Harriet Bishop: A schoolmarm in the wild west (Saint Paul)

Bishop’s image stands by the playground on Harriet Island.

During the first year of organized schooling in Minnesota, 1847, Minnesota was not a state or even a territory. The state’s first official schoolteacher, Harriet Bishop, held her first classes shortly after she arrived in July of that year.

What she found to use as a schoolhouse was a former blacksmith shop, a log cabin that measured 10 by 12 feet. It was situated on what is now the corner of St. Peter Street and Kellogg Boulevard. Inside it was “dark as a pocket,” according to Zylpha S. Morton, who wrote about Harriet Bishop in 1947, the centennial of Bishop’s arrival. At that time, Morton said, there were people in St. Paul who still recalled Bishop’s graciousness and hospitality and specifically remembered her furniture, which was upholstered in her own needlepoint.

Here at the intersection of Saint Peter Street and Kellogg Boulevard, between City Hall and the Jemne Building, is roughly where Bishop taught the city’s first school, a very rustic log cabin.

The log hovel was covered with bark and chinked with mud. Rats and snakes were plentiful and, by Bishop’s own account in her book Floral Home, a hen came in daily to lay an egg: “… a friendly hen, unwilling to relinquish her claim, on the ground of preoccupancy, daily placed a token of her industry in the corner, and made all merry with her loud cackle and abrupt departure” (cited in Ramsey County History 32:2, 1997). The floor of the building was covered with loose boards, and seating was created by boards placed across wooden pins driven into the logs. “Miss Bishop” soon took her pupils outside to gather pine and fir boughs which they placed along the walls, perhaps to improve the atmosphere inside, to help keep the cold out, or to provide decoration for the rather grim place—or perhaps all three.

Harriet Bishop is widely celebrated in the state as its first schoolteacher. Her photo hangs in the gallery of famous Minnesotans at the St. Paul Grill. One of the Padelford Company’s paddlewheel ships that cruise the Mississippi here is named for her, as is Harriet Island where the ships dock. In 1997, on the 150th anniversary of her arrival, a program commemorating that event took place on Harriet Island and on the excursion steamer named for her.

Bishop’s likeness hangs in the St. Paul Grill on a wall of famous Minnesotans.

When she arrived from Vermont, she was 30 years old and the first person to go west from the first class at a school organized to train teachers for the frontier. That class comprised 34 women. The school, created by the National Board of Popular Education, was run by Catharine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe. It flourished for six years, according to Norma Sommerdorf (“No Grass Beneath Her Feet,” Ramsey County History 32:2, 1997), and sent more than 450 teachers out west to the frontier, to towns from Ohio to California. Bishop herself later created a similar training school in St. Paul.

Bishop came to St. Paul in response to a letter from Dr. Thomas S. Williamson to Governor Slade, one of the organizers of the school she attended. Williamson, a missionary in Kaposia, described his dismay at the children in St. Paul who were getting no schooling. St. Paul, he said, was on the very edge of civilization. Dr. Williamson referred to his location as a place “that we suppose will bear the name of Minnesota,” Bishop says in Floral Home.


Bishop journeyed from New England to St. Paul by steamboat up the Mississippi River. Her devout faith likely saved her life on that journey: because she did not want to travel on a Sunday, she declined passage on the Chesapeake, which sank in Lake Erie and all aboard drowned. Bishop interpreted the tragedy as a sign that her journey west met with God’s approval. Her alternate route took her to Cleveland, where she purchased books and other supplies before heading down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi to St. Paul. She eventually landed at Kaposia, also known as Little Crow’s Village, where Dr. Williamson and his wife welcomed her. A few days later, she went for the first time to St. Paul, ferried in a canoe by Native women.

Her first visit to St. Paul was only borderline successful. She did manage to arrange for the building where the school would be held, and met the people she would stay with, John and Nancy Irvine. However, she found St. Paul a “cheerless prospect… a few log huts composed the town, three families the American population,” according to St. Paul: The First 150 Years, by Virginia Brainard Kunz. Dr. Williamson had counted 36 children of school age before he sent his letter, so the place was indeed sparsely populated. But on Bishop’s first visit it was crowded with drivers from 121 Red River oxcarts who were carousing while waiting for their goods to be loaded onto boats; so, Bishop returned to Kaposia for a few days before settling in permanently. Since she was a strict teetotaler and crusader for abstinence from alcohol, she likely found the cart drivers’ unruly behavior objectionable.

Bishop came to St. Paul not only as a teacher, but also as a missionary, and her fervent faith guided her in that decision. In Floral Home, in a chapter titled “Why I came to St. Paul,” she quotes Dr. Williamson’s invitation in full, then says she considered with “prayerful deliberation” for two weeks before agreeing to come west. In her words, “Every possible obstacle was presented; the difficulties of the almost unknown route; the condition of society; doubts as to a welcome by the people generally; the self-denials to be exercised; the privations to be endured—all of which to me were so many incentives to persist in my decision. In short, I came because I was more needed here than at any other spot on earth….”

That rugged frontier town, St. Paul, became her home. Two years after Bishop’s arrival, Minnesota was named a territory and soon was flooded with settlers. By 1850 the town had three schools. Bishop continued to teach, and later started her own school to train teachers for careers similar to hers, farther west.

Bishop was never content to be occupied solely by her teaching responsibilities, however. Two weeks after her arrival she started the town’s first Sunday school, which drew seven students the first Sunday and expanded to 25 by the third Sunday, J. Fletcher Williams notes in his history of Minnesota. The Sunday school’s popularity is intriguing because she was Baptist, in fact the only Baptist in town at the time.

First Baptist Church at Ninth Street and Wacouta Street in downtown Saint Paul is one of the area’s oldest churches and grew from Bishop’s Sunday School.

Harriet Bishop was a very industrious woman. Although she described herself as feeble and timid, she could hardly have been those things and chosen the life she did. St. Paul: The First 150 Years provides a description of her by an early newspaper editor: “angular, positive, determined—such a woman as is necessary for frontier life… tall, with a good figure; a bright, expressive face; earnest and decided in manners, and quick in speech.” She is described in Women of Minnesota as “no diplomat,” “mature,” and “busy.” “Her earnestness and aggressiveness in championing causes made her unpopular with some,” says Norma Sommerdorf in “No Grass Beneath Her Feet.”

Bishop’s relationships with the area’s Native Americans were poor, to say the least. Though missionary Thomas Williamson in his letter requesting a teacher for Saint Paul had specified “she should be entirely free from prejudice on account of color,” in fact her reaction to the local natives was one of revulsion. Mary Wingerd relates in North Country how Bishop described the Indians she saw as “filthy inmates” of primitive lodges.

“In her book Floral Home,” Wingerd notes, “she saved her most vituperative comments for the Indians, whose customs she made no effort to understand. ‘Their habits,’ she wrote, are disgustingly filthy, and their dress, if such it may be called, extremely unchaste.’ In her telling, Indian stoicism became ‘listless apathy.’ As a race, Indians were treacherous, lazy, and ‘embedded in moral pollution.’”

Of the authors who write about Bishop, quite a few ignore her troubled relationship with Native Americans, especially the earlier authors. Zylpha S. Morton wrote in 1947 in Minnesota History: “She remains a symbol of the westward spread of culture [sic] and of the role of education in Minnesota’s pioneers.” In 1998 in Women of Minnesota, Winifred D. Wandersee Bolin attempts to present a balanced portrayal of Bishop. “Her attitude toward Native Americans, at least with respect to the Sioux who lived near Fort Snelling, was adversely critical and by today’s standards racist,” she wrote. Further, “Indians, she [Bishop] wrote in Floral Home, were cowards, thieves and liars.” “These were, to say the least, unhesitating and unsparing judgments, but they were typical of the racism and ethnocentrism found nearly everywhere on the American frontier.” Bolin gives Bishop some credit, asserting “Bishop was more tolerant than many settlers,” and “Occasionally… she showed a streak of compassion for the tribes…” Overall, though, Bishop’s staunch Christian moralism dominated her judgment of the local Indians, particularly after the Sioux uprising of 1862, when she wrote Dakota War Whoop.

Bishop’s personal life was somewhat rocky. She was engaged to a man eight years younger, James K. Humphrey, whose sister persuaded him to break off the engagement, apparently because of the couple’s age difference. Zylpha S. Morton says a friend of Bishop’s wrote, “… the result was that her life was wrecked and she seemed to lose her fine mental balance.” She eventually married in 1858. The man she married, John McConkey, was a widower, and she raised his children while he fought in the Civil War, but divorced him later for being a habitual drunkard. After the divorce, she returned to using her maiden name, which at the time required an act of the state legislature.

Despite these personal obstacles, she continued her numerous endeavors to improve local society. In addition to establishing the first school here, she organized fundraising to acquire another building by the fall after she arrived. In addition to the first Sunday school, she led the temperance movement in town. She organized the first Women’s Christian Temperance Movement in the area in 1877 and traveled about the state promoting its cause. In her later years she actively campaigned for women’s suffrage. And as if all those activities didn’t suffice, she wrote three books. Two of those, Floral Home and Dakota War Whoop, offer invaluable insight into life during St. Paul’s early years.

Bishop’s likeness hangs in the entry to First Baptist Church, which evolved from the Sunday School she started when she was the only Baptist in town.

Traces of Bishop’s many activities can still be seen in the area. There’s Expo/Harriet Bishop Center in St. Paul and Harriet Bishop Elementary School in Savage. Her Sunday school was the beginning of First Baptist Church, now in its third building at Ninth Street and Wacouta Street in downtown St. Paul. One of her charitable endeavors evolved into Home for the Friendless, providing services sorely needed after the Civil War. It later became Protestant Home of St. Paul and Wilder Residence East, a facility run by HealthEast Care System at 753 East Seventh Street, and now Dellwood Gardens.

This site at 753 East 7th Street, now Dellwood Gardens, is where Bishop’s Home for the Friendless originally stood.

Another vestige of Harriet Bishop’s life, at least in local legend, is the house at 240 Ryan Street in Irvine Park, said to have been built as her honeymoon cottage before her first engagement was broken off.

This home on Ryan Avenue in Irvine Park was rumored to have been built as a home intended for Bishop and her fiance James K. Humphrey.

Bishop’s final resting place is in Oakland Cemetery with many of St. Paul’s and Minnesota’s other founders.

Bishop’s gravestone in Oakland Cemetery, erected by her church.

Her true legacy is more abstract than those physical reminders of her life and work. In many ways she was the epitome of the “pioneer” woman, and she was very conscious of that role. She espoused a female version of manifest destiny: she believed women were the civilizing influences in society. Her determination, drive and courage enabled her to influence how St. Paul and Minnesota developed. Most of all, she’s remembered as St. Paul’s first official teacher, and the beginning of the state’s proud educational tradition.

September 2005, revised September 2016 and July 2018




5 thoughts on “Harriet Bishop: A schoolmarm in the wild west (Saint Paul)

  1. I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable in the company of this indomitable lady with her Lofty Christian Spirit and Untiring Zeal. I wonder what she was like as a teacher … methinks I may have pulled a few “sicky” days off school!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Enjoyed learning about Harriet Bishop and her role in “taming” St. Paul. Especially interesting were the descriptions of St. Paul as a frontier town.


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