Rev. Ralph Wheelock, America's First Public School Teacher

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Ralph Wheelock

Birthdate: (83)
Birthplace: Donington, Shropshire, England
Death: November 16, 1683 (83)
Medfield, Norfolk, Massachusetts
Immediate Family:

Son of Joseph Wheelock and Elizabeth Wheelock
Husband of Rebecca Williamson Wheelock, (Puritan)
Father of Gershom T. Wheelock; Mary Or Nancy Miles; Rebecca Crafts; Peregrina Wheelock; Benjamin Wheelock and 4 others
Brother of Abraham Wheelock; Infant Wheelock; Elizabeth Adams; Humphrey Wheelock; Infant Wheelock and 2 others

Occupation: Schoolmaster, Puritan minister, Magistrate, representative
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Rev. Ralph Wheelock, America's First Public School Teacher

Reverend Ralph Wheelock -- Puritan minister, America's first public school teacher, and founder of the Massachusetts towns of Dedham and Medfield -- played an active and important role in the settling of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was instrumental in establishing two new towns, and held virtually every office of importance in both of them. Furthermore, he was at the forefront of establishing the educational foundations of the country, including serving as America's first public school teacher.

His descendents would also prove to play an important a role in settling New England and the rest of America. His son Benjamin was a founder of the Town of Mendon. Among his great-grandchildren were founders of several New England towns, as well as Eleazar Wheelock, the founder of Dartmouth. Succeeding generations would push farther west, settling the frontiers in New York, Michigan, Illinois, Nova Scotia, and Texas, establishing impressive credentials as teachers, writers, soldiers, founders of towns, and creators of business.

Life in England

Ralph was born in Shropshire, England in 1600.

The origins of his surname can be traced back to the tenth century in Wheelock Village, near Sandbach, in the County of Cheshire.

Ralph was educated at Cambridge University, Clare Hall. He matriculated in 1623, obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1626, and a Master of Arts in 1631.

At that time, Cambridge was the center of the dissenting religious movement that gave rise to Puritanism. His contemporaries at Cambridge University included John Milton and John Eliot, whose liberal views he seemed to share. The persecution of those with Puritan beliefs ran high during this period, which undoubtedly motivated Rev. Wheelock to participate in "The Great Migration" which brought many new immigrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By one account, 20,000 came to New England during the peak years of the migration between 1630 and 1640.

On May 6, 1630, in England, Rev. Wheelock was ordained priest by Francis White, Bishop of the Norfolk Diocese. Shortly thereafter, on May 17, 1630, he married Rebecca Clarke. At least three children were born to the family in England:

  • Mary Wheelock, baptised in Banham, County of Norfolk, 2 Sep 1631
  • Gershom Wheelock, baptised in the village of Eccles, County of Norfolk, 3 Jan 1632/33
  • Rebecca Wheelock, baptised in the village of Eccles, County of Norfolk, 24 Aug 1634

There is strong evidence that Rev. Wheelock served clerical duties at the parish in Eccles, where Gershom and Rebecca were baptised. This is evidenced by his signature as "local curate" on the register pages that record his children's baptism.

Early Years in Massachusetts

Rev. Wheelock, his wife, and at least three children sailed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 on the Transport, just seven years after Boston was first settled, and during the peak of the "Great Migration." Some Wheelock historians have suggested that Rebecca gave birth to a daughter aboard ship, but no definitive proof is available.

Upon arrival, Rebecca and Ralph Wheelock settled in Watertown, Massachusetts. There, Rev. Wheelock participated in a plan to create a new settlement further up the Charles River, to be called Contentment (later renamed Dedham). In 1638, Rev. Wheelock became one of the earliest settlers and a founder of Dedham. He lived there with his wife for more than a decade, and played a leading role in the affairs of the town. The records at Dedham show the following children were born into the family while at Dedham:

  • Benjamin
  • Samuel
  • Record
  • Experience

Life in Dedham

In July 1637, Rev. Ralph Wheelock signed the "Dedham Covenant" which was in effect the founding constitution of the settlers of Dedham. In 1639, he and seven others were chosen for "ye ordering of towne affayers according unto Courte Order in that behalf." The powers that these eight men had were probably similar to the town selectmen of modern times. He was also appointed to assist the surveyor ("measurer") in laying out the boundaries of the town.

On March 13, 1638/9, Rev. Wheelock was declared a freeman. In those days, one had to be a "freeman" in order to exercise the full right of suffrage, or to hold public office. To become a freeman, it was necessary to be a member in good standing of a local church, and to appear before the General Court to take an oath whose essential elements swore to good citizenship and good religious character.

In 1642, Ralph Wheelock was appointed the General Court clerk of writs. The General Court was the central court of the Bay Colony, with powers granted by the British Crown to decide legal matters, to dispense lands, and to establish laws. At this point in time (1643), the population of the Bay Colony was about 18,000.

In 1645 he was appointed one of the commissioners authorized to "solemnize" marriages, which at the time was a civil rather than religious duty.

Educational Leader

Although Rev. Wheelock was an ordained minister, his greater inclinations were toward teaching, which he did with great fervor and in various capacities throughout his life. Though the records are sketchy, it is likely that Rev. Wheelock was the first public school teacher in America. On February 1, 1644 a Dedham town meeting voted for the first free school in Massachusetts, to be supported by town taxes. Rev. Ralph Wheelock was the first teacher at this school. Three years later, in 1647, the General Court decreed that every town with 50 families or more must build a school supported by public taxes.

Life in Medfield

By the late 1640s, Dedham was becoming quite populous, and it was decided to establish a new township further up the Charles River, out of a tract of land that was then part of Dedham. Rev. Wheelock was appointed leader of this effort, and in 1649 he and six others were given the duties of erecting and governing a new village, to be called New Dedham, later renamed Medfield.

In May 1651, the town of Medfield was granted the full powers of an independent town by the General Court of Massachusetts. In this year, Rev. Ralph Wheelock and his family removed to Medfield, where he lived the remaining 32 years of his life. In Medfield, one child was born:

  • Eleazar Wheelock, whose grandson would become the founder of New Hampshire's Dartmouth College

Though others participated in the establishment of the Town of Medfield, the Rev. Ralph Wheelock is considered to be its primary founder. As leader of the previously mentioned committee of seven, it is almost certain that Rev. Wheelock wrote the document called "The Agreement" which, for a time, every new settler of Medfield had to sign. "The Agreement" stated that the signatories were to abide by the town ordinances and laws, maintain orderly conduct, and resolve differences between themselves peaceably.

Rev. Ralph Wheelock was granted the first house lot in Medfield (12 acres), and served on the first Board of Selectmen (1651). He subsequently served on the Board of Selectmen in 1652-1654, and again in 1659. In 1653, he took up a collection for Harvard College, the first college in America. Fundraising for Harvard was probably a regular event, being a primary source of revenue for the fledgling institution.

In 1655, the town voted 15 pounds to be used to establish a "schoule for the educataion of the children, to be raised by a rate according as men have taken up lands, and the rest of the maintenance to be raised upon the children that goe to schoule." Rev. Ralph Wheelock was the first schoolmaster. In his book Mr. Ralph Wheelock, Puritan, the Rev. Lewis Hicks speculates that Rev. Wheelock remained schoolmaster for a period of 8 years.

Every year, Medfield chose a representative to the General Court in Massachusetts. Rev. Wheelock held this position in the years 1653, 1663, 1664, 1666, and 1667.

Rebecca Clarke Wheelock died on January 1, 1680/1 in Medfield. Two years later, Rev. Wheelock died, in the 84th year of his life.

Additional Reading

Reverend Wheelock was a highly educated graduate of Cambridge University, Claire Hall in Cambridge, England who possessed extraordinary talent and intelligence in his pursuits of both religion and education. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1626 and a Master of Arts in 1631. This was a period of time when Cambridge was a center for religious discontent with the Church of England and the rise of Puritanism was in the making. Ralph enthusiastically embraced that movement. As a devout Puritan he decided to flee the religious persecution in England and emigrated to America with his wife and children in 1637. He played an active role in establishing the townships of Dedham and Medfield, Massachusetts and is considered to be one of the founders of Dedham. In 1679, he and seven others were chosen for "Ye ordering of towne affayers according unto courte order in that behalf". He also was appointed to assist the surveyor in laying out the boundaries of the town. He preached often but never actually had his own personal ministry. He was more oriented towards teaching and became the first headmaster at Dedham's first public school. It's possible that he may have been the first public school teacher in the entire country. He took up a collection for Harvard University, the first college in America. He played many important roles in the early settling of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and held many important public offices in his life. Here was a man who most certainly left his mark on the quality of life in the early period of Colonial America. (wab)

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Rev. Ralph Wheelock, America's First Public School Teacher's Timeline

May 14, 1600
Donington, Shropshire, England
May 14, 1600
Dorrington, Shropshire, England
May 14, 1600
Age 25
Clare Hall, Cambridge University, England
- 1639
Age 29
January 3, 1631
Age 30
Dedham, Norfolk County, Massachusetts
September 2, 1631
Age 31
Dedham, Suffolk, MA
Age 30
Cambridge University
Age 30
Clare Hall, Cambridge University, England