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19th century Little Falls area school included Native Americans

Linda Louise Bryan is a scholar “obsessed” with Belle Prairie, the village north of Little Falls that was founded by Frederic and Elizabeth Ayer when the Minnesota Territory was also founded. Bryan

Linda Louise Bryan dressed as Elizabeth Ayer
Linda Louise Bryan wears a period-appropriate dress for her portrayal of Elizabeth Ayer, a teaching missionary in the 1800s who co-founded the Belle Prairie Seminary north of Little Falls.
Contributed / Morrison County Historical Society
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LITTLE FALLS — Some American Indians in Morrison County attended a school run by early white settlers of the Little Falls area.

The Morrison County Historical Society hosted a presentation on the topic Saturday, March 5, at The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum in Little Falls.

“This is a for-profit school. It has to pay its bills,” said Linda Louise Bryan, a scholar who described herself as “obsessed” with Belle Prairie, to attendees. “Traders pay the school fees and board.”

Old Belle Prairie Seminary photo displayed during scholar Linda Louise Bryan's presentation on the topic.
Linda Louise Bryan stands next to an old photo Saturday, March 5, 2022, of the old Belle Prairie Seminary founded by Frederic and Elizabeth Ayer when the Minnesota Territory was also founded. Bryan gave a presentation on the school at The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum in Little Falls.
Screenshot / Frank Lee

Belle Prairie was a village just north of Little Falls founded by Frederic and Elizabeth Ayer when the Minnesota Territory was also founded.

“In an era when women rarely had professional careers, her work as a teaching missionary gave her more status and independence than most women enjoyed,” according to Elizabeth Ayer’s biography on the Minnesota Historical Society website.

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Born in 1803, the Massachusetts native joined the staff of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions Indian boarding school on Mackinac Island in Michigan Territory at the age of 25, according to her biography.

“When my girls hit high school, I was well into researching who were the Ayers and what were their lives like, and I’ve been on it ever since,” Bryan said during her Saturday presentation.

In 1829, Frederick Ayer visited Mackinac and the New York native became a mission teacher. He later married his wife upon his return to Mackinac.

“His father was both an ordained pastor and a doctor,” Bryan said during her free lecture, which was also livestreamed via Zoom.

Woman in period dress stands in front of a presentation screen
Linda Louise Bryan, dressed as teaching missionary Elizabeth Ayer, talks Saturday, March 5, 2022, at The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum in Little Falls. Bryan discussed Ayer and her husband and their pivotal role in establishing Belle Prairie Seminary north of Little Falls that educated whites and Native Americans.
Screenshot / Frank Lee

The lives and times of the Ayers and their cohorts are the subject of her ongoing research into the complicated history of Ojibwe country in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the mid-19th century.

Bryan said Native Americans were taught “language skills to counteract misunderstanding. … They (whites) really do want to teach thinking skills that will help Indians deal with whites.”

In 1849, the Ayers started a farm and school at Belle Prairie in the new Minnesota Territory. Belle Prairie Seminary was intended for American Indian youths.

Elizabeth will teach anybody, is one of the things I learned.
— Linda Louise Bryan

“Donations supported native students, so they can only take as many Indians as someone else will pay,” Bryan told people in her presentation titled “Belle Prairie Seminary: Formal Education in Indian Country in the New Minnesota Territory.”

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Elizabeth Ayer convinced teachers from New England and Illinois to locate on the Upper Mississippi, including her nephews and a niece, and most were highly qualified, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Elizabeth will teach anybody, is one of the things I learned,” Bryan said in her presentation while dressed as Elizabeth Ayer in a period-appropriate dress.

The Ayers' private school served Ojibwe and mixed-race families as well as some whites, according to Bryan, in their school considered simple by today’s standards.

“It’s a wooden building,” Bryan said while displaying a black-and-white photo taken of the two-story building. “It's not in good shape. It's losing its siding.”

The school was still in arrears in 1854 and their staff wrote to donors asking for help to liquidate their debts, according to Bryan.

This is a for-profit school. It has to pay its bills.
— Linda Louise Bryan

In 1856, the Methodist Conference acquired the school, but the family continued teaching in Morrison County's public schools. Elizabeth also taught at Old Crow Wing Village in what is now Crow Wing State Park.

“The Belle Prairie Seminary building was considered remarkable for a Minnesota Territory school,” according to Bryan’s lecture.

The seminary’s goals included operating without formal funding, recruiting quality teachers and teaching students who had progressed beyond what traditional mission schools offered.

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The Ayers adopted at least one Ojibwe orphan after Frederick Ayer Jr. died in 1850. Their older son, Lyman, got involved in his parents' projects: modern farming, sawmilling and teaching.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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