Anyone who studies educators in the late 1800s quickly realizes they were a transient lot. Martin taught school in Macoupin County, Illinois, before attending school at the Shelby Seminary. After one year, he became faculty. In 1860, he returned to Ohio with the intention of attending Marietta College in the town of the same name. Instead, he joined an Illinois infantry and fought in the Civil War. He returned to Shelbyville and taught for awhile before buying part ownership of a newspaper.

A peek at the marriage records shows us that, while he was a newspaperman, Martin married Ella Huber in Shelbyville on December 30, 1867. He took her with him to Danville, Illinois, where he was editor of one newspaper and then owner of another.

The seminary history provides those links that fall between the censuses. Government documents, like marriages licenses, can support what what was published. That is very useful since people don't always move when it is convenient for the census enumerations.

Rowan County, North Carolina

The 1880 Census for Rowan County, North Carolina, was based on school districts. It included families who happened to live in the district – not just students or those employed by the schools.

Search for an academy in Massachusetts and you will find a list of students attending Wesleyan Academy in Hampden County, Massachusetts, and living in a co-ed boarding house. Young men and women as young as 14 years of age gave the boarding house as their primary address and their occupation as "student." The enumeration identifies their place of birth, as well as where their parents were born.

By law, individuals were only to be counted one time, so, presumably, their names were missing from their parents' households. Knowing this, if a teenager or young adult is missing from the family household and it is likely they might have attended college, search for them in college town boarding houses.

A simple census gives a unique snapshot of college life in a different era. One particular boarding house was home to more than 100 residents, a couple of teachers along with their wives and children, and a servant or two. Twenty-six-year-old music teacher, Ella B. Stebbens, roomed here along with her unemployed 49-year-old mother, Carrie.

Looking at a census neighborhood as a whole provides us with a clearer picture of what an ancestor's life would have been like. We can also assume that Carrie Stebbens was either widowed or divorced. Since they are both living in the boarding house, the family probably lost their home or never owned one. The two women appear not to be able to afford to buy or rent a home of their own.

University of Illinois

Knowing a college town makes research that much easier. Wright Street in Urbana, Illinois, is near campus and would have been a convenient area to find college housing. In 1880, Emma Sickles was a twenty-five year old single woman from Ohio. Her parents hailed from New York and Pennsylvania. She and another young woman, Jenny Waldo, from New York, are listed as "keeping house" and sharing accommodations with students from Illinois and Ohio.

Next door is a bookseller and his family. The house is home to a geology professor, Don Carlos Taft, and his wife. Their four children reside with them. Three of the children are students. The eldest is 20-year-old Lorado Taft, a sculptor. The sculptor became famous for creating "Fountain of the Great Lakes" for the Art Institute of Chicago, and a number of other works. The "Alma Mater" and "Lincoln the Orator" statues on the University of Illinois campus, are some of his creations.

We know from Taft's life story that he was born in Elmwood, Illinois, in 1860. But, in the 1880 census we find him before he departed to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Next door are eight students and a professor living with Nancy J. Canaday from Indiana, another boarding house operator.

Students and faculty did not always own homes. Students almost never did unless they grew up in Urbana. Most were there to finish their degree and strike out on their own. Professors sometimes stayed longer, perhaps even to the end of their careers. Others, like the housekeepers and booksellers, were essential to the university and remained.

Colleges and universities maintain records of alumni. They are usually willing to share information about alumni who graduated quite some time ago. Yearbooks are also a good source since they often include students' hometowns.

The campus archive can be a treasure-trove. Contact the library for any institute of higher education for information about anyone who was a professor or student. Archives are full of papers donated by the family of the deceased. Most libraries post the archive contents online, although they may not distribute copies of some items. Research may require a trip to campus.

Students sometimes marry before graduation. Keep that in mind while searching for marriage certificates. Search the county where the couple was attending school, if you can't locate the license in their home counties.

Phillips Exeter Academy

While Exeter has 29 dorms now, that was not always the case. The school dates back to 1781 and things have evolved.

In 1870, we find a houseful of teenage boys and one teacher living with Julia Jamieson in Exeter. Lucy Boardon was a teacher born in New Hampshire, as was Julia and some of the boys. But the students, ranging from age 16 to 18, were also from Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York.

It was a good location for teenage boys. A tailor lived on one side of the boarding house and a dry goods dealer and a grocer on the other.

A simple technique for finding students or teachers is to search for on the terms "boarder" and either "student" or "teacher" or "professor."


There is a big difference in the methods used by census enumerators from various locations. In most cases, they were diligent about recording "student" as an occupation. For those enumerations, the keyword "student" will locate the boarders who were going to school, rather than living with their families. Otherwise, they appear as teenagers or young adults without occupations.

The Shelby County, Illinois, census for 1880 seems incomplete in this regard. However, for those who attended school during the year, that information should have been noted in the appropriate column with a hash mark. Obviously, counting the hash marks is more painstaking than searching for keywords. But, with some diligence the data is there for the finding.

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Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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