Teaching on the Illinois Frontier

Today’s blog post looks at what it was really like to teach in rural Illinois in the 1850s. The JFA was founded as an institution to train teachers, but as of yet, I’ve not put my hands on any direct writings or reminisces of early JFA-educated teachers who clearly described their experiences as students and teachers. As a result, I’m here in Connecticut trying to piece together the bigger picture using other sources.

In 1829, Catherine Beecher (sister to IC’s then president Edward Beecher) wrote a report for the trustees of her Hartford Female Seminary titled, “Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education.” She argued that teaching should be a profession on par with the law, medicine, and the ministry. With a hint of sarcasm and humor, she wrote:

“Even the simple business of making a shoe is deemed of such importance and difficulty as to demand an apprenticeship for years… But to form the mind of man is deemed so simple and easy an affair that no such preparation or precautions are required” (5-6).

Later in the report, Beecher emphasized the need for new teaching methods. Rote memorization did nothing to instill children with the responsibilities of citizenship. A “great defect in eduction is the habit which is so often formed of committing to memory words, instead of acquiring ideas” (emphasis in original, 12). She urged the trustees to consider smaller class sizes, discussion-based learning, the creation of an administrator who had few teaching duties, and a system wherein teachers could specialize in a discipline, rather than rise to the expectation of teaching 10 or more subjects. Interestingly, she pointed out this was only a problem at institutions of higher learning for women. Professors at Yale had long specialized in specific disciplines.

Beecher had good ideas, but as it is today, communities with few resources could scarcely afford multiple teachers. In 1831, about the same time that the JFA was organized, Beecher became interested in educating women to teach in the west (what we might think of as the Northwest Territories). After unsuccessfully attempting to launch a women’s college in Cincinnati, Beecher organized groups, including the National Popular Education Board (NPEB), to train young women in the East and send them to rural communities throughout the Midwest. I’ve focused much of my time at the Connecticut Historical Society on the records of the NPEB because I’m fascinated by the fact that as her brother and sister-in-law, Edward and Isabella, and their friends invested their energy (and money) into educating local women, Beecher focused on sending single New England women into unfamiliar territory. The NPEB begs the question: how did the NPEB and the Ladies’ Association for the Education of Females (founded in Jacksonville) relate to one another? The LAEF depended upon donations from charitable organizations in New England and the MidAtlantic regions. They were clearly competitors. That’s a question that will have to wait for another day, however, and more research.

The records of the NPEB are incredibly valuable because they required their teachers to correspond on a regular basis and describe their circumstances. Its a goldmine of information (and has been the subject of a few books, most notably Polly Kaufman’s Women Teachers on the Frontier. So I’m not the first to look at these letters).

The NPEB sent out its first group of teachers in 1847. Women applied by letter and if accepted, spent several weeks training in Hartford, Connecticut before committing to a two-year appointment in the Midwest. By 1851, 199 women had participated in the program. According the the 1851 Annual Report, these women were in fact of Eastern origin. Of the 199, 58 were from Massachusetts, 53 from Vermont, 24 from New York, 22 from Maine, 17 from New Hampshire, 17 from CT, 4 from Rhode Island, 3 from Pennsylvania, and 1 came from Virginia. Illinois hosted 57 women, the most of any other state. It was followed by Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa (in that order). (See the “Third Annual Report of the General Agent of the National Popular Education Board,” Hartford: Press of Case, Tiffany, and Burnham, 1848), 5-6, in MS 48213, Connecticut Historical Society.)

So how did the NPEB make its placements? On February 5, 1849, Joseph Grove, J.A. Donovan, and William L. Donovan of Ottawa, LaSalle County, Illinois, appealed to the National Board for a teacher. They had seen a pamphlet published by the NPEB and decided an Eastern teacher would be superior to those of Illinois who were “very scars [scarce] and But little qualified.” They preferred a Baptist or a Methodist, but they were “not at all particular on that point.” The community did not have a school house, but the men promised that a structure to serve as a school and a church was underway. Most of the two-page letter was devoted to selling the small town of Ottawa as an easily accessible, healthy, and up-and-coming settlement to the NPEB, though it was clear the community still had some growing to do.

NPEB teachers were motivated by varied factors. Most cited a desire to do God’s work, like M.C. Caddy of Auburn, MA. Her 1852 application indicated that her “motive for going West, I think is a wish to benefit a ‘portion of those who do not enjoy the privileges of favored New England, likening that my services more needed in that destitute region then there were in my native state.” Others, like Phila Brooks were motivated by economic and geographic independence. In her September 1851 application, Brooks described a transient childhood brought on by her father’s “roving disposition,” and inability to hold down a job as a shoemaker. She was the fifth of six children, three of whom died in infancy. An older brother had died when Brooks was eleven, and her remaining sister was long married and in a household of her own. For much of her life, Brooks had cared for her invalid mother, “which had almost become part of my existence,” until her death in September 1850. Caring for her mother had interrupted her desire for an education and teaching experience, but Brooks nonetheless had enough to satisfy the NPEB and was accepted to the program. Brooks did not say directly that she had no desire to remain with her father, but it was certainly implied. Moving west was her one opportunity to start anew.

As far as I can tell, all of the NPEB teachers were white and most certainly Protestant (several wrote of their satisfactory conversion of Catholics once in Illinois). Whether or not the NPEB accepted women of color is not clear, but I came across a letter in the Rowland Family Rowland Correspondence (CHS – MS 66917) from a young woman named Rosetta. Hired as a servant at the age of 9, Rosetta was educated by her employer and eventually attended the Young Ladies Domestic Seminary at Clinton, NY. In October 1840, she wrote to Frances Rowland that she had “given up going to the West. I cannot go where I have to get free papers. If I cannot live in free air, I do not wish to live at all.” Certainly at the time, Illinois and other Midwestern states had restrictive laws for black residents, requiring free papers and regulations for where they could or could not live. Rosetta asked rightly, “when will this monster sin prejudice be done away with?”

After completing their training in Hartford, NPEB teachers typically traveled together but then separated one by one, going into small communities on their own. Their letters reveal a hunger for adventure and a desire to make a difference in their their world. They vividly described journeys punctuated by visits to relatives, friends of the NPEB (typically ministers in local churches), and musical and cultural events. In June 1850, Mary Arnold (originally from Monmouth, ME) and her traveling companions accepted an invitation from the chaplain to tour the New York State’s Prison in Auburn, NY. She wrote, “It was the most melancholy sight I have ever witnessed, to see such a multitude of fellow beings thus degraded by vice, assembled together and all hastening on to give account of deeds done here on Earth.”

Their ambitions varied widely. Some wrote that they much preferred positions in women’s seminaries or academies, where they could teach specialized subjects such as French or art. Others, like Elizabeth Backus, wrote from her teaching position in Falls of St. Anthony, Minnesota with hopes to start a seminary of her own that would rival Mount Holyoke in the East. Records show that a female seminary existed in St. Anthony, so at least for now we can assume she partially achieved her goal. Others did not find the as much satisfaction. Several women moved frequently in search of suitable appointments, as they found communities unprepared to take them on, or downright hostile to their presence. Still others realized they were wholly unprepared to take on the job of frontier teacher. Older male students presented frequent discipline problems, causing several to either quit their positions or write with pride about how they handled the situation.

An especially interesting case is that of Maria Dunn, assigned to teach at Mt.Hawkins, a stagecoach stop in Perry Co., Illinois. In December 1852 she wrote a scathing letter back to the board that Mr. Root, the man who requested an NPEB teacher, had exaggerated the promise of the settlement. Dunn wrote:

“This is not a village, but one single log house built on the wide prairie, a post office is held here… My school consists of his children nephews and two others who board in the house beside a few strangers… His wife keeps a sort of tavern where road weary people stay. The home is as most uncomfortable, open to every wind that blows but the worst part is the smoke we have that constantly my eyes have become so sore that I can scarcely write but fearing they may become worse… the people here are very wild and rough and have no idea of any thing like nice manners yet they are the most conceited I ever met with… Mr. and Mrs. Roots are constantly interfering about the School. I cannot have my own way at all. We have no clock but must do everything by guess.”

As they say, there are two sides to every story. The day after I read Dunn’s letter, I found this one from Mr.Root to the NPEB expressing his disappointment in Dunn. Turns out, he was “constantly interfering” and only allowed her to teach small children because she was entirely incompetent (at least according to his version). He first expressed his gratitude to the NPEB for sending a teacher to this “moral wilderness,” but then recounted how they had a public examiner come to test Dunn so that they might receive public money for the school. Turns out, Dunn was unable to add simple fractions and flubbed simple grammar questions. According to Root, Dunn said that she spoke English perfectly well and no need to be bothered with the “minutiae of grammar.” Furthermore, he wrote: “In Algebra she knows something of addition and subtraction. Beyond this, she knows nothing of Algebra. Her knowledge of Philosophy, Chemistry, and Physiology is about as extensive as her knowledge of Algebra.” Root was kind toward Dunn in his letter, and instead blamed the NPEB. Interestingly, attached to the front of Root’s letter was a second letter from the NPEB to Dunn’s reference blaming them for their misrepresentation of Dunn’s abilities. Clearly, no one was willing to accept responsibility.

Having gone through this collection, I’m curious to know whether the students of the JFA encountered similar problems, or if locally educated students had better receptions and overall experiences in Illinois. As I wrap up my stay at the Connecticut Historical Society, I am thankful to archivist Barbara Austen and her excellent staff for their assistance in this work. It has been an incredibly rewarding couple of weeks!


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