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

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

St. Peter, Minnesota was a town filled with hundreds of frightened refugees in the days and weeks following the outbreak of war on August 18, 1862. Thomas Williamson worked several hours each day in a makeshift clinic helping the wounded who had survived the attacks. Lost children wandered into the city having been separated from their families. Some did not speak English, having only recently arrived from Germany to begin their new life in America. In the midst of the confusion, Margaret’s focus had to be on her family – finding a place to live and wondering where they would get the resources to replace their belongings. A clue as to her concern is found in a letter that her sister-in-law Jane, also in St. Peter, sent home to Ohio. Writing to her fellow missionary Mary Riggs, Jane reported: …”underclothes are what we need most though I do think Brother is needing a coat or cloak very much. He lost his cloth cloak and I cannot help feeling badly when he wears the old plaid….if it does turn cold I hope he will not suffer.”

Jane continues: “Sister [Margaret] is just retiring but she says I must not forget to thank you for the spectacles. They suit her very well and I sometimes borrow them when I wish to see better than usual.”

On September 23, 1862, just a few weeks after the violence began, Taoyateduta/Little Crow, the Kaposia chief who had befriended the Williamsons 16 years earlier and invited them to establish a mission in his village, was defeated at the Battle of Wood Lake by U.S.military forces. The somewhat reluctant leader of the Dakota who went to war on August 17  managed to evade capture and fled west with hundreds of his followers.

While it was natural for Margaret and others to feel a sense of relief that the fighting was over, everyone continued to live in the fear that the warring Dakota would return and go on the attack again. In an attempt to bring an end to the fear and restore order, General Henry Sibley, commander of the U.S. forces, ultimately brought 393 Dakota to trial for their actions. Many of those who were tried were most likely not involved in the war; it is clear that those who did the most killing had fled with Taoyateduta. Still the military commission found 303 men guilty and sentenced them to death.

Margaret’s husband, Dr. Thomas Smith Williamson, devoted the final years of his life to obtaining the pardon and release of the Dakota          prisoners from the prison camp in Davenport, Iowa.

At this point, Thomas had every reason to resign his work with the mission at this juncture and take Margaret and  family back to Ohio and retire. Instead, he threw himself into defense of the prisoners, writing letters to the editors of area newspapers and to President Abraham Lincoln, inciting the wrath of his former friends and colleagues as he came to the Indians’ defense. Margaret, ever loyal, continued her faithful service to the children and community while Thomas pursued his dangerous endeavors.

While Thomas worked to save the prisoners, the Williamson family once again faced the tragic loss of another child. Little John Knox Hunter, Elizabeth Williamson Hunter’s son, died at the age of 13 months in October 1862. The Hunters were living with Thomas, Margaret and Jane in St. Peter at the time of John’s death.

John Poage Williamson married Sarah Van Nuys on April 27, 1866. Like Margaret, her mother-in-law, Sarah spent her life working with the Dakota people.

As for the rest of the family, John Williamson, 27, who had been away from the reservation when the war began, went with the Dakota women and children when they were taken to Fort Snelling and put into an internment camp there. The group also included the men who had not been charged or tried following the war. He remained with them, preaching and baptizing and working for their health and welfare. The winter of 1862-63 was a difficult one for both the Dakota at Fort Snelling and for the white population that had moved in the area when smallpox took a devastating toll. It is estimated that 100 died in the internment camp and many more in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Andrew Williamson, Margaret and Thomas’ second son, was one of the defenders of Fort Ridgely during the Dakota War. He also served as Commander of a regiment of African American troops in the Union Army in the Civil War.

Andrew Williamson, 24, had been mustered into the 5th Minnesota Regiment on January 17, 1862. He was with the troops defending Fort Ridgely against Little Crow’s attacks in August 1862 and then was sent to service in the Union Army during the remainder of the Civil War. Nancy Jane Williamson, 22, was living at home with Margaret, Thomas, Jane and 12-year-old Henry.

Margaret was home with Jane and the children on December 26, 1862, when 38 of the condemned prisoners were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota from a single scaffold – the largest mass execution every held in America. Thomas was there to witness the unforgettable event which inspired him to fight even harder for the other prisoners, many of whom he felt had been unjustly accused and unfairly tried. He had been walking the 14 miles to Mankato each day to be with the men who were in prison there. After the hangings, he continued his ministry to them, often bringing out the letters that they wrote to their own wives and families who were being held at Fort Snelling in St. Paul.

Margaret and the family continued to encounter personal loss and grief when daughter Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she was known by the family, succumbed to death when she passed away on March 11, 1863 at the age of 29 years. She had buried her only son just five months earlier. Her husband, Andrew Hunter, who had helped save the missionary party on the escape from the agency, tried to rebuild his life as a farmer in Traverse des Sioux, but now he had lost his son John Knox and his wife. He soon realized that it would be best if his daughter Nancy went to live with Thomas, Margaret and Jane. Thus it was that Thomas reportedly adopted his own granddaughter, Nancy Hunter, who was three and a half years old when her mother died.

Later that spring of 1863, the Mankato prisoners were taken to Davenport, Iowa and imprisoned there. The women and children were transported to a desolute desert reservation at Crow Creek, South Dakota. John Williamson went with them and continued to serve as their minister and advocate even as several hundred died of disease and starvation. For Margaret, it meant going with Thomas and 12-year-old Henry to Davenport where they lived while Thomas continued his efforts on behalf of the prisoners. The photo on the first part of Margaret’s story on this site was taken in Davenport during that time.

U.S. President Andrew Johnson succeeded Abraham Lincoln when Lincoln was killed in April 1865.

Thomas continued his efforts to obtain pardon and release for all of the Dakota prisoners. President Abraham Lincoln, who had been responsive to Thomas’ requests, was assassinated on April 1, 1865 and Thomas had to begin his work all over again with President Andrew Johnson. Johnson released 177 of the surviving prisoners at Davenport on March 22, 1866. No more would they and their families live under the constant fear of another mass execution.

Andrew Williamson returned home to St. Peter on September 1, 1865, after being seriously wounded in the Civil War. He took several months to recover before he began teaching at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.

The family went through another tragic death in 1865 when Martha’s first son, Thomas Stout, died at the age of three years.  Margaret had now buried her oldest daughter and two grandsons since the tragic days of the war had resulted in the loss of her home.

John Williamson saw success when his efforts to move the Dakota to a better reservation were realized as a new reservation at Niobarra, Nebraska was established on February 27, 1866 and the women and children at Crow Creek were moved there on June 11, 1866. John had taken a brief interlude from his work with the Dakota to marry Sarah Van Nuys on April 27, 1866 in Winnebago, Minnesota. Sarah accompanied him back to the reservation shortly after they were married. They presented Thomas and Margaret with a second granddaughter, Winifred Lee Williamson, who was born on April 3, 1867 and with a grandson, Guy Wycliffe Williamson, born on October 7, 1868. John and Sarah and their family moved to Greenwood, South Dakota, in March of 1869 to establish a mission and school there at the Yankton Tribal Headquarters. They had another six children in subsequent years. Thomas Cornelius Williamson was born in 1870; Jesse Philander Williamson in 1872; John Bertram Williamson in 1874; Mabel Ruth Williamson in 1877; Laura Lucille Williamson in 1879 and Helen Van Nuys Williamson in 1883. All lived to adulthood except for Mabel who died at the age of seven years and another baby girl who was stillborn.

Although there is no record of what happened, family letters indicate that Margaret fell and hurt herself quite seriously on October 1, 1869. She spent the next two years and eight months in her room, unable to walk. Nancy Jane Williamson wrote to her brother John on March 22, 1870, and described their mother’s condition. “Mother does not gain fast. She is able to go around her room on crutches and that is all. I hope by the time the snow has gone and the ground dried she will be able to walk around better.”

Thomas Williamson, writing to John on June 10, 1870, reported: …but unless your
mother’s health improves of which I see no prospect it will not be proper for
me to go from home one week much less two or three. She cannot lie in bed more
than two or three hours at a time nor get up or lie down without assistance
which I can render better than anyone else.”

In the same letter Andrew Williamson tells his brother John, “William’s addition to the house is inclosed,[sic] shingled and floored but the door casings and window casings are not yet put in and only part of the cornice. It consists of a sitting room, two small bedrooms, kitchen, pantry, porch and closet. It was undertaken this summer chiefly that Mother could have a good room downstairs.” [All letters, John P. Williamson Papers, South Dakota State Historical Society, uncat.]

After years of suffering, Margaret passed away at home on Sunday, 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.”

Thomas wrote to John on July 22, 1872.

“Your mother has been released from her long suffering and is gone to rest with the Savior she loves. His _____ her life was calm and peaceful. Yesterday before ten oclock from the coldness of her extremities and her slow bubonious breathing is was manifest the hand of death was on her. She was not conscious of it herself but when informed of it received the information with entire composure, though _________ some days before she had told your aunt she was not afraid of death either of the pain or the consequences of it. Before noon she for a short time seemed to suffer severely. As she recovered from she seemed to fall to Sleep. Her breathing gradually slowed became weaker till about half past two p.m. when it came without a struggle or a groan. We have just returned from depositing her earthly remains in the earth. Our neighbors have all been very kind to us. For a week or two past she could not bear to be lifted up causing much labor for your aunt and Sister Nannie and much suffering to herself so that I felt it was better for her to depart and be with the Savior. Still to me the house seems empty and lonely without her.”

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 is buried in the Old Settlers or Green Lawn Cemetery in what is now St. Peter, Minnesota. Thomas lived until June 24, 1879. He experienced the death of yet another of their children when daughter Nancy Jane Williamson passed away at the age of 37 years in 1877.  Nancy Jane and Andrew never married but in addition to John’s children, Margaret’s and Thomas’ grandchildren included Martha’s son, Alfred Josiah Stout, born in 1867. Henry Williamson also had two sons, Sumner Williamson, born on October 15, 1877, and William Ely Williamson, born on October 30, 1879, just four months after Thomas Williamson died. Margaret’s legacy lived on through her children and grandchildren, many of whom continued in their work and ministry to the Dakota people for generations to come.

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

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

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

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