Historians have called John Swett the founder of public education in California. As state 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 state superintendency. 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. John Swett and his son Frank developed “Hill Girt Ranch” as a fruit ranch with specialization in grapes and grape juice, and John and Mary retired there in 1895.
While living there, Mary Swett served as a trustee for the Alhmbra 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.