John Swett (WPA) by Peter Van Valkenburgh

John Swett (WPA) by Peter Van Valkenburgh

John Swett (WPA)

Peter Van Valkenburgh

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John Swett (WPA)

Image Size
14 1/4 x 9 1/2" image 
pencil signed along the lower sheet edge 
Edition Size
about 28 impressions 
dated 1939 under the signature on the stone 
WPA Graphics Achenbach Collection 65.37.950 
ivory wove Warren's Oldstyle 
California Federal Art Project WPA 
Inventory ID

John Swett was born on July 31, 1830, in Pittsfield, New Hampshire. According to the Martinez Historical Society (,

Historians have called John Swett the founder of public education in California. As California’s fourth superintendent of public instruction (1863-1867), he laid the groundwork for a statewide system of public schools in California and influenced educators in other states.

He came from New Hampshire to California in 1853, bringing with him ideals of public education that were developing in New England in the first half of the nineteenth century. After working for a few unhappy months in the gold fields, he began teaching at Rincon School in San Francisco. His ideals about teaching led him to run for the position of Superintendent of Public Instruction. In that office he persuaded the legislature to increase state, school district, and local tax provisions for schools. He expanded the authority of the state board of education and required school administrators to collect and report information that would lead to the improvement of the schools. He got state funding for teachers’ institutes and school libraries.

After he returned to teaching in San Francisco he and his wife Mary Louise (Tracy) purchased a house into which they welcomed such visitors as John Muir. Later, at Muir’s suggestion, they purchased property in Alhambra Valley next to the Strentzel ranch near Martinez. John Swett and his son Frank developed “Hill Girt Ranch” as a fruit ranch, which specialized in grapes and grape juice, and John and Mary retired there in 1895.

While living there, Mary Swett served as a trustee for the Alhambra School District and was also active in the local chapter of the California State Woman Suffrage Educational Association. In 1901 John Swett helped organize the Alhambra Union High School District, combining five districts with Martinez at the center, and served as president of the Board of Trustees of the high school. In 1910 he was appointed honorary lecturer in education at the University of California.

He received honorary degrees from Dartmouth College and the College of California, and in 1913 he and John Muir were together given honorary degrees by the University of California.

Swett died at his ranch on August 22, 1913.

Please call us at 707-546-7352 or email to purchase this item.