Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Notorious Schoolmarms of the Old West
Blog #3  One-room Schoolhouse Teachers
            By Julie Hanks, Ph.D.  aka Jesse J Elliot

         Okay, I’m sorry, I couldn’t find any “notorious” schoolmarms or schoolmasters west of the Mississippi. Due to the strict rules educators (especially female educators) had to follow in order to maintain their employment, any scandalous behavior would have been met with immediate expulsion. Teachers could administer the birch to a student and still be in the right, but if the teachers were out after eight or missed church or flirted, they were fired.
            After Catharine Beecher lauded women’s ability to be natural teachers (and cheaper ones at that) in the classrooms, the amount of female teachers increased greatly. Between 1847 and 1858, more than 600 women teachers traveled across the untamed frontier to provide youngsters with an education, and the numbers grew rapidly in the decades to come, as women took advantage of one of the few career opportunities for respectable work for ladies of the era (Enss.) By 1890, approximately seventy five percent of school teachers were female, and though none were notorious, many were notable. Here are four of them.

Sister Blandina-Builder of schools & hospitals; Friend to Billy the Kid and Happy Jack; passionate teacher and caregiver to SW Native Americans & Mexicanos

              In Trinidad, CO, Sister Blandina brought communities together to build schools and hospitals. Money was never available for schools, so when Sister Blandina arrived and saw the shack used for educating the children, she decided to draw attention to the need for a newer building. She took a crowbar and got on the roof and began to rip it apart. When a local rancher rode by, he asked what she was doing. She told him she was rebuilding the schoolhouse since this one was unacceptable. Shocked by this intrepid nun who spoke to him in his own language (Spanish) and realizing she was right, he asked her what she needed. Before the day was done, she had six men with supplies helping her. Apparently, few if any of her ventures were funded originally, but she refused to accept defeat and accomplished her goal each time one way or another with the help of the community.
            One day she was called to save the life of a youth. When Sister Blandina found him, he was slowly dying from gunshot wounds. None of the doctors would help him as he was an outlaw. Ironically his name was Lucky Jack. She took care of him for nine months until he died. For her kindness, Jack’s gang leader, another youth at the time, Billy the Kid, asked how he could return a favor.  The sister asked him not to harm the doctors who had refused to help Jack after she heard his plan to go back and scalp them. Billy the Kid promised her and never got his revenge, but as we all know, he did continue to rob stages, etc.
After building schools and hospitals and helping bring education and medical care to the Mexicanos and the Native Americans of the South West, Sister Blanini died at the ripe old age of 94 (Enss).

Hannah Clapp: A teacher named Hannah Clapp arrived in Salt Lake City wearing “a calico blouse and bloomers made of thick, canvas-type material and carrying a pistol.”
         Hannah Clapp made the trip out west with her brother and his family. Her only desire was to bring education to the west. Her attire reflected her philosophy. She supported women’s rights, the Temperance movement, and the [then] Republican party. “She was armed and ready to take on anyone who might physically challenge her style or dream of going to California to teach.”  Finding that there was no school between the Sierras and Salt Lake City, she petitioned the territorial leaders to approve a modest facility. They gave her $12,000. Though larger than a one-room schoolhouse, she opened the doors of the Sierra Seminary.  She shared teaching duties with two other teachers, and her school was so renown, that a young reporter was sent over to cover some of the special events of the school. His name was Mark Twain (Enss).

Anna Webber:  Prairie teacher, taught sixteen + students in a classroom made for about six students with no furniture, blackboards, or books.
         At twenty-one years of age, Anna Webber received her teaching certificate in Mitchell County. She went on to teach in Blue Hill, Kansas, in a sod schoolroom. Eleven boys and five girls made up her classroom. Their ages ranged from six to thirteen years. In her journal, she explains that she waits in vain for any classroom furniture. No desks, no chairs, and no tables. About half way through the three-month session, six new students arrived, and Glory Be, they brought a table with them. Webber was ecstatic. 
         Also in her journal, Webber described the constant inclement weather of the prairie, high winds and storms that often kept her students away from class. “My Land! The wind blows hard enough to take a persons heard off.” Forced to keep the students inside, she allows them to play, but their play shakes the sod schoolhouse so much that she can’t even write straight.  Sadly on the last day of school, it rained so hard that only nine students were able to show up.
         In spite of the lack of furniture, equipment, books, and blackboards, Webber continued to teach in Blue Hills and two additional Kansas counties in the state. She later joined the Kansas Industrial School in June 1890 and was the head of the sewing department. She married, and her daughter became a respected teacher of American history at Lincoln High School in Nebraska (Enss).

Lucinda Lee Dalton:       Tenacious and intellectual
         Another notable female teacher was from Beaver, Utah. Dalton illustrates the intellectual depth of the teachers found in the West. Forced to quit her own education at twelve, she left behind her mentor, a male teacher who recognized her for her intellect, and she went to work for her father in his newly opened private school. Though younger than many of the students by up to four years, she was their intellectual superior in all subjects. At sixteen she began teaching in an infant school.
         Though born a Mormon, she was an independent thinker and a suffragette. After a failed marriage and the death of her husband, she went back to teaching to support her four children. There she gained her independence and an opportunity to continue to learn with her students (Kinkead, 1996).
         This is just four of the many notable teachers. I’m having difficulty finding any schoolmasters of the Old West, let alone notable ones.  If any of you out there know of some journals or anecdotes about male teachers in the Old West, don’t be shy. Please pass them on.

Czajka, Christopher. (2000)   Homestead History       

Enss, Chris. (2008) Frontier Teachers: Stories Of Heroic Women Of The Old West.
            Globe Pequot: Guilford, CT.

Kinkead, Joyce.(1996). A Schoolmarm All My Life: Personal Narratives from Frontier
            Utah. Signature Books: Salt Lake City, Utah.


  1. Great article Julie. Had fun writing about a little schoolmarm last year in Wild Violets, in my Mountain Wives Series. My granny was a schoolteacher as a young woman and it was not an easy job. Real stories often sound outlandish, though true. Love how most of these women were free-thinkers, temperance, and suffragette leaders in their communities. Thanks for writing this.

  2. I'd love to hear about your Granny. Maybe I can include her in one of the blogs. Those women had to be made of courage, imagination, and fortitude--especially the ones who made the trip out west by themselves. Thank you, Janet for writing.

  3. It you get the chance, read Sister Blandina's autobiography, "End of the Santa Fe Trail". It is a great read.

    Loved this post. Right down my line. Doris

  4. Thank you, and I will read her autobiography. What an amazing woman! Thanks--as always--for your comments. Julie/Jesse