Syms Free School Site

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[top] History

The Syms School was established in 1634. The first free public school in America, it predates John Harvard's bequest of his estate to the college near Boston. Benjamin Syms, by his will dated February 12, 1634, gave two hundred acres on the Poquoson, a small river which enters the Chesapeake Bay, a mile or less below the mouth of York river, with the milk and increase of eight cows for the education and instruction of the children of the adjoining parishes of Elizabeth City and Kiquotan, “from Mary’s Mount downward to the Poquoson river.” The money arising from the first increase of the cattle was to be used to build a school-house, and the profits from the subsequent sales of cattle to support the poor scholars.

In 1642, the Virginia Assembly sanctioned the will with: “Be it enacted and confirmed, upon consideration had of the godly disposition and good intent of Benjamin Syms deceased, in founding by his last will and testament a free school in Elizabeth county, for the encouragement of all others in like pious performances, that the said will and testament with all donations therein contained concerning the free school and the situation thereof in the said county, and the land appertaining to the same, shall be confirmed according to the godly intent of the said testator, without any alienation or conversion thereof to any place or county.” A few years later, there is written documentation that the school-house had been erected.

Syms school was combined with the Thomas Eaton Charity School, founded in 1659, in 1803. The Eaton school was on the Back River, a few miles below the mouth of the Poquoson River. The combined school was moved to Hampton sometime between 1803 and 1805.

The school became the Hampton Academy in 1845 and made into a 'district school' by the school commissioners in 1855. High school classes were introduced in 1887 and its first commencement was held in 1896 with the graduation of two students. Hampton High separated from the Academy in 1921 to devote itself exclusively to the education of high school grades. The trust fund created by Syms and Eaton has remained intact since the 17th century.

See the Plantations Timeline.

[top] Photos

1976 Bicentennial Marker1976 Historic MarkerSyms-Eaton School

[top] Documents

Education in Colonial Virginia, William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, 1897

Hampton High School History

George, James M.: Benjamin Syms and the Syms Free School

1791-08-26 Trustees Syms's School vs. G. W. Sweney

1805 Survey Plat

1808 Deed of 50 acres from Moore to Hampton Academy

1809 Deed for Sale of School Land to Hudgins

1809 Typed Transcript of Deed for Sale of School Land to Hudgins

1816 Deed Hampton Academy to Vaughn

1860 Massenburg & Cary v. Vaughn

1866 Settlement of Vaughn Estate

1874 Deed Chiles to Shelton

1878 Deed Carpenter Tract

1881 Deed Carpenter to Collier

1881 Deed Custis to Tabb

1892 Will of Elizabeth Chiles

1902 Syms-Eaton Museum Horn Book Series

1922 The Schools of Syms and Eaton

1940 W+M Quarterly - The Syms Eaton Schools and Their Successor (JSTOR login required)

1941 Portion of the Collier Estate

1950 Masters Thesis by Ethel Garber: The First Free School

1975 Phone Call to Hampton School Admin

1976 Vaughn Letter to Watson

Langley Field Tract Map

Map Drawing Bequethed Land

Map of Land Bequethed by Syms for Free School 1805 Survey

Timeline for Carpenter Tract

Timeline for School Neck

Words on Plaques in Syms-Eaton

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