19th Century Little Falls Area School Included Native Americans – Brainerd Dispatch

LITTLE FALLS – Some Native Americans in Morrison County attended a school run by early white settlers in the Little Falls area.

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

“It’s a for-profit school. He has to pay his bills,” Linda Louise Bryan, an academic who described herself as “obsessed” with Belle Prairie, told attendees. “Traders pay tuition and board.”

Linda Louise Bryan stands next to an old photo taken Saturday, March 5, 2022, of the former Belle Prairie Seminary founded by Frederic and Elizabeth Ayer during the founding of the Minnesota Territory. 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.

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

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 when she was 25, according to her biography.


“When my girls got to high school, I was pretty much researching who the Ayers were and what their lives were like, and I’ve been at it ever since,” Bryan said during his presentation on Saturday.

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

“His father was both an ordained minister and a doctor,” Bryan said during his free talk, which was also streamed live via Zoom.

A woman in a period dress stands in front of a presentation screen
Linda Louise Bryan, dressed as missionary teacher Elizabeth Ayer, speaks 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 which educated whites and Native Americans.

Screenshot / Frank Lee

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

Bryan said Native Americans learned “language skills to counter misunderstandings. … They (whites) really want to teach thinking skills that will help Indians deal with whites.

In 1849, the Ayers opened a farm and school at Belle Prairie in Minnesota’s new territory. The Belle Prairie Seminary was intended for young Native Americans.

Elizabeth will teach anyone, is one of the things I learned.

—Linda Louise Bryan

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

Elizabeth Ayer convinced teachers from New England and Illinois to move to the upper Mississippi, including her nephews and one niece, and most were highly qualified, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Elizabeth will teach anyone, that’s one of the things I’ve learned,” Bryan said in her presentation while dressed as Elizabeth Ayer in a period dress.


The Ayers’ private school served Ojibway and mixed-race families as well as white people, according to Bryan, in their school considered simple by today’s standards.

“It’s a wooden building,” Bryan said, posting a black-and-white photo taken of the two-story building. “He’s not in good shape. It loses its coating.

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

It is a for-profit school. He has to pay his bills.

—Linda Louise Bryan

In 1856 the Methodist Conference acquired the school, but the family continued to teach in the public schools of Morrison County. 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 school in Minnesota,” according to Bryan’s lecture.

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

The Ayers adopted at least one Ojibwe orphan after the death of Frederick Ayer Jr. in 1850. Their eldest son, Lyman, became involved in his parents’ projects: modern agriculture, sawmilling, and teaching.

FRANK LEE can be reached at 218-855-5863 or

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