Centennnial History of the University of Nebraska, by Robert Manley

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Part 1 The Beginning (1854-1884)

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Education in Pioneer Nebraska

During the first decades of the nineteenth century, a colorful procession of explorers, traders, soldiers, and adventurers crossed the Missouri River and headed west. An amazing country lay before these men--grass-covered uplands and shadowed ravines which stretched away before the eye in variegated patterns of brown and dusty green, the horizon appearing to blend into the sea of grass. An undeniable beauty marked the unbroken western prairie; but while eastern visitors might in moments of poetic introspection confess the beauty of the grass-lands, they concluded that the land was unattractive, forbidding, and worthless. In the popular view the Great Plains was a part of the Great American Desert, and in the 1850's at the eastern approaches to this "desert" the frontier stalled. Not until the Civil War were technological and psychological adjustments made which enabled frontiersmen accustomed to the well-watered, forested East, to occupy the plains. The reasons for entering the region became more compelling than the reasons for staying out; and frontier promoters, quick to perceive the latent possibilities of this last frontier, insisted that the plains could be farmed, that great fortunes awaited the bold and the resourceful. The insatiable hunger of the pioneer American for land and opportunity--which in large measure were synonymous--produced a determination to conquer the plains. The idea of the Great American Desert was discredited, and the settlement of America's prairie frontier got under way with the creation of Nebraska Territory in 1854.

While it is difficult to generalize about the motives which brought people west, it is obvious that many prospective settlers came in search of personal advancement. J. Sterling Morton, destined to be one of Nebraska's most impor-tant political and agriculural leaders, moved to Nebraska Territory for this reason, as did Mark Izard, a governor during the territorial period. Algernon S. Paddock, who represented Nebraska in the United States Senate for two terms, emigrated to the Territory at he urging of his cousin who told him that a resourceful person could quickly realize his fortune in the new land. But it would be wrong to paint the portrait of all Nebraska pioneers in hues of unrestranined materialism. Few denied their interest in wealth and position, but nearly all hoped that their movement to the frontier contributed to the advancement of their society and their nation. To develop a wilderness region previously the haunt of wild animals and savage Indians seemed to them a service of some consequence, and all earnestly hoped that their children would benefit from the development of this new land. Thus the social history of the Nebraska frontier, like the history of any frontier region, is the story of the incessant conflict between

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materialism and idealism. Nowhere is this conflict better illustrated than in the attitudes held by the Nebraska pioneers towards education.

The Territorial Expperience

Certain that prospective settlers would want adequate educational opportu-nities for their children, Nebraska promoters and boomers devoted substantial portions of their promotional literature to the subject of schools. But the boomers misread the settlers' minds. Initially, their consuming desire was to gain possession of some land or to participate in a promising town speculation scheme. Education could wait. The promoters nonetheless continued to hold out promises of educa-tional advantages in Nebraska; and in an effort to fulfill these promises the Terri-torial Legislature, meeting in its first session in Omaha, enacted a general school law in March, 1855. The law provided that the territorial librarian was to be superitendent of public instruction; that each county would elect a county super-intendent, who would organize the districts on petition of the district voters; that teachers would be hired by a district board; and that schools would be supported by a tax of three to five mills on the dollar. But the debate which accompanied the writing of Nebraska's first school law shows clearly that many legislators were interested in the law principally as it would promote the settlement of the Terri-tory. Schools brought setlers, so by all means let there be settlers, and the quicker the better. The school law accomplished little. In 1857, two years after its enact-ment, the territorial superintendent of public instruction stated: "Judging from the meagre materials handed over to me by my predecessor, and from the few County reports received up to this date, I am painfully convinced that the interests of education, and the value of good common schools, have to secured that attention which their importance demands."

T. B. Cuming, Nebraska's second territorial governor and boomer extra-ordinary, deprecated the lack of interest in education. In December, 1857, he told the legislature that the first education law "has been rendered virtually a dead letter." In response to his demands that action be taken, the legislature set up a committee, which reported, in October, 1858, that the present system did not provide sufficient funds to secure qualified personnel, or the means for collecting funds. They recommend a new bill and again emphasized that schools were necessary to attract settlers. This session of the legislature enacted a second school law, copied almost verbatim from the Iowa law, which ostensibly corrected some of the defects of the first and which remained in force until after Nebraska becme a state. It was diffcult to gauge its effectiveness, for the depression which followed the Panic of 1857 had fallen with devastating effect upon the Territory. Settlers deserted the country in droves; banks which had been established upon hope rathen specie collapsed; infant businesses were prostrate. Nevertheless, by the end of 1859 twenty-nine common schools-- that is, distric elementary schools-- were operating in the Territory. All were located within a few miles of the Missouri River, the educational frontier not having moved very far out onto the prairies as yet. The effort still fell far short of what was required: Only 277 children out of an estimated 4,767 of school age had access to a common school. Letters sent to the territorial superintendents by local school officials illusrated the problems. Members of a board in Burt Country reported that only a fraction of the district school tax had been collected. The tax levy for the district, as set by the board, was to have realized $911.57, enough to support a shcool, but only a small portion of that amount had been gathered. Many settlers refused to pay the shool tax, and others maintained that they were destitute and unable to pay. Also in this county, as in others, there existed a peculiar problem-- that of


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collecting taxes levied against property within the boundaries of paper towns. For example, the town lots in Hudson City, a promoter's paper town, were taxed to provide three hundred dollars. The promoter refused to pay the taxes and of course no one yet lived in the town, so this portion of the levy was uncollectable. The district board of Eight Mile Grove Township School in Cass County was frustrated on another font. "Our school law is too complicated," the board's president complained. "A common clod hopper cannot understand it, even the lawyers cannot agree upon it." This board urged the legislature to write a school law in the plainest of languages so that the common people could understand it. Optimistic school reports came only from Nebraska City, where several elementary schools were in operation. However, they were so-called subscription schools operated for the benefit of children whose parents were willing and able to pay tuition. The schools appeared to be doing an adequate job and no one had to pay taxes for their support, so there was little pressure to establish public schools in Nebraska City. In every school district in the Territory the principal problem was lack of money. Since taxes could not be collected, the settlers wanted to know when government lands would be available for the support of schools. Many were under the impression that the federal government, which set aside two sections of land in each township for the endowment of schools, had promised active financial support for local common schools. The federal law was very ambigious, and Nebraska lawyers tended to believe that only states were eligible to receive school lands. A further element of confusion came from the chaotic land situation in Nebraska. Vast expanses of Nebraska prairie lay in the hands of speculators, and tax levies against such properties were ignored. Millions of acres had not yet been surveyed and offered for patent. Hence, great tracts of land in Nebraska escaped taxation at a moment when money was desperately needed to establish a school system. But the financial barriers to frontier education were not the only obstructions. Even where taxes could be collected, there seemed to be little genuine interest in education; a highly mobile population, such as inhabited Nebraska Territory, was not likely to be interested in schools. "Nothing is more essential to the welfare of civil society than free schools." Governor Alvin Saunders said in his speech to the 1861 legislature. Noting that no permanent school fund had been provided, he urged the legislators to enact measures "to render our school system effective." An astute and reliable observer, Governor Saunders found few bright spots in Nebraska's educational situation. He was annoyed by the discrepancy between the speeches delivered in the legislature extolling the virtues of education and the actions taken by that body. Yet territorial lawmakers ignored such criticism just as they tended to ignore the many problems, the legislators gave their attention to the formation of colleges and universities. This campaign to bring higher education to the frontier came at a time when only a fraction of Nebraska's children attended elementary school. But the frontier spirit of optimism and promotion could not be curbed.

The Day of Paper Colleges During Nebraska's territorial years-from 1854 to 1867-at least twenty-three seminaries, colleges, institutes academics, and universities were chartered by the Nebraska Legislature. Although several governors tried to dissuade the legislators from chartering such institutions, the lawmakers, responding to the pressures of promoters and speculators, could not be deterred. The greater number of these


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