[June 10, 2014]SPRINGFIELD - Education for children on
the 19th-century frontier could be as rough as the land and the
climate. Sometimes the teacher also had to be a pioneer, laborer,
farmer, and preacher. Abraham Lincolnís second teacher, Caleb
Hazel, was such a man, and now his descendants seven generations
down have donated his classroom slate to the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library and Museum.
"My family always said that one of our
ancestors was Lincoln's teacher, and we always kept the slate," said
one of the donors, Cathy Dixon of Murrieta, California. "I worked up
the family tree with some help, and there is Caleb, seven
generations back from me."
Gwen Podeschi, genealogical-research expert at
the Presidential Library, confirmed nearly all of what Ms. Dixon
provided, adding some small details.
The slate is the gift of cousins Cathy Bowers
Dixon; Marcia Lynn Tenney; Richard Douglas Byers; and Sue Ellen
Sparks, in memory of their grandfather Erma Maurice Bowers. The
family lived in southern Indiana for most of the last 170 years.
Mr. Bowers had preserved it during the much of the lifetimes of the
3rd, 4th, and 5th generations after Hazel, one of whose sons was
also a teacher, thus keeping it until the fame of that early pupil
Lincoln himself, in his 1860 biographical
sketch for the presidential campaign, named Hazel as the 2nd of his
5 teachers -- all of them during very brief stints at "ABC schools"
in Kentucky and Indiana. Hazel's first wife had died, and neighbor
Thomas Lincoln swore to the bond in 1816 when Hazel was married a
2nd time. That document is now in the ALPLM. In that same year,
little Abraham did some of his earliest public writing, apparently
on this very slate.
Born in 1758 in nearby Union County, Kentucky
(then part of Virginia colony), Hazel bought some land in Hardin
County that proved to be adjacent to land bought in 1808 by Thomas
Lincoln and family along Knob Creek. He died in Green County,
Kentucky, in 1833. In that region, like most of the frontier, "book
learning" was a luxury, even a distraction among the subsistence
farmers who often lived for the next harvest. Many people,
explained one early frontier teacher, "do not have the means or the
desire to send their children to school unless it is free."
Thomas and Nancy Lincoln had a little bit of
both the means and desire for their youngsters, so Sarah, 9, and
Abraham, 7, were sent to Mr. Hazel for a few weeks after the fall
harvest of 1816. He collected a dollar or two from each pupil's
family for his work, and made the rest of his living as a farmer,
sometime Methodist minister, land-trader, and, for a time,
tavern-keeper. He was strong enough to handle a roomful of boys and
girls, and sturdy enough to teach without heat, under a leaking
roof, with no entryway to keep the wind from whipping through the
room when the door opened. Disagreement remains as to whether Mr.
Hazel sat the children down in a disused settler's cabin, or a shed
for local animals Ė it might have been the same thing Ė but
certainly he had no desks, globe, books, or blackboard. A slate
would have been one of the few teaching aids available to Hazel.
A comparison of Hazelís slate with slates known
to be from the early 1800s shows a match in materials and
construction. Research on education from the period confirms
teachers often used this kind of slate in makeshift schools. The
familyís account matches everything known about Hazel and his role
in Lincolnís life.
His black slate, which measures about 16 inches
tall by 12 inches wide, was probably made in Pennsylvania about 1800
to 1810. It was likely fitted for a saddle bag. The slate itself
was machine-cut, while its oak frame was assembled by hand with
tongue-and-groove corners and tiny nails. Nearly a hundred years
later the town of Slatington, Pennsylvania, became a center for the
mass production of smaller slates, about 9 x 6 inches, when each
pupil brought his or her own to school.
Teacher Hazel brought along chalk or a slate
pencil, too. He nailed a hole through the top of the frame in order
to hang the slate on the cabin wall. He would have written a few
examples, then asked each student to come forward and practice their
own letters or numbers on it, before erasing it for the next pupil.
For people who did not run a store, paper in that place was nearly
as scarce as schoolrooms, as we know from teenaged Abraham's effort
a decade later in stitching together a dozen loose leaves so he
could practice his math sums. One page of that highly valuable math
practice came to the ALPLM in 2007 as a donation from Louise and
Barry Taper, when the ALPL Foundation purchased most of the rest of
Mrs. Taper's collection. The page is the oldest surviving writing
by the future president, ca. 1826.
Ms. Dixon first contacted the ALPLM about 3
years ago to discuss a gift. She cleared it with her cousins, and
now this "small class" of Hazel's descendant-pupils have given their
best-remembered ancestor's teaching tool to Lincoln's best-known
The slate will be on view in the Treaures
Gallery of the Presidential Museum, along with the page from
Lincolnís sum book and his quill pen from the White House. It is
something we can all study this summer.
 Polly Welts Kaufman, Women Teachers on the
Frontier (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1984), p. 27
[Text received; CHRIS WILLIS,
ILLINOIS HISTORIC PRESERVATION AGENCY]
James Cornelius is curator of the Lincoln Collection at
the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.