Back to School, 1839!

It’s that time of year again! And since I’m still working on a number of new but not-yet-ready projects, I thought you might enjoy this lightly-revised “Back to School” post from September 9, 2020.

Currier & Ives. God Bless Our School. United States, ca. 1874. New York: Published by Currier & Ives, 125 Nassau St. Library of Congress. This image first appeared on Clark House Historian as part of our 2021 post Caroline M. Clark’s classroom & curricula, 1858-1860

Daniel Strickland hires “the first teacher

There are a number of conflicting claims to the title of “first teacher” in Mequon. One of the first was Mary Turck Clark. She led classes for her siblings and four neighbor children in the loft of her father’s cabin in the summer of 1839.

The History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties, relates a number of other “firsts” for area schools and teachers. Among them is this story of how the school committee,1 led by Daniel Strickland (father of Sarah A. Strickland Clark), hired its first teacher.

E. H. Janssen was the first [public school] teacher; he taught a grammar school in 1839. The following account of an early examination of Janssen, by one of the School Commissioners, is given by an old settler2:

The first School Commissioners were Daniel Strickland, Henry V. Bonniwell and Levi Ostrander. Strickland, soon after his appointment, assumed the responsibility of examining Mr. Janssen, who had applied for one of the schools. Thinking to be rigid with the pedagogue, Strickland approached him with an air of self importance, and put the following arithmetical problem: “Now, sir, suppose that I were to sell you one hundred bushels of wheat at 75 cents a bushel, how much money would you have to pay me?” “$75,” promptly answered Janssen. “Good enough, you are a smart fellow to answer a question like that so readily.” Strickland then scratched his head, and as he could think of no more difficult problems in mathematics, concluded to try some other branch, and, accordingly, switched off on to geography. A happy thought struck him; he had, during his younger days, experienced considerable of ocean life3, and, while on one of his extended voyages, had been wrecked on the island of Madagascar4. Here then was where he would corner Janssen. With all the assurance imaginable, he approached the anxious candidate, for something in his looks warned the aspirant that some great question was about to be propounded. “Well, sir,” said Strickland, “perhaps you can tell me where the Island of Madagascar is located?” This was a puzzler, and might have sealed Janssen’s doom, but for the kindly assistance of a friend who stood near, who had heard Strickland relate his adventure on this island. He whispered the location to Janssen, who at once replied, “Off the coast of Africa.” That was enough; Strickland grasped him by the hand and exclaimed, “You are the smartest man I ever met, you can have the school right off!” This was, the relator claims, the first school examination in the county.

The selection of Edward H. Janssen as school teacher was the cause for much joy among the area’s other German immigrants, and they decided festivities were in order:

The day was celebrated by the Germans who had settled in Mequon and vicinity. They had seen the thing done once or twice, and concluded to attempt a hilarious demonstration of love of their new country in true American style. Sufficient money was raised to get a keg of Owen’s best ale or beer from Milwaukee, and to hire a fiddler, who lived across the river. The celebration came off at Opitz’s Tavern. The services were entirely in the German tongue, and consisted in the reading of the Declaration and patriotic speeches. The dancing commenced in Opitz’s big room, early in the day, and was kept up until the musician was exhausted. Among those present on that occasion were Fred W. Horn, of Cedarburg; C. Miller, of West Bend, and Adolph Zimmerman.

Best wishes for a safe, healthy and productive school year to all our teachers, administrators, students and their families.


  1. This tale is quoted from the History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties, Wisconsin […] Illustrated. Western Historical Co., Chicago, 1881, page 457. Readers with sharp memories will note the discrepancies between today’s story of the 1839 “school committee” of Daniel Strickland, Henry V. Bonniwell and Levi Ostrander, and the record of the committee meeting of 1842, led by “moderator” Jonathan M. Clark and recorded by “clerk” Peter Turck.

    Perhaps someone has already sorted the various stories, anecdotes and documents to make a really accurate and informative history of schools and schooling in early Mequon and Washington/Ozaukee county.

    Meanwhile, the Janssen story is highly plausible, and very entertaining, especially for those of us that have spent some time in or around public education (or anything else run by committee, for that matter).

  2. Who was the “old settler” that told this tale to the editors of the History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties? It had to have been someone that arrived in old Washington county around 1839 (if he was at the meeting), and was in the area as the History was being compiled and published in 1881. Of course, it’s possible the story was a favorite in local lore, and the “old settler” knew it well, but had not been at the event.

  3. Washington/Ozaukee county pioneer Daniel Strickland was, in fact, an experienced seaman. He was born November 24, 1790, in Beverly, Essex Co., Massachusetts. Not yet 14 years old, he was issued a New England Seaman’s Protection Certificate on July 24, 1804.

    A scan of the original ship’s list of officers and crew for an October 19, 1805, voyage on the Schooner Rachel, seventy-one tons, sailing from Beverly, Massachusetts, to the West Indies has been posted on by member grannacherryholmes. Daniel’s rank for the voyage was Boy; he was born and residing in Beverly; height, four feet seven (and a half?) inches; complexion dark; age thirteen years, and a “subject” of the United States. Also on the crew was Allen Strickland, age 40, possibly Daniel’s father or other older relative.

    Strickland descendants Steven Clark Van Slyke and Lynette Thompson record Daniel Strickland as a sea captain (Lynette and Steve: any details? ship names?) But by the time Daniel Strickland emigrated to the United States with his family, on November 2, 1835, he listed his (future?) occupation as “farmer.”

    UPDATE, August 30, 2022: Since completing this post in 2020 I located additional seaman’s papers that confirm Daniel Strickland’s substantial experience as a blue water sailor prior to settling in Wisconsin. If anyone is interested, I can make that information available.

  4. This story is the only source I’ve found that mentions Daniel Strickland being shipwrecked on Madagascar.

One thought on “Back to School, 1839!

  1. Pingback: Back to School, 1842! | Clark House Historian

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