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Washington County Seminary for Women 

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Sarah Foster Hanna

Submitted by Patty Harris; Typed by Volunteer Terry Cook < TCook79370 AT >



The Washington Female Seminary was founded in 1836 with forty students "providing not just a finishing education for young women of good Christian standing but a rigorous, classical curriculum.".

Focus on Washington County, Volume 1: A Report of 50 Historical Articles Which Appeared On The Focus Page of the Observer Reporter, (prepared by) By Harriet Branton, pp. 63-65, about Sarah Foster Hanna:

Page 63

Just Let Me Try

Sarah Foster Hanna

When Sarah Foster Hanna came to Little Washington in 1840 to take over as principal of the Washington Female Seminary, she reported that the school, founded just four years earlier, was "not in a prosperous condition." There were only 60 students in residence when she arrived with nine more boarders from Cadiz, Ohio. She was 38 years old, deeply religious, and a graduate of Emma Willard's Tory Female Seminary. She has the distinction of being the only woman included in Boyd Crumrine's collection of biographical sketches in his monumental History of Washington County. He himself said that Sarah Foster Hanna, "besides being prominent because of her strong force of character, was for many years conspicuous as the principal of the Washington Seminary for young ladies. which under her management grew into an institution of far more then local interest."

Sarah Foster was a native of New York state. Her family came to America from Scotland by way of Ireland in 1764. They settled in Hebron County, New York, where she was born in 1802. One of the family if seven children, she was educated in the district schools. At the age of 22 Miss Foster...


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Washington Seminary's Class of 1858

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began a teaching career. Nine years later she decided to work for an advanced degree and approached her parents with the idea if entering the Troy Female Academy. Her parents objected; they felt that she already received as high a salary as any lady in the county could reasonably expect and that she ought to be satisfied with it.

In those days, dutiful daughters (even older ones) respected their parents' wishes, and Sarah Foster, probably somewhat reluctantly, put aside her ambitions temporarily at least. After her mother's death, however, her father withdrew his objections and she entered the Troy Seminary in 1833 at the age of 31. There she formed a lifelong friendship with Mrs. Willard and her family.

As Miss Foster was about to graduate, the trustees of the Washington Female Seminary wrote to Mrs. Willard for two ladies to serve as principal and vice-principal of their fledgling institution. Mrs. Willard gladly recommended Sarah Foster and her friend, a Miss Crocker. But the trustees has also written to a Philadelphia seminary, and alas, a Mrs. Frances Biddle applied first and was accepted. The disappointed Misses Foster and Crocker then went west anyway and began teaching in a girls' school in Cadiz.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the new seminary simply was not growing fast enough to suit its eager trustees. Mrs. Biddle apparently just wasn't the person for the job, and in 1840 she resigned. The trustees sent at once for Miss Foster. This time she came.

Sarah Foster had been described as a handsome woman of commanding presence, energetic, devoted to duty, imaginative, innovative, tactful, ladylike and cooperative. The community was conservative, but in no time at all she managed to win the support of the men and women alike as she pleaded "just let me try..." to do new things, such as institute a vocal music program at the seminary. Usually her ideas proved to be constructive and successful. At the school she herself taught Bible, intellectual philosophy, and composition. One of her pupils during those years was Rebecca Harding Davis, who went on to become a important 19th century novelist.

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In addition to a sound academic curriculum, Miss Foster insisted that her girls should have a well-balanced extra-curricular program. This included walks in the lovely wooded hills around Washington, chapel services morning and evening, and classes in deportment on Saturday mornings. her philosophy, which she stresses constantly to her faculty and parents, was simple and based on the Biblical tradition: "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is grown he will not depart from it." As a disciplinarian she was regarded as a tough but fair and just in her dealings with her charges. And they loved her. When she fell ill with typhoid during her second year at the seminary, the girls were stricken with anxiety as she hovered between life and death for almost three days. The crisis past, they were overjoyed when she was once again able to take her place at the head table in the dining room.

One incident, which most of the pupils in residence at the time never forgot, was the occasion in May, 1844, when Samuel F. B. Morse sent his first telegram message from Washington to Baltimore. Miss Foster assembled the girls, took note of the historic event, and suggested they in their own lifetimes they would probably see the telegraph in operation all over the country, and maybe even all over the world. She commended the fourth verse of the 19th Psalm of their consideration: "Their line is 

Sarah Foster Hanna

Sarah Foster Hanna

gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world." It was a solemn occasion and a lesson many of her pupils remembered always. They memorized the verse and had a reason to recall her prophecy more the once in the years ahead.

And there was the wedding. Eight years after her arrival in Washington, Miss Foster became Mrs. Thomas Hanna when she married the genial, gentle widower and father of five children who came from Cadiz to woo her. Her girls were enchanted, although somewhat startled when they realized that their formidable principal was indeed about to promise to "love, honor, and obey" the Rev. Dr. Hanna. But promise she did, and by all accounts the 46 year-old bride never looked happier or more winsome then when, with the hand in his she stood beside her bridegroom. The wedding was a stupendous affair. More the 300 students attended the festivities and partook of refreshments which included a 114-pound wedding cake. The bride herself greeted each of her girls with a motherly hug and kiss. The popular Dr. Hanna was shortly appointed superintendent of the seminary and pastor of the First United Presbyterian Church in Washington. Thus Mrs. Hanna, in addition to her other duties, took on the responsibilities of a ministers wife.

With in the next few years the energetic Mrs. Hanna authored textbooks and assumed the responsibility of non-resident principal of seminaries in Xenia, Ohio and Wheeling, posts which she held for a number of years. She continued to preside regally over the Washington Seminary's numerous events from visits by Presidents and other dignitaries to the dreaded semi-annual oral examinations. Always dresses magnificently in handsome silken gown and the inevitable cap adorned with flowing streamers, she bore herself "as if she felt the worth of her womanhood and the importance of her mission." Crumrine conferred upon her the supreme accolade; "Mrs. Hanna's influence in the community was greater perhaps the that of any other citizen." In addition to her great work at the seminary she pushed constantly for civic improvements and took a lead in the establishment of a Washington Cemetery.

Small wonder it was that her girls adored her. She and Dr. Hanna operated as a team to make the seminary one of the best schools of its kind in the east. After he died in 1864 she carried on alone. The Civil War distressed her, fro many alumnae and colleagues lived in the South. She was generous to a fault in sending supplies to the sick and wounded, and gave a blanket to each soldier who departed from Washington.

Early in 1874 Mrs. Hanna announced her intention to retire in June. The board reluctantly accepted her resignation and, in a letter signed by all of its members, reviewed her tenure as principal in the most glowing terms, They were sure that "the institution, into whoever hands it may pass, will always be associated with your name."

Alumnae swung into action and at a gala retirement party they presented their beloved principal with gifts of silver and other mementoes. For 12 years she lived in retirement in Washington, active in missionary work for the Presbyterian Church. She died in September, 1886, Dr. Brownson spoke eloquently of "her life-long contributions of the course of education in general and to womanhood especially." She was buried beside her husband just beyond the main gate of Washington Cemetery.


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