Wild of the West: Hannah Clapp


Hannah Clapp Wild Women Wednesday Cowgirl Magazine

“The present school is a credit both to the teachers and the town.  It now numbers forty pupils, I should think, and is well and systematically conducted.”

Reporter Mark Twain’s comments about the Carson City school Hannah Clapp founded – January 14, 1864

On a bright, sunshiny day in mid July 1859, a dusty, travel-worn, weary school teacher named Hannah Clapp trudged into Salt Lake City, Utah.  Dressed in a calico blouse and bloomers made of thick, canvas type material and carrying a pistol, the 35 year-old woman drew stares from the settlers, prospectors, and trappers milling about the main thoroughfare.  Hannah made the trip west from Michigan with her brother, Nathan, his family, and a handful of other pioneers.  The trip across the rough continent had been fraught with peril.  The small wagon train had endured disease, starvation, inclement weather, and towering mountains, and had more of the same to look forward to before they would reach California.   

Many emigrants were coaxed west by their desire for gold.  

Hannah was driven by a desire to bring formal education to frontier towns.  An unattached female making the journey over the plains was as unconventional as Hannah’s manner of dress. She was not affected by the attention her nonconformist behavior attracted.  She was armed and ready to take on anyone who might physically challenge her style or dream of going to California to teach.  

Hannah Keziah Clapp was born in Michigan in 1824.  Little is known of her childhood or circumstances leading up to her pursuits as a teacher.  The first mention of Hannah’s work appeared in a Ypsilanti, Michigan newspaper in 1847.  It noted that her first job teaching was at a private school there.  She entered the public school system a year later.  In 1849 she moved to Lansing and taught at the Michigan Female Seminary College.  Hannah was named the school’s principal in 1854.  During her time at the seminary she became active in women’s issues and lobbied for women’s rights.  She all but abandoned the traditional clothing of women and much of the time wore “bloomer dresses” – trouser-like garments that reached to the ankle and were frilled at the cuff.

The wagon train Hannah traveled to Utah with stayed in Salt Lake for more than a week.  The sojourners restocked their provisions and rested for a bit before continuing on with the trip.  

Hannah penned letters to friends back home describing the area and the people she met during the stop over.  The letters were later published in the September 6, 1859 edition of the Lansing, Michigan newspaper The Republican.  “This Sunday is very much like other days with us here,” Hannah wrote, “ although now we have the privilege of attending a Mormon meeting.  I embraced the opportunity on Sunday – went with my bloomer dress and hat, and with my revolver by my side….

Salt Lake is a large place, situated at the head of the great valley; on the east, the river Jordan; and on the east and north, laterally, mountains.  It’s first appearance, at a distance, looked like an Irish huddle; but on approaching it, it looked better.  It is laid out in squares of forty rods each, streets crossing each other at right angles; and on either sides, streams of water, brought from the mountains for the purpose of irrigation, as it seldom rains here.  

The buildings are made of adobe, a kind of sunburned brick; all unpainted except Brigham’s Harem, this is painted a kind of cream.  His buildings and garden occupy one square, and are enclosed with a stone wall twelve feet high, laid in lime mortar.  Every rod are pillars built up four feet higher than the wall.  

These are the “watchmen of the towers of Zion.”  Over the main door of this Harem is a huge lion, carved in marble, perhaps of the “tribe of Judah.”  On the top of the cupola is a bee-hive.  Over the main gate is an eagle, with her wings spread….

The man of the house where we put up while we were in the city, “The Utah House,” had three wives.  The first wife was very talkative.  He was one and seventy, and kept preaching to me. One day he told me that “it would be the business of the Saints, in another world, to teach those of the gentiles that had not heard the gospel in this life; but he had preached to me, and he feared if I did not embrace the doctrine I would go to hell.”  I think Governor Cummings would consider my life in danger if he knew what I said to them.  I will preach a little to the women when I get a chance, in spite of the Governor.”

After arriving in California in late 1859, Hannah settled in a town 30 miles southwest of Sutter’s Fort called Vacaville.  She taught school there for less than a year and then decided to trek over the Sierras to bring education to the new territory of Nevada and take advantage of land grants promised to newcomers to the region.  

Hannah arrived in Carson City in September 1860.  Named after frontiersman and scout Kit Carson, the gold and silver boomtown was the hub of activity for miners and pioneers.  

A number of thriving businesses lined the main street and freight and transportation companies hustled a variety of goods from horses and cattle to coal and lumber to various points east. After learning there were no schools between the Sierras and Salt Lake City, Hannah went to work establishing a school in the area.  

She began by petitioning the territorial leaders to approve a modest facility.  Then in 1861 she helped get a bill passed to create a chartered school and the sum of $12,000 was appropriated to aid in the enterprise.  In the spring of that year the doors of the Sierra Seminary were opened for coed enrollment.  Miss Eliza C. Babcock and a Mrs. Cutler shared the teaching duties with Hannah.  The three taught students ranging in age from kindergarten to high school.  After graduation many of Hannah’s pupils went on to great prominence.  Among the accomplished scholars was inventor George Ferris, the man who designed the Ferris Wheel.  

Hannah’s student described her as a “brisk, outspoken woman with a round face, pink cheeks, bright blue eyes, and short curly hair.”  

“She always wore dark suits and good, sensible flat heeled shoes,” former pupil Helen Fulton Peterson noted in her memoirs.  “I never tired of wondering at the heavy gold watch chain that curved across her stomach from a pocket on each side of her skirt.”   

Semester after semester eager learners passed through Ms. Clapp’s class.  Hannah and her fellow teachers were able to help children absorb the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  News of the seminary and the exceptional job being done by Hannah and Elizabeth prompted a visit from Virginia City, Nevada politician and a member of the House Committee on Colleges and Common Schools, William M. Gillespie.  A young Mark Twain was working as a reporter for the newspaper The Territorial Enterprise and was sent to cover the event.  The article was published on January 14, 1864.  

“The exercises this afternoon were of a character not likely to be unfamiliar to the free American citizen who has a fair recollection of how he used to pass his Friday afternoons in the days of his youth.  The tactics have undergone some changes, but these variations are not important.  

In former times a fellow took his place in the luminous spelling class in the full consciousness that if he spelled cat with a “k,” or indulged in any other little orthographical eccentricities whereas, he keeps his place in the ranks now, in such cases, and his position, to-day, long after the balance of the class had rounded to, but he subsequently succumbed to the word “nape,” which he persisted in ravishing of its final vowel.  There was nothing irregular about that.  Your rightly constructed schoolboy will spell a multitude of hard words without hesitating once, and then lose his grip and miss fire on the easiest one in the book. 

The fashion of reading selections of prose and poetry remains the same; and so does the youthful manner of doing that sort of thing.  Some pupils read poetry with graceful ease and correct expression, and others place the rising and falling inflection at measured intervals, as if they had learned the lesson on a “see-saw”; but then they go undulating through a stanza with such an air of unctuous satisfaction, that it is a comfort to be around when they are at it.  

“The boy-stoo-dawn-the bur-ning deck-

When-sawl-but him had fled-

The flames-that shook-the battle-zreck-

Shone round-him o’er-the dread.”

That is the old-fashioned impressive style – stately, slow-moving and solemn.  It is in vogue yet among scholars of tender age.  It always will be.  Ever since Mrs. Hemans wrote that verse, it has suited the pleasure of juveniles to emphasize the word “him,” and lay atrocious stress upon that other word “o’er,” whether she liked it or not; and I am prepared to believe that they will continue this practice unto the end of time, and with the same indifference to Mrs. Heman’s opinions about it, or any body’s else.  

They sing in school, now-a-days, which is an improvement upon the ancient regime; and they don’t catch flies and throw spit-balls at the teacher, as they used to do in my time – which is another improvement, in a general way.  Neither do the boys and girls keep a sharp look-out on each other’s shortcomings and report the same at headquarters, as was a custom of by-gone centuries.”

Hannah’s community influence extended beyond the confines of school.  She readily debated the merits of various political candidates, the economy, and women’s suffrage with the male leaders of the territory.

She was a leading member of a temperance group, supported local charities, both monetarily and with her time, and even had the ear of Senator William Stewart.  The accomplished Republican considered Hannah one of his closest advisors.  He respected her opinion about the future of education and her opposition of public intoxication.  One particular exchange between she and an inebriated man laying outside a saloon demonstrated her strong position against such behavior and how such a scene could effect her students.  After witnessing the man stumble out of the tavern and fall into a gutter she marched to the saloon door and knocked.  When the owner of the establishment greeted her she pointed to his patron and said, “Your sign has fallen down.  You’d better prop it up.”

The strong-minded, self-reliant teacher organized fund raisers and donated her own land for a larger school to be built in 1865.  The Sierra Seminary boarded forty students at that point and between Hannah and her fellow educators they were able to teach youngsters facts and skills for decades to come.  Hannah and Elizabeth dedicated themselves to the school in Carson City for twenty-five years.  By 1887, a quality public school was in place and the seminary was closed.  Hannah then relocated to Reno to help establish a university.

Shortly after the first building of the college was erected, Senator William Steward appointed Hannah the first professor.  The institution sat on a hill overlooking the fledgling town and had a mere twenty-five students in the first year.  Nine of those student were women.  The ladies enrollment made Hannah proud.  To her it was a testament of the advancement of women’s rights.   

The 63 year-old professor of history and English languages was devoted to the school.  The hours were long and the classrooms were too small, but she found the venture worthwhile.  She complained a little when she had to walk to work in the rain and wade through puddles in order to get to her homeroom.  She insisted that a great deal of her salary was being spent on overshoes.  “When the rains began,” she wrote in an article about her life, “we paved the path to class ourselves with overshoes and good intentions.”    

In the beginning the faculty of the University of Nevada consisted of only the school president, LeRoy Brown and Hannah.  According to Hannah, “This august body presided over the destines of a microscopic student body, whom it inspired with reverence and awe.  But we were not long in want of anything.  The people of Reno, in order to have the university, had become responsible for a large sum of money, secured by county bonds.  

They were an ambitious and energetic community, who keenly appreciated having a university in their midst, and who inspired the regents to nurse with all care the infant institution.  The first addition they made to our faculty was Professor Miller, who came as a special instructor in physiology and as a general all round assistant.  Soon followed Professor Jackson from the University of California, who opened the mining department of normal training.  There were five of us, representing twice as many departments packed into one building.”

Hannah was grateful to the teachers and the pupils and was proud of how well they did with the bare essentials they had to work with at the start, such as no gas and electricity, and limited space.  “It is a joy today to remember the unfailing courtesy, the mutual helpfulness, and good nature that filled the chinks of those close quarters,” she later wrote.  “The students were not one whit behind the teachers, but worked with enthusiasm that was an inspiration.  They were thankful for what they got and helped us bear the inconveniences with so kindly a spirit that we actually rejoiced in the circumstances….

Providence has a special care for the young, whether human beings or their creations. Surely it was true of this university.  

When I think of the fine scholarly work that was done in those early days of this institution and of the enthusiasm, consecration, and special fitness of each member of the faculty, it seems it could have been nothing sort of a special direction that led to the choice of them.  There were not only all the difficulties to be met that attend the beginning of any institution, but also the added difficulties that must attend an institution so isolated a situation.  The Sierras shut us in on the Pacific side, and a weary stretch of almost uninhabited a plain separated us from the Atlantic Coast.  These were pioneers, indeed, and their spirit was worthy the opportunity.”

In addition to her duties as teacher, she served as the vice-president of the Nevada Equal Suffrage Association, worked to advance the Republican party, help found the Nevada Historical Society, and was the preceptress over the girl’s cottage at the university.  In 1888 she took on the responsibility as school librarian.  She took great delight in managing the handful of books and pamphlets the university had acquired.  When she left the school 14 years later, the library’s collection had grown to over six thousand books and five thousand pamphlets.

After more than four years of teaching at the University there were some taxpayers who disapproved of a Hannah staying on at the school.  They argued that at 67 she was too old to “occupy the position she held.”  Senator Stewart quickly came to her defense, but the governing board of the school gave in to public opinion and forced her to retire.  When Hannah left her post at the University of Reno in 1901, she was honored with a Resolution of Esteem by the Board of Regents.  In part the resolution read:  “She will retain an honorary position in the University and an active interest in the life and growth of the institution.”

Hannah did retain an “active interest” in the life and growth of education, not just that of the University.  She created and funded a number of area kindergartens, including one named for her friend and fellow teacher, Elizabeth Babcock.  She also served as the President of the Board of Trustees of the Kindergarten Association of Reno.  In the later part of 1902, Hannah moved to Palo Alto, California.  She made frequent trips to Nevada to oversee the progress and promote the need for kindergartens throughout the state.   

Hannah Clapp died at her home on October 8, 1908.  Memorial services held at the University of Reno eight days later were attended by several former students, colleagues, and members of the Nevada Historical Society.  

The secretary of the organization addressed the mourners and recalled that “Miss Clapp was a pioneer.”  “I knew this,” he elaborated, “because of the mention made of her in every section of the state.  Other women have left their mark on one little community of our Commonwealth, but this one is borne in the hearts of people north, south, east, and west.”

The legendary teacher never married and never had any children of her own.  She was 84 years-old when she passed away from natural causes.     

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