Fearless Fanny – The Story of Fanny Huggins Pettijohn – Part I

One of the most rewarding things about investigating the women whose stories are told in Dakota Soul Sisters is uncovering details about their lives and personalities that are not always immediately evident in the readily accessible historic records. All I knew about Fanny Huggins at the beginning of my research into her life was that she was Alexander Huggins’ younger sister and that she joined him and his wife Lydia at the Lac qui Parle mission in 1839. I also knew that she became ill in 1843 and that her work at the mission was taken over by Jane Williamson, the newly arrived sister of Dr. Thomas Williamson.

Now, during several years of researching the Dakota mission, I’ve found several letters that Fanny wrote during her long life and have come to know a fascinating and fearless woman whose life was marked by tragic losses, poor health and little stability. Nevertheless, she had a sense of humor and a deep faith that saw her through everything and instilled in her an appreciation for God’s presence in her work and ministry.

Fanny Huggins first experience  as a teacher was with the community of former slaves who had been brought to Ohio so their former owners could legally set them free. The Huggins family were active members of Ohio's earliest Underground Railroad in the Red Oak and White Oak communities north of the Ohio River valley.

Fanny Huggins’ first experience as a teacher was with the community of former slaves who had been brought to Ohio so their former owners could legally set them free. The Huggins family were active members of Ohio’s earliest Underground Railroad in the Red Oak and White Oak communities north of the Ohio River valley.

Frances “Fanny” Huggins was born on November 8, 1812, in the Red Oak region of Brown County, Ohio. She was the seventh child and second daughter of William and Frances Gilliland Huggins. Fanny’s brother Alexander, who was ten years older, left to begin his ministry at the Dakota Mission at Lac qui Parle in what would become Minnesota, when Fanny was 21 years old, in the spring of 1835. She was a good friend of Alexander’s wife Lydia, and took credit for introducing them to each other at singing school when they were teenagers. Fanny wrote in her own memoirs in 1888, that “I believe we all had enough missionary Spirit to be glad to have our friends go as missionaries but it was dreadful hard to part with them. But they went.”[1]

Fanny was also involved in what many considered to be missionary work. There was a settlement of former slaves near Red Oak. Most of the white families in the area had come from the south and brought their slaves with them to Ohio in order to set them free in a state where they could live legally. Mary Ann Huggins Kerlinger’s journal described the village as the “black settlement,” and mentioned that Fanny taught school there, boarding among the families for $7.00 a month. “Although the settlement generally was very strong Anti Slavery, there were some to ostracize her for this, no doubt disagreeable, Missionary work. This neighborhood was a great station on the underground railroads that helped slaves running to Canada.”[2]

In the summer of 1839, Alexander and Lydia, along with Dr. Thomas and Margaret Williamson, traveled home to Ohio on furlough from the Lac qui Parle mission. It was during their visit that Fanny was recruited, apparently by Margaret Williamson, to join the Dakota mission. She was 25 years old, single, and ready both for adventure and for the chance to live out her Christian faith.

Fanny wrote to one of her brothers on September 16, 1839, “When Mrs. W first mentioned to me about coming I thought it was not worthwhile to say anything about it but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to come and I thought I would speak to my friends about it. They seemed to think more favor of it than I expected. When I committed the whole to my Heavenly Father and prayed what I might be led to do right and that if it was his will I should come he would give me all the strength that I needed.”[3]

Like all of the early arrivals at the mission, Fanny did not know the Dakota language. She continued in her letter, “I expect to assist Mrs. Riggs in teaching the Dakota children before long. I am trying to learn the language but I make slow progress. I hope however, that I shall learn faster presently.”[4]

Fanny was recruited to the mission work in order to replace Sarah Williamson Pond as a teacher. The Ponds returned to the Lake Harriet area by Fort Snelling with their nine-month-old daughter Ruth when the Huggins and Williamsons returned with Fanny in June of 1839. Fanny was the only single woman at the mission at this point. The Williamsons had three children by June of 1839. Elizabeth was five years old; John was three and Andrew was 18 months old. Alexander and Lydia Huggins also had three children in June of 1839. Amos was seven; Jane was four and Eliza was two years old. Lydia gave birth to their fourth child, Mary Ann Longley Huggins on September 18, 1839. Stephen and Mary Riggs had just one son, Alfred, who was 19 months old when Fanny arrived at Lac qui Parle.

This 1855 photo portrays the trauma and fear that patients experienced when dentistry was practiced without any effort to ease pain or discomfort.

This 1855 photo portrays the trauma and fear that patients experienced when dentistry was practiced without any effort to ease pain or discomfort.

In some ways, Fanny was a surprising recruit to mission work. She was plagued with several health problems that her niece Mary Ann Longley Huggins Kerlinger attributed to poor dental care. Mary Ann wrote in her journal, “Aunt Fanny had the neuralgia a great deal and suffered much, probably for want of a good dentist. When I was a child most of the old folks I knew had lost some teeth but never had them replaced. No doubt dentists were few, their work very crude and charges high.

“Some of the methods of old times seem little better than conjuring of the savages. Germs and microbes had not been discovered. Sanitation and hygiene were very little understood and woe be to the family or individual who fell into the hands of the Doctors. I am not one to believe the Drs. were so inhumane as to purposely keep people sick for the sake of a large feel. I believe most of them honestly did the best they knew then, mostly what their books told them to. Still I believe that often what today would be even remedied by wrong management resulted in death or a life long injury.

“Besides huge doses out of the capacious wallet which the Dr. always carried on horse or buggy, Calomel, Salep, there was bleeding, cupping and scarifying, fly blister and I know not what all tortures until the coming of the Dr. must have been dreaded by the victim. A number of my Father’s people seem to have fallen into the Dr’s hands and those who lived through must have had tough constitutions indeed.

“Aunt Fanny herself fell into the Dr’s hands at 13 years of age. She learned to weave, I know how fascinating that can be for I have woven a few years myself, ambitious to make a good record she spent long hours at the loom. After throwing the shuttle, the reeds (if that is the right word) are brought with considerable force against the breast. This made her feel hungry and she would go and get some bread and butter or something better and weave and eat. This doubtless it was gave her inflammation of the stomach.

“After recovering from the disease and medicine she had many after attacks and for 15 years must have been a very profitable patient. Sometimes she was too weak to speak and friends were around her head expecting the end. I remember one time when she spoke to be as we all thought for the last time; but she rallied…

“I think most of the Drs in that region attended her at one time or another. I have heard her speak of Dr. Beck and Williamson I knew went to see her, and others I don’t remember names. Besides taking most of the drugs then in use she was often bled, cupped and scarified and blistered. At 35 she had white hair and looked to me at least 45. [Margin note: Perhaps I exaggerate Aunts age. She wore a cap over her white hair which made her look old.] ”[5]

In February of 1842, it was the Riggs’ turn to head back east on furlough. They took their four-year-old son Alfred, and their newborn daughter Martha with them but left their two-year-old daughter Isabella with Fanny. They returned to Minnesota in the spring of 1843 but the Riggs had been reassigned to a new mission at Traverse des Sioux and they were replaced at Lac qui Parle by Robert and Agnes Hopkins. On the way home from Ohio Stephen Riggs departed the entourage at Traverse des Sioux and Mary went on alone to pick up Isabella before returning to the new Traverse mission.

That September, Thomas Williamson’s sister, Jane Williamson, arrived at the Lac qui Parle mission. She was to teach the Williamson children and was not initially part of the mission staff. Shortly after her arrival, however, Fanny became so ill that she could no longer teach and Jane was recruited to take her place. Despite her health concerns, Fanny did not return to Ohio until June of 1845 when she accompanied Alexander and Lydia back east with their children, Amos, Mary Ann and Eli. They were reunited with their other daughters Jane and Eliza, who had been living with relatives in Ohio for several years.

During this trip, the Huggins party also traveled to Illinois to visit Lydia’s father and Fanny renewed her acquaintance there with Mr. Jonas Pettijohn, a cousin of Lydia’s. The two had both worked as teachers to the former slaves who lived in the settlement near Red Oak. Mary Ann Huggins Kerlinger wrote in her journal: “Aunt told me she had admired him years before; but when he asked her to marry him she said, ‘Not unless you go with me to the Mission for I can’t give up my work.’ ”[6]

Fanny first knew Jonas Pettijohn when each when they both worked in what was called the "black settlement" of former slaves near Red Oak. They married years later when Fanny met Jonas again while she was visiting the Pettijohns in Illinois.

Fanny first knew Jonas Pettijohn when they both worked in what was called the “black settlement” of former slaves near Red Oak. They married years later when Fanny met Jonas again while she was visiting the Pettijohns in Illinois.

Jonas acquiesced and the couple was married at the home of Rev. John Clarke near Huntsville, Illinois, on September 27, 1845. Fanny was now 32 years old. Jonas was almost exactly a year younger than Fanny, born on November 5, 1813, compared to Fanny’s birthday of November 8, 1812.[7]

The honeymoon journey back to Lac qui Parle was one of the more well-described of any trip, thanks to Mary Ann Huggins Kerlinger’s journal. She was six-years old at the time and the details of the journey were deeply embedded in her memory. She recalled staying with Dr. Turner and his family at Fort Snelling when they arrived back in Minnesota. They then set out by canoe for Traverse des Sioux but the water was low and passage difficult. Delayed by the conditions, the party ran out of food and Mary wrote that Fanny saw some Indians on the shore, hailed them and stood up in the boat waving a calico dress that she offered them in exchange for something to eat. They gave the group some wild rice and a duck and the party reached Traverse and headed west with two wagons and a tent for shelter.

Mary recalled that Fanny was quite sick and everyone was miserable when the cold autumn rain began and continued for several days. They reached the mission on October 28, 1845, four weeks after leaving Illinois. Fanny was so weak that Jonas had to carry her into the little cabin that would be their first home together.[8] For the next seven years, Fanny and Jonas devoted their lives to the Dakota people at Lac qui Parle.


[1] Fanny Huggins Memoir, Huggins digitized collection, Minnesota Historical Society, hereafter Fanny’s Memoir.

[2] Mary Huggins Kerlinger Journal, Huggins digitized collection, Minnesota Historical Society, p. 21, hereafter Kerlinger Journal.

[3] Fanny Huggins to Dear Brother and Sister, September 16, 1839, Huggins digitized collection, Minnesota Historical Society, Correspondence set 3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kerlinger Journal, passim, pp 44-52

[6] Kerlinger Journal, p. 115

[7] Jonas Pettijohn wrote in his own memoirs that it was Alexander Huggins who convinced him to join the mission work at Lac qui Parle. Autobiography, Family History and Various Reminiscenses of the Life of Jonas Pettijohn, by Jonas Pettijohn, Green, Kansas, August 1880, Dispatch Printing House, Clay Center, Kansas. Minnesota Historical Society, Lower Sioux Agency, Morton, Minnesota, p.37.

[8] Kerlinger Journal, passim pp. 115-120

This entry was posted in Dakota Mission, Fanny Huggins Pettijohn, Lac Qui Parle Mission, Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, Minnesota History, Underground Railroad, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

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