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Archive for November, 2011

It’s wonderful when the penny drops and your brain makes connections between several pieces of random information you’ve had bouncing around in your head. It happened to me this week as I took a long walk down Summit Avenue in St. Paul. My attention was caught first by the large garden in front of a church, House of Hope Presbyterian. It looked like a vegetable garden, but I wasn’t sure. Then I noticed the sign explaining their community garden project, which is new this year. (The produce is donated to the food shelf at Neighborhood House in St. Paul. What a wonderful addition to this neighborhood! Read more about the garden here.)

Then my eyes zeroed in on the historical marker close by and, as an inveterate reader of historical markers, I continued my reading.

Historical marker about Edward Duffield Neill in front of House of Hope Presbyterian Church, Summit Avenue, St. Paul. If I hadn't read this marker, who knows when I would have figured out who Neill was.

In the first line I saw a familiar name: Edward Duffield Neill. I recognized the name from several years of looking people up in Neill’s History of the Upper Mississippi Valley, a gold mine for information about early settlers in the counties of the Upper Mississippi in Minnesota and therefore a boon to the many family history researchers I have assisted. But I had never bothered to find out anything about the man himself. I was just thankful someone had taken the time to put all that information together – it made my life much easier!

The historical marker gives the bare bones of Neill’s accomplishments, but now my curiosity was truly aroused and I went home and looked him up. (The internet is a wonderful tool, but I still ended up in the Minnesota Historical Society library.) It turns out he arrived in St. Paul in 1849 when the city could hardly even be called a town and soon established the First Presbyterian Church on land donated by Henry Rice. Six years later he established a second congregation, House of Hope, on land donated by Alexander Ramsey. It’s interesting to think about the fact that these early prominent residents had to have known each other, given the small size of the community. In any case, Neill served as a minister until 1860. The two congregations he founded merged in 1914 when the current sanctuary and Weyerhauser Wing were constructed on Summit. House of Hope Presbyterian appears to be a thriving congregation still.

House of Hope Presbyterian Church, Summit Avenue, Saint Paul. Photo taken with my camera - technology can be useful when you're caught without your good camera!

But the churches were just the beginning of Neill’s accomplishments. He served as State Superintendent of Education and chancellor of the University of Minnesota from 1858 to 1861, and then as chaplain of the First Minnesota from June 1861 until July 1862, when he was appointed Hospital Chaplain in the Union army. In January 1864, Neill was appointed by President Lincoln as his private secretary, and he stayed on after Lincoln’s assassination to serve President Andrew Johnson. In 1869, President Grant appointed him as the US Consul to Ireland, and he served there into 1870, at which time he resigned from government service.

From 1873 until 1884, Neill served as president of Macalester College, and from 1884 until his death in 1893 he was a professor of history, literature, and political economy at Macalester. In addition, he was secretary of the Minnesota Historical Society from 1851 to 1863 and wrote numerous books including several on early Minnesota history.

How he managed to collect all the details about so many early residents and businesses in various Minnesota counties that appear in his books, I do not know. Perhaps the answer lies in his voluminous papers at the Minnesota Historical Society. Neill can be seen here in an 1855 photo by Whitney, quite appropriately with papers (although they don’t appear to be very realistic!), and here at home with his family in about 1860 (photos in the Minnesota Historical Society collection). His biography leaves me humbled. Clearly he was a very big fish with an impact well beyond his small pond, the young but growing Twin Cities.

As I continued my round-about investigation at the MHS library, I discovered yet another early Twin Cities resident that Neill had known well besides Rice and Ramsey and frankly of more interest to me: Charlotte Clark Van Cleve (mentioned in my previous post on Minnehaha Falls). Yet another puzzle piece snapped into place: discovering more about Neill helped me to discover a bit more about Charlotte, one of my favorite figures in 19th-century Minnesota history.

It seems that they knew each other well, which now makes sense since both were active Presbyterians and both were interested in recording the history of early Minnesota. In Neill’s 1881 book The History of Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis, he devoted considerable space to recounting Charlotte’s life and accomplishments in warm and appreciative language. Neill’s description of Charlotte tells us something about both the author and the subject.

For example, on woman suffrage:

… Mrs. Van Cleve has ever been the champion of her sex. Too true a wife and mother ever to lose sight of woman’s best and dearest rights she has still been a warm advocate of her right to equality before the law, including the ballot.

And on social injustice:

But of all the forms of the injustice of society to women, none has so touched her heart and roused her indignation as the remorseless punishment visited upon the fallen woman.

Charlotte  was instrumental in founding Bethany Home, a home for “fallen women,” as Neill put it, where an unmarried pregnant woman could find a place to stay, have her baby, and learn how to get on her feet and make a living, either keeping her baby or giving the baby up for adoption. More on Charlotte in subsequent posts as I uncover more about her life.

If we allow ourselves the time, one brief memorial encountered as we go about our daily lives can lead us to discover a variety of interesting tidbits that start make connections between previously random pieces of information we’ve had floating around upstairs. Here I was able to make more sense out of a name I knew only vaguely, and in taking the time to find out more about him, I was able to circle back around and learn more about another fascinating early resident of the Twin Cities. No doubt I will become better acquainted with both of them as I continue my rambles, which I suspect will be taking me quite frequently to the Minnesota Historical Society library as the temperature drops!

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