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Chapter IV
The Foundation of Washington's School Laws

1. School Districts in Northern Oregon (Washington) During the first 2 years of the provisional government of Oregon, established May 2, 1843, at Champoeg, there was no real county organization north of the Columbia River. It was considered in Oregon that the counties or districts of Tualatin and Clackamas ex tended to the boundary of the Oregon Territory. This was declared by the legislature in 1844 to be 54° 40'. But as no American citizen resided north of the Columbia at that time no colonial organization had been necessary. In 1845 when a compact was made with the Hudson's Bay Company to give the provisional government support under certain conditions, the district of Vancouver was created north of the Columbia. On December 19, 1845, Lewis County was created “out of all that territory lying north of the Columbia River and west of the Cowlitz, up to 549 and 40' north latitude." In 1848 the name of Vancouver County was changed to Clark.?

On August 13, 1848, Congress passed the bill creating Oregon Territory, which, of course, included all north of the Columbia River. On March 3, 1849, the Federal appointee as Governor, Gen. Joseph Lane arrived at Oregon City and the Oregon Territorial government was proclaimed.

While under Oregon Territory there soon followed the organization of several counties which were carved out of Clark and Lewis Counties They included Pacific, February 4, 1851; Thurston, January 12, 1852; King, Jefferson, and Pierce, December 22, 1852; Island, January 6, 1853.*

Late in 1852 Thurston County was divided into several precincts, each of which was designated a school district. These were the Olympia precinct; the Steilacoom precinct, which included about what is now Pierce County; the “Dewamish" precinct, which included

1 The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft. Vol. XXXI: History of Wassington, Idaho, and Montana, 1845-89, pp. 43, 44. 1 Ibid., p. 46. "Schafer, Joseph. A History of the Pacific Northwest, p. 196. • Meany, Edmond S. History of the State of Washington, pp. 365-367.


what is now King County and territory north; Port Townsend precinct, which included the territory west of the Sound; and the "Scadget" precinct, which included Whidbey's Island and all islands north of the same.

2. Oregon School Law Operative North of the Columbia This history of education in the State of Washington properly begins with the history of education in Oregon. There were a few schools north of the Columbia River previous to 1853 when Washington Territory was formed. While the rigors accompanying pioneer life made expediency the ruling factor in their establishment, the laws of Oregon were in force in the districts formed in northern Oregon. In a letter published in 1852, we read, it may not be amiss to mention for the benefit of those sections of Thurston County not as yet organized into school districts, that there is several hundred dollars of school funds in the county treasury, and that every district by organizing, can have their share, whether they have a school or not. They can keep the money at interest, if they like, until they conclude to have a school."

The writer knew the law. Section 35 of the Oregon school law of 1849 provided that:

When it shall occur that any district, by reason of sparseness of population, or their scattered condition, may not be able to keep school, if such district will organize, and make the annual report to the school commissioner, according to this act, they shall be entitled to their just portion of the funds accruing to their county, and it shall be the duty of the school commissioner to loan the money to such district, on good security, at six per centum interest, from year to year, and until such district shall want it to support a school.




3. Sources of the Oregon School Law Influence of Iowa, Michigan, New England.—The first Territorial school law of Washington, that of 1854, had its inspiration in the Oregon laws of 1849 and 1853. Oregon was governed for some time under the lowa law of 1839. Moreover, as Aurner points out, this law of lowa grew out of the Michigan legislation of 1827, 1828, 1829, and 1833, for lowa was attached to Michigan in 1834. There is still another link in the chain. The influence of New England school laws is clearly shown in those laws of Michigan, “which made provision for the care of school lands, for the organization of districts, for school support, for the schooling of children between the ages of 5 and 15, for

* Rathbun. J. C. History of Thurston County, p. 19. • The Columbian, November 27, 1852.


township supervision and control, for the examination and employ. ment of teachers, for the visitation of schools, and for a Territorial superintendent of common schools." 7

The influence of New England laws is clearly felt in all our legislation, and is especially noticeable in the history of school legislation in the State of Washington.

Attempted school legislation.—The Oregon legislators did receive much from the laws of Iowa. In truth, the Iowa laws of 1839 were for some time the official statutes under which the Government operated. The first Oregon school law was passed in 1849, and as the act adopting the lowa law was passed in 1845, the schools bad applied to them the lowa legislation for several years after the estab lishment of the provisional government.

The laws of lowa were first adopted at the meeting at Champoeg on July 5, 1843. “The laws of Iowa Territory shall be the laws of the Territory in civil, military, and criminal cases, where not otherwise provided for, and where no statute of Iowa applies, the principles of common law and equity shall govern.

"9 T. O. Abbott, in his “Real Property Statutes of Washington Territory, 1843–89", includes under subject VI, division IV, title III, the Iowa act of 1839 on common schools.

The four laws-those of lowa of 1839, Oregon of 1849 and 1853, and Washington Territory of 1854—furnish us with the material out of which grew our early and later school statutes. The main deviation in the Oregon and later Washington school organization consisted in the abandonment of the township system and the adoption of the county as the political unit and the school district immediately responsible to the county, instead of to the township.

It is a very peculiar coincidence that all three territories had like experiences in their early history, relating to the provision for a superintendent of public instruction. In 1840 lowa sought to improve upon her law of the previous year. The new law provided for a superintendent of public instruction; but he was legislated out of office within a year, as the office was deemed unnecessary”, and should therefore be abolished. 10 Oregon Territory had a similar experience.

' Aurner, Clarence R. History of Education in lowa. vol. I, p. 3. "An act adopting the statute laws of the Territory of lowa and the common law, passed August 12, 1843 • Oregon Historical Society Quarterly, 5: 143. 10 Aurner, Clarence R. History of Education in lowa. vol. I, p. 11.

4. Enactment of the First Territorial School Law in Oregon Iowa school law prevailed under the provisional government.-As has been pointed out the laws of lowa as a whole were adopted on July 5, 1843, at Champoeg for the provisional government of Oregon. But these were regarded as temporary and the legislature immediately set about enacting laws adapted to their own particular needs. The school needs were not forgotten.

The first bill, 1845.—No sooner had the legislature of 1845 begun to make laws for the region, than attempts were made to establish a system of free schools. A committee on education, composed of William Henry Gray, J. McClure, and Robert Newell, was organized on August 6, 1845.11

This committee presented a bill in relation to schools, which was read the first time on August 9. Two days later it came up for a second reading, and as far as the records go, perished there. The next attempt to legislate on the subject was at the instigation of W. H. Gray, who introduced another bill on common schools, December 13, 1845. This bill survived three readings, but was lost on the last afternoon of the session, which was only 6 days later.12

We are safe in drawing the conclusion that many people were awake to the necessity of public education at this early date, which, it is to be remembered, was about 8 years before the separation of Washington Territory from Oregon.

Editorial in Oregon Spectator.--Public sentiment was growing. About the time of the meeting of the legislative assembly in the latter part of 1846, the Oregon Spectator of November 26 came out with a strong editorial in favor of public schools. It said:

It is quite time that some system of public instruction was established. Some commencement should be made-some foundation laid, however susceptible it might be of improvement hereafter. The subject of education has been rather neglected among us, though not inexcusably so, perhaps. The people of this country have had much to do, and have accomplished much within a few years; matters of imperative necessity engaged their attention and demanded their prompt action; shoulder to shoulder, they have worked together for the general good, with an unanimity truly surprising, even in the times of least hope. They have come out of darkness into light; out of the wilderness into the abode of happy civilization; out of the period of trial into compara. tive ease and prosperity.

Governor Abernethy's message.—Whether or not this editorial had any influence upon the Governor's message, we do not know. It was only 5 days later, however, that Gov. George Abernethy, in his speech before the legislature, took up the subject in these words:

" Grover, La Fayette. Oregon Archives, 1853. D. 92.

12 Ibid., p. 152.


I would call your attention to the subject of education, without which no country can be prosperous; it, therefore, becomes the duty of the legislature to provide liber. ally for the education of the rising generation.13

This was the first official message to the legislature on this important subject. Yet it brought no direct legislation. That the legislators realized its importance is reflected in the memorial to Congress which grew out of the session. A careful reading of the memorial discloses the fact that the time was not yet ripe. That “insurmountable barriers presented themselves to the general diffusion of education " was literally true.

However, the matter was debated. Two days after the speech of Governor Abernethy was delivered, the committee of the whole reported its recommendation that affairs relating to education be referred to a committee on education. This committee had as its members William G. T'Vault, who was the first publisher of the Oregon Spectator, W. F. Tolmie, and Lawrence Hall. Mr. T'Vault, for the committee on education, made a report on the 9th of December, recommending a memorial to Congress on the subject of education. Mr. T'Vault stated that it was largely the work of Mr. Peers. This memorial was presented by the Vice President in the United States Senate on December 8, 1847. It called attention to the physical and economic barriers that prevented the organization of a system of education in Oregon, and “upon the consideration, therefore, that the general diffusion of knowledge is among the leading principles of a government founded upon republican principles like that of the United States ", they asked the Government to take steps necessary to aid in the establishment of schools by grants of land, so that they might " place a sound elementary education within the reach of all."

First public school organization.-In the early part of 1847 we find a concrete example of the organization of a community for educational purposes. This is the first instance in our history of such a publicschool organization.

The Oregon Spectator under date of February 18 published an item on “Public Schools” in which they said they hadreceived a letter from the Reverend J. S. Griffin containing the very gratifying infor: mation of the organization of the citizens of Tualatin Plains, for the purposes of educa. tion. A board of trustees was established, of which Mr. Griffin is secretary, empowered with the responsibilities of securing approved teachers, importing from time to time all necessary books, embracing late improvements in teaching, and as the agents of the

1 Oregon Archives, vol. 1, 1843–1849. p. 163.

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