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Bishop, Harriet E. (1817–1883)

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Oil-on-canvas portrait of Harriet Bishop. Painted c.1880 by Andrew Falkenshield; based on an engraving of Bishop made in 1860.

Oil-on-canvas portrait of Harriet Bishop. Painted c.1880 by Andrew Falkenshield; based on an engraving of Bishop made in 1860.

Harriet Bishop, best known as the founder of St. Paul’s first public and Sunday schools, was also a social reformer, land agent, and writer. In the 1840s, she led a vanguard of white, middle-class, Protestant women who sought to bring “moral order” to the multi-cultural fur-trade society of pre-territorial Minnesota.

Bishop was born in Panton, Vermont, in 1817. Deeply religious and schooled in moral righteousness, she exemplified nineteenth-century middle-class women’s values—what historians have deemed the “cult of true womanhood.” She believed that, as a woman, she had a calling to champion moral reform and Christian piety.

Bishop spent ten years as a teacher in Essex County, New York. In 1847, unwed at age thirty, she found inspiration in a training course led by the reformer Catharine Beecher. The course was designed to recruit and prepare teachers to bring moral guidance to the new U.S. territories.

Bishop was the first of this cohort to go west. In 1847, Thomas Williamson, a missionary to the Dakota, wrote to Beecher describing the roughshod village of St. Paul and its need for a teacher. Bishop immediately volunteered, though Williamson warned that the village had few creature comforts and was awash in alcohol.

Bishop arrived in St. Paul in July 1847. She soon began teaching classes to seven students in a log cabin at present-day Kellogg Boulevard and St. Peter Street. On July 25, she established a Sunday school that served as the forerunner of the city’s Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian congregations.

Williamson had specified that teaching in the region required an openness to cultural differences. Bishop, however, called the Dakota people who welcomed her “grotesque.” She dismissed her French-Canadian and mixed-blood Catholic neighbors as un-Christian. As for her students, they were for the most part “a dark forbidding group.”

Though famed as St. Paul’s first teacher, Bishop lasted only a few years in her classrooms. In 1850, she founded a seminary and boarding school to teach and shelter new instructors. She made a greater impact as the first of a group of white, middle-class women who strove to transform the Northwest from the multicultural meeting ground of the fur-trade era into an equivalent of their Eastern home towns—with the same prejudices as well as refinements.

As St. Paul grew in the 1850s, Bishop dedicated herself to social and religious reform. She became a founding member of the First Baptist Church and established a Sewing Society to pay off its mortgage. She helped organize groups to raise money for a new schoolhouse and to aid the needy. For cultural edification, she hosted the Philecclesian Literary Society in her home.

Bishop was most passionate, however, in the battle against “demon rum,” which made her unpopular with many St. Paulites. Unfazed, she kept up her crusade, from 1849, when she helped found the Sons of Temperance Society until 1877, when she became the first paid organizer of the Minnesota Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

Despite her reformist zeal, Bishop was no radical. Like her mentor, Catharine Beecher, she opposed woman suffrage. In fact, evidence suggests that she hoped to make a conventional marriage. In 1850, her engagement to a young lawyer ended in separation—a public humiliation in the small community of St. Paul.

To make her way as a single woman was no easy task, but in the boom years of the 1850s, Bishop found lucrative work as a land agent and Minnesota booster. In 1857, she published Floral Home, a somewhat exaggerated account of the territory’s beauty and potential. She married John McConkey, a widowed harness-maker with four children, in 1858. The relationship eventually soured, and Bishop accused McConkey of “habitual drunkenness.” The couple divorced in 1867.

In spite of her personal disappointments, Bishop continued to pursue her literary interests. She found some success in publishing Dakota War Whoop, a sensational account of the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862. As the years passed, she cobbled together a difficult living as a writer and lecturer. She helped organize both the St. Paul Ladies Christian Union (1867) and the Home for the Friendless (1869).

Near the end of her life, Bishop embraced the cause of woman suffrage. In 1881, she was involved in the founding of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association. She died in St. Paul, in 1883, at the age of sixty-six.

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Bishop, Harriet E. Floral Home or First Years of Minnesota: Early Sketches, Later Settlements, and Further Developments. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc., 2002. Originally published in 1857.

——— . Minnesota: Then and Now. St. Paul: D. D. Merrill, Randall and Company, 1869.

Bolin, Winifred D. Wandersee. “Harriet Bishop: Moralist and Reformer.” In Women of Minnesota: Selected Biographical Essays, 7–19. Edited by Barbara Stuhler and Gretchen Kreuter. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1998.

Cathcart, Rebecca Marshall. “A Sheaf of Remembrances.” Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society 15 (1914): 515–552.

A Church in Lowertown: The First Baptist Church of Saint Paul; the Congregation 1849–1974, the Building 1875–1975. St. Paul: Mason Publishing Company, 1975.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Bell Knap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McConkey, Harriet E. Bishop. Dakota War Whoop: Indian Massacres and War in Minnesota. Reprint, Chicago: R. R. Donnelly and Sons, 1965. Originally published in 1864.

Morton, Zylpha S. “Harriet Bishop, Frontier Teacher.” Minnesota History 28, no. 2 (June 1947): 132–141.

Newson, T. M. Pen Pictures of St. Paul, Minnesota and Biographical Sketches of Old Settlers, from the Earliest Settlement of the City, Up To and Including The Year 1857. St. Paul: the author, 1886.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976.

Sommerdorf, Norma. “Harriet E. Bishop: A Doer and a Mover.” Minnesota History 55, no. 7 (Fall 1997): 320–323.

——— . “No Grass Beneath Her Feet: Harriet Bishop and Her Life in Minnesota.” Ramsey County History 32, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 16–21.

Williams, J. Fletcher. A History of Saint Paul and the County of Ramsey, Minnesota. Reprint ed. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1983.

Wingerd, Mary. North Country: The Making of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Related Images

Oil-on-canvas portrait of Harriet Bishop. Painted c.1880 by Andrew Falkenshield; based on an engraving of Bishop made in 1860.
Oil-on-canvas portrait of Harriet Bishop. Painted c.1880 by Andrew Falkenshield; based on an engraving of Bishop made in 1860.
Color image of a Walnut sewing table used by Harriet Bishop. Created in 1850.
Color image of a Walnut sewing table used by Harriet Bishop. Created in 1850.

Turning Point

In 1847, missionary Thomas Williamson writes to Catharine Beecher seeking teachers willing to move to St. Paul. Bishop, one of Beecher’s students, immediately volunteers.



Harriet Bishop is born on January 1 in Panton, Vermont, to Putnam and Miranda Bishop.


One of the first trainees in Catharine Beecher’s course to prepare teachers for service in the West, Bishop volunteers to go to St. Paul, where she establishes the city’s first public school and first Sunday school.


Bishop organizes the St. Paul Circle of Industry to raise funds to build a new school building and helps organize a chapter of the Sons of Temperance Society.


Bishop becomes engaged to attorney James Humphrey, who later breaks the engagement.


Bishop organizes the St. Paul Baptist Sewing Society to help pay off the mortgage on the First Baptist Church.


Bishop works as a land agent, brokering sales of land in Minnesota Territory for Eastern investors.


Floral Home is published.


Bishop marries widower John McConkey on September 12.


Dakota War Whoop is published.


Bishop divorces McConkey on the grounds of habitual drunkenness and inhuman treatment.


Bishop becomes a founder of the Home for the Friendless, a shelter for homeless persons in St. Paul.


D. D. Merrill, Randall and Company publishes Bishop’s Minnesota: Then and Now, a booklet-length poem.


The Minnesota Woman’s Christian Temperance Union hires Bishop as its first paid organizer.


Bishop becomes a founding member of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association.


On August 8, Bishop dies at the age of sixty-six.