By Anna Kathryn Lanier
As the West was settled, teachers came to educate the children. From 1847-1858, more than 600 women went West to teach, but like everything else in the West, teaching wasn’t easy. There was an abysmal shortage of supplies. Sister Blandena Seagle noted in her journal about a Santa Fe, New Mexico school, “There were no black boards, charts, maps, desks, books….” This was typical of frontier schools everywhere.
Also in short supply was time. Today, schools in the United States must hold classes for 180 days. In the mid-1800’s, the schools usually followed the farming seasons. They were often open for a few weeks at a time, then closed during the planting season, opening again during the growing season. Anna Webber’s Kansas school was open for only three months during the year, May through July.
Another challenge to teaching was the building itself. A community was lucky to have a school building available when the teacher arrived. If it didn’t, a log cabin, shed or abandoned homesteader’s shack would be transformed into school. Or, the community would hold a ‘school raising,’ and build one. In general, the schools were one room and small. Sarah Newman recalls her room being “maybe 10 by 12 feet.” One teacher complained that though her school could only hold a dozen students, she had more than twice that in attendance on occasion. Overcrowding was a problem, even then.
Students, though, were separated, with boys on one side of the room and girls on the other. In some schools, the sexes were even segregated during recess. Edwin C Hewett suggested that a fence divide the backyard of the school, so the girls and boys could play in separate areas of the yard.
Classes tended to focus on the basics: reading, writing, arithmetic, history, spelling and penmanship—which could be difficult when you did not have slates, paper or pencils. The Bible was often the only book a family had to send to school for reading practice. With this shortage of books, lessons were largely memorization, recitation and oral drilling. Spelling bees were popular in the last part of the century.
In the East and first half of the nineteenth century, males dominated the teaching profession, since a woman’s place was in the home. However, as the country moved West, the need for teachers, male or female rose. By the 1870’s, 25% of all American-born white women had taught school at some time in their lives. The community had an advantage in hiring a woman teacher, though. Women were paid 40-60% less than their male counterparts, making $54.50 a year to a male teacher’s $71.40 on average in the 1880’s.
These women, some as young as sixteen, risked the journey west to bring education to the next generation. They are as much responsible for the settling of the West as the gold hunters, mountain men, farmers and businessmen who looked westward to seek their fortune.
Who was your most memorable teacher? Why? Leave a comment and you’ll be eligible for my prize drawing. The prize: a 2011 Studs and Spur Calendar….yeah, hunky cowboys for your viewing pleasure, all year long!
Frontier Teachers: Stories of Heroic Women of the Old West by Chris Enss