The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2000

Home Index Museums Blog Authors Site Map About


A Powerful Influence in Disseminating Knowledge

Lydia Philadelphia Mott

and the Friends Female Boarding-School
in Skaneateles, New York


Jana A. Bouma

In an 1821 advertisement for the Friends Female Boarding-School at Skaneateles, Lydia Mott described the courses of study and associated charges at her school:

For board, tuition, washing, plain needlework, arithmetic & English grammar $24 per quarter. Geography with the use of the globes; history, rhetoric, logic, book keeping, natural philosophy & mathematics, each $1 - French or Latin $5 per quarter. Use of books and maps $1 - Lodging 9¢ per week. 1

At a time when many American families still thought of formal education as a luxury to be reserved for their sons, Lydia Philadelphia Stansbury Mott had come in 1819 to join the small Quaker community that had settled in Skaneateles and to establish what one historian has called the first school for girls in western New York. She had already faced more than her share of the bereavements that characterized many nineteenth-century Americans' lives. Despite the death of her husband and the loss of three of her four children, Mott sustained a life of professional accomplishment and active benevolence. Having launched several schools, she brought the Friends' progressive educational principles to Skaneateles and became a permanent and respected member of the community

On February 23, 1775, in Philadelphia, Joseph Stansbury, a prosperous and well-connected importer, and his wife, Sarah Ogier Stansbury, welcomed their fifth child. Having come to Philadelphia from England in 1767, they named their daughter Lydia Philadelphia Stansbury, in honor of their new home. (Lydia's sister Matilda bore the middle name "Americana.")

Soon after Lydia's birth, the Revolutionary War brought hard times to the Stansbury family. Joseph, a loyalist, openly expressed his outrage at the rebellion. After Joseph had been twice imprisoned, the Stansburys were forced to flee Philadelphia. (One source reports that "Lydia, then three years old, always remembered her terror when the soldiers searched the house for [Joseph] after his flight, thrusting bayonets into beds to discover whether he was hid there."2 Lydia, her mother and her siblings spent much of the war separated from her father. Joseph attempted to return to Philadelphia in 1783, but was again taken into custody and expelled from Pennsylvania. After the end of the war, the family did eventually return to Philadelphia, but they long remained in precarious circumstances. In 1793, the Stansburys finally achieved financial security. They moved to New York, where Joseph served as secretary of the United Insurance Company.

After growing up amidst the uncertainties of war, Lydia Stansbury, at the age of 15, was sent to study at the Moravian boarding school at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. One anecdote survives of her experiences there. In March of 1792, her school was visited by fifty-one members of the Iroquois Confederacy on their way to Philadelphia in the company of the Rev. Samuel Kirkland. In preparation for a ceremony conducted by the Moravian bishop in honor of the visitors, Lydia Stansbury wrote a greeting. A classmate read Lydia's composition before an assembly of the Iroquois delegation and the townspeople of Bethlehem. This encounter, in which the students were impressed by the bearing and manners of the Native American visitors, may have contributed to Lydia Stansbury's later involvement in Indian rights issues.

By the time Robert Mott and Lydia Stansbury began their courtship, Lydia had grown into an accomplished and graceful young woman. Her fiance, the son of prosperous New York flour merchant James Mott, quickly gained the approbation of Lydia's friends and family.3 For Robert's family, however, Robert's attachment to the daughter of a worldly Episcopalian family brought great distress. Robert's father, James Mott, a liberal-minded but devout Quaker, treasured the austere, simple Quaker life-style. What's more, he knew that Robert's decision to marry a non-Quaker would result in Robert's expulsion from the Society of Friends. "[I]f thou art fully determined to leave the Society in thy marriage," James Mott reluctantly wrote to his son,

which thou knows how painful it is to me, and the reason why it is so, yet, as I said, if thou art determined, let it be accomplished in a way as little objectionable as may be, and with as little parade, avoiding all those customs thou knows I have an objection to, lest thou add afflictions to the trials of
thy affectionate father,
James Mott 4

Robert and Lydia married in July of 1795. As it turned out, Lydia Philadelphia Stansbury Mott quickly allayed her father-in-law's forebodings. Soon after her marriage, Lydia accepted James Mott's religious principles, and she came to share his interest in education and Indian rights. She sought membership in the Society of Friends, and her husband followed her back into membership. Lydia Mott became a beloved daughter-in-law to James Mott.

Lydia and Robert soon became active members of New York's Quaker community. Robert Mott worked as a flour merchant and inspector. Within eight years, Lydia gave birth to four children: Edward, Arthur, Alfred, and Jennett. Meanwhile Lydia, as a member of the Association of Women Friends for the Relief of the Poor, began her long career in activism and education.

In the era before public education, many of New York's poor children, especially immigrant children, received little or no schooling. In 1801, Lydia and other members of the Association of Women Friends opened a school admitting those children who had no educational resources, "those whose parents belong to no religious society, and who, from some cause or other, cannot be admitted to any charity schools of this city."5 The school would be the first free, non-sectarian school in New York City. In the years that followed, the Association organized additional schools, eventually in cooperation with the city's free school system.

For several years, Robert and Lydia Mott and their four children experienced the usual joys and disappointments of a respectable New York Quaker family. Then, one of the nineteenth century's most dreaded invaders entered the household: Robert Mott developed tuberculosis. In 1805, after not quite ten years of marriage, Robert died, leaving Lydia a widow. Lydia's four children ranged in age from two to about nine years.

After the loss of her husband, Lydia may have received some financial support from her affectionate father-in-law, but Robert's death probably compelled her to seek a means of support for herself and her children. At a time when few women had received more than a rudimentary education, and when all middle-class women were expected exclusively to fulfill the roles of wife and mother, Mott was fortunate to be qualified for one of the few careers open to a respectable woman: teaching.

By 1809, Mott operated a boarding school in Mamaroneck, New York, where James Mott had purchased a farm. Lydia Mott's niece, Caroline Stansbury, at the age of eight was learning French at her aunt's school. A note from Lydia Mott to Caroline's parents gives a sense of Lydia Mott's concern for her young charges:

I hope the ease and confidence my dear Brother and Sister felt in placing their treasure with us does not lessen, & also hope it will not be disappointed, it is no trifling one for we are of the opinion it may be called a double one, when compared to the general run of our scholars as we think she has about twice as much in her as any we have got & needs about double the care, she is indeed as S. S. says, "no common child." I am glad to find I have an ascendancy over her.6

Mott had accurately assessed her niece's potential. Caroline Stansbury would grow up to be Caroline M. Kirkland, a noted teacher, an activist in prison reform, and a best-selling author whose most well-known book, A New Home, Who'll Follow or, Glimpses of Western Life, based on Kirkland's experiences on the Michigan frontier, is once again in print. (Between 1828 and 1835, Caroline Kirkland and her husband, William, operated the Domestic School for boys in Geneva.)

One source suggests that some time after 1809, Lydia Mott and her father-in-law moved back to New York City, where Lydia operated another school for James Mott's grandchildren. By 1811, Lydia was teaching at Nine Partners Boarding School, operated by the Society of Friends in Millbrook, New York. In 1812, under principal James Mott, the school boasted 140 students equally divided between boys and girls.7 Several years later, Lydia Mott may have established another school near New Hartford, in Oneida County, New York.

Along with teaching, Lydia Mott had assumed a leadership role in the Society of Friends. Because the Quaker church expected its members, women as well as men, to follow their inner promptings in service to God, Quaker women were more likely than many other nineteenth-century women to enter the public realm as local and traveling preachers, or as members of church administrative bodies. In 1810 and 1811, Mott stayed with her brother, Samuel Stansbury, while participating in the Friends' state governing body, the New York Yearly Meeting. Committee meetings were even conducted at Samuel Stansbury's house.Lydia Mott's brother Samuel Stansbury gives hints of his sister's willingness to speak out on issues of conscience, and of her energetic and determined nature. Samuel describes lively discussions between Lydia and her brother Arthur Stansbury, a Presbyterian minister: "Lydia & [Arthur] have [had] a few theological brushes but all as Friends say in the meekness, I say energetic meekness…" In another instance, during the New York Yearly Meeting, Samuel notes that although Mott is "down with the fever & ague & very miserable indeed, she wont give up to nurse it but drives about preparing for 9 Partners…" (Mott was preparing to teach at Nine Partners Boarding School.)8

Mott carried out her teaching and church-related duties despite mounting bereavements. Less than two years after Robert Mott's death, Lydia's three-year-old daughter, Jennett, fell from a chair and injured her back. The initial weakness and pain, exacerbated by the wracking onset of whooping cough, developed into a painful, crippling disability. "Jennett yet alive," her uncle Samuel Stansbury reported in 1810.9 But in February 1812, Jennett Mott died at the age of eight. Her brother Edward died two years later, and her brother Alfred died in 1816. Twenty-one years after her marriage to Robert Mott, Lydia had lost her husband and three of her four children. Only her son Arthur, age 17, survived.

By 1818, Skaneateles included a small meeting of Friends. Perhaps that group, seeing a need to educate their own daughters and other girls in the area, called upon Lydia Mott to bring her teaching expertise to their corner of western New York. Or perhaps Lydia had felt the inner call that prompted many Friends to travel and preach in distant communities. However Mott came to be in Skaneateles, by 1819 she had established the Friends Female Boarding-School, more familiarly known as "The Hive," described by one historian as "the earliest institution of learning for the education of young ladies in Western New York," where it exerted "a powerful influence in disseminating knowledge."10

In 1820, about forty students boarded and studied at the Friends Female Boarding-School. In addition to the daughters of local Quaker families, Mott's students included many non-Quakers, many drawn from throughout Oneida County. (Mott had resided at New Hartford in Oneida County before coming to Skaneateles.) Mott and her assistants offered training in "plain needlework, arithmetic & English grammar,…geography,…history, rhetoric, logic, book keeping, natural philosophy & mathematics,…French or Latin." In a reminiscence, one of Mott's pupils has these memories of the school in 1820:

There were at that time forty scholars, and we slept in one large room, which was immediately over the schoolroom, which was heated in winter time by the stove-pipe of the large wood-stove below. In our sleeping-room there were twenty beds, and there was but one washstand and one looking-glass. We made our own beds, as was the universal custom in country boarding-schools. Our sleeping-apartment was generally uncomfortably cold mornings, as the fire in the wood-stove usually went out very soon after we had retired. The table fare was rather indifferent. Our standard dish was salt codfish, variegated at times with salt pork, potatoes, with plenty of good bread and butter, and once a week we were regaled with mush and molasses. Still we learned a great deal and enjoyed our school-life very much. Mr. [Caleb] Makeel [an instructor] was a bachelor, who was very fond of visiting, so that we had many pleasant rides with him in winter and summer…
The meetings of the Society of Friends always occurred on Thursday morning of each week, and we girls were all obliged to be present, but on Sundays we were allowed to attend the Episcopal services in the village church…
Mrs. Mott was widely known as a prominent preacher or speaker in the Society of Friends. She always attended the regular quarterly meetings of the Society, which were held at Scipio, and her preaching to those assemblages was received with great acceptance. All the scholars were very fond of her, and always on her return home we were eager to welcome her, and, like all schoolgirls, each one rushed forward to obtain the first kiss…
One day I undertook to decorate myself by curling my hair, and accordingly began by carefully constructing two large "finger-curls," one on each side of my forehead, securing them with pins. I ran down-stairs from the dressing-room to meet Mrs. Mott as she came in, when, taking my face between her hands, she exclaimed, "Why, Debby, has thee got horns growing?" I never see a curl to this day that I do not recall her words and my mortification.11

Mott operated the Friends Female Boarding-School for only a few years. By 1823, she had sold the school to her assistant, Caleb Makeel. She remained in Skaneateles, however, and she continued her involvement with the school's students. A friend of Mott wrote,

The little cottage where she lived, nearly opposite the Friends' meeting-house, was then a lovely place, with its porches covered with fragrant honeysuckles, and two sides of the house surrounded by a flower garden. Mrs. Mott was a prominent speaker in the meeting-house close by… Mrs. Mott, even after she gave up control of the school, retained her interest in behalf of the children. She would have the scholars learn pieces of poetry to recite, and on one afternoon in each week the little girls were taught to make samplers, needle-books, pincushions, etc., and [Mott] would endeavor in every manner to make the children interested in their school.12

One resident of Skaneateles had these impressions of Lydia Mott: "I remember [Mott] well, always seeing her at the lectures in the Congregational Hall in the village. I liked to sit next to her. I found her very entertaining and lovely in her ways of speaking, and her intelligence on all educational and other subjects was very pleasing."13

Little is known of Mott's activities in Skaneateles after she gave up her school. In later years, she left Skaneateles briefly, moving to Cincinnati, Ohio. But she later returned to Skaneateles, living in what was long known as the Mott cottage, on a hill in the village. Her son Arthur, who never married, became a respected businessman in the area, successful as a manufacturer in the town named for him, Mottville. In his last years, however, he suffered reverses and succumbed to alcoholism. He died of a stroke in Toledo, Ohio, in 1869.

Lydia Mott spent her last years in Skaneateles. She suffered a long illness, during which she was attended by her son and neighbors. She died on 15 April 1862, at the age of eighty-seven. An obituary in the Friends' Intelligencer gave this summary of Mott's life and character:

Lydia P. Mott,…a minister in the Society of Friends for more than 50 years.
She was an example of plainness and simplicity; and the subject of the best education of woman occupied much of her time and thoughts. The wrongs and injuries of the poor Indian claimed her sympathy and care. For the imbruted slave she was an earnest advocate, the latest effort of her pen, only a few months since, being an encouragement to those who were laboring to effect his emancipation. She bore the vicissitudes of her changeful life with an uncomplaining spirit, in the fulness of faith that goodness and mercy would continue to follow her all her days, and her end was signally marked with peace.14

Lydia Mott is buried with her sister, Mary Stansbury, in the North Street Cemetery in Auburn, New York.

© 2000, Jana A. Bouma
Issue #23, February, 1990, of the CLR carried "Caroline Kirkland and her book A New Home" and "The Kirkland's School in Geneva." The John Nerber edition of A New Home appeared in issues 1-8, 10-22, 23-49. "A Fond Farewell to Caroline Kirkland" is also in CLR #49.


1.Transcript of advertising card accompanying a letter from Lydia P. Mott to Benedict Robinson, 19 August 1821, Skaneateles Historical Society.

2.Thomas C. Cornell, Adam and Anne Mott: Their Ancestors and Descendants (Poughkeepsie. A. V. Haight, 1890), 56. Lydia Philadelphia Mott is not to be confused with anti-slavery and women's rights advocate Lydia Mott (1793 - 1880), friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Lydia's father-in-law, James Mott (1743 - 1823) is not to be confused with his grandson James Mott (1788 - 1868), husband of Lucretia Coffin Mott. A copy of the Mott genealogy is in the Quaker Collection at the Haverford College Library. Information about Lydia Stansbury Mott's life is taken from the Mott genealogy, from the letters of Samuel Stansbury in the Hill-Kirkland Papers, Chicago Historical Society, from Frederick Howard Wines, The Descendants of John Stansbury of Leominster (Springfield: The H. W. Rokker Printing House, 1895), from Langley Carlton Keyes, "Caroline M. Kirkland: A Pioneer in American Realism" (dissertation, Harvard University, 1935), 93 -96, and from Edmund Norman Leslie, Skaneateles: History of Its Earliest Settlement and Reminiscences of Later Times (New York: Press of Andrew Kellogg, 1902).

3.Samuel Stansbury to Sarah Stansbury, 8/23/1895, Hill-Kirkland Papers, Chicago Historical Society.

4.Quoted in Cornell, Adam and Anne Mott, 57.

5.Minutes of the Association of Women Friends for the Relief of the Poor, quoted in William H. S. Wood, Friends of the City of New York in the Nineteenth Century (New York: privately printed, 1904), 29.

6.Note by Lydia P. Mott, appended to a letter from Caroline Stansbury to Samuel Stansbury, 26 July 1809, Hill-Kirkland Papers, Chicago Historical Society.

7.Hugh Barbour, et al, Quaker Crosscurrents: Three Hundred Years of Friends in the New York Yearly Meetings (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 150 - 151.

8.Samuel Stansbury to Sarah Stansbury, 4 June 1810 and 4 June 1811, Hill-Kirkland Papers, Chicago Historical Society.

9.Samuel Stansbury to Sarah Stansbury, 22 October 1810, Hill-Kirkland Papers, Chicago Historical Society.

10. Dwight H. Bruce, ed., Onondaga's Centennial: Gleanings of a Century (Boston: Boston Historical Company, 1896), 993-994.

11. Leslie, Skaneateles, 235 - 6.

12. Leslie, Skaneateles, 234 - 5.

13. Leslie, Skaneateles, 246.

14. Obituary, Friends' Intelligencer 19 (1862): 121. A copy of this notice resides in the Quaker Collection at Haverford College Library.

CLR Blog | Site Map | Contact CLR