Today I blog live from the Connecticut Historical Society where I am combing through the records of MS 4823 – The National Popular Education Board. During the 1840s and 1850s, this organization based in Hartford, CT trained New England women as teachers and then sent them west to work in small towns. Thanks to the generosity of the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium, I get to make the opposite trek and spend the next eight weeks learning about the history of Jacksonville by traveling through the region where many of the town’s early leaders originated: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and later, New Hampshire.
While I’ve passed through New England a number of times, this is my first extended stay. I’m a seasoned traveler who loves to meet new people and see new places, but truth be told, as a consummate Midwesterner who puts a little too much emphasis on letter “r” and drenches everything in ranch dressing, I sometimes get a little nervous among Easterners who say things like, “Wait, let me get this straight – Kansas City is in Missouri??” (true story).
I find regional variations and hierarchies both fascinating and perplexing. After all, I’m in New England because New Englanders feature prominently in Jacksonville’s story. One would think the regional bonds would be a bit stronger and rather than insist on belittling the Midwest as “fly-over country,” Easterners would look out the airplane window with pride and say, “I made that.”
Now, this animosity goes way back. Take for example this scathing review of James Kirke Paulding;s novel Westward Ho! published in the Illinois Patriot, a Jacksonville newspaper, on November 17, 1832. It already shows resentment from one Jacksonville resident who feels misrepresented by a distant New York author:
The letters written by young women sent west to teach by the National Popular Education Board not only reveal a strong sense of adventure, but a shared idea that they had entered an entirely new world populated by people very different from themselves. They reflected a culture that was at once excited to push the boundaries of the United States further west while simultaneously maintaining frontier boundaries between the perceived “settled” and “unsettled” regions.
Previous posts on this blog have discussed 19th century observers who described the people of Illinois as backwards, ignorant, and all together uncultivated. So one question I keep returning to is: was thus really true? Was the Midwest really that different, or did white settlers simply need to believe these differences existed? Much scholarship and research leans toward the latter, but much of that research has been done on institutions and ideas controlled by men: politics, economics, religion, etc. A basic assumption in women’s history is that women’s work remained women’s work regardless of region. Babies always had to be born, food always had to be cooked, and those socks sure didn’t knit themselves.
The teachers sponsored by the National Popular Education Board grappled more with living far from home as single women than they did with regional differences. Some wrote about having to deal with unfamiliar men, while others wrote about their perceived depravity. Take for example Augusta C. Adams from Mt. Hally, Vermont, who returned home in 1854 to nurse her sick mother. Once her mother recovered, she wrote to the Board to request a new posting, Adams was quite specific that she desired a “good situation, not in the country, where I should not be entirely shut out from Society.” Crowded country schools were beneath someone more accustomed to more sophisticated environs. She much preferred “to be an assistant in some Academy… if possible, I should like to teach music, drawing and painting, chiefly.”
Yet I was struck by one letter from Elizabeth Bachelder, a teacher in Mooresville, Indiana, dated March 31, 1852. In a unique departure from the typical rhetoric about the backwardness of her charges, Bachelder actually implores leaders in New England to reconsider their position. She wrote:
Education has many warm friends in this country. I know of but one thing which keeps alive a prejudice against Eastern teachers. ‘Tis the extracts from letters in the Report of the Board, in which the ignorance of the people is commented on. Perhaps I ought not to mention this, but the warmest friends of the Son feel very deeply that such expressions are rather uncalled for and that it is the only thing which keeps alive a feeling of dislike towards his teachers. There are exceptions in every community. I have seen in favored New England, as backward pupils as anyone will be able to find in this Country. Most of the people are intelligent and refined and they have a pride about such matters that are discovered only by spending time with them. Western people are very close observers of character, they expect much of the teachers spent to them, but they dislike any appearance that shows great superiority or indicates that we feel that they are inferior to us in intelligence. I feel much attached to the people by whom I am surrounded, kinder friends I never expect to have, a pleasanter home I could not have, the family are religious and the older members very well educated. They treat me as a sister.
Bachelder’s is the only letter I’ve come across that does not emphasize the differences between hew Midwestern station and her New England home. This isn’t about proving that Midwesterners need to snap out of our regional inferiority complex. That just isn’t possible. Its ingrained in our very souls. However, my time in New England is about understanding how national networks formed, the stories people told themselves and others to further westward movements, and most importantly, how women experienced, described, and lived imperialism.
More to come!