Pioneer Educator Olive Mann Isbell

P_32405Pioneer and educator Olive Mann Isbell is a little known figure from California history, but she contributed to our state in a very big way. She is credited as being the first teacher in a school conducted in English in California.

In 1846, when Olive was only 22 years old, she and her husband, Dr. Isaac Isbell, traveled west in a Conastoga wagon as part of the Aram-Imus wagon train. The California territory had recently been severed from Mexico, and the Isbells arrived just as the Mexican army was poised to attack in an attempt to reclaim the land. To attempt to keep them safe, Olive and over two hundred American women and children were barricaded inside Mission Santa Clara de Asis, while the men were quickly drafted to defend the dilapidated fort. Inside the shelter, Olive, sensing the anxiety of the children, decided to organize a school to occupy their attention. The newly-arrived pioneer was well-suited to this work, being the niece of the famous educator Horace Mann and an experienced teacher from her home state of Ohio. With little more than a stick and sooty chalk, Olive conducted her lessons by day, and at night she nursed her fellow pioneers to health and melted down whatever metals she could find to make bullets.

When  Mexico finally laid down their arms and signed a truce with the United States on January 3, 1847, Olive’s Santa Clara Mission School became recognized as the first American school on California soil. This mission school property now belongs to the University of Santa Clara.

You can read more about this amazing educator in my new book, Chalkboard Heroes, now available from