On May 12, 1842, the “Original Thirteen” female students arrived at St. Mary’s College to begin the school’s very first term. The campus itself had been home to a number of schools from the time it was founded in 1833, beginning with the Episcopal School of North Carolina. But St. Mary’s would become the school to operate from that location through to the present.
The campus, which originally consisted of 160 acres of thick oak forest, was purchased from Colonel William Polk. The school’s first headmaster was Joseph Green Cogswell, a New Englander and Episcopal clergyman who had been trained at Harvard.
Under Cogswell’s leadership as headmaster, the Episcopal School built their first building out of the same rock that was also being used for Raleigh’s new capitol building. That building would later be known as East Rock, with West Rock being completed in 1835.
It was about that time, just two years into his tenure as headmaster, that Cogswell decided to leave the school and Raleigh. He had always found the location too wild, and indeed had woken to a cottonmouth snake in his bed at one time. The Episcopal School of North Carolina did not do well without Cogswell, and was ordered to be closed by the Episcopalian Diocese in 1839.
In the interim years, several different schools leased the buildings for their courses, but the Diocese was still deeply in debt. Then in 1841, Judge Duncan Cameron, whose home stood across Hillsborough Street from the campus, decided to buy the property with the idea in mind of opening a girl’s school. Cameron was an Episcopalian, and he wished to keep the new school connected to the church.
While at a conference in New York, the Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina, the Right Reverend Levi Silliman Ives, met Reverend Aldert Smedes, and they struck a deal to establish a girl’s school in Raleigh, which became St. Mary’s College. The land was then leased to Smedes by Cameron, and Smedes established a learning curriculum in English, French and music, as well as strict dress codes and social rules. Those rules included only having guests on Sunday nights at the weekly soirees. Girls could not have male visitors, and were not even allowed to exchange letters with a young man.
Like many other schools, St. Mary’s was threatened with the real possibility of having to close its doors during the Civil War. The mayor of Raleigh had proposed using the campus as a Confederate Hospital in 1862, but Smedes personally went to Goldsboro to make the appeal to save his campus. Fees and tuition were raised during the war, but Smedes efforts paid off and they never shut down during the war.
In fact, students at St. Mary’s regularly volunteered their time to sew and knit for Confederate officers and soldiers. In 1863, when the Confederacy was considering moving its capital from Richmond to Raleigh, Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina Howell Davis, and their children stayed at St. Mary’s campus. Robert E. Lee’s daughter also spent some time at the school during the war.
At the end of the Civil War, as Confederate troops retreated from the battlefields at Bentonville and Averasboro through Raleigh, they were met at the gates of St. Mary’s with water and food. The soldiers continued their march and did not stop, but some had the good fortune to exchange flirtations and addresses with the students there. Soon after, General Sherman and his Federal troops came into Raleigh. They actually camped at St. Mary’s, and like their rivals, were greeted with food and water.
The area around St. Mary’s remained wild until 1886, when the Raleigh streetcar made its turn around in front of the campus. Soon the woods around St. Mary’s became residential neighborhoods. In 1907, Raleigh annexed those neighborhoods, and St. Mary’s became part of the capital city. It was not until 1998, however, that St. Mary’s converted from a junior college to a four-year high school, and was renamed St. Mary’s School.