6: The Women and Men’s Seminary Education and
Cherokee Cultural Recovery
to Unit: After a brief introduction, the lecture by Dr.
Brad Agnew for Unit 6 is composed of three parts: (a) Establishing
the Female and Male Seminaries of the Cherokee; (b) The Female and
Male Seminary Education and Life; and, (c) The Incorporation of
the Seminaries into Oklahoma State Higher Education and an Assessment
of their Significance. Searching specific words using the “find”
function on your browser might be useful. “Value education”
will lead to a discussion of the long tradition of education that
the Cherokee possessed. “New Echota” will find the provisions
of the treaty that at once provided for Cherokee Removal but also
provided for the funding of the seminaries. “John Ross”
will lead into the construction of the schools and first hiring
of teachers. For example “Worcester” or “Whitmore”
will find material on significant teachers of the school. “Problems
we face” will find a comparison (often amusing) of today’s
school or college problems to those of the Seminaries’. “Curriculum”,
“grammar”, or “poem” will find both what
the students students studied, as well as references to a newspaper,
“Rose Buds”, that they produced. “White culture”
will find discussion of the assimilation aspects of the schools.
“Extracurricular activities” will find those, and “multitude
of rules” will find the rules the girls, particularly, lived
by in the school. Something of the Victorian mores that governed
the school can be found by searching “dancing”. Nor
should inquiring minds overlook the “influence” that
the schools had on later Oklahoma higher education and those interested
should also read look for “Seminary Hall” to see connections
to today’s university institutions. Additional links to website
links will further those who wish to inquire further. Thanks to
the Seminaries, which stood midway between a high school and four-year
college education, (and whose curricula were unquestionably more
difficult than most high school curricula today), former Principle
Chief Wilma Mankiller has justifiably written that more college
graduates graduated from Cherokee schools than from the state of
Arkansas and Texas combined, until 1909. (See
the Introduction to this website.) This is a real story about
liberal arts education and its influence to this day.
- What kind
of schools did Cherokee tribal leaders hope to establish? Looking
over the subjects and curricula, entrance exams, teachers, extra
curricular activities and the lives students led after attending
the seminaries, were these more like today’s high schools
- How were
they different from other tribal schools, operating at the same
time, and Bureau of Indian Affairs Schools established after the
- What were
the educational goals of the tribal leaders who created and maintained
- Did all
tribal members share these goals?
- Which of
the primary and secondary sources associated with this unit best
equip you to develop informed answers for the foregoing questions?
After completing this lesson, students will be able to:
- Trace the
origins and evolution of the Cherokee National Seminaries, and
be able to judge any excellences or deficiencies of the education
the depth and role the education of the Cherokee women and men
played in preparing them as adults and leaders of the Cherokee.
the objections traditional Cherokees voiced concerning the administration
and curriculum of the tribal seminaries.
discuss the merits and weaknesses of the arguments of the advocates
of minimizing cultural differences in an American melting pot
and those who urged the preservation of tribal language, culture,
Introduction to lecture:
From 1851 until 1910 the Cherokee National Seminaries played a crucial
role in the economic and cultural development of the Cherokee Nation.
The seminaries educated three generations of young men and women
who became the political, economic, and educational leaders of their
nation and the future state of Oklahoma. Although most Cherokees
hoped to retain their sovereignty and opposed statehood, the educational
foundation laid by the seminaries made the transition from tribal
to state government in 1907 less traumatic for the Cherokee people
than for members of tribes with less advanced educational systems.
The documents in this lesson explore the origin of the seminaries,
describe their establishment, trace their operation, and evaluate
Cherokee National Seminaries: Origin, Growth, and Significance,
the Female and Male Seminaries of the Cherokee
Dressed in their
Sunday best, hundreds of Cherokees assembled just north of Tahlequah
on Tuesday, May 7, 1889, to dedicate their new female seminary building.
(See picture of old and
pressure to open Indian Territory (to become, later, the State of
Oklahoma), many in the crowd probably wondered how much longer their
nation would continue to provide educational opportunities for the
daughters of Cherokee families, but few would have predicted that
that building would become the nucleus of a state university preparing
students for careers in the twenty-first century.
today that building, now named Seminary Hall, dominates the campus
of Northeastern State University and represents a physical link
to the Cherokee Female Seminary which trained young women in more
than the genteel arts of the Victorian era.
their removal in 1839, two years after Queen Victoria assumed the
throne, the Cherokees had come to value education. (For the importance
of literacy to the Cherokee in an age when few whites or Indians
were seriously literate, see Unit
1, on Sequoyah.) When Moravian missionaries were first allowed
in the Cherokee Nation at the beginning of the 19th century, it
was on the condition that they provide schools for tribal children.
In fact, they were told that if schools weren’t established
within six months, they’d be expelled. (See
Introduction to this website, footnote vii.)
Treaty of 1828 required the government to provide annuities for
ten years for the establishment of schools and to appropriate additional
funds for the purchase of a printing press “to aid the Cherokees
in the progress of education.” The Treaty of New Echota of
1835 required the federal government to add over $150,000 to tribal
accounts to create a permanent school fund for the support of “common
schools and such a literary institution of a higher order as may
be established in the Indian country.”
Scroll to Article 10.)
upheaval and hardship of removal, within two years after the Trail
of Tears, the tribal council had established eleven public schools
throughout the new nation. Within a decade that number had doubled,
but these schools offered only the educational basics, little more
than the three Rs.
who had higher educational aspirations for their sons and daughters
had to send them beyond the boundaries of their nation. For that
reason in 1846, the tribal council voted to establish two non-sectarian
(that is, non-denominational) seminaries–high schools--within
the Cherokee Nation “in which all those branches of learning
be taught, which may be required to carry the mental culture of
the youth of our country to the highest practicable point.”
In his annual
message of 1847, Cherokee Chief John Ross informed the council that
both buildings had been contracted for and “work was already
underway.” Two years later he reported the “work on
the buildings was in a state of forwardness and they will soon be
ready for occupancy.”
report was optimistic, for Ross’s 1850 annual message contained
no mention of the seminaries’ progress, and it wasn’t
until the spring of 1851 that they were finally completed.
boarding schools of the other tribes, these institutions weren’t
staffed by missionaries, but rather teachers hired by the tribal
government with the interest on funds paid the tribe under the provisions
of the Treaty of New Echota and other tribal revenue.
A site a mile
and a half southwest of the tribal capital in Tahlequah had been
selected for the male seminary, and the women’s facility was
built at Park Hill, about three miles south of the capital. (For
a modern map which situates Tahlequah and Park Hill, the site of
the Cherokee Heritage Center and the still-standing three columns
of the Women’s Seminary, see: http://www.cherokeeheritage.org/Default.aspx?tabid=418&mid=902&ctl=Photo&ItemID=70
identical three-story brick structures with spacious verandas
supported by Doric columns were the first large buildings in
Indian Territory. Both cost about $60,000.
The year before
the schools admitted their first classes, Cherokee representatives
David Vann and William Potter Ross, the chief’s nephew, visited
New England seeking teachers for their new schools. Thomas Van Horn,
a graduate of Newton Theological Seminary, and Oswald Woodford of
Yale were hired to staff the Male Seminary.
representatives also visited Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, Massachusetts,
where Sarah Worcester and Ellen Whitmore were suggested by the acting
principal Mary Chapin. Born in 1828 in New Echota, Georgia, where
her father Samuel Worcester was a missionary to the Cherokee, Sarah
was completing her third and final year at Mount Holyoke. Ellen
Whitmore was also born in 1828 in Marlboro, Massachusetts. She had
attended Mount Holyoke only one year, 1849 to 50, although she was
in the second year of the school’s three-year program.
Founded by Mary
Lyon, Mount Holyoke was a pioneer in the education of women. (For
a history of Mount Holyoke, see "History
of Mount Holyoke College".) Miss Lyon developed a curriculum
and philosophy of education her students carried literally to the
four corners of the world. Many young women who became principals
and teachers at the Cherokee seminary borrowed heavily from the
Mount Holyoke method when they began teaching at Park Hill
The day the
representatives of the Cherokee Nation visited Mount Holyoke, Ellen
Whitmore wrote friends seeking advice:
have seen (at the request of the teachers) two gentlemen from
the Cherokee nation. They are in search of teachers for a new
Seminary to be established there. The school is to number but
25 the first year. It is free–supported by government–the
girls are to be selected from the common schools and pass an examination
before entering. The course of study is to be four years. Twenty
five are to be added each year so the established number will
be one hundred. They wish at present only a principal and an associate.
Sarah Worcester daughter of the missionary among the Cherokees
is recommended as principal and myself to be associate. The salary
for the principal is $800, for the associate $600 per year besides
board. This is the plain statement of the case. It is by no means
certain that they will wish us to go. They are looking around
and will select from those recommended. They returned to Washington
today and will write to Miss Chapin in a few days and inform her
of their decision. In the meantime they wished me to think of
it and consult any friends and be prepared to decide as soon as
I hear from them. (See Letter of Ellen Whitmore, [Before
I have no
idea what shaped the Cherokee representative’s decision, but
on June 19, 1850, the two representatives wrote from Washington,
D.C., to Miss Chapin, “Should you think Miss Worcester and
Miss Whitmore suitable, we are willing to take them, it being agreeable
to themselves.” Twenty-two-year-old Ellen Whitmore was selected
as the first principal teacher for the Female Seminary, and Sarah
Worcester was chosen as her assistant.
I wish I had
time to share with you the details of Sarah Worcester’s 1847
journey from Park Hill in the Cherokee Nation to South Hadley and
the journey of the two young women to the Cherokee Nation in 1850.
Both left colorful, first-hand accounts describing the arduous nature
of travel in the mid 19th century. (See, Lola Garrett Bowers and
Kathleen Garrett, The
Journal of Ellen Whitmore (Northeastern State College,
1958). Describes the Women Seminary’s first principal’s
impressions of her cross-country journey to the Seminary and her
first impressions of the task facing her.)
crossed the crest of the Appalachian Mountains; river boats, at
the mercy of the weather and water level, were dirty, crowded, and
undependable, and coach travel would be considered cruel and unusual
punishment today. Some of Ellen Whitmore’s letters posted
in Textual Sources at the end of this webpage, (see, Letters of
Ellen Whitmore, 1850-52, from the Cherokee Heritage Center, all
the 1850 letters), ; provide a taste of her experiences.
in the cultural preparation of the new teachers at the seminaries
is suggestive of the wide range of knowledge and perceptions of
the Cherokee in the mid-19th Century. Sarah Worcester had lived
most of her life among the Cherokees and was aware of the cultural
strides made by the tribe, but Mr. Woodford apparently believed
he had been employed by a backward people, unaware of the white
man’s industrial and agricultural advances. He took corn as
a gift to the tribe and was amazed to find that even the full-bloods
harvested more than enough of the crop to meet tribal needs. He
might as well have carried coal to Newcastle. Since the teachers
arrived in late 1850, months before the schools opened, they found
lodging in the Park Hill area. Mr. Woodford stayed in the palatial
home of John Ross, Rose Cottage, a southern plantation that rivaled
the fictional Terra in splendor. The estate’s rose-lined lane,
tilled fields, blacksmith shop, dairy, stables, and extensive slave
quarters amazed the incredulous prospective teacher.
In January of 1851, he wrote his parents,
I am well,
fat and enjoying myself nicely at the chief’s. We live in
luxury, splendor, and refinement. The furniture (for the seminaries)
don’t come yet as the water has not risen enough. We shall
not begin probably within five or six weeks.
After a six-week
trip from Massachusetts, Miss Whitmore, who stayed at the home of
the Worcesters, recorded her first impression of the new seminary
in her journal.
I can see
the building from the pizazza of this house. . . . It is a beautiful
brick building with pillars on three sides of it and presents
a fine appearance from here. (See picture of old
and new seminary.)
Many years later
one of the graduates of the seminary recalled:
building was a large, comfortable, red-brick structure with wide
porches on three sides and with large . . . columns reaching up
to the second story. . . . There were large fireplaces in most
of the rooms which were heated entirely by wood fires. On the
first floor were large double parlors, dining rooms and an office
with the kitchen at the back.
until early May that the schools were ready for students. On May
6, 1851, dedication ceremonies were conducted at the Male Seminary.
The next day, Chief John Ross officially dedicated the women’s
school. Opening day was a grand occasion. The rooms and halls were
decorated with wild azaleas, honeysuckle and roses. The military
band from Fort Gibson provided music for the ceremonies.
Male seminary was dedicated a day earlier, it’s the May 7th
dedication of the Female Seminary that was still celebrated on the
campus of Northeastern by the homecoming of Seminary graduates and
students when I arrived here; they are all gone now, but their descendants
continue to observe that date.
and Male Seminary Education and Life
council authorized the admission of twenty-five students to the
first session at the Female Seminary which began on May 12, 1851.
Prospective students were required to take a two-day examination
in reading, spelling, grammar, arithmetic, and geography. Those
who passed were educated at tribal expense.
In both seminaries most students who passed the exam came from affluent,
mixed-blood homes. In fact, if you look at old photographs in the
university archives, you’ll discover that most of the seminarians
look and dress like young white men and women.
Scott Lee (the project director for the original on-site seminar
including and the project director of this website) and
I had several wide-ranging phone discussions about the impact of
the seminaries on the Cherokees and the residents of the future
state of Oklahoma. I think we both agree that two institutions provided
an exceptional level of education for an area that was still part
of the nation’s frontier. They trained a corps of teachers
who transmitted their learning to several generations of Cherokee
children and later to white students in the new state of Oklahoma.
I do, however,
harbor reservations about the impact of the two schools on the tribe’s
recovery from the disruption caused by removal and the Trail of
Tears. Scott selected the title of this presentation [for the original
on-site seminars], “The Women Seminary’s Part in the
Cultural Recovery of the Cherokee.” So far as I’m concerned
the tribe never completely recovered from the Trail of Tears.
generated by the Treaty of New Echota, precipitating the Trail of
Tears, survived the Civil War and are alive and well today. Like
the Hatfields and McCoys, many Cherokees don’t remember the
reasons for the tribal division, but that never stopped them from
taking sides. The Cherokee Trail of Tears occurred in 1838 and 1839;
the seminaries didn’t open until 1851. By that year the Cherokees
were well into what one Oklahoma historian called “the golden
But, Devon Abbott
Mihesuah [mi sue a], author of the most comprehensive study of the
female seminary, maintains that the seminaries actually were a divisive
influence on tribal unity, exacerbating the rift between mixed and
full blood, between the well educated and the poorly schooled. The
late William G. McLoughlin, a Brown University professor who’s
work focused on the Cherokees, reached a similar conclusion.
In his book,
After the Trail of Tears: The Cherokees’ Struggle for Independence,
1838 to 1880, McLoughlin concluded: “In the long run the Cherokee
educational system, commendable as it was in principle, produced
disunity; it increased rather than diminished class differences.”
I find their arguments compelling, but before we rush to judgment,
let’s take a look at the seminaries and the role they played
in the history of the Cherokees.
We may draw
some comfort from the realization that the problems we face in the
classroom aren’t restricted to the present. Apparently, seminary
boys in particular found the regimen of the school restrictive.
Many rebelled, and the teachers were hard pressed to keep them in
line. The mandatory abstinence pledges all the boys were required
to take at Cherokee Temperance Society Meetings were frequently
violated despite the recording of black marks, suspension of privileges,
discipline at the Female Seminary may have been a little easier.
However, neither the Mount Holyoke regimen instituted by Ellen Whitmore
nor the demanding curriculum could totally suppress the youthful
exuberance of the Female Seminary students. Two young ladies decided
to initiate their "greenhorn" principal by dressing up
as wild Indians. Miss Whitemore commented that they “succeeded
very well in carrying out their farce.” Although the two girls
may not have realized it, they established a precedent for pranks
that would continue into the twentieth century.
Miss Whitmore faced other problems that have a decidedly modern
ring--drop-outs and a lack of financial support. In October, shortly
after the beginning of the second term, she wrote:
It is now a week since the new term commenced and as yet there
are only half my number here[;] this is very annoying indeed.
. . . two of my loveliest girls are not coming back at all--and
one little miss about fifteen thought being at boarding school
three months was quite sufficient . . . and is married. She will
regret the foolish step one of these days.
A month later, Miss Whitmore informed a friend in Massachusetts
that the school would be doubled at the beginning of the next term.
the Directors are more active in making arrangements to procure
furniture for them--they cannot come--I make no pretensions to
any great energy, . . . but I should like to push some of these
big lazy men a little.
tenure as principal was short. At the end of her first year, she
resigned her position and moved to Hawaii where she spent the rest
of her life as a missionary to the Polynesians.
young women from Mount Holyoke served as principal teachers at the
school before the Civil War–Harriet Johnson of Sturbridge,
Massachusetts (1852-53), and Pauline Avery of Conway, Massachusetts
The few letters
and diaries from this period provide glimpses of the extra-curricular
life, but the occasional visits of Chief John Ross to attend Sunday
services made a lasting impression on the students. Rachel Eaton,
an 1888 graduate, described the chief's arrival in her biography
eyed Indian girls filled every available window and doorway to
view. . . . the courtly chief . . . conduct the first lady of
their land, arrayed in rich silks and real lace, into the seminary
chapel. (For more on Eaton, see, Christina Berry, "Rachel
Caroline Eaton:Cherokee Woman, Historian, and Educator")
were oases of refinement and learning on an otherwise raw frontier.
In fact, Park Hill, the home of the Female Seminary, Samuel Worcester's
printing press, and the elegant mansions of the tribal leaders,
earned a reputation as the Athens of Indian Territory.
Given the 19th century philosophy of education for non-white minorities,
the curriculum at both institutions was unusual. Neither school
taught vocational subjects that were emphasized by boarding schools
operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But neither did they teach
Cherokee history, culture, or language. Yet, students were kept
abreast of current affairs, including the tribe’s relation
to the federal government, as well as intra and inter tribal affairs.
both institutions were rigorous and the students' days were strictly
structured. The curriculum of the Male Seminary included eight semesters
of English, mathematics, Greek, and Latin, two years of German and
French; four years of science including physiology, chemistry, botany,
geology, astronomy, and zoology; plus geography, U.S. and English
history, political economy, and natural and moral philosophy.
of study is considerably more demanding than the four-by-four curriculum
(for high school students) that the Oklahoma legislature backed
away from several session ago.
While not as
rigorous, the Female Seminary offered a challenging academic curriculum.
It was certainly not the typical “finishing school”
that stressed genteel domestic arts so common for proper young women
in Victorian America.
I wish I could
provide a better picture of life at the seminaries, but the records
of that period are meager. Both schools produced literary journals
that provide some insight to the students’ lives and the impact
of the instruction they received (see website materials). The Male
Seminary publication was The Sequoyah Memorial and its female counterpart
was A Wreath of Cherokee Rosebuds. A poem published in the second
issue of Rosebuds explains the name:
We offer you
a wreath of flowers
Culled in recreation hours,
Which will not wither, droop, or die,
Even when days and months pass by.
buds which here you see
Ask your kindly sympathy;
View them with a lenient eye,
Pass each fault, each blemish by.
the sunshine of your eyes
Perhaps you’ll find to your surprise,
Their petals fair will soon unclose,
And every bud become–a Rose.
our wreath, and let it stand
An emblem of our happy band;
The Seminary, our garden fair,
And we, the flowers planted there.
bright we hope to grow,
And o’er our home such beauty throw
In future years–that all may see
Loveliest of lands,–the Cherokee
The August 1,
1855, issue of A Wreath of Cherokee Rose Buds contains
an article entitled, “Two scenes in Cherokee Land.”
This issue of the publication was can be found in the Textual Sources,
below, and the article reflects the philosophy on which the seminaries
operated. (See, A Wreath of
Cherokee Rose Buds, August 1, 1855.)
The first scene
depicts a rude hut inhabited by a Cherokee family. The women grinding
corn are in calico skirts, but still retain most
of their traditional ways. “Swarthy looking” boys are
repairing their bows and arrows for a hunt. The description concludes,
“Thus pass the days of their wild life. Without any intellectual
pleasures or enjoyments, only varied from the same monotonous round
by some great gatherings or public festivals.”
The next scene
begins with the “birds singing merrily as they hop from tree
to tree in the green woods.”
The wide prairies
are robed in their Spring dress, gemmed with flowers. By the fenced
fields of wheat and corn, we see that civilization and nature
are here united in our Cherokee land. White cottages peep forth
from the same spot, perhaps, where some warrior’s rude wigwam
once stood. What a contrast to the scenes of olden times! What
has produced the change? The Missionaries came and brought with
them the Bible. They taught our ancestors the precepts of religion
and the arts civilization; to cultivate farms and to erect neat
little cottages. They taught them also the knowledge of books,
and the value of education. Thus, under the influence of the religion
of the Missionaries, the wild Indian was changed and became a
takes us into a cottage nestled in a landscape improved by man where
we find books, flowers, music, but no people. The author speculates
on their absence.
gone to celebrate the festival of some Unknown Power? Have they
gone to a ball-play, or to have a gossip at a green-corn-dance,
as in days gone by? No; for the general observance of these customs
has ceased. Other festivals or ‘gatherings,’ have
taken their place, where the mind is exercised instead of the
body. The Indian lad; in place of his bow and arrow, is now taught
to use the pen and wield the powers of eloquence. The girl, instead
of engaging in the dance, keeping time with the rattling noise
of the terrapin-shells, bound to her ankles, keeps time with the
chalk, as her fingers fly nimbly over the blackboard, solving
some problem in Algebra or Geometry. It is at such a gathering
that you will find those for whom we inquire. It is Examination
Day at the Female Seminary, and here are assembled, father, mother,
brother, and friends, listening to the prompt recitations of a
daughter and sister. The next day another examination is to be
held at a similar institution, where many of the Cherokee youths
are now pursuing a course of studies that they may be useful to
their nation. And who does not remember another merry gathering
in the grove on the Seventh of May, to celebrate the Fourth Anniversary
of the opening of our Seminaries. . . . Other evidences of civilization
may be seen among us, and although there are seen dark clouds,
I hope we may advance, never faltering, until all the clouds of
ignorance and superstition and wickedness flee from before the
rays of the Suns of Knowledge and Righteousness.
Each of the
two parts of the article are signed with different name. Na-Li wrote
the first part, and Fanny signed the second. It may be that Na-Li
is Fanny’s traditional Cherokee name.
me, and others much better versed in Cherokee history than I, is
the total acceptance of white culture and values by tribal leaders
and officials at both seminaries. You’ll find no effort to
preserve tribal tradition, history, or language. The objective of
the seminaries was to merge Cherokees into the American melting
pot as quickly as possible.
on which the seminaries operated were not accepted by most of the
tribe’s full bloods. They were intent on the preservation
of the traditional ways. This difference in outlook exacerbated
the discord which both Mihesuah and McLoughlin mention. (For an
alternative view of the school’s effect on women, this time
set not in inner-tribal opposition, but in gender-opposition to
men, see Mankiller in the Introduction to the Lessons in Cherokee
Courage website, footnote vi.)
It also raises
a perplexing choice–which is better? To stress assimilation
or to preserve as much tribal tradition and culture as possible.
Federal Indian policy has vacillated between these two approaches
for more than the past century.
to the frontier was neither easy nor inexpensive. Many of the teachers
employed by the Cherokees traveled two thousand miles to their classrooms.
Sending a child away to high school was an emotional and an economic
hardship for many citizens of the tribe; and even getting textbooks
proved difficult in 1855 when low water in the Arkansas River delayed
a shipment for ten months.
of the Seminaries on Individuals, Cherokee Families, Life, and
Culture and Later Developments in the Schools
The impact of
the seminaries was obvious within a few months after the graduation
of the first class in 1855. In his annual report in August of that
year to the agent to the Cherokees, the tribal superintendent of
common schools noted:
We now have
in our employ twelve teachers of our own nation, most of whom
are graduates of our institutions. They are far better qualified
for the task than those obtained in former years from the “borders.”
By next year I believe that we can supply our schools with teachers
of our own.
was premature. In 1854, drought and poor harvests caused the nation's
debt to soar. Within two years the Cherokee school fund was exhausted;
neither seminary was able to open for the fall semester of 1856.
Before the Cherokees'
economic problems could be resolved, the nation was plunged into
the white man's Civil War. The conflict was more divisive and destructive
in the Cherokee nation than in the Shenandoah Valley or Georgia,
for the tribe not only took sides in the nation’s conflict,
but the Cherokees also fought a bitter civil war of their own.
believe that Civil War was more destructive and traumatic to the
Cherokees than forced removal. Most of the progress made since the
trail of tears was wiped out, and the members of the tribe had to
start over again divided by internal dissension that may have been
more insidious than that they faced after removal.
Used as warehouses,
hospitals, and even stables during the Civil War, the seminary buildings
were in shambles when the conflict ended. A destitute Cherokee nation
was unable to reopen the schools until the 1870s. Because of the
tribe’s lack of funds, students were charged for their room
and board when the seminaries finally reopened. Consequently, enrollment
remained under 50 for a few years.
To attract more
students, the seminaries were opened to children from other tribes,
admission requirements were reduced, and later in the decade the
national council created a primary department composed of grades
one through five and a preparatory department encompassing grades
six through eight.
were also made to educate the children of tribal members unable
to pay room and board expenses. In an interview with a WPA (Works
Project Administration, a government agency formed during the Depression
years) worker in 1937, Mrs. Rod Richards of Muskogee, a 1903 Seminary
graduate, recalled: (434-37)
also what was termed the Indigent Department . . . which was maintained
wholly by the Cherokee Nation. The children came from the poorest
families of the Cherokee Nation and those who lived in isolated
districts out of reach of country schools. The children were clothed,
fed and educated with no cost whatever to their parents. They
had the privilege of going from the lowest grade to the highest
and of graduating with the same honors as any other student if
these honors were merited. [Boarding] students [who could afford
it] paid $5.00 per month with all books and stationery furnished,
later the board was raised to $7.50 a month. All [students] including
the pay students were required to perform some household duties,
such as sweeping the halls. . . .
of the Indigent Department helped in the kitchen and the dining
room and in so doing they were given training that was beneficial
to them in after life.
The food was
good and plentiful. For breakfast we had hot biscuits, a cereal,
usually oat meal, bacon and eggs, some sort of fruit, coffee and
all the butter, cream and milk that we wanted. Dinner consisted
of a variety of vegetables, meat usually boiled, corn bread, home-made
pickles and dessert. We always had turkey on every special occasion
and on holidays.
bell rang at 7:00 A.M., fifteen minutes later the second bell
rang, then the breakfast bell. At 8:45 the bell for chapel exercises
rang and the entire student body assembled in the chapel for a
devotional period. . . .We then went to our class rooms.
specifically recalled the Female Seminary’s extracurricular
afternoons of the week the girls could go to town to shop, always
accompanied by a teacher. Once a month a reception was given and
the boys and girls in Tahlequah were invited. . . .
was held every Sunday morning after which we could attend the
church of our choice in town, always accompanied by a teacher.
Twice a month a minister came out from Tahlequah and preached
on Sunday afternoon.
girls were required to go for a walk each evening immediately
after school. We played tennis and basketball for recreation.
We had the best teachers that could be secured. In our English
class, we would read a book and several weeks after we would be
asked to rewrite the entire story.
When the time
came for the opening of the school term, the girls' parents came
with them, most traveling in wagons to bring their daughters’
trunks. Their mothers would stay in the building and their fathers
would camp in the grove near the campus.
a member of the first graduating class after the Civil War, recalled:
. . . When
the old Seminary got going after the chaos of the Civil War, my
name was one of the first on the roll with Miss Florence Wilson,
that staunch old teacher and disciplinarian of many Cherokee girls.
years she taught and directed the lives of many girls who often
rebelled and grumbled at her rigid regime, yet lived to call her
blessed and wish that their own daughters might come under her
Florence Wilson wasn’t among the teachers who reopened the
Female Seminary in 1871; she began in 1875 as principal teacher,
her hair swept back into a bun and her jaw set.
With a demeanor
that would make a marine drill sergeant look benign, Miss Wilson
dominated Seminary girls for the next quarter century. Administering
daily doses of sulphur and molasses and presiding over rigorous
walks, she enforced discipline with an iron hand.
routine was shattered on Easter Sunday, 1887, when fire demolished
the seminary at Park Hill, but Miss Wilson got all the girls out
of the building safely.
[I went] back
home to teach in my old alma mater and still under Miss Wilson
till the dear old building burned Sunday afternoon, April 10,
1887. It was tragic, pitiful to stand by helpless and see the
dear old building burn. There was a bell in the cupola but no
rope attached, so some of us climbed up in the cupola and banged
the clapper by hand, almost deafening us, but being so isolated
it is doubtful if the nearest neighbors heard the alarm.
was evident nothing could be done with no means at hand for fighting
the flames, . . . Miss Wilson made sure all the little children
were out and safe then directed the girls in saving clothing,
bedding and books and themselves before the roof fell in.
also risked her life to save the school’s records, maintained
in two, large leather-bound volumes.
Miss Ida May
Collins Goodale was a student when the building burned. She recalled:
We were taken
to the Boys' Seminary for that night and for a few days after,
but the presence of so many girls on their campus and in their
halls proved so demoralizing to the boys that we were soon removed
to Tahlequah where we stayed until our parents could come or send
Since Park Hill
had been declining since the Civil War and water was not readily
available at the site, it was decided to rebuild elsewhere.
By the fall
of 1887, the Cherokees had begun rebuilding their Female Seminary
just north of Tahlequah where a spring provided an abundance of
water. Construction took less than two years. (See
picture of old and new seminary.)
Ross who interviewed former seminary students for the WPA and had
been a student herself: (429-30)
[sic] of Tahlequah purchased and donated a new site and the National
Council passed an act establishing the second seminary at Tahlequah.
A large number
of people from throughout the Cherokee Nation were in attendance
at the laying of the cornerstone. Among them were several persons
who had witnessed the laying of the cornerstone of the old Seminary
at Park Hill by Principal Chief John Ross on June 21, 1847.
Lucille S. Brannan,
a WPA field worker, provided additional information about the early
days of the new school. (394)
The New Female
Seminary was built north of Tahlequah, . . . a modern brick building
on a lovely site supplied with water from "The Big spring"
with steam heat and inside toilet. The pride of the Cherokee Nation.
. . . Spencer Stephens [the Superintendent] . . . went to St.
Louis, and among other things selected real linen table cloths
& napkins, and silver dish and knives & forks for the
14 long tables in the dining room.
that he was spending the nations money needlessly, he told them,
That young ladies of the best families demanded the best. . .
Work on the
new school began in 1887 and the building was dedicated two years
later. In this new setting Miss Wilson re-established her Spartan
regime in what’s now Seminary Hall.
doubtful that the English queen herself could have imbued Victorian
morality any more effectively than did Miss Wilson. Seminary girls
were never permitted to go to town without a chaperon, and at the
monthly receptions to which the faculty and students of the Male
Seminary were invited, the girls were closely supervised.
Miss Wilson did allow students to visit with their brothers, cousins,
and other “blood relations” once a month. Unfortunately,
for the young ladies and their male admirers, Miss Wilson had mastered
tribal genealogy and could instantly identify fraudulent relatives.
of rules that governed life at the Female Seminary was enforced
by a demerit system. Even one demerit earned in the course of a
week would preclude a girl's leaving the seminary grounds on Saturday.
Few contemporary punishments are as severe, for in the words of
one former student:
And oh! the
Saturdays when it was our turn to join the happy group going to
town. Seated on wooden chairs in the Seminary farm wagon, . .
. we did not envy Cinderella and her coach of four. No limousine
of today ever brought the exciting joy of that trip to town, where
Male Seminary boys were in evidence everywhere.
Even the demerit
system and fear of missing a Saturday in Tahlequah were insufficient
to repress all unauthorized activities. One spring in wild onion
season five or six young ladies simply could not resist the mouth-watering
temptation of the ultimate Cherokee delicacy, wild onions and eggs.
The ever vigilant Miss Wilson literally caught wind of the plot,
sniffed out the culprits, and sent them scurrying to their rooms
without even a taste of the onions and eggs that had cost them five
demerits apiece. (Readers of the Harry Potter series may
find some of these incidents and punishments to seem familiar. Ed.’s
training of the schools emphasized not only class work but also
deportment and dress. On the seminary grounds the girls wore print
dresses; but when they left campus, the proper attire was a blue
serge suit with middy, black tie, and mortar board cap.
When I began
delving into the history of the Female Seminary, most of the events
I discovered seemed part of the remote past.
who attended the institution at Park Hill seemed as distant to me
as the young Athenians who pondered questions raised by Socrates.
As the years pass, however, the gulf between the seminary years
and the present seems to have shrunk.
Some of the
activities of the Seminarians and the Tahlequah community are similar
to those of high school students and the people of my home town
within my memory. Before the days of TV, the annual school plays
were a major civic event, drawing large numbers of people including
those whose children had long since finished school. Devon Abbot
Mihesuah in her dissertation on the Female Seminary describes similar
looked forward to the seminary’s annual plays, since they
took place at Tahlequah’s Opera House. The 1907 production
was A Mid Summer Night’s Dream, and students designed
and made the costumes, props, and scenery.
goes on to describe the preparations for the production and the
large audiences that viewed the performances.
ladies in Victorian America did not wear trousers, and Miss Wilson
saw to it that her students were correctly attired at all times.
In plays presented by the female seminarians it was permissible
for girls to appear in male roles. Their costumes could even include
a man's coat, tie, hat, and cane. But all "men" in these
performances wore skirts.
The plays are
not the only tangible reminders of the connection between the students
who attended the seminaries and NSU students of the early 21st Century.
conducted over twenty years ago with seminarians and my observations
of my classes suggest that today’s students await the end
of class just as eagerly as the seminary girls who occupied the
same classrooms at the beginning of the 20th century. Although they
were removed during the last renovation of the Seminary building
on campus, when I came here in 1968, a sheet rock wall concealed
built-in ironing boards used by Cherokee girls to press the white
dresses they wore in the springs and summers before statehood. If
you look at the sandstone windowsill in Room 115, which used to
be the seminary kitchen, you’ll see that the cooks, who stropped
their knives on the sandstone for year, wore the sill down.
Wilson saw nothing wrong with dancing, "under proper supervision,"
she bowed to the wishes of the ministers of the community and banned
dancing at the Female Seminary. She did, however, permit "rhythmic
exercises" in which the girls cavorted to popular melodies
reciting appropriate educational lyrics. While teaching her students
waltz steps to be used in a seminary program, the physical culture
be sure to tell everyone this is not dancing, just rhythmic 'exercises.'"
rhythmic exercises didn’t offend the school board for Miss
Wilson was rehired year after year.
of the Seminaries into Oklahoma State Higher Education and an
Assessment of their Significance
By the beginning
of the twentieth century, Congress had decided to abolish tribal
government and to unite Indian and Oklahoma Territory into a single
state. In 1901, when Congress rejected a Cherokee resolution to
make her principal teacher for life, Miss Wilson resigned her position
and returned to Arkansas. With her departure and the opening of
a new century, the school entered its final decade as the Cherokee
Mayes Sanders, who enrolled in the sixth grade at the seminary in
1906, arrived in Tahlequah by train from Pryor and was picked up
at the depot by the school's wagonette. Seventy-four years later
she particularly recalled the daily inspections:
worst part of our schedule was the eight a.m. inspection of our
personal appearance and our rooms. Occasionally the teachers inspecting
appeared with white gloves on to brush under your bed, over the
wash stand, and chairs. It was much more pleasant if they were
still white when she went on her way.
Jack Brown of
Tahlequah, a student and later a teacher at the Male Seminary, remembered
military training during which the boys wore West Point-style uniforms.
On special occasions they drilled on the grounds of the Female Seminary.
He and Charlotte Sanders retained vivid recollections of April Fool’s
Day pranks during which the students would tie up all the teachers.
Mr. Brown recalled chasing the Superintendent’s bird dog through
the seminary and making him howl. Mrs. Sanders also remembered pranks,
but recalled, “we certainly got paid for it.”
opposition, in 1907, Oklahoma did enter the Union as the forty-sixth
state. Both seminaries continued to operate, but with the dissolution
of tribal government, it was apparent their days were numbered.
first governor, Charles N. Haskell, had close associations with
the Cherokees and urged the legislature to locate a state normal
(teachers’) school in the former capital city of the tribe.
Following his suggestion, in 1909, the second legislature appropriated
$45,000 for the purchase of the Female Seminary and its forty-acre
May 27, 1909, commencement exercises were conducted at the Female
Seminary. One of the graduates expressed the feeling of most of
the seminarians. She wrote, "The sun has set forever on the
Cherokee National Female Seminary."
the Male Seminary reopened as a co-educational institution, but
on Palm Sunday, 1910, fire swept the building reducing it to rubble
within a few hours. The flames that consumed the Male Seminary ended
a remarkable chapter in Cherokee history.
of the class of 1910, who were graduated in ceremonies conducted
at the new normal school in Tahlequah, were the last to receive
diplomas from the seminaries. But many graduates and students of
the institutions were among the first to earn teaching credentials
from Northeastern Normal.
While I don’t
believe the Cherokee seminaries played a major role in the tribe’s
recovery from the upheaval of removal and the trail of tears, and
I do believe that the institutions did little to bridge the chasm
between the treaty and anti-treaty parties, between the mixed and
full bloods, I consider their contribution to tribal progress enormous.
Only a small
percentage of Cherokee children attended the institutions, but they
provided the teachers for many of the tribe’s common schools
and the business and political leaders of the Cherokee Nation and
later the state of Oklahoma.
I knew only one graduate of the institutions, but Jack Brown was
a well-educated, cultured gentleman. From what I have read, he was
representative of most of those who earned degrees at the seminaries.
They, like the talented tenth envisioned by WEB DuBois, had influence
far beyond their actual numbers, and that influence continues to
and the stories of the students who studied there before statehood
are tangible reminders of our connection to the school's origins,
when the Cherokees converted this area from a wilderness to a center
of culture and learning.
Late in the
afternoon when Seminary Hall is almost deserted, my imagination
can hear the laughter of seminary girls planning an April Fool's
Day prank. Looking out my office window under the clock tower it's
easy to envision a long line of young ladies starting out on their
afternoon walk. In a narrow sense that era is bygone, but as long
as Seminary Hall stands and the stories are remembered, it remains
alive and vital.
not quite true; even when the building is gone and the stories and
memories are forgotten, the legacy of education the Cherokees left
here will endure.
Dr. Brad Agnew
Professor of History
Northeastern State University
1 By 1890, whatever differences in rigor
there were between the men’s and women’s seminaries
seems to have largely disappeared. For a list of subjects and texts
read, (including Geometry and Algebra before entering the last four
years, Bacon, Shakespeare, translations of Latin, studies of Roman
culture, and a profusion of literary, musical, and performance clubs,
during the last four years) see Mihesuah, pp. 58-61. Ed.s’
2 Dr. Agnew did conduct many interviews
with graduates of the Women’s Seminary in the 1980’s.
These graduates all share memories, particularly of the latter years
of the Seminary. He has made video of those interviews available
on this website. Ed’s note.
“Cherokee Seminaries,” Indian-Pioneer Papers,
April 12, 1938.
of Ellen Whitmore, 1850-52, from the Cherokee Heritage Center
The first seven
letters were written by Ellen Whitmore. The first seeks advice about
an offer to teach at the new Cherokee Female Seminary in Indian
Territory. The next five describe her trip from New England to Park
Hill, Cherokee Nation. The letters from the Cherokee nation describe
the school, her reaction to the school, the Cherokees, and her students,
and the last is a letter to her by the Superintendent of Cherokee
Public Schools listing students who have been admitted to the female
seminary's second class. The transcriptions many not be totally
accurate. Consult the manuscript copy in case of doubt.
Wreath of Cherokee Rose Buds, August
1, 1855 used in the lecture above.
From the second issue of Rose Buds a Poem
explaining the name of the publication from the August 2, 1854 issue
Sequoyah Memorial, August 2, 1855
The two publications
above are examples of the literary journals produced by students
of the Cherokee seminaries four years after the founding of the
schools. Peruse both publications and evaluate the student's mastery
of English, understanding of current events, geography, and history.
What other influences can be observed in the prose and poetry of
Reports from the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian
Affairs for 1852.
from the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian
Affairs for 1852
Read Number 48 and O.L. Woodford's Report in Number 49. Although
Ellen Whitmore apparently did not submit a report for the female
seminary, the report of James M. Payne, the Cherokee Superintendent
of Public Instruction, and O.L. Woodford, the assistant instructor
at the male seminary, provide an overview of educational activity
during the seminaries' first year of operation.
These two articles
from the Missionary Herald suggest the role played by missionaries
in the early history of the Cherokee seminaries.
Ross, Miss A. Florence Wilson, Indian Pioneer Papers,
March 12, 1938
Ross's biographical sketch of the most important principal teacher
at the female seminary is based on her personal experiences as a
student and a 1902 graduate of the school. Interviews she and other
WPA workers conducted in the late 1930s contribute to this article.
Dawes, "An Unknown Nation," Harpers New Monthly
Magazine, March 1888, 598-605.
This article by the daughter of Massasuchessets Senator Henry Dawes
provides an overview of the Cherokee Nation, its educational system,
and its two seminaries, just as pressure to open Indian Territory
to settlement reached critical mass.
Devon Mihesuah, "Out of the Graves of the Polluted Debauches':
The Boys of the Cherokee Male Seminary," American Indian
Quarterly 15 (fall 1991): 503-21.
Excerpt from William G. McLoughlin's After the Trail of Tears:
The Cherokees' Struggle for Sovereignty, 1839-1880.
Additional Textual Sources for Readers to Investigate:
Most of the
titles of these works are self-descriptive and yield further, especially
quasi-contemporaneous, insights into the seminaries’ education,
teachers, students, and life.
Ida Wtzel Tinnin, "Educational
and Cultural Influences of the Cherokee Seminaries," Chronicles
of Oklahoma, 37 (Spring 1958): 59-57. A graduate reflects on
the importance of the seminaries’ to Cherokee culture and
Althea Bass, A
Cherokee Daughter of Mount Holyoke (Prairie Press, 1937)
O. H. P. Brewer, "Early
Educational History of the Cherokee Nation," Address delivered
to the Cherokee Seminary Association, May 7, 1946
Berry, "Rachel Caroline Eaton:Cherokee Woman, Historian, and
of Mount Holyoke College"
H. Fischer, "The Civil War in Indian Territory"
Lola Garrett Bowers and Kathleen Garrett, The
Journal of Ellen Whitmore (Northeastern State College,
1958). Describes the Women Seminary’s first principal’s
impressions of her cross-country journey to the Seminary and her
first impressions of the task facing her.
of Miss A. F. Wilson," Tahlequah Arrow, July 13, 1901,
1. A memorial to the teacher who guided the seminary for twenty
the Cherokees," The Living Age, January 4, 1845,
In this 1845
article reprinted from the Cincinnati Chronicle, the editor comments
on several indications of "the progress of Cherokee civilization"
and reprints a description of Tahlequah from the Cherokee Advocate.
Legacy of the Cherokees. A film visually presenting and synthesizing
much of Dr. Agnew’s lecture. It contains dramatic readings
from some of the materials above, and interviews with aged Female
movie link - part 2
link - part 3
link - part 4
Ask students to identify which documents presented in the textual
sources might help to think about the following questions. Teachers
should encourage students to think about insights which any of the
documents might afford to these questions:
- What difficulties
did the teachers and administrators of the Cherokee Seminaries
encounter in bring education to the children of tribal members?
- In what
ways were the difficulties similar to those faced today, and how
were they different than those confronting contemporary teachers
- Did the
Cherokee Seminaries intensify animosities between the traditional
and progressive factions of the tribe? If so, how? If not, how
do you counter the arguments of Devon Mihesuah and William G.
- After reading
the primary and secondary accounts of education at the Cherokee
Seminaries, compare and contrast the differences and similarities
between education in the United States in the early 21st Century
and that the students of the seminaries experienced between 1851
and 1910. List and explain the three major differences and the
three greatest similarities.
While both seminaries
were equally important at the time and produced leaders for many
years, the Female Seminary has come to be a cultural and educational
icon. Its remaining, standing fire-scarred columns are the symbol
of the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill/Tahlequah, and its
successor building on the Northeastern State University is the building
that evokes revered memories. What does this suggest to you about
the persistence of Cherokee regard for education, the arts, and
Divide the class into four sections, with two sections holding a
“debate,” one asking questions of each group, and one
“judging” the outcome by specifically pointing to textual
passages, arguments about the texts, and inferences to new insights
derived from the texts. Begin with each side presenting an argument;
then, allow the “asking” group to present questions
to each side. Then allow the judging group to formulate its judgment
for five minutes with substantive discussion about its award to
Possible topics for debate and discussion:
that you can construct a high school or college curriculum. In
the long run, would the members of the tribe have been better
served by emphasizing a curriculum based on the goal of preserving
tribal heritage, traditions, and language or one that facilitated
the adoption of the culture, traditions, and language of America’s
white majority? Is a “middle road” a solution? What
do you retain, what do you bring in, what do you drop? What are
the consequences of these decisions? Explain how you arrived at
your conclusion. What sources are you using to help form your
Wilson was a stern disciplinarian and a rigid taskmaster who was
revered by most of her former students. Based on what you read
about her, do you consider her a successful teacher? Why or why
not? Would you like to have been a student in her classroom? Why
or why not?
- After the
Civil War what efforts were made to attract the children of full-blood
Cherokees to the seminaries? What could have been done to make
the institutions more congenial to those children?
Question for Discussion: Tying the Units Together:
Your students may have discussed any of the following questions
from the previous unit:
- What events
or experiences in the Cherokee past influenced the attitude of
the members of the tribe concerning education?
- Did those
experiences have the same impact on the full-blood and on the
- Did education
provide protection for the members of the tribe against white
men who coveted their land?
Did other tribes
with less educational tradition fare better in their relations with
After the discussion, help students formulate a question which the
class will explore with a short three-page essay; have students
write various proposals on the board or through a class threaded
conversation on your classroom’s local online site; then,
help the students edit down to a final question;
Select one of the following questions or statements and build a
discussion around lines of argument found in the earlier discussion
that would help you explore these issues:
Using letters and personal accounts of seminary students and officials
of the Cherokee Nation and federal government as well as secondary
accounts by scholars document and evaluate the impact of the two
Cherokee National Seminaries on the Cherokee Nation and later the
State of Oklahoma.
Based on your reading of the documents about the Cherokee Seminaries
and with the advantage of hind-sight, how would you design an educational
program for the Cherokee Nation that would have avoided problems
pointed out by Devon Mihesuah and William G. McLoughlin and would
reflect contemporary values?
After reading the assigned documents carefully, make a list of issues,
details, and interpretations on which the authors disagree or reach
different conclusions. Using other sources available to you, try
to determine which account is most accurate, evaluate the differing
interpretations, and try to reach a consensus on which, if any,
seems most reasonable.
After reading A Wreath of Cherokee Rose Buds and The
Sequoyah Memorial, what conclusions can you draw about the
attitudes and outlooks of the students who contributed the articles?
Read “An Unknown Nation” by Anna Laurens Dawes, which
presents a description of the condition of Indian Territory, particularly
the Cherokee Nation, in the late 1880s. Consider the transformation
that occurred in 1907 when the Cherokee Nation and all of Indian
Territory were incorporated into the State of Oklahoma. Were the
Native American residents of Indian Territory better served by their
tribal governments or by the government of the new state?
Supplemental Reading for Teachers:
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s "The Disuniting of America,"
from The World and I (April 1982) raises thought-provoking
questions about the ramifications of strident insistence on multi-culturalism
and the slavish enforcement of political correctness. You may wish
to share ideas Schlesinger advances with your students and ask them
to reconsider the impact of the seminaries in light of Schlesinger’s
the Lessons Together:
Above, Dr. Agnew
writes about the Female seminary’s approach to education that,
“It also raises a perplexing choice–which is better?
To stress assimilation or to preserve as much tribal tradition and
culture as possible.” In Unit 3, Dr. Blue Clark discusses
the “dual view” which Native American Indians seem to
have from their experience of both traditional and Western culture.
Review the paragraphs above and the materials, particularly at the
end of Dr. Blue’s lecture. Discuss: can education accommodate
a dual view? Does this website? Should education be of only one
view or many? And what do we do if, say some parties are opposed
to dual views, while other want and accept them?
For a further
and more complicated problem, students might connect the question
on assimilation above with the materials from Dr. Fogelson’s
lectures in Unit 1. For the hopes that the idea of “civilization”
promised, search for the following passage: “The notion of
“civilization” was important to this history and development”
and read to the end of the lecture. One might also read the contemporary
account, referenced on this webpage and written by a Cherokee, after
Removal about the town of Tahlequah. ("Civilization
of the Cherokees," The Living Age, January 4, 1845, 38.
The courthouse mentioned in the article still stands.) For the destructive
misuses of the same idea, search for “National opinion became
clearly divided as to whether Indians could successfully make the
transformation into civilized life” and read the next five
or so paragraphs. After reading these passages, discuss the following:
As education is certainly a part of “civilization,”
what do you think: is it better to become educated, or not? How
would you know when “education” was hopeful and when
it was misused? Do you think you could characterize education of
the Cherokee women and men in some way?