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First Public School
("The first free school managed by the people of any neighborhood of the Territory." Lucy Armstrong)
The story of public education in Kansas is older than the city or the state itself. It goes back to 1819 when Methodist missionaries established a church and a school in the Wyandot Indian village of upper Sandusky, Ohio.
Most of the Wyandots who came here in 1843 had been educated in that school. In 1844 they erected a log church, the "Church of the Wilderness" at what is now about 22nd and Washington Boulevard in the Westheight addition. The same year they built a log one-room school on what was later to be Fourth Street between State and Nebraska Avenues.
This school (known as First or National School), built and taught by John McIntyre Armstrong, was the first free school in Kansas (then Indian Territory) and the first built solely for school purposes. The building housed the school from 1844 to 1852, when children went to private homes or the churches for instruction. When the Indians sold to white settlers in 1856, no school existed publicly until after the Civil War.
In 1867, the first school of District Number One, Wyandotte County, was built in Huron Park, where the library now stands. Called Central Public School. The town moved west, and other schools were established in the city and county.
(1) “The first school in the Territory of Kansas, of which any record could be found by the writer, was established and taught by J. M. Armstrong in Wyandott City. Mr. Armstrong worked for the Wyandot Indian Nation and established his school for white children in 1844. His wife, Mrs. Lucy Armstrong, gave a good account of that early school in a letter to the Kansas Historical Society that reads as follows:
“My husband, J. M. Armstrong, commenced teaching the first free school in Kansas, July 1, 1844. There were several Mission schools in the Territory at that time, but this was the first free school managed by the people of any neighborhood in the Territory. It was also taught in the first schoolhouse built for that purpose except the missions.
“The house was the frame one with double doors that stood on the east side of Fourth street, between Kansas and Nebraska avenues in old Wyandotte City, sometimes but erroneously, called the “Council House.” J. M. Armstrong contracted for the building of it and entered it as teacher of the first school July 1, 1844. It was occupied as a schoolhouse until April 15, 1852, and the Council met in it only at night or on holidays. The expenses of building and keeping up the school were met out of the school fund, secured by the Wyandot Treaty of March, 1842, as part of the compensation to the Wyandots for yielding to the oft repeated solicitations of the commissioners of the government of the United States to give up their homes on the Sandusky river in Ohio. This school fund was managed by school directors appointed by the Wyandot Council, the members of which were elected annually by the people, so the school was indirectly controlled by the people as free schools are today.
"Though the school was for Wyandots and supported by their money, yet white children were admitted free of charge. Mr. Armstrong taught until 1845, when he went to Washington on business for the Wyandott people. He was succeeded by Reverend Kramer from Indiana; then Mr. Robitaille, of the Wyandot nation; Reverend R. Parrott from Indiana; Mrs. Lucy Armstrong; Mrs. A. H. Ladd and two winters again Mr. Armstrong taught. Mrs. Armstrong taught his school of November 1, 1851, until April, 1852. The sad news of his death in Mansfield, Ohio, closed the school in the dear old schoolhouse, April 16, 1852, forever. When next resumed it was, thru the kindness of the directors, in my living room. The next winter it was moved three quarters of a mile west to a brick church, and there I continued to teach until the evening of April 8, 1856, when the church was burned by incendiaries.
“Such was the account of the first school attended by white children in the region of Kansas. This school was free to them, although money belonging to the Wyandot Nation was used to support the school.”
“A Historical Outline of the Territorial Common Schools in the State of Kansas,” by Lloyd C. Smith, 1942, Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia, Bulletin of Information, pg. 10:
(2) From: History and Growth of Wyandotte County Educational System, Lewis D. Wiard, County Supt. of School Offices, 19 Sept 1963 . . . . .
Wyandotte County was organized in 1859 by the territorial government under the laws passed by the Territorial Legislature. The first slate of County Officers was elected in 1859. Included was J. B. Welborn elected as County Superintendent of Schools, but we had no public schools at that time.
Kansas was admitted to the Union on January 29, 1861, the same year that Congress approved the Act providing for a free school system.
The first school in Wyandotte County was built in July 1844 at 4th and Nebraska, Kansas City, Kansas. This school was provided and maintained by the Wyandot Indian Tribe, but white children were admitted free. Thus, it can justly be termed the first free public school.
The first examinations taken to be eligible for graduation from elementary school were given by the County Superintendent in 1897.
M. Armstrong taught the first free school in the Territory, which
was opened July 1, 1844. The building was a frame one, with double
doors, which but a few years since stood on the east side of Fourth
street, between Kansas and Nebraska avenues, Wyandotte City. It
was sometimes, but erroneously, called the Council House. J. M.
Armstrong contracted to build it, and commenced teaching on the
date named. The Council of the nation met in it during vacations,
or at night. The expenses of building the school were met out of
the fund secured by the Wyandot treaty of March, 1842. The school
was managed by directors appointed by the Council, the members
of which were elected annually by the people. White children were
admitted free. Mr. Armstrong taught until 1845, when he went to
Washington as the legal representative of the nation, to prosecute
their claims. Rev. Mr. Cramer, of Indiana, succeeded him; then
Robert Robitaille, chief of the nation; next Rev. R. Parrott, Indiana;
Mrs. Armstrong, December, 1847, to March, 1848; Miss Anna H. Ladd,
who came with the Wyandots in 1848, and Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong.
She was teaching the school at the time of her husband's death,
which occurred at Mansfield, Ohio, while on his way to Washington
to prosecute Indian claims, April, 1852. The school was closed
in the old building April 16, 1852; resumed in Mrs. Armstrong's
dining-room; removed the next winter to the Methodist Episcopal
Church, three-quarters of a mile west of her house, and left without
a home when that structure was burned by Incendiaries, April 8,
1856. That is the correct history of the first free school ever
taught in Kansas." William G. Cutler's History of the State of Kansas
was first published in 1883 by A. T. Andreas, Chicago, IL.
[Annotation: In Wyandot Tribal Council Minutes, it states: April 16, 1952 - The Wyandot Tribal Council buys John M. Armstrong's school building for use as a council house. The school moves to the Methodist Episcopal Church South.]
[Annotation: In local Black history, the Council House is referred to as the "Flagpole Church." The reference was to the flag of the United States that flew on a tall flagpole outside the door. In 1860, Black people used the Council House to use for their congregations to meet. Loren L. Taylor]
(4) " The first free public school in Wyandotte county, or in the territory of Kansas for that matter, was opened July 1, 1844, and John McIntyre Armstrong was the teacher. The building was frame with double doors, and but a few years since stood on the east side of Fourth street, between State and Nebraska avenues in the Wyandotte part of Kansas City, Kansas. It was sometimes, but erroneously, called the Council House. Mr. Armstrong built it himself and commenced teaching on the date named. The council of the Wyandot Nation met in it during vacations, or at night. The expenses of building the school were met out of the fund secured by the Wyandot treaty of March, 1842. The school was managed by directors appointed by the council, the members of which were elected annually by the people. White children were admitted free. Mr. Armstrong taught until 1845, when he went to Washington as a legal representative of the nation, to prosecute their claims. The Rev. Mr. Cramer, of Indiana, succeeded him; then Robert Robitaille, chief of the nation; next the Rev. R. Parrott of Indiana. Mrs. Lucy B. Armstrong taught there from December, 1847, to March, 1848. Afterwards Miss Anna H. Ladd, who came with the Wyandots in 1843, assisted. Mrs. Armstrong was teaching the school at the time of her husband's death, which occurred at Mansfield, Ohio. while on his way to Washington to prosecute Indian claims, in April, 1852. The school was closed in the old building April 16, 1852; resumed in Mrs. Armstrong's dining-room; removed the next winter to the Methodist Episcopal church three quarters of a mile west of her house, and left without a home when that structure was burned by incendiaries April 8, 1856. This is the history of the first free school ever taught in Kansas." - Transcribed from "History of Wyandotte County Kansas and its people" ed. and comp. by Perl W. Morgan. Chicago, The Lewis publishing company, 1911. 2 v. front., illus., plates, ports., fold. map. 28 cm
(5) "The Wyandots, however, had made provision before they left Ohio to establish a school in the new country. Money had been set aside from the scant funds allowed by the government. With this money, John M. Armstrong built a schoolhouse, which was ready for use by July 1, 1844.
Mr. Armstrong had been a member of the Ohio bar since 1839. As he could not practice law in Indian Territory, he became the first teacher at the new school. The school was open to white and Indian children and was the first free school in Kansas. It was located at what is now the northeast corner of Fourth Street and State Avenue. Double doors of the log building opened to the west. Windows were in the back and on the sides. Crude benches and tables were provided for the children, with a larger table in front for the teacher. Early pupils recalled seeing the large table stacked high with gold and silver coins, annuity payments for the Indians. Once a thousand dollars was stolen. The thief escaped with the money, and the tribe had to bear the loss.
The school, known as First or National School, was the first building in Kansas erected solely for school purposes . The Wyandots elected annually a Council of six members to manage their affairs. The Council, in turn, appointed three directors to govern the school. Such procedure was democratic, for every qualified voter helped to select the Council members. Thus all had a voice in the operation of the school.
Soon after the first school was established, a second schoolhouse was built on Matthew Mudeater's farm, three miles west of the mouth of the Kansas River. Early accounts mention a third school in use in 1850. Possibly they refer to that held in the church basement at Tenth and Freeman, although one historian, Robert L. Nicholson, thinks there might have been a school in the 1840's on the old Stewart site at Ninth and Quindaro.
In the spring of 1852, John Armstrong went to Washington on one of his trips to collect money due from the government. He became ill on the way and died in Mansfield, Ohio, in April 1852. For some unexplained reason the First School closed on April 16, 1852. Mrs. Armstrong, who had been teaching during her husband's absence, moved the school to the dining room of her home at 5th and Wawas (Freeman).
The school moved in the winter of 1852 to the church at 10th and Freeman, 3/4 miles west of the Armstrong residence. From that time on, the schoolhouse at 4th and State served as a meeting place for the Council; and for that reason, it is often erroneously called the Council House. Before 1852 the Council met in the school building only in vacation time or at night. At other times members used the back room of the store at 3rd and Nebraska." by Ms. Nellie McGuinn, February 1966, public school educator in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools
(6) The following two excerpts are taken from: "THE WYANDOT INDIANS, 1843-1876" by Robert Emmett Smith, Jr., Oklahoma State University, Ph.D., 1973, p. 71, 74, 75.
"A group of enterprising Wyandots constructed a store on the Wyandot Reserve in 1844. Joel Walker managed the establishment, which was housed in a two-room log building. The front room was used as a store, and the rear chamber as a meeting place for the Wyandot Council." [ (5) Armstrong, "The Settlement of Wyandot," comp. and ed. by Edward Baumgardner, p. 2-3.]
The most important institutions to reappear on the Wyandot Reserve were the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Wyandot School." [Armstrong, "The Settlement of Wyandot," comp. and ed. by Edward Baumgardner, p. 4; Barry, ed., The Beginning of the West: Annals of the Kansas Gateway to the American West, 1540-1854, pp. 511-512.] [Annotation: This church would probably have been the "Church in the Wilderness". This link will take you to the site online with information from the K C Planning Department of the Wyandotte County Unified Government.]
"In the spring of 1844, John M. Armstrong was authorized by the Wyandot Council to contract for the construction of a school house. He employed a carpenter from Liberty, Missouri, who erected a frame structure in which Armstrong began teaching in early July, 1844. When he was sent to Washington on tribal business in November, 1845, his teaching position was filled by Robert Robitaille, an educated member of the tribe, and two white teachers from the nearby Shawnee Manual Labor Mission School. Tribal business kept Armstrong in Washington and Ohio for much of the time in the late 1840's, but he did return to his teaching post for one term. His wife, Lucy B. Armstrong, a white woman and the daughter of Russell Bigelow, a missionary to the Wyandots at Upper Sandusky, taught at the Wyandot School for the 1847-1848 term. The male instructors received a salary of $30 per month, the female teachers $25. The school was well attended, and became the educational center of the Wyandot community." [Armstrong, "The Settlement of Wyandot," comp. and ed. by Edward Baumgardner, p. 4-5.]
(7) Information received from:
Larry K. Hancks, Planner
Urban Planning and Land Use
701 N. 7 Street, Room 423
Kansas City, KS 66112
1844 - March 23: The Wyandot Tribal Council authorizes John M. Armstrong to contract with a carpenter from Liberty, Missouri, to build a tribal schoolhouse, on the east side of the present 4th Street between State and Nebraska Avenues.
July 1: The Wyandot tribal schoolhouse opens with John M. Armstrong as teacher.
1852 - April 16: The Wyandot Tribal Council buys John M. Armstrong's (deceased 31 Mar 1852) school building for use as a council house. The school moves to the Methodist Episcopal Church South.
1857 - July 14: The council orders the discontinuation of the school in District No. 1 under the direction of John D. Brown, as no Wyandot children are attending.
September 22: The Wyandot Tribal Council appoints School Directors for 1857-58: Matthew Mudeater, Treasurer, Robert Robitaille, District No. 2, and Noah E. Zane, District No. 3. District No. 1 remains discontinued.
1858 - September 7: The Wyandot Tribal Council appoints School Directors for 1858-59: Principal Chief John Sarrahess, for a reestablished District No. 1, Robert Robitaille for District No. 2 and "Red Head" Noah Zane for District No. 3. [At this point we become aware that the Wyandots had 3 school districts in Wyandotte County, although the exact location remains unknown.]
(Resources: Microfilm from the Kansas State Historical Society produces a transcript of the Wyandot Tribal Council minutes book for the period October 24, 1855 to July 9, 1862. There is a copy of the microfilm in the archives at the Wyandotte County Museum.)
(8) THE GENESIS OF A STATE'S METROPOLIS
An address delivered by Frank H. Betton before the twenty-fifth annual meeting of the Kansas State Historical Society, January 15, 1901
Frank H. Betton was born in Denver, Rockingham County, New Hampshire, August 1, 1835. His father's maternal grandfather, Mathew Thornton, was president of the colonial convention which met at Exeter in May, 1773, to organize a provisional government, the following year a member of the Continental Congress, and was one of the signers of the declaration of independence. At the age of fourteen, Mr. Betton went to Boston, and, after some years, spent as a clerk in stores there and at Petersburg, Va., he came to Kansas in 1856. He lived for a time in Pottawatomie, Jefferson and Leavenworth counties, and finally located in Wyandotte. He engaged in the lumber business, and for several years owned and operated sawmills. In 1895 he was appointed state labor commissioner. In 1874 he was elected grand master of the Odd Fellows of Kansas. He was also grand chancellor of the Knights of Pythias. His home is on a farm near Pomeroy in Wyandotte county. Mr. Betton was married to Kim Susannah Mudeater, daughter of Matthew Mudeater, in 1860. One of the schools built by the Wyandots was possibly located on Matthew Mudeater's farm.
" When the Wyandottes moved here from Ohio in 1843, and settled on land purchased from the Delawares, they were as far advanced in civilization as were their white neighbors on the other side of the state line. The farms they opened and the houses they built were of the same class, and the schools and churches they established were as good as the average of similar institutions along the frontier."
(9) Consolidated Ethnic History of Wyandotte County, Loren L. Taylor, 2000, A Project of the Kansas City, Kansas Ethnic Council, Inc.
"The importance of the Native American in the development of Wyandotte County is somewhat unique. Very few communities owe as much of their rich ethnic and historical background to the American Indians as does Kansas City, Kansas. The Wyandot leaders formed the City of Wyandot, which was the cornerstone of the consolidated Kansas City, Kansas. They formed the early leadership for this area. Most of our early streets and communities were either named by or for them. The Wyandots formed the first local government, school system, legal system, economic base, religious foundation and left much of their culture in the fabric of our early society."
(10) Historic Spots or Mile-Stones, Grant W. Harrington, 1935
"School closed in the old building in the spring of 1852, so we have the approximate time when the Council took over the school house building and made it the seat of government. One of the speakers at the 25th Anniversary of Wyandott City was Dr. J. P. Root. In speaking of Wyandotte as he first knew it in 1856, he said:---
The Council House of the Nation was located about sixty feet north of the present n.e. corner of Kansas Avenue and Fourth street. (Kansas City Journal, February 17, 1882) The building which eventually became the Council House of the Wyandot Nation, was built for a school house, the money coming from the school fund of the Nation. It was built in 1844 by J. M. Armstrong. It was a frame building with double doors.
Russell B. Garrett, who was one of the delegates to the convention which organized the Provisional Government, says in his letters:
The building in which the Convention was held was a little one-story, frame building, built and used for a school house and a Council House. It stood on what is now the center of Nebraska avenue and Fourth street. (The Provisional Government, pg. 32)
Mrs. Sarah Dagnall gives the following description of the building:--
I can't tell the size. It had three windows on each side and two in the east end, and two in the went end - with the doors between those in the west end. I remember it stood that way - east and west. It was a frame building, and plastered. Always had a large box stove, as we had only wood to burn in those days. The furnishings were of the most common kind - benches and common chairs, with one large table. I can remember the table well, because they used to keep the money - gold and silver - stacked up on it during a payment time. The bulk of the money was kept at the Agency building, across the street.
That it was built in the woods and was surrounded by hazel and alder bush we knew from Gov. Walker's diary. Under date of August 8, 1846, he wrote:
Five of us assembled at the school house to clear up the grounds by grubbing the hazel and alder brush, hauling away tree tops thrown down by the tornado and fixing seats for our approaching "green corn feast" and "barbeque."
In 1856, Silas Armstrong bought the Council House (formerly the school house) for $120.00 and was supposed to put it in proper condition for the use of the Council.
The school system was expanded by the Wyandots and before their tribal government ceased to function, there were four school districts in the Nation managed by the Directors appointed by the council.
(11) Annals of Kansas, Daniel W. Wilder, 1886, pg. 35
"July 1, 1844 - J. M. Armstrong opens the first free school in the Territory in present Wyandotte."
(12) The following excerpt was taken from: The Wyandot Indians, 1843-1876 by Dr. Robert E. Smith, Jr., graduate thesis published May 1973, Oklahoma State University.
"A group of enterprising Wyandots constructed a store on the Wyandot Reserve in 1844. Joel Walker managed the establishment, which was housed in a two-room log building. The front room was used as a store, and the rear chamber as a meeting place for the Wyandot Council."
Source: Armstrong, The Settlement of Wyandot, comp. and ed. by Edward Baumgardner, pg. 2-3
Note: In 1844, according to Smith, the Council met in the Wyandot Store; thus, confirming that the school house was a school house and not a tribal council house.
From the Kansas State Historical Society
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History Site created on December 02, 2002
Page last updated: 23-Apr-2014