Helen Sutherland (1842-1896)
A.B. 1863, A.M. 1866
“She did well her part in life to make better men and women, better citizens, better fathers and mothers; and these things are her monument; not made of costly bronze or marble, but of the things which endure long after time and the elements of nature will have crumbled such monuments into dust. Hamline University will always be thankful that by her teachings and Christian influence, she helped to prepare such a woman for her duties in life, which were so well performed.” –The History of The Hamline University
This is a fitting memory, for during the late nineteenth century, Helen Sutherland was perhaps the best educated woman in Minnesota on the subjects of Mathematics and Latin. Her career as a life-long teacher and supporter of all kinds of students is well documented in the 1907 History of The Hamline University.
Sutherland was likely attracted to attend Hamline University in Red Wing because her father James Sutherland was among the pioneer residents of Goodhue County. Her sister Ellen Sutherland met her husband William E. Hale while they were both attending Hamline. To Hale – a lawyer – we are indebted to his litigation on behalf of Hamline University ensuring its tax exempt status.
Sutherland’s other sister Josephine also attended Hamline University, and was a freshman when Hamline abruptly closed its Red Wing doors. She later married Ed F. Hopkins and eventually settled in Mazeppa.
Because she was both a Hamline University student and instructor, Sutherland was for many the only link between the old Hamline of Red Wing and the new Hamline of St. Paul. She was one of three graduates – all women – in Hamline’s Civil War class of 1863, which was Hamline’s fifth class. Indeed, the war had taken its toll on the class of 1862, which saw no graduates at all, due to the fact that Hamline’s few men college students had nearly all enlisted.
Her school spirit and patriotism were reflected in the gift to Hamline of a much cherished American flag sewn by Sutherland and classmates Ellen Gillette and Mary Gillette during their senior year. For years, the work of their hands was kept safely in the University Library trophy case as a reminder of the loyalty and devotion of its makers. The flag remains in the possession of Hamline University to this day.
From 1865-1867, Sutherland held the position of Preceptress, or Dean of women students, of Hamline’s preparatory department. During this time, she was in 1866 the fifth Hamline graduate who applied for and was awarded the degree of artium magister, or what is known today as a Master of Arts degree.
In 1871, as Preceptress and Assistant Professor of Latin, Sutherland was the first woman faculty member at the University of Minnesota.
When Hamline University reopened in St. Paul in 1880, Sutherland began her duties as a teacher of specialized subjects, including Mathematics, Latin, and English. Her superior rank as an educator was reflected in the fact that she was elected to the chair of mathematics when she began teaching at Hamline St. Paul campus.
In addition to her work at Hamline, Sutherland taught similar subjects at the University of Minnesota, at the ladies seminary in Albert Lea, and in the public schools at St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Albert Lea. She died after a short illness in 1896. Her life-long friend Rev. Jabez Brooks presided her funeral.
As historian Hellen D. Asher wrote in 1928, ”Her rank as a teacher was high.” Clearly, Helen Sutherland was loved by all who knew her, and for many, she embodied the best principles of a Hamline education.
*I published a version of this article in 150 Lives that Make a Difference (Hamline University Press, 2005)
Hellen D. Asher, ”A Frontier College of the Middle West: Hamline University, 1854-1860.” Minnesota History 9.4 (1928): 363-378.
History of the Hamline University When Located at Red Wing, Minnesota From 1854 to 1859, (1907).
Ina Ten Eyck Firkins, “Women of the University of Minnesota,” in Mary Dillon Foster, ed., Who’s Who Among Minnesota Women, (1924).
The Minneapolis Tribune, Jan. 3, 1896.
St. Paul Daily Globe, July 20, 1880.