Three Dakota Daughters – Nancy McClure, Julia LaFramboise and Helen Sibley

Throughout the story of Minnesota’s territorial past we often encounter individual stories of women whose mothers were Dakota and whose fathers were white traders, soldiers or adventurers. These women share many things in common, including a sense that they did not quite fit in either the Native American culture of their mother, nor in the white culture of their father. Often identified as Mixed Blood, they wind their way through the lives of the missionaries, showing up as boarders with mission families or attending mission schools. Most of them learned to read and write in English and Dakota but few found success in their marriages or life choices.

One of these Dakota women who has appeared in many Dakota Soul Sisters stories is Marion Robertson [Hunter] Prescott. I won’t tell Marion’s story again but I encourage readers to click on her name in the category list and read about both the amazing opportunities she had and the tragedies she experienced throughout her life.

Nancy McClure was only 16 years old when Frank Mayer drew this sketch of her on her wedding day, July 11, 1851.

Another Dakota daughter who has been mentioned in passing throughout these stories is Nancy McClure. Nancy, whose Dakota name was Wowaka Wa-Pa-Let, meaning Hat, was born in the Village of Mendota in 1836. Her mother Winona, who was born in about 1818 in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, was the firstborn daughter of Mazekutemani. Winona entered into a relationship with James McClure, a white soldier at Fort Snelling, in 1835, and Nancy was the only child of that partnership. Nancy lived with her mother’s people at Mendota and James remained in contact with Winona and Nancy until he was transferred to Florida and died there in 1838.

The next year, Winona married Antoine Renville of the Lac Qui Parle Renville family. Winona and Antoine Renville had three other children who were Nancy’s half-siblings, Sophia, Isaac and William Renville. Nancy grew up at Lac Qui Parle after 1839 and attended school at the Dakota mission there. She was baptized into the Christian faith by Dr. Thomas Williamson on November 8, 1840. Nancy’s mother was often not well and Nancy actually lived with the Williamsons until they left for Kaposia in 1846, at which time she became part of the Fanny and Jonas Pettijohn family at the Lac Qui Parle mission. Mary Huggins Kerlinger wrote in her journal that, “This winter, Aunt had a lovely half breed girl Nancy McClure who had lost both parents. She was 14 years old. I roomed in the attic with her and I must say she was a good modest girl. I learned no evil from her.”[1] Nancy herself recalled that when she left the Williamsons, Aunt Jane said she would walk back home with her part way and that they held hands and cried as they prepared to leave each other. Nancy said she never saw Jane again.[2]

Nancy McClure’s name is listed in the 1850 Lac Qui Parle census with her stepfather Antoine Renville and his children. Her mother had already passed away.

Fur trader Martin McLeod told Nancy that he had been in touch with her father’s family and that she would receive several hundred dollars from her father’s estate but Nancy recalled that all she ever received was fifteen dollars. McLeod died in 1860 but he did provide for Nancy and her mother after Nancy’s father died in 1838.

Nancy was thirteen or fourteen years old when her mother died in 1850. She is listed as living with her stepfather, Antoine Renville and his children, Isaac and Sophie, in the 1850 census at Lac Qui Parle, but she was actually cared for by Martin McLeod who had helped her and her mother during her mother’s illnesses. McLeod told her that he had been in touch with her father’s family and that she would receive several hundred dollars from her father’s estate but Nancy later said she only got fifteen dollars from McLeod at some point.[3] In 1851 Nancy went to live with her grandparents at Traverse des Sioux near her uncle Rdayamani’s (Rattling Walker) village. She soon became part of the Robert and Agnes Hopkins family and continued to attend school at the mission there.

When the government officials and bands of the Dakota assembled at Traverse des Sioux in July 1851 for the signing of the 1851 treaty, Nancy was one of the young women who assisted with their accommodations and meals. Frank Blackwell Mayer, a writer and artist who was at the treaty signing, drew Nancy’s portrait and described meeting her in his journal. Mayer tended to use many abbreviations of his own and hardly any punctuation. I have edited his words to make it easier to understand what he meant.

“Strolling thro the village…in company with that fine specimen of a French gentleman Mr. [Alexis] Bailly our camp master, we stopped before the farthest lodge. ‘This is the lodge of Rdamahnee or the ‘walking rattler’ and here lives Winona or Nancy McClure, the natural daughter of an officer of our army and an Indian woman. We’ll go in.’ On a mattress covered by a neat quilt sat Winona, the most beautiful of the Indian women I have yet seen. She is but sixteen and the woman has scarcely displaced the child in her face and figure. She possesses Indian features softened into the more delicate contour of the Caucasian and her figure is tall, slender and gracefully girlish. Her eyes are dark and deep, a sweet smile of innocence plays on her ruby lips and silky hair of glossy blackness falls to her dropping shoulders. She received us with a smile and a modest inclination of her head. She understands English, for the departed missionary had been her instructor, but excessive modesty prevents her essaying to speak, her only answer being the innocent smile downcast eyes and nod of affirmation or denial. She has been visited by most of our camp, the rarity of her beauty being the attraction and the purchase of moccasins the ostensible object.”[4]

Mayer made reference to the fact that only a few days earlier, on July 4, 1851, Robert Hopkins, the missionary at Traverse des Sioux had drowned in the river. Nancy, of course, had lived with the Hopkins family and studied at the mission and was no doubt grieving at this tragedy herself when Mayer met her. For Nancy, Robert’s death meant more changes in her life and it may be that his passing prompted her to make a decision of her own. Mayer goes on to say,

Frank Mayer described David Faribault as a young man when he wrote about Faribault’s marriage to Nancy McClure. David was actually 19 years older than Nancy, had been married twice before and had several children when he and Nancy wed.

“She has been courted for a year past in person and by proxy by David Faribault, a young Indian trader of half breed descent and the ceremony of marriage was yesterday at our camp. Two horses were given for the bride. At the commissioner’s marquee were assembled the bride and groom and his relatives, the Governor and the commissioner and suite, the voyageur half-breeds and Canadians and the Indians. Mr. Alexis Bailly, the Magistrate present, read the service of the Episcopal church, the different personages group around, forming a picturesque and novel scene. The bride congratulated, the marriage was announced by a salute of champagne corks, the report of which soon summoned the camp to hilarious harmony which flowed on through a hearty dinner and the subsequent toasts, and broke like the surf as the company dispersed singing simultaneously by individual and collective efforts ‘Sparkling and Bright, Auld Lang Syne and Vive le Compagnie.’ A speech from the commissioner was translated into Sioux and delivered to the Indians.” [5]

The romantic scene Mayer painted and the joyous champagne reception he described are shadowed by the reality of who David Faribault really was. For one thing, he was close to thirty-five years old in 1851 when he married Mary, who was only sixteen, an age difference of nineteen years. He had also already been married twice and reportedly had several children. He was born in 1816 at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, the son of Jean Baptiste Faribault, who was a white trader at Mendota and Elizabeth Pelagie Anse, a Dakota woman. He was the manager of Henry Sibley’s store at Mendota but when he married Nancy they moved to Shakopee, Minnesota, where David continued to trade with the Indians. They then moved to LeSueur, Minneosta, for a year and then to Faribault, Minnesota, where they remained for four years. Their daughter, Mary Jane Faribault, was born in Faribault on August 16, 1855.[6]

When the 1857 Territorial Census was taken in Faribault, David listed his age as forty-four and the census taker wrote that Nancy was forty when she was really only twenty-one. Living with them were David Faribault, Jr. who was listed as twenty when he was really only fifteen. His younger siblings are also listed as William, eighteen (he was really thirteen) and Louise who is listed as sixteen when she was really eleven years old. They were David’s children with his second wife, Suzanne Wasukoyakewin Weston, who had died in 1851. Nancy and David’s daughter, Jane Faribault, is listed as four years old when she was only two years old at the time.[7]

By 1862, David, Nancy and Jane had moved to a new home about two miles from the Lower Sioux Agency on the east side of the river at Redwood. There are several different stories in the historical records that purport to describe what happened to the family when the U.S. Dakota War began on August 18, 1862. In one intriguing reference, Dr. Thomas Williamson wrote to the head of the ABCFM, Selah Treat, and said, “David Faribault, a half breed of bad character, is strongly suspected of instigating the Indians to these murders.”[8] Whether Thomas was correct or not, Nancy described what happened as follows:

“At the time of the outbreak we were living two miles from the Redwood agency on the road to Fort Ridgely. We had a log house, but it was large and roomy and very well furnished. When we first came my husband intended engaging in farming and stock raising, but he soon got back to his former business, trading with the Indians, and when they rose against the whites he had trusted them for very nearly everything he had, for they were very hard up, and the other stores would not trust them for anything. Besides the goods he sold them on credit, he let them have fourteen head of cattle for food. The winter and spring before had been very enjoyable to me. There were a good many settlers in the country, some few French families among them, and the most of them were young married people of pleasant dispositions. We used frequently to meet at one another’s houses in social gatherings, dancing parties and the like and the time passed very pleasantly. I was twenty-five years of age then, had but one child and could go about when I wanted to, and I went frequently to these gatherings and came to know a good many people.

 “Then came the summer, and the Indians came down to the agency to receive their annual payments under the treaty of 1851; but the paymaster with the money was delayed on the road until the time for the payment had passed. He was at Fort Ridgely with the money, all in gold, when the Indians rose. There were mutterings of trouble for some time, but at last it seemed the danger had passed away.

 “On the very morning of the outbreak my husband and I heard shooting in the direction of the agency, but supposed that the Indians were out shooting wild pigeons. As the shooting increased I went to the door once or twice and looked toward the agency, for there was something unusual about it. My husband was out attending to the milking. All at once a Frenchman named [Oliver] Martelle came galloping down the road from the agency, and seeing me in the door, he called out: ‘Oh, Mrs. Faribault, the Indians are killing all the white people at the agency! Run away, run away quick!’ He did not stop or slacken his speed, but waved his hand and called out as he passed. There was blood on his shirt, and I presumed he was wounded.

 “My husband and I were not prepared for trouble of this kind. Our best horses and wagons were not at home. We had two horses in the stable and harness for them, but no wagon. My husband told me to get my saddle ready and we would go away on horseback, both of us being good riders. We were getting ready to do this when we saw a wagon, drawn by two yoke of oxen and loaded with people, coming down the road at a good trot. My husband said we would wait and see what these people would say. When they came up to us we saw there were five or six men, three of four women and some children, and they were all in great fright. They asked us to put our horses to their wagon as they could travel faster than oxen and to get in with them. This we agree to do and soon the change was made. When they were harnessing the horse I ran to the house to try to secure some articles of value, for as yet we had taken nothing but what we had on our back, and I had many things I did not want to lose. Woman-like, I tried first to save my jewelry, which I kept in a strong drawer. This drawer was swelled and I could not open it, and I was running for an ax to burst it, when my husband said, ‘Let it go they are ready to start.’ So I took my dear little daughter, who was eight years old and my only child and we started for the wagon.

 “Just as I was about to get in everybody else was in I looked up the road toward the agency and saw the Indians coming. I was afraid they would overtake the wagon; so I declined to get in, and my husband got out with me, and we took our child and ran for the woods, while the wagon started off, the men lashing the horses every jump. Just as we started for the woods, Louis Brisbois and his wife and two children, mixed-blood people, came up and went with us. We all hid in the wood. In a few minutes the Indians came up and somehow they knew where we were hidden and they called out very loudly: ‘Oh, Faribault, if you are here come out; we won’t hurt you.’ My husband was armed and had determined to sell his life for all it would bring, and I had encouraged him; but now it seemed best that we should come and surrender, and so we did.

 “The Indians at once disarmed my husband. They seemed a little surprised to see the Brisbois family, and declared they would kill them as they had not agreed to spare their lives. Poor Mrs. Brisbois ran to me and asked me to save her, and she and her husband got behind me, and I began to beg the Indians not to kill them. My husband asked the Indians what all this mean what they were doing anyhow. They replied, ‘We have killed all the white people at the agency; all the Indians are on the warpath; we are going to kill all the white people in Minnesota; we are not going to hurt you, for you have trusted us with goods, but we are going to kill these Brisbois.’ And then one ran up and struck over my shoulder and hit Mrs. Brisbois a cruel blow in the face saying she had treated them badly at one time. Then I asked them wait until I got away, as I did not want to see them killed. This stopped them for half a minute, when one said: ‘Come to the house.’ So we started for the house and just then two more wagons drawn by oxen and loaded with white people came along the road. All the Indians left and ran yelling and whooping to kill them.

 “We went into the house. At the back of the house was a window, and a little beyond was a cornfield. I opened the window and put the Brisbois family out of it and they ran into the cornfield and escaped. They are living somewhere in Minnesota today. The white people were nearly all murdered. I could not bear to see the sickening sight, and so did not look out, but while the bloody work was being done an Irish woman named Hayden came running up to the house crying out for me to save her. I saw that she was being chased by a young Indian that had once worked for us, and I called to him to spare her, and he let her go. I heard that she escaped all right. Now, all this took place in less time than one can write about it.

 “When the killing was over the Indians came to the house and ordered us to get into one of the wagons and go with them back to the agency. This we did, my husband driving the team. The Indians drove the other team. Soon after we started an Indian gave me a colt to lead behind the wagon. About half way to the agency we saw the dead body of a man lying near the road. Just before we reached the ferry over the Minnesota river we saw a boy on the prairie to the right. There were but three Indians with us now. One of them ran to kill the boy. At this moment a German rode up to us. I have forgotten his name, but the Indians called him ‘Big Nose.’ I think he is living at Sleepy Eye, Minn., now. One of the Indians said to the other Indian, ‘Shoot him and take his horse.’ The other said, ‘Wait till my son comes back and then we will kill him.’ (His son was the one that had gone to kill the boy.) All this time I was begging them not to kill the man. I asked my husband to plead with them, but he seemed unable to speak a word. At last I told the German to give them his horse and run into the brush. This he did and escaped.

 “When we got to the ferry the boat was in the middle of the stream, and standing upon it was a young white girl of about sixteen or seventeen years of age. The Indians called to her to bring the boat ashore, but she did not obey them. They were about to shoot her, when my husband told her they would kill her if she did not do as they ordered, and she brought the boat ashore. When it touched the bank a young Indian made this girl get on a horse behind him and he rode away with her, and I never heard what became of the poor creature. When I saw her being taken away I felt as badly as if she was being murdered before my eyes, for I imagined she would suffer a most horrible fate. When we reached the agency there was a dreadful scene. Everything was in ruins and dead bodies lay all about.”[9]

Nancy went on to describe how Taoyateduta attacked Fort Ridgely the next day and rumors began to fly that all of the mixed blood people were going to be killed. Nancy saw David run into Taoyateduta’s cornfield and she took Jane and ran seven miles to Shakopee’s camp where she had some distant relatives. She left Jane there the next morning and went back to Taoyateduta’s to see whether David was there.

He was and Nancy apparently stayed there with him. She goes on to say,

“I think it was the fourth day of the outbreak that I was strolling through Little Crow’s camp when I saw my horse, Jerry. I untied him and was leading him away when an Indian ran up and said, ‘Here, I captured that horse at the fort, and he is mine.’ I told him I did not care how he got him; he was mine, and I was going to take him. At last he allowed me to have him. I had that horse at Camp Release, and took him with me to Faribault, Minn.”[10]

Hundreds of white and mixed blood Dakota prisoners were held near Monticello, Minnesota by Taoyateduta and his followers. Nancy and David, along with their daughter Jane were held there and feared at any moment that everyone might be killed.

During the attack on Fort Ridgley on August 22, 1862, David reportedly drove Taoyateduta in a hansom buggy as they led the second attack on the troops assembled there.[11] He appears to have been on the Dakota side of the war for at least the first few days, although he was never accused and never tried for his role in any of the battles. In any case, David, Nancy and Jane all ended up at Camp Release with the other whites and mixed blood Dakota who were taken prisoner by Taoyateduta. They were released on September 26, 1862; Taoyateduta and his loyal band of followers fled north and Henry Sibley and the federal government took over control of the Dakota who remained behind.

David was never arrested or accused of fighting in the war but became an informer for the government and was called as a witness in one hundred thirty-one of the post-war trials of the Dakota. He testified in eighty-six, usually saying that the accused was definitely at such and such a battle or was known to have attacked and/or killed people at this or that location. Nancy took Jane and her horse Jerry and went to Faribault, Minnesota, where they moved in with David’s sister Emily and her husband Sterne Fowler. David remained at the agency for the trials and served with Sibley’s troops until he became a scout for the post-war campaign to find, arrest and try the Dakota who had not turned themselves in after the war.

Nancy and Jane remained with the Fowlers in Faribault for two years and then returned to Redwood for a short time. David became involved with the government once again as he assisted in moving three hundred Dakota from Crow Creek to the new reservation at Niobrara, Nebraska in 1867. Stephen Riggs wrote to S.B. Treat on March 12, 1867 and reported that David Faribault had five thousand dollars put into his account in a St. Paul bank as his payment for removing three hundred Indians, including fifty or sixty church members from Minnesota to Niobrara.[12]

David and Nancy arrived at the site of the new Fort Ransom in June 1867. They then opened a “house of entertainment” about thirty miles away to provide room and board for travelers. Today the site is a historic park in North Dakota.

It was perhaps this significant payment that prompted  David to move the family to Big Stone Lake in west central Minnesota. William Quinn was there and offered David a position as interpreter under Major Grossman who was on the way to build Fort Ransom one hundred-fifty miles northwest of Big Stone Lake in what is now North Dakota. David and Nancy arrived at the site of the new fort in June 1867. It was built to protect settlers and railroad workers who were working on the Northern Pacific Railroad between Fargo and Bismarck and was named for distinguished Civil War veteran Major General Thomas E.G. Ransom. The fort was built on top of Grizzly Bear Hill, a site chosen by Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry. In the fall, they went out thirty miles from the fort and opened a mail station and what is called a “house of entertainment” for travelers, which must have been an inn or tavern.

David and Nancy settled in Flandreau, South Dakota where their son-in-law, Rev. John Eastman, pastored at the Dakota church, which remains in active worship today.

In June of 1868, David took Jane to enroll her in school in Winnipeg and while he was gone a party of Indians attacked the station. Nancy fled with her neighbors to Fort Abercrombie, North Dakota, about forty miles away. David returned from Canada two weeks later to find everything had been taken or destroyed. David and Nancy then went to the reservation at Sisseton, South Dakota, for a short time before settling in Flandreau, South Dakota, where there was a prominent Christian Dakota settlement.

Nancy concludes her memoir as follows:

“My first husband died about eight years ago. Since then I have remarried to Mr. Charles Huggan. We live on a farm near Flandreau. My only child, who was a captive with me, is the wife of Rev. John Eastman, a Presbyterian minister and a mixed-blood. They have six children, all bright, interesting and promising. When I was first married I was a Presbyterian, but Mr. Faribault and all his family were Catholics and I became a Catholic and am a member of that church still. I think Christian churches are like so many roads, all leading to the heavenly land. If we follow them carefully and walk uprightly in them, the All-Father will bring us to him at last.”[13]

 Nancy smoothed over the last few years of her life rather than share what is apparently the real story of her second marriage to Charles Huggan. According to A.H. Laughlin, writing in the History of the Red River Valley: Past and Present, Nancy met Charles Huggan in 1871 when he was living and working at David and Nancy’s home while engaging in hunting and trapping. Charles and Nancy fell in love and carried on a clandestine correspondence with each other by using a boy named Tommy Bonner as the carrier of their messages. Over time, rumors of their relationship spread through the community and David became very angry. Charles then took an opportunity in 1874 to get David very, very drunk and while he was passed out, Charles and Nancy eloped.[14]

The story, especially about eloping, doesn’t quite ring true because there is no mention of a divorce and Nancy was, by all accounts, a practicing Catholic. David Faribault Sr. didn’t die until November 18, 1887, but in the 1880 Federal Census, Nancy, listed as aged thirty-six, when she was really forty-four, is identified as Nancy Huggan, and is living with Charles Huggan, aged thirty, in Moody County, South Dakota, which is where Flandreau is. Interestingly, eighteen-year-old Louise Faribault is recorded as living with them. Louise was actually David Faribault, Jr.’s daughter; David Sr.’s granddaughter. Nancy was not related to her at all except as what might be called a former step-grandmother.

It appears, however, that the so-called romantic marriage between Nancy and Charles did not last. In 1902, an Indian School Service report on Indians living at Flandreau records the following in Nancy’s entry: “62 years old, receives rations. She has a worthless white husband. She has no land and lives with John Eastman [her son-in-law].”[15] Charles Huggan was deceased by the time that the Laughlin history was published in 1909. In the 1920 census Nancy is listed at the agency in Flandreau, South Dakota, as eighty years old (she was really eighty-four) and she is living with her daughter Jane and Jane’s husband, Rev. John Eastman. Three of John and Jane’s grandchildren were living with them and are listed as Christ, 6; Leroy, 2; and Millard,1.[16]

David and Nancy’s daughter Jane married Rev. John Eastman and served the Dakota community at the Presbyterian mission church in Flandreau, South Dakota.

Despite the apparently difficult ending to her second marriage, Nancy spent the final years of her life surrounded by her grandchildren. John Eastman was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor in 1876 and ministered at the Flandreau mission in Moody, South Dakota. He and Jane were married in 1874. Their oldest son, Christian Eastman was born about 1875, followed by Cora Belle Eastman, born on January 26, 1878. John Alfred Eastman, born on April 19, 1880, was their third child and Mary Jane Eastman was born on October 12, 1882. Grace O. Eastman arrived on August 8, 1886, and Fred Riggs Eastman was born on January 7, 1889. George A. Eastman, their youngest son, was born on September 22, 1891, and the youngest of the family, Elizabeth “Bessie” Carson Eastman arrived on September 17, 1896. Mary Jane Eastman died when she was only a few months old and Cora Belle passed away in 1897 at the age of nineteen years.

Nancy McClure lived to be ninety-one years old. She visited the site of her 1851 marriage at Traverse des Sioux just three weeks before her death and had her photo taken at the Daughters of the American Republic monument at the Old French Cemetery.

On the occasion of the seventy-sixth anniversary of her July 11, 1851 marriage to David Faribault at Traverse des Sioux, Nancy made a visit to the site of the treaty signing and her photograph was taken next to the Daughters of the American Revolution monument marking the French Cemetery nearby. She passed away three weeks later on August 6, 1927, at Flandreau at the age of ninety-one years. Her life had spanned the earliest days of the Dakota mission in the 1830s, through the U.S. Dakota War of 1862, the arrival of the railroad, the advent of the airplane and the dramatic events of World War I. Throughout the span of her long life she had also dealt with the reality of her birth and learned how to live within both Dakota culture and white Christian culture, always trying to find the best path.

Julia Ann LaFramboise

Julia LaFramboise (2)

Mary Huggins Kerlinger, Alexander and Lydia Huggins’ daughter, wrote in her journal that, “Julia when grown had somewhat the bearing of a chieftain. She would be noticed anywhere. She lived with us more than five years and with letters and visits we kept in touch with her all her…years. I loved her like a sister.” This photograph of Julia was given to the Minnesota Historical Society by Miss Callie Kerlinger, Mary Huggins Kerlinger’s daughter, in 1930.

Julia LaFramboise makes her first appearance on the Dakota Mission scene on September 25, 1850 when her father brought her to the mission at Traverse des Sioux, Minnesota. She was placed with the Alexander and Lydia Huggins family and began attending classes at the mission when she was eight years old. Nancy McClure was one of the other Dakota girls at the school. Mary Huggins Kerlinger, Alexander and Lydia’s daughter, wrote in her journal that, “Julia when grown had somewhat the bearing of a chieftain. She would be noticed anywhere. She lived with us more than five years and with letters and visits we kept in touch with her all her…years. I loved her like a sister.”[17]

Magdelaine LaFramboise was the first woman to take over her husband’s fur trading business and become very wealthy. Alexis Bailley brought Julia LaFramboise a locket with a lock of her Magdelaine’s hair sent to her beloved granddaughter.

Mary Ann was right to think of Julia as having the bearing of a chieftain, descended as she was from a long and respected line of both Dakota and French ancestors. Julia was born on December 11, 1842, at Little Rock, Minnesota. Her father, Joseph LaFramboise Sr., was born in 1805 and was the son of the first Joseph LaFramboise and Magdelaine Marcot LaFramboise. The first Joseph was murdered in 1806 when Joseph Sr. was only an infant. He grew up with his mother, who was the daughter of a French trader and an Ottawa woman. Magdelaine took over her husband’s trading post at Mackinac Island in Michigan and became quite famous and wealthy as the first woman to successfully take part in the world of trading in the early 19th century. She sold the business to the American Fur Company in 1818 and retired to her stately home in Mackinac. Today, her mansion is the Harbor View Inn, one of Mackinac Island’s most elegant hotels.

Magdelaine LaFramboise eventually sold the fur trading operation and built this magnificent mansion on Mackinac Island. Today her historic home is the Harbor View Inn on Mackinac Island.

Sleepy Eyes Monment

A monument to Chief Ishtakhaba, Julia’s grandfather, stands watch over the town of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota.

Julia’s mother was Oasixheaoui, one of seven daughters of Ishtakhaba, also known as Chief Sleepy Eyes, who was a Dakota chief of the Sisseton tribe. He became chief sometime between 1822 and 1825, receiving a commission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs as chief in 1824 and remained chief until his death in 1860. [18] His band, known as the Swan Lake or Little Rock Band, hunted in southwestern and southeastern Minnesota. Ishtabkhaba tried to promote peace with whites in and around the state of Minnesota. He was a signer of at least four treaties with the United States government, including the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, and met with President James Monroe in Washington, D.C. in 1824.

Oasixheaoui’s sister, whose Christian name was Magdelaine, also married Joseph LaFramboise, Sr. and another of Sleepy Eyes’ daughters, Mazanakawin, married the white trader Louise Provencalle. Joseph LaFramboise Sr. married Oasixheaoui and Magdelaine in 1838. Oasixheaoui had three children before she died. Joseph LaFramboise Jr. was born in 1831; Alexis LaFramboise, in 1840 and Julia, in 1842. Oasixheaoui died by the end of 1844 when Julia was about two years old. Joseph Sr. then married Jane Dickson, the daughter of fur trader Robert Dickson, in 1845. Jane was Mdewakanton, Ojibwe and Scots and was the only mother that Alexis and Julia ever knew.

Julia’s oldest brother, Joseph LaFramboise Jr., watched over and protected her all of her life.

Joseph and Jane had three children together, step-siblings of Jane LaFramboise. William was born in 1847; Justine in 1849 and Eliza in 1855. Julia’s father taught her about her family and Alexis Bailly, one of her grandfather’s best friends, sent Julia a locket with a piece of her grandmother’s hair in it – a gift from Magdaliene Marcot LaFramboise at Mackinac Island.

When Julia was thirteen years old, her father became ill and she returned home to Little Rock. Joseph LaFramboise Sr. died on November 9, 1856, at the age of fifty-one years. He left his property to his children and Julia used her portion of the proceeds to pursue her education.  She first went to Rev. Stephen and Mary Riggs at their Hazlewood mission by the Upper Sioux Agency in west central Minnesota. Then, in the fall of 1859, she joined two of the young women of the mission, Nancy Jane Williamson and Martha Riggs, at Western Female Seminary in Oxford, Ohio. Julia was there with them when the college burned down on January 14, 1860.

Julia attended Lake Erie Female Seminary in Painesville, Ohio for a year or so in 1861-62. The school, now known as Lake Erie College celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2006.

Julia then enrolled at Lake Erie Female Seminary which was formed in 1856 as a seminary for women in Painesville, Ohio. The institution, now known as Lake Erie College, first offered classes in 1859, with 137 students initially enrolling. Julia stayed at Lake Erie for a year. When she returned to Minnesota, she went to assist Amos and Sophia “Josephine” Huggins at the Lac Qui Parle government school and was there when the U.S. Dakota War broke out on August 18, 1862.

The story of Amos Huggins’s death on August 19, 1862, is covered in the Dakota Soul Sisters story about Sophia “Josephine” Huggins but I am repeating it here as part of Julia’s story.

Josephine Huggins was interviewed by The Saint Paul Weekly Press for the February 12, 1863 edition.

Julia was with Sophia Huggins when Sophia’s husband was killed on August 19, 1862. Sophia’s story describes how much she counted on Julia for support and assistance as they tried to reach safety during the outbreak of the U.S. Dakota War. Sophia is pictured here with her daughter, Letta.

“The nineteenth day of August, 1862, dawned on me full of hope and happiness. It was the 24th anniversary of my birth. But before its close it proved to be the saddest day of my life

. News of the war which broke out at the Lower Agency on the 18th did not reach Lac-qui-parle until the next day. Then it came with fearful suddenness and fearful reality.”

Josephine and her husband, Amos Williamson Huggins, 29, had come to Lac Qui Parle, Minnesota, in 1861 to operate a government school for the Dakota in the area. They had been married in the spring of 1856 and had two children. Eletta Sophrina Huggins, known as Letta, was born on April 5,1858, and Charles Loyal Huggins, called Charlie, on April 19, 1861. Letta was four years old on that fateful day in August 1862 and Charlie just 16 months. Josephine may not have known that she was a few weeks pregnant with their third child.

Sophia’s account of that day continues:

On the afternoon of that day, three men from Red Iron’s village came in, each carrying a gun. They were quite friendly and talkative, seeming very much interested in the sewing machine Julia was using, and asked a great many questions about it. About four o’clock Amos came home from the field. Then the men went out; and soon after, we heard the report of two guns. The Indians rushed in, looking so wild and frightened, that my first thought was that the Chippewa were upon them. They said to us, ‘Go out, go out; you shall live – but go out. Take nothing with you.’ When I went out, the oxen my husband had been driving were standing at the side of the house and near them was Julia, on her knees, bending over his motionless body. She looked up and said: “Oh, Josephine, Josephine!” Oh, what an ocean of grief swept over me then, for I saw that he was dead! A ball had entered his back, and passing through his body, had killed him instantly.”

I imagine the terrified women carrying Letta and Charlie and trying to run through the tall grass in their long skirts, not knowing who to trust or where they might find safe haven. Perhaps the children were laughing at this new game, unaware of what had happened, or perhaps they picked up on their mother’s tension and fear and began to cry. It was early evening and no doubt they felt a sense of urgency to reach safety before darkness fell.

Amos Huggins Marker LQP 070912 (3)I recently had occasion to visit the site, pictured above, where the Huggins’ home once stood. It was a hot, sleepy afternoon in July 2012, 150 years after the tragic murder of Amos Huggins. The sky was blue, the wind in the grass and the chirping of the cicadas offered a soft cacaphony of the omnipresent song of the prairie in summer. I felt a tremendous sense of “place,” an identity with the story of the site that can only happen when one is able to physically be present where something memorable happened. I could easily visualize the chaos which took over the peaceful scene as the gunshots rang out and Amos fell dead. The Indians shouted at Josephine and Julia to take the children and go – to leave everything and just go.

Sophia continues her story:

“We were driven away, Julia and I. We ran over to De Cota’s. Julia went first, carrying Letta. I staid behind until I saw they were really going to shoot me. Then, after hastily spreading a lounge cover that I had been sewing on, and had carried out with me, over the lifeless form of my dear one, I fled with Charlie in my arms. When I reached De Cota’s he and his wife were starting back with Julia. I wanted to go with them but they thought it would not be safe. I knew Julia would see that everything which it was possible to do should be done; so I yielded to their judgment.

 “Mr. De Cota came home shortly. I asked him if he could not take us to the Yellow Medicine. He said that we would be killed on the road. I then suggested that he take us across the river, and go across the country to the white settlements. He answered that perhaps he would start to the Red River the next day. When Julia returned, she told me that Walking Spirit and others had buried Amos. The old chief was fullof sorrow and said that if he had been there, they should have killed him before they could have killed Mr. Huggins. Our house was full of plunderers. Indians, from the Lac-qui-parle village were there, as well as the murderers. Julia went in, and was able to get a few things, which afterwards proved valuable to me.

“It was thought we would be safer at Walking Spirit’s than at De Cota’s; so we went over in the evening. Mrs. De Cota intended to go with us, but her husband prevented it, probably thinking he should not be safe if she left him. She sent her brother, Blue Lightening, with us. He did not offer to carry either of the children.

 “We had not gone far before Ke-yoo-kan-pe came up to us, and taking Charlie out of my arms, carried him until we reached the village. As we passed through it, a great many women came out to shake hands with me. Some of them laid their hands on their mouths and groaned. The men paid no attention to me. When we reached he chief’s house he received us kindly, shaking hands with me, and with the children. His wife hurried to spread a buffalo robe at the farther end of the room for us to sit on. All the time that I was with Walking Spirit my seat was, whether in a tent or in a house, at the end farthest from the door – the most honorable place. We slept on the robe, but were furnished with pillows by the chief’s wife, one of which I recognized as having been mine. She gave me several other articles which had been mine.

“There was a great deal of noise in the village during the night, loud talking, singing and yelling, but the children slept soundly, not realizing what had befallen them, nor the dangers before them. Men went and came through the whole night long to talk to the chief.

 “The next morning we had beef for breakfast, which had been killed at our house the evening before. They gave me, as they always did, bountifully of the best they had. In the afternoon, Mr. John Longee invited us over to his home across the river, thinking we would be safer there than in the Indian village. Walking Spirit told us to do as thought best, and we finally concluded to go. One woman packed Letta all the way; another packed Charlie as far as Lame-Bear’s village. As we passed through it I saw a great deal of fresh beef hanging up to dry. My husband’s writing desk was there; also many of our chairs. I saw Indian children dressed in my children’s clothes. I could hardly bear these reminders of the home which had been so cruelly torn from me. I did not, however, see any Indians that I knew, except “Old Fuss.” He shook hands with me, and made a speech, of which I understood nothing but Amos’ name.

 “We staid at Longee’s until Friday, and had a quiet, lonely time. We saw no Indians while there, except the woman who packed Letta over. She staid with us all the time. Julia and I were in constant alarm. Longee and a Frenchman always slept with their guns beside them, in readiness for use, or staid outside, watching. Thursday, Mr. Longee went over to the village, and brought back dreadful accounts of the war below. It was reported that the missionaries and the whites at both Agencies were killed. Oh! What a day  that was – full of grief, anxiety and suspense. Julia had saved two pocket Bibles from the hands of the plunderers. One of them was my husband’s. How precious it was to me! Precious for the sake of him who had once pondered its sacred pages, as well as for the blessed teachings, and glorious promises it contained.

 “In the evening Julia’s brother came up from below, dressed like an Indian. He said he had come for her, and that if she put on the Indian dress, and staid with him, she would be safe, but that it would not be prudent for me to accompany them. Mr. De Cota was there, and invited me to live in his family. It was decided that I should do so.

 “Friday morning Julia left me. She had been my comforter, my adviser, my help in all my troubles. Now I was left alone. I realized more than ever my need of strength and fortitude, and prayed that I might be prepared for whatever I might pass through.”

Sophia and the children were found by four Dakota men who had been sent out to bring them to Amos Huggins’ family in Traverse des Sioux six weeks after their capture.

Julia was safely brought to the Lower Sioux Agency by her brother Joseph. During the Battle of Birch Coulee on September 2, 1862, Julia translated a letter to Henry Sibley from Chief Standing Buffalo and Joseph delivered it to the General. Julia and her brothers and sisters came down to the Lower Sioux Agency in October and on October 28, 1862, Julia testified against Tatekage, in his trial for the murder of Amos Huggins. He was executed at Mankato on December 26, 1862.  Julia also served as interpreter for Chief Standing Buffalo during the trials.

Julia’s brothers, Joseph and Alexis, and their families were in the internment camp at Fort Snelling from 1862-1863, but Julia sold part of the scrip or land she had received in a government settlement with the mixed blood Indians, and enrolled in the Rockford Female Seminary at Rockford, Illinois. She graduated in 1863 and remained for a year as a graduate student and assistant to the principal.

She returned to Minnesota in 1865 and worked for a year or so as a clerk in a dry goods store in Minneapolis while continuing to hope for a teaching job in a public school. She ultimately became a licensed public school teacher in Minneapolis in August of 1867 and taught school in St. Anthony, Minnesota, for two years. At that point, Julia was asked to come to teach at the Santee Reservation in Santee, Nebraska in the spring of 1869.

Dr. Thomas Williamson reported to the ABCFM on November 7, 1871, “She had seen enough of missionary life to know that the call was to a life of toil, with a salary barely sufficient to meet her current expenses, yet she went cheerfully, counting it a privilege to be employed in teaching the poor despised Indians, though none of her near relatives were there. It was a position for which she was eminently qualified. A good scholar, with an excellent knowledge of both the English and Dakota languages, her gentle and dignified manners and skill in teaching, excited the love and admiration of her pupils, and inspired them with interest in their studies. She labored beyond her strength, and in less than two years and a half she was compelled to cease from teaching.”[19]

Jane Huggins Holtzclaw (2)

Jane Huggins Holtzclaw was a dear friend of Julia’s. They had known each other since Julia boarded with the Huggins family when she was a girl. Jane served as the executrix of Julia’s estate.


Julia returned to her brother William’s farm at West Newton, Minnesota, for the final weeks of her life. Julia was only twenty-eight years old when she died of tuberculosis on September 20, 1871. She was originally buried at the farm but was later moved to the LaFramboise family plot at Fort Ridgely Cemetery.[20]

Two days before her death Julia wrote her will:

“In the name of God. Amen. I, Julia Ann Laframboise of the Town of West Newton in the County of Nicollet and State of Minnesota, Spinster being mindful of my mortality and being of sound mind any memory do this eighteenth day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and seventy one make and publish this my last will and testament and name following.

 “First, I resign my soul into the hands of believing God. Being and believing in a remission of my sins by the merits and meditations of Jesus Christ and my body I commit to the earth to be buried at the discretion of my Executor, desiring him to have my body buried in our small family graveyard on my parents’ home at Little Rock farm beside those dear departed …

 “Second, I give and bequeath unto my Beloved Brother Alexis George LaFramboise my gold watch chain and I give and bequeath to my beloved Sister Justine Marie LaFramboise my gold watch.

 “And I give and bequeath unto my Beloved Brother William R. LaFramboise my share of silver plate which belongs to me. Also I give and bequest to my brother William LaFramboise and my sisters Justine Marie LaFramboise and Eliza LaFramboise all my stacks of books desiring them to evenly divide the same among them in love and peace for my sake.

 “My wearing apparel I give and bequeath to the following married persons: My Mother, My Sisters Justine and Eliza, My brother Alexis’s Wife, My Sister-in-law and Mrs. Cantane (sp ?).

 “Fourth, to pay all moving expenses attending my funeral and what remains to be directed to erect a monument in memory of my Dear Departed Father, Three Sisters and One Brother and myself.

 “And I do hereby Constitute Jane S. Holtzclaw my soul executrix of this My last will and testament.

 “I am writing…herewith sent by mail and dated the eighteenth day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and seventy one.

 “The foregoing instrument of one sheet was now submitted by Julia Ann LaFramboise the testator in the presence of each of us was at the same time declared by her to be her last will and testament and we at her request sign our names hereto as attorney and witnesses.

 “Julia Ann LaFramboise

 [unclear]                    residing at West Newton, Nicollet County, Minn.

Jane Holtzclaw             residing at West Newton, Nicollet County, Minn.

Justine LaFramboise   residing in West Newton, Nicollet County, Minn.” [21]

Julia LaFramboise tombstone

Julia was only 28 years old when she died at William LaFramboise’s farm. She was buried there but later moved to the LaFramboise plot at the Fort Ridgely cemetery.



Like Nancy McClure, Julia lived a life in two worlds, one the family of her mother in a traditional Dakota village and the other in late 1860s white America where the country was recovering from the Civil War and where women of Julia’s generation were already working to gain equal rights and the freedom to vote as full citizens of the United States.  Throughout her brief life Julia left an impression on everyone she met and had she lived, she no doubt would have served as a teacher and an example to hundreds of Dakota girls who were growing up in a confusing and rapidly changing world.

Helen Hastings Sibley

Helen Sibley09252019

Helen Hastings Sibley was the daughter of Minnesota’s first governor, Henry Hastings Sibley. She was born in Mendota to Sibley and his Dakota wife, known as Red Blanket Woman, in 1841.

One of the more dramatic and tragic stories from Minnesota’s past is that of Helen Hastings Sibley. Helen’s mother was Tahshinaohindoway, a Mdewakanton Dakota woman from Black Dog’s Village on the Minnesota River near Fort Snelling, and her father was the first Governor of the State of Minnesota, Henry Hastings Sibley. Sibley was only twenty-three years old in 1834 when he became a partner in the American Fur Company and relocated from Mackinac Island to St. Peter’s, now known as Mendota, Minnesota. He erected his home and trading post, now known as the historic Sibley House in 1836 and probably met Helen’s mother a few years later. Known to whites as Red Blanket Woman, she was probably several years younger than Sibley. Her father, Wasuwicaxtaxni, or Bad Hail, was a well-known spokesman for the Dakota in the treaty negotiations of both 1837 and 1851. He was a good friend of Henry Sibley’s and took the side of the traders in the treaty payments. It may be that he believed a union of his daughter, whose Dakota name was Tahshinahohindoway, with Henry Sibley would be advantageous to both his trapping and trading activities and to his family.[22]

Sibley colored portrait

Governor Sibley knew Helen was his daughter and although he never acknowledged her birth in writing, he paid her foster parents and covered all of her expenses for clothing, books, education, etc.

In any case, Sibley married Red Blanket Woman in 1840 and they both went on the winter hunt that season. The wedding was conducted in Dakota fashion meaning that Sibley would have negotiated a settlement with her family and there would have been a quite elaborate ceremony of transferring the young woman from her father’s home to her new husband’s dwelling. Sibley had no reason to keep the marriage a secret. Marriages and relationships between the Dakota women in the area around Fort Snelling and the fur traders and military men working there were very common. Red Blanket Woman herself was thought to be part French, meaning that one of her parents may have descended from a French fur trader.

It isn’t clear whether Tahshinaohindoway actually moved into the Sibley House with Henry. It may be that she remained with her own family, especially when she became pregnant in the late fall of 1840. The new couple’s daughter was born on August 28, 1841. Her Dakota name was given as Wakiye, or Bird, but her Christian baptism certificate identifies her as Helene, daughter of Tahshinahohindoway and an unnamed father. Sibley’s friend and fellow trader, William Forbes, was her godfather.

Although Sibley had the baby baptized, he apparently ended his relationship with Red Blanket Woman soon after Wakiye was born. By the spring of 1842, he was traveling in pursuit of his political future and also hoping to find a white wife to bring back to Minnesota. He traveled to Baltimore for the wedding of Franklin Steele to Anna Barney. Sibley knew Steele, who had been working in Minnesota for many years. Steele’s sister, Sarah Jane, was at the wedding and then came back to Mendota with Franklin and his new wife. It was there that Sibley began his courtship of Sarah and they were married at Fort Snelling on May2, 1843.

Sarah Steele Sibley

Helen was not yet two years old when her father married Sarah Steele on May 2, 1843. Sarah knew of Helen’s existence but never acknowledged that Helen was Henry Sibley’s daughter.

It is difficult to understand today how an acclaimed Christian man like Sibley could simply abandon the Dakota woman with whom he had a child and start life over with a white wife. Sarah Jane Sibley had their first child, Augusta Sibley, in June of 1844. They would go on to have eight more children together, only four of whom lived beyond childhood.

Wakiye, in the meantime was living nearby with her mother’s family and growing up like any other Dakota girl. Tahshinaohindoway continued to come to the post at Mendota to trade for various supplies. In the credit books of the trading company, her name appears and she is identified as Bad Hail’s daughter in August 1845 and April 1846.[23] Unfortunately, the historical record includes several conflicting stories about what ultimately happened to Tahshinaohindoway. Some sources say she married a man, who may have been known as Henry St. Cloud, from the Black Dog band and died during childbirth in 1848; others imply that she died five years earlier when Wakiye was only two years old. Still others report that she moved out of the Mendota area and went up north to her brother’s band and married and died there.

William Brown09262019

William Reynolds Brown and his wife Martha raised Helen Sibley from the time she was about six years old until she married in 1859.


What is documented is that Henry Sibley took Wakiye away from her mother and her Dakota family by 1847, when she was only about six years old. She became Helen Hastings and Sibley took her to the little village of Red Rock on the east side of the Mississippi River south of St. Paul to be fostered by William Reynolds Brown and his wife, Martha Newman Brown. The Browns had only been married a few years. Martha was a widow identified only as Mrs. Boardman when she came with the first Methodist missionaries to teach the Dakota at the Mdewakanton village of Kaposia in 1839. William had come west with his brother and had a substantial farm in Red Rock, now Newport, Minnesota. They wed in 1841.

Bruce Kohn, author of Dakota Child, Governor’s Daughter, published by the Friends of the Historic Sibley House in 2012, does an excellent job in his book surmising how quickly and completely Wakiye’s life changed when she was brought to the Browns. Her Dakota name was set aside and she became Helen Hastings. She worshipped with the Browns at the Methodist chapel in Red Rock and was, for the most part, raised as their daughter. The Browns also took in other foster children. The 1850 census for Washington County, Minnesota, records the following who were in the household that September: William Brown, 32; Martha, 32; Elizabeth Brown, 22; William Wilson, 25; and Hellen Sibly [sic], and Catherine Forbes, both eight years old. Elizabeth was William Brown’s sister; William Wilson may have been a hired man and Catherine Forbes was the daughter of Helen Sibley’s godfather, William Forbes, and a Dakota woman.

Kavanaugh House at Newport

Helen attended Methodist church services in this log cabin which was built by Rev. Benjamin T. Kavanaugh in 1839-1840. The building has been moved several times but since 1969 it has been on the grounds of the Newport United Methodist Church in Newport, Minnesota.

Henry Sibley paid the Browns to care for Helen and they submitted bills to him for her clothing, shoes and other items over and above the monthly board. William was well-respected in the area and held several elected positions during his farming years in Washington County, including assessor, justice of the peace and county commissioner. He and Martha also enjoyed entertaining and moved in the best social circles of the time for a small, rural community.

When Helen was about ten years old, in 1851, William and Martha sold their farm and moved across the river near the Mdewakanton village of Kaposia, where the Williamson mission was located. The federal treaty with the Dakota of that year required the Dakota to leave their village and relocate to the new Lower Sioux Agency near Redwood Falls, Minnesota, while the western side of the river was opened up for white settlement. By early 1853, the Dakota made their way to the new reservation and the land that had been the Kaposia Village became part of the Township of West St. Paul in the Dakota County. The Browns and Helen were in West St. Paul for perhaps two years and then William and Martha purchased a home in St. Paul in 1854.

Helen, then a young teenager, became involved with the Jackson Street Methodist Church and was, according to all accounts, a popular and pretty girl. Kohn provides the following description of Helen:

Bruce Kohn Book

Bruce Kohn wrote an excellent and very detailed biography of Helen Hastings Sibley in 2012. The cover image was created by Deb Zeller especially for the Kohn book, which was published by Friends of the Sibley House Site.



“Men remembered her looks. ‘She was a pretty girl, was Helen with dark eyes and hair but with a fair complexion and with features that gave much less evidence of her descent from the ‘first families’ than was displayed by the half-Caucasian children of other prominent pioneers,’ summarized a journalist reporting her life story. Helen probably looked more Caucasian than the typical mixed-blood child because her mother was partly of French descent. By another account, Helen was a ‘very beautiful girl,’ who ‘looked much like [her] father.’ A former boarder with the Browns remembered her some sixty years later as ‘a handsome girl.’ In another memory, ‘Helen Sibley was the best-looking of all of them.’ ”[24]

By this time, in the mid-1850s, Henry Sibley was deep into his political career. He served in the U.S. Congress as the Territorial Representative from Minnesota from 1849-1953. He was then elected to the Minnesota Territorial House of Representatives in 1855, as the representative of Dakota County and was a member of the Democratic Party wing of the first Minnesota Constitutional Convention in 1857.

In 1858 Sibley was elected as the first governor of the state, serving from May 24, 1858, until January 2, 1860.  After narrowly defeating Republican Alexander Ramsey in the first state gubernatorial contest, Sibley declared in his inaugural address, “I have no object and no interests which are not inseparably bound up with the welfare of the state.” He did not seek reelection.

While Sibley continued to support Helen and pay her expenses with the Browns, he continued to try to hide his true identity when it came to the legal documentation of her parentage. Like all those of mixed blood, Helen was entitled to what was called Half-Breed Scrip, where those who were white and Dakota were awarded land along the Minnesota side of Lake Pepin. As whites continued to move into the area, many of those who received the property were willing to convert them to scrip and receive the value in dollars rather than property. Everyone who was awarded anything had to produce evidence, usually with live testimony, of the details of their birth. In Helen’s case, Sibley wanted her to get the value of her award but by pulling strings, he managed to get her recorded via William Forbes’ testimony as Hellen Hastings [sic], who is the daughter of ____________. Her mother is reported as being a full blood, Indian woman of the Mdewakanton band of the Sioux Indians and she is a half blood of said band. Thus, Sibley got her scrip recorded without identifying himself.[25]

Despite his cautionary behavior, nearly everyone knew that Helen Hastings was the Governor’s daughter and she herself used the name Helen Hastings Sibley. At some point when she approached her late teens, Sibley paid for Helen to go east to a finishing school for young women and she had received an excellent education in the schools in Washington County and in St. Paul. She was musical and played the melodeon, which Henry Sibley gave her for her fourteenth birthday. When the Browns took a house at 145 East Fifth Street in downtown St. Paul between Robert and Jackson Streets, Sibley visited often and he and Helen could be seen chatting over the front gate as he attempted to be on his way after one of his visits.[26]

The Browns took in a variety of boarders to supplement their income in the 1850s and in 1857, a young doctor from New York, Sylvester Sawyer, took a room with them in August of 1857. Bruce Kohn writes:

 “Doctor Sawyer intrigued Helen. He had studied in the office of a physician in Keeseville, New York, and in 1854 graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. He was a surgeon at a hospital until the latter part of 1855, then spent a year studying in Paris before going to Saint Paul to practice medicine. He fascinated the young woman just returned from school and awakening to the wider world. William Brown told Sawyer about Helen’s parents and her maternal grandparents.”[27]

It wasn’t long before Helen and Sylvester fell in love. They were married on November 3, 1859. Sylvester was thirty-one years old and Helen just eighteen. Helen agreed to use the name Helen Hastings in the official documents and her father, the Governor of Minnesota, agreed to participate in the wedding. The Governor’s staff attended and Reverend John Mattocks, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of St. Paul, who had known Sylvester Sawyer back in his hometown in upstate New York, performed the marriage. The ceremony took place in the front parlor of the Browns’ home in St. Paul and many members of their church community attended. Henry Sibley signed the marriage certificate as a witness while the name of the bride’s father remained blank on the document.

Throughout her entire life, Helen had to live with the fact that her father had a whole other family and that her stepmother, Sarah Jane Steele Sibley, wanted nothing to do with her. No matter how much she had accomplished nor how popular and intelligent she was, she never quite met the mark with her father’s clan. According to Kohn, she did have a good relationship with Henry Sibley’s brother Fred who came to Minnesota and managed the Mendota trading post for Henry as the Congressman lived in Washington while serving on Congress. He remained in Minnesota in 1854 and meant a lot to Helen. Unfortunately, she apparently never received an address at which to write to him after her marriage.[28]

Still Helen and Sylvester reportedly were very happy together. They established their first home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sylvester wrote to William Brown in mid-November 1859:

“As Helen has informed you, we are comfortably lodged for the winter & everything is as pleasant as could be desired. Helen makes a most excellent wife and affectionate companion & I have no doubt we shall get along in perfect harmony together…My experience convinces that matrimony is a great institution and I no longer wonder that widowers and widows are so anxious to get married a 2d or 3d time.”[29]

Their marital bliss in Milwaukee was challenged by their financial situation even as Sylvester continued to grow his practice. On May 26, 1860, Helen and Sylvester moved from Milwaukee to Raymond Center in southeastern Wisconsin, where Sylvester purchased an existing practice from a retiring doctor. They joined the Congregational Church in Raymond and Helen became friends with the pastor’s wife. They had a house, three acres of land, a barn, a cow, chickens, a horse and a wagon. They could even afford to hire a helper who assisted with the farm and the house.[30]

In their comfortable new location, Helen and Sylvester prepared to welcome their first child who was expected in mid-August 1860. By early September, the baby still had not arrived and on Monday, September 3, Helen broke out in a red rash but she wasn’t concerned. She went into labor and Helen and Sylvester’s new daughter arrived at 1:10 a.m. on September 4, 1860. The baby was healthy but by the next afternoon, Helen had developed a high fever and a rash and became delirious as the day turned into Wednesday. Sylvester sent to Milwaukee for another physician since he could not control the fever.

Helen died on September 6, 1860. She had just turned nineteen years old on August 28, nine days earlier. Sylvester wrote to William Brown, who, along with Martha, was shocked and grieving Helen’s death. Bruce Kohn describes the situation:

“How Sylvester missed his young wife. ‘Every day I saw more and more in her to love and admire – every day my attachment to her was becoming stronger & stronger, while her love for me was such as I never thought to gain – so true, so steadfast.”

 Sawyer also reported that the baby seemed well. “I shall call her, I think, Helen Mary – Mary being my mother’s name. Helen’s mother’s name I never knew. I know you will be shocked at this dreadful news – so will her Father and all of my friends.” The minister’s wife took the baby to care for her in the days after Helen’s death. When Henry Sibley got the news, he was celebrating the birth of his own son, Charles Frederick Sibley, who was born on September 11. He wrote to William Brown on September 14, 1860:

“I am much obliged for your kindness in sending me for perusal, Doct. S’s letter giving a detailed account of the illness and death of poor Helen. I had already recd a similar one from him. Poor girl! Her dream of happiness here was a short one, but we have reason to help that she has been translated to a better and purer state.”[31]

As a physician, Sylvester kept checking on baby Helen but unfortunately, by Tuesday, she was emaciated and in pain. She passed away on Friday, September 14, 1860, just a little over a week after Helen. The two were buried together in the cemetery in Raymond, Wisconsin.[32]

Sylvester remained in contact with the Browns and with Henry Sibley after Helen’s death, sharing his own sorrow and grief but also, at least in the case of Sibley, seeking access to Helen’s scrip on her behalf and on behalf of their also deceased baby girl. Sibley had told him that the scrip would be handed over to him as soon as it could be arranged.[33]

In February of 1862, Sylvester remarried, this time to another Helen, Helen A. Gookins, from Belvidere, Illinois. They got married in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Sylvester had still not received payment for Helen Sibley’s scrip and remained in contact with Sibley about it, but the Civil War interrupted his plans as he was called to serve as a physician at Fort Schuyler near New York City. He was in that role for fifteen months beginning in November 1862. He and his wife settled in New York after the war and Sylvester practiced medicine there until he died at age forty-two in 1870, leaving Helen and their two children, Henry S. Sawyer, who was five years old and Jessie Sawyer, who was still an infant. Sylvester’s widow continued the pursuit of Helen Sibley’s scrip payment which Henry Sibley said he still had in 1883, but it is unknown if she was ever successful in receiving any proceeds.

Helen Hastings Sawyer’s obituary in the Weekly Racine Advocate on September 19, 1860, clearly identifies her as Henry Sibley’s daughter.

“At Raymond Center, Racine County, Wis., Sept. 6th, 1860, of scarlet fever, HELEN H., daughter of Gov. H.H. Sibley, of Minnesota, and wife of Dr. S.J. SAWYER, of Raymond, in the 20th year of her age.

 “Mrs. Sawyer adorned her Christian profession, and recommended the religion of Jesus by a life of remarkable devotion to the happiness of others. In her domestic and social life she was singularly self-forgetful; her thoughts and efforts seemed all to be for the comfort and enjoyment and highest good of her friends and acquaintances. She was unaffected and enthusiastic in her admiration for the beauties and wonders of nature, and loved the humblest of God’s animated creatures. As a wife she was devoted and affectionate, and ardently beloved; as a mother she lived but three days, of delirium with but brief lucid intervals, and was mysteriously removed from duties and cares and delights, which she alone could best fulfil and enjoy; and yet a humble and confiding faith in our Heavenly Father can enable her friends to realizes that for her ‘to die is gain.’

 “After a life of only ten days her daughter has been transplanted to bloom by her side in the Paradise of God.”[34]

Perhaps of the three Dakota daughters discussed in this story, Helen is the one who really was transformed from the daughter of Red Blanket Woman who grew up in a traditional Dakota village, to become the acknowledged daughter of the white Governor of Minnesota and the wife of a respected white physician in Raymond Center, Wisconsin. She had made her place in white society at a time when moving between native and white culture was not always easily accomplished. After her mother’s death, it appears that Henry Sibley never encouraged Helen to remain in touch with her mother’s family nor with her Dakota culture. Sadly, she died so young that she truly never had an opportunity to realize whatever goals or objectives she had created during her life as she made this transition to white culture. In any case it is clear that her mother loved her dearly, as did her father, her foster parents and ultimately her husband. We can only imagine who she may have become had she lived a longer life.

[1] Mary Huggins Kerlinger Journal, Huggins digitized collection, Minnesota Historical Society, p. 126.

[2] MNHS, Minnesota Collections, Vol VI, 1894, pp. 438-60.

[3] Ibid.

[4] With Pen and Pencil on the Frontier in 1851, The Diary and Sketches of Frank Blackwell Mayer, edited with an introduction and notes by Bertha L. Heilbron, Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, 1986, pp. 167-168.

5] Ibid., pp. 169-171.

6] Mary Jane Faribault Eastman’s tombstone at the agency cemetery in Flandreau, South Dakota, lists her date of birth as August 16, 1855. Many other records indicated that she was born on August 9, 1853, but I cannot explain how an official tombstone could be wrong so I am going with the 1855 date., September 13, 2019.

[7] These discrepancies in dates are frustrating and often cannot be explained. I have attempted in every case to document the correct information from original source documents like birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, etc. There is an excellent Faribault family tree on which seems to provide documented dates and names.

[8] Thomas Williamson to S.B. Treat, November 21, 1862, MNHS, ABCFM Correspondence, Box 7

[9] MNHS, Minnesota Collections, Vol VI, 1894, pp. 438-60.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Mark Diedrich, Little Crow and the Dakota War, Coyote Books, Rochester, MN,, 2006, p. 221

[12] Stephen Riggs to S.B. Treat, March 12, 1867, MNHS NW Missions MS P489, Box 21

[13] MNHS, Minnesota Collections, Vol VI, 1894, pp. 438-60.

[14] A.H. Laughlin, “History of Ransome County,” History of the Red River Valley: Past and Present, Vol II, C.F. Cooper & Company, Chicago, 1909

[15] MNHS, Minnesota Collections, Vol VI, 1894, pp. 438-60, reprinted in Minnesota’s Heritage No 1, January 2010, f.n. 9, p. 45. In this report, Nancy’s age, listed as 62, is again incorrect. Nancy was sixty-six in 1902.

[16] There is a fairly complete Eastman family tree on that provides dates, spouses, children, etc. for John and Jane’s children but none of those children appear to be the parents of these three grandchildren.

[17] Mary Huggins Kerlinger Journal, Huggins digitized collection, Minnesota Historical Society, p. 148.

[18] Oasixheaoui is spelled this way in the historical record but it is not how a Dakota name would normally be written. When I asked Carrie Zeman for her thoughts on the name, she  responded that it could be pronounced, “Wa-she-hay-a-win,” which could mean French Woman or even White Woman, although Oasixheaoui was full Dakota as far as we know.

[19] Thomas Smith Williamson, Obituary of Miss Julia Framboise, November 7, 1871, to ABCFM. MNHS ABCFM Correspondence, Box 5.

20] West Newton, Minnesota is a ghost town today, closed in 1910. The only remaining commercial location that was in West Newton is Harkin’s General Store, just outside of New Ulm, Minnesota.

[21] MNHS Huggins Digitized Collections, Part 14, pp 2-3. The “mother” that Julia mentions is her step-mother Jane Dickson LaFramboise, who was fifty-one years old when Julia died.

[22] Both Bad Hail and his daughter, Red Blanket Woman, are identified in the historic record by several different Dakota names or at least names with different spellings. I am using Wasuwicaxtaxni and Tahshinahohindoway.

23] Bruce A. Kohn, Dakota Child, Governor’s Daughter: The Life of Helen Hastings Sibley, Friends of the Sibley Historic Site, Mendota, MN, 2012, p. 42

[24] Ibid., p. 70 and endnote 160.

[25] Ibid., p. 71

[26] Ibid., p. 81

[27] Ibid., p. 76

[28] Ibid., p. 66, 85

[29] Ibid. p. 86

[30] Currently an unincorporated ghost town.

31] Kohn, Ibid. p. 94

[32] I have never located the location of a cemetery in Raymond, Wisconsin, which is an unincorporated ghost town in 2019. Sylvester Sawyer had also informed people that he planned to have Helen and the baby’s gravesite moved to his own family plot in New York but Helen does not appear in any current cemetery search sites.

[33] Kohn, Ibid., p. 99

[34] Ibid., p. 96. Helen had turned nineteen on August 28, 1860.

Posted in Dakota Mission, Eliza Huggins Holtzclaw, Fanny Huggins Pettijohn, Hazlewood Mission, Helen Hastings Sibley Sawyer, Jane Smith Williamson, Julia Ann LaFramboise, Kaposia Village, Lac Qui Parle Mission, Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, Magdelaine LaFramboise, Mary Ann Longley Huggins Kerlinger, Nancy Jane Williamson, Nancy McClure Faribault Huggan, Sarah Steele Sibley, Sophia Josephine Marsh Huggins Hanthorne, Tahshinaohindoway aka Red Blanket Woman, Traverse des Sioux, U.S. Dakota War of 1862, Women in Minnesota | Leave a comment

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