1842 - 1912

Martha C. Sawyer

A member of Wheaton Female Seminary’s first graduating class in 1839, Martha Sawyer remained at Wheaton to become a full time teacher. After three years of service, she replaced Martha Vose as principal in 1842, despite being only 23 years old and only three years removed from being a student herself.

Sawyer served as principal until 1846, when she resigned due to ill health brought on by exhaustion. During her tenure, the Seminary declined in enrollment and reputation. She attempted to resign before the summer term of 1846, but the trustees insisted that she stay until the end of the fall term. In her resignation, she claimed that the “influence of the institution is greatly limited, and its growth retarded, by the ill health and absence of its principal.” The trustees, not having planned for her replacement despite her warnings, were forced to appoint Sarah B. Putnam, teacher of English and Latin, as interim principal for the winter 1846-47 term.

One positive accomplishment during Sawyer’s tenure was the 1844 construction of a free-standing building for the sole purpose of providing an indoor gymnasium. Wheaton appears to be the first women’s educational institution in the United States to have such a building.

Martha Sawyer remained a close friend of Mrs. Wheaton, who called her “Sister Mattie,” left her in charge of the Wheaton homestead while away from home and included her in family travels. Their longest trip together was in 1850, when they travelled to Chicago, St. Louis and Nashville.

In 1855, Martha Sawyer married the Reverend Franklin Holmes, who served as a trustee of Wheaton while he was the minister of the Trinitarian Congregational Church.

Described by an alumna as “the Lady Eloquent,” full of “grace in face and form, in thought and in expression,” Martha Sawyer Holmes died at age 93 on 12 December 1912.