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John Yeates’ 1700s Contributions to his Parish’s Church and to Education in the Eastern Nansemond Region



          John Yeates is often mentioned in Glebe Church history as a contributor to the 1738 Glebe Church with his donations of silver chalices for communion services, a pulpit cloth, a Bible and some theological works. (John Yeates Will and History of Nansemond County. Rev.Joseph B. Dunn)  However, little is known about the life of Yeates such as his birth and death dates and information about his immigration.  To avoid misunderstanding, his name is spelled both as Yeats and Yeates and is pronounced Yates.  Records reveal he owned land grants on the eastern side of the Nansemond River, primarily in the Pig Point region at the mouth of the Nansemond in the area where the Harbourview community now exists. 


          Yeates was known for his profound support of the local interests of the east side of the Nansemond River of the Lower Parish by resisting the dominant interests of the western Nansemond region, which was known for its larger and wealthier plantations.  He acted on these interests by supporting establishment of a brick church and the construction of two free schools which provided for education of colonists who had no other access to education.  His 1731 will assured those interests would be served following his death.


          Since education was his primary contribution to the parish, this article will discuss education in colonial Virginia and Yeates efforts to provide education for all citizens of the parish.




          Since most of the energy of the early Jamestown settlers was directed toward survival, there was little concern for how settlers and their descendants were to be educated.  Later in the early 18th century one man’s heroic efforts to make provisions for education in the Lower Parish of Nansemond County gives us  cause to think about education in the entire colony.  That man’s name was John Yeates and if his name brings a bell, it is because the Suffolk School System has a middle school named after him on Bennett’s Pasture Road.  Like Richard Bennett, John Yeates improved the lives of the settlers of the eastern Nansemond area  and the colony, but we often are hard pressed to recognize their contributions.


          Education in Colonial Virginia was considered to be primarily the responsibility of the parents or the master of an apprentice.  However, one exception that is repeatedly acted upon in the Laws of Colonial Virginia is the concern for who would educate orphans.  The major concern reflected in the laws of the colony was to assure children learned to read and write.  And, some colonial laws went so far as to propose penalties for custodians’ failures to teach children to read.


An act in 1705 has this provision: "And the master of every such orphan (bound apprentice) shall be obliged to teach him to read and write, and at the expiration of his servitude to pay and allow him in like manner as is appointed for servants by indenture or custom. And if it shall appear that any such apprentice be ill used by his master or that he fails to teach him his trade, the court shall have the power to remove him and to bind him to such other person as to them shall seem proper.” (Hening's Stats., I., 260, 416; II., 293; III., 375)


          One of the most profound Acts of the Colony expressing concern for education was enacted in 1725, as follows:

“XI. Be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That if it should happen, that the parent or parents of any child or children, upon due proof before the court of the county wherein such parent or parents inhabit, shall be adjudged incapable of supporting and bringing up such child or children, by reason of his, her, or their idle, dissolute, and disorderly course of life, or that they neglect to take due care of the education and instruction of such child or children, in christian participles, that then it shall and may be lawful, upon certificate from the said court, to and for the churchwardens of the said court, to and for the churchwardens of the said parish, where such child or children shall inhabit to bind out, or put out to service or apprentice, such child or children, for such time or term, and under such covenants, as hath been usual and customary, or the law directs in the case of orphan children.”   (W. W. Hening, Statutes at Large… XI (1711-1736), 212)


          Then in 1727, a Virginia law was passed that directly required parents to educate their children in reading and writing (W. W. Hening, Statutes at Large. XI (1711-1736), 212), which led to examples such as in York County and Bruton Parish where records reveal local authorities “binding out” children whose parents had neglected to educate them according to law.   When “bound out”, such children often entered an apprenticeship to learn a skill from an assigned master.


          Emphasis on education can be found in the colony’s main newspaper, Williamsburg’s Virginia Gazette, in the 1700s by the printing of advertisements for private schools, as well as, for plantations seeking a qualified schoolmaster.  Private schools were located in the schoolmaster’s home or a schoolhouse and the students were referred to as “scholars.”  Subjects taught, in addition to reading and writing, often included arts and languages (The Educational Opportunities of Children in Colonial Virginia. Pg 7).


          Early examples of educating children outside the home in Virginia were a few “free schools” who were endowed with private funds and were open "to the neediest children of the Parish who shall be offered reading, writing arithmetick” (Lyon G. Tyler, "Education in Colonial Virginia: Free Schools," (William and Mary Quarterly 1st ser. v. VI (1897), 79).  Such free schools became a major source of education in the Lower Parish of Nansemond County.





Figure  SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 2Figure 1. The sign reads….Before 1731 John Yeates established two free schools in this                  neighborhood, one on each side of Bennett’s                Creek.  By his will, September 18, 1731, he                left his property for the use of these schools.  They continued until 1861 and were sold in 1866 under an act of the legislature

          Parishes, the local governments and churches, were responsible for  administering colonial laws, but were variably concerned for assuring the provision of education. The church wardens of parishes were  primarily responsible for assuring children were being educated.  Vestry records, the official minutes of the parish meetings, were destroyed in fires in Nansemond County prior to 1749 and few references to education can be found in other historical references.  The 1749-1856 Vestry Records for the three parishes of the county can be found in the  Suffolk County Clerks office, but they reflect little concern for education.


          One man of above average means in Nansemond County, however, took it upon himself to provide for the education needs of children by building two schools, with the primary intention of providing education to children who wouldn’t have had access to education by other contemporary means.  He built a free school on each side of Bennett’s Creek, in the early 1700s to assure access throughout the Lower Parish of Nansemond County.  One school was placed on the West side of Bennett’s Creek between Driver and the Bennett’s Pasture Road, believed to be located on the site of Marie and Carla Jones’ home.   The other was located in Bellville, very close to Harbourview at the intersection of Harbourview Boulevard and Rt. 17 between Harbourview Boulevard and Sentara.


          The historical marker in Figure 1, located in Driver at the intersection of Routes 337 and 125, remembers the generosity of Yeates.  Not only did he build and support the operation of the the two schools, he made provisions in his will for ongoing support of their operations, including books for needy children.  The Free School located at Belleville was placed on a large Yeates landholding that eventually became the U.S. Ordinance Department at Pig Point, much of which is now occupied by the Harbourview community. (Letter from Rev. E. P. Miner, Rector of Glebe Church written on March 30, 1923 to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities)




          After the Revolution when education was still more accessible for the elites of society, Thomas Jefferson became a leading proponent for extending education to the non-elites.  Well known for his belief in devision of church and state, Jefferson proposed it should the responsibility of the states to educate their citizenry and thus to enable their capability in governmental



          Jefferson proposed the “More General Diffusion of Knowledge Bill” in the Virginia legislature in 1779 that outlined plans for educating children throughout Virginia and stressed academic excellence which was elevated in value over social standing and wealth.  And, of course, Jefferson went on to establish the University of Virginia.  The efforts of Jefferson in behalf of education for all are further expressed as a concern of the states by the 10th Amendment to the Constitution in 1791.


          We often take for granted the role formal education has played in our country’s successes.  The efforts of men such as John Yeates in various parishes of the Virginia Colony are not well remembered, but are deserving of mention in local histories.  We, in the Nansemond area, are fortunate that Yeates legacy continues to be acknowledged with his name on the John Yeates Middle School.  And, we at Glebe Church, are fortunate that Yeates contributions helped make it possible for our 1738 church to become a reality.  Although documentation regarding Yeates role in the formation of Glebe Church is sketchy, a future article will attempt to offer more detail in that regard.



* John Yeates Will, 1931

* History of Nansemond County. Rev. Joseph B. Dunn

* Hening’s Statutes., I., 260, 416; II., 293; III., 375

* W. W. Hening, Statutes at Large… XI (1711-1736), 212

* The Educational Opportunities of Children in Colonial Virginia. Pg 7

* Lyon G. Tyler, "Education in Colonial Virginia: Free Schools," (William and Mary Quarterly 1st ser. v. VI (1897), 79

* William and Mary Quarterly 1st ser. v. VI (1897), 79

* Letter from Rev. E. P. Miner, Rector of Glebe Church, written to the Association for the   Preservation of Virginia Antiquities on March 30, 1923.

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