Here, gathered in our beloved South Dakota, are a few members of our Williamson / Mattson Clan. Charles and Luella are to be blamed (be kind, they didn't know what they were doing). We're generally a happy bunch and somewhat intelligent (notwithstanding our tenuous grasp on reality). I'm also proud to say that most of us still have our teeth.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Our Grandmother who Couldn't Read or Write

Great Great Great Grandmother Sarah Crippen Dennis Bingham

GGG Grandmother Sarah's headstone. Hot Springs SD

From the Fortress of Solitude
Pleasant Grove

Hello All,
Today an interesting fact concerning our GGG Grandmother Sarah. She is the closest ancestor to us that, as far as my research shows, was unable to read or write.

She was born in Knox County, Tennessee in 1814 or 16. We know she married our GGG Grandfather Levi Dennis in 1842. He died. She remarried Samuel Bingham in 1847.

According to the census records, Sarah was unable to read or write. Another interesting fact that I haven't quite figured out is why she didn't know where her parents were born when asked the question for the 1880 Census. Did she know her parents? Did the topic never come up as she was growing up? It's not as if families back then had little time to talk. I find it peculiar. She may have been an orphan.

We begin with the Relationship Chart:

Sarah Martha Crippen b. 1814 Knox, Tennessee. married Levi Dennis b. 1812. Tenn.
John Mayberry Dennis b. 1844 Knox, Tenn. married Isabel McCrilles b. 1851 Vt.
Vesta Althea Dennis b. 1892. Hot Springs SD married Walter Edwin Pierce b. 1885 SD.
Violet Mae Pierce b. 1918 married Walter Albert Mattson b. 1912
to their children
Luella, Linda, John, Marvin

Next we take a look at the census information (Click to enlarge):

1850 Census. Notice the mark in box 13 stating that she could not read and write. This was reconfirmed in the 1880 Census.

In the 1880 Census (above) the two II marks in the first two columns are to indicated the inability to read and write. It then marks her birth state as Tennessee. Notice that Sarah didn't know where her parents were born. Both of her parents birth places are marked 'unknown'.

I was curious as to why this Great Grandmother of ours was illiterate and did some research on the history of education in Tennessee at the time she was born.

I discovered that the first settlers in Tennessee had little time or use for book-learning, but they did have a wide and thorough education in the lore of rifle, plow, and broadaxe - learning which cleared and peopled a wilderness.

Such schooling as there was lay in the hands of a few clergymen, usually Presbyterians who had joined their Scotch-Irish congregations from North Carolina and Virginia. In summer, when children could be spared from farm work, the local preacher kept school in the community church-courthouse, a rough one-room log cabin with a packed clay floor and slab benches. Here for a few weeks the children struggled with ciphering, writing, and learning to read from a great leather-covered Bible.

A departure from this sketchy between-planting-and-harvest schooling was made by the Reverend Samuel Doak in 1780, when he began conducting graded classes in a log outbuilding on his farm near Jonesboro. The first regular school west of the Alleghenies, it was chartered three years later by North Carolina as Martin Academy, in honor of Governor Alexander Martin. In 1785 the charter was confirmed by the legislature of the short-lived State of Franklin. About the same time the North Carolina Assembly chartered, as Davidson Academy, the meeting house near Nashville where the Reverend Thomas Craighead had gathered a class of boys.

The Constitutional Convention of 1796 made no provisions for public education, and for a decade the small academies that a dozen or so ministers had set up, after the example of Doak and Craighead, were the only schools in Tennessee. In these "literary institutions" matters of conduct and morals were stressed as much as familiarity with the English classics, Latin, Greek, and oratory: the prized hallmarks of a gentleman's education. They ranged in quality from little backwoods establishments with almost illiterate teachers - who accepted payment in food, wood, or help about the place - to expensive town schools conducted by the most pontifical and flowery of scholars. The best of these prepared the sons of the land-holding gentry for Harvard and Yale, and for politics; the worst gave doubtful prestige and rather muddled minds to the sons of solvent small farmers. So strongly did the system of private academies entrench itself that by 1889 more than 500 had received charters from the State, and nearly a third of these were actually operating.

In 1806 the United States Congress had directed that 600 acres of good land in each Tennessee township should be reserved and sold for the support of public schools. This requirement was largely ignored. Of the 6,500,000 acres which should have been set aside, only 23,000 - and these so poor that they sold for as little as one cent an acre - were actually converted into school funds. Money realized from land sales was insufficient to establish a single school. A tentative effort toward the establishment of common schools was made in 1815, when the State legislature passed an act "to provide for the education of orphans of those persons who have died in the service of their country." In 1823 a few thousand dollars were appropriated for pauper schools, and five years later half the proceeds from the sale of public lands between the Hiwassee and Little Tennessee Rivers was allotted to a common school fund. The scant income from the Hiwassee lands supported only a handful of extremely ill-equipped schools. They were taught by political appointees, minor bandwagon followers who often were barely able to sign their names.


1 comment:

  1. Sarah may not have been the one to answer the questions in the 1880 census. If a neighbor or other relative gave the answer, they may not have known where her parents were born.