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Our Rich History: James Taylor V and the first public school in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region

Part 4 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020”

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to the NKyTribune

After the creation of Campbell County, Kentucky in 1795, a rivalry ensued between James Taylor V and John Grant, another early resident of the area, for the prize of securing the county seat for their respective towns. Taylor lobbied on behalf of Newport, while Grant advocated for Wilmington.

Free School, Newport, Kentucky. Source: Ballou’s Pictorial, December 20, 1856, p. 392.

The latter town, situated on the lands of John Grant, had been established by an act of the Kentucky General Assembly on December 7, 1793. Consisting of one hundred lots, it lay along the western shore of the Licking River in present-day Kenton County. The original site of Wilmington, north of current Morning View, Kentucky, has long since disappeared beneath a farmer’s field.

Grant’s initial efforts proved fruitful, for it was at his home in Wilmington, on Monday, June 1, 1795, that the first official meeting of the county court (that is, the governing body) of Campbell County took place, in accordance with the provisions of the act establishing the county. The assembled members elected James Taylor as County Clerk, and then voted to establish Newport as the new county seat. Taylor, in turn, offered the justices of the court free use of the public square of Newport, as set aside for such purposes in the original town plat.

Undaunted, Grant persevered in his attempts to procure the county seat for Wilmington. He renewed his efforts to sway the court in October 1795, but failed in the attempt. Then, in November 1795, to his dismay, the justices of the county court made provisions for the construction of a two-story stone jail at Newport, funded by voluntary subscriptions of money offered earlier that May by eight enterprising citizens. This freewill contribution, of course, rested upon the stipulation that the county seat be fixed at Newport.

The following month, the plans for the jail were scaled down to a temporary log structure. Nonetheless, buoyed by his success at acquiring the county seat, Taylor opened, in August 1795, the sale of a number of lots in Newport. His description of the town displayed his own urban boosterism: “The Ohio and Licking binding two sides of this town, makes its situation equal to any in this state; to which may be added the advantages of the permanent seat of justice for Campbell county.” (Richard H. Collins, History of Kentucky, 2 vols. Covington, KY: 1874, Vol. 2: p. 112).

The question of a county seat, nevertheless, remained unresolved for a number of years. Indeed, in February 1796 the justices considered the issue again, voting five to four in favor of locating the public buildings at Newport, rather than at Wilmington (another justice registered a single vote in favor of choosing a more central location).

In November 1796, disheartened but not defeated, Grant questioned the court’s legality in choosing Newport. Taylor, meanwhile, prepared for a political siege. According to his expense account, James traveled to Frankfort and spent “Three weeks to prevent the Seat of Justice” from being moved from Newport. (Facsimile of Taylor’s expense record, as reproduced in E. C. Perkins, The Borning of a Town: Newport, “Cantuckee.” Ft. Thomas, KY, 1963, p. 14).

Taylor’s lobbying proved successful, for the Kentucky General Assembly, by act of December 14, 1796, confirmed the selection of Newport. Not content with the decision, Grant apparently held a rump county court at his home in Wilmington for some time thereafter. In the interim, Taylor and others contributed money to the building of a courthouse and jail at Newport.

Surprisingly, the county seat issue remained unsettled as late as 1801, when the Kentucky General Assembly passed an act appointing six commissioners to decide upon a permanent location for Campbell’s county seat. The commissioners deliberated on the matter, and in April 1802, ruled in favor of Newport.

James Taylor labored assiduously to promote the development of his family’s property. Of profound importance to Taylor’s growing prominence was his marriage, in 1795, to the widow of Major David Leitch (1755-1794), a pioneer resident of Campbell County who owned 13,800 acres of land along the Licking River.

As an executor of Leitch’s estate, Taylor became increasingly acquainted with Mrs. Leitch. Recalled some years later by Taylor, he “proposed to take charge of her person as well as of her estate, to which she consented, and on the 15th of November 1795, we became man and wife.” (Dickoré ed., General James Taylor’s Narrative, p. 25). Soon after his marriage to the widow Leitch, Taylor secured the passage of an act by the Kentucky General Assembly, on December 14, 1795, which officially established Newport as a town.

Taylor’s efforts to promote Newport remained the mainstay of his ambitions, and throughout his life he continued to make strides in developing the city. For instance, when the old stone jail and log courthouse of Newport became, by 1814, obsolete in meeting the demands and needs of a growing county, he and other subscribers pledged money towards the construction of a new brick one.

The handsome two-story brick structure, forty foot square, with a fifteen foot cupola, was finished circa 1815-1816.

Taylor also proved instrumental in the founding of a school in Newport. The Newport Academy was chartered, along with eighteen other Kentucky schools, by the Kentucky General Assembly on December 22, 1798. Its trustees included some of the earliest settlers of the Northern Kentucky area, including James Taylor, Washington Berry, Thomas Carneal, John Grant, Thomas Kennedy, William Kennedy, Daniel Mayo, and Richard Southgate.

According to the terms of the legislative charter, the Newport Academy was to be located “on the Open Square in the town of Newport” upon six in-lots, measuring 66 by 214 1/2 feet, or about two acres. (Kentucky, An Act to establish and endow certain Academies, Kentucky Acts 1799, p. 87; Campbell Co., Ky., Alexandria Courthouse, Deed Book A 1795-1798, p. 1)

Taylor donated the academy lots. To endow the school, the state legislature granted to the Newport Academy, and to each of the other schools established by the act, 6,000 acres of land south of the Green River in Kentucky.

The act stipulated that this land was to be leased, rather than sold, and that the proceeds were to be used in sustaining the academy, which was to be a “public school.” The legislation further enabled the trustees to “raise by lottery and also by subscription, any sum not exceeding one thousand dollars each, for the purpose of enabling them to erect buildings, to purchase books or the necessary apparatus for an academy.”

On September 21, 1799, the academy’s trustees officially organized, meeting at the house of Jacob Fowler in Newport. The board invited Reverend Robert Stubbs, an Episcopalian minister and schoolmaster originally of Virginia and lately of Boone County, Kentucky, to assume charge of the school. He accepted and moved to Newport in 1800, and inaugurated the school, receiving in remuneration “a house and seventeen acres of cleared land,” and an annual salary of “seventy-five pounds.” (Jones, History of Campbell County, Kentucky as Read at the Centennial Celebration of 4th of July, 1876, p. 8).

The academy officially opened in March 1801, and apparently charged tuition of eight dollars annually for “elementary studies” and “one pound-267 cents-per quarter” for “the higher branches.”

1796 Plat of Newport, showing the public square in digitally enhanced yellow highlighting. Source: Campbell County Courthouse, Alexandria, Kentucky. Deed Book A, p. 1. Click to enlarge.

The curriculum included the “ordinary branches of education,” and additionally, the “dead languages, geometry, plain surveying, navigation, astronomy, mensuration, logic, rhetoric, book-keeping, & c.” (Charles Cist, Cincinnati in 1841: Its Early Annals and Future Prospects. Cincinnati, OH, 1841, p. 169).

Most likely, as in many schools of its type at that time, the Newport Academy was free to those white students unable to afford tuition. Usually, wealthy private citizens would subscribe or raise funds sufficient to educate poor students. (James L. Cobb, “History of the Public Schools of Newport, Kentucky.” MA thesis, University of Cincinnati, 1939) p. 27.)

The Newport Academy became the first public school in the Cincinnati area. Ironically, circumstances of geography played some part in depriving Cincinnati of this privilege.

The meandering Ohio River made Cincinnati a fractional, rather than a complete township. As such, it lacked a number of sections, including the sixteenth, which was normally reserved for public school use in the Northwest Territory.

Without the support offered by this section, Cincinnati had no free public school. It was not until 1815, with the establishment of the Lancaster Seminary in Cincinnati, that provisions were made for the education of poor children there. As Dr. Daniel Drake stated in his Natural and Statistical View, or Picture of Cincinnati and the Miami Country (1815) the proprietors of Cincinnati “made no donation for the support of education, not even a site for a school house.”

On the other hand, Northern Kentuckians finalized their endowment for the Newport Academy. The school trustees located and surveyed 6,000 acres of land south of the Green River, for which they received title from the state in 1801.

Variously known as the “Newport Academy” or the “Newport Seminary,” the school operated under an independent board of trustees from 1800 to 1847, when a new charter for the town of Newport gave it the trusteeship of the academy. In other words, it was assumed within the new public school system of Newport.

As fixed by an 1860 act, tuition “in the public schools and academy” of Newport was “free to all white children, resident of said city, between the ages of six and eighteen years.” (Kentucky, An Act to revise the laws relating to the Public Schools and Academy, of the city of Newport, Kentucky Acts 1860, p. 468).

In addition to education, James Taylor was also involved in promoting a host of other improvements. In 1803, probably owing to Taylor’s connections to his first cousin once-removed, James Madison (then Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson), Taylor received a letter from the Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn, informing him that the United States Congress had passed a law calling for the erection of a western arsenal.

Governor Garrard of Kentucky and General Charles Scott, a distant relative of Taylor’s father-in-law, Major Hugh Moss, had been appointed to inspect possible sites. Although Garrard later supported locating the arsenal in Frankfort, Scott remained steadfast in his resolve to see it at Newport. Taylor offered to donate five to six acres of ground “immediately at the mouth of the Licking” for the arsenal, and the government accepted his terms and appointed him supervisor of the construction. (Dickoré, ed., General James Taylor’s Narrative, p. 63)

Besides securing the county seat and the western arsenal for Newport, as well as establishing the Newport Academy, roads, mills and ferries, Taylor promoted and invested in railroad and armory proposals, founded industrial establishments and banks, and lobbied for locks and dams on the Licking River.

In the late 1820s, he negotiated, unsuccessfully, with the United States Government for a proposed national armory for the manufacture of munitions. Likewise, he was an ardent supporter of a railroad to Charleston, South Carolina. Moreover, Taylor, his son-in-law (John W. Tibbatts), his father, and five other investors founded the Newport Manufacturing Company in 1831.

Representing an investment of $250,000 in machinery and buildings, the Newport Manufacturing Company employed, by 1836, three hundred and twenty-nine people and consisted of: “thirty-six comfortable dwelling houses for the operatives . . . a cotton factory; a woolen factory; fifty power looms for the manufacture of Kentucky jeans, linseys, and cotton plains; an extensive machine-shop for building machinery; a rope walk; hemp mill of twenty-four power looms, and the necessary auxiliary machinery for the manufacture of cotton bagging, by steam power. “ (“From the Covington Enquirer. Covington and Newport Manufactures,” Daily Evening Post [Cincinnati], 9 January 1836, p. 2).

Taylor was also instrumental in the founding of the Second United States Bank at Cincinnati, and he served as a director of the Lexington branch of the same.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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