Iowa History Project







Even before Iowa was given over to settlers there were schools at which the children of the few whites then within the borders of the present State were educated.  Away back in 1830 Berryman Jennings had a school at Ah-wi-pe-tuck (beginning of the Rapids), about where Galland now is, and I. K. Robinson taught at Puck-e-she-tuck (Foot of the Rapids), where Keokuk stands.

The school at Ah-wi-pe-tuck was the first school in Iowa of which we have authentic data.  It is said a soldier in old Fort Madison gave instruction to some children, white and half-breed, whose fathers were trappers and traders and men employed in the garrison.  But Berryman Jennings may be called Iowa's first school teacher.  He was a Kentuckian, about twenty-three years old.  School was held through October, November and December, 1830, and was attended by eight or ten children.

The building was a small log cabin, which had been erected for a dwelling place.  It was on the river bank, with a narrow creek flowing along one side.  Behind it were tree stumps, forming a small clearing in the midst of the forest.  The cabin had two windows covered with oiled paper; a door opened onto the river side.

When the pupils trudged between school and home they were apt to encounter wolves, bears, or a wild cat, and were pretty sure to see deer and wild turkeys and grouse.  Indians were on hand constantly.  The school children of 1830 had strange playfellows.

The school at Puck-e-she-tuck opened two months after the one at Ah-we-pe-tuck.  Robinson began teaching on December 1, 1830, and did not close the term until well into the spring of 1831.  When he was not teaching he was in the employ of a Mr. Stillwell, who kept a woodyard and warehouse nearby.

Other pioneer school teachers were George Cubbage, who taught at Dubuque in the winter of 1833-34, and Barrett Whittemore, who was there a few months later.

Then there was Zadoc C. Inghram, who in 1834 conducted a school at Shok-ko-kon, or Flint Hills, now Burlington.  Here, in December, 1833, Dr. W. R. Ross had erected the first regular schoolhouse in what is now Iowa.  Zadoc Inghram was given board free by Dr. Ross, and instructed the scholars in the log school house.

About this time there lived on a farm one and one-half miles from Fort Madison, on the stage route to Burlington (then Flint Hills), Mrs. Rebecca Palmer, who in the winter of 1834-35 taught school in a log building a mile and away.  She walked through the snow and sleet, back and forth, in spite of the most severe weather, and in spring wore rubber boots.

Plucky Mrs. Palmer was the first woman teacher in Iowa.

Schools of those days, and during all of what may be called the "settlement period" of Iowa's history, were but in accord with the roughness of the surroundings.  The buildings themselves were only simple log cabins, sometimes designed for houses, sometimes built especially for the purpose of education.

Sometimes they had a window on two sides.  Sometimes on but one side, and made by taking out a log and covering the hole with the oiled paper.  The floor might be the earth.

Otherwise a puncheon floor was laid down.  The door was puncheon, and there was puncheon benches as long as the log from which they were cut.  Writing desks or benches were constructed like the seats, save their tops slanted.  A great fire place stretched across one end of the building and the pupils helped the school master bring in logs for fuel.

The teacher or "master" sat on a platform.  Maybe he would be awarded one of the few splint bottomed chairs in the settlement.

As the settlers were from various points, the books they brought with them differed in author and in style.  The children were required to carry to the school whatever books were available, for text books, and consequently hardly any two volumes used in the school were alike.  If a scholar had no other book which could be used for the purpose he was taught to read from the Old and New Testament.  The Bible was the one book found in the majority of the homes of the settlers.

The branches taught  were reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, spelling and geography.  "Lickin'; and larnin'," one settler called the course in the nearby school.  Spelling was considered most important, and was the most popular because of the spelling matches.  To "spell down" a whole room was a high honor to win.

Classes were little observed.  Each scholar went ahead as fast as he could, alone, and when he was far enough along he was given harder books.  When he found a sum he could not work he called to the teacher for help.  Much of the teacher's time was taken up in setting copies for the lesson in writing, and in mending quill pens.

Drill in reading was somewhat on this plan.  The teacher would say:

"Read up loud enough for me to hear you at the other end of the room.  Count one for comma, two for semi-colon, three for colon, and four for period."

Often the class would be left to read away by itself for ten minutes while the teacher worked a sum for somebody.

Some teachers were men of fine education; others were but ignoramuses, who held their position because they were able to thrash the school into subjection.  It was an advantage to a teacher to prove himself superior physically to his pupils.  In the room might be boys as large and as strong as men, who thought it sport to force him to give up his work because he could not manage them.  They would try to "turn the master out," and he must show them that they could not do it.

It was necessary for the teacher to foster good feeling and respect by joining in the games at recess and at noon.  If he could run faster, jump farther, and throw a snow ball straighter than the stout healthy boys with whom he associated they like him the better.

The teacher "boarded round."  One week one family would entertain the teacher of the district, and for the next week another family would board and lodge him.  The good wife put the cabin to rights and the children "slicked up" for the occasion.  If the teacher was a religious man he was requested to ask the blessing, and to lead in prayer.  The hardest sums that could be found were presented for him to work, if he could.

The women teachers "boarded round" just as did the men.  Among the settlers were well educated girls, farmers' daughters who had time to teach, and in all kinds of weather they were faithful to their duty.

The pay of teachers varied, but never was high.  In the earliest schools a dollar a term for each pupil was charged.  Settlers desirous of educating their children paid in merchandise or services, if money was lacking.

As the number of settlers increased, the demand for teachers increased, also.  Many were imported from the East.  The Cincinnati Atlas of October 1, 1853, announced that Governor Slade, of Vermont, had left New York with thirteen young ladies designed for school teachers in Iowa, Tennessee and Missouri, and stated that this was the second party of New England teachers brought out for distribution among these States.

When settlers formed a community one of the first things they did was to afford educational facilities for the children.  A teacher was obtained, and the heads of the families made up a sum for the establishment and maintenance of a school.  A central location for the building was chosen.  Labor and expense were divided equally among the settlers.

While on the topic of the early schools of Iowa the old Howe Academy must not be overlooked.  This was presided over by Professor Samuel L. Howe.  He first visited Iowa in 1839, and was so impressed with the beauties of the land that when he returned to his home and family in Ohio he had resolved to move to the new country.

At Lancaster, Ohio, Mr. Howe was conducting an academy which was attended by W. T. Sherman, afterwards General, and his brother, John Sherman, among other boys.  It was a famous school.  But Mr. Howe loaded his family and his household goods into two-horse wagons, and through Ohio, over the corduroy roads of Indiana, and across Illinois the emigrants took their way.

Late in November, 1841, the Howes located in Henry County, not far from the present city of Mt. Pleasant.  In the winter Mr. Howe began teaching in a little log cabin.  In this prairie academy studied a number of men who afterwards became prominent in Iowa's history.

In 1843 the academy was removed to Mt. Pleasant.  The only room available was in the upper story of an old log jail.  Here the academy was reopened, and over the grated cell where the prisoners were confined the lads and lasses progressed under the guidance of the kindly professor.

In 1844 the academy was changed to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and at last, in 1845, it entered a building of its own.

Howe Academy was known as the Mt. Pleasant High School and Female Academy.  In point of long service it is the patriarch of Iowa schools.  Many pupils who attended it when it was but a log cabin, or in a jail, later became great and useful men and women, and the lists of scholars show many names destined to be well known later, not only in Iowa, but all over the United States.

While schools were shaping the minds of the young settlers in Iowa, morals also were not neglected.  The school and the church went hand in hand, for it often happened that the one building was a school on week days and a church on Sundays.

Before a minister was available the settlers were accustomed to gather on Sunday at some cabin, to hear the Bible read, and to join in prayer.  These meetings were led by some member of the company.

"Circuit riders" were prominent among the preachers of Iowa's pioneer days.  They were traveling ministers, who rode through the country attending to the needs of the people.  Through heat and cold and storm these noble men journeyed, on horseback, all their personal belongings in the saddle bags strapped behind them.  Their coming into a community, or to a cabin, was a signal for all the unbaptized children of the vicinity to be brought up for the ceremony.  The settlers were rejoiced over the opportunity to have the services of a preacher.  Incidentally, these "circuit riders" bore considerable news, gathered on their route.

The income of the Iowa pioneer ministers of the gospel was not large.  It depended on the means of the inhabitants.  Often it was not much beyond board and lodging, and the pleasure of doing one's duty.  One preacher received in six years less than $100 from his circuit.  The preachers of the day not only instructed in religion, but administered to the body, for they were expected to give advice in illness.

To the Roman Catholic Church must be given the credit of having the first missionary in the Iowa field, for Father Marquette, descending the Mississippi in 1673, landed in Iowa, is proved by the cross found in Jefferson County.  When the first whites entered that section, on the face of a high sand-stone cliff over Cedar Creek, about four miles west of where Fairfield now stands, they saw an iron cross, bolted fast to the rock.

Tradition has it that long, long ago a Jesuit mission occupied a place among the Indians on the Des Moines River, not far from this spot.

It will be remembered that the old barracks at Council Bluffs were utilized by priests who had been dwelling with the Indians.  Elsewhere, as well, in Iowa, from the earliest times this church has been represented in Indian mission work.

From 1828 to 1833  priests from Detroit, Indiana and St. Louis visited the territory now forming Iowa, and administered to the few whites and the other residents of the area.  In 1833 Samuel Mazzuchelli, a friar of the order of St. Dominic, was stationed at Dubuque.

Friar Mazzuchelli labored faithfully to organize his charge, and when in 1837 Dubuque diocese was created the results of his toil were apparent.  Mathias Loras was appointed bishop - first bishop of Dubuque.  This diocese of Dubuque reached from Missouri to Canada, and from the Mississippi to the missouri.  For a time it included the present State of Wisconsin, and Northwestern Illinois.  Bishop Loras spent two years preparing for his work.  When he arrived at Dubuque, soon after Easter, 1839, Iowa had three Roman Catholic Churches - St. James Chapel, in Lee County, the combination school, church and dwelling of St. Anthony at Davenport, and the Church of St. Raphael at Dubuque.  Bishop Loras had a large field, but he worked so untiringly and bravely that he wrought wonders.

The religious denominations were rivals in seeing which could accomplish the most good.  On one occasion a Presbyterian missionary entered a lonely cabin on the prairie.  He was asked to hold a service, and turned to the woman of the family for a hymnal.

"We have a hymnal, but it's only a Methodist hymnal," she said, doubtfully.

"That makes no difference.  Bring it out," he replied.

After singing, he inquired, jokingly"

"Now, have you a Methodist Bible?"

The woman laughed.  She realized that the Lord's work is not confined to any one sect.

When a settlement was large enough, it obtained a preacher of its own, who officiated in the school house until a church was erected.  When a church was about to be built subscription papers were circulated to raise the means of meeting expenses.  Money was scarce, and the settlers who could not pay in coin contributed merchandise.  The men who were employed on the church accepted provisions and clothing, if they could not get money.

One minister who was energetic ascertained that the carpenter would be unable to finish the church within a certain time, because he was teaching school for a living and must attend to his duty.  The minister volunteered to teach the school while the church was being put up.  The carpenter agreed, and the church was soon erected.

People drove to church behind oxen, if horses were not procurable and the distance was too far for walking.  In funeral processions many of the vehicles were drawn by oxen.

A famous church incident in early Iowa was that connected with "Hummer's bell".  "Hummer's bell" was one of the first, if not the first, church bell to ring in Iowa.  It was installed in the belfry of the First Presbyterian Church at Iowa City, and the citizens were extremely proud of it.  But the Rev. Michael Hummer and his people had a disagreement, and the pastor was convinced that he should take the bell as portion of back salary.

So one day in 1848 he climbed into the interior of the belfry, and had lowered the bell to a friend who stood at the foot of the ladder, when suddenly a number of citizens appeared, bore away the ladder and drove off with the bell in the wagon, leaving Mr. Hummer a prisoner in the belfry.

He shook his fist and called in a manner that showed he was boiling with anger.  But the crowd laughed at him and he was abandoned, to descend as best he could.

The whereabouts of the bell remained a secret a long time.  Then the old church relic turned up in Salt Lake City, in the possession of the Mormons.  It had been buried on the Iowa River, and a Mormon sympathizer had dug it up and conveyed it away by stealth.

"Hummer's bell" has formed the basis for a number of poems and humorous sketches.



Back to Table of Contents

Home to Iowa History Project