Back

HIGH SIERRA EDUCATION
(Educator, Philanthropist, Librarian)

By: Mary M. Baldasano

The wagon rolled ever so slowly across the vast empty desert. After three hours of tortuous bouncing and rolling, the children sat numb and weary, as did Hannah; another day on the trail was nearly half over. Although much older than her charges, she couldn't help but wonder if they would ever see California. Would she ever teach in a real school house? Would she ever build the school seen so vividly in her dreams? After two months on the trail, it seemed California was a vicious lie, told to see how many foolish people would believe and take to the trail. Was she foolish? Should she do what so many men had said, "stick to women's work?" Should she believe that "women would never be able to handle a school room?" No -- she refused to believe that. Women were capable of learning and teaching, and she would be one of those that proved it. Whether a path lined with fresh minds to teach and mold, or one filled with sorrow and disappointment, it was her path; one only she would follow.

Said to be a New York native, Hannah Keziah Clapp began her teaching career at Union Seminary, a private school in Ypsilanti, Michigan. In 1854, she was appointed principal of Lansing's Female Seminary (one of Michigan's first colleges). However, perhaps wanting to accomplish more, or just fulfill the whims of wanderlust, she joined her brother and his family on their move west. Arriving first in Salt Lake City, Utah, she lingered only long enough to join a family named Perkins to continue on to California. 

On arrival in Vacaville, California in 1860, she secured a teaching position, but at the request of the Perkins, again accompanied them and the children back across the Sierra Nevada Mountains to a new home in Carson City, Nevada. Immediately, Hannah saw a need for education, and it wasn't long before her dream became a reality. In 1861, with her new friend and colleague Ellen Cutler, a private co-educational school was born -- The Sierra Seminary. Under the shadows of the Sierras and in the backdrop of the Comstock Lode, a board of directors soon included the Territorial Governor, James Nye, and Comstock owners William Stewart and others. The Territorial Legislature approved the school's Act of Incorporation which was signed on November 14, 1861.

With the strong support of visitors such as Mark Twain, Hannah's dream continued to grow and the need for a larger facility became obvious. She donated 10 acres of her own land toward the building of a facility to board 40 students, which opened in July 1865. Hannah's graduates went on to become very influential in Nevada's history as state and federal legislators as well as other types of professionals.

With the strong support of visitors such as Mark Twain, Hannah's dream continued to grow and the need for a larger facility became obvious. She donated 10 acres of her own land toward the building of a facility to board 40 

students, which opened in July 1865.
Hannah's graduates went on to become very influential in Nevada's history as state and federal legislators as well as other types of professionals.

Education was not her only love in life. She continued to travel using money from her investments in the Belcher mine, as well as finding good causes to support. One of these was a joint effort with Margaret Ormsby (wife of Major Ormsby who fought in the 1860 Paiute war). The two discovered that the Nevada House of Representatives did not have sufficient chairs for the members, so the ladies promptly donated the required chairs. She also participated in two important political activities in 1875 which led to Carson City becoming incorporated, and provided the town with $23,000 for improvement to the Capitol Grounds. In addition, she joined with yet another associate to bid on the fencing supply contract for the grounds; their bid of $5,500 was accepted and the fencing arrived in August.

One other personal endeavor was the need to see people wear "sensible" clothes and shoes, so Hannah constantly worked at designing both; however, none were very successful with the exception of the "bloomers" she worked on with Mrs. Mott.

All in all, Hannah Clapp's path was filled with all the good and glory any woman of the time could dream of or expect. In 1887, she was the first appointed staff member of the University of Nevada, Reno, and the first Professor of History and English Languages. In 1888, she volunteered to be the university librarian in charge of only a very few books and pamphlets. By 1894, her efforts resulted in the library encompassing two rooms containing 4,000 volumes, and at the time of her retirement included 6,000 books and 5,000 pamphlets. She devoted the remainder of her time to the library and implemented the decimal system.

Hannah Clapp retired to Palo Alto, California, in 1901 where she died in 1908. Her path was both long and arduous, but it was her path -- one that led to a high Sierra education.