The Cary Family Digital Collection

John B. Cary (ca 1860)

John B. Cary (ca 1860)

Old Virginia

March 28, 1993|By PARKE ROUSE Daily Press

The most prominent colonial family of the lower Peninsula was the Cary family, who came in the 1600s to Warwick County and established themselves around Warwick River and Mulberry Island. The earliest Warwick County government was formed under a hackberry tree on the first Miles Cary’s plantation, in recent years depicted by artist John Needre on the Newport News coat of arms.

A later Miles Cary, master of Richneck plantation in Warwick, moved in the early 1700s to a bigger plantation called Celey’s or Ceeley’s on Hampton Roads. His wealthy wife, Mary Wilson Roscow, had inherited it from her father, Col. William Wilson of Hampton. Celey’s plantation house stood on the present site of the Rehabilitation Center on Chesapeake Avenue, facing Hampton Roads. Around it were 2,000 inherited acres on both sides of Salter’s Creek.

At Celey’s plantation grew up beauteous Sally Cary, whom George Washington wooed before marrying the widow Martha Custis. But alas for poor George, Sally chose to marry rich George William Fairfax of Fairfax County, holder of the immense Fairfax acreage in northern Virginia. Even so, Washington nursed a passion for Sally all his life. He scandalized his biographers by writing to widowed Sally Fairfax in old age, of “those happy moments, the happiest in my life, which I have enjoyed in your company.”

After the American Revolution impoverished Tidewater Virginia, most of the Peninsula Carys moved to Richmond or Northern Virginia, but one Cary family stayed in Hampton. Its most notable member was John Baytop Cary, who conducted a private school from 1851 until the Civil War in a big frame building fronting Hampton Creek. At first he taught only boys in his Hampton Military Academy, but later he admitted girls and dropped the “Military.” Some students came from out-of-town and boarded in Cary’s home, next to the school. Boys and girls were taught separately.

Cary seems to have begun teaching in the 1840s in a Hampton free school that descended from the old Syms-Eaton school, probably the earliest free school in America.

In his memoirs of the Peninsula in the Civil War era, George Benjamin West of Newport News recalled that “In January 1845 I was sent to school to Col. John B. Cary, who then taught in the old Courthouse. … There were two rooms. The largest boys – young men really – were put in the smaller room and the little boys were also in this room, to be looked after by the older ones.”

Ten years later, West was sent by his parents to John B. Cary’s new private school, Hampton Military Academy. He recalled later, “Col. Cary had built a private academy (on Pee Dee Point, facing Hampton Creek) … so father again sent me to him that fall of ’55 and I remained with him till the fall of ’59 when I entered the University of Virginia. Cary made his a military school when he moved into his new academy; he had also a female department attached and employed a female teacher. … Cary also built quite a large dwelling and kept boarders; the boys slept in the third story of the academy, the girls in his house, and all ate in his dwelling.”

West disliked the military mode of Cary’s school, but he admired the academic training Cary provided. Cary posted a sign in his classroom, “Order is Heaven’s First Law” and was a strict taskmaster. He ran a taut school. His teachers at various times held degrees from Princeton, Virginia Military Institute and the universities of Heidelberg and Leipzig, then centers for math and science study.

Cary’s academy curriculum included Greek, Latin, math and music. A summer resident who lived near his school was John Tyler, later to be president, who occupied a waterfront house called Villa Margaret on the present Hampton University campus. Tyler addressed Cary’s literacy society, called “The Old Boys,” on one occasion.

When Virginia seceded in April 1861, Cary’s older boy students quit school to volunteer. Cary himself was commissioned a Confederate officer, serving under Gen. John Bankhead Magruder to defend the Peninsula against Gen. George B. McClellan’s 1862 invasion. He was mustered out of service after Appomattox and proudly remained “Colonel Cary” for the rest of his life.

At the Civil War’s end, Cary was serving the Confederate government in Richmond, and he chose to remain there. Because of his earlier academy experience, he was chosen to be Richmond’s first superintendent of schools when statewide public schools were mandated for whites and blacks for the first time in the 1870s. One of Richmond’s public schools was named the John B. Cary School.

After Cary retired in old age, he served as an administrator with the Virginia Department of Education until he died in 1898.

Among the many private schools which operated on the Peninsula before public schools began, John B. Cary’s Hampton Academy is the most celebrated.