|Dr. Oliver Bronson
St. Johns County
of Public Schools
|Dr. Oliver Bronson was the first school Superintendent of the St. Johns County School system.
The facts surrounding his entry into St. Johns County are still a mystery but in Reconstruction
Florida a unique and important person came to set-up the new school system. Buckingham
Smith or Sarah Mather may have been the instigators of bringing him to St. Augustine both had
pre-Civil War contacts with him. He was also the cousin of the late Judge Isaac Bronson of St.
Dr. Bronson was the son of Isaac Bronson (1760- May 19, 1839) and Anna Olcott Bronson
(1765 - May 17, 1850). Anna, born 1765; married, August 30, 1789, Isaac Bronson, of
Isaac Bronson was born the son of a farmer (and state legislator) in Middlebury Connecticut.
Bronson was one of the wealthiest men in New York City. In 1828 his assets were over $250,000
(a very handsome sum in 1828 currency). Isaac had been apprenticed to Dr. Lemuel Hopkins a
Waterburg physician. Isaac enlisted as a surgeon in the 2nd Regiment of Light Dragoons
commanded by Col Elisha Sheldon on November 14, 1779 in the Revolutionary War and rose to
the rank of senior surgeon. He was present at the capture, trial and execution of Major John
Andre of the British army who was executed for spying in Benedict Arnold's betrayal.
After the war Isaac abandoned medicine and traveled to Europe and India. He married Anna
Olcott in 1789 and had ten children. Isaac founded the New York and Ohio Life Insurance and
Trust companies and was the director and president of the Bridgeport Bank in Connecticut.
Using the funds of the insurance companies he purchased a third of a million acres across
On December 14, 1807 Isaac Bronson dozed in a speeding stagecoach. Suddenly the cab
rattled and shook, and the inside lit up like daylight. Nearby houses shuddered. Dr. Bronson
urged the terrified driver to continue, even though he, too, feared the end of the world was nigh.
He'd seen horrible things on the battlefield, but nothing had prepared him for this. He was a
witness to "Weston Fall" one of the first meteorite sightings in the United States.
The estate of Isaac Bronson carried on for years. Dr. Bronson became the surviving Executor
and trustee under the last Will and Testament of Isaac Bronson. Even through 1869 property
issues were still being resolved.
Uncle and Cousin Isaac Bronson of Florida
Ethel Bronson (b July 22, 1765 - 1825) was the younger brother of Isaac. His son Isaac Bronson
(October 16, 1802-August 13, 1855). He was elected to Congress from New York in 1836. In
1838 after being defeated for a second term he was appointed Judge of the fifth Judicial district
of New York. In 1840 he was appointed United States Judge for the Eastern District of Florida till
1845 when Florida became a state. He lived in St. Augustine. At the first session of the new
legislature he was named Circuit Judge of the Eastern Circuit of Florida. Soon after he was
appointed United States District Judge of the State. Later when the district divided he was the
District Judge of the Northern half of the state. He died August 13, 1855 at his home Sunny Point
in Palatka. Isaac would bring another New Englander to Florida as his clerk...George Fairbanks.
Fairbanks dedicated his 1871 History of Florida to Judge Bronson.
Family of Isaac Bronson Father of Oliver
The first child of Isaac and Anna was named Oliver who died in infancy. The second child Maria
also died in infancy. The third child Maria was born August 18, 1793 in New York City, married
December 27, 1814 to Col. John B Murray of New York City. She had 7 children and died on Dec
21, 1851. Harriet born January 14, 1798 in New York City and died unmarried in November 1835
in Switzerland. Caroline born January 14, 1798 in New York City. She married Dr. Marinus Willet
of New York, son of Col. Marinus Willet and died of consumption March 1, 1853 leaving 6
children. Arthur born January 14, 1801, in New York City married Anna Eliza the daughter of
General Theodorus Bailey, November 20, 1823; died of pneumonia November 19, 1844 leaving
3 children. Frederic born May 2, 1802 in New York city, married March 1, 1838 Charlotte
Brinckerhoff of New York City. They had 3 children. Mary born August 2, 1806 at Greenfield,
unmarried. Ann born March 25, 1810 at Greenfield, died July 19, 1840, unmarried.
His sons Arthur (January 14th, 1801- November 19th, 1844), Frederic (1802-1868) and Oliver
(October 3,1799 at Greenfield, CN -1875) aided Isaac in the land speculation business. His
daughter Ann died in July, 1840 in Utica New York. Harriet lived from 1796- 1835 and Mary from
1806-1861. Arthur married Anna Eliza Bailey, daughter of General Theodorus Bailey of New
York, on November 20, 1823. They had three children. Arthur helped create both the New York
and Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Companies. Arthur and his father, Isaac, co-wrote the
charters for these two companies along with securing the approvals from both the state of Ohio
and New York legislatures.
Oliver Bronson (Oct. 1799 - July 21, 1875)
Oliver was born in Oct. 1799 and named Oliver in memory of his older brother who had died as
an infant. From around 1815-1816 Oliver attended Yale University and received his Bachelors of
Arts degree in 1818. While at Yale he was a member of the Brothers in Unity Society. He
graduated from the New York Physicians and Surgery in 1825. His paper was on the Influence of
Man's Physical Structure on his character as an intelligent being and moral agent. The Medical
society of the County of New Your in 1829 gave him a certificate of membership into the society.
They reported that he had the legal qualifications for the practice of physic and surgery. He was
a councillor for the School of Medicine from as early as 1861 through 1867.
In 1830 he is listed as an attending physician at the New York Dispensary.
At 25 he received $10,000 from dad (each child received this amount at age 25). In 1831 he
toured France stayed in Paris at Hotels Des Princes & De'Europe Meubles. He would return to
Europe in 1838, 1842 and 1854. He owned stock in the New York and Harlem Railroad,
Indianapolis and Belle Fontaine Rail Road, Madison and Indianapolis, Hudson River Rail Road,
Galeua and Chicago Union, Delaware and Hudson Canal Co, Hudson and Berkshire Bond,
Central Ohio Rail Road, Hudson Gas Company, Hudson Iron Company, Pennsylvania Coal
Company, Panama Rail Road Stock, Michigan Central Rail Road, New York Central Stock and
bonds, New York and Erie Bonds, New York Trust and Life and Ohio Trust stock.
Dr. Bronson would marry Joanna Donaldson Bronson of North Carolina (1806-February 13,
1876) on May 15, 1833 at the Murray Street Presbyterian Church. Joanna was described by her
niece Isabel Bronson as "a beauty in her youth---Black waving hair, beautiful grey eyes and
much color of complexion---very gay and very entertaining. She became very deaf (in her old
age) but was so agreeable that everyone sought her society." Her picture is in the collection of
Richard Hampton Jenrette.
He gave money to the Monticello Female Seminary in Illinois. His wife would give money to the
Ladies Peon Fund for its endowment. He also gave money to the American Tract Society,
Asylum for Respectable Aged Indigent Females, Foreign Evangelical Society, American Home
Isabel Donaldson Bronson described Dr. Oliver Bronson as "a cultivated, intelligent man,
well-educated in his profession both in America & in Paris. His very delicate health obliged him to
early give up active practice, but to the end of his kind and charitable life he ministered to the
poor and lonely. He was a most excellent physician and a most excellent man.....He was a
serious man, taking a stern view of life in accordance with his strict Presbyterian belief."
In 1838 he was a manager for the New York colonization society. The concern of the society was
providing for missionaries for West Africa.
Dr. Oliver Bronson's Hudson New York house was recently made a national landmark. It will soon
be open to the public run by Historic Hudson, Inc. The Plumb-Bronson House is a Federal-style
villa that was built for Samuel Plum on a bluff overlooking the Hudson's South bay. The house
and surrounding landscape is the subject of a watercolor by William Guy Wall completed in 1819
on display in the New York Historical Society. Dr. Bronson purchased the home in 1838 and
hired Alexander Jackson Davis to refit the house. The house was made in a Hudson River
"bracketed" style (part of the Picturesque movement) and completed in 1849 with an Italianate
style river facade, a three-story bracket tower, semi-octagonal rooms, bays and an ornamental
veranda. He owned a pew at the Hudson Presbyterian Church where he taught a catechism
class In his 1852 balance sheet he had $176,530.05. He was well dressed with his gold
From 1841 through 1854 Dr. Bronson served as a Superintendent of Schools in Hudson,
Columbia County, New York. It is unclear exactly what a superintendent was in Hudson as there
were 3 superintendents. In all probability this was the school board for the City of Hudson. He
served 18 years with Josiah W. Fairfield and six years each with Cyrus Curtiss, Matthew Mitchell
and Charles McArthur. He resigned that position in 1854 with the following:
Permit me to tender to you my resignation of the office of superintendent of the District schools
of this city and at the same time to avail myself of the opportunity of expressing my grateful
acknowledgement in having... kind and cordial in... which the Superintendent have always
experienced from your honorable body in all their efforts to promote the welfare of the school's
committee to their charges.
At the end of the Civil War he was in New York as the Chairman of the Publications Committee
for the New York Branch of the United States Christian Commission. This commission was
designed to support soldiers and sailors of the Union in the Christian faith.
He received a resolution of appreciation from his committee:
"The Committee was most fortunate in having as the Chairman of the Committee on Publications,
Dr. Oliver Bronson, of New York. Though in feeble and failing health, he devoted all this time and
strength to this work. Besides carefully selecting from the issues of the different societies, and of
the various publishing housed in the city, he had several small books and tracts prepared, with
special application to the men in service. Every thing in this department came under his personal
supervision and care. In view of his efficient services, the General Board unanimously adopted
the following resolution:
Resolved, That the thanks of this Commission are justly due, and they are hereby presented to
Oliver Bronson, M. D., for his unwearied zeal and attention as Chairman of the Committee on
Publications; for the time, patience, and labor expended, and the judgment exhibited by him in
the selection of the various publications, and the care exercised by him in their distribution.
This resolution but expressed the true sentiments of every member of the Board."
He was a major donor to the New York library (who was a shareholder of the library) giving over
331 standard books of medical science and 100 other books on physical science and foreign
Dr. Oliver Bronson in St. Johns County Florida
St. Johns County Schools
In 1868 a new constitution for the State of Florida established a statewide school system. It starts
with Section 1: "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provisions for the education
of all the children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference." While this new
system was de facto segregated, it was expected to be equal. The school law of 1869
established a system of county funding for the new school system.
In 1867 George Peabody an expatriate New Englander living in London, donated $1 million to a
fund that would help schools in the south. Dr. Bronson met with the fund's representative in 1868
and secured support for a white school to be set up as an example to the county (Public School
No. 1 in St. Augustine). Money was also given from this fund to establish the library in the
African-American School (Public School No. 2.)
Dr. Bronson was appointed first superintendent of the new St. Johns County school system in
November of 1868 by the Florida Governor, Harrison Reed. The school board was appointed by
March 1869 (two more Presbyterians: George Burt and Dr. N. D. Benedict)
In reopening School No. 1 in December, 1869 the tasks were difficult. The old public school on
the Burnt Hospital lot (next to the present day St. Augustine Historical Research Library) was
turned over by the St. Augustine City Government that had been using it as a town hall and
council chambers. It had to be retrofitted to accommodate what would be a larger group of
students (this building with more modifications was in used till 1909). Books need to be procured.
Teachers found. Most important, the tax dollars had not been collected so individual funds
needed to be raised.
The following citizens contributed the necessary money: George N. Burt, J. E. Peck, C. W. Allen,
G. W. Walton, Francis Andreu, Bartolo Pacetti, J. Manucy, D. B. Usina, Charles H. Bohn, Andreu
Humman, Ignito Lopez, Anna Genova, William Brag, Charles D. Segui, Con Walker, O. Bronson,
Miss Perrit, F. Maignar, N. D. Benedict, B. E. Carr, J. W. Allen, J. J. Crain, Mrs. Newbury and F.
The first year saw three schools opening in St. Johns County besides the Freedmen's Bureau
School (No. 2) and the Peabody School (No. 1), in Fruit Cove another African-American school
was opened (No. 3). From this year forward public education was never in doubt in the county.
Beginnings of African-American Education in St. Johns County
In St. Augustine significant things had taken place in the education of freedmen. The
Freedmen's Bureau before its demise was able to build a school building in St. Augustine. The
lot was at 61 Cordova the Dragoons Barracks lot. In 1870 the trustees of the school were Fatio
Dunham, George W. Atwood, Josue Riley and Pablo Gray. Pablo Gray was a former Corporal in
the 21 Regt Company A of the USCT.
The school faced Spanish street. The building was 33 ft long and 15 feet wide with a 10 porch
that was 3 ft wide. The Freedmen's Bureau report listed it as 30 x 60 which would reflect that it
was a two story building. The cost of the building was $4000.00 which was substantially more
than the rest of the buildings in the state of Florida where buildings averaged only a little over
$1000. The land was occupied by the permission of the Sec of War. Interestingly enough the
land was requested almost 20 years previously as the site for a school but the transfer was
never approved. The authority to build for the Freedmen's Bureau came about on May 26, 1869
and the construction was approved July 15, 1869. The school was ready for the fall term. The
school became Public school #2 (Colored) in the St. Johns County School system and would
retain that designation for the following decades.
However, the first name listed for the school was the Bronson school after Dr. Oliver Bronson Jr.
Through Bronson's donation a second building was constructed on the school lot. A 15x15
cottage with porches on the east and west. Later an outdoor kitchen was constructed. This
building was used to house the teachers and finance the school through rentals to St. Augustine
tourists. This is perhaps one of the most unique methods of financing black education to be
found in the south.
While the Freedmen's Bureau existed it paid for the teacher's transportation and other school
costs by the "fiction" of paying rent for classrooms. The classrooms were actually donated by
churches and citizens such as Miss Sarah Mather who established support for African-American
schools. The American Missionary Association was providing the teachers. In 1869 the end of
the bureau was at hand. The final act of the bureau was to build school houses. The bureau
built the second largest public school building in Florida at St. Augustine on Spanish Street
(Stanton Normal School in Jacksonville was the largest. (Why St. Augustine got it's first
African-American school building.) For a few years the African-American community had a better
chance at an education the the white community. (See correspondence of the first teachers of
School No. 2.)
By virtue of his office he became a founding trustee of the Florida Agricultural College in 1872.
He held that position until his death in 1876 and was replaced by B.F. Oliveros the 3rd
Superintendent of St. Johns County Public Schools.
Saturday Oct 27, 1866
Through the generosity of Dr. Bronson, the plaza is being ornamented with water oaks. They
grow so rapidly that in a very few years they will afford a refreshing shade.
Buckingham Smith Benevolent Association
On January 4, 1871 Buckingham Smith suffered a heart attack and was found unconscious on
the streets of New York by a policeman who thought he was drunk. He died without regaining
consciousness in Bellevue Hospital.
He left a life interest to lands in St. Augustine to an African-American named Jack one of his
slaves, and $100 each to three other former servants. After disposing of personal effects to
friends and relative, he left the rest and residue of his property for the use of the black people of
St. Augustine and their successors in all time to come..."providing first for the aged and invalid of
those blacks which have been mine."
Dr. Bronson was his executor. As soon as it was practicable, in order to make a more permanent
provision for accomplishing the purposes of the testator, Dr. Bronson determined to create a
corporate institution, which was named The Buckingham Smith Benevolent Association.
In order to carry out the intentions of Mr. Smith, and to put the institution on a permanent basis,
Dr. Bronson purchased at his own expense, had erected a large building completely furnished
with everything necessary to make it comfortable, which he deeded to the Directors. there were
ample piazzas on the north and south sides, a large dining room and sitting room, and an
apartment for the matron; an outbuilding for a large kitchen and rooms for the domestics. This
was connected to the main building by a room open on the south designed as a sitting room in
pleasant weather. Dr. Bronson donated this without cost to the Association, so that the income
from Mr. smith's estate could be devoted to the maintenance of the inmates of the home.
A "Board of Lady Managers" was formed to aid in this benevolent work, with a membership
composed of some of the most prominent ladies in town. Miss Margaret Worth was the
Secretary, her sister Mrs. John Prague, and the Misses Humphreys and Benet were Vice
Presidents, Miss Rebecca Perit was Treasurer, and Miss Sarah Mather, the President.
These ladies immediately began making articles of clothing and other necessities for the home,
and on December 8, 1873, six aged colored women and two colored men took their first meal in
the newly erected Home. Others were admitted from time to time. The institution was in charge of
a matron, assisted by a cook and a house girl.
The first officers of the Association were Oliver Bronson, M.D., President, General John T.
Sprague and Oliver Bronson, Jr., Vice Presidents, Dr. Andrew Anderson, M.D., Physician and
Secretary, and Mr. James W. Allen, Treasurer.
St. Augustine House of Dr. Bronson
Dr. Bronson's home in St. Augustine was on St. Georges street besides Trinity Episcopal
Church. The house of Dr. Oliver Bronson became the St. George's Hotel. It was originally a small
hotel provided over by Col. Tyler but in 1887 Charles Tyler, his son, enlarged it. The hotel was
located next to the Trinity Episcopal Church on St. George Street. By 1888 the property was
owned by L. K. Tyler of Newark, New Jersey.
Wm. A. Fry, Real Estate Agent advertised the house as: fronting on the Plaza, bounded by St.
George St., Artillery Lane and Trinity Church. The house is commodious, surrounded with
piazzas and in good repair. The gardens are filled with tropical trees, shrubs, etc. (March 22,
Dr. Bronson died in Richfield Springs, N.Y. on July 21, 1875 after a short illness at the age of 76.
A street was named in his honor only to become Granada Street in the Flagler era.
Isaac Bronson, (born 19 March 1835 -March 26, 1872) a lawyer, died at Aiken S. C. on March
28th 1872. He was 37 years old. He started at the school of L. J. Dudley in Northampton, Mass.
He graduated Williams College in 1856. Isaac studied in the Albany Law School and received his
LL.B in 1858. He had married Harriet Whitney Phoenix, in St. Paul's Chapel, New York, 1 March
1859, by Rev. Frederick Ogilby, D. D., Prot. Epis. Harriet died of diphtheria, 22 Aug. 1864, at
Baden-Baden, Germany, without children; and was buried in the Whitney chapel, Greenwood
Cemetery. He then married Alice Whetten in 1866. There was a daughter from this marriage.
During the Civil War he served as Assistant Adjutant-General on the staff of General Sheridan
but received a serious injury to his ankle.He died of consumption at Aiken, S. C.
By 1883 Willett Bronson (born August 23, 1839) (Dr. Bronson's son) went bankrupt in New
York after buying up-town lots and having houses built on them. He was married to Margaret
O'Farrell Brown on Nov 16, 1871. The resources for his business were from the estate of his
father. Willett was a lawyer. He would die on May 28, 1917 in the New York Hill Crest Sanitarium.
Oliver Bronson, Jr., a St. Johns County Commissioner during Reconstruction would move back
to New York and practice law. He was born in New York in 1837 and was a graduate of Williams
College and Harvard Law School. His wife was Julia Frances Colt Bronson. They were married in
Trinity Episcopal Church by Rev Smedes on Thursday, June 2, 1870. He died on June 29, 1918
leaving a son Francis P. Bronson. Julia Frances Colt lived in St. Augustine at the Fatio House.
They lived in the house across the street in what today is the bed and breakfast - Casa de
He was the last surviving son of Dr. Oliver Bronson dying in his 83 year.
Dr. Oliver Bronson Sr. Documents:
1870 School Report
1873 School Report
1872 Original Letter with Signature
|School No. 1
|Cornerstone Public School #1
St. Augustine Historical Society
|Anna Olcott Bronson by John Turnbull
|Judge Isaac Bronson
Putnam County Historical Society
|Greenburg Public Library
|Hotel St. George - St. Augustine