Thursday, March 25, 2010

Adams Female Academy, 1824, Derry, New Hampshire

As I blogged about last fall, Jacob Adams bequeathed $4,000 to start a school for girls in Derry in 1824 “to be located within one hundred rods of the East Parish meeting house in Londonderry.” It was one of the first all female schools in New England. The first principal of the school was Zilpah Banister, and Mary Lyon was her assistant. Students came from all over New England, and there were over 100 girls attending. At the 50th anniversary of the school in 1873, Mrs. Bannister attended for the first time since leaving the school forty seven years earlier. Former students include Ellen Louisa Tucker, the first wife of Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as other daughters of prominent New England families.

In 1886 the Adams Female Academy merged with Pinkerton Academy, and became a co-education institution. The Adams School became a public elementary school, and astronaut Alan Shepard was a student in the early 20th century. Pinkerton Academy is a private school dating from 1814, and it is still operating as the public high school for the towns of Derry, Hampstead and Chester. It operated as a boarding school until 1948. Because of its tuition agreement contracts with several towns it is now the largest independent academy in the United States, serving over 3,400 students.

The Adams Female Academy building still stands in East Derry, New Hampshire. It is well known for its Rufus Porter Murals, which were discovered recently, removed and auctioned in 2007. The murals were removed in thirteen panels and sold in two lots. The house is now privately owned, and it is not open for tours.

Zilpah P. Grant Banister (1794- 1874) was educated at the Byfield Female Seminary in Massachusetts, and she taught at several schools until arriving at Derry in 1824 as the founding principal of the Adams Female Academy. In 1828 she was asked to form a new Female Seminary at Ipswich, Massachusetts, where she remained until she retired in 1839. In 1841 she married William B. Banister. She spent the rest of her life in Newburyport, Massachusetts but was an active promoter of women’s education.

Mary Lyon (1797- 1849), was educated at the Sanderson Academy and also at the Byfield Female Seminary, where she met Zilpah Grant and became her assistant at Derry and at Ipswich. She established the Wheaton Female Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts, which is now Wheaton College. Two years, in 1837, and later she established the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which is now Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, famous as one of the “Seven Sisters” to the Ivy League Colleges. She was the first president of Mount Holyoke for twelve years. It is the oldest woman’s college in the United States which was established from its inception as a woman’s college!

The records of the Adams Academy are now kept at the Mount Holyoke College Archives in South Hadley, Massachusetts under the call letters of MS 0503 in the Manuscript Collection. They include catalogues of teachers and students, minutes from trustee meetings, student compositions, and photographs. Zilpah Banister’s papers are also at the Mount Holyoke Archives under the call letters MS 0506. Mary Lyon’s papers are also at Mount Holyoke, including over 27 feet of her own letters and papers, family papers, portraits, and other material written about her life under the call number MS 0500.

My previous blog posts about Adams Female Academy:

January 13, 2010 Lafayette Visits Derry, New Hampshire
The story of General Lafayette's visit to Derry in 1824 and his stop at the Adams Female Academy.

November 2, 2009 Mill Girls from Derry and Londonderry
The story of Eliza Adams, one of Mary Lyons’ Derry students

For more information:
A biography of Mary Lyon from the Mount Holyoke College Website

Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Interesting I was trying to find info on Windemere where my mom Evelyn Stevenson worked & lived in the 30's & was having no luck so their Flyer for house mentions the Adams school adjoins the property.
    Would picture of house be useful or flyer ??
    Joan Murphy Balue >

    1. I've never heard of Windemere in Derry, NH. Perhaps Rick Holmes, the Derry town historian, would be able to help you?

    2. Nice information! I am researching the Adams Female Academy for a "Shout Out" by the Center for Painted Wall Preservation about the Rufus Porter murals which have been donated to the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, VT., another fascinating Academy building.

  2. I have a picture of a student that graduated from the seminary. The name of the student is Blanche Ethel currier.