Locating Alexander Wilson's Bristol Township and the Milestown School

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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: jefflaw@msn.com

    2 1215 Taft Avenue, Woodbury, NJ 08096, USA.

    1 1314 Lenore Road, Meadowbrook, PA 19046, USA.


  • 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

    (Fig. 1).

    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).


  • 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

    1884: unnumbered)

    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.



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