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A written testimony to the truth of any fact; as, a certificate of good behavior. A written declaration legally authenticated. — Webster, 1882

The growing ambition of graduating from our common schools is indeed an excellent one and worthy of all encouragement. But there is another ambition behind this—that of owning the all powerful teacher’s certificate. A tendency in this direction will soon destroy the standard already built up in the country. It is noticeable more than ever this year and we believe this has been a year noted for its large number of graduates. A teacher who has never seen another institution of learning than the district school ought not to have a certificate, except in rare instances. – Kingsbury County Independent, August 1893

A certificate is an official printed legal document providing proof of some fact. The only type of certificate mentioned by name in the Little House books was the teaching certificate, although homestead final patents and train tickets were also a type of certificate.

In Kingsbury County, once school district boundaries had been established and residents decided they wanted a school to be organized, the superintendent examined teacher candidates and awarded them a teaching certificate if their work was satisfactory. The examination was left to the discretion of each county superintendent, although the territorial superintendent sometimes provided test questions as well as a standard by which the various levels of teaching certificates were judged. Originally, there had been only one type of teaching certificate, the only difference in certificates issued being the length of time they were valid for (from three months to one year). The 1862 Laws of Dakota provided for the certification of teachers by the county superintendents in Dakota Territory as followed:

He shall examine annually, all persons offering themselves as teachers of common schools in his county, in regard to moral character, learning, and ability to teach school, and he shall give to each person examined and found qualified to teach, a certificate signed by him officially, and any person receiving such certificate, shall be deemed a qualified teacher within the meaning of this act. [Laws of Dakota, 1862, Chapter 81, Section 8, 454.]

Early in the history of teacher certification, there appeared a need to differentiate the abilities of teachers in some way, which became law in 1877. At that time, the system of first, second, and third grade teaching certificates was established. The graded system of teaching certificates had no bearing on the grade level a teacher was qualified to teach. A grade reflected a level of proficiency on the teaching exam itself. Someone who earned a second grade certificate had scored higher (done better) on their examination than someone who earned a third grade certificate, and teachers earning a higher certificate were generally paid more. By 1880, a first grade certificate was valid for one year, a second grade certificate for six months, and a third grade certificate for three months or one school term.

In 1883, when a new school law was implemented, there were changes in certification. The law set forth that:

Certificates shall be of three regular grades; the first grade for the term of two years, the second grade for eighteen months and the third for twelve months, according to the ratio of correct answers of each applicant, and other evidences of qualification appearing from the examination. In addition to these regular certificates the superintendent may grant a certificate of probation to any applicant, otherwise qualified, who shows aptness to teach and govern, who comes within ten [percent] upon each of the subjects of examination, of the standard required for a third grade certificate. Such certificate of probation shall be for the term of six months and shall be issued once only within the Territory, and shall not be repeated to any person, but all holders thereof must thereafter secure at least a third grade certificate, or be rejected. For a certificate of third grade or of probation the applicant is excused from examination upon United States history. [Public School Laws of Dakota Territory, 1883, Section 17, 10-11.]

A five year professional certificate was also established, granted to “all persons of good moral character who are graduates of any Normal School of good reputation in the United States.” [Public School Laws of Dakota Territory, 1883, Section 17, 11.]

Also, for the first time in Dakota Territory, a minimum age requirement for teachers was designated:

The county superintendent shall hold public examinations of all persons over the age of eighteen years, offering themselves as candidates as teachers of common schools, at the most suitable place in his county, on the first Tuesday of April and the last Tuesday in September of each year, notice of which shall be given as publicly as possible, at which times he shall examine them by a series of written or printed questions, requiring answers in writing, so far as suitable and required by the question list furnished him by the Territorial Superintendent, and in addition thereto questions may be asked and answered orally; and if from the ratio of correct answers compared with the per cent required by the Territorial Superintendent and the other evidences disclosed by the examination, including particularly the superintendent’s knowledge and information of the candidate’s successful experience, if any, the applicant is found to possess a knowledge and understanding, together with aptness to teach and govern, which will enable such applicant to teach in the common schools of the Territory, orthography, reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, English language and grammar and United States history, said Superintendent shall grant to such applicant a certificate of qualification, if he is satisfied the applicant is a person of good moral character. [Public School Laws of Dakota Territory, 1883, Section 16, 10.]

Unlike her fictional counterpart in Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years, Laura Ingalls took the teaching exam twice and was awarded two certificates. On December 10, 1883, she took a private examination and was awarded a third grade teaching certificate, which she used to teach the Bouchie School. This certificate was valid when Laura taught the Perry School, so she was not required to take another exam. She took an exam again in April 1885, and was awarded another third grade teaching certificate on April 11, 1885, which she used to teach the Wilkin School. Both original certificates are on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum in Mansfield, Missouri. A mock-up of Laura’s first certificate is shown above.


certificate (FB 12, 28), see also hay, ash withe
     second grade / second-grade (THGY 18, 26; PG)
     teacher’s (LTP 6, 10-11, 13-16, 21, 25; THGY 5, 7, 10, 18, 24, 26; PG)
     third grade (LTP 25; THGY 18, 26)