A Second Home: Missouri's Early Schools

A Second Home: Missouri's Early Schools

by Sue Thomas

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The one-room schoolhouse may be a thing of the past, but it is the foundation on which modern education rests. Sue Thomas now traces the progress of early education in Missouri, demonstrating how important early schools were in taming the frontier.

A Second Home offers an in-depth and entertaining look at education in the days when pioneers had to postpone

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The one-room schoolhouse may be a thing of the past, but it is the foundation on which modern education rests. Sue Thomas now traces the progress of early education in Missouri, demonstrating how important early schools were in taming the frontier.

A Second Home offers an in-depth and entertaining look at education in the days when pioneers had to postpone schooling for their children until they could provide shelter for their families and clear their fields for crops, while well-to-do families employed tutors or sent their children back east. Thomas tells of the earliest known English school at the Ramsay settlement near Cape Girardeau, then of the opening of a handful of schools around the time of the Louisiana Purchase—such as Benjamin Johnson’s school on Sandy Creek, Christopher Schewe’s school for boys when St. Louis was still a village, and the Ste. Genevieve Academy, where poor and Indian children were taught free of charge. She describes how, as communities grew, additional private schools opened—including “dame schools,” denominational schools, and subscription schools—until public education came into its own in the 1850s.

Drawing on oral histories collected throughout the state, as well as private diaries and archival research, the book is full of firsthand accounts of what education once was like—including descriptions of the furnishings, teaching methods, and school-day activities in one-room log schools. It also includes the experiences of former slaves and free blacks following the Civil War when they were newly entitled to public education, with discussions of the contributions of John Berry Meachum, James Milton Turner, and other African American leaders.

With its remembrances of simpler times, A Second Home tells of community gatherings in country schools and events such as taffy pulls and spelling bees, and offers tales of stern teachers, student pranks, and schoolyard games. Accompanying illustrations illuminate family and school life in the colonial, territorial, early statehood, and post-Civil War periods. For readers who recall older family members’ accounts or who are simply fascinated by the past, this is a book that will conjure images of a bygone time while opening a new window on Missouri history.

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Product Details

University of Missouri Press
Publication date:
Missouri Heritage Readers Series, #1
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range:
14 Years

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A Second Home

Missouri's Early Schools

By Sue Thomas

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2006 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-6566-1


The First Schools in Upper Louisiana

Limited educational opportunities in Upper Louisiana during the Spanish period placed even the most rudimentary education beyond the reach of the average child in the province. — William E. Foley, A History of Missouri, Volume I, 1672 to 1820

Many French settlers in the Upper Louisiana Territory—also known then as "the Illinois Country," "Spanish Illinois," or "Spanish Louisiana"—did not read or write. In France, working people learned through apprenticeships, a practice that continued in this new world. Formal schooling was considered of little value to children expected to work in lead and salt mines. They needed more practical skills to survive. Some French immigrants, migrating to the Mississippi valley from Canada, had barely enough money to pay ferriage across the rivers. Work took priority over schooling for their children.

The few wealthy and well-educated French living in St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve, and New Bourbon owned books covering a variety of topics—history, science, literature, travel, and geography. Pierre Laclède Liguest, cofounder of St. Louis with his stepson Auguste Chouteau, had 150 books in his library. But libraries were a luxury of the wealthy, and rather than starting schools, wealthy French families in the early settlements often either engaged tutors or sent their children to schools in Canada or France.

While the Spanish governed the territory from 1762 to 1800, their primary interest was in the natural resources of the region. They neglected to develop any general educational system. However, individuals made some efforts in several villages and settlements. Jean Baptiste Truteau, a fur trader, opened the first small private tuition school in a log cabin in St. Louis in 1774, operating it off and on until about 1827. A Madame Maria Josepha Pinconneau dit Rigauche opened a school for girls in St. Louis in 1797. Governor Francisco de Carondelet, the Spanish administrator in New Orleans, had promised to send Madame Rigauche a monthly stipend to provide for the school; he failed to keep his promise, but she finally secured a land grant in 1800.

Several educated residents of Ste. Genevieve tried schools in the village during the years of Spanish rule. The few early schools were coeducational, but most often the village was with out a school or teacher. Augustin-Charles Frémon de Laurière, who had immigrated to America when he lost most of his fortune in the French Revolution, developed one of the most ambitious educational programs there. In 1795, at the request of Pierre Delassus de Luzières, he worked out a careful plan of study and opened his school. In "Frontier Education in Spanish Louisiana," published in the Missouri Historical Review in April 1941, Ernest R. Liljegren describes Frémon's methods. He based the classes on a French theory of education developed by Louis-René de la Chalotais, which stressed practical education. It was designed to prepare students to earn a living and included the study of the principles of agriculture. It also focused on proper social manners, family values, and patriotism. Students were encouraged to write about their occupations, their amusements, or their troubles. Chalotais's theory, as summarized by Frémon, was that "education is a point so essential and so important that upon it alone depends quite generally the destiny of our life. A good education gives us the necessary forces to sustain adversities.... It enlightens us in the true principles of virtue and the true philosophy; and [teaches] that it is necessary besides to detest wrong and love good." According to Carl J. Ekberg, the school in Ste. Genevieve continued for at least two years. Ekberg found no evidence that it was coeducational, but since earlier schools in the village were, he believes Frémon must have accepted girls.

Henry Marie Brackenridge lived with a French family in Ste. Genevieve in the 1790s and wrote about his experiences many years later. His father sent him to Missouri from Pittsburgh when he was seven years old to learn French, believing, as Brackenridge wrote, that "a man doubles himself by learning another language." The boy arrived knowing two words of French, "oui" and "non," yes and no, but the French children in the village were kind to him, and he soon learned to speak the language. Brackenridge believed that the dances, much criticized by Americans, served as "schools for manners, in which the children of the rich and poor were placed on a footing of absolute equality" and that the "secret of true politeness, self-denial, or the giving of the better place to others, was taught at these little balls." He also learned skills from the Indian boys near the village, such as how to shoot a bow and arrow and some of their language.

French engineer Nicolas de Finiels, on his visit to the area toward the end of the Spanish Colonial period in the late 1790s, described the amusements that young Brackenridge must have enjoyed in Ste. Genevieve. "In Ste. Genevieve people often gather in the homes of the commandant or other important residents. Everyone is welcome at these affairs provided you have a good reputation. Sometimes there is dancing, but more often they play games that everyone enjoys. The more comical the better, for laughter and gaiety are what they usually enjoy most."

As early as 1788, Colonel George Morgan, a land speculator who had the support of the Spanish minister to the United States, was planning the first "American" town west of the Mississippi. He circulated handbills and recruited settlers to a location he had selected on the west bank of the Mississippi near the mouth of the Ohio River. Morgan named the town New Madrid, hoping to please the Spanish, and laid out a town plan that included sites for parks, churches, and schools. He proposed that the schools be supported jointly by families and by the government and wanted the authority to appoint teachers for each of the six English language schools he planned for the settlement.

Morgan's ambitious colonization plan met with opposition from former general James Wilkinson, an agent of the Spanish, who influenced the officials in New Orleans to reject major parts of it. Morgan abandoned his vision of an American settlement in Spanish territory and never returned to New Madrid, but some of the families he had recruited settled in the area. In 1796, a local priest asked the government to support a school, but nothing came of the request. New Madrid remained primarily a settlement of traders, hunters, boatmen, and soldiers until the Louisiana Purchase. "The earliest-known English language school in the territory opened in about 1799 at the Ramsay settlement near Cape Girardeau," according to William E. Foley in The Genesis of Missouri. The school, Mount Tabor, enrolled its few students from the growing number of Americans moving into the district from Kentucky. Foley noted, "By the end of the Spanish period ... Cape Girardeau [was] the most Americanized of the Spanish administrative districts."

After Americans began settling in New Madrid and other districts west of the Mississippi River in the 1790s, the Spanish opened Upper Louisiana further by allowing a few agricultural land grants to Americans. In 1797, Daniel Morgan Boone, the son of explorer Daniel Boone, discovered the area west of St. Louis on a hunting trip. Daniel Boone and others of his family expressed interest in settling there. The Spanish lieutenant governor in St. Louis awarded a land grant of about a thousand acres near where Femme Osage Creek enters the Missouri River to the Boone family and offered additional land to others the Boones might bring. In 1799, Daniel Boone led his large extended family and many friends to join Daniel Morgan. By that time, as Finiels noted, American immigration to the west side of the Mississippi was in full swing. A census taken in 1800 showed that the area that was to become Missouri had 6,028 inhabitants, and by 1803 the population had increased to about ten thousand. Most of the new settlers were Americans.

American parents settling west of the Mississippi River wanted the best for their children. They did not want them to "grow up barbarous in the wilderness," but in their struggle to provide food and shelter they often could not devote the resources necessary for schooling. Gradually, in settled areas, opportunities for schooling became available as decisions made in Europe dramatically affected the future of the Mississippi valley. Spain returned control of the Louisiana Territory to France in 1800, and in 1803 representatives of President Thomas Jefferson doubled the area of the United States by purchasing the land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains from Emperor Napoleon of France. The American flag was raised in a ceremony in St. Louis on March 9, 1804. By this time the population of Upper Louisiana had grown to 10,320.

During the time directly before and after the Louisiana Purchase, a few schools opened. Benjamin Johnson taught at a school on Sandy Creek in what is now Jefferson County. Christopher Schewe proposed opening a French and English grammar school in St. Louis, "but he did not meet with encouragement," according to Walter Williams. In 1809, he established a boys' school instead, where he taught English, French, German, geography, and mathematics. Isaac Septlivres advertised that he would teach drawing, geography, and mathematics. Isaac and George Tompkins started a school to teach French and English, but it closed in two years. Most teachers opened schools to earn a living, but many parents could not afford to pay for their children to learn even the most fundamental skills of reading and writing.

Williams wrote that, in 1805, at the first convention called by territorial governor James A. Wilkinson, leaders expressed a desire to set apart some land to maintain "a French and English school in each county, and for the building of a seminary of learning, where not only the French and the English languages, but likewise the dead languages, mathematics, mechanics, natural and moral philosophy and the principles of the constitution of the United States should be taught." The desire to educate all of Missouri's citizens began to take hold early. Achieving statewide educational opportunities would take many decades, but concerned citizens persisted.

In December 1807, leaders called an organizational meeting that marked the beginning of the Ste. Genevieve Academy. The territorial legislature authorized a board of trustees to collect donations and endow the private academy. The group formed a charter establishing the first legally organized school in what was soon to become the Missouri Territory, providing that "the poor and Indian children be taught free." This effort was the beginning of public education in Missouri. A subscription drive raised $3,000. The academy opened in the spring of 1810. Both French and English were taught, but the academy was forced to close when it failed to obtain a land grant from the U.S. government.


The Missouri Territory

Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall be encouraged and provided for from the public lands of the United States in said territory, in such manner as Congress may deem expedient. — Territorial leaders in an act of 1812

As Upper Louisiana became the Missouri Territory, territorial leaders officially recognized the importance of providing a free school system. Although the plan was progressive in theory, putting it into practice at that time was not easy. With a small population spread out over thousands of acres, a lack of resources, few books, and even fewer teachers, providing education in the territory would prove difficult, if not impossible.

Three important influences on education came together as families from eastern and southern states settled throughout the territory. Emigrants from New England were accustomed to a "township" plan of government, which provided for small, self governing schools free of central state control. Those coming from southern states, where wealth was in the hands of a few and large plantations led to a scattered population, favored a system of private schools supported by a few individuals who were able to pay for them. In Missouri, these schools were usually called academies and located in the most populated villages. The most widely accepted educational influence was Thomas Jefferson's plan, promoting education for all citizens by the state. Jefferson, president when the United States bought the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, believed that government should educate all of its citizens. In a truly democratic society, he declared, people should be educated to govern themselves. To achieve independence, they needed both a working knowledge of mathematics and the ability to read and express their ideas through writing. Many families agreed with this philosophy, favoring a free public school system, but in the early days private enterprise still dominated educational efforts.

In the early years of territorial settlement and for some time afterward, families often depended on itinerant teachers for what little formal schooling their children received. "Daniel Boone in Missouri," published in the Missouri Historical Review in 1909–1910, reports that after 1816 the Boone settlement "employed for a brief season each winter, some traveling schoolmaster, who usually applied to himself the distinguishing title of 'professor.' ... To this 'academy' the youth of the community came, to study a little and play a great deal more, while the professor amused himself by reading a book." Most would-be schoolmasters did not have much education themselves. In Stories of Missouri, John R. Musick told of one prospective teacher who was examined by a committee of trustees from the community. "The applicant was asked if the earth was round or flat. He answered that he wasn't quite sure, but that he was prepared to teach it either way. After a conference on the part of the trustees, it was decided that he should teach that it was flat."

As American settlers moved farther west, the exhausting physical labor necessary to clear fields and build cabins made the fact that the territorial government advocated education for all of little practical importance. On isolated farms or in small communities, there was no time or energy left to think of "schoolin'" the children. In addition, many pioneers thought of education as the responsibility of the parents, a private matter. Some educational opportunities did develop through missions and church enterprises, but territorial schools were rare.

John Savage opened a school in 1813 near the present-day town of Boonville but closed it after one month because of "Indian troubles." The Reverend Timothy Flint, a New England writer, teacher, Congregational minister, and circuit rider, taught in Cape Girardeau, Florissant, and St. Charles, where he founded a church and school. The school failed. The population in villages was constantly changing, as restless settlers moved on to better opportunities. Teachers sometimes stayed only a few days or one term before moving on themselves.

Wealthy families had little interest in supporting territorial schools. They often employed male tutors or sometimes a governess, an educated woman to care for and supervise their children. Tutors taught Latin, geography, surveying, calculus, philosophy, fencing, and penmanship. A governess taught table manners and social courtesies so the children could grow up to be the "proper" gentlemen and ladies their parents expected. She might teach harpsichord or oil painting or the dance steps to the waltz. The tutor or governess lived with the family, receiving a small salary plus board and room. Walter Williams in Missouri, Mother of the West reports that Eli E. Bass, who owned a large estate near Columbia in Boone County, provided education for his children and those of his neighbors. "He used his riches and influence to good purpose. Among the many benevolent acts of Mr. Bass may be mentioned the fact that he sent to the east for five tutors for his growing family, but he generously invited the children of his neighbors to take lessons also at the same time."

Missions and churches established in villages and towns offered the fundamentals of education through religious teachings. Protestant churches established Sunday schools, sometimes called Sabbath schools, which also taught reading and writing for free, hoping to instill the church's beliefs and values in those attending. Schools established by the Catholic churches taught catechism, reading, and writing. Other denominations started classes on "religion and morality" in settled areas, but most of these suffered the same fate as Reverend Flint's school, not drawing enough students to survive.

Traveling in Missouri and Arkansas in 1818–1819, Henry Schoolcraft, who explored the Ozarks in the early nineteenth century, observed in his journal:

Schools are also unknown, and no species of learning cultivated. Children are wholly ignorant of the knowledge of books, and have not learned even the rudiments of their own tongue. Thus situated, without moral restraint, bought up in the uncontrolled indulgence of every passion and without a regard of religion, the state of society among the rising generation in this region is truly deplorable. In their childish disputes, boys frequently stab each other with knives, two incidences of which have occurred since our residence here. No correction was administered in either case, the act being rather looked upon as a promising trait of character. They begin to assert their independence as soon as they can walk, and by the time they reach the age of fourteen, have completely learned the use of the rifle, the arts of trapping beaver and otter, killing the bear, deer, and buffalo, and dressing skins and making mockasons and leather clothes.


Excerpted from A Second Home by Sue Thomas. Copyright © 2006 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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