Chauncey Thomas was one of the most prominent residents of the Upper Delaware River Valley in the 19th century, a successful entrepreneur who, among other accomplishments, built the first suspension bridge connecting Barryville in the town of Highland, Sullivan County, NY and Shohola, PA, and envisioned the Shohola Glen Amusement Park that was eventually built by bluestone magnate John Fletcher Kilgore and attracted tourists from far and wide.
One of Thomas’ first and most ambitious projects was undertaken with his first wife, Margaret Bross Thomas, and was ultimately unsuccessful. It was the Barryville Family School for Young Ladies.
Both Chauncey and Margaret Thomas had distinguished, though very different, lineages. He was descended from Moses Thomas, one of the earliest settlers in Cushetunk, the first permanent European settlement in the Upper Delaware, although that was his great-grandfather and not his grandfather, as many online sources indicate. His great-grandfather was killed when a Delaware war party attacked the Cushetunk settlement in October of 1763. Chauncey’s grandfather, Moses Thomas II, was killed while fighting for the Patriots at the Battle of Minisink in 1779. His father, Moses Thomas III, was a judge in the region and operated a mill and other businesses, but still found time to father 11 children.
Margaret Bross, on the other hand, had a much less storied ancestry, though certainly no less prominent. She was born on April 22nd, 1819 in Sussex, New Jersey (some sources say Port Jervis, NY). Her father was Deacon Moses Bross and her mother was Jane Winfield Bross. She had 14 siblings, most of whom distinguished themselves in adulthood. Her older brother William, for example, became Lt. Governor of Illinois after a successful career as an educator and businessman.
Margaret was well educated, especially for a woman of the day, attending the Milford Academy and then the very prestigious Troy Female Seminary, the first women’s institution of higher education in the United States, founded and operated by the legendary Emma Willard.
The Troy Female Seminary, which, to this day still operates in Troy as the Emma Willard School, was the first school in the country to provide the same educational opportunities to “young ladies of means” as was typically available to boys. Early on, it became a highly respected training ground for teachers and writers, and today can count among its many graduates the poet Laura Benet, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Olivia Slocum Sage, the actress Jane Fonda, and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Margaret graduated from the Troy Female Seminary in 1836. In 1839, she accepted a position as Vice Principal of the Ridgebury Academy in Orange County, where her brother William was principal. While employed at Ridgebury, she also wrote professionally on occasion, her articles appearing in various newspapers and magazines.
Margaret Bross and Chauncey Thomas were married around 1840 (some sources say 1843) and lived in Barryville for a time. By the spring of 1843, they had announced a joint project: the Barryville Family School for Young Ladies.
The couple proposed to open the school on May 8th, 1843, advertising that they would accept “12 or 15 young ladies as boarders, and instruct them in all the branches of an accomplished female education.”
Their solicitation indicated that “instruction would also be given in fancy-work, embroidery, needle-work, the French language, and music on the piano and guitar. The strictest attention will be paid to the manners, and moral and religious improvement of those that may be entrusted to their care.”
Although Mrs. Thomas had impressive credentials and the list of references they provided in their solicitation read like a who’s who of clergymen and academics in the region — including Emma Willard herself — the timing of the project probably could not have been worse.
Many families of means were still reeling, six years later, from the great financial panic of 1837, and the economy had not quite returned to its pre-depression state. There may have been other factors as well, but for whatever reasons, it seems as if the Barryville Family School for Young Ladies never got off the ground.
Although research is continuing, there has been no record yet uncovered that the school ever actually educated a single young woman.
Margaret Bross Thomas had four sons, three of whom lived to adulthood. Two graduated from Williams College: Moses Bross Thomas became a college professor, and William Russell Thomas the editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado. Her youngest son, Chauncey Thomas, Jr., graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and achieved the rank of Rear Admiral, eventually serving as the Commander of the Pacific Fleet.
Margaret Bross Thomas died on December 17th, 1856. She was just 47 years old.
Photo of Margaret Bross Thomas provided.