Historians, researchers and authors, particularly those who focus on a relatively limited cast of characters, often form very personal opinions about the historic figures who populate their work. Sometimes we bring pre-conceived notions to the people we study because of what we know about them. Perhaps we like what we perceive to be their motives or we are drawn to the style of their writing; their ability to express themselves and make us feel as though we truly know them.
Often our affection for our subject is enhanced by the search itself – the sense of finding some detail, some lost letter, a missing photo – that link that will cement our relationship with the individual for whom we search. Our research leads us down aisles of archives, into boxes of papers and sends us wandering the Internet searching, searching, searching until that shining moment when something happens and it all makes sense. Is it any wonder that we feel a personal connection to the person whose story guided us to that elusive link?
In that same way, however, it is quite common that we develop an aversion to a particular character. We find their work to be overbearing, their writing manipulative and dishonest or their overpowering ego nearly impossible to handle. Many times they seem to be the figures who push themselves to the forefront, having something to say about everything so that we have to listen to them whether we want to or not. They claim a position in history that they have personally created, strengthened and nourished for generations. We form assumptions about them – negative assumptions – that make it difficult for us to look at them objectively. We shove their stories to the background and push our own favorites to the front of the stage in the hope that everyone will agree with our assessment.
Why am I rambling about this? Well, I’ll be honest. It’s because the next woman I have to write about in Dakota Soul Sisters is Mary Ann Clark Longley Riggs. I just don’t like Mary very much, and I like her husband, Rev. Stephen Return Riggs, even less. Maybe it’s because, unlike so many of their colleagues, Mary and Stephen were not only prolific writers, they made sure that nearly every word they wrote was preserved for posterity. Stephen, especially, was so impressed with the personal impact that he was having on American history that he requested his daughters make copies of the letters he wrote home and ensured that the Minnesota Historical Society preserved his writings no matter how inconsequential the content.
As a result, we know everything about the Riggs family. There are very few mysteries to uncover in their story; they’ve let us know exactly what they want us to know about how significant they were in the history of Minnesota and the preservation of the Dakota language. Their righteous sacrifices, their deep faith, their generosity to one and all are documented in detail.
To be fair, despite their self-admiration, they often let slip comments and conversations that lay bare their true feelings about the Dakota people, voicing their frustrations at their own depravations and their anger at those who they feel are not treating them fairly. It is through those lamentable “slips” that we tell ourselves we’ve shone the light on their true natures and all is not bright and beautiful.
I am not the only one who has problems with Mary Riggs. It’s very common to see colleagues roll their eyes whenever Mary is mentioned or to hear fellow scholars sigh with disdain if Mary’s letters or memoirs are cited.
Still, I owe Mary more than this. I remember the great researcher and historian Alan Woolworth pointing out to me many years ago that Mary Riggs wasn’t all bad. She gave up a life of comfort and relative wealth to spend decades raising her own children amid poverty, trying to keep them safe from harm and working to support and encourage her husband’s ministry. In the aftermath of the U.S. Dakota War of 1862, she may have cried more over the loss of her writing desk than she did over the war itself but then who knows. Maybe I would have done the same. Mary’s story is coming soon.