Mrs. Aiton Times Two – Nancy Hunter Aiton and Mary Briggs Aiton

In June of 1925, Miss Margaret Aiton of Minneapolis donated “some twelve letters” to the Minnesota Historical Society. Minnesota History Magazine described the gift as follows:

“Some twelve letters written by Jane Williamson, Sister of the missionary Dr. Thomas S. Williamson, from the Yellow Medicine mission in 1853, have been presented by Miss Margaret Aiton of Minneapolis, daughter of Mrs. John Aiton, to whom they originally were written. The letters are of special interest because they interpret from a woman’s viewpoint the situation which confronted the early missionaries. Miss Aiton has also presented a biographical sketch of Dr. Williamson and reminiscences of the mission by her mother, together with a number of photographs of members of the Williamson family.”[1]

Many of these letters have been cited in earlier posts, especially those about Jane Williamson. What the article didn’t say is that the letters weren’t actually written to Margaret Aiton’s mother, who was the second Mrs. Aiton – they were written to Nancy Hunter Aiton, John Aiton’s first wife. Jane Williamson and Nancy Aiton were close friends and their letters to each other do indeed “interpret from a woman’s viewpoint” the story of the Dakota missions at Red Wing, Kaposia and Pejutazee. The magazine article also indicates that Miss Aiton also turned over several photographs of the Williamson family. That information is important and tragic because all of those photographs were destroyed in the infamous photo purge at the Minnesota History Center when thousands of prints were thrown away because some enterprising staffer saw that the Society did not have the negative and did not take the time to track down the provenance of those prints. In the case of the Williamson family, most of their own photographs were destroyed when their house was burned to the ground in 1862 and some of the photographs donated by the Aiton family were the only existing copies of those images.

That sad story aside, the story of Nancy Hunter Aiton and her friendship with Jane Williamson is an important part of the historical record. I would give anything to find a photo of Nancy but so far nothing has surfaced. She was born on October 20, 1828, in New York State, the daughter of Moses and Elisabeth Hunter. She had three brothers, James, Robert and Andrew.

When Nancy was a young girl, her father brought the family to Quincy, Illinois, where he served as principal of the Quincy Mission Institute. Rev. Dr. David Nelson founded the Mission Institute in 1836 and the school operated Quincy’s best known Underground Railroad Station, Mission Institute #1, just north of present day Madison Park. The Underground Railroad was an informal, secret system of aiding fugitive slaves by passing them along from “station to station” until they reached Canada and freedom. The Underground Railroad lasted in Quincy from the early 1830s to the late 1840s. Nancy grew up in that abolitionist home and held to her strong anti-slavery beliefs for her entire life. She was also a student at the mission institute during her teenage years.

Quincy IL Courthouse

Nancy Hunter grew up in Quincy, Illinois. This scene of the city includes the courthouse and one of the main streets in the shopping district. Nancy’s father was the principal of the Mission Institute in Quincy.

In January of 1846, Thomas Williamson apparently learned that a student at Lane Seminary, John Felix Aiton, had approached the ABCFM about coming west as a missionary to the Dakota. Thomas wrote to David Greene of the ABCFM that “Mr. Aiton is engaged to a young lady in Quincy, Illinois… They would do well at Red Wing. I have been told that the woman he is about to marry is very likely to be a suitable companion to a missionary.”[2] That young woman was Nancy Hunter. She and John Aiton had been engaged since 1845.

John Aiton was born in Stonehouse Parish, Lanarkshire, Scotland on November 15, 1817. He was the son of Thomas and Jean Muter Aiton, and came to Canada when he was seventeen years old, while his parents remained in Scotland. In about 1837 he came to Ohio and attended the Mission Institute at Quincy before beginning his studies at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati.

Lane Seminary

Lane Theological Seminary was a Presbyterian theological college that operated from 1829 to 1932 in Walnut Hills, Ohio, today a neighborhood in Cincinnati.

In the summer of 1848, when Nancy was nineteen years old, John graduated from Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, along with his classmate Moses Newton Adams, whose wife was the other Nancy, Nancy Rankin, whose story was shared in the previous post. Both John Aiton and Moses Adams wanted to be missionaries to the American Indians in the west and both received the same advice that they needed to be married before they even considered going to the mission field.

Nancy Hunter married John Aiton on July 5, 1848, and Nancy Rankin married Moses Adams on July 8, 1848. Both couples left for the Dakota mission in Minnesota Territory within a few days of their weddings. Both couples were also welcomed by the Williamsons at Kaposia. The Aitons were sent south to assist Rev. Joseph and Martha Hancock at the mission at Red Wing, Minnesota, and Moses and Nancy Adams were assigned to the mission at Lac Qui Parle, Minnesota. Joseph Hancock had been a classmate of both John Aiton and Moses Adams while they attended Lane Seminary in Cincinnati.

Kaposia Village (2)

Seth Eastman painting of Kaposia on the west bank of the Mississippi in what is today South St. Paul, Minnesota. John and Nancy were originally stationed in Red Wing, Minnesota, about 40 miles from Kaposia but both of them visited and worked at the Kaposia mission during their time in Minnesota.

When Nancy and John arrived at Red Wing, Joseph Hancock and his wife, Martha Houghton Hancock, had one daughter, Marilla Hancock, who was four months old.  It wasn’t long before Nancy and John learned they were expecting their first child as well. Nancy came to stay with the Williamsons at Kaposia during her confinement. She and John arrived at the village on February 20, 1849. John returned to Red Wing a few days later but Nancy stayed until their daughter Elizabeth was born on April 9, 1849.[3] A week later she wrote to John that Dr. Williamson said she could return to Red Wing in three weeks or so and said she wished that John could be there to give their daughter a kiss this morning.[4]

John wrote a letter to his new baby daughter on April 20, 1849, when she was just eleven days old. He was at Red Wing and Nancy and the baby were at Kaposia.

“Dear daughter,

“Today I hear that you look in Mother’s face. You are not yet acquainted with Red Wing and the people here so I cannot tell you anything about home except that I am very glad to hear about you. I hope that you will give yourself to God as soon as you can learn from your Mother that all men are in need of a Savior. God says, ‘Remember thy creation in the days of thy youth.’  I am glad that you are in good health; also that you sleep well. Put your little arm round Mother’s neck and kiss her.

“The lord bless you, Farewell,

Your Father John Aiton”[5]

The correspondence between John and Nancy began in 1845 when he was attending Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Nancy was in Quincy, Illinois. Over the years, they wrote hundreds of letters, many of which are in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. The letters are very intimate and full of loving messages. Despite that intense connection on paper, John and Nancy actually lived apart a great deal of the time.

For example, on February 3, 1850, when their daughter Elizabeth was ten months old, Nancy wrote to John from her mother’s home in Quincy, Illinois. It isn’t clear where John was but Nancy told him, “So you were writing to me last Friday night when I was thinking perhaps he will come tonight. I was knitting and sat until ten rather later than usual and then felt satisfied that you would be otherwise employed. I am glad to hear that you have plenty to do and are contented.” It appears that John was nearby and this may have been the time when he was working as a Bible salesman in Illinois.

Nancy’s letter continues:

“The sun is now set and what a beautiful day it has been and Mother and I had a fine walk down to Mr. Furnell’s. Sarah is still confined to the bed and Mrs. F. very poorly. Twas right cold last week but we had plenty of wood and I kept thinking that if this month is cold the next will be warmer perhaps which was quite a consolation you know. Indeed I felt quite well and cheerful all the week. I washed your clothes and have them all ready with very little inconvenience and I thought I had great reason to be thankful. There is scarce any lameness now and very little pain and good appetite so ought I not to be thankful and cheerful not if you would concern we would be happy and have mush and milk.” [6]

Nancy’s health is often mentioned in these letters and was an ongoing concern although she was able to return to Red Wing, Minnesota, with John within a few weeks of writing this February 1850 letter.

By July 23, 1850, however, when little Elizabeth was fifteen months old, Nancy once again returned to her mother’s home in Quincy, Illinois. Nancy’s brother Andrew, who was twenty years old, was the last of her siblings to live at home with his mother. Before they left Minnesota Nancy wrote to Jane Williamson at Kaposia:

“My Dear Miss Williamson,

“Till the last I have promised myself the pleasure of seeing you again, by getting on The Nominee as it went up; but now I must give it up as The Franklin Nr. 2 is early enough this week to take us clear home before the Sabbath which will save us much time trouble and perhaps expense. I have left my bureau for you. Please accept it as a token of my gratitude for your multiplied kindnesses to us. Mr. Aiton says perhaps it will cost you more to get it than it will do you good. This I would pay were I going up, so please charge it to my account. The little roll of pieces I designed for the little girls, the thimble for Mary, the calico was given to me by a dear friend last summer but I do not need it now and perhaps it may do you some good. Please wear it for my sake, not because it is pretty.”[7]

Only a few days after John and Nancy arrived in Ohio, their little daughter Elizabeth became ill and died. As is so often the case when a young child passed away in this era, nothing is noted as a cause of death. Children just died. Historians today have speculated that some of them may have been lactose intolerant, or had some gastrointestinal problem that didn’t allow them to absorb nutrition. This latest journey to Ohio may have been made because Elizabeth wasn’t well, but Nancy’s health also became an issue again. In any case, words and notes of sympathy arrived from friends and family.

One of the most unusual came to Nancy from Mary Napexni, a little Dakota girl who had known Nancy at Kaposia.

“Dear Mrs. Aiton,

“I think the rose you sent me very pretty. You were very kind to spin that good yarn to keep my feet warm in the winter. I think you for the knitting needles. I have commenced knitting my stockings. I read Bowyer-Smith through three times and thank you for sending it to me. I have read Mother stories and some other books. I read some chapters in the Bible every day now. I read about Jephtha’s daughter today in school.

“I was very sorry when I heard little Elizabeth was dead. My little Brother is dead too. He was put in a box and buried on the bluff. Aunt Jane goes with us up to the grave sometimes. We can see it from the kitchen door. On the same hill are some red stones the Indians pray to but I know that they cannot hear nor help them.

“Please do not forget,

“Mary Napexni”[8]

Mary Napexni Letter

Mary Napexni was probably about eight years old when she wrote to Nancy Hunter Aiton to thank her for items Nancy had sent to her from Illinois. Mary was a student of Jane Williamson’s at Kaposia and learned to read and write in both Dakota and English at Jane’s school.

On October 11, 1850, Nancy Jane Williamson wrote to Nancy Aiton.

“Dear Mrs. Aiton,

“We were very much pleased and surprised to see Mr. Aiton come off The Nominee. We were very glad to hear from you once more.

“I was very sorry when I heard that little Elizabeth was dead.

“Mary’s brother is dead, too, but may we not hope that they are together praising God among the holy angels. Once when I went out with Mary to see her brother’s grave she said his soul had come out at a hole she showed me. But I hope she will learn better after a while.

“We think the crewel and perforated paper very pretty. Aunt said that she thinks when we get our woolen things all made she will let us have some time to make markers. I think the marker you sent me very pretty and thank you for remembering me and taking to make it.

“From your friend,

“Nancy Jane Williamson

Letter Continues

“October 12

“Mr. Aiton spent last night with us but he did not talk much of dear Elizabeth’s death and we supposed it made him sad to think about it.”

Jane Williamson added her own thoughts on October 16, 1850:

“Bro. Aiton has just informed me that he is sending to you and although it is my usual bedtime I will add a line to what N.J. has written. Oh, if you could have considerably left home this winter how we should have loved to have had you with us. We would all have felt it a very great privilege. Still it does seem very desirable that you should spend a season with your Mother and bro. Even the hope of seeing you in the Spring rejoices us. But Mr. A. now feels that the way is not quite open for him to labor in Minnesota. May the Lord direct your steps.”[9]

By the winter of 1850-51, Nancy was pregnant again and John was teaching at a school in Chili, Illinois, while she stayed in Quincy. Their son, Thomas Hunter Aiton, was born early in 1851. On March 12, 1851, Nancy wrote to John that the baby was lying on the floor “stretching himself, making observations and taking some exercise withal. He slept in bed all night las night and has been very good today. He would listen attentively to any you would say to him for he loves to be talked to.”[10]

Only a few days later John Aiton wrote to Nancy concerning the situation with their position in the mission in Minnesota.

“The news in the Dr’s letter were about what I expected. If Mr. Hancock and Mr. Pond are not in favor of increasing the number of the missionaries, then it will not be well for us to go there. And perhaps it would be best for us to give up the expectation of joining the Sioux Mission. The Dr. does not appear have much hope of our joining that mission. He speaks of us keeping a boarding school at Red Rock. But the obstacles on our part, is want of money. The missionaries have generally calculated what the U.S. will allow and it will not be sufficient to maintain the children. Thus the children will require our time and not afford us anything to live on. And if the ABCFM does not see fit to undertake such a school then the moneyless family would be made, in my estimate to enter on so money-need a scheme. Still if God says so, then he will alter the way…..Please do not call the boy bub. I greatly dislike it.” (He circled the last sentence.)[11]

Despite John’s expressed concerns about whether they should leave the mission for good, by May of 1851, the Aitons returned once again to Minnesota. They were called back because Joseph Hancock’s wife Martha had passed away on March 20, 1851, leaving him alone with three-year-old Marilla and seven-month-old Willie Hancock. Nancy and John’s own son, Thomas Aiton, was baptized at Kaposia by Rev. Williamson on May 30, 1851, and a few weeks later Jane Williamson brought four of her Dakota students by steamer down the river to Red Wing to visit Nancy there.

steamer at Red Wing

Red Wing today is a charming historic city on the Mississippi River. In the 1850s it was rapidly becoming populated by white settlers and river traffic increased over the years. Jane Williamson took four of her Dakota students on a riverboat to Red Wing to visit Nancy Aiton in 1851.

On October 2, 1851, Jane Williamson wrote to Nancy to share her concern that the obituary that Mr. Hancock prepared may have not reached the office of the Pioneer in time to appear in that week’s paper. The obituary Jane referred to was for little Willie Hancock who had died on September 27, 1851, at the age of thirteen months. Jane had returned to Kaposia after being at Red Wing with Nancy and John Aiton and Joseph Hancock following Martha’s death.[12] She was preparing for a trip to Ohio and took Nancy Jane Williamson and Marion Robertson with her when she left with Stephen and Mary Riggs on October 31, 1851.

Nancy Aiton came to Kaposia to cover Jane’s classes during her absence. Sarah Rankin, who had been stationed at Red Wing with the Aitons and Hancocks, wrote to Nancy from her new posting at Lac Qui Parle on March 28, 1852.

“I was very much surprised to learn in a letter from Mrs. Pond that you had left Red Wing and gone up to Kaposia and have taken Miss Williamson’s school. I won’t believe it if I hadn’t heard it so straight. I think Miss W. must have started off very suddenly. I think Mr. H. must be very lonely there all alone. Where is Marilla and has she got well? I have been very anxious to hear from her. I suppose Thomas has got to be a great boy by this time if he grew as fast as he did last summer. I think about Willie a great deal. I feel very lonely at times when I think of him but he is gone and our loss is his gain. I expect your mother was very much disappointed in not seeing you this fall. Sister said that she was expecting you home on every boat when they left…Sister sends her respects to you and Mr. Aiton and says she would be happy to hear from you. I send much love to Mr. A and all inquiring friends.”[13]

Nancy took care of Jane’s students and they exchanged letters during this time which are cited in Jane Williamson’s story in Dakota Soul Sisters. Jane returned home to Kaposia in May of 1852. She brought with her a young sixteen-year-old Mary Smith Briggs, who had been one of Jane’s students in West Union, Ohio, when Mary was a young girl. This was perhaps the first time that Mary Briggs met John and Nancy Aiton and it wasn’t long before Nancy and John once again went to visit Nancy’s family in Illinois. They were in Illinois when the Annual Meeting of the Dakota Mission was held that fall but were back in Kaposia by November 18, 1852 where John was serving as the government teacher at the school as opposed to being affiliated with the Kaposia mission. Nancy’s brother, Andrew Hunter, came out to Kaposia to join them in 1852.

In October 1852, the Williamsons, Mary Briggs, and Nancy Aiton’s brother Andrew moved to their new mission which they named Pejutazee. It was located by the new Upper Sioux Agency reservation northwest of the Lower Sioux Agency reservation. The Dakota were being relocated to the new reservations following the ratification of the Treaty of 1851. Jane wrote to Nancy from their new home on November 18, 1852.

“Soon after we came here Mr. Hunter went to Lac qui Parle for a cartload of potatoes. Smith [Smith Williamson] accompanied driving him in the wagon to bring a piece of furniture bro had left. Then bro insisted that I should comply with an invitation Mrs. Riggs had sent me and pay them a visit and as I am not fond of riding in wagon he said I might take the side saddle and ride Filly. I enjoyed riding in the wagon and on horseback by turns very well. We were almost thru when I was taken sick and was quite unwell. Sabbath could not attend Sioux preaching. We expected to start home Monday but the horses could not be found. Your bro searched diligently till Tuesday evening.

“Wednesday morning your bro harnessed the oxen and started. Mr. Riggs put his horse on the wagon and brought Nancy Jane, Smith and me in it. We did not reach home until sometime after dark. The snow was falling very fast and we had some difficulty finding the house. Mr. Hunter camped but started before day and arrived early in the morning. He is very energetic and never complains of being sick or tired. We find him a very pleasant member of our family, too fearful of giving trouble and ever ready to oblige he appears humble and devoted and I cannot but hope the Lord use him as an instrument of good to his poor people. Yet I know I ofttimes hope to be disappointed but I doubt not that you pray the Lord to guide us all in the way that we should go. He will soon speak Sioux well, nearly those hard sounds very accurately.”[14]

Just a few days after Jane wrote this letter to Nancy, her brother Andrew and a hired French man named Jacques planned to head back to Traverse des Sioux to bring back the flour and corn meal that had not made it into the carts and boat for the first trip. Thomas Williamson was very worried about them because the weather was rapidly worsening, becoming colder with snow and ice constantly building up. Jane said the two men were both “full of energy and youthful adventure and profess not to dread the trip.”

Things did not work out as the men planned. Jane told Nancy about the situation in a letter to her on January 12, 1853:

“Dear Sister Aiton,

“If the letters mailed by your bro. at Traverse des Sioux reached you in safety you undoubtedly have listened to the frightful howling of the fierce north wind with painful anxiety. And day after day when the churning rays of the sun were obscured by the drifting snow you thought of and prayed for a brother who might be exposed to the terrible tempest.

“We too were painfully anxious for him and the young man who was with him. My bro sometimes said all the comfort he felt respecting them was in knowing that the Lord reigns and the reason we had to hope Mr. Hunter was his child.

“On last Monday evening they both reached home but I am sorry to add your brother’s feet had been so badly frozen that he has not been able to walk on them since. When bro opened his feet he exclaimed I can’t see how you walked on these feet. Andrew replied, “I knew friends were praying for us. The Lord helped me. When I took one step I thought I could take one more.”

“For two or three days after he came his feet had so little sensation that the dressing gave him very little pain but he suffers acutely now when they are dressed. Still he bears it without a murmur.”

“When he is able he will give you particulars. Suffice it to say the Indians that came before them had used hay they left by the way and notwithstanding their efforts to preserve them by calling down but armed the storms they give out. Mr. Jacques made a little sled and putting some crackers and their bedding on it prevailed on your bro to leave the teams. They came on J driving the sled.

This on New Year’s Day. While many were rejoicing they were painfully pursuing their way. Mr. H. sometimes holding onto J. They got in sight of Brown’s but wandered a little could not reach it, slept without fire but having plenty of blankets were not cold. Sabbath morning the wind rose and they started for the house. The snow in the timber was soft. Jacques had left his snowshoes behind, and drawing the sled caused him to sink. Made walking very laborious so he put some crackers in a pillowslip, left all the rest and they reached the house in the forenoon. No one is living there this winter and there is no door that shuts but wood was very convenient. Mr. Jacques kept a good fire, carried in plenty of hay for them to sleep on and under the next morning they started early and reached home about 8 p.m.

“We are very sorry your bro should suffer so but feel it our privilege to be permitted to nurse him and although we may not do it so well as a widowed mother or an only sister he seems content and much oftener speaks of his mercies than his afflictions.

“The provisions they had left when they arrived at Traverse they laid up where they thought it would be safe but a dog got it. They got what meat they thought would be enough coming back but it was not sufficient. Mr. H. said he never felt so strong after the meat gave out…

“He relishes his food very much now hope he will soon be better but he can’t get well very soon.

“When we consider how terribly stormy the weather was we feel thankful that their lives were spared. Still I feel very sorry to see him suffering and it gives me much to feel that this suffering was brought by exerting himself to bring food to us.

“When starting I said to him, ‘Don’t you dread the trip?’ ‘All I dread about it is the anxiety you and others will feel for us,’ was your brother’s reply. Yet I felt sad when they started.”[15]

Jane continued to keep Nancy informed about Andrew in a letter she wrote between February 4 and 15, 1853:

“Dear Sister Aiton, 

“Your favor of December 27 did not reach us till yesterday though one of a later date had been previously read.

“Your Brother’s feet are still mending but the right one from which the toes were taken is more painful than usual today. He said just now ‘If I can’t along without complaining with part of a foot how should I do if I had a whole one?’ Thus you see he is Andrew yet. But he does not very often make light remarks and few I think would have such an affliction with so much cheerful resignation as he does.

“I think Dec. was the most terribly stormy month I ever saw with us. How was it with you? Jan. came in cold but upon the — it was pleasant. The howling wind today is rather to remind us of the painfully anxious days and nights we spent when Mr. H and J were returning from Traverse.

“Mr. J says one night very similar the cold was so terrible that they stowed the fire and made their bed on the hot rocks having a large fire at their feet after lying sometime he tried to look out, the fire had burned out the place where it had been was covered with snow and a drift was forming on them. They had a tent but the wind was heavy they could not often sit it. They also had more bedding that they needed but the snow would wet it to prevent this. They had taken with then a bed tick filled with hay but when the horses had nothing else to eat they fed it away….

“The wind has abated but the mercury is 26 below. When it is so cold we are seldom comfortably warm in daytime but we have bedding enough to keep us warm at night. Were you to stop in the first object that would strike your attention would be Brother lying on the floor for we have not a bed for him. At night he lies in a feather straw bed but in the morning we usually lay off the feathers. This being an increasingly cold day he lies on both today although a shade more —

“I think his countenance has increased its animation and he looks more interesting than when he was so ill. I said to him the other day, ‘If we only had one comfortable room for you.’ He quickly replied ‘Aunt, I would not be half so happy as I am here.’ He always seems content with such things as we have and will such attention as we can give. He often regrets that he did not do more to comfort and relieve his mother and sisters.

“Mr. Jacques’s great toe is still quite sore but he goes around. He is planing plank today. Workbench is the house floor covered with shavings and he is trying to put up the plank for the — room might be comfortable warmed with the stove. Your bro takes in half in the planing and putting up the — and longs to be able to assist.

“I fear you will find it sad to think his bed is no the floor but although attended with some inconveniences he is perhaps rather better off than on a bedstead. It is easier to get around at a suitable distance from the floor to have his feet dressed. The dead flesh is now all off them and they have ceased to be offensive. The heel on the right foot is healing rapidly and we hope. The bone of it injured a small part of his bone on the left heel is bare but bro thinks the bone of it is not near so much injured as he had feared. A scale came off the bone on the outside of that foot but the flesh has grown over it and the skin is growing over it nicely. There is still a little piece of anklebone on the great toe. The toes on the right foot were all taken at the lower joint and although a little of the living flesh was cut in taking the toes off the dead flesh extended far below the sole and though this is now off it has [bottom of page torn off].

“Your bro sits at the stove today….Had you come in a little while ago you might have seen him with Grammar in hand for I have persuaded him to recite with the children and he sometimes assists them in arithmetic. But he has laid his book aside and he is now is trying to sharpen a plane bit on a whetstone. It being too cold for Mr. J. to work out he is again assisting at the partition when it is possible. This room will be warmer. But the upper floor is only loose boards and much of the heat escapes in that way.

“The kitchen stove throws out but little heat but although we have not a very comfortable house we have much to be thankful for. Sister’s health is better than usual. I had feared Miss Briggs might be lonesome or discontented but she is more pleasant and seems happier than before we left Kapoja. Gets her lessons well and recites in grammar with the others….

“For the last few days your Bro. has had his bed taken up in the morning and sits and lies on a pallet by the stove during the day. The absence of the bed leaves room for the table and he sits with us to eat. This looks pleasant though he has to have his feet propped on a box under the table. When hanging down they are painful. He has got clear of the rheumatism in his hips. Bro thinks the rheumatism was worse in consequence of his leaving his overcoat. We were very sorry when we found he had left as the one he wore was much shorter. He said his reason for leaving it was he could not wear so much under it as the short one and it was more clumsy. He had a very good pair of mittens but would not wear them before he started down thinking he wished to save them because you had knit them. I got Mary to knit him a pair of coarse white yarn, charged him to take both pair with and the deerskin ones he had to wear over…. Jane S. Williamson” [16]

In the spring of 1853, Nancy Aiton was once again expecting a baby and John took her and Thomas to Nancy’s mother in Quincy, Illinois. Nancy’s mother had hoped to come out to visit them in Minnesota but the snow and ice that marked the winter of 1852-1853 made travel impossible and Nancy felt it best to have the baby in Illinois. Jane Williamson continued to keep them informed of Andrew’s progress with his feet.

The last letter I’ve ever found from Jane Williamson to Nancy Hunter was written on March 3, 1853. Sadly, Nancy was recovering from the stillborn birth of an unnamed child and suffering from consumption, or what we now call tuberculosis. It was a letter that again brought Nancy up to date on how Andrew was doing. She told Nancy that Andrew was very anxious to make a trip to Illinois to visit the family, but that he still wasn’t well enough to travel. It appears that John Aiton returned to Kaposia without Nancy, who remained in Quincy in the hope of recovering her health.

John, who was the government teacher at Kaposia, soon expanded his role as Kaposia became the new seat of the Dakota County. His home was the site of the first meeting of the Dakota County Commissioners on July 4, 1853. The first precinct elections were held at Aiton’s and John was named deputy registrar of deeds for the county. He also became the first postmaster – one date says April 26, 1853 and another February 4, 1853 until October 16, 1854, when the county seat was moved to Mendota. It isn’t clear whether or not he ever made a trip back to Illinois during this time.

A letter from Nancy to John dated September 20, 1853, shares some of Nancy’s thoughts:

“I thought it was my duty to go and do what I could to make you happy my few remaining days and did I think you felt so I would do my utmost. But I am very frail and thankful to enjoy a mother’s care while I am not unmindful of a tender husband’s sympathy. Thomas climbs in and over his little bed by himself. Appears to be pretty well. I hope you will keep up good courage and come back when your business permits. Leave not to pray for your affectionate wife. N.H. Aiton.”

A few days later, on October 1, 1853, Nancy writes that she cannot yet bear the thought of parting from him. The letter ends mid page and she says no more.[17]

Unfortunately, Nancy Hunter Aiton died by the spring of 1854 when she was just twenty-five years old. She left one son, Thomas, who was three years old when Nancy passed away. I have not found any record of when and where Nancy was buried, nor any obituary for her in the missionary files. As we have learned, however, John Aiton, or perhaps Nancy’s mother, kept all of Nancy’s letters that she had received from Jane Williamson and it is those letters that have provided the foundation of the story of Nancy’s brief life, one hundred sixty-five years after her death.

Right Hazlewood Mission

The Hazlewood Mission was established by Stephen Riggs in 1854. Riggs asked John Aiton to come to Hazlewood after Nancy’s death to help teach English and Dakota. The Williamson mission at Pejutazee, where Mary Briggs was living, was just three miles away and the mission families often worshipped and socialized together.

On November 1, 1854, John Aiton was hired by Rev. Stephen Riggs to come out to the Riggs Mission at Hazlewood to help with teaching the Dakota. It appears that John left his son Thomas with Nancy’s family in Illinois since he never mentions having to care for him in the years following Nancy’s death. John taught at Hazlewood that winter. The Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for 1855 reports that he taught Dakota School in the mornings and English in the afternoons. Attendance in the morning classes was poor so they were dropped but John taught the English school through the end of the spring 1855 term.

Stephen Riggs soon received an inquiry from S.B. Treat of the ABCFM asking him when John Aiton arrived at Hazlewood and pointing out that he had not been informed that John was even there. Riggs replied that John was only there as hired help and that he expected him to leave soon. He said he’d hired him to teach five days a week for $21 a month.[18]

While John was at Hazlewood he renewed his acquaintance with Mary Smith Briggs, the young woman who had come out to Kaposia with Jane Williamson in May of 1852. Mary was a former student of Jane’s from West Union, Ohio, and was born on June 17, 1836. She was the daughter of George Briggs and Rachel Blake Briggs and had two sisters. The eldest, Harriet Briggs, was born on November 22, 1834 and the youngest, Hannah Briggs was born on December 12, 1839. Mary was the middle daughter.

When Mary arrived at Kaposia with Jane Williamson in 1852, forty to fifty Dakota were at the river’s edge to welcome the boat. Mary had never experienced such a thing but enjoyed the adventure and moved into the two-story Williamson home with the family. Dr. Williamson informed the ABCFM of her arrival but didn’t ask that she be officially enrolled as a member of the mission. John Aiton first met Mary at Kaposia, but John was married to Nancy at the time and as a man who was nineteen years older than the young new teacher at the mission, it is unlikely that they would have exchanged more than a few words over the years. It is more likely that Nancy Aiton knew Mary much better than her husband did.

Mary accompanied the Williamsons to their new mission near the Upper Sioux Reservation in 1852. They made the journey in late fall, arriving in November and the weather had turned very cold. In a letter to her cousin Elizabeth on November 29, 1852, Jane Williamson mentioned that she and Mary slept on the upper story with the little girls, reporting that they had two stoves but one had no feet and couldn’t be moved to make it as warm as she would have liked.[19] Despite the cold and the challenge of finishing their new home in time for the storms of winter, Jane Williamson wrote to Nancy Hunter Aiton that “Miss Briggs is happier than she has been since we left Kaposia.”[20] Mary was with the Williamsons during the entire episode with Andrew Hunter’s frozen feet and would have come to know Andrew’s sister Nancy Aiton through her many letters to Jane Williamson. But Nancy Aiton died in the spring of 1854, and Mary’s new friendship with John Aiton flourished.

On March 3, 1855, Stephen Riggs wrote to S.B. Treat and informed him that John had been paying attention to Miss Briggs who wanted to return to Ohio in the spring, surmising that John might go with her and bring her back.[21] On April 11, 1855, John Aiton wrote to Mary Briggs from Hazlewood. “Think not, Miss Briggs, that in these sense you had to place in this heart. I plucked one little spray for you. Good night, dear lady, of my many thoughts. May God order all our steps for Jesus; sake. Amen.” [22] Thomas Williamson performed the wedding ceremony of John Aiton and Mary Briggs on April 20, 1855, at the Williamson mission at Pejutazee, less than a year after Nancy Hunter Aiton’s death. John was thirty-seven years old and Mary was just eighteen when they were wed. They took a wedding trip to St. Paul where they remained for a year before purchasing Ten Trees Farm in Lake Prairie, Nicollet County, Minnesota.


Mary Briggs and John Aiton were married at the Pejutazee mission by Rev. Thomas Williamson on April 20, 1855. The Dakota called John ‘Man with the White Hat’ and Mary was ‘Mary Goodpath’ because she had big feet. John Aiton described himself as five feet, five inches tall, light complexion, blue eyes and black hair when he was later discharged from the Union Army. They were married for thirty-seven years and had nine children together.

John’s tradition of writing romantic letters to his wife continued with his marriage to Mary. The letters are numerous and they both express promises of passionate commitment. In the first months after their wedding, John occupied himself with divesting of his various properties, especially those at Kaposia where he had served in public office. He sold his claim in Township 22 to W.R. Brown for $177.00 and sold another lot in Block 1 to Addis Messenger for an undisclosed sum. He received payment in full on April 23, 1857.

John and Mary settled on the farm in June of 1856 in time for the birth of their first child, George Briggs Aiton, born on June 15, 1856. John did not, however, immediately enter into what seemed to be a career as a farmer. Instead, he and Mary took the baby and moved to New Hartford, Illinois, in August of 1857. John took a position as a teacher in the village which is located approximately fifteen miles north of downtown St. Louis, Missouri, on the Mississippi River. It is known for being the site where the Lewis and Clark Expedition spent the winter of 1803-1804. John’s son Thomas left his Hunter grandmother in Quincy, Illinois, and joined the family in New Hartford. Illinois, when he was five years old.

George Briggs Aiton

George Briggs Aiton was John and Mary’s first child and oldest son. He was valedictorian of his graduating class at the University of Minnesota in 1881 and spent his professional career as a superintendent of schools in Zumbrota and Austin, Minnesota and retired as principal of East High School in Minneapolis.

John and Mary had two children while living in New Hartford. Jean Muter Aiton was born on January 25, 1858, but did not survive infancy and died in 1859. Another daughter, Rachel Mary Jeanne Lincoln Aiton, arrived on April 21, 1860, just a year before the first battle of the Civil War when the new Confederate States Army attacked Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina. John Aiton was forty-four years old but never questioned the patriotism that prompted him to immediately enlist in the Union Army and devote the next four years of his life to bringing an end to slavery and fighting to preserve the nation as a united country.

Mary and John returned to Minnesota and Mary remained on their Nicollet County farm while John was away in the Union Army. He was occasionally in the area and in the summer of 1862, he was stationed at Fort Ridgley in Minnesota and later at Judson, Minnesota. There is nothing in the historical record about exactly where he was when the U.S. Dakota War broke out on August 18, 1862, but Mary took the children and moved into St. Peter for safety during the six weeks of the war. By the fall of 1862, however, the Ninth Minnesota, which like several other regiments raised in the fall of 1862, was stationed by companies and smaller units at a score of newly created forts and outposts on a defensive line running north to south.  They spent all winter at those posts, then gradually were replaced by others.  Eventually the small garrisons were pulled out once the threat from returning Dakota was eliminated.[23] John Aiton was stationed at one of those posts in south central Minnesota in what is now an unincorporated community known as Judson, Minnesota.

Mary had their third child, a daughter, Mary Mathilda Aiton, on February 15, 1863, in Nicollet County, Minnesota, which would mean either at Ten Trees Farm or in the town of St. Peter.

Mary wrote to John on Sunday, March 10, 1863. Her own parents had moved to Nicollet County by this time, coming out from West Union, Pennsylvania. Her father, George Briggs, was sixty-two years old and her mother, Rachel Blake Briggs, was fifty-seven. Her father was farming and her mother apparently lived in town while Mary and the children remained at Ten Trees Farm. Mary was at Ten Trees Farm with John’s son Thomas, who was twelve years old; Mary and John’s son, George, who was seven; their daughter Rachel, who was almost two years old; and the new baby, Mary, who was three months old.

Mary’s letter provides insight into the efforts she took to provide food and clothing to the family with limited funds while John was away in the Army. Mary’s letters are all written without any paragraphs or punctuation. I have edited this one a bit to make it easier to understand what she is saying.

“My dear husband,

“I received two letters from you this week and with them the news that you had left Judson Tuesday. I sent a letter to the post office that day but suppose you will not get it. I felt so badly to think you did not get home once more before you left. Do you think you will get home this summer at all? Perhaps you are one of the number that was left at Judson. I hope so, feel anxious to hear, was at town last week, took down $1.25 worth of turnip seed, 80 cts worth of eggs, got the boys hats, $4 apiece, shoestring, five cts, so all the purchases I made.

“I made – called at the Dr’s on my way home, got a certificate of our marriage. Aunt Jane made me a present of a bonnet, a better one than I could have afforded to have bought. I had given up getting one this summer. Sold all the barley. I have got eleven dollars for what I sold. Father has got fifteen bushels. He has just two sacks of wheat left so my wheat will go next. It was $40 I let Aunt Jane have. Mother was down Wednesday. I sent down 95 cts worth of rags and eggs. I got a pair of shoes $1.75, bandbox 25 cts, six yards of coarse linen, 40 cts a yd, for the boy’ pants. It is so much cheaper than cotton. I was glad to get it. I am through for this summer. I will not get a dress. Mr. Ellison paid.

 “I have on hand now $20.50. If Doake does not come soon I shall let Aunt Jane have $10 more which will make it $50.00 – and pay the interest on that note. I will soon go down hill, then if you get your pay I would not blame you if you did not buy something to eat if your appetite is as poor as mine. I often feel like not eating at all. I have such a pain in my side of late. I have no energy to do anything, only what is really necessary. I don’t think I ever felt so languished before. I believe if I could get out more I should feel better. If I had any way of going I should try it.

We have some little chickens out. I think our cow will have a calf in a few days. We will be glad to get butter once more. Mother has been sick, bed fast, part of the time. I was here for her last week and did my own and washed my bedclothes. Besides I have hardly done anything since the baby is getting so fat, begins to try to catch hold of things and wants to sit up very much. Can raise its head clear off the pillow.

“March 14 – Mrs. Huggins, Aunt Jane, was here Tuesday. Said you had not left Judson. I am so glad. I saw a solder pass yesterday. I suppose belongs to your company. I shall watch for him to come by. I will send you that History. The baby is sick; has had the coup. Mary Cronan has been here two days getting me to help her on her silk dress. I put in a comfort today. Want to get it out this week. Out of forty eggs, I got five chickens.

“Friday 15 – Beloved Husband, I received your letters last night, assuring me that you are really at Judson. It is almost too good to be true. I hasten now to send my letter. I did not know before where to send it, this and my former one convey some of the same ideas but I shall send it for I have no time to write anew. My morning work is just done.

“Lucy is still in bed though awake. The baby still sleeps. She is three months old today. I see a team coming out of the settlement so I hurry. George is getting his lessons – Geography, spelling. We go to Fran’s to quilt today. It rained last night. Thomas is helping Grandfather plant the corn he drops. He is planting three acres. They plant the sugar corn today and squashes. Mother is not ready to go yet and she has not got her money. Jeanie has had the diarrhea for over a week and doesn’t seem to do her any good. She is getting thin. I feel sorry. Mr. _________(?) is gone. You will be lonely. Can you not come home soon? It has been over three weeks since you were here. Mother is getting better.

“I must close, Your wife

 P. S.

Write to me often,

Write to me soon

Letters are dearer to me

Than the fairest flowers of June.[24]

The postscript in this letter is actually quite amusing to one who has been reading and researching John and Mary’s letters. John was very fond of regaling Mary with reams of poetry in his letters, romantic poetry that he both copied from others and created. On April 30, 1863, only a few weeks after she sent him this charming love poem in her letter, she asked him very directly to stop writing poetry to her. She said, “I wish you would not write poetry. I positively have not the ability to appreciate and it grates most terribly. I did not read all you wrote last.”[25] Apparently in March she was kind enough to try to respond to his poems by adding her own but in only a few weeks, she was once again fed up with his outpourings and just told him to stop it.

Jane Williamson as JPEG

Jane Williamson had been Mary’s teacher in West Union, Ohio, when Mary was a young girl and they were now living a few miles from each other, Mary on the farm and Jane in St. Peter. Mary’s letter mentions that Jane and Lydia Huggins paid her a visit.

This letter from Mary also provides insight into how the community of former missionaries continued to help each other. Stopping by the “Dr’s,” is, of course, referring to Mary’s visit to Thomas Williamson’s family in St. Peter, including seeing Aunt Jane who gave her the new bonnet. It is also the first and only time that we uncover the information that apparently Jane had loaned John and Mary some money and Mary is now paying Jane $50 in interest. Mary also refers to “Doake,” which may be Hugh Doak Cunningham, a longtime mission teacher who was related to the Williamsons. Mrs. Huggins is certainly Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, one of the very first missionary women at Lac Qui Parle in 1835 and was now retired and living in Traverse des Sioux on the family farm near St. Peter.

John was able to visit the family in June of 1863 when his regiment had been sent to Fairmount, Minnesota but later that year he was sent to Fort Osage in Missouri, an abandoned military fortress that had ceased operations in the 1820s but which was used as a garrison during the Civil War. In January 1864, he wrote to Mary from the Jefferson Barracks Military Post, located on the Mississippi River at Lemay, Missouri, south of St. Louis. He was discharged from there to go to a hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was to have a tumor removed from his nose. The operation took three hours and he told Mary they were very careful. He remained at Jefferson Barracks for a few weeks and was then sent to a camp on the East Branch of Black Water, nine miles west of Warrensburg, Missouri. Subsequent letters came to Mary from Kansas City, Missouri and Memphis, Tennessee. He wrote to Mary on July 9, 1864, to tell her he was in Gazaso Hospital in Memphis and on September 10, 1864, he let her know that he was recuperating at a private home in Memphis but was soon sent back to the hospital.

Jefferson Barracks

John was stationed at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri for several months during the Civil War.

John wrote to Mary on Christmas Eve, 1864, from his hospital bed.

“Dear Wife! Two days ago I received a letter from you of Nov. 11th. It contained much of interest to me. But especially that clause “your and my interest are forever divided,” seems to me to suppose the contingency…when you have the data whence to calculate the amount of money that I shall have when I get home, if indeed I do not die first. But to answer all at once, I have no very distinct idea what I shall do, not even whether to make home on the prairie or in the woods. And if you will only try to get through this winter cheerfully, then leave to God the future, it will much aid your own happiness and the happiness of others.

“Indeed, I gather from your letters that sometimes you get considerably out of humor with your husband. For myself I do intend to live more reasonably than heretofore. I should like to live a few years longer and see you and the children in comfort before I die. And as I have planned so much, and done so little, prefer to wait a little and do something. Now I will ask one question. How much money have you on hand and how much will be unspent of it next Sept? I have no idea. One thing we must have a team, either of horses or of oxen. That will do.

“I do hope that George will try to be a good writer. I hope to see your trees flourishing and us all in health. Our weather is still changeable, mild, terribly calm, etc. Some days I feel chilly all day. I know of only one way to get a discharge and that is for you to write to the President. And yet as it is now the shortest day, it might be best to stick it out. They say that a good part of the 19 prisoners of Co. B, one alive, it is truly awful.

“Our folks are very busy getting up a Christmas dinner. B and C and the dining room are all decorated with evergreens and fancy colored paper. “Beau batchers” Johnny calls them; his mother is a widow, her beau is off getting his neck ready for the halter of matrimony. If he can live with her than I am no guesser. She cannot write her own love letters so I get to hear of matters through a third person. Great stuff, for me to write, perhaps you will say. Well I write of ever thing and so it goes. But this is also Miss Adams and her beau’s Miss King is hers also. So you see that our ladies do not labor without love in return.

“They say Miss Fargo is dead! She was a summer nurse; had left her husband. She looked like a very high tempered person.

“Monday – Better day, cloudy and damp. Col. Summer inspecting, does it thoroughly, as usual. But not since their dinner yesterday as I went to meeting at 3, after suffering the gnawings of hunger two hours, I seem to be unable to go beyond the usual hour of eating. Indeed others expressed themselves in like matter. I would either have a common meal in its time, than an extra good one by waiting a while longer. By 3 o’clock my hunger was over and by supper time felt as usual.

“Nothing new. I sleep under the blankets, but hope to need no additions. I send my best wishes to the children and yourself. May God keep you all. Kind remembrances to Gran, to Grandfather and to Hannah, etc., etc., etc. Ideas will not flow today.

“Gazaso Hospital, Memphis, Tenn. December 27th, 1864

“Dear Wife, I am in usual health. My nose is improving under the medical treatment lately begun. I have just received your letter of the 19th mail mark. It is a very good letter but very shabby paper. Please supply yourself with paper, worthy of yourself. I am indeed glad that you have realized something from that ___________. I am glad that you feel like using it.

“We shall indeed be thankful that God has given us the means of living on ourselves. Do not think of vising me down here. If God sees fit, I should like to travel with you from Pike, to Ill, to Minn, again. But that is far in the future and to buy a team will cost us a sum of almost too much for our purse. But you are considerable for planning and you may think of the subject. I lately rec’d your letter of Nov. 11th. Am glad that you are teaching the children. I lately wrote to Janet and to Jean. Yesterday Col. Summers inspected, etc. and ordered 30 to be sent off. McMillan, long playing off they say, goes. Day is cloudy; really muddy, although last night was clear. I taste neither tea nor coffee nor stimulant and think that I am less nervous. God bless you all, and keep you in his grace.

“Wednesday, 28th Dec. 2 o’clock. Bright day. Good news of Sherman’s capture of Savannah. Every face seems to wear gladness and the heavy Dutch linen curtains are down from the windows; so that good news, bright skies, better daylight, all contribute to render all happy.

“After receiving your letter yesterday, I tore my sheet in two, intending to copy any part of it, I have continued to send it all. You will not take offence at me noticing your language. And I want you to credit me with a desire to help to keep you comfortable next winter. What do you think of trying the woods next winter? I hope that you will buy at least 100 lbs of pork, even if it is 12-1/2 a lb; or at least a good hindquarter of beef. I must send the boys a copy of letters, which I hope they will make good progress of copying and if we are all well, we hope to occupy a good part of next winter in the woods, getting out building materials, fences and wood. How would it do to rent the place for one third of the crop or will you get enough planted to do us? I prefer you bossing it, at least till I get home. I write this at table in Ward B. Guess Jerry has gone, discharged for disability, etc. Our side of B is very empty, leaving me alone on chocolate. Half diet is very good.

“The richest of heaven’s blessings attend you all,

“29th – Cool and clear. All well. Please excuse the faults and accept the best wishes of your Husband. Affectionately, John Aiton”[26]

John Aiton was discharged from the Union Army on March 31, 1865, in Memphis, Tennessee. He made his way home to Ten Trees Farm and joined the family once again. His oldest son Thomas was fourteen; George was nine; Jean was seven and Mary was fourteen months old then John returned. He and Mary had five more children between 1867 and 1875. John was fifty-seven years old when their youngest son was born.

John and Mary’s children are:

  1. George Briggs Aiton, June 15, 1856-February 23, 1931. In 1884 he married Mabel Niles, who was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Mabel died on January 1956. George graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1881 as valedictorian. Mabel was a teacher and George was the Superintendent of Schools in Zumbrota, Minnesota, Austin, Minnesota and Principal at East High School in Minneapolis.
  2. Jean Muter Aiton, January 25, 1858-1859. Baby Jean was born and died in Pike County, Illinois, while John and Mary were living in New Hartford, Illinois.
  3. Rachel Mary Jeanne Lincoln Aiton, April 4, 1860-February 1, 1942. Rachel died in San Diego, California and apparently never married.
  4. Mary Mathilda Aiton, February 15, 1863-August 26, 1946. Mary married a man named Woodruff and is buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Olmstead County, Minnesota.
  5. Robert Bruce Aiton, July 30, 1867-October 14, 1929. Robert married Sara Levina Oles, (March 29, 1869-September 17, 1946) in May 1888 in Pine City, Minnesota. They lived in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
  6. Hannah Aiton, April 9, 1868-September 14, 1919. Hannah married a man named Edwards and both are buried in the Aiton plot in Lakewood Cemetery.
  7. Isabel Maack Aiton, June 23, 1873-January 6, 1940. Isabel married Albert Olson and they are buried in the Aiton plot at Lakewood.
  8. Margaret Aiton, April 6, 1872-January 18, 1933. Margaret never married and was interred at Lakewood in the family plot.
  9. John William Aiton, August 8,1875-December 4, 1937. John married Cora Kremer, August 22, 1882-March 11, 1969, and they lived in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
Aiton Tombstone from TDS

John and Nancy Hunter Aiton’s only surviving child, Thomas Hunter Aiton, died of typhoid in 1883 at the age of thirty-two. He is buried with John Aiton in the Green Lawn Cemetery in Traverse des Sioux, now St. Peter, Minnesota.

John’s son Thomas lived to be only thirty-two years old and died of typhoid fever on January 3, 1883. Mary’s mother passed away on June 9, 1877 at the age of seventy-one. Her father moved into the farm with the family and passed away on October 20, 1898 at the age of ninety-seven years.

Mary was fifty-six years old when John Aiton died on August 24, 1892 at the age of seventy-four years The St. Peter Herald of August 26, 1892, reported the story of his passing.

“The people of this city were pained to learn of the very sudden death on Wednesday afternoon of one of the oldest and most esteemed citizens of Nicollet County. At his home in Lake Prairie at four o’clock on Wednesday, John Aiton passed way after an illness of but two hours and from which he appeared to be recovering. Even up to within five minutes preceding his death he was sitting upon the lawn conversing with his oldest son, George, who chanced to be home on a visit at the time. A short time prior to his death a physician had been summoned but arrived too late to be of service. Mr. Aiton was one of the pioneer settlers of Nicollet Count and also o Minnesota. He came to this state when but few white men had crossed its border and for almost half a century had been one of the most useful citizens. He was a man above reproach and his life had been consecrated to his fellow men. Of noble purpose, lofty aims and perfect integrity, John Aiton had many friends and no enemies.” [27]

John Aiton is buried in the Green Lawn Pioneer Cemetery at Traverse des Sioux with many of his mission colleagues and early Nicollet County pioneers.

DAR Monument at TDS

Mary Briggs Aiton was the founder of the Captain Richard Somers Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and was chosen to unveil the monument to the old French Cemetery in what was then Traverse des Sioux in 1913. The original stone that Mary unveiled was replaced with this new marker in 1939.

After John’s death Mary moved to Minneapolis where she organized the Captain Richard Somers Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1908. She lived at 828 University Avenue S.E. in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1913 she was selected as the D.A.R. member to unveil the organization’s monument commemorating the French Cemetery in Traverse des Sioux. Mary was the oldest living member of the Dakota mission at the time. She had outlived her parents, her husband, her sisters and two of her children, Jean, who was just a year old when she died in 1859, and Hannah Aiton Edwards who died in 1919. Mary had been a young girl when she met and worked with the founders of the Dakota mission and had experienced life with the Dakota before they were confined to the reservations in west central Minnesota. Although she and John left mission work when they married in 1855, Mary then spent life as the wife of a Union soldier in the Civil War, never knowing when or if he might return home.

Aiton Moccasins09102019

Mary Aiton donated these moccasins to the Minnesota Historical Society, along with other items in 1912 and 1915. Nancy and John Aiton had received them when they were stationed at Red Wing. The center-seam moccasins are now in the Sibley Historic Site colllection. They have never been worn and have smoked leather uppers, fine silk ribbonwork on the vamps and cuffs and white seed-bead edging on the low cuffs.

Mary spent thirty years as a widow in Minneapolis. I have no doubt that her children took good care of her after John’s death. Several of them had settled in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in Itasca County, but others were in the Twin Cities near Mary’s home in Minneapolis. Unfortunately, after John died in 1892, their rich romantic correspondence came to an end. Still, Mary understood the role she played in the mission history of Minnesota and in 1912 and 1915, she contributed several keepsakes from the mission to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Mary Smith Briggs Aiton died on February 3, 1922, and is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Several of her children were buried in that same plot in the coming years even though her beloved husband John was interred in Green Lawn Pioneer Cemetery in what is now St. Peter, Minnesota.

Mary Aiton Tombstone

[1] Minnesota History Magazine, June 1925, p. 204

[2] Thomas Williamson to David Greene, January 24, 1846, MNHS, ABCFM Corres.

[3] Jane Williamson to Agnes Hopkins, March 16, 1849, Gretchen Furber private collection

[4] Nancy Aiton to John Aiton, April 16, 1849, MNHS, Aiton Family Papers, P1447, Box 1

[5] Ibid., John Aiton to Elizabeth Aiton, April 10, 1849

[6] Ibid., Nancy Aiton to John Aiton, February 3, 1850

[7] Ibid., Nancy Aiton to Jane Williamson, July 23, 1850

[8] Ibid. Mary Napexni to Nancy Aiton, undated. The Bowyer-Smith book that Mary referred to in the letter is The Child’s Remembrancer-a Memoir of Bowyer Smith a Pious Child who died Jan. 30, 1811, aged 7 years and 2 months, by the Rev. Basil Woodd. The book was published in 1825. The story of Jephthah’s daughter is from The Book of Judges, 11:30-11:39. It is a particularly sad passage which describes how Jephthah promised God that he would offer up a burnt offering of the first person he saw come through the door if God would bring him safely home. The first person was his only child, a daughter whom he loved. Mary clearly wrote her last name in English as Napexni. In Dakota that “x” represents a sound that doesn’t really exist in English but is sometimes written as “sh.” Documented spellings of the name include Napahshue, Napayshne, Napesni, Napashue, and Napexna.

[9] Ibid., Nancy Jane Williamson and Jane Williamson to Nancy Aiton, October 11 and October 16, 1850

10] Ibid., Nancy Aiton to John Aiton, March 12, 1851

[11] Ibid. John Aiton to Nancy Aiton, March 18, 1851

[12] Ibid., Jane Williamson to Nancy Aiton, October 2, 1851

[13] Ibid., Sarah Rankin to Nancy Aiton, March 28, 1852. It isn’t clear if John Aiton remained at Red Wing during this time or whether he accompanied Nancy to Kaposia. Nancy probably had little Thomas with her. Sarah Rankin expressed concern about Rev. Joseph Hancock and his daughter Marilla and continued to mourn the death of Willie. Just a few weeks later Sarah married Joseph Hancock and returned to Red Wing as his wife and stepmother to Marilla.

[14] Ibid. Jane Williamson to Nancy Aiton, November 18, 1852

[15] Ibid. Jane Williamson to Nancy Aiton, January 12, 1853

[16] Ibid. Jane Williamson to Nancy Aiton, February 4-11, 1853

[17] Ibid. Nancy Aiton to John Aiton, September 20 and October 1, 1853

[18] S.B. Treat to Stephen Riggs, March 12, 1855 and Riggs to S.B. Treat, April 12, 1855. MNHS, NW Mission MS P489, Box 18.

[19] Jane Williamson to Elizabeth Burgess, November 19, 1852, Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Marietta, IL, Item 28, Folder 3

[20] Jane Williamson to Nancy Hunter Aiton, February 11, 1853, MNHS, Aiton Family Papers, P1447, Box 1

[21] Ibid., Stephen Riggs to S.B. Treat March 3, 1855

[22] Ibid. John Aiton to Mary Briggs, April 11, 1855

[23 Email to Lois Glewwe from Stephen Osman, September 7, 2019

[24] Mary Briggs Aiton to John Aiton, March 10, 1863 to March 15, 1863, MNHS., Aiton Papers, P. 1447, Box 1. Mary Aiton refers to Lucy and Jeanie in the letter as though they are the children in the family but Jean Muter Aiton had died in 1859 and the only other girl in the family at that time was Rachel and the baby Mary.

[25] Ibid., Mary Aiton to John Aiton, April 30, 1863

[26] Ibid., John Aiton to Mary Aiton December 24-29, 1864

[27] St. Peter Herald, August 26, 1892

Posted in Andrew Hunter, Dakota Mission, Hazlewood Mission, Hugh Doak Cunningham, Jane Smith Williamson, Kaposia Village, Lac Qui Parle Mission, Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, Marilla Hancock Holiday, Marion Robertson Hunter, Martha Houghton Hancock, Mary Napexni, Mary Smith Briggs Aiton, Minnesota Historical Society Photo Purge, Moses Newton Adams, Nancy Hunter Aiton, Nancy Jane Williamson, Nancy Rankin Adams, Sarah Rankin Hancock, Traverse des Sioux, Underground Railroad, Willie Hancock, Women in Minnesota | Leave a comment

A Note to Readers

I am writing to apologize that the Dakota Soul Sisters site has been invaded by ads. It’s very frustrating. I spend a lot of time working out the layout of text and photos and then these stupid ads pop in every time I open the page. Word Press will charge me to get rid of “some” ads; they are saying that some will come in no matter what I do. I haven’t decided if I can afford to upgrade or not but I want to thank you for your patience while I work through this.


Posted in Women in Minnesota | Leave a comment

Ann “Nancy” Margery Rankin Adams – Living Life with Moses

One of the challenges of writing about the “soul sisters” is that several of them are completely silent. They left behind no written record, no letters, no diary, no journal, and no memoir of their years with the Dakota mission. Nancy Adams is one of those silent sisters. In order to tell her story, we have to rely on her husband, Rev. Moses Newton Adams, who was possibly the most un-silent of all of the missionaries. In fact, the only actual mention of Nancy Adams in the historical record is a letter from John P. Williamson to his father, Thomas, where he refers to Nancy’s ‘meddlesomeness.” [1]

I didn’t want to rest Nancy’s entire story on that one comment so I’ve gone through Moses Adam’s letters closely and tried to find something of Nancy in those abundant documents.

Nancy Adams

Nancy Rankin Adams married Moses Adams in 1848 and worked with Robert and Agnes Hopkins and Stephen and Mary Riggs at the Lac Qui Parle mission in Minnesota. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Ann Margery Rankin was born on December 19, 1827, in Jefferson County, Tennessee. She was known as Nancy, as Annie and Ann M. Rankin, and was the daughter of James and Sarah Gant Rankin. James Rankin was related to Rev. John Rankin, the famous abolitionist of Ripley, Ohio, and like John, he did not keep slaves but fought to abolish slavery his entire life.

When Nancy was a young girl, her parents sent her to live with Rev. John Rankin’s family in Ripley, Ohio, to receive her education. The Rankins in Ripley had thirteen surviving children between 1816 and 1839. If Nancy joined the family when she was about eight years old in 1835, there were already eleven boys and girls in the little house on top of the bluff in Ripley, Ohio spanning the ages of nineteen to infancy. James Rankin and John Rankin may have been brothers. Both were born in Dandridge, Tennessee, where James’s family still lived. The Rankin surname is a very common one in America. My own great-great-grandmother was Elizabeth Rankin from Scotland. I don’t think I’ll try to unravel the Rankin family tree as part of Nancy’s story, however.

Rankin House Ripley

The John Rankin house sits high atop the bluffs overlooking the Ohio River in Ripley, Ohio. A light was always in the window so that people who were attempting to escape from slavery could find their way to the Rankin’s where they would  be sent to safety in the north on the Underground Railroad. Nancy lived with the Rankin family while she went to school as a young girl.

Nancy thus spent her childhood and early teen years in one of the most prominent abolitionist Presbyterian families in all of America. Rev. John Rankin is renowned throughout history as the inspiration for the story of Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Ohio River, which flowed in the valley below the Rankin home was the sight of Eliza’s dramatic escape from Kentucky. Rankin’s home on the very top of the bluff is a national historic site today in Ripley, Ohio. It is said that a candle always burned in the window of the house to help those escaping from slavery find their way to the Rankin home from which they would be spirited away to the north on the Underground Railroad.

Nancy was twenty years old when she met Moses Newton Adams in Ripley. He was born in Adams County, Ohio, in February 1822, to Robert and Betsy Baird Adams, and was a cousin of Rev. Stephen Riggs, who may have inspired Moses’s interest in working with the Native Americans. Moses graduated from Ripley College in 1845 and three years later received his degree from Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. He applied to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to become a missionary soon after graduating. His application was met with a single piece of advice that he not even consider going to the mission field until he had a wife.[2]

Moses Newton Adams

Rev. Moses Newton Adams had a reputation of being a source of contention in nearly every position he held. He described himself to S.B. Treat of the ABCFM as “5’11” high, a high but not wide forehead, large light blue eyes, long full face with high cheekbones and thick lips, dark hair and light complexion. All he said about his wife Nancy was that she was twenty-one years old at the time.

This was not an unusual response from the mission board. Whether it was a man who wished to minister in India, China or the American west, no single men were allowed to go to the mission field. The board recognized that not only would a man need a companion and caregiver to see to his meals, clothing, health and wellness, but as a single man, he would never be allowed near the women of that mission field by himself. The board knew that it was the female missionary who would be able to freely move among the women and children of the community, earning their trust, securing their friendship and thus leading them to be willing to come to church services. This requirement led to many marriages between a man who desired to bring Christianity to the mission field and a woman who perhaps saw no other future for herself beyond a relatively safe and uninteresting life in a place like Ripley, Ohio.

Less than two months after being advised to find a wife, on July 11, 1848, Moses Adams notified David Greene of the ABCFM that, “On last Saturday evening, the 9th, in the Central Congregational Church of this place we were married. We hope for a boat for Galena today.” [3] Seventeen days later, Moses and Nancy arrived at the village of Kaposia in Minnesota where they were welcomed by Thomas, Margaret and Jane Williamson and where they immediately began their efforts to learn the Dakota language.[4]

No matter how many of these stories of the early missionary women I research, I am always amazed at their courage and their longing for not only spiritual blessing but for adventure. For a young women like Nancy her only possible future in Ohio meant marrying and being a wife or remaining single and becoming a schoolteacher. There would be no travel; no hope of any kind of diversion from domestic life. Many of these young women took a chance and when a zealous young man asked if you’d like to go live in the wilderness among the Indians, it may have been too enticing to ignore. As we know from the stories we’ve already told in Dakota Soul Sisters, that decision was not always rewarded with success. Many died very young in child birth or of tuberculosis or other diseases. Nancy, as it turned out was one of the lucky ones.

Two months later, at the Annual Meeting of the Dakota Mission at Kaposia on September 12, 1848, Moses and Nancy were approved for appointment to the mission at Lac Qui Parle where they would serve with Robert and Agnes Hopkins and Stephen and Mary Riggs. It isn’t clear exactly where Moses and Nancy were staying at the Lac Qui Parle mission. Robert Hopkins reported to S.B. Treat of the ABCFM that they were staying with him and Agnes on September 12, 1848, but Mary Riggs later wrote that she and Stephen gave them the kitchen and one bedroom for the winter, leaving only two rooms for themselves and their children.[5]

Moses Adams brought a particular focus to his ministry upon his arrival at Lac Qui Parle. He was an early proponent of the boarding school model of educating the Dakota. He called the school at Lac Qui Parle a boarding school and almost immediately upon their arrival he and Nancy took in a young Dakota girl named Lydia Wakanmane. Lydia was named after Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, and was about eight years old when she joined the household of Moses and Nancy Adams. She was baptized at Lac Qui Parle on August 30, 1840.[6]

Nancy and Moses concentrated on learning the Dakota language, apparently becoming proficient enough that Nancy was given responsibility for teaching the day school for the Dakota for four and a half months in the winter of 1849-1850.[7] Moses soon began to make his presence known within the Dakota mission because of his criticism of the AB CFM and Thomas Williamson in particular. On October 2, 1849, he also wrote to S.B. Treat that he was very opposed to Rev. Gideon Pond taking his seat in the Minnesota Territorial Legislature. He was the only missionary who expressed any opposition. On January 12, 1850, he wrote to Treat again to express his belief that the ABCFM was not taking a strong enough stance against slavery. He also criticized Thomas Williamson for not forcing the Dakota to forsake their long tradition of men having more than one wife.[8]

Dr. Williamson did not condone polygamy but he also believed that women who were married to a man who had another wife should not be banned from joining the Christian church. The wives were actually sisters in many cases and Thomas didn’t feel they should be punished for that tradition. He also realized that should a Dakota man be forced to set aside one or more of his wives, it was those women who would suffer since they would lose their home and source of support. He and Moses Adams never resolved their differences over the issue.

In May of 1850, Nancy’s sister, Sarah Rankin, came out to join Nancy and Moses at Lac Qui Parle where she hoped to serve as an assistant missionary. Sarah was five years younger than Nancy and was seventeen years old when she arrived in Minnesota. Unfortunately, shortly after Sarah came to the mission, Nancy became seriously ill. There is no indication in the historical record of exactly what she suffered from but on July 8, 1850, she and Moses went to Kaposia and visited the surgeon at Fort Snelling. He advised Moses to take Nancy to St. Louis for treatment as soon as possible. Instead, Moses decided to take Nancy to Quincy, Illinois, and he informed the ABCFM that Sarah would return to Quincy with them.[9]

Over the next year, Moses was engaged to preach in the Schuyler Presbytery for six months and also received a commission from the Home Missionary Society for a year, which the ABCFM allowed him to accept. In March of 1851, he wrote to S.B. Treat to report that Nancy was still not well enough to return to Lac Qui Parle but by October 1851, she had apparently recovered. Moses wrote to S.B. Treat from Galena, Illinois, on October 3, 1851: “We left Quincy, Illinois last Monday and arrived here yesterday. Mr. Riggs and part of the family have gone east. Mrs. Adams’s sister Sarah, now at Red Wing, will join us on our return and go to Lac Qui Parle as assistant missionary as before.”[10]

Sarah had not gone back to Illinois with Nancy and Moses but had remained in Minnesota and was assigned to the mission at Red Wing, Minnesota, where Rev. Joseph Hancock was stationed with his wife Martha and their daughter Marilla, who was born in 1848, and their son Willie, who was born in August 1850. Martha died on March 20, 1851, and Sarah apparently remained at the mission with Rev. Hancock to help care for the children. Sarah’s story will be told more completely in a future post but suffice it to say that she did return to Lac Qui Parle when Nancy and Moses came back to the mission but she then married Joseph Hancock there on May 2, 1852 and returned with him to Red Wing.

At that time in 1852, Moses and Nancy had five Dakota children living with them and were expecting Lydia Wakanmane to return to the family in a few days. Writing to S.B. Treat on June 7, 1852, Moses said that “Food is more scarce than I have ever seen. The Indians are starving to death.” Ironically, three years earlier Moses wrote in the Missionary Herald magazine of September 1849 that “God humbles the people by making them starve.”[11]

In July of 1852, Moses asked Treat if he could bring his sister out to help Nancy. He said he had a cousin he was thinking of bringing on but would prefer his sister.[12] A month later, in August 1852, Stephen Riggs returned to Lac Qui Parle with Miss Lucy Jane Spooner and Miss Mary Roach Spooner. The sisters were cousins of Moses Adams. Lucy Jane went to live with the Riggs and Mary joined Moses and Nancy. The Spooner sisters will be featured on a future Dakota Soul Sisters post.

Throughout this time at Lac Qui Parle, Moses Adams began to have problems with Stephen Riggs. On December 9, 1852, Moses wrote to S.B. Treat and bowed out of the boarding school at Lac Qui Parle because “Riggs is unwilling to hold with me and be an equal part of the undertaking.” He thinks that he and Rev. Hancock could do it at a different location, not Lac Qui Parle or Red Wing.[13]

In June of 1853, Joseph Hancock wrote to S.B. Treat that Moses was in attendance at the annual meeting of the Dakota mission at Red Wing and that he asked for release from the ABCFM which was granted with regrets. It was decided that his request for articles to be taken with him is to be treated liberally. That same month, Moses wrote to S.B. Treat that the reason he was leaving was because of the ABCFM’s stance on slavery and Thomas Williamson’s views on polygamy. Treat responded by telling Moses that was nonsense and the reason he was leaving was because of his disagreement with Riggs over the boarding school at Lac Qui Parle. Treat subsequently wrote to Thomas that “Mr. Adams had better be out of the mission for he will only make trouble.” On August 22, 1853, Treat wrote to Adams confirming that he had been dismissed from the ABCFM.[14]

Moses and Nancy appeared to do well at the new church in Traverse des Sioux. They continued to take in Dakota children and were paid for doing so although I have not been able to unravel who was paying. In the Northwest Mission documents of January 1854, the Chief Clerk of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Charles Mix, wrote to Minnesota Territorial Governor Willis Gorman and told him to pay Moses Adams for the tuition, and care of several children for the third quarter. Moses had hoped for payment for three quarters.[15]

Nancy and Moses remained with the church at Traverse des Sioux until 1860. They apparently continued to live in Traverse and it may be that this is when Moses began to travel the region on behalf of the American Bible Society. When the Williamsons showed up in Traverse after fleeing the violence of the U.S. Dakota War of August 1862, they moved into the Adams’s house since Moses and Nancy weren’t there but were expected to return home very soon.[16]

While they were pastoring the church at Traverse des Sioux, Nancy and Moses adopted their daughter, Ella Christiana Adams. Ella had been born in 1848 but first shows up with Moses and Nancy in the 1857 Territorial Census of Nicollet County, Traverse des Sioux, Minnesota. She is listed there as eight years old and was a white child whose parents were from Sweden. Her birth surname is not listed in the historical record. The family went through a time of grief when Nancy’s sister Sarah died in Red Wing. She had only been married to Joseph Hancock for seven years and left a daughter, Stella Ann, who was six years old. Another child, Alta, had been born in March of 1856 but the baby only lived fourteen months and died on July 2, 1857.

There is only one historical record of Moses and Nancy from the time they left the church at Traverse in 1860 and January 1871 when Moses was appointed the new Indian Agent at the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota. Mary Riggs wrote to her husband Stephen on October 13, 1862, that Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Wakefield of St. Peter called and visited Mary where the Riggs’ were living in St. Anthony.[17]

Gabriel Renville

Moses Adams had an ongoing feud with Gabriel Renville who was the chief of the Dakota at the Lake Traverse reservation. Moses was there as a federal government Indian Agent but according to many, acted more like a missionary, favoring Christian Indians and directing the Dakota to give up their traditional ways.

As of January 1, 1871, Moses was named the Indian Agent at the Lake Traverse Reservation. His appointment was opposed by chief of the Dakota there, Gabriel Renville, and the Scouts Party, which was made up of the mostly Christian Dakota who had worked as scouts with Henry Sibley in the years following the War of 1862. Moses received the post because the reservations had each been assigned to a specific denomination and Lake Traverse was Presbyterian. Jared Daniels, who was the agent there, was Episcopalian so Moses was approved to take his place.

In what seems to have become a pattern with Moses, he soon found himself in the middle of controversy when a non-Christian Indian filed for a clerkship on the reservation and was rejected. He filed a complaint against Moses in Washington, D.C., saying that Christian Indians were being favored and paid more. As impetus grew in the Scout party for Moses to be removed, federal officials began visiting the reservation. Chief Gabriel Renville tried to resign but his followers refused to accept that and the feud between Moses and Renville continued through the end of 1873.

One of the main problems was that an Indian Agent was not to act like a missionary and was not to favor Christian Dakota over non-Christians. Moses instead, railed against Gabriel Renville who had more than one wife and who continued to live as a traditional Dakota, participating in dances, hunting and traveling on Sundays and generally attempting to protect Dakota culture. In the fall of 1874, the federal government sent E.C. Kemble to Lake Traverse to try to resolve the situation. Kemble’s report did not support Moses’s imposition of religion on affairs of the government. He did not demand that Moses resign but he did bring Gabriel Renville back to the executive board. Things did not improve and finally it was Stephen Riggs who convinced Moses to resign. Even having done so, Moses and Nancy remained on the reservation until May 1875.[18]

Now fifty-three years old, Moses turned to his former colleagues from the ABCFM in an attempt to find a new position. John Williamson wrote to his father Thomas on March 15, 1875, and reported that Moses wanted to leave government work and return to the mission. He had specifically asked if he could be assigned to the mission at Fort Peck, Montana. John told Thomas that he was hesitant to approve the request because of Moses’s head-strongness. This is the letter where John also says that he is concerned about Nancy’s meddlesomeness.[19]

I’m led to two possibilities when I read that about Nancy. First of all, she had spent twenty-seven years married to Moses, who over and over again finds himself in disagreement with his colleagues. That alone might have caused her to meddle in mission business if only in support of her husband. The other possibility is that Nancy and Moses were perfectly suited to each other and both found fault with others and with their superiors consistently. In either case, I doubt that Nancy Adams had a very peaceful and happy life.


Fort Gibson in Oklahoma was established in Cherokee and Muskogee Counties in 1824. Moses Adams was chaplain at the Fort from 1878 until he retired in 1892.

The Annual Meeting of the Dakota Mission was held at Greenwood, South Dakota, on the Yankton Reservation in the fall of 1878 and Moses and Nancy were there as visitors. Iape Oaye, the Dakota newspaper, reported that Moses was a chaplain in the U.S. Army and was stationed at Fort Gibson in Muskogee County, Oklahoma.[20]

While Moses and Nancy were at the Lake Traverse Reservation, their daughter Ella apparently got married, although no marriage certificate has been located. In the 1880 census in St. Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota, Ella is listed as a widow, aged thirty, with two sons: Charles Rankin Frost, born on December 18, 1874 and David Frost, born in July 1876. Living with the family is Newton Robinson Frost, a twenty-one year old single man, who is listed as Ella’s brother with the occupation of grocer. My interpretation of this information is that Newton Robinson Frost was actually Ella’s brother-in-law, not her brother. This would explain why Ella’s sons are in the census with the last name of Frost, even before Ella and Newton Frost were married on March 13, 1882. They had three children together: Wilford N. Frost, born in December 1884; Edith Margaret Frost, born on February 8, 1890; and Howard Edwin Frost, on May 3, 1893.

1564 Laurel Avenue - Adams

Nancy and Moses lived in this home at 1564 Laurel Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota from 1892 until at least 1902, when Moses passed away at the age of eighty years.


Ella and Newton lived in St. Paul, Minnesota and that is where Moses and Nancy chose to settle when Moses retired from the chaplain position at Fort Gibson in 1892. Their home was at 1564 Laurel Avenue in St. Paul and they joined the Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church which was just a few blocks away. In July 1898, on their 50th wedding anniversary, the church hosted a reception in their honor. The Dakota newspaper, The Word Carrier, of July 1898, reported that Ella and Newton were there along with the Misses Brown of Denver and Miss Whitney. Even former Minnesota governor Alexander Ramsey attended the event.

Moses Adams passed away on July 23, 1902 in Buffalo, New York, but his body was returned to Minnesota and he was buried on July 28, 1902 in Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul, Minnesota. Nancy lived until at least 1914 when she is listed in the St. Paul City Directory as a boarder at 1853 Marshall Avenue; for some reason her death is not listed in any of the archival resources and there is no listing for her with Moses at Oakland Cemetery. I have not found her listed in the 1920 census so it appears as though she passed away sometime between 1914 and 1920.

The only letter written by Nancy that has survived was sent to Warren Upham, the secretary of the Minnesota Historical Society on March 13, 1904. She had donated a Catlinite Indian pipe to the society and wrote to Upham to describe its origin.

Nancy Adams letter 1904

This is the only document actually written by Nancy Adams that has surfaced. She wrote to Warren Upham at the Minnesota Historical Society in 1904.

“Dear Friend,

After the Indian Outbreak in ’62 quite a number of the Indians left the Sisseton reservation and took up claims in the neighborhood of Flandreau [in present day South Dakota]. They were very destitute. Did not have axes, spades or hoes to commence farming with. Rev. M.N. Adams had six thousand sent him from Washington, D.C., to purchase for them things that they could not farm without. When these things were given to them, they were so over-joyed that they presented him about 1863 or 1864 with the pipe which I sent you yesterday. They considered the presenting of a pipe to a man the greatest honor that could be conferred upon him.

“Respectfully Yours,

Mrs. M.N. Adams

“P.S. – D.F. on this Catlinite pipe is for David Faribault, who carved it.”[21]


In 1989, Jeffrey Tordoff researched the pipe that Nancy Adams donated to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1904. While some of Nancy’s information was incorrect, the pipe is an intriguing example of craftsmanship around 1840.


Unfortunately, a 1989 further examination of the pipe has revealed that it was probably carved in 1840, not in the 1870s and that if David Faribault did carve it, it was David Faribault, Sr., not the David Faribault, Jr., whom Moses Adams may have known in the 1870s. Still, the pipe and the story reflect Nancy’s ongoing support of and admiration for her husband and reflect her goal to preserve his reputation for posterity.

In the 1910 census taken in St. Paul, Minnesota in the spring of 1910, Nancy was eighty-two years old and was living with her niece Stella Hancock, who was fifty-seven and single. Stella was the only surviving child of Nancy’s sister Sarah, who had been married to Joseph Hancock for a few years before she died when Stella was six years old. At some point Stella moved to Beaverton, Oregon. She is listed there in the 1930 census as a servant to eighty-seven-year-old Betty Anderson. The last listing for Nancy is the aforementioned 1914 city directory where she is listed by herself as a boarder at the house on Marshall Avenue. She had been widowed for at least twelve years and was near her daughter Ella and her grandchildren. Her son-in-law, Newton Frost, donated Moses Adams’s papers to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1925. The Adams papers make for a very interesting journey through decades of early Minnesota history from one of the most opinionated and troublesome characters who ever graced the work of the Dakota Mission.

[1] John Williamson to Thomas Williamson, March 15, 1875, MNHS, Williamson Papers P786, Box 1

[2] David Greene to Moses Adams, May 21, 1848, MNHS, ABCFM Corres.

[3] Ibid., Moses Adams to David Greene, July 11, 1848

[4] Ibid., Moses Adams to David Greene, July 28, 1848.

[5] Ibid., Robert Hopkins to S.B. Treat, September 12, 1848 and Mary Riggs October 18, 1848.

[6] MNHS, Williamson Papers, P786, Box 4

[7] Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1850, p. 80, MNHS

[8] ABCFM Corres., Moses Adams to S.B. Treat, October 2, 1849; January 12, 1850.

[9] Ibid., Moses Adams to S.B. Treat, July 24, 1850.

[10] Ibid., Moses Adams to S.B. Great October 3, 1851.

[11] Ibid., Moses Adams to S.B. Treat, June 7, 1852 and Missionary Herald, September 1849.

[12] Ibid., Moses Adams to S.B. Treat, July 8, 1852.

[13] Ibid., Moses Adams to S.B. Treat, December 9, 1852

[14] Ibid. Joseph Hancock to Treat, June 1853; Treat to Adams, June 6, 1853; Treat to Adams, August 22, 1853.

[15] Charles Mix to Willis Gorman, January 26, 1854, MNHS, NW Missions, P489, Box 18. Throughout the ABCFM correspondence and mission reports, the payment to missionaries for room, board and education for Dakota students is recorded at usually $75 a year, pro-rated per quarter.

[16] ABCFM Corres., Thomas S. Williamson to S.B. Treat, September 8, 1862.

[17] Mary Riggs to Stephen Riggs, October 13, 1862, MNHS Riggs Family Papers.

[18] Rogers, Elwin, For God and Land: Brown Earth, A Dakota Indian Community 1876-1892. Pine Hill Press, Sioux Falls, SD, pp. 13-15. Source: Sterling, Everett W. and Marion Hopkins, “Indian Land Policy Since 1887 with Special Reference to South Dakota,” South Dakota Historical Collections, vol., 13, 1926.

[19] John Williamson to Thomas Williamson, March 15, 1875, MNHS, Williamson Papers P786, Box 1

[20] Iape Oaye, November 1878

[21] Tordoff, Jeffrey, “Conundrum in Catlinite: Exploring the History of a Masterpiece,” Minnesota History, Winter 1989, p. 313-318

Posted in Agnes Johnson Hopkins Pond, Dakota Mission, Jane Smith Williamson, Kaposia Village, Lac Qui Parle Mission, Lucy Spooner Drake, Margaret Poage Williamson, Mary Ann Clark Longley Riggs, Mary Spooner Worcester, Moses Newton Adams, Nancy Rankin Adams, Sarah Rankin Hancock, Traverse des Sioux, Underground Railroad, Women in Minnesota | Leave a comment

Life of a Legend – The Story of Jane Smith Williamson – Part XVI

Over the next few years of Jane’s life, she remained as active as possible. Her biographer, The Rev. R.J. Creswell, furthered yet another legend about Jane when he wrote about her in 1906. He said:

“In 1881 she met a poor Indian woman, suffering extremely from intense cold. She slipped off her own warm skirt and gave it to the woman. The result was a severe illness which caused her partial paralysis and total blindness from which she never recovered.”[1] Jane herself refutes this story in a letter she wrote to Mary Riggs on Christmas Day, 1862:

“I believe I told you of losing my skirt that I intended to wear just before leaving Pajutazee. I suppose Mrs. Daniels thought I looked too slender and she gave me a quilted skirt but when Marion came I lent it to her and took cold which brought on dysentery and I was unwell for some time. Marion did not know the cause of my illness but she gave me back the skirt as soon as she got another and afterward when Mr. Kerr sent her a bundle containing one she did not need she gave me that also.”[2]

It is true that Jane began to lose her sight sometime in the 1880s. Mary Butler Renville, an old friend of Jane’s from the mission at Pejutazee, was happy to greet Jane in the summer of 1882 at the meeting of the Women’s Board of the Northwest Missions in Minneapolis. She wrote the following for the Iape Oaye newspaper’s July 1882 edition:

“There was dear Miss Jane Williamson, blind and suffering otherwise yet with untiring patience, long we clasped hands without a word. She, too, loved our darling Ella. The elder father of Mrs. Cunningham, James Ellison, can see to read and is so helpful to blind Aunt Jane. They are both ready to hear the master say, ‘Come up higher, I need thee.’ ”[3]

The Iape Oaye had also reported in the December 1881 issue that Jane had gone to spend the winter with the Cunninghams in Bloomington Ferry. The last letter of Jane’s that I have located was written from Bloomington Ferry on February 12, 1883. It is not, however, written in Jane’s handwriting but at the end of the letter there is a note saying, “By Mrs. Ames.” There are two letters in one with the first part to Elizabeth Burgess:

“Ever Dear Cousin,

“I have been very anxious to hear from you for a good while fearing you were sick. Cousin Lizzie’s letter came last week saying you had been sick but was better & I feel thankful that you are better… I thank Cousin L. very much for mentioning Winnie. It is a great comfort to know that she is contented and doing well. Where the children of Missionaries are wholly consecrated to God I think they have greatly the advantage of other in learning among the heathen. J. B. Renville said to me after hearing John Williamson preach he speaks right to the heart and then it is so much easier for them to speak the language it gets into their feelings. I have a letter from Winnie’s father the first of January. It is a great comfort to me probing in any darkness to receive letters from friends. I had a letter last week from Andrew. He is kept very busy. Charges me to want for nothing. I had one also from Martha Stout they are in usual health. My brother’s children are all very kind and I feel I have a great deal to be thankful for.  

“The winter thus far has been very cold and stormy and I have some more pain than I did a while but still I am quite comfortable at times and my nights are not as bad as they were last winter. Sometimes I have been a little troubled thinking I might lose my hearing also. Then I remember the admonition be careful for nothing but in everything tell your requests to make known unto the Lord by prayer and supplication & I try to cast my burden on him.

“Nancy H. usually writes to me every week but it is not probable we shall get regular mail while these storms continue. They have lately organized a woman’s society in the church here. I contribute some things for the relief of some of the needy that Nancy has mentioned in her letters but there is some doubt about their receiving these soon on account of the many snowdrifts. Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham are in usual health which is never good.. Very many thanks to Cousin Lizzie for her kind letter,

Your ever affec. Cousin, J.S. Williamson”

The next letter is to Winifred Williamson, who is obviously in Marietta, Ohio, staying with the Burgesses and meeting relatives.

“Dear Winnie,

“I am so thankful to hear from all the letters that you are contented, well & doing well. I want to tell you what a pleasant visit I had from your Cousin F_____- Brown. She stayed here a couple of weeks when Mr. Cunningham was quite unwell, she was so very kind anticipating my little wants, rubbing my aching limbs. She didn’t expect to stay so long but couldn’t get home on account of storms and instead of complaining of homesickness, she was cheerful, added a great deal to our happiness. All of ____ she told me too if she heard of my being sick she would come and stay with me again. I am so glad that you can have an opportunity of becoming acquainted with our Marietta friends. 

Give my love to Cousin Lizzie, Cole & all the friends.

Write to me when you have time. Your Aunt, Jane S.W.”[4]

It is sad that Jane spent her final years unable to continue writing to her relatives and other missionaries. Losing her sight brought a veil of silence to the remainder of her days. Her dear cousin Elizabeth lived until February 28, 1889, but apparently received no more letters from Jane after 1883, or if she did, her family no longer saved them with the earlier letters. Andrew Williamson did say, in 1884, however, that Jane “is better than I ever expected to see her again. Her mind appears to have entirely recovered, and except that she is entirely blind she is very well for a lady of 82.” [5]

Andrew was attending a meeting in Minneapolis when he visited with Jane so even though he wrote this letter from St. Peter, it appears Jane was still living with the Cunninghams in Bloomington Ferry. By 1885, however, Jane was living back in St. Peter with Martha and William Stout. The 1885 census clearly records her name with the family which includes William Stout, Martha Stout, Alfred Stout and Jane Williamson, who was eighty-four years old when the census taker came around in the spring. The Word Carrier Dakota newspaper for May 1888, also reported that Jane was at her home in St. Peter. It is clear that at some point, John and Amelia Williamson brought Jane into their family at the reservation in Greenwood, South Dakota, but no date has been found. John and Amelia were away from Greenwood and serving at Pine Ridge from 1890-91 so it’s unlikely that Jane was in Greenwood while they were away.

William and Martha Stout and their son Alfred left St. Peter sometime between 1885 and 1900 and settled in Gresham, Oregon. The federal census was taken there on June 11, 1900, and William Stout was no longer living. Martha is recorded as a widow with Alfred, who is listed as thirty years old. It may be that their move from Minnesota prompted Jane’s move to join John and his family in South Dakota.

The nearest indication we have that Jane was living in Greenwood by 1893 is a letter that John Williamson wrote to Andrew on November 10, 1893.

“I don’t see but what Aunt Jane’s general health is as good as when she came here and she may continue with us for months, but one thing has occurred to me that I wished to consult you about and that is the disposition of her body in case of her decrease. I asked her about it and she did not express any particular choice in the matter. She immediately commenced talking about the expense of funerals and did not want any more expense than could be helped. Then I asked her if she would prefer to be buried at St. Peter and she said she had expected to be buried by her brother, but it would be a good deal of expense, so she would not object to be buried here. I have two children buried here and she could be too but there is something appropriate in being buried by the side of those you have spent your life with, where it is not a burdensome duty. So I feel satisfied to either course, but as you have taken the care of Aunt Jane, I think you should decide the matter. And I would like to know what you have to say of this matter.

Your loving brother, John”[6]

The next letter from John to Andrew that has been found was written over a year later, on February 20, 1895.

“Aunt Jane I think is failing some but slowly. The doctor does not think there is any particular disease preying on her but a general failing of her powers. She is most of the time in a dreamy state but not a quiet state because she is too energetic. She is generally knitting though she has not touched her knitting for weeks. And she imagines something is wrong with it and someone must fix it for her and if no one is there to answer her she becomes much excited and cries over it so someone must be by her all the time or nearly so. And her mind is now so weak she can’t remember whether it is day or night a good part of the time. She does not sleep as much as we do I think. At least she never sleeps more than an hour or two at a time day or night. Someone sits in the rocking chair by her bed all night and sleeps what they can. We have a girl that is very good help for my wife.

“Your Aff. Bro.

John P. Williamson”[7]

Jane passed away on March 24, 1895. John wrote to Andrew a few days later:

“There was nothing unusual in Aunt’s demise. I wrote you I think a week before her death. We could see there was no improvement and probably a sinking because she would take no nourishment but we saw no evidence that her departure was imminent until the morning she died. My wife told me to come and see her about daylight. She lay quiet but it was not just like asleep. Her breathing was slower and rather non labored than usual and her pulse was weak and irregular. At first I thought that she would only last a few minutes but after a while she seemed to gain a little. She noted what I said to her. Sarah asked if she would like me to pray and she said yes and distinctly said Amen at the close of my prayer and started to say something more but did not articulate so we could hear her. Mr. Smith and Mrs. Brazeau came in after a while but she recognized them but said nothing. She continued about the same. I thought would last till night but just at noon her breath became suddenly weaker and… the copy of the letter ends.[8]

The Dakota newspaper, The Word Carrier for April-May 1895 published the following obituary for the beloved Aunt Jane.

“There fell asleep March w4, 1895, at the home of her nephew, John P. Williamson, D.D. Greenwood, S.D., Miss Jane Smith Williamson, aged ninety-two years sixteen days.

“In the Dakota mission we all knew Aunt Jane. A good many other people knew her too, because there was something about her that was hard to forget. She was very short, only four feet eight inches. She was a very ready talker. But it was not for these things she is specially remembered. She is remembered for her burning Christian zeal. It rested as a coal of fire on the head of every one she came in contact with. And her zeal was specially directed to two objects: the salvation of the African and the Indian races.

“Aunt Jane was born in South Carolina, cradled in the arms of African nurses who were brought to the free state of Ohio by her father that they might become the Lord’s freemen. She saw the children of these slave women who her mother had been forbidden to teach to read in South Carolina, grow up under her instruction and that of others to become enlightened Christians, and some of them ministers of the gospel. Living in the border land on the banks of the Ohio until she was forty years old, she had the opportunity of witnessing many a wordy conflict over the slavery question, and probably she was not always a silent witness, for stories are still told in hat neighborhood of the days seventy years ago when Aunt Jane was teaching in the log schoolhouse, and though she said she was not afraid and did not want them to come, armed men stood guard round the house to provent the mob from coming and cleaning out the place, because it was, as they said, an abolition nest. We think also there was probably some ground for the accusation, because Aunt Jane prayed for the colored people to the last day of her life and would say she thought we ought to do more for the colored people than for the Indians, because there were so many more of them.

“Aunt Jane wanted to come with her brother, Rev. Thomas S. Williamson, M.D., and be a missionary to the Indians when he came in 1835, but thought it her duty to stay where she could take care of her father, Rev. Wm. Williamson, in his old age. After his death she came in 1843, and was in active work teaching the Indians at Lac qui Parle and Kaposia (now West St. Paul) and Yellow Medicine for nineteen years, until the massacre of 1862. Since then she has not been in active work among them, but her busy mind has found many ways of serving them. And many of the strong Christians in our Indian churches both in pew and pulpit were her pupils; so being dead she yet speaketh. Aunt Jane’s labors among the Indians were in perilous times. At Kaposia the mission house was more than once assaulted by drunken Indians with clubs and knives. From Yellow Medicine the missionaries fled for their lives at the time of the massacre. Aunt Jane with her brother and his wife were the last white people to flee, going along hours after the rest had fled. I think Aunt Jane would rather have died there, but thought it her duty to leave.”[9]

The story concludes with a retelling of the time that Jane saved Thomas’s life by feeding a starving Indian man who wanted to kill Thomas. All of the versions of that part of the legend of Jane Williamson are told in Dakota Soul Sisters, Jane Williamson Part IX.

Jane’s biographer, Rev. R.J. Creswell concluded his summary of her life as follows:

“Without husband or children, alone in the world, she did not repine, but made herself useful, wherever She was, in teaching secular learning and religious truth, and in ministering to the sick and afflicted, the down-trodden and oppressed. She never sought to do any wonderful things – but whatever her hand found to do, she did it with her might and with an eye to the honor and glory of God. Hers was a very long and most complete Christian life. Should it ever be forgotten? Certainly not, while our Christian religion endures.” [10]

Longtime readers of Dakota Soul Sisters may recall how I described the way Jane Williamson came into my life back in 2001. (See March 24, 2014, Introduction to the Story of Jane Smith Williamson). I had first heard of Jane when I was in elementary school but hadn’t thought of her for over forty years when her name suddenly came to me while I was walking in Kaposia Park in South St. Paul on a beautiful autumn afternoon. I wondered what had become of Jane and whether her story had ever been told.

That “encounter” with Jane in Kaposia Park has become part of my own set of legends about Jane Williamson. There have been others. As every researcher, genealogist or historian knows, there often come times in your work when for no apparent reason, you put your fingers on a file that appears to have nothing of interest to you only to find it contains exactly what you needed. In other cases, you might just be browsing for a photograph and assuming you’ll never find the one you need, when it pops up in a totally unlikely location.

Jane’s story has come to me that way many times, not the least of which was in July 2003, when I made my first trip to Greenwood, South Dakota. My sister and I had made our usual visit to Mission Sunday on July 13, 2003, at Lac qui Parle State Park where a restored version of the original Dakota Mission Chapel hosts the annual gathering. At the potluck following the morning worship service, I asked Rev. Clifford Canku to give me detailed directions to the cemetery at Greenwood which he did. He basically said to go to the Indian school at Marty, South Dakota, and turn south to the river.

We were staying in Sioux Falls so the next day we set out from there for Marty, which is about 125 miles to the west. It was hot and dry and dusty all the way. When we got to the school, I pulled into a parking lot outside of what seemed to be the only building that was open. There was a sign on the road ahead of me pointing to Greenwood but I just wanted to be sure we were in the right place. As I went to enter the door to the building, a Dakota man came out and greeted me and asked if he could help. I thanked him and said I just wanted to be sure I was on the right road to get to the cemetery at Greenwood.

Greenwood Cemetery with Struck by the Ree

The cemetery at Greenwood, South Dakota is located at the highest point over looking the Missouri River. The monument on the left is the burial site of Struck by the Ree, a famous Yankton chief.


He got the strangest look on his face, his jaw dropped open and he said, “What? Why are you going out there?” I explained that I was a historian looking for Jane Williamson’s grave and he actually seemed to grow pale. He shook his head slowly, mystified and said, “I don’t believe it. I just mowed the grass out there yesterday.” He made it clear that he’d had no reason to mow the grass at the Greenwood Cemetery. He certainly didn’t know I was coming, but I think to this day that Jane had something to do with it.

Struck by the Ree Monument Greenwood

The inscription on Struck by the Ree’s marker reads: Here lies Paoani Apapi [Palaneapape] Struck by the Ree Head Chief of Yankton Sioux Consumation of the Treaty of 1858 Ceding to the United States the [south}east quarter of South Dakota. He was in his day the strongest and most Faithful friend of the Whites in the Sioux Nation Aged 84 yrs.

In any case, we headed out the barren road to Greenwood. The road to the cemetery came in on the left hand side and led us to the highest spot above the Missouri River. Indeed, the grass had been mowed inside the cemetery gates. If it hadn’t, we would not only have never found any graves, but we wouldn’t have even tried to walk in since the grass around the cemetery was several feet tall and snakes can be abundant in that part of South Dakota. Instead, we meandered our way into the cemetery. The tallest and most dramatic stone marked the burial site of Struck by the Ree or Strikes the Ree, Chief of the Yanktons, who lived from 1804 to 1888. Struck by the Ree was the first Indian child who was baptized into Christianity by Lewis and Clark when they reached this part of the Missouri River in 1805. I couldn’t help but be moved by the fact that in 1805, a little two-year-old girl in South Carolina was being taken from South Carolina to Ohio so that her father could free their slaves in a free state. Now that little two-year-old Jane Williamson was buried within a few feet of this Yankton chief who had become the first child baptized during the Corps of Discovery Expedition in 1805.

Glewwe Jane's Stone.old

Jane’s stone is as clear and crisp as it was when she was buried in 1895. The insignia marker next to the stone is too dark to read but it is the official Daughters of the American Revolution grave marker for descendants of Revolutionary War families.

Then, of course, I found Jane. The lettering on her pink granite stone is as sharp as the day she was buried in 1895 and standing proudly next to the stone is the marker which identifies her as a Daughter of the American Revolution. She is buried under a small grove of shrubbery near John and Sarah Amelia Williamson and two of their children, as well as other family members. It had only been two years since her name had come to me on the site of the Kaposia Mission, now Kaposia Park, in South St. Paul, Minnesota. As I stood there, I realized that yes, I had found Jane, but I knew very little about her life and that this day really marked the beginning of the journey to tell her story. Now, sixteen years later, I still want to find out more.

Greenwood House and Church

This photo of Greenwood was probably taken in about 1900 and it shows the Chapel and School house with the tower.


Glewwe Greenwood House.old

When I visited Greenwood in 2003, this is all that remained of the chapel. Greenwood at that point was basically a ghost town. There were two trailers off in the distance but no other signs of life except for two very happy dogs who came out to welcome my sister and I to town. When I returned in 2009, the entire place was bustling with all kinds of trailers. Families were living in the former reservation building and although the ruins were still there, the place was coming back to life.


Glewwe Greenwood Church.old

The church at Greenwood wasn’t built until long after Jane was gone. John P. Williamson lived long enough to see its completion and was buried from the new building in 1917.




Greenwood Aerial

Greenwood at one time was quite a major community along the Missouri River. This photo, again taken about 1900, gives some sense of the size of the village when Jane lived there.

Jane Williamson as JPEG

Aunt Jane (1803-1895)


[1] Cresswell, Rev. R. J., Among the Sioux: A Story of the Twin Cities and The Two Dakotas, The University Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 1906, p. 77.

[2] Jane Williamson to Mary Riggs, December 25, 1862, MNHS, Riggs Family Papers, P726, Box 1. Marion Robertson had passed away years before 1881 and although Jane mentions becoming ill after giving Marion her skirt, she never mentions such a thing again.

[3]  Iapi oaye: the Minnesota Sioux Tribe’s “Word Carrier“. Minnesota Historical Society Microfilm Call #: 1063. Mary and John Renville’s daughter Ella had passed away on February 14, 1882, so Jane would have shared Mary’s grief at this loss in another mission family.

[4] Jane Williamson to Elizabeth Burgess and Winifred Williamson, February 12, 1883, Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Item 46, Folder 5. The Lizzie in the letter is Elizabeth Williamson Voris Cutler, the daughter of Elizabeth Burgess. Cole is apparently a grandson of Elizabeth Burgess. I don’t know who Winnie’ cousin F_______-Brown might be.

[5] Andrew Williamson to “Dear Friend,” written from St. Peter Minnesota, August 14, 1884. Dakota Prairie Museum, Aberdeen, SD, 1-74-14-243

[6] John Williamson to Andrew Williamson, November 10, 1893, MNHS, Williamson Papers, P726, Box 1

[7] Ibid., February 20, 1895

[8] Ibid., April 1, 1895

[9] Iapi oaye: the Minnesota Sioux Tribe’s “Word Carrier“. Minnesota Historical Society Microfilm Call #: 1063

[10] Cresswell, Rev. R. J., Among the Sioux: A Story of the Twin Cities and The Two Dakotas, The University Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 1906, p. 79.

Posted in Dakota Mission, Jane Smith Williamson, Marion Robertson Hunter, Martha Williamson Stout, Nancy Hunter Lindsey, Sarah Amelia Van Nuys Williamson, Women in Minnesota | Leave a comment

Life of a Legend – The Story of Jane Smith Williamson – Part XV

Andrew Williamson

Andrew Williamson lived with his Aunt Jane in St. Peter off and on from 1877-1880.

One other change that the Williamsons experienced in the latter years of the 1860s was that Andrew Williamson, Thomas and Margaret’s second oldest son, came home from his service in the Civil War. Andrew had enlisted in the 5th Minnesota, Company B in January of 1862 and found himself battling Taoyateduta in the attacks on Fort Ridgley in August 1862. He was commissary at the fort during the influx of hundreds of refugees who were fleeing the warring Dakota in those weeks of August and September.

He took leave with the family in St. Peter in November 1862 after a wagon ran over his foot and made it necessary for him to find a place to recover. He was officially stationed at Fort Snelling by that time but at the end of 1862 he joined the regiment at near Oxford, Mississippi, and was promoted to 2nd lieutenant of the 71st Colored Infantry. His name was added to the Spirit of Freedom memorial in Washington, D.C., on July 18, 1998, in honor of his work with those troops.

He was badly injured in 1863 and destroyed the socket of his right eye but refused to go to St. Louis, Missouri, for treatment and managed to save the eye. Two years later he contracted swamp fever and returned home to St. Peter in September. He had to be carried into the house and was in terrible condition. He weighed only 90 pounds, down from 190 pounds, and was erratic, talking to himself. The family rallied around him, of course. Thomas treated his medical conditions and his mother and Jane tended to his comfort and healing. By 1866, he was recovered and embarked on the study of law at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, MN.

Gustavus Aerial

Gustavus Adolphus College opened on October 16, 1876. The college was just two or three blocks from the Williamson’s house in St. Peter. Andrew Williamson lived at home with the family while he taught there from 1877-1880

View from Janes House to GA Obelisk St Peter 092011.old

The obelisk at Gustavus Adolphus College is visible just up the hill from the site of the Williamson home in St. Peter.


Over the next several years he lived in several places and embarked on a variety of careers including serving as superintendent of the Odana (Chippewa) boarding school in Wisconsin; filling in as postmaster at Sleepy Eye, Minnesota; accepting a professorship at the University of Minnesota; and holding the position of Superintendent of Schools at Blue Earth City, Minnesota. He taught at Gustavus College in St. Peter in 1877, and then was hired as professor at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

Off and on during these years, he would return to St. Peter and the family home where, after the passing of his parents, he often was able to help Jane in her later years. Writing to her cousin, Elizabeth Burgess, on August 5, 1880, Jane described Andrew’s activities to her as follows:

“Ever Dear Cousin,

“Andrew walked out to visit William and Martha today. Next week he goes to Sleepy Eye on business. The latter part of the month he goes to Rock Island. He has been approved assistant teacher for the present year in a Swede College in that place. He had previously accepted a School Superintendency in Worthington, Min but on receiving the appointment from R.I. he applied for and received a release from the other place. It is further off but it will probably suit him better. It would have been pleasant to him and to me to have had him remain here and not only the Prof. and teachers but the other Swede ministers who were acquainted with him wished to retain him but the general association by whom the institution is supported voted hat none but Lutherans be permitted to teach in this Col. I suppose it was through the recommendation of the Prof. here that he received the appointment. The students have made him a present of forty dollars’ worth of books at the close of the term. I need not tell you that it is hard for me to part with him but I think he is doing all that he can to add to my comfort and I ought to be cheerful and thankful.”[1]

Augustana College Rock Island

Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, had opened in 1875 and Andrew was one of the early professors when he moved there in August of 1880.

Thomas Williamson turned his attention to completion of his translation of the Old and New Testaments into the Dakota language once the Dakota had been removed to Niobrara although he remained active in ministry, preaching both in the Twin Cities and assisting his son John at the Greenwood mission in South Dakota when needed.

The entire family grieved when they learned that their long-time colleague, Mary Ann Longley Riggs, passed away on March 29, 1869, in Beloit, Wisconsin, at the age of 55 years. Jane had had a sometimes contentious relationship with Mary Riggs, but in recent years had seen her more and more as an ally in the aftermath of the war.

Just a few months later, on October 1, 1869, Margaret Williamson slipped and fell, injuring herself so badly that despite Thomas’s medical expertise, she remained confined to her bed for the next two years and eight months until her passing. When the entire Presbytery held its annual meeting at the Williamson home in 1870, it no doubt fell to Jane to handle the hospitality for the assemblage. The house had been expanded by that time. Andrew Williamson wrote to his brother John on June 10, 1870 and reported that “William’s addition to the house is enclosed, shingled and window casing are not yet put in. It consists of a sitting room, two small bedrooms, kitchen, pantry, porch and closet.”[2]

We can also confirm who was living in the house at the time the 1870 census of Nicollet County was made. It reports the following individuals:

Thomas Williamson, 70
Nancy Williamson, 29
Jane Williamson, 67
Nancy Hunter, 11
William Stout, 29
Martha Stout, 24
James Stout, 6
Albert Frazier, 19
Patrick Barnes, 38
Martha Big Fire, 14
Samuel Hopkins, 17

The census does not record Margaret Williamson’s presence and three-year-old Alfred Stout is also missing. The census does include James Stout, aged six, but it is not clear who this might be. Martha and William Stout did not have a son named James. William Stout did have a younger brother named James Alfred Stout, who may have been visiting from Illinois, but he was twenty-six years old in 1870, not six years old. Albert Frazier, Samuel Hopkins and Martha or “Mattie” Big Fire were Dakota students who were living with the family. Patrick Barnes may have been a hired man or farm helper. In any case, it was a full house. Henry Williamson was away in Minneapolis at law school.

The family gathered in sadness yet again when Margaret succumbed to her injuries and died on July 21, 1872. Thomas sent the news to the Ripley Bee newspaper in Ripley, Ohio which published the following on September 11, 1872: “She never once complained, rose at 5 a.m. summer and winter. She was the oldest married female ever connected with the mission. She was the mother of 10 children; 5 dead; 5 living. For more than 45 years, she was my wife.”

John shared the following thoughts about his mother in the Iape Oaye newspaper of January 1873: “Mrs. Margaret P. Williamson, one of the first band of missionaries who came among the Sioux Indians 37 years ago, died July 21, aged 68 years. Our mother, so faithful and gentle, patient and true, has fallen asleep. It is well with her now. Her pains are no more. That voice, so familiar and sweet, so wont to comfort and cheer is being tuned for finer praise. The angels rejoice, why should not we?”

Margaret Williamson is the first Dakota Soul Sister featured on this site but I’ve included her obituaries here again as a reminder of what an important person she was to the family. Jane had known her since they were young and they had lived together in the same house for the majority of their lives, working side by side in the kitchen, sewing together, doing laundry, managing meals and caring for the family. It was a huge loss for Jane, even as she rejoiced in her usual fashion that a blessed soul had been released to heaven.

Jane continued to keep house on the farm with Martha Stout for Thomas and the Stout family but in 1873, Thomas decided that it would be better for them both if they were to move into town. William Stout purchased the farm. Thomas wrote to John on June 7, 1873.

House on Janes Property St Peter 092011.old

The actual house where Jane lived in St. Peter is no longer standing. It was torn down in 1905 and replaced with this home. The property covers two lots and a well-worn stone walkway leading to the back garden could be from Jane’s era. The house is just a few blocks from Union Presbyterian Church where Jane and the family worshipped. The location is 535 St. Paul Street, St. Peter, Minnesota today.

“We moved into St. Peter on the 27th of last month. I bought the Ole Mose’s house and we are living in a little more than two squares west of the avenue and about the same distance north of the Presbyterian church. Has the same number of rooms as the house we left except in the lower floor on the first floor they are larger. We are as well pleased as we expected to be.”[3]

It wasn’t long before it was just Jane, Thomas and Nancy Hunter at the new house in town. Nancy Williamson went to the mission at Greenwood in 1873 to join her brother John there, filling her lifelong desire to work with the Dakota people. Henry graduated from law school in 1873 and became an attorney in Flandreau, Minnesota.

Nancy wrote to Jane from Greenwood on November 28, 1873, describing the Thanksgiving sermon and celebration at the mission there.

“My very dear Aunt,

“I believe I have written to you since receiving any letter from you. But I guess it is time to write home again so I will write to you. I received a Postal Card from Father Tuesday and was intending to reply but John said that he would write to Father and enclose the questions, which he did.

“I wonder if any of you have been writing to me today; and I wonder how Thanksgiving passed with you. Did Mr. Kerr preach the Thanksgiving sermon this year? I wonder if you went to hear it. I am afraid that you staid [sic] at home to see about dinner. So I guess I had better give you a few extracts from the sermon I heard, lest you should entirely miss that part of the Thanksgiving feast.

“I thought John gave the Indians an excellent – I mean an appropriate discourse. He told them at first that the President had appointed the day and a great many people were observing it. He wished to join in the observance as he had appointed this meeting and he was glad to see some of them there. (There were not quite 20 present.) Then he said, ‘This day is to think of the good things we have. If a man gives me a horse I don’t go around complaining he did not give ten horses’!… He first spoke of food and that they were indebted to God for that whether raised by their own labor or given them by Government. Then he spoke of other things. He grew up among the Dakotas and he remembered how poorly they were dressed when was a little boy; how few of them wore anything but skins. These Indians were more comfortably dressed. Then he saw many children naked even in winter; now it was not so. Then he spoke of the blessing of peace; told how the Santees used to suffer from the incursions of Chippewa war parties; but this Yankton people lived in peace and could lie down at night without thinking, ‘Perhaps some enemy may come and kill me while I am asleep.’ He mentioned the small pox. ‘It has been on both sides of us, but it seemed as if a wall was around this people, so that it could not touch them.’ Then he spoke of incurring God’s anger by ingratitude and closed.

“Amelia said yesterday, ‘I will tell you who I would like to have here for dinner if I only could. Your Father and Aunt and Nancy & my Father and Mother & three younger brothers.’ If we could not have them, she asked the storekeeper Mr. Trumlo and his wife and brother. The meeting was at 11, and our dinner was at 2. I guess A. will give you the bill of fare as it was a more extravagant one than we often indulge in. We actually had a turkey – a large, fat one weight 11 lbs. I guess John and Amelia half repented having ordered it when it came for including carriage it was $2.00. Beside the turkey, we had potatoes, turnips, two kinds of pie, cranberry sauce, cake, bread & butter. John had family prayers in the afternoon, while the company were still here. Late in the afternoon we had an apple apiece. This much about our Thanksgiving.”[4]

Thanksgiving became a national holiday in America in 1863 upon declaration by President Abraham Lincoln. The Williamsons always celebrated the day with a special meal, which according to Nancy’s letter included a pretty pricey turkey.

It is clear from Nancy’s letters that she was generally a cheerful, willing woman who enjoyed her work, especially when she was teaching at the mission at Greenwood. Nancy had not had an easy life. Sadly, she was burdened with a condition that has never been identified. She was unable to walk until she was two years old and then had wooden splints on her ankles to enable her to stand and move around. Apparently her affliction was some kind of unspecified spinal disease and when she was little, big brother John pulled her around while she laid flat in the bed of a wagon. As she grew older she was able to walk and attend school but there are times when Jane mentions her affliction and that she always studied while lying on her back. She graduated from the Western Female Seminary in Oxford, Ohio, in the class of 1860 and managed to make a trip to Ohio in 1876 to a reunion of her seminary classmates. She also enjoyed visiting in Ohio with the last of her two aunts, Elizabeth Williamson Baird and Anne Williamson Willson, both of whom passed away a few months within Nancy’s visit. There are some references in the historical record that she was very small and never fully developed even in her adult years. Stephen Riggs once said, “Nancy Jane is like Zaccheus of old, low of stature but very mature in mind.”[5]

Then, on October 19, 1877, John Williamson wrote to Alfred Riggs.

“Sister Nannie’s case is a little different from what it was a week ago. I cannot say we have hopes of her recovery, but the violent symptoms have disappeared and she is walking calmly along the brink. From appearances now I should say it might be some weeks before she would go. She is so weak she can only raise herself up one elbow and has to be helped if she gets out of bed. She coughs a good deal and can eat nothing but a few teaspoons of gruel or soup at a time. We have had the doctor from Randall to see her twice and we keep him informed of how she is and he sends down advice. We are pretty well fixed for help….The neighbors are kind and have offered to help sit up but so far we have not called on them yet. It seems to disturb her to have strangers wait on her. If she dies here I shall want your help then in whatever is to be done. We shall probably wish to take her body to Minn. for interment. And we should like some public religious exercises here. As it will be impossible to tell beforehand just when the time will be I shall expect to telegraph you at that time.”[6]

The next information in the record is a letter from Thomas to his son Henry. “I received a telegram from John saying your sister Nannie is gone home and that he will be here with the body Wednesday morning. If the state of your family admits of your leaving home, please come tomorrow.” [7] Her obituary in the Iape Oahe newspaper of January 1878 says, “On Sabbath morning, November 18, 1877, Nannie Williamson entered the Pearly Gates of Jerusalem the Golden. So calmly and quietly did she pass away it seemed a literal falling asleep in Jesus. Remains taken to St. Peter to be buried next to her mother and older sister.”[8]

Nancy Jane Tombstone

Nancy Jane Williamson was Jane’s niece and namesake and had lived with Jane for most of her life.

No letters written by Jane have surfaced for the period from 1863 to 1879 so we cannot document Jane’s reaction to Nancy’s death. I am sure she was filled with sorrow. Nancy Jane was her namesake and Jane had lived with her since Nancy was three years old and Jane arrived at Lac Qui Parle. Although Nancy had gone east to school for a short time when she was a young woman, she and Jane remained close. Several letters written to Jane by Nancy are in the historical record and it is clear that the affection between aunt and niece was strong. Nancy’s body was brought to St. Peter and the family gathered as she was interred in the Green Lawn Cemetery in what was then Traverse des Sioux. Nancy was thirty-seven years old when she died.

Two years later, in 1879, Jane welcomed John and Amelia Williamson’s two oldest children, Winnie and Guy, to St. Peter, where they were to attend school. Winifred Lee Williamson was twelve years old in 1879 and her brother, Guy Wycliffe Williamson, was eleven. Jane wrote about the children in a letter to her cousin, Elizabeth Burgess, on January 7, 1879.

“When brother returned from Yankton Agency he brought John Williamson’s two eldest children with him that they might go to school. They are both healthy bright children. Winnie never needs reminding of her lessons only that her health seems perfect I would fear that she was studying too hard but although she is anxious about her lessons she is very seldom willing to be absent from our evening meetings. Guy thinks going to church on the Sab. is enough for him. He would rather stay at home and play at night and it requires a good deal of care to have him prepare his lessons for school. But there are few boys of his age that have so much Biblical knowledge as he has and is so affectionate and willing to do any kind of work that he makes sunshine in our house.”[9]

In the same letter, we learn of Jane’s other concerns:


Thomas Williamson completed the translation of the Old and New Testaments into the Dakota language during his lifetime. He spent forty-four years with the Dakota mission.

“Brother has been unwell for about a month, not confined to bed or to the house but he had soreness in his stomach attended with pain and some fever and he could take very little nourishment except rice. He has been a good deal better for several days. Has gone to church. I would have gone too but I fell and hurt my shoulder. Not bad but it is the same one that gave you so much trouble and I thought I had better keep quiet and warm. My health is much better than it was in the summer and as Martha is with us I have an easy time though our family is large.”[10]

Jane goes on to mention that Nancy Hunter is still in school. Martha and William Stout were living in town with Jane and Thomas and their son, Alfie, age twelve, was also with the family. The household thus consisted of Thomas, Jane, Nancy Hunter, Winnie, Guy, Martha, Alfie and perhaps a few of Jane’s former Dakota pupils who may still have been living with the family at the time.[11]

Jane introduced her letter to Elizabeth by expressing sorrow and sympathy to her cousin on the death of William Means, Elizabeth’s nephew, who as just twenty-one years old at the time of his passing December 15, 1878. “Willie,” as Jane called him, was a cousin of Jane’s. Her sadness led her to share some philosophical thoughts.

“The providence of God sometimes appear mysterious to us when young men that seem so well qualified for usefulness are called away while old people such as we are spared but we know that infinite wisdom cannot err, and he says,“What I do thou knowest not now but then shall know hereafter.” So let us wait his time patiently, trying to be ready when the call comes. Sometimes I dread the infirmities of age and fear I may be a burden to others and then I remember He has said, “Fear not I am with thee,” and I feel so thankful that ever mindful of our infirmities He has also said “And even to your age I am He and even to your final hours will I carry you.”[12]

Thomas W Tombstone

Thomas Williamson was 79 years old when he passed away on June 24, 1879. He and Jane had been close since childhood and Jane missed him greatly.

Jane had mentioned Thomas’s health in her letter to Elizabeth in January of 1879 and as the months passed, her concerns increased as her beloved brother began to experience stomach pain and was unable to eat. By early June, the respected founder of the Dakota mission stopped speaking and awaited death with patience. Thomas Williamson died on June 24, 1879 at the age of seventy-nine years. He had completed the translation of the entire Bible into the Dakota language earlier that year and perhaps felt that his work was done. Obituaries and tributes were published across the country as many mourned the loss of this humble man who had guided the founding of the Christian missions in Minnesota. He had lived through the deaths of six of his children and of his beloved wife Margaret. He had provided financial security for his surviving children and for his sister Jane and had earned the love and respect of his colleagues in ministry, despite his strong opinions that did not always sync with those of his fellow missionaries. Thomas is buried in the Green Lawn Cemetery in St. Peter, Minnesota, next to his wife Margaret.

On October 18, 1879, Jane wrote the following to her nephew John who was at the Yankton Reservation in Greenwood, South Dakota.

 “Your kind letter was recd today. How kind of you to think of me when so many important matters are pressing on our time and attention. Well in all my life I never felt such a hungering for love and sympathy as I do now. I know that I ought not to yield to despondency but feel weak to resist and the feat that I may be a burden to others troubles me.

“And then I think:

What may be my future lot

Full well I know concerns me not

This should set my heart at rest

What His love ordains is best

“Will you pray that God in mercy may give me more grace and not suffer me to be tempted more than he gives me strength to bear.

“But I will turn to a brighter subject. You have another little daughter, not so very little either.[13] I read of one a short time since that did not weigh one pound and yet it was bright and perfectly developed. How much reason for gratitude when there is no de…of body or mind. Should those dear boys and girls all give their hearts to Jesus and become earnest consistent Christians. How many souls they might be the means of bringing from darkness to the glorious light of the Gospel. May God give you all needed grace to train them all for him. I am so thankful to learn that cousin [sic] Sarah is comfortable. Hope she may not be tempted by her large family to expose or fatigue herself too soon… 

“May God keep me even on my death bed from doing anything that will bring dishonor on his name.

“I hope you have preserved the no. of the I. missionary that had the obituary of your father. It stopped coming to us immediately after his death. I borrowed it from Mrs. McAfee, the only person in this place I think that takes it. I asked Andrew to write on and bring any extra copies of that no. I thought I would like to send them to some of his nephews and nieces and I would like, too, if there are extra copies of the Dakota paper that has the piece written by Mr. Riggs to have them also. Did you send a copy of that paper to the Rev. John Crosier? I would like to have his address. His mother and aunts were the friends of my childhood and I often had him in my arms. They moved away when he was a babe.

“I could not write anything as you would expect dear nephew but when I have acknowledged some of the many letters that I have from sympathizing friends I will try to write the children for their own sakes something about their grandpa. I had intended filling this sheet to Winnie but will write to her again. Love to all form Aunt Jane.  

[The letter continues. No new date]

“Cousin John, Did you know that your Aunt Kirker, my only living sister, has been sick for many weeks?[14] She is a very little better but there is little hope of her recovery. The Dr. says they will write me in a week till there is a change. She suffers so much that they keep her for the most part under the influence of morphine. Lizzie says her mother felt brother’s death very much – said she had never thought of his going before she did.[15] She says she is not anxious to live and feels an assurance that we shall meet in another and a better world. She is surrounded by her children and grandchildren and has all that love and kindness can bestow. They complain that she has lost her appetite for food. I never knew anyone that took much morphine that did not lose their appetite but opium in any form makes me crazy. On that account I think when in my senses I would not consent to take it but perhaps under severe pain I might.

“Andrew and Nancy came from young peoples’ prayer meeting last evening and I stopped writing. This is the anniversary of Mr. McAfee coming to us and in taking a review of the year and recounting the deaths, he made a very touching reference to your father. Among other things he said though retaining his connection with the Dakota Pres, he was one of us and all remember the precious and sweet words he spoke in our prayer meetings.

“In the St. Peter Tribune I see that Synod approved Dr. Riggs to deliver a memorial of your father at the Synod next fall which meets in this place. I hope you will be able to attend and bring bro. Selwin with you and as many of your family as you can. How good it is of our Heavenly Father to spare cousin Sarah to you through all her trials. How very sad had you, like poor Thos. Riggs have been left a lonely widower.[16] I think we all thank God for giving you so good a wife. May she be long spared to you, your children, the friends of the mission. Andrew and Nancy are gone to Swede S.S. he teaches a class in English.

“Alfred has been sitting by me reading Youths Companion. Andrew has gone to temperance lecture. Nancy is busy preparing her lessons for tomorrow.[17]

“Good Night.”[18]

Of all of Jane’s letters, this one expresses her personal grief more than any other – and perhaps even a bit of fear as she suddenly states how she hopes she will never do anything, even on her death bed, that would bring dishonor to God. She also mentions that she never wants to be a burden to others. Her concerns are no doubt a direct result of Thomas’s death. She and Thomas had always been close and they had lived in the same house for all of childhood and then from 1843 to 1879, when Thomas passed away. Jane relied on Thomas for companionship, guidance, friendship, care and financial stability. Now, at the age of seventy-six, she is finding it difficult to just move on without him.

She is also obviously concerned that Thomas’s grandchildren are aware of his many accomplishments and encourages John to bring the entire family to the Synod Meeting where Rev. Riggs will give the official eulogy. Jane sees herself as the keeper of the family story and seeks assurance that Thomas will be remembered for all time.

Over the next year or so, Jane continued to keep house with Martha. Nancy Hunter got a teaching job about twenty miles from St. Peter so she was away from home off and on. Then, in the summer of 1880, Andrew accepted a position at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, and Nancy was offered a position teaching at the Yankton reservation in Greenwood, South Dakota with John Williamson’s family. Jane expressed her thoughts about a future without her nephew and niece to her cousin Elizabeth Burgess on August 5, 1800.

 “Ever Dear Cousin,

“I rec’d cousin Lizzie’s good letter yesterday and would have acknowledged it immediately but in a few days we expect a small family to occupy the lower part of our house and I was so busy helping Andrew to vacate a room that it seems as though I could not stop. We have partially arranged things better but many of them are thrown into my room in disorder and I feel too tired to right them today and I could not hire anyone to suit me in doing it. Andrew walked out to visit William and Martha today. Next week he goes to Sleepy Eye on business. The latter part of the month he goes to Rock Island. He has been approved assistant teacher for the present year in a Swede College in that place… I need not tell you that it is hard for me to part with him but I think he is doing all that he can to add to my comfort and I ought to be cheerful and thankful. Shall one so favored ere complain? Or one so vile complain?

“Nancy is a great comfort as well as help to me but I don’t much expect to have her with me this winter. She is needed at the mission. Miss Aungie who taught the Dakota school is married. Miss Dickson who has been studying the language so hard expects to join Mr. Woods the new missionary this fall. She says she feels worse about leaving the mission where she is than she did about leaving her home. John and his wife feel too but they concur with her in thinking she ought to go….

Nancy Hunter Lindsey

Nancy Hunter’s mother and baby brother died when she was a young girl and her widowed father was unable to care for her on his own. She was raised by her Williamson grandparents and was a companion and housemate of Jane’s in Jane’s final years. Nancy left St. Peter to become a teacher at Greenwood, S.D., at the Yankton Reservation in 1880. She married Edwin Lindsey in 1889 and they spent their lives with the mission in Poplar, Montana.

“They have no teacher engaged for their Dakota school at Yankton Agency. Thinking they refrained from asking Nancy on my account I spoke to John’s wife about it when she was here and told her if they wished to try Nancy not to stop on my account. I could not pray for the success of the mission if I was not willing to make that sacrifice. Should she only remain this winter or till better help is obtained it will not be very hard for me. Should she become a permanent helper the younger she goes the better she will speak the language. Having seen Indians from her childhood I think she will feel less repugnance to or fear of them than those who are altogether unacquainted with them. I would not if I might throw a straw in the way of her going to the mission if there is hope of her being useful there. You may think it strange that I have never conversed with her on the subject. I have wished her to think and make up her mind without my influence. She is very unselfish and has a great deal of energy but is somewhat lacking in caution.

“In Oct. Synod meets in this place. John Williamson and some of the Dakota ministers will probably be here and should Nancy conclude to go she will probably accompany her uncle home. May our Heavenly Father grant her the enlightening influence of his Holy Spirit and grant her all needful ______.

“As to myself it does not seem a matter of great importance where I spend what little remnant of life but I feel at home here. We have a good preacher. I am very near the church. I know the people (I mean some of them) and they know my peculiarities and can bear with them better than a stranger might. I have a home and feel at home. I am not quite sure I could feel at home elsewhere. Were I to accept Mary Cunningham’s kind invitation to live with them I don’t think I could stand the ride to church neither should love the preacher as I do ours and I am not quite sure I would be suited in Minneapolis. None of my friends are near enough to church for me to walk. So for the present it seems better for me to remain where I am and then if Nancy should not wish to go to the mission or should feel that it is not her duty to remain there this would be a home for her too. Andrew will pay the tax on the house and he is trying to arrange matters so that I may have no pecuniary difficulty.

“Andrew has just rec’d a letter from John. He says I have been thinking a great deal about Aunt. Don’t let her lack any comfort. It don’t matter whether they pay much rent or not if they make her comfortable…. I have had company all day and now I must soon drop my pen to get supper but as there is no one but Andrew and I it is easily done….The man and his wife have moved in. I hope I shall like them. He is Pres. She Episcopal.

In a postscript to the letter Jane adds: “With tears of gratitude I thank you for the five dollars so kindly sent but dear cousin I fear you are denying yourself to supply my wants thinking my necessities greater than your own. The family that are in with us only expected to remain till Nov., but after that some way will be provided.”[19]

This letter provides a great deal of information about Jane’s life at this time. It is clear that John and Andrew have determined that if they rent the bottom floor of the house to a family, the renters could provide assistance to Jane who will be living alone when Andrew and Nancy leave. It also seems that William and Martha Stout have moved back to the farm since they are no longer living in the house with Jane. Jane then indicates that the renters downstairs will only be able to stay until November but she is confident that “some way will be provided.”

We also learn that Hugh and Mary Cunningham have invited Jane to move in with them and that she has considered it but rejected the idea. The Cunninghams were longtime associates of the Dakota Mission and had escaped the war in 1862 with the Riggs’ group. In 1880, they were living in Bloomington Ferry in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they were operating combined denomination church. Hugh was pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church and he became superintendent of the Bloomington Ferry Church for twenty years. Mary taught the younger children. Preachers came from Oak Grove Presbyterian Church or Eden Prairie Methodist to bring the message at the Sunday service which was held at two o’clock in the afternoon.

Jane instead believed that her friends were in St. Peter and that the church was close enough so she could attend. She liked her pastor and didn’t think she’d do well in Minneapolis. We also learn that five dollars tucked into the letter from her cousin Elizabeth was much appreciated. Considering inflation, five dollars in 1880 is equivalent in purchasing power to about $123.09 in 2018, a difference of $118.09 over 138 years.

Another letter from to Elizabeth Burgess describes Jane’s life in great detail on March 14, 1881.

“Dearest Cousin

“I have been intending to write you ever since I received Cousin Lizzie’s last kind letter but I am prone to procrastination especially about writing letters. Sometimes my hand trembles. I thought I would write you on the eighth of this month it being my 78th anniversary but I had company all day. It seems almost strange to think I am in my 79th year but thus it is. I feel glad that you were recovering but this month is usually hard on weak lungs and I shall be anxious till I hear again. If consistent with the will of our Heavenly Father May you yet be spared a blessing and comfort to your loving children grand children and other dear friends….The valley of the shadow of death will not be dark to Jesus and having passed through he knows the way. Let us then lean on His precious Friend fearing no evil. How comforting to be assured that his blood cleanses from all sin and that we may appear before him clothed in his own supplied Righteousness.

“I suppose the winter has been unusually hard almost all over the U.S. and remembering that your delicate constitution did not bear the cold so well as mine I have often felt anxious about you although I knew you were surrounded by every comfort that love could give…Before the snowdrifts intercepted our communication with the west I rec’d letters from Nancy Hunter once or twice a week but they come very seldom now. The last one was dated 21st of Feb and she said she had not heard from me for four weeks and feared I was sick and that she had done wrong in leaving me but they needed her there and I have been very comfortable all winter. Have not had a wearisome night or an hours sickness and notwithstanding the storms I have not been confined to the house a single day although there has been a great deal of stormy weather this winter no single storm has been so severe as I have seen in goneby years but I think there is more snow than there has been any winter since we came to St. Peter.  

“Some mornings the men and large boys were all busy shoveling the snow to make roads from there doors and for a time wood was scarce but Andrew had left me plenty of good wood. The man who with his family occupy the lower part of the house had it sawed. His boys brought it up so that I have had no trouble all winter. Before the weather became very cold I slept in the other room where I have a cook stove and used this for a sitting room but when the weather became severe I found it more comfortable to cook, sleep and eat in my sitting room. It has a nice little parlor cook stove that I bought long ago with money that you sent me and it makes this room very comfortable indeed. I cover the fire at night and in the morning step out of bed uncover the fire, take up the ashes, lay in dry wood and go back to bed till my room is warm and then rise and get my breakfast which is not much trouble but I always eat it with good relish. This climate gives us good appetites.

“I don’t trouble much about cooking. Martha Stout usually sends me a loaf of light bread once a week when the traveling is practicable. I told Mrs. Ericson I would like to have her send me a piece of cooked meat once a day and I would make it right at the end of the month. My little stove bakes potatoes very nicely. I can buy anything I wish downtown. Mr. Ericson calls at the P.O. or does any other errand I wish both he and his wife are very kind and thoughtful seem to take pleasure in doing me any favor. They are Swede Lutheran of the middle class. Andrew Williamson tried to leave everything comfortable for me. All my brothers’ children seem to desire to do anything to add to my comfort. Andrew left money subject to my order so that I could draw it at any time and the others seem just as willing to do for me. The man who had the greater part of my money failed but I draw the interest on four hundred dollars (in other hands) semi-annually a piece of land that had been unsuitable on account of the grass hoppers was sold the last of Dec. and from that source I will now draw nine per cent interest on eight hundred & fifty dollars from the sale of the land and there is some other money owing to me that I may receive the lower part of the house rents for six dollars a month and although I make some reduction on account of the many kindnesses I receive. Still I have all that I need with something to give the church and the poor.

“I am acquainted with many of the poor often bringing their children outgrown garments and their own that for some reason they are willing to spare to be distributed to the needy. And other winters I have been in the habit of seeking out those who were sick or in want but the walking has been bad this winter and I have gone out very little except to church to attend our missionary meetings when the weather is favorable or a lady calls to walk with me to the evening meetings but when the wind blows I stay at home. I am sometimes troubled when walking with a sharp pain striking me just above the left ankle that for a moment deprives me of the use of that limb. It hurts me very little when sitting and I have never felt it at all when lying on the bed. I suppose all old people have their pains and aches but I think very few suffer so little

as I do. I have a cold now for the first time this winter but it does not make me sick though I am not so strong as I was earlier in the season. We are having pleasant weather now and the snow melts a little every day but it is still very deep and warm rain would probably cause a great flood.

The letter continues on the 23rd.

Mary Aiton Alone

Mary Briggs Aiton came to Minnesota with Jane in May of 1852. She was just sixteen years old and had attended Jane’s school in Manchester, Ohio, when she was a girl. She ended up marrying missionary John Aiton in Minnesota and spent the rest of her life in the state.

“I stopped writing recd a letter from Nancy as she had still no letter from me and was troubled about it I wrote her a very long letter and then it was necessary for me to write to Andrew and although I stay at home very closely people thinking I am lonesome call very often. Mrs. Aiton spent a week with me lately. She is the one that I can talk with of Ohio friends. Should I live till June I think Andrew and Nancy both will visit me and although I am not lonesome I shall enjoy a visit from them very much.

“That you may be enabled at all times to cast your care on Him who cares for you is the desire of your ever loving Cousin Jane.“[20]

So Jane began yet another chapter in her life as she adjusted to living alone for the first time since she left Ohio in 1843.


[1] Jane Williamson to Elizabeth Burgess, August 5, 1880, Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Item 43, Folder 5.

[2] Andrew Williamson to John P. Williamson, June 10, 1870, MNHS, Williamson Family Papers, Box 6

[3] Ibid., Thomas Williamson to John P. Williamson, June 7, 1873.

[4] Nancy Jane Williamson to Jane Williamson, November 28, 1873; Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Item 38, Folder 4. The turkey coming by carriage reflects the fact that the closest city to the Yankton Reservation at Greenwood was Springfield, South Dakota. It was about twenty miles to the east and was where people coming to Greenwood by rail had to get off and take a horse-drawn carriage to the mission school. The turkey and any other non-homegrown supplies for Thanksgiving would have been brought in from Springfield.

[5] Missionary Herald, 1854 p. 221 May 6, 1854.

[6] John Williamson to Alfred Riggs, October 19, 1877, MNHS, Williamson Family Papers, 786, Box 1

[7] Ibid., Thomas Williamson to Henry Williamson, n.d.

[8] Iape Oaye, January 1878.

[9] Jane Williamson to Elizabeth Burgess, January 7, 1879, Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Item 40, Folder 4

[10] Ibid.

[11] The 1875 Federal Census of Nicollet County, Minnesota lists Dr. Williamson, 75; J.S. Williamson, 72; Nancy Hunter, 16; Annye Renville, 15: and a name that looks like Horace Ange, 20. The next federal census isn’t recorded until 1885 and at that time the household included William Stout; Martha Stout, 38; Alfred Stout; Jane Williamson, 84; and a young man named Albert whose last name looks like Hargot?

[12] Jane Williamson to Elizabeth Burgess, January 7, 1879, Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Item 40, Folder 4

[13] John and Sarah Amelia Williamson had welcomed a daughter, Laura Lucille Williamson, born in 1879. Jane’s letter implies that the baby may have been born prematurely but Laura married William Lyman and lived to be sixty-five years old.

[14] The sister Jane mentions is Esther Alexander Williamson. She married Colonel William Kirker and was eighty-two years old when Jane wrote to John. Esther passed away on January 20, 1880.

[15] Lizzie is Esther’s daughter, Elizabeth Campbell Kirker Coleman. She is informing Jane that Esther was very sad to learn of Thomas’s death.

[16] Thomas Riggs, the son of Rev. Stephen and Mary Riggs, lost his wife Nancy in childbirth on August 5, 1878. She was just thirty years old.

[17] Andrew Williamson was teaching at Gustavus in St. Peter in 1879 and he and Nancy Hunter were living with Jane as were the Stouts, including Alfred, who was twelve years old at this time.

[18] Jane Williamson to John Williamson, October 18, 1879, South Dakota State Historical Society, Pierre, SD; John Poage Williamson Papers, Volume 3471A, Folder 2

[19] Jane Williamson to Elizabeth Burgess, August 5, 1880; Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Item 43, Folder 5

[20] Jane Williamson to Elizabeth Burgess, February 12, 1883, Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Item 46, Folder 5

Posted in Andrew Hunter, Hugh Doak Cunningham, Jane Smith Williamson, Margaret Poage Williamson, Martha Williamson Stout, Mary Beauford Ellison Cunningham, Mary Smith Briggs Aiton, Nancy Hunter Lindsey, Nancy Jane Williamson, Women in Minnesota | Leave a comment

Life of a Legend – The Story of Jane Smith Williamson – Part XIV

The exile of the Dakota from Minnesota began in April of 1863 when approximately 265 men who had been in prison in Mankato, were taken by steamboat to Davenport, Iowa, where they were to serve out their sentences along with sixteen women who were to do their laundry, prepare meals and provide care for the men. Two children were also with the group.

Favorite Steamboat08222019

The men who had been imprisoned in Mankato since 1862 were removed from Minnesota to prison in Davenport, Iowa, in April 1863. As they passed Fort Snelling on April 23, 1863, their wives, children and families gathered on the shore to wave and try to make a brief connection with their relatives.

On the way to their new prison, the boat passed Fort Snelling where over 1300 Dakota men, women and children had been held since November of 1862. As the ship with the condemned prisoners drew near, the wives and family members of the men gathered on the banks and called out to the men. Most of them had not seen each other for months and no one knew if this brief moment of reunion might be their last encounter for all time.

For Jane and the rest of the Williamson family, the relocation of the two groups also meant relocation of the family. John Williamson accompanied the families from Fort Snelling to a desolated and barren location known as Crow Creek, South Dakota, where they were expected to establish farms and become self-sufficient.

Jane Williamson wrote to Mary Riggs on May 6, 1863:

“Mr. Riggs told us he had heard one boatload of Indians has started. Bro will feel disappointed if John is gone but that is little matter in comparison to what the poor Indians will feel as there will doubtless be many painful separations. May God be merciful to them. Nannie and I put in some old clothing for Sarah and her mother, thinking it would make a change when they had no conveyance for washing and if they lost it while journeying the loss would not be great.”[1]

For Thomas Williamson the move meant that his 12-mile walks to Mankato to visit the prisoners came to an end and he found himself traveling to Davenport as often as possible to carry on his work with them there.

In the meantime, Jane continued to keep house with Margaret in St. Peter. Twenty-one year old Nancy and twelve-year old Henry Williamson were living at home and the family took in Thomas and Margaret’s granddaughter, Nancy Hunter, the four-year-old child of the now deceased Elizabeth Williamson and her husband Andrew Hunter. Also joining the family was Thomas and Margaret’s daughter, Martha, and her husband, William Stout. They were living in Peoria, Illinois when the U.S. Dakota War began, but returned to the family in Minnesota in 1863, with their son Thomas Stout, who was just a year or so old.

In January of 1863 Thomas Williamson received a $400.00 loan from the mission board to build a house on farm property he owned three miles outside of St. Peter. At the time of his request, the family was renting a house in town for $100 a month and he thought it would be cheaper to have their own place further out in the country.[2] William Stout undertook the construction of the new house.

It isn’t clear from any of Jane’s letters or other documents just how she was able to bring a few of her former Dakota students to St. Peter. It is clear, however, that Marion Robertson, Bessie Means and Sophia Robertson were living with the Williamsons in St. Peter by early 1863 despite the forced exile of the Dakota from the state.[3]

Marion had lived with the family off and on ever since the Kaposia mission days when the Robertsons were neighbors of the Williamsons. She was 21 years old in 1861 when she moved to Beaver Creek with a young Scotsman named Alexander Hunter. They were married by Rev. Stephen Riggs at the Merchants Hotel in St. Paul, Minnesota, just a few weeks before the outbreak of the U.S. Dakota War in August of 1862. Upon learning of the attack at the Lower Sioux Agency, Marion and Alexander fled and tried to make their way to Fort Ridgley. They were at John Nairn’s farm when Hinhanshoon Koyagmane approached them alone on the road and shot Alexander in the breast. He took Marion captive but she was rescued by Wakewashtay who took her back to her mother’s home at Beaver Creek.

Merchants Hotel St. Paul

Marion Robertson and Alexander Hunter were married at the Merchant’s Hotel in St. Paul by Rev. Stephen Riggs in August 1862. The hotel was ocated at 159 East Third Street, now renamed Kellogg Boulevard.

Although the historical record isn’t clear, we do know that Jane Williamson wrote to Stephen Riggs on October 27, 1862. “Marion is still with us. She conducts herself with great propriety. She feels very sorry about Thomas and has gone upstairs to write to him.” [4] Marion’s brother Thomas had been arrested and accused of joining Little Crow in battles at Fort Ridgley and New Ulm. He was ultimately acquitted and sent to the Fort Snelling internment camp.

Marion was pregnant at the time of her husband’s death and she left the Williamsons and went to Faribault, Minnesota, where her mother had relocated after the war. Marion and Alexander’s son, Alexander W. Hunter, was born there in February 1863. Tragedy struck when Marion’s three-year-old son died in February 1866, while they were in Faribault. In 1867, she married Lorenzo Taliaferro Prescott, a son of Philander Prescott, who had been killed in the war. Lorenzo was 28 years old and Marion was 27. They reportedly had a daughter and a son. Marion and Lorenzo only had a short time together when Lorenzo died on January 2, 1869, at the age of thirty. At this point, Marion took her children and went with her mother and others in the family and settled on the Sisseton Reservation. She passed away there in 1871 when she was 30 years old. It is not known what happened to her children or whether she ever saw Jane again after she left St. Peter in January 1863.

Marion’s sister, Sophia Maria Robertson, also lived with the Williamsons off and on during her childhood. She was fourteen when the war broke out in 1862 and somehow made her way to St. Peter where she lived with Jane and the family in the spring of 1853. The third girl, Bessie Means, had been taken into the Williamson family in March of 1859 at Pejutazee. She was five years old at the time and may have been an orphan. There is no mention of Bessie in any of the stories of the Williamsons’ escape as the war broke out but she was with the family in St. Peter in May of 1863. On September 5, 1865, Thomas Williamson reported to S.B. Treat that the family had two girls living with them, one of whom had come to them three years before the outbreak and the other had been living with the family for two years. He also says: “The other girl I wrote you about had suffered so much by her confinement at Fort Snelling and then on the Missouri that she was consumptive when she came here and died a month after I came home from Davenport.” [5]

On May 6, 1863, Jane wrote to Mary Riggs and mentioned how appreciative she was of the clothing and other items that Rev. Riggs had brought to the family.

“Mr. Riggs is getting his horse and I have not time to tell you how much we were all obliged by the valuable donations. Handkerchiefs and hose were just what I was needing. I have got one pair of the pants refitted for Bessie. If I can get the summer dresses made large enough for her they will save buying her one. The pretty blue saque looks so sweet on Nancy and she had nothing of the kind suitable for summer. The smaller dress needs no alteration…The pretty Delaine sets on Sophia as though it had been fitted by a dressmaker and is so suitable to the season.”[6]

Margaret and Henry edited.old

Thomas and Margaret Williamson rented rooms in Davenport, Iowa between 1863-1866 while Thomas continued to minister to the prisoners. Margaret had this photo taken in Davenport in 1863 with their youngest son, Henry.

While Jane was dealing with outfitting the girls and herself, Thomas found himself barred from visiting the prisoners in Davenport. Stephen Riggs told his wife Mary that officials felt that Thomas was indoctrinating the prisoners and telling them they weren’t guilty. This ban lasted until October of 1863.[7] Thomas apparently did not always obey the ban. He and Margaret took Henry to Davenport and found a place to rent so that he could remain near the prison camp. He never stopped believing that the men in the prison were innocent and he was concerned about their living conditions.

During that summer of 1863, work continued on the new house, which was possibly ready for the family to move in by August or September. Henry Williamson wrote to his brother John on July 28, 1863, that the carpentry work was completed on the house and that Andrew Hunter had harvested the wheat.[8] Apparently the family income depended on what was produced at the farm during this time. [9]

Nancy Williamson did, however, find a teaching position. None of her letters home indicate exactly where she was but she wrote to Jane on July 22, 1863 about working with some of her students to clean the schoolhouse.

“Dear Aunt Jane,

I thank you for your short note by Mr. Peck. I intended to have sent you one by him but had not had time to write it. I generally assisted Mrs. Radcliff in the evenings as she was very much — with her work. I expected to have time to write Saturday, but I did not. The schoolhouse was to clean up. I spent half the day, rather more than that, and was very tired when I did get back. Harriet Radcliff and Mary Humphrey assisted me. The well has been fixed so we are no longer badly off for water. The girls made a fair while I went down to Mr. — Southels’s to borrow a bucket and scrub brush. Mrs. Radcliff had given us some soft soap to take with us – so we had warm soapsuds to work with. Harriet and Mary drew all the water and scrubbed the floor; and they did it well. They each had a broom, a bucket of water, and a cloth for wiping and they worked with a will. Mary being the largest and a strong girl for her size could and did do the most. I washed the windows, the doors, the chair, the desk and benches.”[10]


Taoyateduta’s son, Wowinape, lived in the Williamson home off and on when he was a young boy. He was with his father when the famous Dakota chief was killed near Hutchinson, Minnesota, in 1863. Wowinape was sentenced to be hanged but a technical difficulty postposed the execution and he was sent to the prison in Davenport and was pardoned with the others in 1866.

In the letters I have from Jane at this time, there is no mention of the death of Taoyateduta near Hutchinson, Minnesota, on July 3, 1863. Jane had known the infamous chief at Kaposia and at least two of his children lived with the Williamsons off and on during the Williamsons time there from 1845-1852. One of those children, Wowinape, was captured on July 28, 1863. He had been with his father at the time that Nathan Lamson came across them picking berries and shot and killed the chief who was known to most whites as Little Crow. The news of his death was published all over the area and Jane certainly would have learned of it but we have no record of what her thoughts may have been.

Although no copy of his request has been found, Thomas Williamson apparently wrote to S.B. Treat in late 1863 and asked if the ABCFM mission board would help him with expenses if he were to travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Abraham Lincoln in person and seek pardons for at least a portion of the men imprisoned at Davenport. Treat responded on January 25, 1864 and granted Thomas’s request. He also sent a second letter in March wishing Thomas luck in getting the ear of the president.[11]

Thomas left for Washington on March 23, 1864, and met with President Lincoln on April 1, 1864. The President told him that he would pardon one-third of the prisoners if the Minnesota Congressional delegation would approve the request. That didn’t happen but Thomas was successful in convincing Lincoln to pardon twenty-five of the prisoners, whose names Thomas himself had selected. The pardons were granted on April 30, 1964 and signed by the president.[12]

In addition to working for the pardons, Thomas, Jane and the rest of the family were involved with receiving payment for the claim they had submitted following the U.S. Dakota War. Historian Carrie Zeman found the original missionary claims in the National Archives in 2017 and I have worked with her to transcribe many of the handwritten documents. Both the process and the itemized list of what the Williamson family lost provide intriguing details about their daily lives.

The first step was for Thomas to hire an attorney to represent him, which he did. Charles D. Gilfillan became the family’s legal representative throughout the process, which actually began back on November 10, 1862 when Thomas, his daughter Elizabeth Williamson Hunter and colleagues, Hugh and Mary Cunningham, appeared before J.B. Sackett, Nicollet County, Minnesota Notary Public.

Williamson Claim Page 6

This is page 6 of the Williamson family claim. You can imagine the challenge of transcribing the writing and amounts. On this page are listed several items of women’s clothing. There is a black silk dress almost new for $10.00; a heavy traveling dress very little worn for $6.00; 2 calico dresses, part worn for $2.00 and 4 quilted skirts at $1.50 each.

The Williamsons had worked to compile a list of the property they lost when the Dakota burned down the mission and their home. Elizabeth and the Cunninghams were basically there to affirm that they found the list to be accurate as far as they remembered. The list is ten pages long and includes horses, cattle, pigs, farm implements, tools, buggy, furniture, bedding, linens, individual items of clothing, hundreds of books, food supplies, dishes, pots and pans and every piece of silverware. The total claim was submitted for $1,789.00.

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is a 2013  film and an adaptation of the 1853 slave memoir Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. A copy of the original Northrup book is on the Williamson claim list at a price of $.075.

Several months later, on February 16, 1863, the commissioners called Thomas, Nancy Williamson and Stephen Riggs in to cross examine them about the contents of the list. Riggs spoke up and said that Thomas had underestimated the worth of what had been lost and said the claim should be closer to $2,500. Nancy ‘s cross examination is reported as follows:

“That she knew all the articles were at their house but cannot tell the exact amount, that they left the buggies – That the melodeon was a very fine one and nearly new – that her father had a large amount of furniture and household goods because he had a large family – that he had a pair of Globes one celestial the other terrestrial and were worth twelve dollars. That her father was a Physician and created the medicines whenever called upon.”

            Further deponent saith not

                        [signed] Nancy J. Williamson

The report of the claim ends with the following determination:

“We, the undersigned, Commissioners, appointed under the Act of Congress, Approved February 16th, 1863, after hearing and considering the annexed Claim and evidence, find that they claimant is entitled to

Fifteen hundred dollars as direct damages.                                                                                                  $1500.00
Paid him out of “Present Relief” Fund two hundred Dollars    $ 200.00
Balance due,                                                                                            $1300.00
We also find due him as consequential damages                         $ 200.00


Witness our hands at Minneapolis Minnesota this
20th day of October A.D. 1863.”

As far as I can interpret from the claim documents, the Williamsons received only $1,500 for everything they had owned and the balance of the money, $1,100.00, was finally released to them on August 12, 1864, nearly two years after the war began. That date is confirmed on the first page of the document.

“Department of the Interior

Washington, D.C. August 12 1864

Received of Ashton L. H. White, Disbursing Clerk of the Department of the Interior, under the provisions of the Acts of Congress approved February 16th, 1863, and May 28th, 1864, Eleven hundred Dollars, being the balance of the award of the Commissioners upon the Claim of Thomas S. Williamson numbered 243.

[Signed] C Gilfillan, Atty for the Claimant”[13]

The situation with the missionaries was complicated by the fact that the ABCFM owned the land on which the missions had been built. The missionaries were given the opportunity by the mission board to purchase that land if they wished but few took advantage of that offer and instead attempted to accurately claim only those items which specifically belonged to them personally and not to the mission. The ABCFM filed its own claim to receive recompense for lost property and buildings owned by the mission board.


John Poage Williamson married Sarah “Amelia” Van Nuys on April 27, 1866. They went with the Dakota to Niobrara and then to the Yankton Reservation at Greenwood, South Dakota, where they ran the mission and school for over fifty years.

The other major development in the post-war story that impacted the family was that the federal government finally agreed to move the Indians off of the barren Crow Creek reservation where hundreds had died, many of starvation, since 1863. On June 11, 1866, all of the women, children and other family members at Crow Creek were moved to Niobrara, Nebraska. John Williamson, who had been with the Dakota from the beginning of their removal, had married Sarah “Amelia” Van Nuys on April 27, 1866, in Winnebago, Minnesota, and now he and Sarah accompanied the people to their new Nebraska home. They remained there until spring of 1869, when John was assigned to establish a new mission and school at Greenwood, South Dakota on the Yankton Reservation.

The family continued to be faced with tragedy. They had just buried little John Knox Williamson in October of 1862 and now, in 1865, Martha and William Stout’s little boy, Thomas Williamson Stout, who was three years old, died. Nothing in the correspondence indicates any cause of death. Two years later, on May 20, 1867, Martha and William were blessed with another boy. Alfred “Alfie” Josiah Stout. Alfie was a healthy child and lived to the fine old age of 87 years.

It was now five years since the U.S. Dakota War and Jane had settled into her new role in St. Peter, Minnesota. Although Thomas accompanied Stephen Riggs on trips to Niobrara and spent time filling in for John at Greenwood, Jane never returned to mission work. She focused on her Dakota students and her Sunday School classes and took in a few students for general education. Nancy Williamson wrote to her brother Henry on April 8, 1868 and reported that: “Aunt is teaching in the sitting room. Her scholars are Albert, Edwin, Sammy, Mattie and Nancy. She only teaches forenoons.” [14] Alfred was Alfred Frazier, a Dakota boy who had come to live with the Williamsons. Mattie may be Martha Big Fire, a Dakota girl who was a daughter or granddaughter of Peter Tapaytatanka, one of the Dakota men for which Jane wrote a letter pleading for pardon, and Nancy is Nancy Hunter, Jane’s great-niece. I have no information on who Edwin and Sammy are.

These were good years for Jane in many ways, surrounded by family, involved in church, teaching students and enjoying apparent good health. She had found and connected with many of her former students and enjoyed visits with other former mission members. She corresponded with missionaries around the world and loved to hear from her nephews, John, Andrew and Henry. It was an era of relative peace and contentment before Jane’s life changed yet again.

[1] Jane Williamson to Mary Riggs, May 6, 1863, MHS MS, Riggs Family Papers, P727, Box 1. Sarah is Sarah Hopkins, the wife of Robert Hopkins Chaska, and her mother is Catherine Tatidutawin. Both are referenced in many Dakota Soul Sisters stories.

[2] Thomas Williams to S.B. Treat, January 20, 1863, NW Missions MS, P489, Box 21; ABCFM SS310 No. 227 Re Claims.

[3] Marion and Sophia Robertson had a white father and Dakota mother so perhaps were allowed to remain in Minnesota. Bessie may also have had a white parent; their identities are not known.

[4] Jane Williamson to Stephen Riggs October 27, 1862; MNHS Riggs Family Papers, Box 1

[5] Thomas Williamson to S.B. Treat, September 5, 1865, MNHSBA10/.A512b, ABCFM Correspondence, Box 10

[6] Jane Williamson at St. Peter, to Mary Riggs, May 6, 1863; MHS MS, Riggs Family Papers, P727, Box 1. It is not clear in the letter whether the Nancy Jane mentions is Nancy Williamson or Nancy Hunter.

[7] Stephen Riggs to Mary Riggs, May 12, 1863, Riggs Family MNHS Riggs Family Papers, Box 1

[8] Henry Williamson to John Williamson, July 28, 1863, South Dakota State Historical Society. Thomas Smith Williamson Papers, Volume 3471B, Folder 2. Jeff Williamson identifies the current address of the Williamson property as 36706, County Road 15, St. Peter, MN.

[9] In the ABCFM Annual Report, September 1866, Jane Williamson, Thomas Williamson, Margaret Williamson, Stephen Riggs and Mary Riggs are listed as missionaries at large but it isn’t clear if they are continuing to be paid by the ABCFM. MNHS BA10/.A512b, ABCFM Correspondence, Box 7.

[10] Nancy Jane Williamson to Jane Williamson, July 22, 1863, MNHS Williamson Family Papers

[11] S.B. Treat to Thomas Williamson, January 25, 1864 and March 19 1864. MNHS NW Missions MS P489, Box 21.

[12] In 1865, Thomas made another effort to obtain pardons for more of the prisoners. He was to meet with the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs on April 15, 1865, but President Lincoln was assassinated the day before the meeting took place. The last of the prisoners at Davenport were pardoned on March 22, 1866, are released to the new reservation at Niobrara, Nebraska. Walt Bachman to Clifford Chanku, January 28, 2011; Thomas Williamson to Stephen Riggs, April 7, 1964 and January 12 ,1865, Riggs Family Papers, Boxes 1 and 2; MNHS, Robert Todd Lincoln Papers.

[13] RG 217 Records Of The Accounting Offices Of The Department Of The Treasury Indian Accounts, 1877, 3503E, Box No. 1713. [Outside Cover] Department Of The Interior, July 22, 1864.The within Claim No. 243 of Thomas S. Williamson..

[14] Nancy Williamson to Henry Williamson, April 8, 1868, MNHS Williamson Family Papers

Posted in Catherine Tatidutawin, Jane Smith Williamson, Margaret Poage Williamson, Marion Robertson Hunter, Sarah Hopkins Chaska, Wawiyohiyawin/Sarah Hopkins, Women in Minnesota, Wowinape | Leave a comment

Life of a Legend – The Story of Jane Smith Williamson – Part XIII

Jane’s concern and sympathy for the Dakota, both those imprisoned in Mankato and those who were encamped at Fort Snelling remained strong over the course of the next few months. She was extremely distressed that Robert Hopkins Chaska and Peter Tapetatanka were both among those who had been found guilty and sentenced to death. According to her stories of  the night the family escaped from Pejutazee, Robert Hopkins Chaska was the first to bring them news of the outbreak of the war and Peter risked his own life to help them reach safety.

On November 13, 1862, Stephen Riggs, who went with the prisoners to Mankato, wrote to his wife Mary that “Aunt Jane wrote a very strong appeal to General Sibley on behalf of Robert Hopkins.”[1] Although no copy of this letter has been located, the following day Jane also wrote a letter of support regarding Peter Tapetatanka.

“Dear Sir,

 “Permit me to make a few statements respecting Tapaytatanka. The first evidence we had of the Indian outrage was this man and some others standing out before our door as guard while his sister and step mother were sent in. After telling us of the arrival of a messenger who brought sad tidings of murders committed below and that the perpetrators were on their way up, added with indescribable consternation. If it be known that we told this the bad Indians will surely kill us.

“About one o’clock Tuesday another messenger informed us that the marauders were robbing traders, and had shot Garvie.[2] This startling intelligence soon filled our room with Indian men who came to offer their services. Tapaytatanka with his father then left us to go to Yellow Medicine and, as I learned the next day, they both used all their influence to prevent an attack upon the people of  the Agency. The next morning he again presented himself and before we had time to ask, said, ‘The people of the agency have all started in safety.” Oh, how his countenance glowed when this was announced.

“After the warehouse was broken open he went with his band to get apart, leaving word that if he had an intimation that we were in danger he would hasten to our relief. On he afternoon of Tuesday, the rioters having found ardent spirits somewhere were howling around Tapaytatanka’s house like demons; and both his own and his father’s presence were required to restrain them from deed of violence, but they sent their women to see after us. These women told us that many of the lower Indians were in that drunken band who were expecting to be joined by a party from [unclear] and start out the next morning on a war party. They appeared very sorry it was so. The women would have remained with us during the night but there were others, and we told them we were not afraid so bidding us a very affectionate good night, they left. When they had returned two men from the band, doubtless sent by Tapaytatanka and his father to act as sentinels, came. These two men sat by our door with guns [unclear] with nothing (unless we requested some little service which was always performed with cheerfulness) until we were seated on the wagon when they gave a cordial pressure of the hand and closed our intercourse.

“At the Rapids we were again told of the war party and several invited us to hide with them till they had passed by the way we were to travel. I afterwards heard that when he could not restraint he war party, he went with them till they were off our trail and complaining of sore feet, returned home.

“I suppose none of us can fully realize the circumstances in which our friendly Indians were thus placed. Not wishing to participate in the deeds of Little Crow, many would gladly have fled to our Flag, and espoused our cause but how should they get way and how would they be received? Those were questions not easily disposed of. They feared that the white people, enraged at the crimes already committed, might not distinguish the innocent from the guilty. Some, dreading the fury of the Eagle, proposed flying to the Lion for protection, but how could they leave their comfortable houses and their fields promising so bountifully to repay the labor of their hands and by their way they must be exposed to their deadly enemies, the Chippewas.

“Yours with Christian sympathy, Jane S. Williamson[3]

Jane’s efforts on behalf of Robert Hopkins Chaska and Peter Tapetantanka were successful. Stephen Riggs described the reason Robert had originally been charged and sentenced to death and then wrote, “He would have been executed, if his friends had not interested themselves in his  behalf. Indeed other efforts not succeeding, a letter written by Miss Jane Williamson to President Lincoln alone saved him. God, who makes no mistakes, had a work for him to do in the prison, as he for Joseph in the land of Egypt.”[4]

Peter Tapetantanka was also sentenced to death after his military trial. I don’t know if Stephen Riggs sent the letter Jane wrote about Peter to Lincoln himself or if Riggs used it to write his own request to Lincoln to pardon Tapetantanka. In any case, on April 7, 1864, Stephen Riggs wrote to General Sibley asking for a pardon. He explained to Sibley:

“This man stated before the commission that he had gone with a war party, on about the fourth day of the uprising for the purpose of preventing them from following the trail of the party of missionaries and other who were escaping. After he had passed our trail, and with some difficulty, prevented the part from following us, he returned home. His statement was discredited and he was condemned. But it since appears from independent testimony, that his statement was correct; and that under God, our whole party owe our lives to him. We cannot but desire earnestly that he may be immediately relieved from his condemnation.”`[5]

This is the list of the “friendlies” who were paid a reward following the war because they helped missionaries and white settlers escape to safety or who joined Sibley’s forces to pursue their Dakota kinsmen who had not turned themselves in in 1862. Sketches, Historical and Descriptive, of the Monuments and Tablets Erected by the Minnesota Valley Historical Society in Renville and Redwood Counties, Minnesota. Minnesota Valley Historical Society, Morton, Minnesota, 1902, p. 75.

Sibley endorsed the petition and Peter Tapetantanka was officially pardoned by President Lincoln on April 19, 1864. Both Robert Hopkins and Peter Tapetantanka were Christians and were leaders among the prisoners first at Mankato and then at Davenport, Iowa, in the years before they received their pardons. After the war, they were among those “friendly” Dakota who were each paid $100 as a reward  for helping whites escape.

Jane’s concern extended to all of those who were imprisoned at Mankato and she and Thomas brought paper and pencils and books to the men so they could write to the families being held at Fort Snelling.[6] Their efforts on behalf of the prisoners were not always appreciated. On November 25, 1862, Jane wrote to Mary Riggs, seeking her assistance.

Colonel William Crooks commanded the 6th Regiment under Henry Sibley that marched to Fort Ridgley in August 1862. He served on the military commission that conducted the trials of the Dakota in 1862 and suggested that they shave the heads of the Dakota who were found guilty and have them whipped. Sibley knew that such personal indignities would never be accepted by the Dakota and strongly opposed Crooks’ plan. The city of Crookston, Minnesota, is named after Crooks, who went on to serve in the Minnesota State Legislature. Minnesota Historical Society Collections.

“When Gen. Sybley [sic] was at South Bend I think the prisoners were permitted to write to their friends. Seeing some dirty scraps of paper written on all sides, I went to St. Peter, bought paper and pencils at my own expense and sent them up but Col. Crooks said writing materials could not be allowed them. Knowing the officers would be changed I sent again last Sat. But Col. Miller finding by inquiry that Col. Crooks had forbidden, did not feel at liberty to permit it. Could not Bro. Riggs get a permit from Gen. Sibley. Oh how many weary hours might those in bonds pass writing. It would be more profitable to them [than] looking at the card players.”[7]

Jane’s attempts to get permission to provide the prisoners with books, paper and pencils was ultimately granted and many of the men sent letters back to their wives and families at Fort Snelling. Thomas and Jane took the prisoners Bibles and Thomas continued to walk the twelve miles to Mankato several times a week, while also continuing to care for the wounded who were recovering in St. Peter.

During this time everyone, whites and Dakota, missionaries and settlers, military leaders and the troops, and, of course, the prisoners, awaited the decision of President Abraham Lincoln on what was to be done with the condemned. Over three hundred men had been sentenced to be hanged. Thomas Williamson and Stephen Riggs disagreed on what should happen with Williamson telling Riggs the trials had been totally corrupt and Riggs feeling that those who had participated in the war needed to be punished. Thomas thought that new trials should be scheduled in response to Riggs’ proposal that he seek a pardon only for members of the mission churches. Letters and newspaper articles abound from this period as people expressed their varied opinions.

President Abraham Lincoln played a crucial role in the U.S. Dakota War despite the fact that he was in the midst of the Civil War that was ripping the nation in two. The story of how he determined which of the 303 condemned Dakota were guilty of crimes that demanded execution and his foresight and mercy in granting pardons to those in prison after the execution is one of the most fascinating stories in American history.

Then, on December 6, 1862, President Lincoln issued the order that thirty-nine of the condemned men were to be hanged and directed Sibley to proceed with plans for the execution. I try to imagine Jane’s reaction to this news. I’m sure that she and the Williamsons were relieved that the number was only thirty-nine and not over three hundred, but still the thought of these people whom they felt had been tried unfairly, were to lose their lives in such a travesty of justice must have been a heavy blow.

Jane and Thomas Williamson, upon seeing the list, immediately set to work to get Tatemina removed from the list of those to be hanged. Tatemina, whose English name was translated as Round Wind, was reportedly seventy years old in 1862. He was a brother of Mrs. John Renville and had known the Williamsons at the Lac qui Parle Mission in the 1830s and 1840s. A note by Jeff Williamson in the Williamson Family Tree says that Tatemina was pardoned because of a letter that Jane wrote to President Lincoln. Although no letter has been found, historian Walt Bachman wrote the following to historian Carrie Zeman on January 28, 2011:

“Dr. Williamson and his sister, Jane Williamson, procured the only reprieve granted by President Lincoln to one of the 39 men named on Lincoln’s hanging list, Tatemina. Thomas Williamson gathered evidence that Tatemina had been miles away helping white folks to escape at the time of the alleged murder and his efforts led to a last-minute reprieve telegraphed by Lincoln just a day or two before the hangings. Had it not been for Thomas’ and Jane’s efforts the number hanged would have been 39, not 38.”[8]

The reprieve apparently quite literally did not arrive until a matter of hours before the execution was scheduled. Stephen Riggs wrote to his wife Mary on December 22, 1862:

“He is among the 39 to be hanged. He was baptized this morning by Dr. W. He wished to do it before it was known to him that he was to be executed. I didn’t feel he was a Christian but as the doctor had large hope, I consented. He claims he is innocent and was condemned by two German boys.”[9]

The Mankato Ledger reported, “Two or three hours before the execution, this man was brought out and taken to be with the other prisoners that his case might be reconsidered.”[10] Tatemina did go to prison with the others whose sentences had been changed from death to imprisonment but he was fully pardoned by President Lincoln on August 27, 1864.

On December 24, 1862, the prisoners at Mankato were allowed to have two or three relatives visit them to bid farewell. Thomas Williamson baptized 15 as Christians and Father Ravoux baptized another 21 as Catholics. Only two of those to be hanged refused baptism. The condemned were removed from the other prisoners and Thomas Williamson, Stephen Riggs and Father Ravoux remained with them.

As Christmas Day, 1862, drew to a close, Jane sat down and wrote to Mary Riggs in what is one of the most poignant of Jane’s letters I have ever found.

“Dear Sister Riggs

“Accept my thanks for your favor of the 18 and permit me to say that I feel still more grateful for the Word for the poor despised Dakota which I doubt not was from your pen. I am not flattering when I say we were very much pleased with that article. It would too be more likely to bring Frenier to a right spirit than contradiction or hard sayings. [11]  Oh that we could see Antoine meekly sitting at the feet of the Savior. I too would like to know of his manifesting some sympathy for his younger brother. Oh how I blame myself for not warning Chaskedan and Tapetatanka of the temptations with which they might be associated. I thought of the dangers to which they would be exposed more than the temptations as it respected Caske and I had not an opportunity of speaking to Tapetatanka alone after knowing Little Crow was at the heart of the rebellion. But after walking to Ehnamane’s village, I felt that we could not remain there long without being in danger of having to share the spoils of the traders or warehouse, and this with feeling that our staying would increase the danger of the friendly Indians, induced me to exert my influence to Bro and Sister to leave.[12

“I am grieved that any of them touched the plunder but is it not more to be regretted than wondered at. Respecting the battles, I cannot feel that going into them was murder though it would have been better to have trusted God and stood alone but surely they were in trying circumstances. The buildings at our place I understood were set on fire by boys but the captives told me that those at Hazlewood were burned to keep friendly Indians from using them as forts. Even then if they had identified themselves with the hostile band their dwelling houses would not have been burned. Winonaze and Mrs. Quin [sic] who made their escape just before the battle of Lakewood, said they knew they were running a great risk but Little Crow had said that he would not only kill the white captives but half breeds and friendly Indians if all did not go with him to battle.[13]

While the troops who were on the way to Mankato to oversee the execution of the condemned Dakota, they passed through St. Peter and Jane heard them singing the abolitionist hymn, John Brown’s Body. Once again the great causes of her life – stopping slavery and saving the Dakota had come together in one tragic moment in history.

“It made me sad today when I saw the cavalry pass on their way to Mankato. A company of Infantry have just passed by tonight singing Jno Brown [“John Brown’s Body”]. Well, I suppose soldiers must become accustomed to sad sights but it will be a painful scene to Mr. Riggs and brother. Mr. Riggs was with us Friday night. He was so tired and hoarse that I knew I ought not to tease him and yet I could not keep from talking and asking questions. I need not say that we feel it a great privilege to have him with us a night.

“Mrs. Greenleaf of Shakopee sent a barrel of part worn clothing…. I was not in favor of taking much from the barrel lest they might need it more. But sister taking up a little bundle read “Will Miss Williamson accept this old shawl for the love she bears the Indians.” The shawl though not new it is very pretty. But it was not the value that made me weep like a child, it was feeling that there was still some sympathy for the Indian even among those (copy cut off)…

“Sister says you could not have made a better answer to Mr. Murwin for bedding and under clothes are what we need most though I do think Brother is needing a coat or cloak very much. He lost his cloth cloak and I cannot help feeling badly when he wears the old plaid. Still I do not feel free in urging him to get another at present. He was going to wear it up yesterday but I told him Mr. Riggs would be ashamed of him so he took his overcoat and if it does turn cold I hope will not suffer. For a little while after we came here Brother assisted in the hospital but we do not know that he will receive any compensation. There are more than doctors enough here and neither Sister nor I are willing to have him take license.

“He is far advanced in his 63 year and having to get up at night and go in the cold would probably lay him aside earlier than [unclear].

“Sister is just retiring but she says I must not forget to thank you for the spectacles. They suit her very well and I sometimes borrow them when I wish to see better than usual. With regard to your kind inquiry about our supply of bedding for the winter Mrs. J. Daniels lent us two pair of colored blankets which I think she will not probably call for this winter. Were it not for this we would have to buy or suffer one and although we have tried to economize, our store bill has been large. We bought calico for two comforts but batting was [so] high that we made them too light to be warm. Mrs. G. H. Pond gave sister a good comfort and some other things. In the box from the Constitution were a blanket for Lizzie Hunter, [Elizabeth Williamson Hunter] a quilt for sister, and a coverlet for me though not new.

“We have not as yet seen an opening for Nannie to teach.[14] It is a great comfort to have her with us. Brother rather wished me to try to get a school but I did not think I should succeed and I did so wish to have this winter to rest in quiet seclusion. You know my health was very poor last winter. It is good this. Were there anything I could do for the Indians I would love to do it. Have you seen Betsy or heard from Smiley when at the camp? [15]The last I heard from him was through Mrs. Huggins. Betsy wanted to come with Mr. Hunter when he was down but he could not bring her conveniently. Bro and sister have consented that she should come and I feel anxious to have her near but it would cost considerably to go for her by stage.

“Dec. 26. Ten o’clock is past. The bodies of those 39 men are probably lifeless. But “where are the breathless spirits gone that just have left their clay. Through what vast _____ to us unknown, “now urge their backless way.” There will be a strong effort to have all who were condemned by the commission hung now. I feel very anxious respecting our friends but I know nothing more that I can do only to commit the matter to our Heavenly Father for more faith.[16]

“I took your advice and petitioned the President to pardon Caskedon. Thus I wrote a petition and enclosed Marion’s letter to Mr. Cullen requesting to present it or not as he thought but he wrote me a very kind letter in return saying he would present it the next day.[17] He seems to feel deeply interested in the Indians. There were so few here at the time that I put no name to it but my own. I regretted this but feared to wait less it should be too late. It was poorly done and probably will not accomplish anything. I felt at the time as though it was presumption but wished to do what I could…

“Yours truly, Jane S. Williamson”[18]

Jane Williamson did not attend the mass execution at Mankato on December 26, 1862, but Thomas Williamson and Stephen Riggs were there. Images, memoirs and stories about the mass execution are part of both Dakota and white history in Minnesota in painful ways.

Jane was correct. By the time she finished writing this letter to Mary on December 26, the 38 Dakota men who had been condemned to death had been hanged in the largest mass execution ever held in America. Jane and the rest of the family had apparently not celebrated Christmas that year, not only because Thomas was in Mankato, but because they were struggling financially. Jane and Margaret Williamson were concerned that Thomas was receiving no income from his work with patients at the hospital nor for the missionary work he carried on with the prisoners. They were relying on gifts of used clothing, blankets, and supplies from supporters in Ohio and Nancy Jane had not found a teaching position. Thomas was encouraging Jane to open a school but she expressed her concerns to Mary that she really felt she was not up to taking on that responsibility.

Sarah Totidutawin had known Jane her whole life and she wrote her in 1862 to express how much she misses her and how she and her mother are grieving what had happened to the Dakota people.

Of course, Jane was also in constant prayer for the Dakota families who were living in captivity at Fort Snelling as well as for those men still in prison at Mankato. One quite amazing letter to Jane survives from this time. Robert Hopkins Chaska’s wife, Sarah Totidutawin, wrote to Jane early in 1863. I found the letter several years ago in the Riggs Family Papers at the Minnesota Historical Society even though it has nothing to do with the Riggs family. It has now been re-catalogued and is in the Williamson collection. It is written to Jane and captures the grief and anxiety that were rampant in the Dakota community during this time as well.


“My Sister – Today I write you a letter to tell you how I am. By reason of the terrible deeds which the Dakota nation have committed in these latter times, I am now with my children in a suffering condition and so I am always thinking of you. Because of my sadness I am not strong and seem as if I would be sick. I am continually wondering what will become of me. I have two brothers, but they are constantly doing things which I do not like and thus heed me not. So I have no one on earth to whom I can turn for support and am miserable; but I always remember you and because I know you love me, I always remember you. My mother and I are sad together. I know it is what God wills that will come to pass. Though I have no one on earth upon whom I can rely, yet I trust the One God watches over me; and so as I am able I offer prayers, and when you pray I wish you to remember me…

“I have heard that Mrs. Hunter was about to die soon and it makes my heart very sad. I feel just the same as if one of my own relations were about to die, and so I am sad, and think – could I only see her. If God has mercy upon me I shall see her among the heavenly hosts.

“Now about my husband I want you to tell me whatever you hear as to his condition. His father and two brothers have none of them done anything, but now I hear that they are once again going to hang soon and I am troubled.

“Dowandutawin, your nieces and nephew, I am with you all. That’s all I shall say, 

“I am Wanyahiyawin


“My Brother

“I write you a line to speak of one matter. I am very glad to hear you always visit those in prison.

“My brother – I am now very bad off so I trust in you. What is to become of my husband. I want you to tell me. I want you to let me know whatever you hear as to his fate.

“I would like to say many things to you but am in haste and so shall close.”[19]

Sarah mentioned in her latter to Jane that she had heard that Lizzie Hunter was about to die. That news was true. Lizzie never fully recovered from the trauma and physical conditions she had experienced during their escape; she had lost her little son when John Knox Hunter died in October 1862, and now Lizzie herself passed away on March 11, 1863 at the age of thirty years.

Jane shared the news of her death with Mary Riggs on March 17, 1863.

“You will probably ere this reaches you have learned that the gentle spirit of our loved E. Hunter has dropped its clay tabernacle and we trust she is even now uniting with holy happy spirits in the song of Redeeming Love. Were not brother going down I would give some particulars but you can hear what you wish from him as she approached the river. The prospect beyond was so bright that she longed to be there and prayed for patience to wait till she was called. At one time she said, ‘I know that I am going to My Father’s House but the way seems long.’ I observed to her though you should continue long and suffer much shall I trust you will be enabled to say the will of the Lord be done. ‘Oh yes,’ she said, ‘Our Heavenly Father knows best.’

“She prayed much for her husband and child and our sister. I trust you will pray for them too. Mr. Hunter closed her eyes with his own fingers. When living he loved to do what he could for her and even though she was gone he seemed to feel it a privilege. His little home must look very desolate to him now when he is there alone. He stayed with us Sat. night and was here yesterday and went out in the afternoon to help Henry chop wood when Nannie reminded him he would make himself late getting home. He replied it is pleasanter here than there…

“O, it was so pleasant to have her with us so long and have the means of rendering her so comfortable. She seemed all the time to feel that her cup of blessing was full…Eliza Huggins came the Sat. before and remained till the funeral. Elizabeth was delighted with her singing till she was almost gone. Surely we have reason to thank and praise the Lord for his tender mercy and loving kindness manifested in this bereavement. Pray that we may grow wiser and better thereby.

“The pretty quilt you so kindly gave us lay on her bed. She admired its beauty and we could not have had her bed look so clean and comfortable without it. She spoke of your kindness several times when looking at it. I wish the good people that sent the box from Oxford knew. I feel like praising God all the time. He is giving me all that I could desire now and I can trust him for all that is to come. I asked her if she had no doubt of her acceptance. ‘Oh, no, why should I when Jesus was so kind to all that came to him on earth? He casts off none that come to him. Shall I like to hear his promises read often.’ Again she remarked that praising the Lord for his Redeeming love would be the sweetest joy in heaven.”[20]

As usual, Jane expressed her joy and gratitude for God’s care even when she was in the midst of loss and grief. As we’ve seen throughout her letters in recent posts, she also sees death as a joyous reunion with Jesus Christ in heaven, at least for Christians. Her faith sustains her through the most difficult of times and now the family faces yet another period of transition as all of the Dakota people were exiled from the State of Minnesota by Congress in March of 1863.[21]

[1] Stephen Riggs to Mary Riggs, November 13, 1862. Stephen R. Riggs Family Papers, 1837-1988, Minnesota Historical Society Manuscript Collection, Call #144.G.7.1B.

[2] The transcriber of the letter uses the name “Gorry” but I believe the person Jane mentions is Stuart B. Garvie who was working in Andrew Myrick’s store at the Lower Agency when he was wounded during the initial attack of the agency on the morning of August 18, 1862. Garvie escaped on foot with a group led by John Otherday, but he did not survive and died on August 21, 1862. Thirteen people were killed in that initial attack and there is no indication why Jane mentioned him in particular but it could be that she knew him or his wife personally. He was married to a Dakota woman.

[3] Jane S. Williamson to S.R. Riggs, November 14, 1862, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; transcribed and annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois.

[4] Riggs, Steven, Tah-koo Wahkan; the Gospel Among the Dakotas. Boston: Congregational Sabbath-School and Publishing Society, 1869, pp.346-349. I have not found Jane’s letter in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Riggs had said earlier that Jane had written to General Sibley to seek Robert’s pardon but he now indicates that her letter actually was addressed to President Lincoln.

[5] Stephen Riggs to General Henry Hastings Sibley, April 7, 1864, cited in The Dakota Trials, Including the Complete Transcripts and Explanatory Notes on the Military Commission Trials in Minnesota, 1862-1864 by John Isch, Brown County Historical Society, 2012, p. 136.

[6] Creswell, Rev. R.J., Among the Sioux: A Story of the The Twin Cities and The Two Dakotas, The University Press, Minneapolis, MN 1906, p 76

[7] Jane Williamson to Mary Riggs, November 25, 1862, Stephen R. Riggs Family Papers, 1837-1988, Minnesota Historical Society Manuscript Collection, Call #144.G.7.1B.

[8] Walt Bachman to Carrie Zeman, email January 28, 2011. Author’s private collection.

[9] Stephen Riggs to Mary Riggs, December 22, 1862. Stephen R. Riggs Family Papers, 1837-1988, Minnesota Historical Society Manuscript Collection, Call #144.G.7.1B.

[10] Mankato Ledger, March 22, 1916, citing the report of Father Antoine Ravoux from December 29, 1862.

[11] Antoine Frenier had a white father and a Dakota mother and raised at Lac qui Parle. He was one of the interpreters at the military commission trials of the Dakota in 1862. Jane and Mary have obviously communicated about him previously and are grieving that he has reportedly abandoned his Christian faith and is drinking.

[12] Ehnamane was known as Artemas Ehnamani/Walking Along. He was born in Red Wing’s village in 1826 but was living in his own village near Pejutazee when word of the outbreak of war reached the Williamson’s. Jane had gone to that village to see if she could learn more about what was happening and, according to this letter, became convinced that she and Thomas and Margaret should follow the others and attempt to escape. Ehanmani became a Christian in prison at Mankato and eventually was an ordained minister in the Dakota Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church.

[13] Winonaze, also known as Elizabeth or Betsy Jeffries, was married to Joseph Jeffries. Mrs. Quinn is Angelique Jeffries Quinn, their daughter. She was married to William Quinn who was a clerk at the Forbes store at the Upper Agency in 1862.

[14] Nannie is the nickname for Nancy Jane Williamson, Thomas and Margaret Williamson’s second oldest daughter. She was with them at Pejutazee at the time the war began and lived with them in St. Peter. She had been to seminary and was looking for a place to teach school in the area.

[15] Betsy, who is also known as Bessie, was a Dakota child who was taken in by the Williamson’s when her mother died in 1859. Jane named her Bessie Means, in honor of Jane’s cousin Elizabeth Williamson Means, the “Dear Cousin” of so many of Jane’s letters. Betsy was then was about five years old. She had been very ill but under Jane’s care she recovered her health and in Jane’s school report of June 30, 1862, she reported that Betsy was now able to read the Bible in English and Dakota. As Jane writes in December 1862 to Mary Riggs, she is trying desperately to find out where Betsy might be. It is clear from subsequent letters that Betsy did join the Williamson’s in St. Peter by 1863 but then died by January 4, 1867 of an unknown cause. Smiley was Smiley Shepherd, a Dakota boy who had been taken in my the Williamson’s in 1859, along with Betsy. In Jane’s school report of March 31, 1862, she said he was in fine health, loved music and “appears to have good talents,” Smiley’s father was killed at the Battle of Wood Lake in September 1862, and Jane eventually located him and had him brought to St. Peter where he remained with the family until he was a young man.

[16] I have tried to find the source of Jane’s quotation here, and assume it must be a Bible verse, but can’t find it any concordances that I’ve checked.

[17] Marion is Marion Robertson Hunter, who has been described in an earlier note. Mr. Cullen is Major William J. Cullen, who formed the Cullen Frontier Guards in Shakopee on August 22, 1862 and marched with Sibley’s troops to Fort Ridgley. This Cullen was not exactly “deeply interested in the Indians,” as Jane says. Instead, he often boasted of how he’d personally cut the hair of over 70 Dakota men when he became Superintendent of Indian Affairs at the Upper Agency in 1957. Jane may be referring to Mr. Thomas Cullen, William’s brother who was at the Lower Sioux Agency by 1860. John Williamson boarded with his family there and Thomas Williamson described him as the Superintendent of Indian Farming who was an active and energetic Methodist who would welcome a missionary there, according to a letter that Thomas wrote to Selah B. Treat on April 30, 1860 in the ABCFM Correspondence files at the Minnesota Historical Society.

[18] Jane Williamson to Mary Riggs, December 25, 1862. Stephen R. Riggs Family Papers, 1837-1988, Minnesota Historical Society Manuscript Collection, Call #144.G.7.1B

[19] Sarah Totidutawin to Jane Williamson, Minnesota Historical Society,Williamson Family Papers, P726, Box 1. Sarah and her mother Catherine and her children were in the encampment at Fort Snelling in early 1863. Sarah wrote as Wanyhiyawin. She is usually identified as Robert Hopkins Chaska’s wife Sarah, daughter of Catherine Totidutawin of the Dakota mission. She addresses Jane by her Dakota name, Dowandutawin, which means Red Song Woman, so called because of Jane’s beautiful singing voice and her translation of many Presbyterian hymns into the Dakota language. The two brothers that Sarah mentions are Lorenzo Lawrence and Joseph Kawanke, both of who were associated with the mission at Lac qui Parle and were well-known to the Williamson’s. Lorenzo Lawrence was eventually paid $500 by the government following the war for his role in saving Jannette DeCamp and her children when the war began. Joseph Kawanke was accepted as a Scout by Henry Sibley when Sibley headed west to find and arrest those Dakota who had fled rather than turn themselves in. Kawanke is listed as dying in 1867, but I have not been able to find out what happened to him. Sarah’s husband, of course, is Robert Hopkins Chaska who was in prison in Mankato at this time and was then sent to Davenport, Iowa, where he is often referred to as the spiritual leader of the Dakota prisoners. Sarah and Robert Hopkins Chaska had three children, Samuel, Eliza and Andrew by 1862, although I’m not sure that Eliza lived beyond infancy. She was baptized by Stephen Riggs at Hazlewood in October 1859. Andrew was baptized the following year. Samuel was born in 1854 and was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church in 1889.

[20] Jane Williamson to Mary Riggs, March 17, 1863.. Stephen R. Riggs Family Papers, 1837-1988, Minnesota Historical Society Manuscript Collection, Call #144.G.7.1B.

[21] An Act for the Removal of the Sisseton, Wahpaton, Medawakanton, March 3,1863. and Walhpakoota Bands of Sioux or Dakota Indians, and for the Disposition of their. Lands in Minnesota and Dakota. SESS. III. CH. 119, 120. 1863

Posted in Andrew Hunter, Eliza Huggins Holtzclaw, Elizabeth Williamson Hunter, Jane Smith Williamson, Mary Ann Clark Longley Riggs, Nancy Jane Williamson, Ohio, Peter Tapaytatanka, Robert Hopkins Chaska, Sarah Hopkins Chaska, Wawiyohiyawin/Sarah Hopkins, William Crooks, Women in Minnesota | 1 Comment