The Deseret Alphabet

A headstone inscribed with the Deseret Alphabet in the Cedar City cemetery. While we have been focusing on school the past weeks we thought it would be interesting to post about one of the subjects all early Utah Territory schoolchildren learned, the Deseret Alphabet.

Brigham Young had the idea to create an alphabet that would help simplify the spelling of the English language for the thousands of new converts that were coming to Utah.  For many of these new converts, English was a new language. The purpose of this new alphabet was intended to ease the burden for students learning to read and write English, which with its many inconsistencies proved difficult to learn.

The Deseret Alphabet began on January 19, 1854.  The new alphabet consisted of 38 to 40 characters.  Each character was designed to present a sound of the English language.  George D. Watt along with Brigham Young created the symbols for the alphabet.  Its characters were to be so much simpler than those in the Roman alphabet that one would not have to learn to print one way and write cursive another. In fact, an ordinary person using the alphabet would easily be able to write one hundred words a minute. Every letter would have a specific sound, and every word would be spelled just like it sounded. The letters C, D, L, O, P, S, and W of the Roman alphabet were retained, but most of them were given new sounds, and thirty-one characters were added.

For some time, beginning February 16, 1859,  the front page of the weekly Deseret News was nearly covered with articles written in the Deseret alphabet. In 1860 “Holiness to the Lord” was inscribed in the Deseret alphabet on Deseret gold pieces. For at least a year Brigham Young’s account books were kept in the Deseret alphabet. Four books were published using the Deseret Alphabet; Deseret First and Second Book Readers, the Book of Nephi Part 1, and then the entire Book of Mormon.

The translation key.

Lessons from the primer. Can you translate?








Despite being heavily promoted by President Brigham Young, the Deseret Alphabet never gained wide acceptance and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 brought many people to Utah who were uninterested in learning the system. Soon after Brigham Young’s death in 1877, resources and funding for the project came to an end.

Pioneer School: Part II

The goal of pioneer schools was to teach children to read, specifically the Bible, and to write. Townspeople who operated businesses also wanted their children to learn arithmetic. Immigrants relied on schools to teach their children English. School was held when a teacher could be found. Since most pioneer communities could not pay them much, it was difficult to find teachers. The teacher was usually a young man or an unmarried woman. When a female teacher got married she was expected to quit teaching. Some teachers had been trained in a two-year Normal School; others had just finished school themselves. Getting the switch

Rules in pioneer schools were strict and teachers were expected to maintain discipline. Students could be punished with a switch or rod for things such as being late, falling asleep in class, whispering, or pulling pranks. Students who did not learn their lessons were punished by embarrassment. The dunce cap was one method of this type of punishment.

No one likes the Dunce cap.

Books and paper were scarce and expensive so students did their work with chalk on slates.

Working on the slates.

The Bible and the McGuffey reader were the books most common in pioneer schools. The first school in Iron County was located in Parowan and used the only two books brought from Salt Lake, The Book of Mormon and Robinson Crusoe.  At the end of the school session a public program was often held which gave the children a chance to show what they had learned. The students would recite poems they had memorized or read a composition. Sometimes the teacher would give an oral exam where the student answered the teacher’s question out loud.  After the program a community celebration would be held with food and games.

Title page of the 1851 Robinson Crusoe.

Pioneer School - Part I

The school day begins.It’s September, and for many, school is back in session or ready to begin. We thought a visit to the frontier schoolhouse would be in order. Pioneer families that settled the west placed a high value on educating their children. The schoolhouse often became the first public building constructed. Pioneer schoolhouses were built in a central location and often served as the church and community meeting spot. Schoolhouse construction varied widely depending on available materials and number of students. Students were generally arranged with the youngest in the front desks or benches while the oldest were in the back. Many times boys and girls sat on different sides of the room. Near the entrance a bucket and dipper provided water for drinking. A privy, or outhouse, was behind the school. Heat in the winter was provided by a wood stove. Often those closest to the stove were hot while those on the other side of the room froze.

Local families combined resources to hire a teacher for their children and often the instructor would require room and board as part of their contract. Finding qualified teachers to travel to the western frontier proved difficult if they had to cover their own lodging.  Some schools had to close their doors for years after a teacher left, requiring children to study at home with their parents.

Early on, teachers would be required to “board around” with the families of their students. This meant they traveled between homes according to a rotating schedule. This became difficult for the teacher and the families.  Teachers often complained of unappetizing meals, poor sleeping quarters, lack of study space, and no room for guests. Rural parents disliked the burden placed on their pantry and the lack of privacy the family enjoyed while housing the teacher.

Teaching the class.The solution became the teacherage – a room built near or in the schoolhouse especially for the teacher. These rooms were often sparsely furnished, however, they overcame many of the problems of the “board around” system and led to a more structured and consistent educational environment.

School started at eight o’clock. As students entered the building they greeted the teacher. There was a short recess in the morning and again in the afternoon. At noon the students and teacher took their lunch break. Students brought their lunch from home. After eating the students went outside for fresh air and exercise. Group games such as tag and baseball were popular during the lunch hour or recess. Students would attend school as often as chores and other circumstances would allow. They could range in age from 4 to 21.

Stay tuned for more about pioneer school next week.