A Fire in Her Bones

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As its main selling point, this 1892 advertisement claims the JFA is the “oldest institution in the West for the education of young ladies.” My colleagues and I have often repeated this fact, but we have to ask: It this true? Is this really important? Why do they need to be first? Why to we need them to be first? If this isn’t true and they weren’t first, does that somehow devalue my research?

So let’s get one thing straight: the JFA was not first. But that’s okay because I’ve learned that this obsession over being at the front of the line obscures a much richer story about how women on the frontier created new communities.

As my research unfolds, I’m not finding firsts. I’m finding friendships, networks, and organizations of women all across the Midwest and Northeast who share a commitment to women’s education. It started when I wanted to confirm that Sarah Choate Crocker, the first preceptress of the JFA was hired upon the recommendation of education pioneer Mary Lyon. The JFA trustee meeting minutes from 1832 thank Lyon for her help in identifying a suitable teacher, but like the advertisement above, I was somewhat skeptical. Thanks to ancestry.com having uploaded a massive collection of school catalogs from the American Antiquarian Society, I easily pulled up the catalog of the Ipswich Female Academy (Ipswich, MA) ending in the year 1834 and found Crocker’s name listed as a teacher right under Mary Lyon and Zilpha Grant. The catalog doesn’t tell us whether or not they were good friends, but they were definitely in the same place at the same time. And they had a long history. Crocker also attended Adams Female Academy in 1824 under the direction of Grant and worked at the Boscawen Academy in Boscawen, New Hampshire. All this means that Crocker was well-connected and had a bright future in women’s education in New England. Instead, she chose at the age of 36 to travel by herself to the Illinois frontier.

That’s kind of a gutsy move… but she wasn’t alone.

Crocker maintained networks with friends and colleagues in New England who supported her efforts (think back to the elephant in the room. Crocker was in no howling wilderness. She was had strong professional and personal connections in the field of women’s education). Then, nearly three years later her successor, Emily Preston Price – who was just 25 years old – traveled alone from New Hampshire to Illinois, seeking advancement in her career. In 1835, she took the helm of the Jacksonville Female Academy and oversaw the school’s transition from the West Court Street home of Ebenezer T. Miller to the new Academy Hall on College Avenue. She didn’t leave many records to tell us what she thought of the experience, but I like to imagine she and Crocker shared Mary Lyon’s ambitions. As Lyon once wrote: “It has sometimes seemed as if there were a fire shut up in my bones.” (Quoted in Carolyn V. Platt, “Mount Holyoke in the West: The Western Female Academy,” Timeline (July/August 1999), 44).

Again, I say this is a gutsy move because white women did not simply pick up and move on their own in the 1830s. Not only because of social convention, but because it wasn’t safe. Even now in 2015, most women are constantly on alert because our bodies are never truly safe from physical, sexual, or verbal assault. The same was true in the nineteenth century, but at that time women had no legal recourse. Records tell us that the men of Jacksonville were not exactly well-behaved. Middle class and elite women often kept to their homes to avoid “rude young men who loafed about the square, ogling bypassing women and issuing lewd cat calls.” The records of the Morgan County Poor farm reveal fairly regular admissions of transient men, often identified only as “Irish traveler” or “Drunken man,” who were found inebriated or incapacitated on the town square. In the 1850s, Elizabeth Duncan found a quick shopping trip to the square so harrowing that it left her “quite faint and sick all day” (Doyle, The Social Order of a Frontier Community, 196). This meant servants and working class women were more often subject to such harassment. The situation for single, professional women is less clear. Did they do their own shopping, did they send someone else to do it for them, or did they utilize some kind of delivery service? Where did they live and how did they operate in public spaces? How did they get along on their own?

All of this has me revisiting that image of the heroic frontierswoman one.more.time. The heroic woman boiled her own soap, spun her own yarn, and dipped her own candles all before making breakfast from scratch over an open hearth. Right? But what about those who traveled without family support systems, who lived in town and earned a living on their own, whether they were shopkeepers, domestic servants, or teachers?

While I can’t speak to how they did their grocery shopping, women like Crocker and Price set about creating new communities with like-minded women who shared their interest in education. Education was an acceptable and often profitable pursuit for women, both married and unmarried. Even before the JFA opened its doors, women opened private schools in their homes. Fanny Ellis (wife to missionary Rev. John Ellis) and Ellen C. Spencer competed for pupils as they  regularly placed ads in local newspapers. Ellis was married and from the census it looks as though Spencer first lived with family, and then in various boarding houses (she lived until 1895).

From the Western Observer, 28 August 1830, vol. 1, no 18
From the Western Observer, 28 August 1830, vol. 1, no 18
From the Western Observer, 18 September 1830, vol. 1, no. 21.
From the Western Observer, 18 September 1830, vol. 1, no. 21.

And again, Ellis and Spencer were not “first.” They followed a much broader trend. Many, many frontier communities in Illinois and Missouri boasted identical schools. For the wives of missionaries, like Jane Bradley Brooks, starting a school was not only lucrative but also part of their grander goal to bring education to the West. In one letter to Brooks from 1845, a supporter from New York encouraged her efforts in starting the Monticello Female Seminary in Godfrey, Illinois in order to undermine Catholic efforts in the areas. Protestant New Englanders especially believed that they had a corner on the educational market. Take for example, this advertisement for a school in Edwardsville, Illinois that emphasizes Miss Chapin’s New England education (btw – she was also an 1829 Ipswich alumna who would have known Lyon, Grant, and possibly Crocker):

From the Western Observer, 14 May 1831, vol. 1, no. 49.
From the Western Observer, 14 May 1831, vol. 1, no. 49.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Ellis died of cholera in 1831, but as for the rest of them: Ellen Spencer, Sara Crocker (Wolcott), Emily Price (Hawley) and Abiah Chapin (Hale), they eventually came together – with many, many more women – through their common interest. By the mid 1830s, their names pop up everywhere in documents related to education, and they were founding members of the Ladies’ Education Association, a group dedicated to raising funds for scholarships (I’ll write more on that another day).

Americans love “firsts.” The first American woman in space. The first bakery to sell pre-sliced bread. The first ferris wheel. Even more, we like to argue over who was first, privileging small technicalities simply to bestow the title. But focusing on perceived winners keeps us from understanding how people came together to create real change on a broad scale. The women who ventured out to Illinois to become educators teach us that their efforts were not part of a race. They engaged in a cooperative effort for the common good. And this has led me to my central research question: so what happens in a community where women are educated? We’ll just have to wait and see.


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