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Ayer, Elizabeth Taylor (1803–1898)

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Black and white tintype photograph of Elizabeth Ayer, c.1870.

Tintype photograph of Elizabeth Ayer, c.1870.

Elizabeth Taylor Ayer's life spanned nearly the entire nineteenth century. 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.

Elizabeth Taylor was born in Heath, Massachusetts in 1803. Unmarried at twenty-five, she joined the staff of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) Indian boarding school on Mackinac Island in Michigan Territory. In 1829 Frederick Ayer of Utica, New York visited Mackinac and also became a mission teacher.

In 1830, Protestant fur traders who traded with the Ojibwe asked the ABCFM to send missionaries to their trading posts. Frederick was chosen first. He taught for two years at trader Lyman Warren's home at La Pointe.

Meanwhile, at Mackinac, Elizabeth began studying the Ojibwe language. In 1832 William Aitken brought Frederick to his trading post at Sandy Lake to start a school. The following spring Frederick went east to publish a small textbook in the Ojibwe language.

On Frederick's return to Mackinac, he and Elizabeth married. They then rode in Warren's canoe brigade across Lake Superior. Charles W. Borup transported them up the Brule River and then down the St. Croix to Yellow River and Yellow Lake to open a mission station near Borup's post.

Frederick, Elizabeth, and three colleagues served at Yellow Lake from 1833 to 1835. Local Ojibwe feared they would lure more whites to Indian country. Still, they permitted them to conduct a school, church services, and agricultural projects.

An Ojibwe leader invited the missionaries to locate at Pokegama Lake by the Snake River in present-day Pine County and promised cooperation. Frederick accepted. He finished hauling mission animals and materials to the new station by fall 1836. A few Ojibwe families erected wigwams or cabins by the mission grounds, including those of Biajik and probably Nodin.

The Pokegama mission became a model project. In 1839 the government selected Pokegama for the work site of a treaty-funded blacksmith and farmer who served the western Ojibwe. Elizabeth's sons Lyman and Frederick Jr. were born at Pokegama. Former Mackinaw Mission student Henry Blatchford began his pastoral career there. Elizabeth continued teaching at her school.

Progress ceased in spring 1841 when a group of Dakota attacked the settlement. The Ojibwe dispersed for safety.

The worried Ayers retreated to Ohio but could not forget the Indians. Frederick's enthusiasm inspired new volunteers whom he immediately promised to aid. Elizabeth lingered to study at Oberlin College, then journeyed with her young sons to Boston to report to the Board. In late 1843 she accompanied more recruits to La Pointe where Frederick waited to guide them on the difficult journey to Red Lake. There the Ayers and some of the Ohioans conducted a mission similar to the old Pokegama station.

Elizabeth took her sons to Red River Colony in winter 1847–1848 to attend school. When they returned from Canada they found Frederic ill and unable to preach. Reluctantly, the Ayers retired from the ABCFM.

In 1849 the Ayers started a farm and school at Belle Prairie in the new Minnesota Territory. Belle Prairie Seminary was intended for Indian youth. Elizabeth convinced teachers from New England and Illinois to locate on the Upper Mississippi, including her nephews and a niece. Most were highly qualified.

The Ayers' private school served Ojibwe and mixed-race families as well as some whites. In 1856 the Methodist Conference acquired the school, but the family continued teaching in Morrison County's public schools. Elizabeth also taught at Crow Wing.

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

When Lyman served in the Civil War he wrote to his parents about freedmen who needed schooling and suggested they help. Frederick and Elizabeth rented out their farm and in November 1865 arrived in Atlanta, Georgia. Despite dire post-war conditions, the city's African American children and adults eagerly learned to read at American Missionary Association schools.

Frederick died in Atlanta in 1867. In 1868 Elizabeth returned to Belle Prairie. She continued to teach, write letters and articles, and watch over children living along the Upper Mississippi, including a granddaughter who became a teacher. Elizabeth died in 1898.

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American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions
The Missionary Herald (ABCFM), 1826–1850
Description: Periodical containing annual lists of mission personnel; occasional summaries and transcriptions from correspondence by Ojibwe missionaries, including Frederick Ayer. Includes minimal material by or about women.

American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Correspondence, 1827–1878
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Typewritten copies of correspondence from missionaries of the Ojibwe and Dakota missions in Minnesota, including Frederick Ayer.

American Missionary Association
The American Missionary 1843–1850; 1865–1868
Description: Contains summaries and transcribed correspondence regarding the WEMA Ojibwe missions as well as AMA mission schools associated with the Freedmen's Bureau during and after the Civil War. Also includes material about the Amistad mission.

Elizabeth T. Ayer Papers, 1868–1892
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Items document the Ayers in the Ojibwe missions, their Belle Prairie residency, and members of the Taylor family.

Bigglestone, William E. "Oberlin College and the Beginning of the Red Lake Mission." Minnesota History 45, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 21–31.

Barry, Amy C. "From This Mountain House: The Story of Two Heath Missionaries." In The Book of Heath: Bicentennial Essays, edited by Susan B. Silvester, 62–73. Ashfield, MA: Paideia, 1985.

Gould, Edward P., ed. Centennial Anniversary of the Town of Heath, Mass., August 19, 1885: Addresses, Speeches, Letters, Statistics, Etc., Etc. Boston: Press of Advertiser Publishing Co., 1885.

Elizabeth Taylor Ayer files and published materials
Manuscript Collection, Morrison County Historical Society, Little Falls
Description: "Ayer" and "Taylor" files; local newspaper materials; land records.

Warner, Mary. A Big-Hearted Pale Faced Man: Nathan Richardson and the History of Morrison County, MN. Little Falls, MN: Morrison County Historical Society, 2006.

Widder, Keith. Battle for the Soul: Metis Children Encounter Evangelical Protestants at Mackinaw Mission 1823–1837. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1999.

Related Images

Black and white tintype photograph of Elizabeth Ayer, c.1870.
Black and white tintype photograph of Elizabeth Ayer, c.1870.
Black and white tintype photograph of Elizabeth Ayer, c.1880.
Black and white tintype photograph of Elizabeth Ayer, c.1880.
Color image of the title page of the Missionary Herald, c.2013.
Color image of the title page of the Missionary Herald, c.2013.
Drawing of Mackinac Island, c.1860.
Drawing of Mackinac Island, c.1860.
Map of Morrison County, c.1874.
Map of Morrison County, c.1874.

Turning Point

Elizabeth and Frederick Ayer move their mission station from Yellow Lake in Wisconsin to a site up the Snake River west of the St. Croix River in 1835. The Pokegama Mission, as it comes to be known, becomes a model project.



Elizabeth Taylor is born in Heath, Massachusetts.


Elizabeth teaches in local schools, working with famed educator Mary Lyon at Ashfield, Massachusetts, and with William M. Ferry, who later becomes headmaster at Mackinaw Mission.


Elizabeth joins the faculty of Mackinaw Mission at the junction of Lakes Huron and Michigan, not far from Sault Ste. Marie.


Elizabeth marries Frederick Ayer. The ABCFM and the traders assign the Ayers to work at Yellow Lake in conjunction with Charles Borup's post. Sabrina Stevens, Hester Crooks, and John Seymour of the ABCFM become their colleagues.


After Dakota attack the Pokegama mission grounds and the government farm, the Ojibwe of the St. Croix area disperse—to La Pointe, to Mille Lacs, to Fond du Lac, and to new settlements. Missionaries extend services to exiled students and converts.


Fearing another attack, the Ayers take their sons to Ohio where the Western Evangelical Missionary Association (WEMA) is founded. Frederick volunteers to mentor new missions in Ojibwe country. Elizabeth winters at Oberlin and connects with women's groups.


Elizabeth visits New England. She then returns to Ojibwe country with Frederick, her sons, and some of the WEMA missionaries from Ohio. They found missions in northern Minnesota.


Elizabeth, Lyman, and young Frederick winter at Red River Colony. The boys attend the McCallum school and Elizabeth teaches.


The Ayer family retires from the ABCFM. Frederick and Lyman clear farmland outside Fort Gaines (later Fort Ripley) at Belle Prairie.


Frederick Ayer Jr. dies of typhus contracted when he and his mother paddled the Mississippi River from Leech Lake mission to Belle Prairie. Belle Prairie Seminary begins accepting students.


The Ayers sell Belle Prairie Seminary to the Methodist Conference for a dollar.


The Ayers travel to Atlanta, Georgia to teach freedmen. Frederick becomes an administrator.


Frederick dies at the end of September, likely from a lifelong bronchial malady. Elizabeth continues teaching until the end of the school year.


Elizabeth returns to Minnesota. She first lives at St. Cloud, then at Belle Prairie with Lyman and his wife and daughters.


Elizabeth dies at age ninety-five at Little Falls and is buried in Oakland Cemetery.