Teaching has never been an easy profession, but frontier teachers not only trained young minds, they also had to help tame the west.
Why would a woman leave family and friends for a low paying job in an unsettled, hostile land. Part of the answer lies with Catherine Beecher who did for education what her sister Harriet did for slavery. In The Duty of American Women to Their Country, she encouraged women to go west and meet the demand for teachers, arguing that women are “…the best, as well as the cheapest, guardian and teacher of childhood, in the school as well as in the nursery.”
Beecher was right about women being the cheapest; female teachers earned only forty to sixty percent of what male teachers earned, but that didn’t keep them from rising to the occasion. Between 1847 and 1858, more than six hundred female teachers traveled west to teach under the most difficult conditions imaginable and the numbers kept growing.
Armies, Indians and Things that Fly
In 1849 twenty-two year old Olive Isbel left Ohio with her husband to open the first school for American children in California. She taught a class of twenty students while cradling a loaded rifle in one hand and a book in the other. The Mission where she taught was under fire by the Mexican army trying to reclaim land believed to belong to Mexico.
Twenty-three years later in 1872, Sister Blandina Segale of Colorado didn’t have it much easier. Her classroom was periodically disturbed by attacking Ute Indians, who sided with the Mexicans.
While Sister Segale handled her Indian problem with prayer, Frontier teacher Harriet Bishop handled hers with diplomacy. When her school was attacked by fifty Sioux firing guns, she hid the children behind her voluptuous skirts and managed to persuade the Indians to leave by telling them that, “The children’s hearts are not strong like ours.”
Attacking armies and Indians weren’t the only problems frontier teachers faced. Isaben Fodge Cornish wrote about attending a sod school: “The floor was of dirt and during the cold winter of 1884 the teacher’s feet were frosted. Later a quantity of straw was put on the floor which made it warmer but proved to be a breeding place for fleas. This was not conductive to quiet study but did afford the children some bodily activity.” (No child obesity back then and now you know why.)
Tonight’s Homework: Read Ten Headstones
Teachers often lacked even the most basic necessities. Blackboards were considered a luxury and books were in short supply. Teachers were forced to use whatever was on hand. Eliza Mott, who taught school in Nevada in 1851, was so hard-pressed for books she conducted class in the local cemetery where she taught her pupils to read the epitaphs on gravestones.
Isbell also had to teach without benefit of paper, pens or slates. Her students printed their school work on their hands with pieces of charcoal and she scratched her lesson plans upon the dirt floor with a stick.
Sister Segale was short desks and classroom space and this time she chose action over diplomacy. She solved the first problem by sawing what desks she had on hand in half, thus giving each pupil a place to sit. She then borrowed a crowbar and demolished the school, hoping that good-hearted citizens would take pity and build her a new one. Her plan worked.
Conditions were poor, the rules tough and pay low, but the heroic teachers who traveled west laid the foundation that shaped young minds and helped turn America into the land of opportunity it is today.