April 15, 1838

Sketch of Cyrus Peirce.
Sketch of Cyrus Peirce. 1850s. Gift of Edouard A Stackpole. From the NHA Collection.

Nantucket public high school opened in 1838 with 59 students and Cyrus Peirce as its first principal. Born in 1790, Pierce was from Waltham, MA, and graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Divinity School as an ordained Unitarian minister.

He first taught on Nantucket in 1810 but returned to Cambridge to attend divinity school. He returned to the island and married one of his former pupils, Harriet Coffin, in 1816. Peirce taught off island and returned again in 1831. He purchased a home on Orange Street and started his own school. For a time, his assistant was a young Maria Mitchell, who would leave to start her own school, become the Atheneum’s librarian and eventually gain national fame when she discovered a comet in 1847.

For a brief time, Peirce served as principal of the new Coffin School, a private school for descendants of Nantucket founder Tristram Coffin, which also opened in 1838.

One year after opening the high school, Peirce was chosen by education reformer Horace Mann to become the principal of the country’s first “Normal School” in Lexington, MA. The experimental school was established to train teachers for a career in public education, and later it became Framingham State College. The Peirces lived on and off Nantucket from 1842 until Cyrus’s death in 1860. When he died, pupils from the Normal School commissioned the monument over his Nantucket grave, a Celtic cross inscribed with the saying with which their teacher closed every class: “Live to the Truth”.

Excerpted from On This Day In Nantucket History
By Amy Jenness
The History Press
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The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation among all audiences.

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