First Free Public School

write-up by Trever Vallieres

Placed by: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, No. 47

GPS Coordinates: 40°22’35.9” N, 111°47’47.8” W

Photo Credit: Trever Vallieres

Historical Marker Text (1): FIRST FREE PUBLIC SCHOOL The Territorial Legislature, February 1866 authorized the levy of a tax for the support of schools within each district. Pursuant to this act Mayor Leonard E. Harrington called a meeting and the majority of citizens of American Fork approved the plan. School opened in November 1867 with Jos. B. Forbes, E.A. Henroid, Editha Anderson and Elizabeth G. Griffith teachers. Wm. Greenwood, Wm. Paxman, James W. Preston, trustees. American Fork thereby became Torch Bearer of the present free school system.

Photo Credit: Trever Vallieres

Historical Marker Text (2): “When upon Life’s Path We Tread”, sang 25 lusty young voices as morning school bells called the students to order. Those lyrics to the tune “Hark, Listen to the Trumpeters”, from the old sunday school song book, were favorites of that school class. “When upon life’s path we thread, we come to many a place, where if not careful we will fall and sink into disgrace. So, my children one and all, please mind your parents dear and teacher, as you go through life then you’ll have not to fear. Through life’s journey…” “When the pioneers moved to the west, with courage strong they met the test. They pushed their handcarts all day long as they pushed they sang this song. For some must push and some must pull as we go marching up the hill; so merrily on our way we go until we reach the valley-o”

Extended Research:

Education is the cornerstone of any society or civilization. The education that society has reflects the societies culture, values, and religious practices. This is as much true today as it was 160 years ago. The story of education in Utah Territory during the 19th century is a unique story embodying varying ideas of what education should be doing for the population. In 1867 the first public school supported by levied taxes opened in American Fork.[1] Creation of the school came shortly after President Brigham Young publicly stated that a change in the education system was necessary for the betterment of children.[2] Schools in Utah Territory prior to this, largely operated with donations made by people in the community and were often taught in ward houses that belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[3] Since schools in Utah Territory were largely supported through donations teachers were paid with very low wages and in some cases through other donations such as produce.[4] A tax supported school allows for more schoolhouses to be built and teachers to be hired thus increasing the amount of students that can be taught. What led to this change? And did it really become the torchbearer of the late 19th century education system that the Daughters of Utah Pioneers claim it to be?

In 1867 a Desert News article outlined the major changes that occurred in Utah Territory that furthered the support of public schools and education as a whole. Within the article, the author came to the conclusion that because Mormons had now settled on the land for a couple of decades, they could spare the children used for labor and allow them to attend schools to further their scholastic and educational goals.[5] The societal shift and push for more schooling was supported by the governor of Utah territory at this time. In the governor’s message posted in newspapers in 1867 the governor gives his support for widespread public education. In his message he says

…yet such steps as are [practical] should be taken towards making the means of education free to all children within the territory.[6]

Education in Utah Territory during the 19th century was a widely debated subject. Although everybody agreed that education was important not everybody agreed on how to go about education. In fact, there was a division even amongst Mormons.[7] Some Mormons feared that prolonged exposure to secular schools would persuade their students away from Mormonism and away from the end goal of the Latter-day Saints which was the building of the kingdom of God.[8] Other Mormons such as Brigham Young believed that education in secular schools was a gamble worth taking in order to provide the Latter-day Saint community with educated individuals who were capable of providing different skills to the community.[9] The non-Mormon community feared that Mormon controlled schools would become a place where the Mormons could proselyte their religion.[10] The creation of the first tax levied public school in Utah Territory is a good example of how these varying ideas came into practice during the 19th century.

These varying ideas are important for understanding how and why schools were created during the 19th century in Utah Territory. The schools during this time used LDS scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, as supplementary teaching resources to traditional textbooks.[11] As early as 1846 Brigham Young, the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints instructed bishops to establish schools in each ward – the LDS church’s term for region based meeting houses.[12] The teachers at the schools were often picked by bishops and other leaders of the church, people they knew could be trusted to teach students the proper LDS values in order to create “good citizens” according to the Mormons.[13] The non-Mormon population believed that the current state of education in Utah Territory involved too much church and state overlap. This is most evident from the liberal political party nominee, M. W. Ashbrook. In 1870 Ashbrook wrote a letter about his concerns for the current state of education in Utah territory.

Every child brought into being has rights which no honorable public will ignore, and one of the most sacred of these rights is the right to a liberal education-liberal in the broad acceptation of the term where knowledge is not distilled from the pest brain of a theocratic leper [Brigham Young].[14]

The language Ashbrook uses in this letter is quite aggressive and demonstrates just how frustrated the non-Mormon population was with the public education system in Utah Territory.

Not much is written about the American Fork public school, but evidence suggests that the newly built public school did not ease the concerns of the non-Mormon population. Although the school was made public to all children in the community and supported by taxes from all citizens living in the community it still used the Book of Mormon as a teaching tool and still fostered the development of Latter-day Saint values and principles.[15] As a reaction to the de facto Mormon public school the Protestant population set up their own schools supported by evangelical institutions to offer alternative options that were not controlled by the Latter-day Saints.[16]

Being the first tax supported public school in Utah Territory is indeed a significant step and change in the status quo of 19th-century Utah education. However, it was just the beginning of a very long story and battle between very different cultures. It did not achieve what the minority religious population wanted it to achieve, and it certainly seems that the non-Mormon population would disagree with the claim that it was the torchbearer of the late 19th century Utah education system.


[1] C. Merrill Hough, “Two School Systems in Conflict: 1867-1890,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 28, Number 2 (1960).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Frederick S. Buchanan, “Education among the Mormons: Brigham Young and the Schools of Utah,” History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Winter, 1982), 439.

[4] Shirley Hatfield, “Utah’s First Tax-Supported Free Schools,” Sons of Utah Pioneers Online, October 16, 2021.

[5]  “Education – Change of Tastes,” Deseret News, December 4, 1867, 4.

[6]Governor’s Message,” Deseret News, January 2, 1867, 8.

[7] Thomas W. Simpson, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867–1940, (The University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill, 2016), 2-3.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Frederick S. Buchanan, Culture Clash and Accommodation Public Schooling in Salt Lake City, 1890-1994, (Smith Research Associates, 1996),

[11] Thomas G. Alexander, Utah, the Right Place the Official Centennial History, (Gibbs Smith, 1995), 183-185.

[12] C. Merrill Hough, “Two School Systems in Conflict: 1867-1890,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 28, (Number 2 1960).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Frederick S. Buchanan, “Education among the Mormons: Brigham Young and the Schools of Utah,” History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Winter, 1982), 440-441.

[15] C. Merrill Hough, “Two School Systems in Conflict: 1867-1890,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 28, (Number 2 1960).

[16] Ibid.

For Further Reference:

Primary Sources:

“Education – Change of Tastes,” Deseret News, December 4, 1867, 4.

Governor’s Message,” Deseret News, January 2, 1867, 8.

Secondary Sources:

Buchanan, Frederick S. Culture Clash and Accommodation Public Schooling in Salt Lake City, 1890-1994, (Smith Research Associates, 1996).

Buchanan, Frederick S. “Education among the Mormons: Brigham Young and the Schools of Utah,” History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Winter, 1982), pp. 435-459

Hough, C. Merrill. “Two School Systems in Conflict: 1867-1890,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 28, (Number 2 1960).

Simpson, Thomas W. American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867–1940, (The University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill, 2016).

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