Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Frontier Teachers

Below is one of my lectures from my online class Pioneering Women of the West.  I will be teaching this class next month at the Hearts Through History campus. In PIONEERING WOMEN OF THE WEST, you’ll learn about the western movement, the treacherous journey hundreds of thousands people took and of the lives of specific women who helped shape the West, intentionally or not. Some women went looking for a better life; others followed their man into the wilderness. 

FMI and to register click HERE.

Frontier Teachers
By Anna Kathryn Lanier

The life of a frontier teacher was not glamorous, but it was exciting, including the ‘getting there’ part.

Mary Gray McLench grew up in Vermont, and taught there for several years before answering a call from Vermont governor and National Board of Popular Education agent William Slade in 1850 to go to the Oregon Territory to establish schools and teach.  Mary agreed to go when she learned her aunt and uncle were also moving west. Unlike her relatives, Mary decided to travel by ship instead of making an overland trip.  The National Board gave Mary and her four travelling companions (also teachers heading west) $350 for passage and a new saddle.  They took a ship to the Isthmus of Panama, where they disembarked and traveled by mule over the mountains of Panama.  Once on the Pacific side, the group boarded another ship bound for San Francisco.

The unmarried women were accompanied on their trip by Samuel R. Thurston, a delegate to congress from Oregon Territory.  Unfortunately, Samuel contracted what Mary called Isthmus of Panama fever during the trip and died shortly after they started their journey to San Francisco.  In her memoir, Mary stated that if he’d been someone other than a dignitary, he’d have been buried at sea.  Instead, his body was enshrouded in the U.S. flag and he was buried in Acapulco once the ship reached that port.

Two other politicians traveling on the ship offered their services as escort for the women.  After traveling 5,000 miles and spending a month at sea, the women reached San Francisco on April 23, 1851.  The city, according to Mary, was both expensive and considerably busy.  The teachers only stayed one night before continuing on to Oregon.  A steamer ship carried them up the Columbia River to Portland, Oregon.  They stayed in the small town for six days before boarding a flatboat, covered with an awning, for Oregon City.  What should have been a short journey turned into an adventure when the boat ran aground.  The boat was tied to a tree and the crew made ready to spend the night, though the lights of Oregon City could be seen ahead.  Although the crew had food to eat, the women had none and evidently, weren’t offered any of the crews’ food.  The captain did have some mattresses he rolled out for the women to use for the night.

When the sun rose the next morning, provisions were sent down the river to the stranded women.  Once refreshed, they disembarked where they were stranded and walked through a stumpy bushy pasture to Oregon City.  Mary liked the small town much better than Portland. It was here that the teachers were given their assignments.  Three remained in Oregon City, one was sent to Durham, one to Forest Grove and Mary went to Tualatin, 13 miles south of Portland.  Mary taught for five terms before she married Benjamin McLench and settled into the life of a farmer’s wife and mother of four.

Mary Webber graduated from a school in Mitchell County, Kansas and took her teaching exam in the spring of 1881.  Shortly after passing the exam, she took a teaching position at a one-room schoolhouse in Blue Hill. On her first day, she had eleven boys and five girls…sixteen children in a building designed for a half dozen.  The furnishings were as sparse as the prairie surrounding it.  There was a chair for the teacher and boards balanced on rocks for the students to sit on.  There was no blackboard, no slates, and no writing desks.

Two weeks into her term, Mary writes about her situation.  “If only I had larger scholars that were farther advanced, I might like it….If I can get to Beloit I will get me a grammar, and some kind of writing system.  But I am so far from town that I don’t expect to get there until after school is out.”  A few days later she writes, “I do wish those seats would come!”  The locals promise to go get them, but not until after they’ve planted their corn.

On June 9th, she writes of having to discipline a student.  The “little chap blacked his face in school-time, and made a real jubilee.  I don’t like to punish a pupil, and I have very little of it to do.” She kept the boy after school as punishment.  Mary finished her school term and then went on to teach at Blue Hill and in two other Kansas counties throughout the 1880’s. In June of 1890, she joined the staff of the Kansas Industrial School, where she headed the sewing department.  That same year she met Robert H. Gravatt and a few months later, the two married.

Mary's diary can be read HERE.

Now, an interesting encounter happened to teacher Sister Blandina Segale. Sister Blandina was first sent to Colorado to teach.  She also had some knowledge of healing and in addition to teaching, she hoped to open a hospital in Trinidad to care for the Native Americans, orphans, miners, and injured outlaws.  Her students, whose respect she had earned on the first day of school for both standing up to them and knowing how to speak Spanish, approached her one day about an injured member of Billy the Kid’s gang, Happy Jack.  The man was badly wounded and not expected to live.

She took the outlaw in, cared for him and in the end, converted him.  I’m sure this made the Sister very happy, as her main goal was to save souls.  She looked after Happy Jack for nine months before he died of his injuries. 

In 1876, Sister Blandina was transferred to Santa Fe, New Mexico and a very dilapidated school.  “There were no black-boards, charts, maps, desks, books—nothing but the teacher and the orphans.” She sent out a request for teacher’s pay and this money was used to secure books and other supplies.  Also, she contacted those she had known in Colorado and asked them for help. Within a few days, the floors were replaced, windows were installed and a new blackboard was hung.

 Before her school term was to begin, she returned to Trinidad to visit her sister (also a nun) who had recently arrived from Ohio.  On the trip back, news of stage attacks by Billy the Kid’s gang ran rampant.  Her fellow coach companions busied themselves with cleaning and loading their guns while Sister Blandina and her fellow nun busied themselves with praying.  Soon enough, riders approached from every side and caught up with the stage.  Seeing who one of the men were, Sister Blandina adjusted her bonnet and looked Billy the Kid straight in the eye.  Recognizing her in return, he “raised his large-brimmed hat with a wave and a bow.  Before turning and riding away, he stopped to give us some of his wonderful antics on bronco maneuvers.”  She continued to pray that the outlaw would change his way and was saddened to learn of his death at the hands of Pat Garrett. has a great web page on teachers,  Please find something on pioneer teachers and share with the class.

BTW, you can even refer to a previously mentioned pioneer woman...Tabitha Brown…for teaching information.  Check out Oregon sites for information on her.  She helped establish a college.

FRONTIER TEACHERS: Stories of Heroic Women of the Old West by Chris Enss

Copyright© 2012 Anna Kathryn Lanier

Click HERE to register for the class Pioneering Women of the West, starting Nov. 1st. 


  1. Of course, your post warmed my heart. Since I was a high school teacher, I do know something about kids, and mainly they've really not changed much from the beginning of the movement west. I've read numerous articles and stories about pioneer teachers, and have loved everyone. One is November of the Heart, by LaVyrle Spender, a romance author who retire 20 years ago, before I found her book. This book was a young woman from the East who traveled by train to Minnesota to be a school "marm" in a farming area. It's a wonderful story. Thanks for your research on this profession of being a frontier teacher. I loved it.

  2. Hi, Celia. I enjoy doing this sort of research. And had I gone to college right out of high school, iId have been a teacher. I went when I was 45, got my AA and now I sub in the local district. And as might not be so surprising, I'd have been a history teacher!

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