Mary Easton Sibley (1800 – 1878)
Mary Easton Sibley was an educated, pioneer woman who lived for several years at Fort Osage on the Missouri River. She also founded the first four-year women’s college west of the Mississippi River, now Lindenwood University.
Mary Easton was born on January 24, 1800, in Rome, New York. She was the oldest child of Rufus and Abial Abby Easton. Mary moved with her family to St. Louis in 1804 where her father helped establish the government for the new territory of Missouri. Rufus Easton served as a federal judge and a U.S. attorney. He was also the first postmaster of St. Louis.
Mary was a confident, intelligent, and adventurous girl. At age thirteen, she and her father rode horseback from St. Louis to Washington, D.C. Later, she traveled by boat to Shelbyville, Kentucky, where she attended a girls’ boarding school to receive a “proper” education.
Marriage and Adventure
On August 19, 1815, Mary Easton married Major George Champlin Sibley. Mary was only fifteen and George was thirty-three. George was the Indian agent between the U.S. government and the Osage Indians at Fort Osage. He was a friend of William Clark. Later, George Sibley mapped out the Sante Fe Trail.
The newlyweds boarded the keelboat, The Osage Factor, on October 1, 1815. They headed for Fort Osage, three hundred miles up the Missouri River from St. Louis. Mary brought along her saddle horse, her organ with drum and fife attachment, some furniture, and her library. George wrote in his diary that Mary was determined to have “a very comfortable establishment . . . in the howling wilderness.”
Life at Fort Osage
Fort Osage was a center of trade for soldiers, white settlers, hunters and trappers, and the Osage Indians. Mary and George lived on a farm near Fort Osage. According to George’s diary, Mary adjusted well to the primitive conditions on the Missouri frontier. He wrote proudly of her independent spirit, her manner with the Indians, and her hospitality to travelers on the Missouri River, including Daniel Boone. Some travelers noted that her home was “a model of taste and comfort.” In 1816, George wrote, “You may be sure Mary is a great favorite with the Indians, indeed they literally idolize her since they have heard her play [her organ].”
Childless, Mary had great affection for the Indian women and their children. She and George spent time educating Indian children at Harmony Mission near Fort Osage. In her own diary, Mary stated that this “country will never prosper unless the people get knowledge.”
Education for Everyone
Mary Easton Sibley believed strongly in the importance of education for everyone, especially women, African Americans, and new immigrants. In the years following the closing of Fort Osage in 1822 and up until her death in 1878, Mary pursued her interest in education.
Moving to St. Charles in 1826, Mary began teaching a small group of girls in her home. She also taught English to German immigrants through the Presbyterian Church. In 1829, she and George moved to a farm just outside of St. Charles and called it “Linden Wood.” Two years later, they built the first structure for a private school for young ladies. It was a log building that could house twenty boarders. Mary served as the only teacher at first. The school had a family atmosphere with students gathering in the Sibley’s parlor in the evenings for study and conversation.
In 1834, Mary started a separate school for free black and slave children. At first the school was well attended. Then a critic suggested that Mary was promoting ideas of freedom. Mary wrote that one by one, her students “returned their books and said they were forbid[den] to attend by their masters.” Mary felt very discouraged by this. She viewed slavery as a national crime and saw education as a way to end it.
“Mrs. Sibley’s School”
Over the next twenty years, Mary focused her attention on building her girl’s school. She wanted to teach young Southern women to be self-reliant, rather than reliant on slavery. “Mrs. Sibley’s School” grew. Mary hired more teachers and became the director. Though it had some hard times financially, the school continued to provide instruction to girls from St. Charles and St. Louis.
Mary worked with others to expand the school. On February 24, 1853, the Missouri General Assembly incorporated Lindenwood Female College. The Presbytery of St. Louis appointed a board of directors to manage the college. In 1856, Mary and George donated 120 acres to the college. Surviving the Civil War, the college came under the control of the Presbyterian Synod of Missouri in 1870.
George Sibley died in 1863 and Mary Easton Sibley continued to live at Linden Wood. Affectionately known as “Aunt Mary,” Mary Easton Sibley died on June 20, 1878. She is buried beside her husband in the family plot on the Lindenwood University campus in St. Charles. Portraits of Mary and George Sibley and many of Mary’s personal possessions are on display in Sibley Hall.
Research and Text by Carlynn Trout
Christensen, Lawrence O., et al, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 698–99.
Corbett, Katharine T. In Her Place. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1999. pp. 24, 40–42.
Dains, Mary K., ed., Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 vols. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Vol. 1: 73.