First Indiana teachers

The first teachers in Indiana appear in Vincennes, the oldest community in the southwest corner of the state on the Wabash River. I had never thought about teachers in Indiana before Indiana was a state (1816) or even a territory (1800). I just imposed the Little House on the Prairie narrative on the Indiana Territory: young, unmarried women were the schoolteachers. But who were the teachers before there were young, unmarried frontier women?

Priests. Priests and ministers had the training and knowledge to be educators.

Vincennes was a French trading post established in 1732. Jesuit priests began arriving not long afterward and a church was established by 1749. In 1779 George Rogers Clark took Vincennes from the British, who retreated to Fort Detroit.

Through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Congress of the Confederation (which preceded the Congress of the United States) established the Northwest Territory, which included present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the eastern part of Minnesota. The west was opening up for white settlers.

The Northwest Ordinance stressed the importance of education. Article 3: “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

In 1792, Fr. Benedict Joseph Flaget, at the St. Francis Xavier parish in Vincennes, set up a school in Vincennes. He was succeeded at the parish by Fr. John Francis Rivet.

In 1800 in anticipation of the modern-day Ohio portion of the Northwest Territory becoming a state, the Indiana Territory was formed. Vincennes became its capital and William Henry Harrison its governor. In 1801, Harrison reached out to Fr. Rivet, asking him to set up a public school, the Jefferson Academy.

Flaget is considered the first parochial school teacher of Indiana and Rivet the first public school teacher in Indiana. Thus, education—with an emphasis on Latin and French—in what would become Indiana first developed thanks to French Catholic priests—a far cry from the Little House on the Prairie narrative of female schoolmarms.


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