America’s Wild West tamed by frontier schoolmarms

America’s Wild West was tamed in part due to the talented and dedicated women who served as frontier schoolteachers. The pioneering women who became teachers during this period of our nation’s history were indeed a special breed. At the turn of the century, females were expected to be dependent upon their husbands, fathers, or other male relatives. It was extremely unusual, and not at all encouraged, for a woman to support herself and function independently. Nevertheless, many intelligent and self-reliant women in search of personal freedom and adventure joined the Westward movement as schoolmarms.

The stereotype of a frontier schoolteacher was that of an unattractive spinster or a prim and proper young miss. In reality, she was often neither of those. Many of these ladies came from influential and affluent Eastern families. A few were filled with burning ambition, and others were seeking a better life, and perhaps some were seeking a husband of like mind. In general, though, they were dedicated practitioners of their profession. Despite primitive working conditions, uninviting classrooms, low wages, and overwork, these stalwart women introduced literacy, culture, and morality to the roughneck communities they served. A few of these teachers became missionaries, others became suffragettes, and one of them—Jeannette Rankin of Montana—even went on to become the first woman to be elected to the United States House of Representatives!

Our society owes these frontier schoolmarms a great debt. Read more about pioneering teachers in my book, Chalkboard Champions, available through amazon.com or Barnes and Noble. Click on the link to find out how to get a copy of the book. Enjoy!

Susan Mills: The science teacher who founded the first women’s college in California

American history offers many examples of extraordinary educators. This blog spotlights just a few of them. Today’s focus is on Susan Tolman Mills, a secondary school teacher who established the first women’s college in California.

Susan Tolman was born in Enosburg, Vermont, on November 18, 1825. One of eight children, she was the daughter of homesteaders who operated a thriving business. Her father owned a tannery and her mother was a homemaker. Susan’s mother was especially insistent that her six daughters become educated, and after the family relocated to Ware, Massachusettes, all the daughters attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Following her graduation, Susan taught classes in science and theology there for three years.

In 1848, the young educator married Cyrus Taggart Mills, a Presbyterian missionary. The adventurous newlyweds traveled to Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. Cyrus became the principal of a seminary for boys, while Susan taught domestic skills to girls in the local schools.

In 1860, the couple moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where they took charge of the Punahou School. There Susan taught geography, geology, chemistry, and botany. She introduced physical education to the female students. She also dedicated her energy to improving the food choices and other amenities provided by the school.

In 1864, Susan and Cyrus relocated to California, with ambitions of establishing a school of their own. Their goal was to provide equal education and opportunities for women. The year after their arrival in the state they purchased a girls’ seminary in Benicia, just east of Vallejo in Solano County. They named their institution Mills Seminary. The couple spent several years improving their school by expanding the number of course offerings and recruiting qualified teachers. In 1871, they sold this property and moved their school to Oakland, on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay. This new facility, with four-story buildings, dining halls, and a high central observatory named Mills Hall, was long considered the most beautiful education building in California. Eventually the girls’ school established by the Mills was transformed into Mills College, the first women’s college in the state. The college still serves young women as a liberal arts college to this day. After Susan’s beloved husband passed away, Susan continued to serve as the principal of Mills College, expertly performing her administrative duties.

In 1901, Susan was awarded an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Mount Holyoke, recognizing her extraordinary contributions to education. At the time, the trustees of Punahou commented that Susan, “met and overcame obstacles with equanimity; she accomplished great work with poor facilities; she drew her inspiration from the dull routine of a busy life.”

Susan Mills retired in 1909 at the age of 84. She passed away three years later, on December 12, 1912, in her home, the Vermont cape house she and her husband had built on the Mills campus. This talented and industrious educator was interred at Sunnyside Cemetery, located on the college grounds.

How professional responsibilities have changed since the 1800’s!

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As teachers ready themselves for the start of another school year, it seems appropriate to spend some time reflecting on professional responsibilities. Usually I read the list of responsibilities for teachers published by the National Popular Education Board in 1872. It’s amusing to see how much things have changed in the last one hundred and forty years. Here’s the list:

  • Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys.
  • Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
  • Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.
  • Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.
  • After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
  • Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
  • Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.
  • Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.
  • The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.

Awesome.

Chalkboard Champion Eliza Mott: She founded a frontier school in her kitchen

6afce522c185bef1aa208a6dec7502e0One of the most celebrated pioneer teachers in Nevada history was Eliza Mott, a remarkable educator who is credited with founding the first school in Carson Valley, Nevada. In 1852, this enterprising pioneer wife and mother set up her school in her farmhouse kitchen. Her students sat on bare logs around a crude, wooden table. Armed with a couple of McGuffey Readers, a speller, and an arithmetic book, Eliza welcomed into her school boys and girls dressed in plaid shirts or gingham dresses and home-knit stockings. Some were barefoot and some were wearing rough shoes with hard leather soles. The students in Eliza’ s class ranged in age from five to eleven years in age. Some of the pupils were her own children, and some were her nieces and nephews. 

Eliza was born on January 13, 1829, in Toronto, Canada. Her family immigrated to Lee County, Iowa, in 1842, and it was there that the young Eliza developed her skills as a teacher. She excelled at academic subjects and vowed to make great strides in the field of education. At the age of 22, she met and fell in love with Israel Mott, and on April 10, 1850, the pair were married.

As soon as they were married, Israel and Eliza decided to go West . The fledgling pioneers set out in a Conestoga wagon pulled by two sturdy oxen. In early 1851 they landed in Salt Lake City, where they joined a Mormon wagon train and headed for California, one of a party of thirty families led by the famous frontiersman Kit Carson. When the caravan stopped to rest at Mormon Station in northern Nevada in July, 1851, Israel decided he liked the area so much he wanted to stay there. The couple homesteaded a 2,100-acre section of land along the Carson River route, and on this homestead Eliza established her school.

As more pioneer travelers established their farms in the area, the name of Mottsville was given to the settlement. It quickly became apparent that a school was needed. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Eliza still had to run the farm. On an average day, the young pioneer woman would rise before dawn to care for her children, milk the cows, cook breakfast for her family and hired hands, prepare lunches for her students, and then complete her lesson plans. By fall, 1855, the Mottsville School had officially outgrown Eliza’s kitchen, and by the next year a schoolhouse was built in town. A schoolmaster was hired from the East, and Eliza resigned as the teacher to care for her family full-time.

This chalkboard champion will always be remembered fondly as the founder of the first school in Carson Valley, Nevada. 

Minnesota teacher, pioneer, and photographer Sarah Louise Judd

59686592_0_nocropThroughout American history there are many examples of frontier pioneers and innovators who became schoolteachers. One such young woman was Sarah Louise Judd.

Sarah Judd was born June 16, 1802, in Farmington, Connecticut. During her childhood there, she completed her education. In 1832, Sarah’s family moved to Marine Mills, Illinois, where her father established a tavern and her brothers became stockholders in the Marine Lumber Company.

Later, the Judd family became frontier pioneers and headed for the new territory of Minnesota. In 1846, Sarah founded the first school in Point Douglas, Minnesota, and later she founded the first school in Stillwater. The Stillwater school was established in a small vacant log cabin.

In January, 1849, the veteran schoolteacher married Ariel Eldridge. The couple had no children.

In her day, a French citizen named Louis Daguerre invented the ability to take photographs called “dagueereotypes.” The enterprising Sarah established a photography studio in her home town in Spring, 1848. In so doing, she became the first professional photographer in Minnesota.

Following a long illness, Sarah passed away in Stillwater on October 12, 1886, at the age of 84. She was buried in Fairwater Cemetery in Stillwater’s Washington County.