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Locating Alexander Wilson's Bristol Township and theMilestown SchoolAuthor(s): Albert Filemyr, and Jeff HoltSource: The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 126(2):401-405. 2014.Published By: The Wilson Ornithological SocietyDOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1676/13-174.1URL: http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1676/13-174.1
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The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 126(2):401405, 2014
Locating Alexander Wilsons Bristol Township and the Milestown School
Albert Filemyr1 and Jeff Holt2,3
ABSTRACT.The correction of a long standingerror in what was thought to be the location of theMilestown School where Alexander Wilson, the Fatherof American Ornithology, taught from 1796 to 1801.Received 21 October 2013. Accepted 11 February 2014.
Key words: Alexander Wilson, Bristol Township,
Milestown, Milestown School, Wilson.
Two years after his arrival in the New World,
Alexander Wilson- not yet The Father of
American Ornithology - accepted a position as
teacher at the Milestown School in Pennsylvania.
Five years later, in 1801, Wilson moved to
Bloomfield, New Jersey, where he briefly taught
before assuming a new position at the Union School
at Grays Ferry, Philadelphia, in February 1802.
The history and circumstances of the schools in
Bloomfield and Grays Ferry are well known, but
the location of the Milestown School has consis-
tently been misidentified in the literature treating
Wilsons biography and movements in America.
In a recently published biography, AlexanderWilson: The Scot Who Founded American Orni-thology, the authors, Edward H. Burtt, Jr. andWilliam E. Davis, Jr., write: ..in 1796,settled about 20 miles northwest of Philadelphiain Milestown where he taught school until July1801. (Burtt and Davis 2013:27). The source ofthe statement in the Burtt/Davis book may havecome from two previously published books onWilson. In the 1961 book written by RobertCantwell titled Alexander Wilson: Naturalist andPioneer, A Biography, he wrote that Milestownwas within the limits of Bristol Township, nineteenmiles from the center of Philadelphia. The OldYork Road, to Trenton and on to New York, ranthrough Bristol, which stood on the DelawareRiver;Just inside the Bristol limits was Bark-hams Lane, and Wilsons schoolyard beyond it.(Cantwell 1961:89). Thereafter, Clark Hunter in his1983 book, The Life and Letters of AlexanderWilson, wrote the school at Milestown, some20 miles from Philadelphia, more or less on theroad to Trenton and New York (Hunter 1983:65).Based on these references, our initial search for theschool in Milestown started in Bristol Township,Bucks County, Pennsylvania which is along the3 Corresponding author; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
2 1215 Taft Avenue, Woodbury, NJ 08096, USA.
1 1314 Lenore Road, Meadowbrook, PA 19046, USA.
SHORT COMMUNICATIONS 401
Delaware River about 18 miles from Center City
Philadelphia. Research into the history of this Bristol
Township failed to uncover any mention of a
Milestown or a school associated with that town.
This was our first indication that Cantwell and others
may have gotten the location of Milestown wrong.
Additional comments made by Cantwell also
suggest that the search might need to begin
elsewhere. Cantwell notes that during his tenure
at Milestown, Wilson bought a horse and began
making trips into Bucks County north of Miles-
town (Cantwell 1961:100). While not disposi-
tive, this statement nevertheless suggested that if
Milestown was actually located in todays Bristol
Township, then Wilson was already living in
Bucks County and thus, would not be making trips
into Bucks County.
Further evidence to suggest that the location of
Milestown is not in Bristol Township, Bucks
County can be found in a letter dated August 22,
1798 from Wilson to his father in Scotland and re-
printed in volume one of the 1876 two volume set of
books titled The Poems and Literary Prose of
Alexander Wilson. In that letter, Wilson indicates
that the letter was written from Milestown, Bristol
Township, Philadelphia County (Grosart
1876:63). Certainly, Wilson himself must have
known where he was living. Thus three questions.
Was there a Bristol Township located within the
geographic boundary of Philadelphia County? If so,
was there a Milestown in that Bristol Township?
And further, was there a school in that community?
The answers to these three questions are yes. There
was a Bristol Township within Philadelphia County
(Fig. 1), there was a Milestown in that township
(Fig. 3), and there was a school in Milestown
(Fig. 2). In fact there is still a school on the general
site of the Milestown School. (Fig. 3)
Milestown (or Miles Town) can date its history
to 1695 when Griffith Miles acquired 250 acres of
FIG. 1. This detail from the 1808 map by John Hills (surveyed 18011807) titled Plan of the City of Philadelphia and
Environs clearly shows Bristol Township located in Philadelphia County. This area is now within the present day
boundary of the City of Philadelphia. (From the collection of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia PA. Used
with permission. Hills 1808).
402 THE WILSON JOURNAL OF ORNITHOLOGY N Vol. 126, No. 2, June 2014
land and built a cabin where the intersection of
Haines Street and Old York Road now exists in the
Oak Lane section of Philadelphia (Mears 1890).
This is 7.5 miles north of center city Philadelphia
(Fig. 4). Shortly thereafter, other Welsh families
settled in the area and it became known as
Milestown. This geographic area of Philadelphia
County was then known as Bristol Township
In 1745, a one-story school house was built in
Milestown. The authors, and previous researchers,
have been unable to locate any records of this
school prior to 1761. In 1761, Joseph Armitage,
who owned the school building and the land it was
on, gave the building and a quarter acre of land,
located within one square of York Road to a
group of citizens to act as trustees of the land
and the school (Mears 1890:52). The school was
called the Milestown (and occasionally Armitage)
School (Fig. 2).
In 1791, trustees of the school agreed that the
school house could also be used as a house of
worship. Two local congregations shared space in
alternating Sunday afternoons. This decision is of
interest to students of ornithology as John Bach-
man, while studying for the ministry, taught at the
Milestown School a few years after Wilson. In the
early 1870s, the then Reverend Bachman, who had
collaborated with John James Audubon in the
production of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North
America (and whose daughters married Audubons
sons), wrote regarding his time at Milestown: I
have some pleasant reminiscences of the old school
house at Milestown. It was there that Wilson, the
ornithologist, first tried his hand as a pedagogue
Wilson visited us occasionally from Philadelphia
and I always joined him on Saturdays in looking for
specimens in ornithology. (Mears 1890:56)
In a four page history of the Milestown School,
authored in 1884 and located in the Account Book
FIG. 2. This detail from the 1808 John Hills map (surveyed 18011807) titled Plan of the City of Philadelphia and
Environs clearly shows Milestown located within Bristol Township, Philadelphia County. It also shows the location of the
Spread Eagle Inn and the Milestown School. (From the collection of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia PA.
Used with permission. Hills 1808).
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of The Trustees of the Milestown School, 1797
1884 among the early teachers noted are:
Alexander Wilson, the Ornithologist
John Bachman, a student of divinity.who
later was a pastor of St. Johns Lutheran
Church in Charlestown, SC. (Account Book
The school house where both Wilson and
Bachman taught was replaced in 1818 on the
same general site. This new school, known as the
Octagonal School, lasted until 1875 when it was
transferred to the School District of Philadelphia
(Mears 1890). It had been in private control since
1745. By this time it was known as the Ellwood
School. A new building was erected in 1875 and
lasted until 1957 when the current Ellwood
School was built (Ellwood 1950). All the previous
buildings, and the current building, were and are
on the same general site first used in 1745. The
current address for the Ellwood School is 6701 N
13th St, Philadelphia, PA 19126 (Fig. 3).
FIG. 3. This present day map of the area in Philadelphia once known as Milestown shows Pennsylvania Route 611 (Old
York Road), North Broad Street, Oak Lane Avenue and the Ellwood School. (E OpenStreetMap contributors, DeBrandt2013; www.opendatacommons.org/licenses/odbl.deBrandt).
FIG. 4. Counties of southeastern Pennsylvania showing
the actual location of the Milestown being in the present
City and County of Philadelphia as opposed to the often
cited but incorrect location in Bristol, Bucks County.
404 THE WILSON JOURNAL OF ORNITHOLOGY N Vol. 126, No. 2, June 2014
Additional support for the location of theMilestown School being in Philadelphia Countycan be found in multiple comments contained inthe letters of both Wilson and Bachman whomention that during their respective tenures atMilestown, they lived at a boarding house operatedby the Kulps (Grosart 1876, Mears 1890). UnitedStates Censuses from this time identify two Kulps(Isaac Kulp and Isaac Kulp, Jr.) having residencesin Bristol Township, Philadelphia County (1790US Census, 1800 US Census). In 1724, BenjaminArmitage built a public house on York Road,across from Haines Street. This property wasbought by Jacob Kulp in 1790 and sold to his son,Isaac, in 1797, who operated the Inn until 1810(Mears 1890). The 1808 map of Milestownidentifies a Spread Eagle Inn on York Road(Fig 2), across from what is now Haines Street.Bachman in one of his letters further notes that theKulp boarding house was located a few hundredyards from the Milestown school house (Mears1890:56). This distance matches approximatelythe site of the school and the York Road/HainesStreet intersection.
So how did Cantwell (and others) mislocateMilestown and the school? The answer lies in theevolution of the city of Philadelphia and ofPhiladelphia County. Originally, the city ofPhiladelphia was confined generally to the areanow known as Center City. Philadelphia Countyextended well beyond the city limits. As thepopulation grew, the county areas outside the cityborders were divided into townships. By the early1800s, the population in the surrounding town-ships exceeded that of the city. Eventually,mostly for police protection, the townships ofPhiladelphia County agreed to consolidate withthe City of Philadelphia. Thus, in 1854, Phila-delphia County and the City of Philadelphiabecame one geographic and political entity.Former townships were divided into wards withBristol Township disappearing and becomingknown as Ward 22. Today, that area is commonlyknown as Oak Lane. The designation of what wasthe community of Milestown disappeared frommaps about 1900.
The Bristol Township that is located in BucksCounty was incorporated in 1692 as BuckinghamTownship. The towns name was changed toBristol in 1702 and remains to this day, a
thriving municipality in the Commonwealth ofPennsylvania.
Thus, when Cantwell was researching andwriting his biography of Wilson, the only BristolTownship that would have appeared on modernmaps would have been the Bucks County town.The Philadelphia County township of the samename had vanished into the recesses of history.
Knowing where the Milestown School waslocated, which was within the confines of Philadel-phia County, will hardly alter the remarkable storyof Alexander Wilsons rise from being a poet, aweaver, a peddler, and a school teacher to becomethe universally recognized Father of AmericanOrnithology. Yet, for students of history there is alesson to be learned, to wit, view historical factscum grano salis.
ACCOUNT BOOK OF THE TRUSTEES OF THE MILESTOWN
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