Rev. Eliza Wilkes

1844 - 1917

“WILKES, REV. ELIZA TUPPER, was born at Houlton, Maine; was fitted for college in New England, and graduated from the State University of Iowa; was educated for foreign mission work; entered the Unitarian ministry in 1868, and took charge of the Universalist church at Neenan, Wis., the same year; in 1869, was married to William A. Wilkes at the last mentioned place; moved from there to Rochester, Minn., where she had charge of a Universalist church; in 1872, removed to Colorado Springs, Col., where they resided six years, and during part of that time she preached in the Unitarian church in that place; came to Sioux Falls in 1878; was one of the foremost workers in the establishment of the Sioux Falls Public Library and the Ladies History Club; started the project of building All Souls church, and labored zealously until the work was accomplished; has been pastor of the Unity church at Luverne, Minn., for the last twelve years, except three years, when she was assistant pastor of the Unitarian church at Oakland, Cal. With such a record of good works, comments would be superfluous.”

Dana R. Bailey, History of Minnehaha County, South Dakota, (Sioux Falls: Brown & Saenger, 1899) p. 740.

The early days of Sioux Falls are filled with accounts of extraordinary individuals who molded this frontier town into the City it is today, often through the force of sheer will and determination. Eliza Tupper Wilkes entered this distinguished company of individuals in 1878, with her arrival in Sioux Falls, Dakota Territory.

She was born Eliza Smith Tupper in Houlton, Maine on Oct. 8, 1844. It was a poor area, far north in the state, and her father, a liberal Baptist minister, resided there and met the spiritual needs of the local population. Her mother was from the ancient Smith family of Rhode Island, one already established as farmers in 1630 in Sandwich, a town which, some two centuries later had become a hotbed of liberal thought. She was the leading nationwide authority on beekeeping.

When Eliza was six years old, the family moved to Brighton, IA so her father could work with the Indians. In those days of the 1850s, this area was wilderness. At the age of 16, Eliza was sent back to Maine for her high school education. Upon her return to Pella, IA she studied for missionary work at the Baptist School, Iowa Central University, and graduated with honors in 1866. She had by this time formed some close friendships with Quaker associates, and their influence helped her come to the decision to enter a seminary and become a minister, which for a woman at that time was unheard of. As the Baptists would not hear of such a suggestion she left them behind and became a Universalist, and was quietly noted as saying she had “left the devil behind.”

While in Divinity studies she married a young lawyer, William Wilkes, in November 1869. The young couple moved to Colorado Springs, where she founded the first of at least 11 Churches and religious societies. The couple then moved to Rochester, MN and Eliza was ordained on May 2, 1871. She was the lone missionary in the area. In 1878 the Wilkes” moved to Sioux Falls, DT, where William became a successful lawyer and then a Minnehaha County judge. With his moral and financial support, she was able to found Churches in Palo Alto and Almeda, CA; Madison, Huron, Miner, Sioux Falls, DT; Luverne and Adrian, MN; and Rock Rapids, Ia. She was also the guiding influence in the founding of the Ladies” History Club, now the Sioux Falls Women’s Club.

With her husband’s help she brought reading to the new town of Sioux Falls and encouraged literacy among young women which made her a target of men opposed to women's suffrage. The Reading Club became the Carnagie Library and the Wilkes contributed the first $50.00 for books, which Eliza purchased.

Eliza founded All Soul’s Church in Sioux Falls in 1886. She was the first ordained woman to function in Dakota Territory and the first to preach at the Stanford University Chapel in May 1895. In addition, she was the mother of six successful children: at least five of them instrumental in creating the film industry in Hollywood.

Ironically, after all these accomplishments her death certificate from New Jersey, in 1917 merely says “housewife.” She had been visiting a daughter on the east coast when she died and her cremated remains were returned to Sioux Falls and buried on her husband’s grave in the family plot at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. Her grave remained unmarked until this year when a fundraising effort by the present All Soul’s Church led to the purchase of a grave marker.

Eliza Tupper Wilkes died at the age of 72 years. Her ashes were buried on her husband’s (Judge William A. Wilkes) grave on February 18, 1917, in the family lot in Block 13, Lot 5 of the cemetery.