B. 25 Jan 1614 in London, England
M. (1) before 1639 in (probably) New Haven, Connecticut
Wife: Mary (last name unknown)
M. (2) 18 Nov 1652 in Ipswich, Massachusetts
Wife: Ellen Lathrop
D. 21 Aug 1708 in Boston, Massachusetts
It has been said about Ezekiel Cheever that he was "perhaps the first true teacher in America." Ezekiel was born in London on January 25, 1614, the son of a skinner named William Cheever. Ezekiel was educated at Christ's Hospital and later studied classics at the University of Cambridge. In 1637, Ezekiel left England for America. He arrived in Boston and soon after migrated to New Haven, Connecticut. There he married a woman named Mary and between 1639 and 1648, they had six children. Mary died in 1649.
Ezekiel began his long teaching career when he started a school in his New Haven home in 1639. He received £20 a year for his services. One of his students there was Michael Wigglesworth, who went on to become a noted poet. Ezekiel specialized in Latin, and sometime before 1650, he wrote what is thought to be the first school book in America, Latin Accidence; A Short Introduction to the Latin Tongue. This text book was used for over a hundred years, and it was reprinted as late as 1838.
Ezekiel served as a representative to the General Court, but got into some trouble in 1649 for being too outspoken about church decisions, and was censured for it. In an attempt to defend himself, he said to the court, "I had rather suffer anything from men, than make a shipwreck of a good conscience, or go against my present light though erroneous, when it is not discovered." It is said that Ezekiel also occasionally preached. He wrote a book called Scripture Prophecies Explained, which contained three essays on his beliefs about resurrection and related topics.
In 1650, Ezekiel moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts to become the headmaster of the grammar school there. There he married his second wife, Ellen Lathrop, on November 18, 1652. They would have five children born between 1653 and 1664; one son, Ezekiel, would become a prominent figure in the Salem witch trials. Ezekiel Sr. continued as headmaster in Ipswich until 1661, when he moved to Charlestown and became a headmaster there.
On December 29, 1670, Boston Latin School made an offer to Ezekiel for him to become their headmaster. The salary was £60 a year and he accepted; he would continue there for the next 37 years. This is where his reputation as a Latin teacher became almost legendary. One of his pupils later recalled, "Once in making a piece of Latin, my Master found fault with the syntax of one word which was not so used by me heedlessly, but designedly, and therefore I told him there was a plain grammar rule for it. He angrily replied there was no such rule. I took the grammar and showed the rule to him. Then he smiling said, 'Thou are a brave boy. I had forgot it.' And no wonder, for he was above eighty years old."
There are no drawings or paintings of Ezekiel, but a description of his physical appearance survives from an acquaintance, Samuel Maxwell: "He wore a long white beard terminating in a point, that when he stroked his beard to the point, it was a sign for the boys to stand clear."
It seems as if Ezekiel lived on the grounds of Boston Latin School, but in 1702, orders were given to build him a house of his own. Ezekiel's second wife Ellen died on September 10, 1706 in Boston and Ezekiel died on August 21, 1708 at the age of 94.
Ezekiel's teaching career spanned 70 years and it is said that wherever he taught, a large percentage of his students went on to Harvard. His most noted pupil was Cotton Mather, who eulogized Ezekiel at his funeral. “We generally concur in acknowledging that New England has never known a better teacher.” Boston Latin School is still operating today, the oldest school in America. There was also a school in New Haven named in Ezekiel's honor during the early 20th century.
Ezekial was so reknown in the annals of New England, that he was immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his 1840 book, Grandfather's Chair. In the book, Hawthorne imagines a man telling his grandson of a single chair that was passed around to important figures in colonial history. An entire chapter was devoted to an imagined scene of Headmaster Cheever's classroom during his final years at Boston Latin School:
"Do you see the venerable schoolmaster, severe in aspect, with a black skullcap on his head, like an ancient Puritan, and the snow of his white beard drifting down to his very girdle? What boy would dare to play; or whisper, or even glance aside from his book while Master Cheever is on the lookout behind his spectacles? For such offenders, if any such there be, a rod of birch is hanging over the fireplace, and a heavy ferule lies on the master's desk."
Famous descendants of Ezekiel Cheever include Franklin D. Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan.
Children by Mary:
1. Samuel Cheever – B. 22 Sep 1639, New Haven, Connecticut; D. 29 May 1724, Marblehead, Massachusetts; M. Ruth Angier (~1647-1742), 28 Jun 1671
2. Mary Cheever – B. about 1640, New Haven, Connecticut; D. 10 Jan 1728, Farmington, Connecticut; M. (1) William Lewis (1620-1690), 22 Nov 1671, Boston, Massachusetts; (2) Thomas Bull, 13 Jan 1692, Farmington, Connecticut
3. Ezekiel Cheever – B. about 1642; D. young
4. Elizabeth Cheever – B. about 1645; M. Samuel Goldthwaite, 6 Sep 1666, Charlestown, Massachusetts
5. Sarah Cheever – B. about 1646
6. Hannah Cheever – B. about 1648
Children by Ellen Lathrop:
1. Abigail Cheever – B. 20 Oct 1653; D. 24 Jan 1705, Boston, Massachusetts
2. Ezekeil Cheever – B. 1 Jul 1655; M. Abigail Lippingwell, 17 Jun 1680, Salem, Massachusetts; D. 30 Oct 1731, Salem, Massachusetts
3. Nathaniel Cheever – B. 23 Jun 1657, Ipswich, Massachusetts; D. 12 Jul 1657, Ipswich, Massachusetts
4. Thomas Cheever – B. 23 Aug 1658, Ipswich, Massachusetts
5. William Cheever – B. 23 Jan 1664, Charlestown, Massachusetts; D. 5 Feb 1664, Charlestown, Massachusetts
Wikipedia article for Ezekiel Cheever
Ezekiel Cheever Schoolmaster, Elizabeth Porter Gould, 1904
"Trial of Ezekiel Cheever Before New Haven Church, 1649," Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, Vol. 1, 1860
Grandfather's Chair: True Stories From New England History and Biography, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1841
GeneaStar: Famous Family Tree and Genealogy [website]
Ezekiel Cheever and some of his descendants, John Tyler Hasam, Boston, Massachusetts, 1879