Despite its destruction on Easter Sunday 1887, the spirit of the original Cherokee National Female Seminary has persisted through to today.

The first Cherokee Female Seminary building was constructed where the Cherokee Heritage Center now stands in Park Hill, with its cornerstone laid in 1947. According to Dr. Brad Agnew, NSU emeritus professor of history, the building was dedicated on May 7, 1851.

“It closed because of financial difficulties before the end of the decade and didn’t reopen until 1872,” said Agnew.

Curriculum at the female seminary was very similar to what was taught at the Cherokee Male Seminary, which was located at the current site of Go Ye Village.

Tahlequah historian Beth Herrington gave a lecture on this topic in 2017 and described the subjects the students learned during their four years at the institution, which included philosophy, theology, political economy, literary criticism, French, German, Greek, Latin, mathematics and calculus, geography, rhetoric, logic, biology and astronomy. Its first class of 12 students graduated in 1855.

However, tragedy struck on April 10, 1887.

“[The Cherokee Female Seminary] remained in operation in Park Hill until Easter Sunday, when fire destroyed the building,” said Agnew.

A new site for the seminary was selected in Tahlequah, which at the time was growing as the Cherokee Nation’s political and cultural center.

“The Cherokee Female Seminary was reopened in this building [the current location of Northeastern State University’s Seminary Hall] in 1889. Tribal leaders decided to rebuild here in part because of the abundance of water at the foot of the campus,” said Agnew. “The disillusion of the Cherokee government following Oklahoma statehood doomed the tribe’s seminaries.”

Agnew said the State of Oklahoma purchased the new female seminary building in 1909 and transformed the campus into a state normal school, which was a training institution that granted teaching certificates following a two-year course of post-high school study.

The following year, the male seminary befell a similar fate as its sister and caught fire on Easter Sunday 1910. Charlotte Mayes Sanders – who attended both the original female seminary and the male seminary when it became a co-ed school in 1909 – wrote about her experience that day in her autobiographical account, “After June, 1909.”

“At approximately 11:30 at the First Methodist Church, which is now the Church of Christ on South College street in Tahlequah, the service was interrupted. Bob Walker, a student who was spending the weekend with his parents and not attending church, burst into the church and gave the alarm, ‘The Seminary is burning,’” Sanders wrote. “Within seconds the minister, Reverend Thornton, and the aged were alone in the church. Everyone else had fled. The whole town and countryside from all directions seemed to be racing to the fire. Buggies, wagons, people everywhere on foot – bicycles, any way to get there. Since the fire started in the cupola of the Seminary it could be seen for miles.”

Sanders would later enroll at Northeastern State Normal School in 1912. Agnew explained that many others followed suit.

“Many former seminarians, other Cherokees, and students were not members of the tribe enrolled at Northeastern Normal, which continued the legacy of learning the tribe had pioneered in what was then called the normal building,” said Agnew.

The new seminary building witnessed a multitude in changes over the years, seeing its presiding institution become Northeastern State Teachers College in 1919, Northeastern State College in 1939, and finally Northeastern State University in 1978. The building itself, eventually renamed “Seminary Hall,” saw many renovations through the decades as well, the most recent improvements completed in 2023.

During its ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 11, Agnew joked that Seminary Hall was one of the few things around Tahlequah that is older than he is.

Still, in that all that time, the essence of the Cherokee Female Seminary has endured.

“Since it opened on May 7, 1889, for over 134 years, its doors have always been open to the next generation of students,” said NSU President Steve Turner during the ceremony.

Trending Video