Part one of a two-part series
Begin digging into the background of Greenwood Seminary for Young Ladies, which was established a few miles south of Lebanon on Sparta Pike in the fall of 1851, and you may never get to a stopping point.
American history gushes from this site, dating back to the Revolutionary War, and has strong ties to two Cumberland colleges, Princeton University, Fredric W. Putnam (the “father of American archaeology”), the American Legion and Dallas, Texas, and also boasts connections to Presidents George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Sadly, it is probable that only a few Lebanonites know the rich background behind this educational institution that was light years ahead of its time in providing first-class, liberal arts tutelage for young women. Practically all that remains of the original home place that housed the school is its antebellum brick kitchen.
The seminary was founded by Nathaniel Lawrence Lindsley, who went by his middle name, on land that had been given to his maternal grandfather, Nathaniel Lawrence, in the form of a Revolutionary War grant from North Carolina.
In describing Lawrence’s accomplishments, his great-great granddaughter, Kathy Waters Foster, a fifth-generation Lindsley descendant to live on the farm, said, “His greatest achievement was to further the efforts of his father to foster education for all regardless of station and sex and to impart the message that knowledge is power.
“The seminary offered a well-rounded education for women as they saw education was important for women as it really should be. The fact their school taught trigonometry, chemistry and geography, etc. proved that women are equally endowed with intellect and purpose.”
Teaching at Cumberland
Lindsley, a professor of Greek and Latin at Cumberland University in Lebanon from Sept. 21, 1844, to Oct. 13, 1849, was an accomplished and profound scholar and, with the exception of family and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, valued education above all else.
The aim of Greenwood Seminary as described in one of his bulletins was “the discipline and development of the mind, the acquisition of true principles of morals and religion, and healthful physical development. At the same time special attention is given to the cultivation of such elegant manners as render them (the pupils) ornaments to the best society.”
Only 12 students were accepted the first year. Cost for the two terms, along with room and board, was $200. The curriculum featured arithmetic, English, Latin, Greek, French, music and art lessons.
To understand why Lawrence Lindsley diligently labored in education, you need look no farther than his father: educator, classicist and Presbyterian minister Philip Lindsley.
The senior Lindsley, while acting president of the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton University), chose to relocate to Nashville to take the helm of the struggling Cumberland College rather than preside over one of America’s more prominent colleges.
Surveying the educational needs of what then was the Southwest, Philip Lindsley said, “Throughout the immense valley of the Lower Mississippi, there exists not a single college .... The time has arrived when they must have the means of education at their own doors, or be deprived of its benefits all together.”
(Note: As president, he renamed Cumberland College the University of Nashville and later dubbed Nashville “the Athens of the Southwest,” which evolved into the city’s nickname “Athens of the South.”)
Lebanon’s Joe Reed, also a fifth-generation descendant of Lawrence Lindsley, via his mother, Margaret “Sissy” Waters Reed, shared more about his ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War, saying, “Nathaniel was a student at Princeton (the College of New Jersey) when British soldiers came through. The administration locked all the students up in a second-floor room. He jumped out the window and sprained his ankle. He joined up with the North Carolina regiment that was passing through. He was wounded in the Battle of Princeton and was a prisoner of war for two years.”
For his service, he was given two tracts of land of 2,560 acres each, known as “The Big Survey,” in what would become Wilson County, Tenn. While Lt. Lawrence never came to Tennessee, from that grant his grandson acquired 500 acres that comprised plenty of fertile bottom land along Spring Creek.
The lieutenant’s daughter, Margaret Elizabeth Lawrence, wed Philip Lindsley in 1813, and the couple set out for Nashville in 1824 with their children including 8-year-old Lawrence. In 1833, Gen. Andrew Jackson, a friend of the family, nominated the teenager to a cadetship to West Point, but Lawrence resigned two years later due to poor health caused “by the northern climate and the rigors of cadet life.”
He went on to graduate with honors from the University of Nashville in 1836, where he served as a tutor for two years. In 1841, he married Julia Stevens, daughter of Moses P. Stevens, a well-known classical instructor and prominent educator.
In 1844, the couple moved to Lebanon where Lawrence taught Latin and Greek at Cumberland University and where they began farming the 500-acre tract of land passed on to him from his mother. (According to family tradition, his grandfather, Lt. Lawrence, was swindled and lost most of the property, which was sold before 1824.)
Foster said that while Lawrence was teaching at Cumberland, he and his wife built a small home on the farm which they referred to as “the cottage.” After his retirement, they added on to the cottage and then called it “the big house.” They would continue to add on to the structure as the years went by, adding dormitory rooms for their female students. In this house, they also raised their seven children.
The seminary begins
Greenwood Seminary for Young Ladies was affiliated with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, just as Cumberland University once was. An 1888 history of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church revealed that the seminary was conducted on “a unique plan. The number of young ladies was limited to just 16, and no one was ever received without a thorough previous investigation. The pupils were as thoroughly cut off from outside associations as it was possible for them to be. Dr. Lindsley and his assistants had the whole training of these pupils in their own hands.”
Lawrence also possessed the largest private library in Tennessee, and it had been noted that he corresponded extensively “with literary gentlemen both in America and Europe.” By 1860, it was recorded that he owned $76,000 of real estate and had $30,000 in personal assets, which would be $2,445,000 and $965,000, respectively, in today’s values.
(Many of the books from his vast library were willed to different family members by name, and many more were given to schools. Foster has a good number of them, and most have Lawrence’s name inscribed in the front.)
In 1863, amidst the Civil War and while the seminary was closed, the Greenwood estate was ransacked by a large number of Federal troops under the command of Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds. The soldiers took most of the farm animals for food and also made off with miles of cedar fence, possibly motivated by the report that seminary principal had two sons in the Confederate Army.
When the war ended, the school reopened and Lawrence expanded the seminary. In the meantime, he had immersed himself in compiling “An Encyclo-Lexicon of the English Language,” a lofty ambition to create a complete dictionary of the English language, in association with Dr. Joseph Worcester.
Lawrence died at his home on Oct. 10, 1868, after an illness of several months, reportedly an acute abscess of the liver, complicated with a previous organic disease of the heart. He was 52.
Foster possesses numerous letters that Lawrence and Julia wrote each other including a heartbreaking correspondence about the death of their infant son, Berrien.
Foster described the couple’s relationship as “sweet. How devoted they were to each other and how they trusted each other to get their various jobs done.” She also shared that a few days before the seminary founder’s death, “He took each student by the hand and he blessed them.”
Nathaniel Lawrence Lindsley was eulogized by his peers, who penned: “He was the soul of honor and manliness, a philanthropist and Christian.” And “He was in a marked degree without guile, fearless, bold and determined. For years he had been a devout, consistent member of the Cumberland Presbyterian church. As an educator he possessed in an eminent degree the two great qualities so wonderfully adorning his distinguished father’s life, to wit: thorough, exact, profound classic culture, and the faculty of inspiring an enthusiastic devotion toward himself in all his scholars.”
Julia, his widow, carried on as the guiding force of Greenwood Seminary until her death on July 8, 1883, at the age of 60. She was remembered as “a lady of more than ordinary accomplishments and energy, and her object and aim was to give to young ladies a grand conception of real life, and while her death occurred in the midst of a prosperous work, her life was such that its good influences have not ended, and her name is a household word in many Southern families.”
A resplendent description of Greenwood Seminary was published in the May 26, 1869, (Nashville) Republican Banner by their unnamed correspondent.
The wordsmith gushed: I had not visited Greenwood Seminary, founded by the late Dr. N. Lawrence Lindsley, and situated five miles from Lebanon on the Sparta Pike. On Sunday evening last, accompanied by a most agreeable and charming companion, your correspondent took a peep at Greenwood, its beauties and pleasures.
Retired and elegant, it woes the heart and wins the admiration. The building is an elegant frame structure, rather of the Italian style of architecture, having end rooms on either side of the vestibule and a handsome balustrade over the center roof. It is built in the form of a hollow square, is convenient and admirably appointed.
Fit by nature to preside over so charming a place, is the no less fascinating and urbane preceptress — Mrs. N.L. Lindsley, a worthy relic of a great and good man, who received her visitors with suavity and genuine hospitality. While at Greenwood, it was my delight to visit the libraries, picture galleries, etc., and I can assure you the brevity of my visit was much regretted.
As a side note, much of what is known about the Native-American inhabitants of Sellars Farm State Archaeological Area comes from excavation of that site by Fredric W. Putnam, the “father of American archaeology,” who spent five days there with a 25-man crew unearthing the mounds in September 1877.
The site was on the Lindsley farm and then known as the Lindsley Indian Mounds. It was Julia who invited Putnam, curator of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, to investigate the site, which he referred to as the Earthwork on the Lindsley Estate near Greenwood Seminary.
Sources for this article include: A History of Cumberland University: 1842-1935, by Winston Paine Bone, 1935; Echoes From Caruthers Hall: Nine Lectures Delivered by Members of Cumberland University; The Goodspeed History of Wilson County, 1886, Goodspeed Publishing; History of Long Island, Benjamin Franklin Thompson, 1918, R.H. Dodd; History of Wilson County by G. Frank Burns; The Clarksville Weekly Chronicle, Oct. 16, 1868; The Republican Banner, May 26, 1869; The Tennessean, July 28, 1872, July 10, 1884, and Oct. 21, 1945; The Nashville Banner, July 29, 1916; and The Athens of the West: Education in Nashville, 1780-1860,by Timothy Augustus Sweatman,1996.