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Davidson History: Crowfield Academy

by | Jun 7, 2023

Many of the Scots-Irish settlers who settled in Iredell and Mecklenburg counties during the 1740s were cultured men, some of them in possession of large libraries. When they arrived in the Piedmont, they found almost no schools. There were no classical academies that prepared young men for college, something they had been accustomed to in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and other northern colonies. The only educational institutions were “old field schools,” supported by subscription and staffed by minimally qualified teachers. Classes met for only three months in the winter, and money for salaries and educational materials was very limited. For men eager to give their sons a higher education, the situation was far from satisfactory.

The congregation of Centre Church in Iredell County saw the need for better schools. One of its members, John Osborne, had a plantation named Belmont, whose home was kind of a cultural center for the area. He had large personal library. In 1760, under the influence of Osborne and other educated members of the Centre community, the church organized the Crowfield Academy, the first classical academy in western North Carolina. The school was housed in a small log building about two miles northeast of Davidson College and offered a basic curriculum along with the study of Greek, Latin, philosophy, theology, and Hebrew. No women were admitted, and the school was supported by tuition and donations. Crowfield attracted students from Iredell and Mecklenburg counties, and sometimes farther afield; in 1848 Salisbury’s Carolina Watchman reported that another attendee was “the son of a wealthy Spaniard, supposed to be from one of the West Indian Islands.”

Centre Presbyterian Church (photo courtesy of Davidson College Archives)

According to Chalmers Davidson, some of the teachers at Crowfield were graduates of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). There is little other information on Crowfield’s teachers. Reverend David Kerr, a graduate of Trinity University Dublin and later a professor at the University of North Carolina, taught there for a time, as did Dr. Charles Caldwell, who later taught at a medical school in Philadelphia. David Caldwell, who later founded the well-known Log College near Greensboro, may also have taught there for a brief period.

Little Crowfield, however, had a profound impact across the South, as many of its graduates went on to university and became leaders in their fields. Several leaders of North Carolina’s fight for independence attended Crowfield, including Adlai Osborne, who served on the Rowan County Committee of Safety, and Ephraim Brevard, who wrote the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence in 1775. Members of the Davidson family, who probably attended, were also leaders in the revolutionary movement.

Several prominent ministers, some of them also educators, also got their early education at Crowfield. Reverend James McRee attended the College of New Jersey after leaving Crowfield, and returned to North Carolina to serve the Steele Creek and Centre Presbyterian churches, despite being called to churches in Philadelphia and Princeton. He was a lifelong advocate for education in the state. Another graduate, Reverend James Hall, went on to found Clio’s Nursery, a classical school ten miles north of Statesville. Reverend Samuel Eusebius McCorkle, who also studied at Crowfield, was the longtime pastor of Thyatira Presbyterian Church near Salisbury, and he conducted the Zion-Parnassus Academy nearby. Another educator, William Houston, who became a professor of math and natural philosophy (science) at the College of New Jersey, also attended Crowfield.

Most accounts indicate that Crowfield closed during the 1780s, although a few historians note an attempt to revive it around 1787. During its two decades, it provided an excellent education to the privileged youth of southern Iredell and northern Mecklenburg counties. In addition, it may have provided the seed for yet another local educational institution. Theologian Ernest Trice Thompson and educational historian Charles Lee Smith refer to it as the precursor of Davidson College. Other sources award this distinction to an academy associated with the Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church near Charlotte, which was chartered in 1770.

Nancy Griffith

Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989.  She is the author of numerous books and articles on Arkansas and South Carolina history.  She is the author of "Ada Jenkins: The Heart of the Matter," a history of the Ada Jenkins school and center.

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