Margaret Poage was born in Mason County, Kentucky in 1804. Her father, Colonel James Poage, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. In 1812, he founded the city of Ripley, Ohio and raised his family of 13 children with his wife Mary Woods Poage.
Margaret was the second youngest of the girls, the tenth child, and enjoyed all that the culture and society of Ripley had to offer, including a fairly sophisticated education, fashionable clothing, substantial wealth and a bright future. On April 10, 1827, she married the prominent young physician, Dr. Thomas Smith Williamson, whose father had brought the family to Ohio from South Carolina in 1805 in order to be able to legally free his slaves.
Thomas and Margaret’s first child, William Blair Williamson, was born on May 2, 1828. Their second child, Mary Poage Williamson, arrived on April 13, 1830, and a third child, James Gilliland Williamson, was born in 1832. On Christmas Eve, 1828, the family had moved into the charming and elegant Ripley home known as The Baird House, just a block north of the Ohio River. Thomas was a well-respected member of the Ripley community, an ardent abolitonist who had been involved with the Underground Railroad since childhood, and an elder in the Red Oak Presbyterian Church. The couple had every expectation of enjoying a long, productive and prosperous life.
It was probably around 1832 when Thomas felt a spiritual call to turn his focus from that prosperous future to working to save the souls of America’s first people, the Indians. He began to research locations where missionaries were needed and learned of the Dakota, a tribe who resided in what was then Wisconsin Territory on the Mississippi River.
Margaret must have questioned this new passion which motivated Thomas to begin to talk of attending seminary and seeking ordination in order to become a minister to the Dakota people. She no doubt reminded him that they had three little children who certainly could not be taken into the wilderness. Sadly, in what some later called God’s provision, all three of their children died soon after Thomas’ new plan for his life was revealed. William died on March 27, 1830 of hydrocephalus; Mary passed away on January 12, 1833 and James died on January 25, 1833, both of scarlet fever.
Thomas and Margaret moved to Cincinnatti in August 1833 and Thomas enrolled in Lane Seminary. He and Margaret welcomed another child. Elizabeth Poage Williamson was born on October 30, 1833. Thomas was ordained at the Red Oak Presbyterian Church in Ripley, Ohio in January 1834. He made an exploratory trip to Minnesota from April to August 1834 to see if there was a possibility of doing ministry there among the Dakota people.
When Thomas returned from Minnesota, he immediately secured the approval of the American Board of Commissioner for Foreign Missions, the organization which adminstered the work of missionaries around the world. At that time, ministry to Native Americans was part of the “foreign” mission effort. He then convinced his friend Alexander Huggins and Alexander’s wife, Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, to come along to Minnesota as workers at the new mission he hoped to establish there. Alexander and Lydia had two children who would be making the trip. Amos Williamson Huggins was two years old and the baby, Jane Sloan Huggins, was just five months. Sarah Poage, Margaret Williamson’s younger sister, also joined the group.
On April 1, 1835, the party boarded a riverboat at Ripley, Ohio and embarked on a six-week journey to Fort Snelling in Minnesota on May 16, 1835. They left the fort on June 22 and after a challenging and dangerous 18-day journey over land and water, reached Joseph Renville’s fur trading post and stockade at Lac Qui Parle, Minnesota on July 9, 1835.
For the next 17 months, the Williamsons lived in one room within the Renville stockade. Margaret gave birth to their son, John Poage Williamson, at the stockade on October 27, 1835. I try to imagine what it was like for this gentlewoman to adjust to living without the amenities she had grown accustomed to in Ohio. Not only did she have no privacy, she and her family were living in a Dakota encampment with nothing but an open fire for cooking and crowded with the many children and grandchildren who made up Joseph Renville’s extended family with his Dakota wife. The stockade was the only settlement of any kind in the area and travelers, fur traders, explorers and others came and went with regularity.
Alexander Huggins built his family a little log cabin on the bluff above the stockade and Thomas hired two men to build his 20′ x 30′ cabin. The family was finally able to move in in before Christmas on December 13, 1836. The house was 20′ x 30′ and had two rooms downstairs; three up. There was a large fireplace with a stone and mud chimney. They finally got a floor in the summer of 1837.
They were joined at the mission that year by 26-year-0ld Gideon Pond, who came to Minnesota with his brother Samuel in 1834 to serve as missionaries to the Dakota. Also in the summer of 1837, Rev. Stephen Return Riggs and his new bride, Mary Ann Longley Riggs, arrived at the mission to assist the Williamsons. They had been married on February 18 and the treacherous journey to Fort Snelling and ultimately on to Lac Qui Parle was their honeymoon.
The little community of missionaries came together on November 1, 1837, when Gideon Pond and Mararet’s sister Sarah were married at Lac Qui Parle.
The Williamsons had another son, Andrew Woods Williamson, on January 31, 1838. The following spring they made the trip back to Ohio to see to the publication of the first books translated into the new written Dakota language which Thomas and Stephen Riggs had produced with the assistance of Joseph Renville, using the original Dakota alphabet that had been created by Gideon and Samuel Pond. According to Mary Riggs, Thomas and Margaret took two children with them to Ohio. It was at this time that Margret and Thomas took Elizabeth to Ohio and left her to be raised by Margaret’s sister, Rebecca Poage Knox and Rebecca’s husband, John Knox. While it’s difficult for today’s parents to comprehend leaving a child behind at such a young age, for mission families, it was not at all uncommon to take the children back east to relatives so that they could get a good education and grow up in a safe environment.
Margaret’s family was no doubt thrilled to welcome her home and to hear the amazing stories of their life with the Dakota. She was now 34 years old; she had three surviving children and she had the distinction of being one of the first non-native women to live west of the Mississippi River in America.
When they returned to Minnesota in June of 1839, Thomas and Margaret brought Alexander Huggins’ sister Fannie, to join the work at the mission and to replace Sarah Williamson Pond who was moving back to Fort Snelling with Gideon.
Thomas and Margaret had another daughter, Nancy Jane Williamson, born on July 28, 1840. She was followed by Smith Burgess Williamson, born on September 12, 1842. When Smith was a year old, the family was joined by Jane Smith Williamson, Thomas’ 40-year-old sister. Jane had never married and had been an abolitionist and schoolteacher in Ohio. She was happy to help Margaret with the children. The last of the Williamson children born at Lac Qui Parle was Martha Moore Williamson, who arrived on November 5, 1844.
The years between 1843 and 1846 were difficult ones for the missionaries. While several Dakota women and children had been baptized into church membership, the traditional Indians did anything they could to discourage them from attending worship. The missionaries’ cattle were often killed and everyone experienced a serious shortage of protein and fresh food. When Joseph Renville died in 1846, Thomas Williamson was discouraged at achieving any more success at the mission. Instead, he accepted an invitation from Taoyateduta (also known as Little Crow), the new hereditary chief of the Kaposia band of the Mdewakanton Dakota. The chief’s village was located on the west bank of the Mississippi River four miles south of St. Paul and eight miles from Fort Snelling in what is today South St. Paul, Minnesota. He had learned to read and write at the Lac Qui Parle mission as a young man, knew the Williamsons and wanted to provide education for his own children at Kaposia.
Thus it was that Thomas, Margaret, Jane and the children moved from Lac Qui Parle to Kaposia in November 1846. Thomas built the family a substantial two-story home and began to preach and teach immediately. Life at Kaposia was very different than it had been at isolated Lac Qui Parle. Pig’s Eye, which became the City of Saint Paul, Minnesota, bustled with new businesses and supplies and mail service was available. Kaposia was a popular stopping off place for visitors from out east and many dignitaries enjoyed Margaret Williamson’s hospitality at their gracious home.
There were also government teachers at Kaposia and government farmers worked with the Dakota to improve the yield from their farms. Although the number of church members did not increase significantly during the years at Kaposia, the school was successful and even Little Crow himself left at least two of his children, Wowinape and Emma, with the Williamsons during the months of the winter hunt. Margaret and Thomas had their final child at Kaposia. Henry Martyn Williamson was born at the village on March 1, 1851. Margaret was 46 years old and she and Thomas had been with the Dakota for 16 years. They had no way of knowing that the most challenging years of their ministry were still to come.