By Kathryn Reisdorfer
Sharlot M. Hall was the first woman to hold office in the Territory of Arizona. The appointment as Territorial Historian helped her earn a place of honor among American historians. She has also served as a model to future historians-especially those in Prescott.
It was highly unusual to have a woman hold public office in 1909, when the appointment took place, but it was almost as unusual to see a women who was publicly acknowledged as a historian. First of all, the occupation designated "historian" was relatively new. It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that history came to be recognized as a profession. And, like most professions, it was not just male dominated; it was for men only.
A few women, however, jumped the barriers and became very successful. This is true of the women historians of Sharlot's generation who are listed in American Women Historians, 1700-1990s, a recently published biographical dictionary of two hundred innovative women, including Sharlot Hall. But, just as those women were unique in their profession, so too was Sharlot unique among those women.
To begin with, Hall came from a very different world than most of her contemporaries who are listed in the book. Residing in the East and Upper-Midwest, they were born into middle-class, town households. Kansas-bred Sharlot came from a lower class. They were rural working people.
Middle class families in the last quarter of the nineteenth century may not have encouraged their daughters to become highly educated, but many of them felt that some higher education was beneficial for girls. As a result, most of Sharlot's more privileged contemporaries listed in American Women Historians were college trained.
A few entered the state universities that accepted women, despite the fact that administrators decreed: "of course the young women could not do [seminar] work." Seminars were both rooms and situations that provided students with intensive training a well as the space to form professional associations. If women were not allowed in seminars, they could not be trained properly, and they could not form the kinds of connections that helped men make names for themselves in the community of academicians who specialized in history.
Because women were often shunned at co-educational institutions, many of Sharlot's contemporaries avoided mixed institutions altogether. Some attended elite women's institutions, like Smith, but most went to more humble colleges. Sharlot went to no college at all. In fact, she attended very few "school terms" at any level.
Hall was the daughter of a man vainly trying to escape from civilization. After moving from one place to another in Kansas, he took the family west. By the time they arrived in the Prescott area in 1882, Sharlot had only sporadically spent time in "tiny frontier schools," as she called them, and then she was thrust, "a shy quiet girl, from a lonely country ranch to a town school." She felt lucky to be released from her ranch chores long enough to move into Prescott to attend high school. But when family obligations called her home, she left Prescott temporarily and school forever. She had wanted to become a medical doctor. Instead, she became a writer-of poems, essays and history.
Although her lack of education was unusual among female historians, her historical focus was similar to theirs. The bulk of these women wrote biographies or history termed "popular" or "local." That is how Sharlot Hall is labeled: local historian. And she was. Driven by curiosity about human and natural landscapes, she visited pioneers and put their lives on paper. And when it became clear the Territory would create the post of Historian, she lobbied intensely to get it.
Sharlot had no formal training as a historian -- no credentials for this post -- but neither did the other potential applicants. The man considered mostly likely to get the appointment was a well-connected newspaperman. He did, in fact, get the first nod, but when the US elected a new president, and he in turn appointed a new Territorial Governor, Sharlot's prospects improved. Party affiliation counts for something now, and it certainly did then. Besides, Sharlot was well connected in other ways. Influential women adored her.
Frances Willard Munds, another local trailblazer, was the first woman elected to the Senate of the State of Arizona and only the second woman to hold such a post any of the states. A member of Prescott's Monday Club, she was introduced to Sharlot's poetry in a Los Angeles magazine, Land of Sunshine, and asked Sharlot to read in Prescott. This was in 1901. After this initial contact, Sharlot was the darling not only of the Prescott group but of the Arizona Federation of Women's Clubs. A popular reader and lecturer, she frequently appeared before women's groups all over Arizona. When it came to obtaining the appointment she coveted, the club women were behind her. And they had a great deal of clout. Sharlot got the job.
Unfortunately, after Arizona was granted statehood-and yet another governor stepped up to the plate, Sharlot Hall never again served in high office. One can sense her elation when, in July of 1910, she wrote that the office of historian was a place, "where a very enthusiastic woman would be peculiarly at home, and . . . do particularly effective work. . . . It is worth while to let a feminine finger into the official pie." In contrast, when she left office late in 1911, she was outraged, but silent. This disappointment, coupled with the death of her mother several months later, changed the course of Hall's life. She returned to the ranch to care for her father. She did not, however, neglect history.
Sharlot continued to write essays, presenting what she is truly noted for "local history." In doing so, she served as a model to those Prescott women, like Elisabeth and Melissa Ruffner, Nancy Wright, Mona McCroskey, Elvina Potter, Sue Abbey, Jonne Markham, Pauline Henson, Pat Savage, Karen Despain, and Claudette Simpson -- to name only a few -- who have enriched this particular body of "local history."
Dr. Kathryn Reisdorfer is an Instructor at Yavapai College. She is currently completing a County-wide survey of historical information resources funded by the Library Services Technology Act, the Yavapai Library Network, and the Sharlot Hall Museum.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (po1309p). Reuse only by permission.
Sharlot M. Hall, shown here as the territorial historian with the nearly all male Territory of Arizona Officials in 1910, found herself as a woman among men when doing history too. Wednesday is the 129th anniversary of her birth.