All of the women whose stories are part of Dakota Soul Sisters shared many challenging experiences, not the least of which was the trip from the bustling social and military hubbub of Fort Snelling in present day Mendota, Minnesota, to the Dakota Mission at Lac Qui Parle near present day Montevideo, Minnesota.
Today’s travelers can leave Fort Snelling by automobile and be at the chapel at Lac Qui Parle State Park in about three hours. When the Williamson and Huggins party made the journey in 1835, it took them 17 days. It wasn’t possible at that time to simply travel straight west from the fort because of there were no roads overland due to the many bogs, lakes and woodlands that dominated the central Minnesota terrain.
Instead, all traffic followed the winding course of the Minnesota River which rises in southwestern Minnesota, in Big Stone Lake on the Minnesota–South Dakota border. It flows southeast to Mankato, then turns northeast. It joins the Mississippi south of the Twin Cities at Fort Snelling. The typical route in the 1830s was to take a skiff, sometimes called a flat boat, to Traverse des Sioux at present day St. Peter, Minnesota. The river was wide enough and deep enough to accommodate larger vessels who could make the 75-mile journey in five to seven days.
From there the travelers transferred to wagons or ox carts and headed overland, following the river to the northwest for 130 miles. Now the flat boat was literally pulled up the river, usually by French-Canadian boatmen, who stood on either side of the flat surface with long poles that they used to stick into the dirt along the river and slowly force the boat up the narrow, shallow waterway.
During the first night of the initial 1835 journey from the Fort to Traverse, Alexander Huggins’ Journal reports that the women and children slept in the wagon on the boat and he and Dr. Williamson slept in the open air with bed and blankets. The doctor was actually not riding on the boat but took two horses and made the trip overland with two French men and a number of Indians. He joined the boat party in the evenings when the overland route met the river. [Alexander Huggins Diary 1835-1846, Minnesota Historical Society, Huggins Collection, Box 2, transcript for this and subsequent references to Alexander’s Journal.]
On the second night of the trip, June 24, 1835, the group arrived at Six’s village two or three miles below Shakopee and since the band was away, their bark huts were used as shelter for the night. The doctor report that “Fleas inside and mosquitos outside made a miserable night for us.” [Old Traverse des Sioux, by Thomas Hughes, 1901, pp. 16-17] The third night Alexander reported that “Mrs. W., Sarah and Eliz. slept on the boat. Me and my family in a tent and Dr. W. with the horses about 1/2 miles from the boat.” They switched spots the next night when “Dr. W’s family slept in the tent and I and mine in the boat.” Both writers commented on the fact that there were frequent showers throughout these first days of the trip. Dr. Williamson added that it had rained almost every day for a month.
On the first of July both Dr. Williamson and the boat reached Traverse des Sioux where they met up with Joseph Renville, the fur trader who had invited them to come to Lac Qui Parle and open the mission. Alexander described the meal they shared in his journal. “We got there before noon – had a dinner prepared for us by Mr. Renville, the old gentleman with whom we are going to. We had good fat Hog and butter, unleavened bread and coffee. The knives and forks were placed around a large table and the plates all set up by Mr. Renville who cut meat and put all our plates. He helped himself last. The coffee was poured out by a French man….Soon after dinner the boat arrived. We got our things and stretched our tent, made tea for supper.”
The next morning, Alexander continued, “We started by land with six carts and the Frenchman’s one-horse wagon and a number of Indians on foot, one half breed on horse and several others on foot, including two of Mr. Renville’s sons.”
The food that the families prepared along the route seems to have been a combination of supplies they brought from the fort and the occasional duck or other game caught and roasted by the French men or Indians. Alexander records that one foggy morning, he took a kettle of hot water to the wagon body with some fresh hot corn bread and ate breakfast. They also had bread and butter and bacon and tea around 10 or 11 o’clock.
Mary Huggins Kerlinger’s and her father Alexander’s journals both describe one afternoon when several of the party, tired of riding the boat and the wagon, asked if they could walk for a while and catch up with the boat further up. Told that they would meet the boat again in about a mile and a half, Alexander and Lydia took little two-year-old Amos, leaving baby Jane with Margaret Williamson. Sarah Williamson, Margaret’s sister, also joined the hiking group along with a couple of the French guides and an Indian woman, her three children and her nephew, a boy who reportedly knew where the way to where they would join the river again.
Alexander wrote, “We walked over a beautiful prairie out about two miles and then sat down in the shade of an oak tree to rest. I asked which way to go to the boat but instead of turning toward the river they pointed on ahead – went another mile and they appeared lost. I carried Amos about 1/4 mile towards the river. Sarah tried to follow but got out of sight of the rest of us and stayed on the prairie to pick strawberries. The boy had us turn back and then we had to walk about through three-foot high grass. We had to start a fire to keep off the mosquitos. We fired a gun to let the boat know where we were.”
Mary’s journal records that, “the mosquitos were fearful. The way led thru briar bushes. The Frenchmen, knowing it would be long walk, had prepared bread and fatback which they shared. Mother threw the pork in the bushes (it probably raw as travelers there frequently used). Amos had to be carried most of the time. Expecting to see the boat about noon they were much disappointed not to find it and it never came until camping time. Mrs. W. had done the best she could to feed the baby.” [Kerlinger Journal, p. 70]
Wandering off trail wasn’t the only excitement along this first missionary journey. On the fourth of July they crossed two rivers, the first one waist-deep before breakfast, according to Alexander. Then they reached what is often referred to as the big slough, a wetland that was a perpetual problem reported in many of the journals documenting the journey to Lac Qui Parle. Mary wrote in her Journal, “After miles and miles they came to the dread of the trip – the big slough. There was no way around that would not take perhaps a days travel – nothing to do but flounder through.” [Kerlinger Journal, p. 74]
Alexander wrote, “We passed over a considerable part of the load before we drove on – then we drove across till the boys and women and children got out on the bank, then three or four men helped the horses and had to work to get the wagons out. The next river was even worse. Going down a steep hill, a wheel went down first. Everything in the wagon was jolted to the corner and the other hind wheel tilted up till water came in to the corner of the body very much. We got many things wet. Several of the wagons were broken but we all got out without being hurt….The wagon was speedily unloaded, things laid on both banks of the river which was knee deep, 4 or 5 feet wide. We lost but a little sugar and the lid to the tea kettle. Loaded up and got to the top of the hill. We had to take wood with us to do till Monday.”
Mary’s journal reports the same incident: “Soon some dozen carts were down and no doubt they preceded as I have seen them at Traverse. The oxen or horses would be taken out – long ropes tied to the carts or wagon, reaching to the animals and firm land. The men would carry women and children over and happy indeed when all were over….Crossing Hawk River, the wagon upset some things floated off and they got wet. Mother’s first concern was the baby which she pulled out from the churn, foot foremost covered with mud and water.” [Kerlinger Journal, p. 75]
Despite the many dangers and hardships, both Alexander and Mary describe the beauty of the pristine prairie they were crossing. Alexander, in a particularly poignant comment, perhaps reflecting a bit of homesickness, wrote, “the birds sang beautifully in the morning – sounded just like Ohio.”
Mary Ann said, “The 130 miles between Traverse des Sioux and Lac Qui Parle lies over a most beautiful country – mostly prairie with streams bordered with small timbers, sometimes with considerable hills. It was early July and the prairie was covered with tall waving grass, thickly sprinkled with flowers. Conspicuous among them the scarlet lily.” [Kerlinger Journal, p. 74]
Mary Ann’s brother Eli Huggins, who made his first trip from Lac Qui Parle to Traverse in October of 1845 when he was only three years old, still remembered the beauty of the place when he wrote the following in 1927, at the age of 85 years:
“The rolling prairies stretched on every hand of the horizon, sprinkled with flowers and with groves frequently in sight. There was always a gem of a lake at the grove, sometimes several miles extant. The sand on some of the lakes was snow white, others yellow with beautiful agates. Nearly all lakes had islands covered with trees – sometimes maple where the Indians made sugar.” [“Boyhood Reminiscences of Eli Huggins,” Minnesota Historical Society, Alexander Huggins Collection, Box 1, Part 3, last page]
Eli made another trip from the mission to Kaposia Village on the Mississippi River east of Fort Snelling in 1849 when he was seven years old. On August 30, 1926, he wrote, “They had a keelboat with 8 oar locks, a rather flat keel and a mast. The name Winona was stenciled on each side… Its capacity was about 30 tons. Father took this boat with a crew of French Canadian voyageurs down the Minnesota 150 miles to its mouth then down the Mississippi 12 miles to Kaposia. Here the boat was loaded with a years supplies for the mission stations and taken back up the Mississippi and Minnesota. It took three days to get to Kaposia, rowing daytime, floating at night, down the swift current with one man at the rudder.
“They were 10 on the boat on the way back…The oars were hardly used after we entered the Minnesota, narrower than the Mississippi. The boat was propelled by the crew pushing or punting as the men called it, with long poles on the bottom with Father steering at the stern with another pole, the boat being kept as near to shore as possible without running aground. The men would go to the stern of the boat, push down their poles, – then walk back to the stern pull out the poles and repeat. There was a running board on each side so they could pass each other.
“In going upstream we did not travel at night but tied the boat to a tree and all the men except Father slept on shore (including Amos). The Canadians did their own cooking on shore. Mother cooked on shore for the rest of us. Every day the boat stopped about noon – usually on a sandbar – and the Canadians went on shore, built a fire, smoked and ate. They made turtle soup, ate the eggs and often sang a good deal.
“The first camp was near an Indian village and an Indian woman brought two large beautiful ducks to sell. I think Mother gave her 2 or 3 spoonfuls of salt and a few potatoes for them. The Indians in Minnesota live far from any salt mines and sometimes went for months without salt.
“Halfway home, we came to a rapids where the current was too strong to be poled upstream altho we had easy passed over it going down. A large rope was fastened to the stern and the crew left the boat and towed it over the tow path of the canal. In one place Mother and all the children left the boat and walked since they could barely make any progress. Father remained in the boat to steer. It took 10 days to get home; we’d gone down in 3.” [Eli Huggins to Colonel Brown, August 30, 1926, Minnesota Historical Society, Alexander Huggins Collection, Part 5]
For the first 1835 missionary group, the trip was a memorable and remarkable adventure, culminating, as Mary recalled in the following, “Arriving at Mr. Renvilles trading post they found him living in a barbaric splendor quite like an African king.” [Kerlinger Journal, p. 75-76].
Despite the dangers and difficulty of this 152-mile trip between Lac Qui Parle to Traverse des Sioux to Fort Snelling, the missionary families made the journey often, sometimes headed for a furlough in Ohio; sometimes just to the Fort to get supplies. On most of the trips to and from, at least one of the women was either nursing an infant or anticipating the arrival of an infant, along with having two or three other toddlers to look after. Finding sufficient food for the children, protecting them from the mosquitos and making sure they didn’t wander away from their bedroll on the boat or slip out of the tent at night was no doubt a round-the-clock responsibility.
Perhaps most amazing is the fact that the Williamsons, the Huggins, the Hopkins and the Ponds kept returning to their humble homes at the first Dakota mission in Minnesota at Lac Qui Parle, the lake that speaks.