Unit 6: The Women and Men’s Seminary Education and Cherokee Cultural Recovery

Introduction 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.


Guiding Questions:

  • 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 or colleges?
  • How were they different from other tribal schools, operating at the same time, and Bureau of Indian Affairs Schools established after the Civil War?
  • What were the educational goals of the tribal leaders who created and maintained the schools?
  • 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?

Learning Objectives:

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 offered.
  • Understand the depth and role the education of the Cherokee women and men played in preparing them as adults and leaders of the Cherokee.
  • Explain the objections traditional Cherokees voiced concerning the administration and curriculum of the tribal seminaries.
  • (Optional) 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, and tradition.

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 their significance.

The Cherokee National Seminaries: Origin, Growth, and Significance, 1839-1910

Establishing 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 new seminary)

With growing 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.

Nonetheless, 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.

Long before 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.)

The Cherokee 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.”
(See Scroll to Article 10.)

Despite the 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.

Cherokee families 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.”

Apparently that 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.

Unlike the 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: )

The 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.

The Cherokee 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:

Today I 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 August 1850].)

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.)

Railroads hadn’t 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.

The differences 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:

The school 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.

It wasn’t 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.

Although the 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.


The Female and Male Seminary Education and Life

The tribal 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.

Animosities 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 years.”

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, and expulsions.

Maintaining 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. She continued:

But unless 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.

Miss Whitmore’s 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.

Two other 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 (1853-56).

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 of Ross.

The bright 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")

The seminaries 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.

Standards at 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.

This course 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.

The tiny buds which here you see
Ask your kindly sympathy;
View them with a lenient eye,
Pass each fault, each blemish by.

Warmed 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.

Then take our wreath, and let it stand
An emblem of our happy band;
The Seminary, our garden fair,
And we, the flowers planted there.

Like roses 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 new man.

The writer 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.

Have they 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.

What strikes 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.

The assumptions 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.

Bringing knowledge 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.


The Impact 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.

His optimism 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.

I personally 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.

Provisions 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)

There was 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. . . .

[Students] 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.

The rising 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.

Mrs. Richards specifically recalled the Female Seminary’s extracurricular activities:

On certain 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. . . .

Sunday School 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.

All the 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.

Isabelle Cobb, a member of the first graduating class after the Civil War, recalled: (184)

. . . 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.

For twenty-five 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 discipline.

Actually, Ann 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.

The educational 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.

Isabel Cobb recalled,

[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.

When it 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.

Florence Wilson 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: (89)

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 for us.

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.)

Quoting Elizabeth Ross who interviewed former seminary students for the WPA and had been a student herself: (429-30)

Business men [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.

Some complained 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.

It’s 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.

The multitude 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 note.)

The rigorous 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.

The students 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 dramatic productions.

The girls 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.

The passage goes on to describe the preparations for the production and the large audiences that viewed the performances.

Proper young 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.

Interviews I 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.

Although Miss 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 teacher cautioned,

"Girls, be sure to tell everyone this is not dancing, just rhythmic 'exercises.'"

Apparently the rhythmic exercises didn’t offend the school board for Miss Wilson was rehired year after year.


The Incorporation 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 Female Seminary.

Mrs. Charlotte 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:

About the 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.”

Despite Cherokee 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.

The state's 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 campus.

On Thursday, 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."

In September 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.

The members 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.

Personally, 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 reverberate.

Seminary Hall 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.

Perhaps, that’s 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
Tahlequah, OK

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’ note.)

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.

Textual Sources

Ella Robinson, “Cherokee Seminaries,” Indian-Pioneer Papers, April 12, 1938.

Letters 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.

A 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

The 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 the contributors?

Reports from the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for 1852.

Reports 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.

Missionary Herald, October 1851

Missionary Herald, March 1852

These two articles from the Missionary Herald suggest the role played by missionaries in the early history of the Cherokee seminaries.

Elizabeth 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.

Anna Laurens 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 life.

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

Christina Berry, "Rachel Caroline Eaton:Cherokee Woman, Historian, and Educator"

"History of Mount Holyoke College"

LeRoy 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.

"Passing of Miss A. F. Wilson," Tahlequah Arrow, July 13, 1901, 1. A memorial to the teacher who guided the seminary for twenty years.

"Civilization of the Cherokees," The Living Age, January 4, 1845, 38.

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.

The 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 Seminary students.

movie link - part 1

movie link - part 2

movie link - part 3

movie link - part 4


Questions for Analysis

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 and administrators?
  • 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. McLoughlin?
  • 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 women?


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 follow.

Possible topics for debate and discussion:

  • Pretend 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 thinking?
  • Florence 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?

Optional 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 mixed bloods?
  • 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 federal officials?

Suggested papers:

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 arguments.


Connecting 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?