Who Wrote This Letter?

One of the letters in the digitized Huggins collection at the Minnesota Historical Society is dated Monday, September 16, 1839. It was written from Lac Qui Parle to “Dear Brother and Sister.” There is no envelope with the letter and no signature at the end of the letter. The transcriber of the original attributed the letter to Lydia Pettijohn Huggins. Then at some later point, an unidentified researcher crossed out Lydia’s signature on the transcription of the letter and wrote in the name of Alexander Huggins instead. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“Yesterday evening we had our hearts cheered by receiving a letter form you. It was the first I had heard from any of my friends since I left. We are sorry to hear of your being sick but we hope ‘The Joy prepared for suffering saints will make amends for all.’ When I left home I understood you were very much opposed to my coming. I did not wonder at it. I was surprised the opposition was not greater. When Mrs. W. first mentioned to me about coming I thought it was not worth while to say anything about it but the more I thought about it the more I wanted to come and I thought I would speak to my friends about it and they seemed to think more favorably of it than I expected. Then I committed the whole to my Heavenly Father and prayed that I might be led to do right and that if it was his will I should come He would give me all that strength I needed.”

The letter is confusing because if it were written by either Alexander or Lydia Huggins, it would imply that they had been at Lac Qui Parle for more than four years but had never heard a word from friends or family at home.  The writer also says they first heard about the possibility of coming to Minnesota from “Mrs. W.,” who is Margaret Williamson. It doesn’t seem very likely that Margaret Williamson would have been the first to mention the mission to either Lydia or Alexander.

The letter goes on…

“I think we had as comfortable a journey as could ever be expected. But Sister you were mistaken when you supposed we were over the worst of the road at Galena. It’s true the steam boat was delightful but coming up the St. Peter’s was very trying. The hot sun by day and the cold damp ground at night. It was some time after I came before I felt as if I was over it. But I am very well now. I am sure they needed some one here. Perhaps I am not the right one. But I hope I am. I have written to some one how I spend my time. I expect to assist Mrs. Riggs in teaching the Dakota children before long. I am trying to learn the language but I make slow progress. I hope however that I shall learn faster.”

Neither Lydia or Alexander’s role with the mission was to teach. Alexander was the farmer, carpenter and livestock manager. Lydia was a cook, seamstress and weaver.

The letter continues…

“Some of the Indians are really good looking and seem to have pleasant dispositions. I think the Chief looks so much like Samuel Foreman if he was dressed like him you would think it was he or very much like him.”

This just doesn’t sound like something a man would say, affirming that a woman is the author of this letter. As I read through the letter again today, it suddenly became clear. This letter is written by Fannie Huggins, Alexander’s sister. She had arrived at Lac Qui Parle from Ohio to help with teaching the Dakota children in June of 1839. That explains why a letter arriving in September is the first she had received since she left home. Fannie as author also explains the reference to her efforts to learn to speak and write Dakota so that she can begin to teach. Fannie’s story will be covered in future in Dakota Soul Sisters but it is appropriate to clarify who wrote this Lac Qui Parle letter at this point in the story.

Determining who “Brother and Sister” are in the salutation is more difficult. Fannie is probably writing to one of her brothers and his wife. She says in one place, “When I wrote Amzi…” so that would mean this letter is not being written to her brother Amzi Huggins. That leaves the rest of  her brothers and sisters-in-law as possibilities: Eli and Jane McEwen Huggins, Zimri and Isabella Bryan Huggins, Enos and Lucinda Bryan Huggins or possibly John and Sarah Pettijohn Huggins.

One thing we do know and that is that at the time she wrote this letter in September 1839, Fannie and Alexander were unaware that their father, William Huggins, had died in Ohio on September 5, 1839, just 11 days earlier. Letters from home could take several weeks or months to reach Lac Qui Parle so the letter that Fannie is answering would have been sent before William’s death. No one also knew on September 16, 1839, that the Huggins family in Ohio would attend another funeral when Fannie and Alexander’s brother, Zimri Huggins, died on October 17, 1839, at the age of 35 years. There is no way to know how long it took for that news to reach Lac Qui Parle.

So, mystery solved. Now to find out how to get it correctly identified in the Huggins collection at the Minnesota Historical Society! Here’s the link to the original letter: http://www.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00679/pdfa/00679-00001-3.pdf

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This entry was posted in Dakota Mission, Fanny Huggins Pettijohn, Lac Qui Parle Mission, Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, Minnesota History, Ohio, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Who Wrote This Letter?

  1. Lois, Nice catch! You might try asking Duane Swanson at MHS and see if the accession documentation on this letter provides any clues. He told me the Huggins Collection has been accessioned incrementally in 20 pieces since the 1930’s. If you’re lucky, you might find this letter came in along with some others that yield clues. Unfortunately, when collections are rearranged into chronological order like this, the letters become dissociated from their context. By the way, the person who crossed out the tentative identification was not the transcriptionist, but someone better acquainted with the context whose job was to check the transcription against the original. Many of the letters transcribed as part of the Northwest Missions Manuscripts Collection –copies of the typescripts were left in or deposited in the host collection like the Huggins Papers –are marked and corrected in the same hand. I think this mystery editor may have been Grace Lee Nute.

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