Caroline Clark’s mentor, John G. McKindley

In today’s post, we continue our examination of the life and work of Jonathan M. and Mary (Turck) Clark’s oldest child, Caroline Mary (Clark) Woodward (1840-1924). In our earlier post, Caroline M. (Clark) Woodward: a closer look at that 1893 biography, we came across this passage:

Caroline was the oldest daughter. She attended the district school in a log house till seventeen years of age. To that was added one year of study in German in a private school. At the age of eight years she was considered quite a prodigy in her studies. At the age of seventeen she began to teach. After two years of study in the Milwaukee high school under John G. McKidley [sic, McKindley], famed as a teacher and organizer of educational work, she taught in the public schools of that city.

Photo of Caroline M. (Clark) Woodward courtesy of Frances Willard House Museum & WCTU Archives, Evanston, Illinois. Text: Willard, Frances E., and Mary A. Livermore, editors. A woman of the century ; fourteen hundred-seventy biographical sketches […], Buffalo, 1873, page 779.

Think back…

Imagine this: You are now more than 50-years-old. You have achieved statewide and national prominence as an organizer for the largest women’s social and political organization of the 19th-century. You and your spouse manage a family farm, continue to raise your several adopted and foster children, and you have a successful business of your own, selling insurance. And when you are asked to provide the details of your life for inclusion in a major biographical dictionary of leading American women, you make sure to include, by name…one of your high school teachers?

That’s exactly what Caroline (Clark) Woodward did in 1893, when she highlighted her two years of study with John G. McKindley at the Milwaukee public high school. And that prompts a few questions: who was J. G. McKindley? why is he cited in Caroline’s 1893 biography? when would he have worked with Caroline? was he really “famed as a teacher and organizer of educational work”? and how big a deal was “high school” in Wisconsin in the 1850s and ’60s, anyway?

McKindley as a key to Caroline’s timeline

Caroline Clark, like most women—and men—of her era, did not attend college. But she was well-educated all the same, and a most articulate and organized woman. Unfortunately, the details of her childhood, education, and early adult life are not well-documented, especially during the critical years of about 1857 to 1861, which encompassed her father’s unexpected death (and a national financial panic) in 1857, the start of the Civil War in 1861, her mother and siblings’ relocation to the city of Milwaukee at about the same time, and her marriage to William W. Woodward in May, 1861.

However, it turns out that understanding more about Caroline’s educational mentor, J. G. McKindley, and his brief time in Milwaukee’s public schools, will give us important information about Caroline’s educational training, the timeline of her late-teen years and, by implication, how Caroline’s mother Mary (Turck) Clark and her extended family may have supported Caroline’s studies to a degree unusual for a young woman of the late-1850s.

Who was John G. McKindley?

For a quick overview of McKindley’s life, here is his obituary, as published in the Kenosha, Wisconsin, Telegraph, Friday, January 18, 1884. As this is the only sketch of McKindley’s life that I’ve found, I have transcribed it complete, for future reference:

Died, in this city [Kenosha], on Wednesday morning, January 16, [1884] Mr. John G. McKindley, aged 62 years. This sudden occurrence has cast a gloom over a large circle of friends and acquaintances. He had been long known in this community, and was much esteemed for his very many amiable qualities. His death occurred unexpectedly. He had for years been accustomed to go to Chicago on the morning train and return on the afternoon or evening train, his business being chiefly in that city. On Friday morning last week he went to Chicago, was taken severely ill in that city, and stopped at the residence of his brother-­in-law, Geo. W. Hale, over night; on Saturday he was sufficiently recovered to travel, and returned to Kenosha in the afternoon. On Sunday night he had another serious attack; city physicians were summoned, also a physician from Chicago, but medical aid proved unavailing. He lingered until 2 o’clock Wednesday morning.

Mr. McKindley was born in West Charlton, Saratoga county, N. Y. He graduated from a High School at Galway, N. Y., afterwards attended a course of classical studies at Schenectady, N. Y. He taught school in several places in the region of his nativity, and at Ballston Centre prepared a class of young men for college.

He came to Kenosha in 1856 [sic, probably mid-1855]. His coming here came about by his playfully pulling a newspaper out of the pocket of a friend, which proved to be the TELEGRAPH, printed here; in it he saw an advertisement for a Principal for the High School. He immediately came on and closed a contract with the School Board. He remained here two years, then went to Milwaukee and took charge of the Seventh Ward High School in that city. After teaching in Milwaukee two years [sic, three years], he entered into the insurance business in that city; afterwards took an important insurance agency in Chicago. For the last fifteen years or more he had been engaged in various kinds of business in Chicago, with varied success, but sustaining himself probably above the average of those in miscellaneous employments. Of one thing he was always careful—his. character for integrity and honesty.

Mr. McKindley was noticeable for his gentlemanly deportment and grace of manner. As a teacher be possessed some unequaled qualities; his control over wayward boys was remarkable; instances are given of boys entirely unmanageable by their parents who were given over to him and changed of their disobedient behavior, growing up to manhood, respected in the community. In morals he was exemplary, and was never heard to speak lightly of sacred matters. He joined the Reformed Dutch church in Grenville, N. Y. After coming to Wisconsin he did not connect himself with any religious body, but was a liberal supporter of the Congregational church in this city. Soon after he came to Wisconsin he married Miss Harriet Hale, daughter of Judge Hale; she died several years ago, leaving three interesting daughters—Mrs. Baker, now living In Nashville, Tenn.; the other two; after spending almost two years in Europe, now have  their home in this city. His funeral will take’ place at his late residence at 2 o’clock this after-noon (Friday).


The facts in this obituary appear to be generally correct, except for the timeline laid out in the third paragraph, in particular regarding McKindley’s start date in Kenosha and number of years worked there. According to contemporary newspaper reports from the 1850s and very early 1860s, McKindley was in Kenosha by, at least, mid-1855. His initial agreement with Milwaukee’s Seventh Ward High School began on September 1, 1857. His few years as a Wisconsin high school principal were well-publicized and influential at the time, but by the early ’60s he had left his profession. What happened?

Higher education in Milwaukee – the early years

So how did a high school principal like John G. McKindley rise to statewide prominence after only a few years as principal in Kenosha and three years in Milwaukee? To understand that, we need a little background on the early years of public education in Milwaukee.

Public education has been a feature of Wisconsin life since Territorial days. Building schoolhouses and hiring teachers were among the first orders of business in growing cities and small rural towns. In Mequon, one of the first schools was built just west of the Clark farm, a log cabin that would be known as School No. 1, the Bonniwell School. The Bonniwell School was, almost certainly, the “district school in a log house” that Caroline Clark and her siblings attended during their years in Mequon.

A larger city such as Milwaukee would build one-, two-, or three-room schools to serve each ward of the city. The size of the school would depend on the school-age population of each ward, and the need to separate—if possible—the various primary and grammar departments. The admission requirements varied a bit from place to place, but generally speaking, these early schools admitted children somewhere between ages 4 to 6, and provided about ten years of graded instruction.

Typically, in most rural and city schools, once students reached ages 14-16 they would finish their schooling and enter the workforce. As late as the 1850s, Milwaukee did not have much in the way of what we would call high school or post-secondary institutions.1 Not for lack of trying, though:

The propriety of establishing a high school in Milwaukee was first called to the attention of the School Commissioners, April 5, 1852, in a resolution offered by Mr. Day. A committee was appointed at that time to consider the subject, but nothing was done by them. Again, in April, 1854, a committee was appointed “to take into consideration the propriety of establishing a high school in the city.” This committee accomplished exactly as much as the previous one. However, in August, 1857, the Board reached some conclusive decision in the form of a resolution, which was adopted, as follows:

Resolved, that the Executive Committee be directed to organize three union high schools in the city; the first to be for the Seventh and Third wards, the second for the Second, Fourth, Sixth and Ninth wards, and the third for the Fifth and Eighth wards, and for such wards as may hereafter be made by dividing the same, and that these schools go into operation as soon as suitable buildings shall be provided for the same.

The Seventh Ward school-house—built for a high school—was completed that Fall, though not for some weeks after the beginning of the school year. J. G. McKindley was employed as principal of what was called High School No. 1 at a salary of $1,500 a year. As his contract began September 1, it was provided that he was to occupy his time until the school-house was finished, by visiting the ward schools, and thereafter to continue to visit them once a quarter. The Seventh Ward School was located in the same building as the high school and Mr. McKindley was to be principal of them both as long as they were kept together. As the high school-houses in other parts of the city were not built at that time, children who resided anywhere in the city were admitted.2

The scholars who entered this department were required to be twelve years old, and to pass a satisfactory examination in orthography, elements of punctuation, composition, Pierron’s system of geography questions, outlines of United States History, Clarke’s treatise on grammar, arithmetic through decimal fractions, and simple equations in algebra. Miss Whipple and Miss Lincoln were the first assistants and Frederick Regenfuss was instructor in German and French. A three-years’ course of study was prescribed, in which German and French were optional throughout the course and Latin the last year. Vocal music was taught throughout.

In the Fall of 1858 the high school-house in the Second Ward was nearly enough completed to be occupied, and a high school—called High School No. 2—was organized, with E. P. Larkin Principal. This school was for West Side chil­dren only.

On the 23d of December, 1858, the Seventh Ward High School celebrated its first anniversary at the Newhall House.

Andreas, A. T., editor, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin […], Illustrated. Chicago, 1881, p 528-529.

And then the money ran out

The new states and territories of the expanding American West were hard-hit by the financial Panic of 1857. Wisconsin, including the City of Milwaukee, was no exception. In 1860, the Milwaukee common council was barely able to allocate funds for the public primary and grammar schools; there was no money at all for the two high schools, and they were closed. Without public funding, the high school principals, in cooperation with the school authorities, attempted to reopen the high schools as private academies.

When in 1860 the high schools were discontinued, the principals were allowed the free use of the rooms, furniture, etc., and continued the schools as private institutions, supported by tuition paid by the scholars. [McKindley’s] Seventh Ward High School was continued only a short time, but the one in the Second Ward was maintained for several years. James MacAlister, at that time Principal of the Fourth Ward school, was permitted to organize a high school class, which he did, and maintained it for about two years with from twenty to thirty pupils.

Andreas, A. T., editor, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin […], Illustrated. Chicago, 1881, p 528-529.

J. G. McKindley as a Principal

All the printed sources I have found agree that John G. McKindley was a decidedly successful high school principal. His course of study was considered thorough and rigorous (perhaps too much so for some student and parent tastes). He was especially noted for maintaining a calm, intent, and extremely quiet classroom atmosphere; no excessive clacking of chalk on slates, no unnecessary talking, no stomping about. And he maintained these high standards of academic rigor and personal behavior without resorting to corporal punishment. If contemporary news reports and later student reminiscences are to be believed, he was—with a few exceptions—much loved by his pupils and greatly admired by parents, school visitors, and school examiners.3

State Board of Regents

By 1857, McKindley’s work appears to have attracted attention in Madison. He was appointed to Wisconsin’s new Board of Regents, designed to “carry out the provisions of an act entitled ‘An Act for the Encouragement of Academies and Normal [i.e., teacher-training] Schools.'” They held their first meeting on July 15, 1857:


McKindley was appointed to the Committee to Prepare a Course of Study. His term on the Board was set to expire on January 1, 1860.

Full minutes of this meeting were published as “Document O,” in the Appendix to the Senate Journal, 1858. This volume of miscellaneous state documents begins with, and is usually indexed by, its first item: Annual Message of Alexander W. Randell, Governor of the State of Wisconsin, delivered January 15, 1858, Madison, Atwood and Rublee, State Printers, 1858.

Disambiguation: clarifying mid-century education job titles

Caroline Clark was not the only member of her family to teach in the Milwaukee public schools. In the 1870s, younger sisters Josie and Jennie were also employed by the Milwaukee schools. All three young women had completed high school and were then employed as primary or, possibly, grammar school teachers. In official parlance of the day, each had the job title of “Assistant Teacher.”

“Assistant Teacher” can be misleading to 21st-century readers. Caroline and her fellow “Assistant Teachers” were the classroom teachers for their assigned grade-level(s). There were no “teacher’s assistants” or “paraprofessionals” in 19th-century schools. At that time, all the teachers in the building were “Assistant Teachers,” except for one.4

There was one teacher that was both the teacher of the class of the oldest and most advanced students in the building and in charge of the school as a whole. That teacher was known in official documents, and to the public, as the “Principal,” as in “principal teacher.” J. G. McKindley made his reputation as a Principal. He set the tone and, to an extent, the curriculum for his own classroom and for his school as a whole. And all the classroom teachers under his—or any other Principal’s—supervision were officially known as “Assistants,” or “Assistant Teachers.”


John G. McKindley’s star in Wisconsin’s educational world rose quickly, burned brightly, and faded in less than 6 years. Like so many educators, before and since, he wanted to give his students the best education possible, but was impeded by low salary, crowded classrooms and, in 1860, the collapse of funding for the public schools.

He left the Seventh Ward High School after the second and final high school academic “exhibition” on August 9, 1860. Two months earlier, the federal population census (enumerated June 5, 1860) finds him at a hotel in Milwaukee. At the same time, and possibly throughout his years in Milwaukee, his wife and young family remained at the McKindley home in Kenosha.

The Kenosha Tribune and Telegraph of September 9, 1860, quoting the Niles [Michigan] Inquirer, announced that he would be in charge of the Niles Union School for the coming year. A year later, the Janesville [Wisconsin] Daily Gazzette of August 5, 1861, announced McKindley’s “engagement as Principal of the High School in this City.” Except for those few items, I have not found any additional mention of McKindley at work in Niles in 1860 or Janesville in 1861.

So following his three years in Milwaukee, J. G. McKindley may have served one-year positions as high school principal in Niles, Michigan (1860-1861), and Janesville, Wisconsin (1861-1862). Or those jobs may have fizzled out and, as his obituary claimed, he may have gone from leading the Seventh Ward High School directly into the insurance business. Either way, sometime between late-1860 and early-1864, he closed his career as an educator.

Summing up: essential dates on the McKindley timeline

For our purposes, the most relevant dates on a J. G. McKindley timeline (as we currently understand them5) are:

  • 1855 (before July 5), begins as Principal, Kenosha High School6
  • 1857 (July 15), begins term on state Board of Regents
  • 1857 (September 1), begins as Principal, Seventh Ward (all-city) High School, Milwaukee
  • 1860 (June 5), enumerated for Federal census at “hotel” in Milwaukee, occupation, “School Teacher”
  • 1860 (August 9), McKindley leads second academic “exhibition” at Albany Hall, Milwaukee. This is his final appearance at Principal of the Seventh Ward High School7
  • 1860 (after August 9?), according to his obituary (above), he entered the insurance business following his “two years” as Principal in Milwaukee
  • 1860-1861 (?) possibly Principal of Niles, Michigan, Union School
  • 1861-1862 (? ) possibly Principal of Janesville, Wisconsin, High School
  • 1864 (or earlier): no longer in education, now an insurance agent. Home and family remain in Kenosha. Maintains offices in Chicago and, at least for some while, Milwaukee. Listed as an insurance agent in the 1864 Milwaukee City Directory.

It took some digging, but we now have a reasonably clear and accurate timeline for John G. McKindley’s work as an educator in southeastern Wisconsin. Next time, we’ll compare what we know about McKindley’s timeline and what that can tell us about Caroline Clark’s high school studies and work as a teacher in Milwaukee in the late-’50s and early-’60s.

Any questions?



  1. There were some notable early attempts at high school and post-secondary education in early Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Female Seminary opened its doors in 1848, It survived a series of organizational and financial challenges and changed names several times; in its final decades it was known as Milwaukee-Downer College. Fun fact: Caroline Clark’s cousin, Josephine Turck (later Josephine Turck Baker, 1858-1942) graduated from a successor institution, the Milwaukee Female College, in 1878.

    McKindley’s high school had several predecessors, including a short-lived “Milwaukee University” (1852-1855, ran out of money, building sold in 1857). In many ways, this was the precursor to McKindley’s Seventh Ward High School. For more on both projects, see this book, published following a reunion of the University and High School students: Boardman, M. A., editor and compiler, University—High School, of Milwaukee. with sketches and incidents in the history of these two institutions, also biographical notes of some of the students […], Milwaukee, 1886. GoogleBooks.

  2. Paragraph break added for clarity

  3. In addition to the material quoted or linked to in today’s post, I have gathered digital copies of several dozen other news items—long articles and short clippings—describing McKindley, his classroom and students, his curricula, and even quoting a speech he gave in response to a gift from the graduating students at his Kenosha high school. If you have any interest in these, please let me know. Except for their impact on Caroline (Clark) Woodward, McKindley and the early Milwaukee and Kenosha high schools are pretty far off-topic for the blog and I won’t be posting more unless requested.

  4. Schools in the city might have several grade-level divisions (e.g., Primary, Grammar, High School) in a large building. In that case, each division might have a principal teacher and he or she might have one or more assistants teaching with them in their (often very large) classes. The Principal of the High School appears to have had a higher status in the school hierarchy than any other principals or (of course) assistants.

  5. Unfortunately, we do not have a complete record of the faculty and students of the Milwaukee schools prior to 1861:

    Records Destroyed. On Sunday morning, December 30, 1860, between 1 and 3 o’clock, Cross’s Block, in which the office of the Commissioners was situated, was burned to the ground. Nothing was saved except the contents of the safe, which was taken out of the ruins on the following Tuesday, having been buried sixty hours. The aforesaid contents were evidently undergoing slow combustion, but the records and order books, for the four years preceding, were in good state of preservation. By this fire all the bills up to the time, the monthly reports of teachers, the papers of examinations of teachers, annual reports from different cities, and all the papers of the Board, accumulated for a course of years, were entirely destroyed.

    Source: Andreas, A. T., editor, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin […], Illustrated. Chicago, 1881, p 524

  6. The History of Racine and Kenosha Counties […] Illustrated, Chicago, Western Historical Co., 1879, page 535, provides a roster of Kenosha’s “High School Principals to date” which includes “1851-1853, J. G. McMynn; 1853-1856, D. T. DeWolf; 1856-1857 [sic], J. G. McKindly; 1857-1859, George Conant,” and so on. The first McKindley (as Kenosha High School Principal) news item that I have found is from page 1 of the Thursday, July 5, 1855, issue of the Kenosha Tribune and Telegraph. It describes “the higher department, now under the immediate charge of Mr. McKindley […].”

    It seems that McKindley may have taken the job as Principal of Kenosha’s high school in mid-1855 at the latest. However, the same issue of the Tribune and Telegraph has another, related article on page 3. Under the headline “Our Free Schools,” the article summarizes the recently-concluded school year, and includes this: “It is understood that Mr. McKindley will require an increase of salary to induce him to stay another year.” Does this imply that McKindley had just completed a full year in Kenosha and was looking ahead to another full year? Or, perhaps, that McKindly arrived in Kenosha about halfway through the 1854-1855 school year, and if Kenosha wanted a (full-year) of his services for the coming term, they needed to give him a raise?

    It looks like he didn’t get that raise. Page 4 of the Kenosha Telegraph and Tribune, of October 6, 1859, summarizes the meeting of the Kenosha board of education (“Monday evening, Oct. 4, 1849 [sic]), and states: “[…] the resolution relative to the claim of J. G. McKindley which was laid over at the last meeting of the Board was taken up […] and the result was as follows [3 in favor, 4 opposed…]. The resolution was lost.”

    Looking at all the sources, I’m inclined to think McKindley arrived in Kenosha and commenced work as high school Principal sometime after January 1, 1855, and before July 5, 1855.

  7. The date and details of McKindley’s final academic event in Milwaukee may be found on page 57 of Boardman, M. A., editor and compiler, University—High School, of Milwaukee. with sketches and incidents in the history of these two institutions, also biographical notes of some of the students […], Milwaukee, 1886. GoogleBooks.

7 thoughts on “Caroline Clark’s mentor, John G. McKindley

    • I didn’t run into much on McKindley’s entry into the insurance business. He appears to have maintained close ties to his Hale in-laws, so anything is possible.

      I’ll have a bit more on McKindley in an upcoming post. I’ll let you know if I find anything relevant.


  1. Hi Reed, Ante bellum schools in Milwaukee and especially Mequon & Thiensville tussled with the question (which went on for 40 years culminating in the Bennett Law fiasco) of whether classes should be taught in the German or English language. While both Fred Horn and Edward Janssen (who eventually served as Oz. County School Supt.) were in favor of English, the Freistadters used “High German” in their classrooms. In Milwaukee free-thinker Peter Engelman established the German-English Academy (1851 I believe). It eventually became Milwaukee University School (M.U.S.) and then merged with Downer Seminary and Country Day (1964) to become today’s University School of Milwaukee (U.S.M.)
    Regards, Sam.


    • Thanks for the info, Sam! I was aware of the 19th-century debate regarding an official language for the U.S. (and German was a serious candidate at the time). But the local Mequon-Thiensville German-versus-English language details were news to me, as was the 1889 Bennett Law debacle.

      From a local point of view, I think it’s interesting that Horn and Janssen, as two of the most influential men in Ozaukee county civic affairs of their day—and both immigrants from Germany—would be in favor of English.

      As for the early history of all the Milwaukee schools with “university” in their name? What a can of worms that is! I’ll have more on J. G. McKindley’s high school as it may have affected the life and education of Caroline Clark, but I’m going to try and steer clear of deciphering the “genealogies” of the different (and usually short-lived) early Milwaukee “universities,” most of which were more of what we would call a prep school or good high school.

      And for what it’s worth, J. G. McKindley made a point of employing expert teachers of the German language at both his Kenosha and Milwaukee high schools.


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