Impersonator of St. Paul’s first public school teacher paints portrait of time, place in history

NEW ULM A historical impersonator of St. Paul’s very first public school teacher provided a snapshot of a time and place in history Saturday during the Junior Pioneers Winter Social.

Suzanne de la Houssaye, of the Minnesota Historical Society, performed as Harriet Bishop, who was instrumental in making St. Paul’s school into a public school, promoting the national profile of Minnesota and pushing the temperance movement. She was also part of the initial rush of writers and intellectuals to write about the U.S. Dakota Conflict, writing her own record named “Dakota War Whoop.”

Bishop was an intensely religious Baptist woman who believed in the imminent coming of the Rapture and the need to exuberantly preach the Gospel to all that could hear it. She was also considered an intellectual in the Twin Cities at that time and was instrumental in helping to build the major cities up. She started the St. Paul school in 1847, starting in essentially a log cabin and rapidly growing the number of students until her successful efforts to make it the town’s first public school. She even raised Minnesota’s profile as a healthy destination to settle due to its “sturdy weather,” erroneously claiming certain diseases of the time simply did not exist in Minnesota.

She had several forms of compassion for the Dakota people, but was equally a product of her time in believing the only right way forward was for them to wholly adopt European culture and traditions. She wrote her book from a very emotional standpoint, aimed at drawing up the image of women and children hiding in the basements in New Ulm. Her book also carried many inaccuracies believed at the time and tried to paint Charles Flandreau as the sole savior of the battle at New Ulm at the start of the Conflict. Her spin on the Conflict is largely believed to be due to its elements making a serious impact on her. But, she still fell in the middle of the white settler’s beliefs after the Conflict, neither advocating for the extermination of the Dakota people nor being among those who fully accepted the Dakota’s right to an independent heritage.

Interestingly, she had an almost comically stern view of New Ulm citizens at the time, believing the myths that they were all progressive atheists who forbid priests in their city limits. She literally referred to them as “the infidel Germans” in her book and made indications to somewhat held belief at the time that the Conflict was God’s judgment on the town. She also judge New Ulm for having dance halls, which some strict religious sects objected to around that time, and because she believed they would often perform the taboo act of drinking on holy days.

She married a widower who served in the U.S. Civil War. The common practice during the time was for widowers to quickly remarry, which was sometimes a sheer matter of survival. It was also a more common occurrence during that time due to the high rate of deaths during childbirth, which was often caused by doctors trying to help women without knowing about the deadly diseases hiding on their hands. However, she eventually undertook the uncommon act of divorcing her husband due to his abusive alcoholism. Her husband’s circumstance was frighteningly common, largely due to numerous Civil War veterans returning without any help for psychological issues from their service.

This led to her heavy advocacy for the temperance movement, which would eventually see Prohibition passed after her death. She personally was one of the founding members of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union. Her cause in that infamous movement was aimed at combatting a very real issue of the day: the prospect of the husband, the only one allowed in that time to earn the living wages, drinking away all the month’s food money due to alcoholism. The people of that time drank more than three times more alcohol per week on a normal basis than most people drink today. The movement believed the end of alcohol would address the majority of the terrible acts of abuse laid on women and children at the time. Bishop’s belief in the temperance movement even largely influenced how she saw alcohol negatively affecting the Dakota people. She never lived long enough to see Prohibition, but she did see a roughly one year implementation of the “Maine law” that banned alcohol in select locations in the Twin Cities.

The temperance movement was also intrinsically linked to intense advocacy for suffrage and abolition.

Suzanne de la Houssaye said Bishop was a fascinating woman of her time. She said the Minnesota Historical Society is interested in telling her story, as well as not grazing over her issues in the depiction of the Dakota Conflict to provide a better dialogue about the events.

Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at

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