Margaret Anna Robertson was born in 1810, and in 1831, she married the Rev. Robert Burwell. In 1835, the family moved to Hillsborough, where Rev. Burwell had accepted the pastorate of the Presbyterian Church. There, she was prompted by local townspeople to open a school. In 1837, the Burwell School opened, initially for local girls. Burwell's curriculum for girls was progressive for the times and offered courses such as penmanship, geography, astronomy, algebra, chemistry, and philosophy. In 1857, the Burwells moved to Charlotte, where Rev. Burwell became president of the Charlotte Female Institute, now Queens University of Charlotte.