The Dame School

Brief History of the Dame School
In the 19th century, Dame Schools were places of instruction where young ladies could learn household arts. Young ladies of any social class would have been expected to have some basic skill in hand sewing, knitting, and other domestic chores centered on the textile and clothing production necessary for everyday life.

At Fort Vancouver, education for young people was highly encouraged. In the mornings girls and boys attended school together in the building known as the Owyhee Church, then separated in the afternoons. Boys worked in the fields, gardens, or tradeshops, while girls were instructed in handwork as would have been common at Dame School. At one time, it was recorded that 60 students were attending school at the fort, 20 of which were girls.

Both sons and daughters of trappers accompanied their parents on brigade, the year-long trapping expeditions. Young men assisted with trapping and repairing equipment, while young women helped clean pelts, make clothing, and cook for the camp.

The students were the children of Hudson’s Bay Company employees stationed throughout the region, as well as orphans of Native Americans who were sponsored for tuition by Company employees. They came from a variety of cultural backgrounds, often lacked a single language for easy communication. Despite this barrier, the Fort Vancouver school flourished for a number of years, until disagreements over religious instruction and the departure of Chief Factor John McLoughlin weakened its support. Eventually the school closed, as students began to board at other area schools that had been established in the meantime.

Fort Vancouver Dame School Today:
Following this time-honored tradition, our volunteer training program for young ladies was named the Dame School. The curriculum taught by instructors assisted by several Aunties- includes many of the skills that were practiced here historically, as well as themes which assist the students in sharing their knowledge with visitors to the site.
Student participants in the Fort Vancouver Dame School must be between the ages of 9 and 18, with a maximum number is 16 students. The class is divided along age lines into two groups of no more than 8 participants each, with the younger girls in one class, and the senior girls placed in a separate class.

A mid morning snack and lunch of historic food types will be prepared in the Fort Vancouver kitchen, and all meals will be taken together on site. All activities will be closely supervised by several Fort Volunteers (Aunties) and National Park Service staff. Aunties are required to attend an orientation and instruction classes prior to assisting in the Dame School.

Classes are held 3rd Saturday beginning in January-May for Second Year Dame School students and 1st Saturday beginning February-June for First Year Dame School students. The classes begin promptly at 9:30 a.m. and end at 4:30 p.m. The class includes topics such as knitting, sewing, cooking, gardening for 1st year students and watercolor and beading for 2nd year students.

There is a $125 fee per student for materials and meals. Each girl is required to provide a metal thimble that fits the index finger of her dominant hand. All other materials for the student’s use will be provided in their class kit. Students are expected to be responsible for the items provided in their kits, and bring them to class every day. Homework will be required.

Candidates are nominated by family, friends, and local educators, or fort staff, and formal invitation packets are sent out the first of October. To learn more about the program and find out if YOU are a Candidate, click on this link. To review the process of applying, please refer to the Dame School Application Timeline.

The aim of the present day Fort Vancouver Dame School does not concentrate on academics and has six tenants;
  • Instruct young ladies on what was required for household service as would have been needed in the 19th Century.
  • Instruct volunteers in 19th century behavior
  • Begin training in historic reenactment and basic interpretation (public speaking/information sharing)
  • Offer practical experience in cultural demonstrations, program, and events.
  • Require safe practices while volunteering at Fort Vancouver.
It is hoped that these skills will introduce enjoyable leisure occupations for the lifetime of the girls who participate, as well as provide quality demonstrations for the public programs and events offered at Fort Vancouver during training and beyond.

Last updated: October 11, 2019

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