Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Miss Sophia Sawyer: Founder of the Fayetteville Female Seminary

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Miss Sophia Sawyer: Founder of the Fayetteville Female Seminary

Article excerpt

IN 1849, NARCISSA CHISHOLM, A YOUNG WOMAN of Cherokee descent, arrived to complete her education at the Fayetteville Female Seminary after spending a year at an academy in Indiana and a summer visiting her sister in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The head of the seminary, Sophia Sawyer, had evidently made an enticing offer. Chisholm had purchased a new piano in Louisville, Kentucky, and the seminary needed just such an instrument. An agreement was struck. Sawyer would receive the piano "in consideration of a finished school course" for Miss Chisholm. Chisholm, however, did not exactly understand what she was getting herself into. In her memoirs, Chisholm recalled:

On my arrival at Miss Sawyer's Female Seminary, I didn't understand the situation of things. I observed that whenever Miss Sawyer made her appearance every girl present began to dodge out of her sight, and find a place of retreat. One of the seniors, Annie Bell Shelton (sister of Hooley Bell), who was my classmate remained with me. As soon as Miss Sawyer disappeared I said, 'Annie, what does this mean, the girls disappearing in this way?' She laughed and gave me a knowing wink, saying, 'Just wait; you'll know soon enough.'

Miss Sawyer was a first-class regulator, and my position with the old lady was either up in the zenith or down in the depths. As a rule, I could please her, but occasionally, like all the others, I woefully missed it, and in a short time I learned to take my part in getting out of sight when the commanding officer hove in view.1

Other sources testify to Sawyer's formidable personality. Mrs. Anthony George Little described Sawyer as "somewhat unusual in appearance. Her dress was of Puritanical severity; her hair was combed smoothly over her ears as was then the custom. Her lace caps were dainty, yet dignified and reserved. No one ever thought of approaching her with the slightest familiarity, so great was her reserve."2

Through her life, Sawyer faced many difficult situations, but these same daunting personality traits allowed her to turn such circumstances into opportunities. While Ann James, a teacher at the school for a short time, described Sawyer as having a "spasmodic temperament," Sawyer nevertheless gained the trust and support of townspeople necessary to open her school shortly after arriving in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 1839, accompanied by the family of assassinated Cherokee leader John Ridge.3 Despite being a newcomer with no financial security, she was able to secure the donation of the land on which the school was built as well as the loans necessary to pay for building materials, labor, and furnishings. Sawyer's success in creating the Fayetteville Female Seminary testify to her drive and determination but also to the training she had received in some of the early educational institutions open to women.

Sawyer was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, on May 4, 1792, one of six children of Abner Sawyer, a farmer, and his wife, Betsy. Like many children of the period, she was educated both at home and through periodic study in a neighborhood common school. After the death of her parents, Sawyer turned, as many young women did, to teaching as a means of support. Beginning about 1814, she alternated for the next several years between teaching and academy study in and around Rindge, New Hampshire. After attending New Ipswich Academy sporadically for about six years, Sawyer, with the aid of a local congregational clergyman, Seth Payson, transferred to the Byfield Female Seminary in Massachusetts, where she studied from 1820 to 1822. Sawyer helped pay for her education by working at the school.4

Byfield Female Seminary had been founded in 1818 by Joseph Emerson, a well-known advocate of female education who sought to develop in his students the skills necessary to found their own institutions. In an address published near the end of Sawyer's term as his student, Emerson declared that the time "was not remote," when female institutions "greatly superior to the present" would be "as important as are now our colleges for the education of our sons. …

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