Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Teaching In The Old West

When people think of those coming West, many only think of farmers and ranchers, cattlemen, teamsters, saloon owners, blacksmith, and such. I've found that not very many people think about teachers coming West, especially male teachers. Probably because of Hollywood, a lot of people are under the impression that teachers were all women. 

In reality, which in most cases Hollywood knows very little about, from our colonial times and into the early decades of the 1800's, most teachers were men. Most were what was called career schoolmasters. But in small rural schools, more than not, the people who taught school were also farmers, surveyors, tradesmen, and even innkeepers. 

As for farmers teaching school, they did so during the winter months when their fields were dormant and farming took a rest. The legacy of farming on schools actually lives on today in that school calendar years are still setup to where schools are in session from September to early June. This was the slowest time of the year for farming. It was this time of year when a farmer could do other things besides work the ground. It was also the time of year when children weren't needed to work the family farm.

I find it interesting that career schoolmasters at the time actually educated teachers. I also find it interesting that the more educated and ambitious schoolmasters were young men who made the schoolroom a stepping-stone on their way to careers in the church or on their way to practicing law. In fact, it's said that teaching jobs were used as stepping-stones to connect with local ministers and school committees while attempting to move on to their real professions. 

"The grammar school teachers have rarely had any education beyond what they have acquired in the very schools where they have to teach. Their attainments, therefore, to say the least, are usually very moderate." -- James Carter, Education Reformer, 1826

As Common Schools came into being, what we call Public Schools, there simply were not enough schoolmasters to staff them. But besides the lack of teachers, schools needed better teachers. Of course, as I stated a bit ago, most young men were using teaching as a way to more profitable and prestigious professions. Many were being drawn West for opportunities that simply weren't available in the cities of the East.

Because there were not enough male teachers, women were looked at as a ready source of labor to teach. That is, if school reformers could convince the public to accept women as teachers. Of course while women were considered poised to take over the schoolrooms across America, many were against it.

Women teachers had taught in what were called Dame Schools out of their homes. This was usually for the youngest children. The Dame School teachers were not particularly well educated, but that's where they showed everyone that they could teach. And yes, it should be noted that the 1840's was about the time when younger women were becoming better educated. It was about that time in the United States, that there was a surge in female literacy. It was this that Common School reformers seized upon and soon hiring women to teach in the Common Schools, what we now call Public Schools, took place. 

School reformers saw a women's most important qualification as their femininity because they saw that natural trait as an asset with dealing with children. School system reformers argued that "women were by nature nurturing and maternal, as well as of high moral character." Biology has dictated that women are maternal for a reason. This was something that school reformers wanted to seize upon.

"God seems to have made woman peculiarly suited to guide and develop the infant mind, and it seems...very poor policy to pay a man 20 or 22 dollars a month, for teaching children the ABCs, when a female could do the work more successfully at one third of the price." -- Littleton School Committee, Littleton, Massachusetts, 1849.

Imagine that! Purposely hiring women teachers because you could pay them less? Imagine how that would go over today if someone were openly advocating such a thing? I can almost hear someone yell, "Get a rope!" 

And we wonder where wage inequality started. Fact is, school reformers by 1840 seized on the fact that women were available -- and there was a chance to save money. Why, because women were paid only a third what male teachers received. 

If you think this was something that needed to be corrected, you're right. Sadly, Americans are still fighting this battle as even today, 180 years later, many still haven't heard of paying people the same wages for doing the same job. Republican women like Susan B. Anthony pushed for that, but that story is for another time.

And if you don't think there were higher demands on women teachers than there were male teachers, take a look at this. "The school committee are sentinels stationed at the door of every school house in the State, to see that no teacher crosses its threshold, who is not clothed, from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot, in garments of virtue." While the person who wrote that said the grammatically correct use of "he", they were talking about women and not men. 

Beginning in the mid-1800's, it was demanded that teachers were moral exemplars, the models and instructors of upright living. But even though women were seen as having moral superiority over men, there were those who were concerned about a women teacher's ability to maintain order in the classroom -- which included disciplining unruly children. And frankly, there was a justified reason for this concern. Fact is, the majority of new schoolmarms were very young. Some were only fourteen or fifteen years old. Many had finished the equivalent of 8th grade. And, in some schools, that was all that was needed to qualify them to teach.

So imagine the classroom being taught by a fourteen or fifteen year old young "woman" teacher who was barely still a child herself. In some cases, their pupils might be taller and older than they were. That was definitely the case when some of the larger farm boys returned to school after harvest had ended and they weren't needed on the farm by October. This is why women teachers during the 19th Century often complained that teaching became a definite challenging when the "big boys" arrived. Among other things, some of those "boys" either flirt with them or out and out defied them. No, it couldn't have been easy.

It is said that with as many as sixty or more children attended the average one-room rural schoolhouse. So yes, those women teachers had their work cut out for them. As for the curriculum, it was reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history. Among the most common material used to teach reading was Webster's blue-backed speller and the Holy Bible. Both were said to have been very popular with the children. 

Yes, the Bible. While many will send me an email to let me know of their dislike with my belief in the positive impact of Christianity on America, they will probably dislike a simple fact pertaining to the Old West. Since many families coming West only had their family Bible to read in most cases, most Americans in the Old West learned to read because they read the Bible. That's just a fact. 

While that fact will surely get people writing me to tell me about how there were all sorts of books available at the time, they should save their efforts and take another look at what I wrote. Like it or not, pioneers coming West brought with them a great many things when they started their way West by wagon train. Some of those things were books. Like it or not, books were seen as non-essentials when trying to survive such a journey. 

And when we look at the items that were thrown out along the way to make the trip easier, and trust me when I say that there was a reason that the trails West were littered with all sorts of non-essential family items, their family Bible was never jettisoned from a wagon during the long trek. Because of that, more than not, pioneers only had their family Bible to read in most cases. Because of that, the family Bible was what was used when teaching their child how to read. 

As for its use in schools, teachers were known to bring their Bibles to school where it was very popular. I believe that was the case because it was made enjoyable to read. And since children were on the most part already familiar with the stories, it was not seen as a drudgery to read. 

Tom Correa   


  1. Tom, I am the Marshal of the San Francisco Corral of Westerers International. We are a Western historical group.
    www.westernerssf.org We have monthly meetings in San Francisco. We would like to have you speak at on of these meeting,
    What do we have to do to get you to one of them>

    Marshall Bob www.westernerssf@gmail.com

    1. Hello Marshall Bob,
      Since I know a little about The Westerners and the Western History Association, I cannot tell you how flattered I am that you would want me to speak at one of your meetings. I am curious about what Old West topic would you like me to address. 
      While I haven't been to San Francisco in a few years, I'm also curious about where your meeting would be held, when did you want me there, and what time of day would you want me,  
      Because me schedule is fairly flexible, please let me know what date you have in mind. Frankly, I would love to see if my schedule would allow me to do this. 
      By the way, because I tried to email you and my response came back undelivered, I hope you get this.

      Best regards,
      Tom Correa


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