Frontier Teachers: A Book in One Hand and a Gun in the Other


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.


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13 thoughts on “Frontier Teachers: A Book in One Hand and a Gun in the Other”

  1. What wonderful stories, Margaret! How brave and clever these women were! I am amazed and in awe. Personal anecdotes like these are what bring history alive to me. Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Good mornin’ Margaret. I’ll bet that you would have been one of those Wild Western Women Frontier Tamers. You would have put those gun-totin’, tobacco chewin’, spitoon spittin’ cowboys in their place!

    You always come up with the most interesting, educational and FUNNY articles! Thanks for starting my morning off with a smile.

  3. Hi Chelley, can’t wait to see what you’ve cooked up for your guest post tomorrow on Petticoats and Pistols.

    I think I could have handled the gun-toting cowboys, but those fleas would have been a challenge.

  4. Those teachers had to be so dedicated, Margaret. So much courage. And from what I understand, they weren’t allowed to marry, or they’d lose their jobs.
    Teachers today face new and different challenges. But to me the good ones are still heroes and heroines.

  5. Happy Friday. You woke me up, Margaret. Your post made me laugh and started the old ticker goin’. Now I have to go see if the coffee is done.
    The Teachers of the old West were very brave. They had no idea what was out here. I’m sure some didn’t make it. Others got married before their term was up. Those darn Indians probably scared more than one teacher our of her bloomers. They had guts. You really have to give it to them.
    This coming week starts our Film Festival Weekend.
    All the Old Westerns made here will come to life.
    Anyone living in Southern California should make the trip up Hwy 395 to see us. Oct 5-6-7.
    SORRY, couldn’t hold back.

  6. Elizabeth, that’s true; they weren’t allowed to marry (or spend time alone with a man not her father) or even hang out in an ice cream parlor.

    I just read a newspaper article where teachers complained about low pay, overcrowded classrooms, non-English speaking children.
    Sound familiar?

    The article was written in 1862, but it could have been written today. Not much has changed, at least in California.


  7. Hi Mary J!
    That’s the Lone Pine Film Festival, right? I’ve been there and love it. Lone Pine is one of our favorite places to visit and the film festival is always great fun.

    Thank you for the reminder. 🙂

  8. I can’t imagine the hardships those frontier teachers faced. Good grief. Teaching school with frozen feet, having to scratch out lessons on a dirt floor, and resorting to reading tombstones when books weren’t available is what I call going above and beyond. Those teachers deserved medals. I think the teaching profession as always been difficult and it’s equally so today. Teachers today get zero help from most parents and they face unmannerly and disruptive kids. Sure they have computers and blackboards and books but it’s still not easy. Thank you for such an interesting blog.

  9. I think it gave women of strength and character a chance to strike out on their own. Not everyone is made out to be only a homemaker and back then it was mostly an either or proposition. Great post.

  10. Hi Linda, thank you for stopping by. Don’t you think teaching would be a lot easier if teachers were left alone to teach and not have to follow federal guidelines and adminster so many tests? Sure seems like it to me.


  11. Hi Catslady, you’re right about that. The frontier opened up all sorts of possibilities for women. Aren’t we lucky that today the sky is the limit to what a woman can do? Challenges still exist, of course, but at least we don’t have to fight off Indians.

    Have a great weekend.

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