The fur traders and trappers along the Missouri River understood the importance of their children receiving a good education. These were the earliest explorers to come into what was later to become part of Dakota Territory.
They did what they could to see that their children received an education. If they were men of any standing, they made efforts to see that their children became educated. Some received a basic education and others were highly educated.
Manuel Lisa and the Picottes are examples of this group. Their children were taken down river, usually to St. Louis, and upon their return to the frontier they imparted the rudiments of education to the other members of their family and neighbors. James Audubon related in his diary when he was coming up the river in 1842 of meeting a father from Fort Pierre who was taking his children to St. Louis to be educated.
The first regular school in Dakota was conducted at Fort Randall in the winter of 1857-58. The school was taught by a relative of Captain Todd who gave regular instruction to children from the fort and surrounding area, including Native Americans.
In 1857 the village of Bon Homme was founded along the Missouri River south of the present site of Tabor. Within ten years it became as prominent a village and steamboat port as Vermillion and Yankton.
The community grew rapidly. It was selected as the county seat of the county and had the distinction of having built the first permanent school in Dakota Territory in 1860. It had a dirt floor and a roof of logs and dirt.
Today, the Bon Homme National Cemetery located about one-half mile west of the former village is evidence of the town’s brief existence. The oldest tombstone marks the burial site in 1859 of four-year-old Sophia Brown. Six of General George Custer’s cavalrymen who died in May of 1873 while camped at nearby Snatch Creek are buried next to Miss Brown.
Nearby, a replica of the first school in Dakota Territory can be found. Next to the school is an obelisk monument listing the first teacher, Miss Emma Bradford and ten children who she taught for three months. The monument was constructed in 1910 and stands just north of the entrance to the once successful community.
The legislature had always given much attention to school matters. The first session in 1862 adopted a complete code of laws for the conduct of the common schools. As a part of the political agreement by which Yankton procured the location of the territorial capital, the University of South Dakota was located at Vermillion in 1862.
According to the 1862 code, the common schools were only open to white children. During the sixth session of the legislative assembly, December 4, 1866 – January 12, 1867, a contentious and fierce fight occurred to strike the word “white” from the law. It failed to receive support from a majority of the legislators. It was not until December 13, 1867, during the seventh session of the legislature that the law was amended and the word “white” was stricken from the law.
When organized, the common schools were under the supervision of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction who had broad powers. Some of which were:
- license all teachers
- enforce the compulsory attendance laws
- supervise Americanization of foreigners
- exercise supervisory powers over the entire educational program
The common school system was not uniform, as both local and township units were recognized and operated in South Dakota. Generally, the schools were:
- local districts with one school under one board
- township district, having several schools under one board
- independent school districts in towns and cities, having graded and high school
- consolidated rural schools in which graded and high schools were conducted
- county units, the unorganized counties of Shannon, Todd, Washabaugh and Washington were each a single district, with several schools under a single board
The rural schools were required to pursue a course of study prescribed by the county and state superintendent of schools. This course carried the students through the eight elementary grades and the graduates were eligible to enter the high schools of the state.
A blizzard during the winter of 1880-81 doomed the primitive log school which had been built with salvaged materials from the 1878 William Muller claim shanty on Choteau Creek along the west border of Bon Homme County. Winds had blown snow through the logs where chinking had fallen out and the melting snow was dripping through the earthen roof. This caused a rather uncomfortable neighborhood dispute over the need to replace the damaged educational facility.
Mary, the wife of Mr. Muller was a lady well known for her strong determination quickly settled the disagreement. She did not shy away from making a decision whenever a problem needed to be solved. She hitched up her team of horses, tied a long chain to the damaged school, and pulled the structure down! Then, the Muller’s and their neighbors built a new frame school nearby which served the area for thirty-three years until 1914.
She was probably not a member of the district school board!
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on March 31, 2021