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Chapter II

Education prior to the Civil War

There is very little authentic information concerning the early schools in Ashe County. The first settlement was not made until 1755, and there ware evidently no systematic attempts to promote education in this section prior to the Revolutionary War. In fact if the diary of David Woods, which furnished the basis of information for a series of articles in the Northwestern Herald, Jefferson, North Carolina, is reliable, a few schools were "kept" as early as 1784. The substance of one of these articles is as follows:

Most of the incidents about the early schools of this county hers in related era taken from the Notes and Diary of avid Woods, who was himself a schoolmaster, and kept school as ha terms it, and seems to have taken much interest in the schools and matters pertaining thereto. At the time he writes, which was in the period between 1784 and 1790. There were no schools so far as known before the earlier date, although, no doubt, in some instances parents may have instructed their children in the mysteries of letter and figures. In the summer of 1784, four schools were kept in what is now Ashe County, one on Grassy Creek, one on Helton, one somewhere up the North Fork, probably near Creston, and the fourth on Beaver Creek. Education seems to have been progressing, for five years later-in 1759 the schools were maintained at places as Follows: Grassy Creek, Helton, two up North Fork, one on Naked Creek, one on Beaver Creek, one near Crumpler, and two others tits location of which is uncertain.

The schools of that time were only kept open in the summer, or in fairly warm weather for a very obvious reason. When a school was decided on a place would beg selected, posts about ten feet high, with poles across the top on which bark peeled from trees was laid as protection from rain, the sides and ends were open. This is David Woods description of the first school house on Nathan's Creek. David Eggers description of the first school house on Cove Creek, Watauga County is very similar. For seats for the pupils two large logs would be placed lengthwise, at the sides and an the top of these at right angles would be placed smaller logs on which the pupils,or as they wets then called scholars sat.15

The salaries of the teachers of thin period were very small and were paid by various methods, as the following excerpt shows:

There being no public school system, the schools had to be maintained by the subscription at: patrons and even then only the better and more fortunate classes were able to support a school at that time, meager as the pay of a schoolmaster of that day seems now. David Woods who taught a six months school at Nathan's Creek in the summer of 1789 has kept in his diary what he received for that service w-hion is, as follows: 37 shillings-in Virginia money about four dollars and seventy five cents, 5 deer hams, 2 bear skins, 4½ yards of woolen cloth, and 1 cooking pot.16

During this early period boys and young men often underwent great hardships to obtain an education, as is illustrated by the following account:

About the year 1792 there were living on Grassy Creek and Helton three boys, George Wagg, John Patterson, Samuel Perkins, who were very eager for an education. At that time there was a high school, or academy at the Old Glade Presbyterian church in Washington County, Virginia, and the three boys determined at any coat to avail themselves of its opportunities. They would. leave home about midnight on Monday mornings walking the distance of thirty miles, reaching the school about nine o'clock, taking food enough along to last the week.

Saturday evening they would walk the distance bank to get the next week s supplies, returning to the school on Monday morning.-gor shelter during the week they built a rude camp in the woods near the school.17

The following account illustrates the usual qualifications for a teacher and also the methods of teaching in Ashe County during this early period:

The qualifications of a teacher of that time were quite different from what they are today. He was supposed to be a careen of dignified appearance and sedateness, and for that reason nearly ell of the early teachers were men past forty years of age, a female teacher was not to be thought of. If he happened to be the possessor of a long tailed coat and flowing beard his chance of securing a school were greatly enhanced. It is related that a man corning into this section at that time could not get a position as teacher because he was under thirty years of age.

As to the methods of teaching, the scholars usually name to school without books. The teacher would have a spelling book, a primary reader, and some kind of arithmetic to the end of simple division. This area the equipment ovary teacher had to have when he opened school in the morning. The boys were seated in a row cad ha would start teaching the one at the head for about five minutes, then he would pass to the next buy and so on down the line, returning to the head and repeating the exercises. While he was engaged with one boy the others sat waiting. As schools then usually lasted from sunrise to sunset the teacher could pass down the lire several times in the course of the day. If a boy showed dullness the teacher when quitting him would usually stride him along the side of the head and admonish him to do better next time. This is David Woods description of instruction during those early days.18

These accounts of the educational conditions in Ashe County, supposed to be based largely on the Notes and Diary of David Woods are not verified by the diary since it is not at this time available, but the incidents herein related appear to be typical of the country as a whole at this time and are probably very accurate accounts of the conditions in Ashe, which at that time was a part of Wilkes County. At least, in the absence of more authentic records, they have some value.

On account of the thinly-settled nature of the county and the mountain barriers which tended to keep the people isolated, schools were necessarily few and poorly supported. T. McGimsey, in his letter of 1812, quote; in full in chapter one, mentions the fact that the people in that county improve more in religion than in the arts and sciences, and ends by expressing the hope that more pains will soon be taken to improve the youth in the one as well as in the other. As late as 1823 Ashe County had no resident practicing attorney, physician, notary, public, academy, or newspaper".19 There are no records to indicate that there was ever established in Ashe county an academy typical of such institutions in other parts of the state.

If the United States census of 1840 tells the whole story concerning the number of schools in Ashe county at that time, very little was tiding accomplished. This census shows two primary and common schools in the county with an enrollment of forty-eight. The United states census of 150 reports 1,476 as attending school, but gives no data as to the number of schools. These statistics evidently apply only to the public schools of the county, and do not include private schools, which must have been in operation in the county at that time. If the enrollment given above represents the number of pupils the number of pupils in the public schools, considerable progress seams to have bean made under the school law of 1839. The provisions of this law made it possible to supplement local initiative by giving forty dollars to each school district that would raise by local taxation the sum of twenty dollars, There appears to have been a sentiment in Ashe County antagonistic to raising this amount by local taxation, for the records show that in the House of Commons James M. Nye voted in she affirmative on an amendment to the proposed scheme that the Literary Fund be apportioned to the counties, even though the counties refuse to levy a tax.20 There is no evidence that Ashe county ever levied a local- tax for schools prior to 1858, for this is the first year in which these is an available report shoving the amount of money for school purposes in the hands of the officials. This amount greatly exceeds the apportionment received from the Literary Fund.

The local support for 1858 was evidently a result of the law passed by the legislature in 1857 making it compulsory that a tax be levied by each county for school purposes. The law reads as follows:

The court of pleas and quarter sessions of every county, a majority of the justices being present, shall levy in the same manner as other county taxes are now levied which shall not be less than one-half of the estimated amount to be received by the said county for that year from the Literary Find.21

The legislative document of 1842-1843 shows Ashe County entitled to $1,505.70 from the Literary Fund, and the county was ordered to be paid $596.10, September,1841; $511.72, March,1842; $397.88, September,1842. A statement in the same document showing the operations under the act to "Establish Common Schools'' gives no report for Ashe County, therefore we do not know the manner in which these funds were used. A total of $1,021.25 was distributed fox the year 1844, but no report was made by the chairman of the Board of Superintendents to the Literary Board. According to the legislative document of 1850-51 Ashe County received $660.05 from the Litirary Fund in 1848, $545 in 1849, and $444 in 1850; but as before no reports were made to the Literary Board.

The greatest defect in the school system was its lack of s directing head-a state superintendent of schools who would have general supervision of the whole system; require a performance of duty on the part of local officials; and secure an organization and standardization of the whole school work. The performance of duty and even the interpretation of the law was too much in the hands of the local authorities. It was not operated as a part of the state administrative machinery. It parries the idea of local government to the extreme.22

The need for a directing head in the school system was especially important in counties such as Ashe,where the people were generally poor and felt less interest in education than the wealthier classes. They were usually more conservative, more suspicious, and leas ambitious.

On the bill providing for the appointment of a superintendent of schools Bower, who was a member of the legislative body from Ashe, voted in the negative.23 In the House of Commons B. C. Callaway from Ashe voted in the negative on a bill to provide for the education of teachers.24 If the votes of these men were representative of the public sentiment in Ashe County, there is revealed a general feeling of complacency as to the educational system. The office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction was, however created in 1852, and Calvin H. Wiley was appointed as the first superintendent. "Under his administration Conditions so improved that at the outbreak of the war in 1861 the state laid, just claim to educational leadership in the entire Southern States. This was accomplished largely through the resourcefulness versatility, and indefatigable toil of the superintendent."25

According to the report of Wiley, in 1853, Ashe county was divided into thirty-six districts, and a school was reported as having been taught in each district. The whole number of children reported in the thirty-six districts was 2,078, with an attendance of 1,055. The average length of the school term was 2 17/18 months. The salary ranged from $9 to $15 a month.26 The report of 1857 shows that the number of districts had increased to eighty-six and that schools were in fifty-six districts. The whole number of children reported for these districts was 4,226, with an attendance of 2,490. Fifty-six teachers were licensed for this year-two of whom were females. Since the number of teachers corresponds to the number of schools open, it appears that each school was conducted by one teacher. The average length of the school term for this year was 2 2/3 months. John Reeves was chairman of the Board of Superintendents.27

The number of districts by 1858 had increased. to ninety-three, in fifty-eight of which schools were taught. The number of children reported for this year was 4,371, with an attendance of 2,223. The average length of the school term was 2 2/3 months, with an average salary of $17 a month. The first statement as to the financial condition of the schools appeared during the yew 1858. The report showed in the hands of the chairman of the Board of Superintendents $3,725.14 of which $2,388.15 was spent for the operation of the schools, leaving a balance of $1,336.99.28

Although the number of districts had decreased to seventy-one by 1860, the number of districts in which schools were taught had increased to sixty-one. The number of children taught during this year vas 2,398, The length of the school term was three months-the auaregs for the state during this year was 3 2/3 months.29 As will be seen from these reports, the number of schools taught in Ashe County during 1860 and also the length of the school term exceeded those of any previous year for which reports were made.

The ninth annual report for the school year 1861-62, showed $4,509.93 in the hands of the chairman of the board of Superintendents, with disbursements amounting to only $1,894.13, leaving a balance of $2,615.80.30 Although the funds for this year exceeded those for 1858 the only previous year for which the amount of money in the possession of the chairman of the Board of Superintendents is reported-the disbursements indicate that the progress made during recent years was not being maintained. Wiley's report for 1863 - the last one made during the war-contains no information relative to the condition of the schools in Ashe county, There appear to be no county records that indicate what was done in the way of maintaining schools during the latter part of the war, but the general opinion seams to prevail among the older people of the county that there were few, if any schools open during this period. The situation was yell described by Wiley in his report for 1863:

The present generation does not need to be told that it was hard to keep up a general educational system during the year 1863; the character of the times and the nature of the obstacles interposed to moral progress of every kind are well understood. Considering the trials through which the country is passing,.ve are prepared to hear without surprise of the temporary suspension of enterprises with which our best hopes are bound up.31

Wiley's last report was made in January 1866. Although it contained but little information as to the condition of the schools, it was full of recommendations as to how the educational system of the state could be kept alive.


  1. Northwestern Herald, Jefferson, North Carolina, Apri1, 17, 1924
  2. Ibid., March 27, 1924
  3. Northwestern Herald, Jefferson, North Carolina, April 17,1924.
  4. Ibid., April 27,1924.
  5. North Carolina Register, 1823.
  6. Journal, House of Commons, 1839, p. 507.
  7. Public School Laws of North Carolina, 1857.
  8. Brammlett, Popular Education in worth Carolina from 1815 to 1860.
  9. Journal of the Senate,1852, p.206.
  10. Journal of the House of Commons, 1852, p. 455,
  11. Knight, Edgar W, Public Education in North Carolina, p,160.
  12. Annual Report of the State Superintendent of Schools, 1854.
  13. Ibid., 1857.
  14. Ibid.,1858.
  15. Annual Report of the State Superintendent of common schools. 1860.
  16. Ibid., 1862.
  17. Annual Report of Superintendent of Schools, 1863.