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Early Education in America

1620 - 1776 Colonial America

Early colonists patterned their schools on European models. Colonial governments had no system for free public education but all New England colonies except Rhode Island has some free schools maintained in part by public funds. Apprentice training was common in all of the colonies.

In New England, the Puritans believed local government should see to it that all children learned to read the Bible to defeat Satan. With colonists grouped in towns or large settlements, it was easy to organize schools. Early Massachusetts laws of 1642 and 1647 provided that every parent be responsible for having his children learn to read, and that every town of 50 families appoint a teacher of reading and writing.

There were various kinds of colonial schools. In a dame school, a woman taught the neighbor children for a fee. In a town school, the community hired a teacher and parents paid tuition or a tax. The Latin grammar school taught boys Latin and Greek to prepare them for college (girls were not admitted). Harvard and eight other colleges – mainly for training clergymen – were founded before the Revolution. Boys of some wealthy families were sent to Europe for higher education. 

The original New England School Primer was first published in Boston in the 1688-1690 period. It was the staple of American education for over 150 years. The primers were traditionally small in size and featured a set of primitive woodcuts used to illustrate letters of the alphabet. The children’s prayer “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep” first appeared in this Primer.

1776 – 1840 The Rise of Public Education.

The founding fathers believed everyone should have a good education but they feared the tyranny of a central authority. For this reason, they left control of the schools to individual states and made no mention of education in the Constitution. But in 1787, the new Congress passed an ordinance providing for the distribution of public federal lands to encourage education.

Focus on Missouri.

The importance of pioneer education was demonstrated in 1808 when the Territorial Legislature of Louisiana met in New Orleans and passed an act to legally organize a school in St. Louis. Missouri soon became an official U.S territory and in 1812, Congress passed legislation that stated “Schools and the means of education shall be encouraged and provided for from public lands of the United States within the Missouri Territory.” Thousands of pioneers lived in the new Missouri Territory and no known public schools existed at that time but private and church schools were available.

In 1820, Congress made Missouri a state and stimulated the formation of public schools. The Act stated that schools should be established in each township as soon as possible, public lands should be preserved for school use and children of the poor should be taught for free. Early Missouri counties, however, covered large, sometimes lawless areas of land so the formation of public schools was not a high priority. 

By 1835, the Missouri legislature had authorized the governor to form a system of common and primary schools. As a result, the Eighth General Assembly provided:

(1) a state board for education;

(2) for schools to continue six months in each year;

(3) for school expenses to be paid out of school funds of each county;

(4) for people for each county, by a two-thirds majority vote, to tax themselves three and one-third cents per dollar for school purposes;

(5) a board of three trustees for each district to make needful arrangements for the school;

(6) for subjects to be taught as reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, English grammar and other branches, except theology, as the funds justify.”

Even though this legislation was approved in 1835, the public schools of Monroe County were still a few years in the future. Many early communities were isolated but as more families moved away from the small towns into outlying parts, these children lived too far away to attend town schools. Soon new villages and settlements sprang up which came to be known as districts and, in time, districts set up their own schools, giving birth to the one-room or wildcat school. 

Unfortunately, our Monroe County records are incomplete regarding the formation of early schools. Below is a list of what we know today about the Monroe County school districts:

District Date/Formed at

1  Unknown

2  Town of Clinton on Sep 30, 1839

3  Stephen Miller’s house on 14 Sep 1839 / Paris Courthouse on    Sep 30, 1839

4  Thomas Maupin’s house in Sep 1839

5  Unknown

6  Unknown

7  Unknown

8  George Smizer’s house on 30 Sep

9  Methodist Camp Mtg Grounds on 1 Oct 1839/ Paris no date/

            MCMG 19 Mar 1844

10   on Sep 15, 1840

11  Town of Florida on Feb 15, 1840

12  Unknown

13  Paris Courthouse on Sep 30, 1839

14  Wm Moore’s house on Sep 30

15  Town of Madison on May 2, 1840

16  Town of Middle Grove on 24 Apr 24 1841 / 9 Mar 1844

17  Unknown

18  Joseph Hulen’s (Helm?) house on Apr 27

19  Thomas Guthrie’s house on Mar 22 / John Denton’s home on    Mar 13, 1841

20  Town of Santa Fe on Jan 25, 1840

(Note: For PBS links about schools in nineteenth century America, to read about a typical 1836 teacher’s lesson plan in 1836 or view the 400 Years in Education timeline, please visit

Sources: Various articles to include education information from Harold Stearns of, “Early Schools in Monroe County” article, and “History of Springfield, MO Public Schools”, Ch 1 by R. Grosenbaugh. LPP