The Seminar in the heart of nature: a first school for women | News, Sports, Jobs
In 1805, a Quaker couple, John Norris (1768-1849) and his wife, Beulah Jackson Norris (1793-1869), settled in the desert of Pine Township, in the far north of Lycoming County, and founded a boarding school for girls. .
Originally called Norris Seminary, it soon became known as Seminary in the Wilderness. Teenage girls from Williamsport, Montoursville, Jersey Shore, and other settlements along the Susquehanna made the trip to attend school, the only place in northern Pennsylvania where young women could continue their education at the time.
(The word seminary can designate an institution for the training of candidates for the priesthood, the ministry or the rabbinate, but also simply, as in this case, an institution of secondary or higher education.)
National road of 1799
The school was on the new national highway opened in 1799 and connecting Newberry to Painted Post, New York. John Norris and his wife had purchased land in Pine Township in 1800, just after the road opened. John Norris was born in England and educated at Oxford University. Beulah Norris was from Philadelphia. John was a land agent for a Philadelphia man, Benjamin Wister Morris, and together they promoted development in the area.
The school was in the hamlet of Texas, which no longer exists as a town, but would be about 45 minutes northwest of Williamsport on today’s roads, not far from the towns of Navroo and Morris , and Texas and Blockhouse Fish and Game Club.
One can only wonder what the journey took those years – perhaps on a plank road or a narrow dirt road – in a horse and cart. There was no public transport on the road until 1819.
Two story house
The Norrises had a two-story frame house, divided into four square rooms on the first floor and a living space on the second floor. A two-story house was relatively unique for its time in County Lycoming. The Norris and boarders remained in the house.
Together, the couple administered the school and taught its classes. The school was established solely for the purpose of educating young women and was very successful. It was a bold undertaking for the time. According to John Meginness in the “Lycoming County History” (1892), “Some of the best young girls of that time were educated in the seminary of the desert.” He mentions Ann and Hannah Blackwell, Maria Davidson, Jane Morrison, Priscilla Morrison and Elizabeth Porter. One of the school’s aims was to help young women find good husbands, and in this it seems to have succeeded.
Sarah Burrows Coryell
One of the Seminary’s students, Sarah Burrows (1793-1869), married Tunison Coryell (1791-1881), who began his career as a clerk to Sarah’s father, and later became a wealthy man. “closely identified with the progress and development of Lycoming County for over half a century”, according to Meginness.
Sarah’s parents were General John Burrows, the founder of Montoursville, and his wife, Jane Torbert Burrows. General Burrows had spent the winter with General George Washington at Valley Forge, but that did not put him on the path to success. After trying and failing in several business ventures, he “disposed of his tools and he took his wife and five children (one at the breast), and a bound boy, and departed for Muncy”, where they moved “a log cabin about sixteen square feet with another family of six children,” according to his autobiography.
Sarah Burrows was that baby at the breast. His mother, Jane, died in 1804, when she was 10 years old. The family moved from place to place in the Muncy Valley until 1812 when General Burrows purchased the land which became Montoursville. There were few educational opportunities for Sarah.
Marriage to Coryell
After her marriage, Sarah and her husband moved into their new home on what was then Front Street, near the river at the foot of Pine Street in Williamsport. They celebrated their golden wedding anniversary at the same house, and Sarah died there in 1869. A Muncy Luminary writer commented at the time of her death:
“What changes have taken place in these fifty years. The rural village of a few hundred inhabitants in 1819, installed in the middle of the trees, with only here and there a heap of shops to house people with their supplies of haberdashery, groceries, etc., is today  an inner city with its thousands of people struggling for life, wealth and position.
Coryell died in this same house 12 years later in 1881. Among their many descendants is William Gibson, president of the Lycoming County Genealogical Society.
Another Seminary student was Elizabeth Ross (1790-1828). She was the eldest daughter of Williamsport founder Michael Ross and his wife, Ann Corsen. She was born just five years after Lycoming County was created.
In 1800, when Elizabeth was 10, Williamsport had a population of 131 and no school buildings. The Ross family has moved into an abandoned cabin.
She would have been 15 or 16 when she attended Seminary in the Wilderness. In the collection of the Lycoming County Historical Society are books and diaries that belonged to the Ross family, including a hand-sewn booklet of writing exercises completed and signed by Elizabeth.
Marriage with Vanderbelt
She was 19 when she married Peter Wykoff Vanderbelt (1786-1871). He belonged to one of the wealthiest families in Williamsport. The Vanderbelts lived on the eastern border of Williamsport on Vanderbelt Street, now called Penn Street.
They had three children, Ann, Mary and William. Mary married William Packer, the 14th Governor of Pennsylvania. Elizabeth Ross died in 1828 at the age of 38. The following year Peter married Elizabeth Grafius.
After about a decade, John and Beulah Norris closed Seminary in the Wilderness and moved to Wellsboro. They are buried in Wellsboro Cemetery with their daughter Cornelia (1807-1826).
The building that housed the seminary has now disappeared and only a few foundation stones remain. According to Harry Stephenson Sr., author of “History of the Little Valley of Pines” (Camp Hill, PA, 1992) only a few local residents know where the seminary once stood.
Sieminski is the former director of the Madigan Library at Penn College. Hurlbert is Emeritus Professor of Library Services at Lycoming College. Sieminski and Hurlbert are the founders of the Lycoming County Women’s History Project (www.lycominng.edu/lcwhp). Their column is published monthly and they can be reached at [email protected]