The first school in MN was the post school at Fort Snelling (which has been maintained as a historical landmark).
The first school outside of the post was opened in 1835 on Lake Harriet. Missionaries, led by the Pond family and Reverend Jedediah D. Stevens, mainly worked with the Sioux Indians in the area. Following the Pond’s school, the Catholics opened a school for the Chippewa at Grand Portage.
The first school for white children opened in 1847, led by Thomas Williamson (he also was in part responsible for a Sioux missionary school). Williamson called for help and Harriet Bishop became St. Paul’s first teacher, with 36 students attending the first year.
She had moved from Vermont that same year. A fascinating character, Bishop was one of the first women to head West in order to teach, hoping to educate the children and improve the morality of the town in general. She also started the first Sunday school, which would later lead to the first Baptist Church. According to Zylpha S. Morgan in an article published for the Minnesota Historical Society, "St. Paul’s first teacher left her most indelible mark on the young people she guided and the organizations she founded that helped transform a raw river town into the capital city of Minnesota." In this same article, titled Harriet Bishop, Frontier Teacher, Morgan offers this wonderful description of Bishop and education in early Minnesota:
"Eventually Dr. Williamson’s letter reached the normal school at Albany and was put into the hands of Harriet Bishop, one of the young women in Miss Beecher’s class. The writer said he was living on the verge of civilization in the northwestern park of the United States in a territory he supposed would bear the name of Minnesota. He told of the need for a teacher in the settlement known as St. Paul, four miles from his mission at Kaposia. There were five stores, a dozen or more families, and probably thirty-six children of school age at St. Paul, he said. Room and board would be furnished by a family having four children, in return for the latter’s tuition. Dr. Williamson said that the teacher would have to forego the elegances and niceties of life in New England, and be willing to teach children of varied races and colors without prejudice, and he suggested that she bring her own school books, as there was no bookstore within three hundred miles. The effect of this letter on Harriet Bishop was decisive. When members of the class in Albany were asked who would go to far-off St. Paul, the young woman from Vermont answered unhesitatingly, 'I will go.'"
Bishop was one of the first teachers to head West in order to help formalize schooling on the frontier. By 1858, 481 teachers had been shipped off.
Minnesota became a territory in 1849. At that point there were basically three developed areas – Stillwater, St. Paul, and St. Anthony – with a total of four elementary schools. Immigrants began to come in greater numbers following the territorial grant. The common school district was established at this time in MN.
Many of the first schools were started by Christian missionaries. The first parochial school opened in St. Paul in 1851. The Catholic schools, which emerged after the large numbers of Irish and German immigrants in the 1850s, were generally the best organized and sufficiently funded. Very few schools besides the Catholic institutions survived the Panic of 1857.
By 1851 a State university was proposed and opened, but did not become officially recognized as a university until 1869. Baldwin school opened in St. Paul in 1853, followed quickly by Baldwin College (for men) in 1863. The college would change its name in 1874 to Macalester College. The Methodists opened Hamline University in 1854. In its first 12 years, the university graduated 14 women and 9 men. It survived the Panic despite having to suspend operation from 1869-1880. Gustavus would not open until 1862, four years after Minnesota became a state. St. John's and Carlton opened in 1864 and 1870, respectively.
Reverend Edward D. Neill, the first territorial Superintendent of Public Instruction, was one of the leaders in fostering education growth in the territory, after moving to MN in 1849. Territorial governor, future two-term governor and two-term U.S. senator Alexander Ramsay put a large emphasis on fostering a strong educational system in Minnesota:
"The subject of education, which has ever been esteemed of the first importance, especially in all new American communities, deserves, and I doubt not will receive, your earliest and most devoted care. From the pressure of other and more immediate wants, it is not to be expected that your school system should be very ample; yet it is desirable that whatever is done should be of a character that will readily adapt itself to the growth and increase of the country and not in future require a violent change of system."
Structurally, the townships were divided into districts (with at least 10 families in each). The first public school meeting was held in November of 1849 in a log schoolhouse in St. Paul. The federal land ordinance of 1785 made sure that each township set aside one plot of land for schooling facilities. Minnesota had two granted upon its acceptance as a territory. Public education was guaranteed royalties from regional natural resource production, as well as county taxes, primarily on liquor, and from criminal fines.