The Good Doctor’s Wife – Margaret Poage Williamson – Part II

You can find Part I of Margaret’s story at Part III is at

Margaret Williamson is in many ways a silent participant in the story of the Dakota mission. Her husband and family members wrote about her in glowing terms, speaking of her patience and kindness. Her sister-in-law, Jane Williamson, was a prolific letter writer and most of Jane’s correspondence sent home to relatives in Ohio refers to Margaret’s health situation quite often but we have nothing in Margaret’s own words to tell her story. We have no idea if Margaret was fluent in the Dakota language and while she certainly worked with the Dakota girls at the mission in domestic instruction, she was not an official teacher in the mission school. She was first and foremost a loving mother and faithful wife.

The only story I’ve found which provides a bit of insight into her personality is found in Mary Ann Longley Huggins Kerlinger’s Journal. Mary Ann recalled on one of the trips that the Williamsons were making from Fort Snelling to their first mission at Lac Qui Parle, Margaret’s brother-in-law Gideon Pond accompanied the group. When the travelers reached a particularly deep slough or wetland, the women needed to be carried across since a loaded wagon would sink. According to Mary Ann, Gideon bravely volunteered to carry Margaret across to higher land but he made little progress before he slipped and Margaret fell off into the water. She supposedly just laughed and said she “needed a larger horse,” causing everyone to chuckle at poor Gideon’s mishap. [Kerlinger Journal, p. 75]

Margaret’s maternal instincts extended throughout her life to a long list of Dakota children who were taken into the Williamson home for weeks and months at a time. It isn’t appropriate to refer to the situation as being like a boarding school because no room and board was charged, nor was there any official relationship established between the children and the missionaries. Instead, the arrangement was informal and Margaret’s motivation was simply to make sure the children had warm, clean clothes to wear and enough food to eat. Mission reports indicate that most of the students who stayed with the Williamsons did so while their parents went off on the dangerous winter hunts. In the case of the Williamsons, at least during their years at Kaposia, the children who lived with them were very young and were not teenagers who often lived with missionaries at the stations in exchange for helping with the housekeeping, cooking, sewing or childcare.

Seth Eastman painting of Kaposia on the west bank of the Mississippi in what is today South St. Paul, Minnesota

The village of Kaposia included the bark houses and teepees of the Mdewakanton Dakota people who had moved to the west bank of the Mississippi River four miles south of St. Paul, Minnesota somewhere between 1824-1834.  The band had long been familiar with whites and were closely involved with trading activities at Henry Sibley’s post at Mendota and with the military personnel and their families at Fort Snelling.

The Methodist mission house from Kaposia village has been restored and is currently on the grounds of the United Methodist Church in Newport, Minnesota.

The first mission school in the village was erected by Rev. Alfred Brunson, a Methodist missionary who was sent to establish missions among the Upper Sioux tribes on the Mississippi River in May of 1837. The efforts of the Methodists were not as successful as they had hoped and in 1839 Brunson’s successor, Benjamin Kavanaugh, moved the little mission house across the river to Red Rock in what is today Newport, Minnesota. He opened a church and school for white settlers there, while continuing to teach the Dakota people at Kaposia until Chief Wakanyantanka/Big Thunder closed the school in 1843.

Taoyateduta, known as Little Crow, was the Mdewakanton Dakota chief who invited the Williamsons to establish a mission and school at Kaposia.

When Margaret and Thomas arrived with Thomas’ sister Jane and the children, the new Chief Taoyateduta/Little Crow, Wakanyantanka’s son, was eager to assist them with establishing the mission and school. Images of the village by 1850 show several frame houses, including the two-story Williamson home. The federal government established a government school on the site as well and government farmers were employed there to assist with agricultural production.

In late spring of 1847, Margaret, Thomas and Jane took a furlough from the mission and returned to Ohio until the following spring. John was 11; Andrew was 9; Nancy Jane was 6; Smith was 4; and Martha had celebrated her second birthday on November 5, 1846.  (Henry Williamson wasn’t born until 1851 and Elizabeth had been living with her mother’s sister in Ohio since 1838.) The record isn’t clear if all of the children made the trip. John Williamson was along since he was to go to school in Ohio, apparently living with relatives until 1851. The only child specifically mentioned in records of the trip is Nancy Jane who, along with Margaret, was in Ripley, Ohio, when Jane Williamson wrote a letter indicating that they would be leaving for Kaposia on April 17, 1848. It was not uncommon for any of the mission families to leave their children with each other for extended periods of time so it may be that the younger Williamson children stayed with others during this trip.

Margaret’s days at Kaposia no doubt revolved around sewing, food preparation, child care and general housework. Sundays were spent in rest and worship. Amos Huggins, who stayed overnight at Kaposia on April 19, 1851, recorded in his journal that Thomas Williamson preached on Sunday morning in the Dakota language, holding the service at “Uncle Cook’s.” (Sylvester Cook was married to Amos’ aunt, Harriet Newell Pettijohn, Lydia Pettijohn’s sister.) Rev. Joseph Hancock preached in English at 2:00 that afternoon and that night Thomas held what Amos referred to as “Indian meeting.” [Minnesota Historical Society, Huggins Collection, Amos Huggins Journal, April 19, 1851.]

Margaret and the family spent seven years at Kaposia with Taoyateduta’s band. The times were often tense politically as the government increased pressure on the Dakota to sell more of their land. The Treaty of 1851, negotiated at Traverse des Sioux in July, ultimately led to the government’s acquisition of all of the Dakota’s land on the Mississippi River. As part of the treaty, the Dakota were required to move to a reservation on the Minnesota River, extending northwest from about eight miles west of New Ulm to Lake Traverse. They were granted permission to live on a strip of land encompassing ten miles on either side of the river.

The Williamsons decided that their work was not over and they moved with the Dakota people to the new reservation where they opened another mission school at the northern end of the reservation at Yellow Medicine or Pajutazee. Thomas spent six weeks in the area finding a good place to establish their new home. They then packed up their belongings and left Kaposia on October 4, 1852, arriving at Yellow Medicine 19 days later on October 23.

Pictured in front of the Williamson mission house at Pejutazee are left to right: Margaret Williamson, Catherine Tatidutawin, Thomas Williamson, unidentified, unidentified, Robert Hopkins Chaska, Jane Williamson, Robert’s son and Robert’s wife Sarah Tatidutawin. The photo was taken on August 17, 1862.

The move to Pajutazee was a significant change for Margaret and her family. They were now part of the reservation system which was marked by agencies at both the southern end of the area, called the Lower Sioux Agency, and the north end which was called the Upper Sioux Agency. The Williamson site was about two miles from the Upper Agency, 35 miles from the Lower Agency.

The winter of 1852 was one of the worst ever seen in the area. Ice storms and blizzards made it impossible for anticipated supplies to get through and there was no mail delivery for several months. The house that had been built quickly in the fall had cracks in the walls and foundation and ice and snow blew through every room.

In addition to the Williamson children and Thomas’ sister Jane, two other mission workers were living in the cramped and cold space with the family. Mary Smith Briggs, 16, had been a student of Jane’s in Manchester, Ohio when she was a child. She had come out to Kaposia in 1852 and came with the Williamsons to the new mission at Pajutazee. Andrew Hunter, 22, was from Illinois. It isn’t clear when he enlisted in mission work. His sister Nancy was the wife of John Aiton, a government teacher who remained at Kaposia when the Williamsons and the Dakota left for the reservations. The Aitons had been missionaries at Red Wing, Minnesota before moving to Kaposia where John took a position as a government teacher.

Margaret must have struggled to get through those difficult winter months as she attempted to feed so many people every day. Many of the Dakota, who were supposed to be establishing their new villages on the reservations, delayed their arrival, went off on hunting excursions and tried through their own skills and resources to survive the winter.

It was a harsh welcome to the place that Margaret Williamson would call home for the next ten years. Eventually, of course, the agencies were established with traders, doctors, teachers, government schools and brick houses for those Dakota who chose to learn to farm the land. Margaret’s days continued to revolve around the family and to providing a gracious home where she welcomed friends and visitors to the mission.

Just a few years after their arrival at Pajutazee, Margaret and the family went through an awful and tragic accident. Their 13-year-old son, Smith Burgess Williamson, was killed on March 3, 1856 while he was hauling wood with a yoke of oxen. Apparently he was out alone with the team and somehow he fell under the runner of the ox sled. The oxen came home with poor Smith’s body dragging under the sled. How can anyone comprehend the grief that Margaret felt at the loss of her boy who was described in his obituary as a “stout, manly, quiet boy?” Margaret had now buried four of her children.

A few years after dealing with the death of young Smith, the events of August 17, 1862 brought an end to everything Margaret Williamson had established at Pajutazee. Four white settlers were killed at Acton, Minnesota that day and the next morning, some Dakota men attacked the Lower Sioux Agency, killing traders and whites before spreading across the entire area, attacking and killing settlers in their homes and fields. Word soon spread to Pajatuzee of the violence and several of the Williamsons’ Dakota friends urged them to flee before they too were killed.

The Williamson daughters, Elizabeth and Nancy, Margaret’s first grandchildren, three-year-old Nancy Hunter and 11-month old John Knox Hunter, as well as her youngest son, Henry, who was only 11 years old, fled with a group of missionaries and agency personnel when the Dakota began attacking whites on August 18, 1862.

Thomas reportedly refused to believe that they were in danger; they’d been with the Dakota for nearly 30 years and were friends and supporters of the people. We don’t know what Margaret believed but we do know that she and Thomas agreed to send the children off with Andrew Hunter, who had married Elizabeth Williamson in 1858. Andrew and Elizabeth, their infant son John and daughter Nancy, 3, took Nancy Jane and Henry with them and joined a party of agency personnel and other missionaries in an attempt to reach safety at Fort Ridgley.  Thomas, Margaret and Jane remained behind. (John Williamson was away from the Agency when the war began; Andrew Williamson was serving in the Union Army of the Civil War and Martha Williamson had married and left Minnesota in 1861.)

Margaret was a firm believer in God’s providence, but she was no doubt frightened and filled with anxiety as she said goodbye to her children and grandchildren. Sending them off into unknown danger was perhaps the most difficult decision she and Thomas had ever faced. It is unlikely that Margaret got much sleep that Monday night or that her anxiety lessened as news of the extent of the attacks spread through the reservation on Tuesday. When Thomas learned that Amos Huggins had been killed at Lac Qui Parle, he may have realized that he, Margaret and Jane really were in danger. Amos was the son of Alexander and Lydia Huggins. He had been a toddler when the Williamsons and Huggins families established the first mission at Lac Qui Parle in 1835. He had grown up with the Dakota, was a friend of the Dakota, taught the Dakota children in a government school and had done nothing to explain why he was killed while his wife and children were allowed to flee across the prairie.

So it was that Thomas, Margaret and Jane were convinced by their Dakota friends to leave at around midnight on Wednesday, August 20, 1862. Many versions of their escape exist in various journals and books and we may never know exactly who helped them or how and when they left. Credit has been given to Lorenzo Lawrence, Peter Tapeyatanka and Robert Hopkins Chaska among others. Lorenzo’s story indicates that he secluded Thomas, Margaret and Jane in a wooden ox cart under blankets and that he diverted roving bands of Dakota he encountered when they demanded that he show them what was in the wagon. Thomas Williamson’s account of the escape is included in Dakota Soul Sisters post on Jane Williamson, Part IX.

Whatever the details, Margaret, now 58 years old, was alone with her 62-year-old husband and 59-year-old sister-in-law fleeing across open prairie that was at that very moment the scene of brutal and fatal attacks on men, women and children. Dead bodies were encountered on the roads and across the fields. Many settlers tried to escape in wagons and were surrounded and shot by the warring Dakota. Knowing her children were out there somewhere, Margaret no doubt prayed without ceasing as they fled toward Fort Ridgely, 40 miles away. By all accounts, they were out there until around noon on Friday, August 22, 1862, when they encountered the Riggs party and were reunited with daughters Elizabeth and her family as well as with Nancy Jane and little Henry.

Their hope at that point was to get to safety at the fort, but when Andrew Hunter bravely crawled through the lines of Indians surrounding the fort and talked with the commander he was encouraged to keep moving the group on toward Henderson. The fort was overcrowded with refugees and there was no room to accommodate them. So the exhausted and terrified group, including the many little children who were with them, kept going on into the darkness.

When they reached a point near Henderson, Minnesota, the group split up with some continuing on to the village of Traverse des Sioux and others traveling further to St. Paul. The Hunters and Williamsons headed for friends and relatives in Traverse des Sioux. Their old friends and mission colleagues, Alexander and Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, were there and they also had relatives ready to accommodate them. William Ellison and his wife Sarah Rebecca Pond Ellison, lived in St. Peter, Minnesota, adjacent to the little village of Traverse des Sioux. Sarah was the third child of Gideon and Sarah Poage Pond and was Margaret’s niece. William was Thomas’ and Jane’s nephew, the son of their sister, Mary Beauford Williamson Ellison of Ohio.  The Ellisons and Huggins were no doubt delighted and relieved to see them since it had been rumored for days that all of the missionaries had been killed.

Margaret could now thank God for their safety but she also had to confront the reality that they had left everything behind. All of the family photographs, their shoes and clothing, Thomas’ books and Bibles, personal items, letters, all of her kitchen utensils, pots, pans, dishes, silverware, her sewing supplies, table linens – all of the things that a woman accumulates after 30-plus years of housekeeping were gone. Although Margaret may have held some hope that they would be able to return home and find that things were intact, that was not the case. The mission house at Pajutazee was burned to the ground within hours of their departure, apparently by a group of young white boys who had been taken captive by the Dakota but who were running wild in the confusion of the attacks.

Perhaps Margaret was finally able to sleep that first evening but her rest was very possibly interrupted by images of the violence they had encountered, the bodies in the road and the constant fear that accompanied their escape. She thought of her friends, both white and Dakota, whose whereabouts were unknown. She wondered about the dozens of Dakota boys and girls who had grown up at the mission. Were they safe? Had they been taken captive? Had they, God forbid, joined the fighting against the whites?

As she tossed and turned while questions plagued her sleep, Margaret was about to begin yet another chapter of her life, the years after the six-week war that changed everyone and everything forever.

This entry was posted in Dakota Mission, Kaposia Village, Margaret Poage Williamson, Minnesota History, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Good Doctor’s Wife – Margaret Poage Williamson – Part II

  1. Pingback: The Good Doctor’s Wife – Margaret Poage Williamson – Part III | Dakota Soul Sisters

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