Sarah Poage was the third white woman who arrived at Lac Qui Parle with the initial group of missionaries in July 1835. Her sister Margaret was Dr. Thomas Williamson’s wife and both women were daughters of Col. James Poage, the founder of the city of Ripley, Ohio. Sarah was born in Maysville, Kentucky, on March 4, 1805, the youngest daughter of James and Mary Woods Poage’s 13 children. The family moved to Ohio where James established the city of Ripley in 1812, when Sarah was seven years old. The Colonel was strongly opposed to slavery and his decision to move to the northern side of the Ohio River across from Maysville was inspired by his desire to live in a free state.
The Poage children grew up in a privileged and affluent family. The children all received an education and were members of the Ripley Presbyterian Church. The community was one of the earliest stations on the Underground Railroad and James Poage was an active participant in assisting slaves who came to Ripley after escaping from the south by crossing the Ohio River at Ripley. One of those escapees became the model for the famous Eliza of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s powerful novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which she wrote after spending time with the abolitionists in Ripley.
Sarah was 28 years old when her sister Margaret and Margaret’s husband, Dr. Thomas Williamson, announced to the family that they were moving to Cincinnati where Thomas planned to attend Lane Seminary and become ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. His ultimate purpose was to give up his successful medical practice in Ripley in order to become a medical missionary to the Dakota Indians of Minnesota.
Over the course of the next year, Margaret perhaps began to write to Sarah, encouraging her to consider coming with them when they went west. Margaret no doubt longed for the companionship of her younger sister on the challenging adventure which lay ahead. Sarah, like so many young women of her era, may have seen the invitation as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience a world beyond the familiar streets of Ripley, Ohio. Sarah was also still unmarried at an age where most women already had a husband and children. Perhaps she believed that she was destined to be a spinster, living with her parents into their final years; the possibility of escaping that fate was no doubt exciting and intriguing.
What is particularly interesting about Sarah, however, is that she appears to be the first single woman to serve as a missionary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (A.B.C.F.M.). The Board did not traditionally permit unmarried women to serve in foreign lands. Many men and women who barely knew each other were encouraged to marry in order to be able to travel to China or India or Africa to fulfill their call to be missionaries. In the case of the Dakota mission, also considered a “foreign” outpost at that time, it appears that this policy was not enforced as dozens of single women came to work in the missions in Minnesota between 1835 and 1853.
Like her sister Margaret, Sarah’s voice is silent in the written record of history. No letters, journals or diaries written by her have ever been found. Glimpses of her personality are found only in the records that others who knew her left for today’s researchers. Alexander Huggins’ Journal provides one of those windows into who Sarah was. It was during the group’s first trip across the Minnesota prairie from Traverse des Sioux/St. Peter to Joseph Renville’s stockade at Lac Qui Parle. Alexander and Lydia had taken their two-year-old son Amos and, together with Sarah, several Indians and two French guides, left the riverfront and the boat in order to stretch their legs and walk for a while. Alexander wrote: “Sarah tried to follow but got out of sight the rest of the party staid [sic] on the Prairie to gather Strawberries.” [Minnesota Historical Society, Alexander G. Huggins Collection, Alexander’s Journal, p. 14].
Alexander doesn’t mention how Sarah found the group again but the misadventure of their afternoon turned out to be much more frightening and exhausting than they had anticipated. (My “Getting There” post describes that experience.) The episode reveals, however, that Sarah apparently was brave enough and adventurous enough to not panic, but to stop to pick strawberries on the prairie even though separated from the group and potentially in danger of getting lost.
Frances Williamson, author of a family history simply titled The Ponds, written in 1980, cited a letter written by Samuel Pond to his sister Rebecca Pond Hine dated January 20, 1838, in which he describes Sarah: “The last letter I had from Gideon was dated some time in November. He seems to have been in a happy frame of mind when he wrote. You ask who his wife is like, but I do not think of anybody who is much like her. She is a little larger than Ruth, two years older than Gideon. Those who are acquainted with her say she has an excellent disposition. She is from one of the most respectable families in Ohio, I am told by those who know. Gideon has been much please with her since he first saw her, and I trust they will live happily together.”
Jeff Williamson, in his Pond Family geneaology wrote the following: “This is a description of Sarah that I culled from another paper: ‘Sarah is a tall, thin, fair woman, with beautiful soft light brown hair, gentle blue eyes, a very pleasant mouth, and a very sweet expression.’ ” [Jeff Williamson Private Collection, Rosemount, MN November 8, 2012]
Upon reaching their destination, Joseph Renville’s stockade on the shores of the lake known as Lac Qui Parle, Renville gave the missionaries a one-room cabin inside the stockade until they could build houses for themselves. Thomas and Margaret, their daughter Elizabeth, Sarah, Alexander and Lydia Huggins and their two children, Amos and baby Jane, shared the cabin for at least three months.
I can’t help but wonder how Lydia, Margaret and Sarah managed to learn how to live in such a place. At this point, none of them knew any Dakota and were unable to ask the simplest questions of their hosts. The large Renville family included Mrs. Renville and many daughters but without the ability to communicate, it is unlikely that the Renville women could provide much advice or guidance to the newcomers. How did they learn where to wash diapers or find drinking water or determine any kind of private place to perform personal needs? The stockade also housed Renville’s soldiers, Dakota men who served as trappers, hunters and security guards for the camp. Lydia and Margaret at least had husbands to turn to for advice and protection, and certainly Sarah was under the care of Thomas, but she still was the only single woman, living in cramped quarters with her sister and brother-in-law and the Huggins family in a very strange place.
The Huggins’ cabin was the first to be built, and they left the stockade in late fall 1837, but the Williamson cabin wasn’t ready to move into until right before Christmas of 1836, 17 months after they arrived at Lac Qui Parle.
During those months, Sarah must have been present as Thomas and Alexander began to learn the Dakota language and establish the mission and the school. At the very beginning, their only source of written Dakota was Gideon and Samuel Pond’s initial Dakota alphabet which the Pond brothers had created. Historian Carrie Zeman suggested the following process to teach the Dakota how to read their own language:
“One of the best things they could do for their own language learning was to teach Dakota people literacy in their own language so that Dakota people could help them (the missionaries) move faster than they could on their own toward the grand task of Bible translation.
“The Pond alphabet, like the modern alphabet, is phonetic. So the missionaries could write down anything they heard spoken, and probably could sound it back out again from their notes, even if they had NO idea what it meant. So the missionaries themselves only needed a very basic level of literacy (the Dakota alphabet) to begin teaching Dakota people to read and write in early 1835. Once they taught a handful of key Dakota-speakers to write in Dakota, it must have opened up worlds of language-learning for the missionaries because it multiplied the written word. And when words were written down, the missionaries could review them over and over again.” (Email from Carrie Zeman, October 24, 2012)
Sarah had first met the Pond brothers in May of 1835 when she arrived at Fort Snelling from Ohio. Gideon and Samuel were living in their little two-room cabin near the village of Chief Mahpiyawicasta/Cloud Man by present-day Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They had come to the area in May 1834 inspired by a religious call they had experienced telling them to bring salvation to the Dakota people. Although neither one of them was ordained by any denomination at that point, they had convinced the agent at Fort Snelling, Lawrence Taliaferro, that they could be of assistance and he had permitted them to remain.
The agent put them to work teaching the Dakota how to use a plow and Samuel and Gideon used those encounters as an opportunity to listen and write down sounds and words they heard from Dakota speakers. Thomas Williamson made his first exploratory trip to the area from May through August of 1834 and met the Pond brothers during his visit.
When Thomas came back to the area in 1835, he assumed that he would establish his mission and school near Fort Snelling but only a short time after the group arrived. Rev. Jedediah Stevens, who had been at a mission among the Ojibwa at Mackinaw, showed up and reported that he had been given permission to open the first mission near Cloud Man’s village. That prompted Thomas to look elsewhere and soon the invitation to come to Lac Qui Parle from Joseph Renville was accepted.
Gideon and Samuel remained at Cloud Man’s village but soon realized that they could not tolerate the overbearing and egotistical presence of Rev. Stevens, who considered them little more than laborers under his rule. Samuel took off in February 1836 and walked to Lac Qui Parle, nearly freezing to death on the journey, but was welcomed warmly by the Williamsons and Huggins when he arrived. He was able to provide them with much needed assistance in learning to speak and read Dakota. Samuel wrote:
“It was evident they needed help at Lac Qui Parle about the language for though Dr. W. was studying with characteristic diligence and perseverance he made little progress. With the help of a grammar and lexicon he could learn to read a language with tolerable facility, but he found it so difficult to learn to speak the Dakota that almost any other man would have been utterly discouraged. Mrs. Huggins was learning to talk with the Indians for her house was always full of them, and she was young and quick to learn, but the Dr. would not have thought he could learn any thing from her.” [“Two Missionaries in the Sioux Country,” Minnesota History, March 1940, p. 31.]
Samuel doesn’t mention what kind of student Sarah was but there is no doubt that she, unlike Thomas, would have been happy to take advantage of Lydia’s abilities and work with her to practice speaking the Dakota language. Samuel soon returned to Lake Calhoun and Gideon went out to the Lac Qui Parle mission ready to work sometime in the spring of 1836. It is likely that he stayed with Alexander and Lydia since it would have been unacceptable to have a single man living in the same cabin in the stockade where Sarah was living with Thomas and Margaret.
Samuel Pond, Jr. described Gideon as “more than 6′ tall – strong and active – a fine specimen of well-developed manhood.” [Two Volunteer Missionaries Among the Dakotas, p. 23] He was five years younger than Sarah and, according to author John Willand, he “tended to be depressed – looked at the dark side…emotional, fretful, worrisome nature – easily hurt, short-tempered…..plagued with guilt over his desires while courting Sarah.” [Lac Qui Parle and the Dakota Mission,by John Willand, Lac Qui Parle Historical Society, 1964]
Despite those apparently turbulent emotions, he persevered in his courtship and Sarah married Gideon Pond on November 1, 1837. Samuel Pond, Jr. cited Gideon’s Journal as follows: “November 1, 1837. [Journal] I was married this afternoon at three to Miss Sarah Poage, by Rev. Stephen R. Riggs. The guests were the members of the mission, Mrs. Renville’s family and a number of Indians. I trust our Saviour was with us by his Spirit in our hearts.”
Samuel Pond Jr. continued, “The lady who thus became Mrs. G.H. Pond was a woman of a modest, unassuming character, but most self-denying and exemplary in her Christian life. She was in many respects much like her sister, Mrs. Dr. Williamson, and, like her, much beloved by all who knew her. One who was present at that wedding ceremony speaks of it as an occasion when the poor, the maimed and the lame were entertained according to the Saviour’s injunction. Mr. Riggs, who performed the ceremony, had arrived at Lac qui Parle a short time before with his young wife, having been sent out to reinforce the laborers who were already in the field.”
The wedding was the first at which Riggs officiated. He described the event as follows: “One of the noted things that took place in those autumn days, was the marriage of Mr. Gideon Hollister Pond and Miss Sarah Poage. That was the first couple I married, and I look back to it with great satisfaction…it was a true covenant entered into by true hearts, and receiving, from the first, the blessing of the Master. Mr. Pond made a great feast…Could I paint the assembly, you would agree with me that it was deeply and singularly interesting. Fancy, for a moment, the audience who were witnesses of the scene. The rest of our missionary band sat near those of our number who were about to enter into the new and sacred relationship, while most of the room was filled with our dark-faced guests, a blanket or buffalo robe their chief ‘wedding garment,’ and coarse and tawdry beads, brooches, paint and feathers, their wedding ornaments. Here and there sat a Frenchman or half-breed, whose garb bespoke their different origin….Dr. Williamson made the concluding prayer, and through Mr. Renville, briefly explained to the Dakotas the ordinance and its institution. After the ceremony, Mr. Renville and family partook of our frugal meal, leaving the Indians to enjoy their feast of potatoes, turnips and bacon, to which the poor, the lame and the blind had been invited.” [Stephen R. Riggs, Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux, Corner House Publishers, 1972, p. 33]
Sarah and Gideon began their married life among the mission community at Lac Qui Parle where Gideon assisted with the ongoing development of the written Dakota language while also using his carpentry skills to assist Alexander Huggins with expansion of the mission buildings. He had been licensed to preach by the Dakota Presbytery on December 5, 1837, and he was known as the best speaker of the Dakota language among the missionaries. He taught school at Lac Qui Parle and also enjoyed hunting with the Dakota, always honing his language skills.
Gideon and Sarah’s first child, Ruth Hine Pond, was born on September 16, 1838, at Lac Qui Parle. The following spring, Gideon and Sarah left Lac Qui Parle to return to Cloud Man’s village at Lake Calhoun. They made the journey in a single canoe with the baby and with Daniel Gavin, a Protestant missionary from Lausanne, Switzerland, who had been at Lac Qui Parle to help Thomas translate Joseph Renville’s French into English. Wamdiokiya, known as Eagle Help, accompanied them as well.
Between 1839 and 1843, Gideon and Sarah and the children lived in a two-family home known as the Baker House at Camp Coldwater near Fort Snelling with Samuel Pond and his wife, Cordelia Eggleston Pond. Gideon and Sarah’s first son, Edward R. Pond, was born on March 17, 1840, followed by another daughter; Sarah Rebecca Pond, born on January 9, 1842. The winter of 1842-43 brought extremely harsh weather to the area around Lac Qui Parle and the Williamsons came down to Fort Snelling with their children until spring of 1843, probably staying at Baker House with the Ponds. At least for part of that winter, however, Gideon went to Lac Qui Parle to manage the mission work. Sarah and the children most likely remained at Baker House during that time.
In the spring, Gideon and Sarah were still living at the Baker House when their son George H. Pond was born on April 24, 1843. In the summer of 1843, both of the Pond families moved to Oak Grove in what is now Bloomington, Minnesota. They built a log house on the site near the spot where Cloud Man had moved his village in 1839.
Sarah and Gideon now had four children. Ruth was five years old, Edward was three, Sarah was 18 months and George was eight months old. It is perhaps understandable that Gideon and Sarah traveled to Sarah’s family in Ripley, Ohio, in the winter of 1844. Sarah was not well and needed rest and care. We know they took Ruth along and Gideon took her to his sister’s family in Washington, Connecticut, where she lived until she was fifteen years old. He wrote, “It is something of a trial to part with children but in this case I believe it is best.” [Two Volunteer Missionaries Among the Dakotas, p. 168]
When they returned home to Oak Grove, Gideon and Sarah again settled into their work and ministry. They had another child when Mary H. Pond, was born on Christmas Eve 1845. They were living with Samuel and Cordelia, who had two children of their own by this time. Jennette Clarissa Pond was born on May 6, 1842 and Cordelia Rebecca Pond on October 10, 1844. One has to wonder at the logistics of managing meals, laundry and sleeping space for six children and four adults in a humble log cabin.
In 1846, Samuel and Cordelia and their two girls relocated to establish a new Dakota mission at Shakopee, Minnesota. Sarah and Gideon remained at Oak Grove where two more children were born. Jane Elizabeth Pond arrived on August 17, 1847, and Ellen Pond was born on March 14, 1849, when Sarah was 44 years old.
Both Gideon and Samuel, who had now been with the Dakota for 15 years, had serious concerns about how the U.S. Government was dealing with the Indians in terms of treaties and education. Neither one favored any kind of reservation system, feeling that it would be harmful to the possibilities for assimilation of the Dakota people into the Christian culture that the Ponds believed would be the only way to save them from eventual extermination.
Thus, when the Treaties of 1851 were implemented, removing the Dakota from all of their land on the Mississippi River, and confining them to two reservations in west central Minnesota, both Gideon and Samuel resigned from the A.B.C.F.M. Samuel founded the First Presbyterian Church of Shakopee and Gideon established Oak Grove Presbyterian Church. Both congregations included Dakota members as well as the white settlers who were rapidly moving into both communities as the Dakota lands were opened for purchase.
Sarah now found herself a pastor’s wife in the rapidly growing city of Bloomington, Minnesota, and no longer a missionary teacher to the Dakota. It is clear, however, that her health did not permit her to fully assume her new duties. According to Jane Williamson, who had been a friend and mission colleague of Sarah’s since Sarah’s sister Margaret married Jane’s brother Thomas in 1827, Sarah was confined to her bed beginning in the late spring of 1852. She died at the Pond House at Oak Grove on May 2, 1853, at the age of 48 years, leaving her seven children and husband Gideon.
Jane Williamson wrote to her cousin Elizabeth of Sarah’s passing and Gideon’s dilemma.
“You have probably heard ere this that Mrs. Sarah Pond rests from her labors, her sick and dying exercises were very interesting but I have not time to give them to you now although Mr. Pond wrote very full accounts to Bro and Sister…her sufferings were gentle till near the close when they became extreme but the Lord was with her to the end and she rejoiced in the hope of being ordained to the presence of Him whom not having, she loved.
“Mr. Pond was anxious to break up housekeeping but did not know where to put his children. He had written to E. P. Williamson to know if they could take one but her uncle is not quite willing. Sister thought perhaps you or Cousin Cutler might be willing to take one of the little girls. I have not much hope …. but at her request I mention it. They are pleasant children. The eldest daughter at home is I think near the age of Marion, very energetic and sprightly, pretty well advanced in her education but bro said when he saw her last she had every appearance of being overworked. He told her father so, he said he knew it but could not help it. There are three little girls younger than Sarah.” [Dawes
Memorial Library, Item 21, Folder 3. Jane Williamson to Elizabeth Burgess, July 12, 1853]
Gideon had every right to be concerned about the children, Ruth age 15, was still in Connecticut when Sarah died. Edward, 13; Sarah, 11; George 10; Mary Ann, 7; Jane, 5; and three-year-old Ellen were at home. Sarah was too young to care for her siblings and take care of the house. Jane’s letter even mentions how overworked she appeared, according to Thomas Williamson. Jane indicates that the Misses Cook were helping Gideon manage the household.( They were the sisters of Sylvester Cook who was married to Harriet Pettijohn Cook, Lydia Pettijohn Huggins’ younger sister.)
Gideon’s dilemma was resolved without sending any of the children away. His continuing story will be covered in an upcoming Dakota Soul Sisters post about Agnes Hopkins.
It is sad to think of sweet Sarah though – leaving her children must have been the hardest trial of her final confinement. She had been married only 15 years and given birth to seven children. Childbirth was not only dangerous but for all women in the 1800s but in the case of the women of the mission, the danger was often compounded by the lack of consistent nutrition and absence of basic medical care.
Of her children, Ruth married Allen Goodrich on April 13, 1858. They had seven children, but three of their daughters died in childhood. Allen was a farmer in Bloomington, Minnesota. Edward married Mary Frances Hopkins on July 28, 1864. They both served as day school teachers at the mission at Niobrara, Nebraska, before settling in Bloomington. They had eight children, seven of whom lived to adulthood. Sarah married William Ellison in 1859; they also lived in Bloomington where they raised seven children. George lost a leg in an accident in 1856 when he was 13 years old and then succumbed to cholera when he was 23 years old, only a few weeks after graduating from college and entering seminary. Mary was a teacher for the Dakota at the first Crow Creek reservation in 1863 and then went to the Yankton reservation where she taught until her marriage to Philip Haynes. Jane never married but lived in Bloomington until her death in 1888. Ellen married Otis Miller and had four children, three of whom lived to adulthood. Sarah would have been proud of her children’s ongoing work with the Dakota people whom she came to love when she first arrived at Lac Qui Parle in 1835.