By Alton Pryor
Olive Mann Isbell (Google Image)
The future looked grim for the 130 Americans Inside Mission Santa Clara de Asis.
The gates of the crumbling Mission were barricaded to keep out the Spanish soldiers of Don Francisco Sanchez, who appeared on the verge of attacking the newly arrived emigrants.
There was a climate of fear inside the mission, especially among the children. Olive Mann Isbell, the niece of Horace Mann and a former teacher herself, could see the chil-dren needed both attention and a haven.
She set the children and any others who would volunteer to clean an old 15-square-foot adobe stable. A rickety table and a few benches were thrown together from scraps of wood left in the compound.
“Before you get started, you’ll have to learn how to use this,” she was told as one of the men handed her a long rifle. When classes began, she kept the weapon handy.
Mrs. Mann lacked even pencils and paper. She wrote lessons on the dirt floor with a long pointed stick.
From each spent fire she saved the charcoal and wrote the youngsters’ A-B-Cs on the palms of their hands. Olive Mann Isbell soon became Aunt Olive to the children, who tried to imitate her courage.
Thus began the first school in California taught by an American.
Many of the emigrants in the compound were sick, including Dr. Chauncy Isbell, a medical graduate of Western Reserve College. The Isbells came west with $2000 in re-serve funds and a well-fitted wagon.
As they crossed the Sierra Nevada, John Fremont met them at a pass near Bear River and escorted them to Sutter’s Fort and then on to the Mission.
Dr. Isbell was drafted to join Fremont and his men. However, upon crossing the Salinas River, he was stricken with typhoid pneumonia, the so-called ‘emigrant fever’, and returned to the Mission. Olive’s knowledge of drugs and nursing served her well as she tended to her ill hus-band and others suffering sickness. While her patients slept, Olive made bullets to hold off their attackers.
When Dr. Isbell became well enough to travel, he and his wife moved to Monterey. When they arrived, they learned the Mexican War had ended and California was about to become a member of the United States.
On her very first night in Monterey, Thomas O. Larkin, United States Consul, who had heard of her previous school at the Mission, awakened Olive. Larkin wanted her to set up a similar school in Monterey.
Dr. Isbell began a medical practice, and Olive opened a school with about two dozen students. This number soon grew to about fifty, with each student paying six dollars for a term of three months. Unlike the conditions in the Mission, Olive opened a classroom with a few books, and with some pencils and paper. The school was located above the jail. Only two of her students knew how to speak English. A tutor helped Mrs. Isbell, who spoke no Spanish.
The Isbells soon moved to French Camp, a community near Tuleberg, where Stock-ton now sits. They had barely settled when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Dr. Isbell and others organized the Stockton Mining Company and set out for the gold fields.
Once when it was so muddy the horses could not travel on the road, Dr. Isbell showed up with a young boy helping him carry eighty pounds of gold in sacks on their backs.
While Dr. Isbell was away mining, the twenty-four-year-old Olive was left to care for the horses, chickens, milk cows and 600 head of cattle. Her only help was a nine-year-old boy.
She discovered the Indians liked the type of clothing she wore. She made an outfit every day, which she traded for two ounces of gold. She soon found herself cooking meals for travelers, for which she charged a modest sum. She received $500 in gold when she sent a wagon to Stockton filled with two demijohns of milk, two of cream, some eggs, four-dozen chickens, and a few pounds of butter.
By 1850, the Isbells had become wealthy. The couple had no children. Dr. Isbell wanted to travel and convinced his reluctant wife to sell their French Camp holdings. Eventually, they returned to California and settled in Santa Paula. Olive died there on March 25, 1899.