ANNALS OF IOWA
Volume III, Nos. 5-6 April-July, 1898
THE EARLY SCHOOLS AND TEACHERS OF IOWA.
BY T. S. PARVIN, LL. D.
Every now and then a new error comes to the front in
the newspapers of the day: First one and then another claims to have
"taught the first school in Iowa," or erected "the first school
house." Having thoroughly investigated this matter I have from time to time
corrected these errors until I have abandoned the hope of keeping the newspaper
press correct upon the subject. Madison
on the stage road to Burlington. At this time, I remember the period, she kept
school (1831-5) going to the school house one and a half miles north-east,
through the winds and snow. And wearing rubber boots in the spring to get
through to the school house. I was then thirteen years old and it was our first
winter in Iowa on the Black Hawk Purchase." I was well acquainted with the
chief and his successor. Keokuk, appointed by the Government. I had a good
opinion of Black Hawk and remember that he kind a head like Gen. Zachary
Taylor's, and it was generally understood that neither ever knew when they were
defeated. I did not wonder that Taylor beat Santa Anna at Buena Vista, Mexico,
which carried his nomination and election as President in 1848.
In the ANNALS OF IOWA, Vol. 3, No. 1, April, 1897,
under the heading "Notable Deaths," I find an editorial, evidently
based upon a newspaper article first appearing in The Pair- Ledger, a few weeks
later repeated in The Burlington -Hawkeye and other papers of the State. The
Susan Smith Russell, the first woman teacher in Iowa,
and an old pioneer of Jefferson, died at that place Feb. 22, 1897. In 1837 she
came to old Fort Des Moines and began teaching in the barracks; this was one
year after the territory of Wisconsin had been taken from Michigan territory.
While still engaged in this work Iowa was made a separate territory (July 4,
1838) and consequently Mrs. Russell had the honor of being its first woman
Finding so grave an error in a leading historical
magazine I at the time called the editor's attention to the incorrectness of the
statement, which was overlooked, however, in the subsequent numbers as issued.
It is not too late to correct an error, as one of these
days some one will be re-writing—I say re-writing because I have written—the
history of "early education in Iowa," and will naturally turn to THE
ANNALS AND HISTORICAL RECORD as affording the best evidence from which to write
In the winter of 1888-89 I wrote and published my
"History of the Early Schools and Education in Iowa, 1830-59," and in
the preparation of this work I made a thorough study and examination into all
the evidence accessible at that time, (and I may here and none has become
accessible since to even enlarge upon the subject then discussed), and published
not only the facts but the authorities upon which my statements were based. The
matter has not lost any of its interest during the seven or eight years that
have elapsed since the publication of that volume, and I may briefly quote some
paragraphs from that history and so be able to refute the statement quoted and
give honor to whom honor is due.
There was a lady teacher who taught school for some two
quarters or more, three years preceding Mrs. Russell's coming to Iowa, and so of
course antedates her in her profession. I quote the following paragraph from my
"Mrs. Rebecca Palmer, the first lady teacher in
Iowa, opened her school in Ft. Madison, Lee County, in the summer of 1834."
In another paragraph entitled "First Things," arranged according to
date, I find this entry: "1834, September—First lady teacher, Mrs.
Rebecca Palmer, Ft. Madison."
This was while the Iowa District west of the
Mississippi river, with Wisconsin, constituted a part of the Territory of
Michigan; Wisconsin was organized as a territory in 1836; Iowa in 1838. The
information upon which I based these statements I obtained from the County
History of Lee County, and from personal letters from Captains Washington
Galland, who served during the Rebellion, and J. W. Campbell, who was Captain of
one of the leading packets upon the Mississippi river running from Keokuk to
Rock Island—both of them then and now citizens of Lee County—both of them
having located with their parents in that county as early as the fall of 1830,
and both pupils in that first school taught by Berryman Jennings.
Since that time I have received some very strong and
conclusive evidence upon the subject—a letter from L. D. Palmer, from which I
VERMILLION, SOUTH DAKOTA, May 25, 1897.
DEAR BRO. PARVIN:—My son Mark M. handed me the Des
Moines Saturday Review containing your article "Pioneer School Days Prior
to 1840," and I find your notice of "Bro. Berryman Jennings as the
first school master of Iowa, winter of 1830, at Nashville, Lee Co., Territory of
Iowa, and also of Mrs. Rebecca Palmer as the first female teacher at or near Ft.
Madison in the fall of 1834." You say "you were personally acquainted
with Bro. Berryman Jennings, but was not with Mrs. Palmer.''
I wish to inform you that Jennings and Mr. Doolittle,
my wife's father, were brothers-in-law, by marriage to sisters Caroline and
Massy White, and my first marriage occurred at Berryman Jennings' residence in
Burlington, Iowa, March 5, 1846, the very day Polk was inaugurated President of
the United States.
Mrs. Rebecca Palmer was my mother and we lived on a
farm one and a half miles east of Ft.
A word as to the writer of the letter from which the
above I first became acquainted with Mr. Palmer in 1846, the year Iowa became a
state; he was then a prominent merchant in the city of Ft. Madison. Soon after,
during the forties, he removed to Muscatine, where I was then residing, and
further engaged in the mercantile business, which he continued for many years,
when later he removed to Yankton, Dakota, where he again established himself as
a dry goods merchant. Mr. Palmer was a prominent politician, business man and
Mason, having served his fellow-citizens as postmaster at Yankton, Dakota,
during the Cleveland administration. He only died last year (October, 1897).
This tells conclusively the facts, that—Mrs. Russell
was not "the first woman teacher in Iowa," by nearly three years; and
further that Mrs. Rebecca Palmer was not only her predecessor, but was "the
first lady teacher in Iowa," dating -back to the period when it was a
constituent part of Michigan territory. Iowa was a part of Wisconsin territory
when Mrs. Russell taught her school; and she was not even the second school
teacher of her sex, as others too had preceded her.
As my History is not accessible to the general and
teaching public I may quote a few other passages: I stated that "Berryman
Jennings taught the first school (within what are the present territorial limits
of Iowa) during the months of October, November and December, 1830, at what is
now known as Nashville, Lee Co." From a letter received from Berryman
Jennings, whom I personally knew, (he having been made a Mason in my old Lodge,
No. 1, at Burlington,) dated Oregon City, Oregon, November 28,1884, he wrote:
DEAR SIR AND BROTHER:—I was residing on the
"Half Breed Tract" now part of Lee County, in 1880. Dr. Isaac Galland
(father of Washington Galland) an eminent physician and citizen resided six or
eight miles above the present site of Keokuk, on the Mississippi river, near
where resided several American citizens who had children of a school age. The
Doctor prevailed upon me to teach a three month's school. Dr. Galland furnished
rooms, fuel, furniture, and board in his family. This school room was like all
other buildings in that new country, a log cabin built of round logs, or poles,
notched close and mudded for comfort, logs cut out for doors and windows, and
also for fire-places. The jamb back of the fire-places was of packed dry dirt,
the chimney topped out with sticks and mud. This cabin like all others of that
day was covered with clap-boards. This was to economize time and nails, which
were scarce and far between. There were no stoves in those days and the
fire-place was used for cooking as well as comfort. The entire letter is full of
interesting historical items, but is too long for publication in this
In the preparation of my History I published chapters
from time to time in the newspapers inviting criticisms and corrections and so
learned through the Burlington papers that a Mr. I. E. Robinson of Mendota,
Illinois, claimed the honor of having taught the first school in Iowa, whereupon
I wrote him and received a letter in reply from which I make some extracts:
MENDOTA, ILL., Jan. 30, 1887.
DEAR SIR AND BROTHER:—(he too a Mason) In answer to
your letter of inquiry of the 17th inst., about "the early schools of
Iowa," I reply: I commenced teaching a school December 1, 1830, (this was
two months later than Mr. Jennings commenced his school) in the employment of a
Mr. Stillwell, who was then owner of a warehouse and wood-yard at the present
site of Keokuk, Iowa. The school was continued sometime into the spring He then
further adds: "If there were any schools in Iowa previous to this one, I do
not know where or by whom taught."
It seems a little singular that there should have been
two schools in Iowa during that month of December, and both of them in the
County of Lee, and within less than ten miles of each other, and yet neither
teacher knowing of the other or of his work.
With some of Mr. Robinson's pupils who afterwards
became prominent citizens of Keokuk, I was personally acquainted, and from them
received verifications of the statement made in this letter. So far as I know
all of the pupils of Mr. Robinson are now deceased and only two of those who
were pupils of Mr. Jennings are living, Captains Washington Galland and J. W.
Campbell of Lee county.
Recently I received from Capt Galland a good photograph
from a sketch made from memory by himself of that school house, which I
forwarded to the editor of THE ANNALS and which will no doubt appear in an early
Setting aside this first school house referred to by
Hon. Berryman Jennings, as having been used also for dwelling purposes, the
first school house proper (also a log building) was erected in December, 1833,
at Burlington, by Dr. W. R. Ross, who was the first postmaster of that city and
the second, I believe, in Iowa—his predecessor in point of time, though at
another place, being Mr. Prentiss.