Cartographer, geologist, and educator Matthew Rhea was born near Blountville in 1795. He attended Washington College and earned his living by surveying, teaching, and farming. In 1820 he moved to Maury County, where surveying and cartography became his major interests.
Rhea made three significant contributions to the intellectual life of Tennessee. In 1832 he published his major work, a map of Tennessee that incorporated extensive personal observations. It clarified the geography of Tennessee and stimulated economic development. Published comments on Rhea’s map assume he worked alone, but unpublished sources indicate he had help from a University of Nashville professor, Gerard Troost. On March 5, 1831, Troost wrote Rhea an apology for an error he had made in calculating the elevation of Nashville for Rhea’s map. How much computational work Troost did is not clear, but he had some influence on the map. Rhea’s second contribution was to geology. Although he never published an independent report on the subject, Rhea accumulated original geologic data, which he contributed to at least one publication by Alexander Buchanan. Finally, Rhea was one of the first people to describe an archaeological site that involved the type of aboriginal interment that is now called a stone box burial.
In 1833 Rhea changed careers and relocated to Somerville in Fayette County. While continuing to farm, he became the only teacher and the president of a female academy. The school existed on paper in 1831 as the Somerville Female Academy but first accepted pupils in 1833. A companion male school opened in 1831. By 1850 a legislative charter made the female school a college and authorized the awarding of degrees. Another reorganization in 1854 created the Somerville Model School for Young Ladies, with degree-granting privileges. Both this school and its companion, the Model School for Young Gentlemen, were boarding facilities.
By 1857 the female school had a faculty of fifteen. The student body of 264 included several graduate students. Young women came from California, Texas, and seven other states. Rhea no longer served as president but was affiliated with the school through 1860. Success of the Somerville schools, both male and female, was partly rooted in Rhea’s years of service. In 1870 he died at his home near Somerville. Rhea was a creative school administrator, an innovative cartographer, and a contributor to state-level knowledge of both archaeology and geology.
James X. Corgan, “Toward a History of Higher Education in Antebellum West Tennessee,” West Tennessee Historical Society Publications 39 (1986): 51-81; Robert M. McBride and Owen Meredith, eds., Eastin Morris Tennessee Gazetteer 1834 and Matthew Rheas Map of the State of Tennessee 1832 (1971)