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Women in History of Scots Descent
Mary Lyon, First Woman Principle in America

Mary Lyon was born on February 28, 1797, in Buckland, Massachusetts. She started teaching school in 1814. She attended Sanderson Academy in Ashfield, Massachusetts, Amherst Academy in Amherst, Massachusetts and the Byfield Female Seminary in Byfield Massachusetts. In 1824, she
opened a girls' school in Buckland called the Buckland Female School and at the same time she taught the summer term classes at Ipswich Female Seminary under her friend Zilpah Grant.

In 1828, she began teaching full time at the Ipswich Female Seminary. She resigned in 1834, with the intention of starting her own school. For the next couple of years Mary Lyon toured around the country visiting various schools. Finally in 1837, she returned to Massachusetts and founded Mount Holyoke
Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Lyon served for twelve years as principal, teacher, and the organizer of the domestic work system. She died on March 5, 1849, in South Hadley.
Mary Lyon

Mary Lyon's Childhood

Mary Lyon was born February 28, 1797 on a remote New England farm. The Lyon family lived in Buckland, a town in the hills of western Massachusetts. Less then fifty years before her birth, Lyon's
great-grandfathers had migrated from eastern Massachusetts and Connecticut to help settle the area and to farm the rocky hilltown soil. Her father, Aaron, fought in the Revolutionary War.

Aaron Lyons was a Scot who came to the Colonies after the Jacobite uprising in 1745.  The English of Massachusetts could not farm the rocky terrain that the Scots were used to farming therefore the Lyons (Lyon) moved to the New England farm. Pin cushion and thimble owned by Mary Lyon. Sewing, cooking, spinning, washing, candle and butter making, were just a few of Mary's many duties as a young girl.

Aaron Lyon died when Mary was five, leaving his wife, Jemina, to raise seven children and manage a
100-acre farm on her own. At her mother's side, Mary Lyon learned the skills and crafts required of
every early 19th-century New England farm girl. She cooked on the open hearth, baked bread, spun
and dyed wool from the family sheep, wove coverlets, sewed clothes and embroidered linens, preserved
fruits and vegetables picked from the family garden, churned butter, made cheese, jam, soap, and candles, cured meat, washed clothes, and swept floors. When Mrs. Lyon remarried and moved to her
new husband's home, 13-year old Mary was left behind. Now, self-supporting, she kept house for her
brother, Aaron, who ran the family farm. He paid his sister a weekly wage of one silver dollar.

Mary Lyon's education began at age four in the village school, about a mile walk from her home. When
the school was moved three years later to a more distant location, she left her family and lived for the
school term with relatives and local families. She did chores to pay for her room and board. Mary Lyon
was fortunate--girls could attend the Buckland school year round. The school year was typically ten
months long and divided into winter and summer terms. In some towns, girls could only attend during
the summer, when boys were needed to do farm work. During winter, girls were forced to sit on the
school steps, hoping to catch bits of the teacher's lessons.

As early as 1647, the Massachusetts Bay Colony made education compulsory for children. By the
18th century, most towns in Massachusetts had public elementary schools, which were called common schools. Some even had academies--the term used for high schools--which prepared young
men for college. Girls, however, did not benefit from the Colony's advanced ideas about education. Their schooling was uneven, at best, and frequently non-existent. Many people felt that girls did not
need to be educated to become wives and mothers and caretakers of the house. Although she left
school when she was 13, Mary Lyon had more education than most girls, who knew little more than
the basics of reading, writing, and math, and often not even that much.

What was life like during Mary Lyon's childhood  in the early 19th century?

Nights and winter days are dark. Candles and whale oil lamps provide the only artificial light. Roads are
dirt, and often muddy. Macadam roads are introduced in 1812, but rural roads remain mostly dirt. There is no paper money until 1861. Coins are made of gold, silver and copper. Few people receive mail, and if they do, they have to pay the postage. Stamps, purchased by the sender, were not sold in the U.S. until 1847. People travel by foot, horseback, carriage, stagecoach, and, in winter, sleigh. Quill pens made from the shaft of a feather are used for writing. Few people own books other than the Bible. Many, especially women and girls, do not have sufficient literacy skills to read a book or a newspaper or write much more than their name. In 1803, the U.S. pays Spain $15 million for the Louisiana Purchase, which doubles the size of the young nation and spurs migration west. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison serve as Presidents. In 1800 the U.S. population is 5,308,483; in 1809, the National Debt is $60 million. (Do you know what it is today?)

Mary Lyon, Student and Teacher

In 1814, townspeople offered Mary Lyon her first teaching job at a summer school in Shelburne Falls, a
town next to Buckland. She was 17 years old. At the time, teachers needed no formal training--young
Mary Lyon's reputation as an excellent student years earlier was enough of a qualification. Female
teachers were especially in demand due to a growth in population and large numbers of men moving west in search of better opportunities. The job paid 75 cents a week, far less than the $10 to $12 a month a man received to teach the winter term. As was the custom of the day, Lyon "boarded around" in her students' homes--an arrangement that meant moving as often as every five days. For the inexperienced Mary Lyon, maintaining discipline in the crowded one-room schoolhouse and teaching the "3 Rs" to pupils, ages four to ten, were difficult tasks. On rainy days, when older boys came in from the fields, the job was even harder. Nevertheless, Mary Lyon worked hard to improve her teaching skills and her ability to keep order in the classroom.

Teaching fired Lyon's desire to continue her own education, a goal not easy to achieve in the early 19th
century for an intelligent young woman with little money. Although private female academies, often
called seminaries, were springing up in New England, women of modest means, like Mary Lyon, could
not afford their fees. Moreover, the curriculums, which included "lady-like" skills like drawing and
needlework, were far less challenging than at male schools where students studied subjects like geometry, science, and Latin.

Despite the financial burden and a busy teaching schedule, Mary Lyon was determined to further her
learning. In her own words, she gained "knowledge by the handfuls." She alternated time spent in
classrooms and at lectures--sometimes traveling three days by carriage to enroll at a school--with
teaching and running a school. Against the advice of her family, Lyon paid for her education by cashing
in a small inheritance from her father. Ever frugal and resourceful, she saved a portion of her small salary and traded coverlets and blankets she had woven for room and board.

Mary Lyon's reputation as a gifted teacher spread far beyond the Buckland schoolhouse. Over the
next 20 years, she taught at schools in western and eastern Massachusetts, and in southern New
Hampshire. She became an authority on the education of women. These were the years when Mary
Lyon developed her educational philosophy and gained experience in managing a school. Inspired by
her own struggles to obtain an education, she worked hard to expand academic opportunities for young
women and to prepare them to become teachers, one of the few professions open to women.

Further reading:

Green, Elizabeth Alden.  Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke: Opening the Gates.    Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1979.

Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary.  Edwart T. James, editor.  Harvard
University Press, 1971.  Contains an extensive biographical sketch of Mary Lyon prepared by Sydney
R. McLean.

Mary Lyon web site (, prepared by the Mount Holyoke College
Office of Communications, 1997

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