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History and education in those Highland County hills of yore, Part 12 

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Steve Roush

By Steve Roush
HCP columnist

Ladies and gentlemen, in December of 1860, the Rev. Joseph McDowell Mathews resigned his post as president of the Hillsborough Female College. 

He came to Hillsborough in 1827 to teach at a log school and later founded the Oakland Female Seminary in 1839. He remained at Oakland until 1856 when he accepted the position at the Hillsborough Female College, but the success he enjoyed at Oakland wasn’t duplicated at the Hillsborough Female College. In fact, the good reverend said he was losing money by remaining at the college, so he quit to take over another female college in Kentucky. 

“Stern necessity compels me to leave it (the Hillsborough Female College), to provide for my family. I have many friends here and strong attachments, and it will be hard to leave. But I go to my relatives and friends, and I shall once more feel at home in Kentucky,” he wrote in 1860. 

Mathews was headed to Nicholasville, Ky., to take charge of the Jessamine Female College, but before he packs and goes, let’s take a look at his family. 

The Rev. Joseph McDowell Mathews married three times. On Oct. 28, 1829, he was married to Miss Elizabeth A. Barry, a daughter of Andrew Barry. They had two children, both died as infants the year they were born in 1829 and 1830, respectively. Elizabeth passed away in 1852 at the age of 41 or 42 and was buried in the Hillsboro Cemetery.  

In 1855, he was united in marriage to Mrs. Martha Swing Sanders, the sister of Judge P.B. Swing. They had two children, Joseph Jr., born in 1855, and Sallie, who was born in 1856. Sadly, Martha Mathews passed away in 1858 at the age of 31 or 32. She was also buried in the Hillsboro Cemetery. 

On Dec. 25, 1859 – Christmas Day – he was united in marriage with Mrs. Mary B. Harman. This was less than a year before the good reverend resigned his position in Hillsboro to head to Kentucky.  

The Rev. Mathews was in his 50s when his children were born and was nearing his 60s when he moved his family to Kentucky. When he took charge of Jessamine Female College in Nicholasville, Ky., it was written that, “He opened his school in Kentucky with fine prospects of success, but the war threw everything into such confusion that in 1863 he returned to Hillsboro and opened a private boarding school.” 

Yes, the Civil War closed the Kentucky school in 1863, so the Mathews family packed their bags again and came back to Hillsboro. His old post at the female college was filled, and another school for young ladies had been opened by the Presbyterians and was being operated on the former church property that had been Oakland’s headquarters when Mathews ran the seminary.  

So Mathews had competition, but he opened up a new Oakland anyway in his own home at the “Y intersection” on East Main Street, adjacent from the building that once housed his earlier Oakland and now was named Highland Institute. The founders of the institute were the Rev. Emilius Grand-Girard and his sister, Emilie Louise Grand-Girard. They were inspired to open their college through Mathews’ influence upon his former pupil, Miss Emilie, who graduated from Oakland in 1846.  

Let’s pause for now, and we’ll continue next time.

Steve Roush is chairman of the Highland County Historical Society Board of Trustees, a board member of the Highland District Hospital Foundation, a vice president of an international media company and a columnist and contributing writer for The Highland County Press. He can be reached by email at

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