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Locating Alexander Wilson's Bristol Township and theMilestown SchoolAuthor(s): Albert Filemyr, and Jeff HoltSource: The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 126(2):401-405. 2014.Published By: The Wilson Ornithological SocietyDOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1676/13-174.1URL: http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1676/13-174.1
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The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 126(2):401405, 2014
Locating Alexander Wilsons Bristol Township and the Milestown School
Albert Filemyr1 and Jeff Holt2,3
ABSTRACT.The correction of a long standingerror in what was thought to be the location of theMilestown School where Alexander Wilson, the Fatherof American Ornithology, taught from 1796 to 1801.Received 21 October 2013. Accepted 11 February 2014.
Key words: Alexander Wilson, Bristol Township,
Milestown, Milestown School, Wilson.
Two years after his arrival in the New World,
Alexander Wilson- not yet The Father of
American Ornithology - accepted a position as
teacher at the Milestown School in Pennsylvania.
Five years later, in 1801, Wilson moved to
Bloomfield, New Jersey, where he briefly taught
before assuming a new position at the Union School
at Grays Ferry, Philadelphia, in February 1802.
The history and circumstances of the schools in
Bloomfield and Grays Ferry are well known, but
the location of the Milestown School has consis-
tently been misidentified in the literature treating
Wilsons biography and movements in America.
In a recently published biography, AlexanderWilson: The Scot Who Founded American Orni-thology, the authors, Edward H. Burtt, Jr. andWilliam E. Davis, Jr., write: ..in 1796,settled about 20 miles northwest of Philadelphiain Milestown where he taught school until July1801. (Burtt and Davis 2013:27). The source ofthe statement in the Burtt/Davis book may havecome from two previously published books onWilson. In the 1961 book written by RobertCantwell titled Alexander Wilson: Naturalist andPioneer, A Biography, he wrote that Milestownwas within the limits of Bristol Township, nineteenmiles from the center of Philadelphia. The OldYork Road, to Trenton and on to New York, ranthrough Bristol, which stood on the DelawareRiver;Just inside the Bristol limits was Bark-hams Lane, and Wilsons schoolyard beyond it.(Cantwell 1961:89). Thereafter, Clark Hunter in his1983 book, The Life and Letters of AlexanderWilson, wrote the school at Milestown, some20 miles from Philadelphia, more or less on theroad to Trenton and New York (Hunter 1983:65).Based on these references, our initial search for theschool in Milestown started in Bristol Township,Bucks County, Pennsylvania which is along the3 Corresponding author; e-mail: email@example.com
2 1215 Taft Avenue, Woodbury, NJ 08096, USA.
1 1314 Lenore Road, Meadowbrook, PA 19046, USA.
SHORT COMMUNICATIONS 401
Delaware River about 18 miles from Center City
Philadelphia. Research into the history of this Bristol
Township failed to uncover any mention of a
Milestown or a school associated with that town.
This was our first indication that Cantwell and others
may have gotten the location of Milestown wrong.
Additional comments made by Cantwell also
suggest that the search might need to begin
elsewhere. Cantwell notes that during his tenure
at Milestown, Wilson bought a horse and began
making trips into Bucks County north of Miles-
town (Cantwell 1961:100). While not disposi-
tive, this statement nevertheless suggested that if
Milestown was actually located in todays Bristol
Township, then Wilson was already living in
Bucks County and thus, would not be making trips
into Bucks County.
Further evidence to suggest that the location of
Milestown is not in Bristol Township, Bucks
County can be found in a letter dated August 22,
1798 from Wilson to his father in Scotland and re-
printed in volume one of the 1876 two volume set of
books titled The Poems and Literary Prose of
Alexander Wilson. In that letter, Wilson indicates
that the letter was written from Milestown, Bristol
Township, Philadelphia County (Grosart
1876:63). Certainly, Wilson himself must have
known where he was living. Thus three questions.
Was there a Bristol Township located within the
geographic boundary of Philadelphia County? If so,
was there a Milestown in that Bristol Township?
And further, was there a school in that community?
The answers to these three questions are yes. There
was a Bristol Township within Philadelphia County
(Fig. 1), there was a Milestown in that township
(Fig. 3), and there was a school in Milestown
(Fig. 2). In fact there is still a school on the general
site of the Milestown School. (Fig. 3)
Milestown (or Miles Town) can date its history
to 1695 when Griffith Miles acquired 250 acres of
FIG. 1. This detail from the 1808 map by John Hills (surveyed 18011807) titled Plan of the City of Philadelphia and
Environs clearly shows Bristol Township located in Philadelphia County. This area is now within the present day
boundary of the City of Philadelphia. (From the collection of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia PA. Used
with permission. Hills 1808).
402 THE WILSON JOURNAL OF ORNITHOLOGY N Vol. 126, No. 2, June 2014
land and built a cabin where the intersection of
Haines Street and Old York Road now exists in the
Oak Lane section of Philadelphia (Mears 1890).
This is 7.5 miles north of center city Philadelphia
(Fig. 4). Shortly thereafter, other Welsh families
settled in the area and it became known as
Milestown. This geographic area of Philadelphia
County was then known as Bristol Township
In 1745, a one-story school house was built in
Milestown. The authors, and previous researchers,
have been unable to locate any records of this
school prior to 1761. In 1761, Joseph Armitage,
who owned the school building and the land it was
on, gave the building and a quarter acre of land,
located within one square of York Road to a
group of citizens to act as trustees of the land
and the school (Mears 1890:52). The school was
called the Milestown (and occasionally Armitage)
School (Fig. 2).
In 1791, trustees of the school agreed that the
school house could also be used as a house of
worship. Two local congregations shared space in
alternating Sunday afternoons. This decision is of
interest to students of ornithology as John Bach-
man, while studying for the ministry, taught at the
Milestown School a few year