More About Margaret and Some Thoughts on The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters

Margaret Poage Williamson is the first of the Dakota Soul Sisters I wrote about. You can click on her name on the right and go to the three entries about her remarkable life. I mention in her story that all of what we know about Margaret comes from people who wrote about her and not from her personally. Like so many of the faithful women of the mission, she seems to have focused mainly on her own family and her home rather than participating publicly in the work of the mission and we have no letters, journal or other records of her personal life.

In recent days, however, I came across an intriguing comment about Margaret that opens the possibility that she did have a much more active role that previously assumed. The comment is made in a letter that Elias Ruban Ohanwayakapi made in a letter to Stephen Riggs on November 14, 1864. Elias was in prison at Davenport, Iowa, with the Dakota who had been tried and sentenced to hang in 1862 but who were instead removed from Minnesota and imprisoned.

The letter is one of fifty such letters that have been published in The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters/Dakota Kaskapiokicize Wowapi, by Clifford Canku and Michael Simon, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2013.

Elias wrote: “Still, Dr. Williamson, he didn’t come, but he may come today. I am anxious for Mrs. Williamson to come here.”[1]

This is the first and only reference I have ever seen which indicates that Margaret Williamson had contact with or ministered to the prisoners at Davenport. Many stories record  that her husband Thomas spent weeks with the men, both during their time in prison at Mankato and while they were in Davenport. He and Margaret and their youngest son, Henry, took an apartment in Davenport in 1863 and lived there while Thomas pursued he efforts to convince President Abraham Lincoln to pardon the prisoners. Thomas Williamson’s sister Jane is cited in several sources as having visited the Mankato prison to deliver paper and pencils to the men so they could write to their families at Fort Snelling. Nowhere is Margaret mentioned as being at either prison until this intriguing comment in Elias’ letter.

Elias doesn’t elaborate as to why he is anxious for Margaret to arrive but we can reasonably assume that she must have gone to the prison with Thomas and provided some kind of comfort or sustenance or support to the prisoners. It’s a small but significant picture into her role in the work of the mission.

Clifford Canku and Michael Simon have partnered with the Minnesota Historical Society to publish some of the prison letters for the first time in their eagerly awaited new book. I, for one, was anxious to learn what the letters revealed about the prison experience and about the individuals who wrote the letters. It is an impressive undertaking and in many ways the collection of letters does what I expected. The letter writers share little gems of personal information that researchers have never before known. Some reveal that their wife has died or that they are related to someone – a connection that might never have been published before.

My only disappointment is that no biographical information is provided about the letter writers. Many of them are well-known either for their role in the 1862 U.S. Dakota War or for their subsequent positions in the Christian/Presbyterian church after they were released from prison. It would have been helpful for researchers and certainly interesting to the more casual reader if we were told what happened to the individual writers and their families after their imprisonment. Including photos of some of the more prominent writers would also have helped to add personality and accessibility to the authors of these poignant letters.

I do understand, however, that the publication of the letters is a much more significant project than simply recording the stories of a handful of individuals. The process of translation and the many-layered and complex discussions that have gone into just how to transcribe the Dakota into understandable English has been the subject of many seminars and presentations for the past few years. The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters volume is one of the first steps in helping both Dakota and English language speakers learn how to interpret the written word in a way that is as close as possible to the original meaning.

And, in my case, it revealed an important aspect of the life of one of the Dakota Soul Sisters…..

[1] Canku, Clifford and Simon, Michael, The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters/Dakota Kaskapiokicize Wowapi, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2013, p. 79

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