Contrary Mary – The Story of Mary Ann Clark Longley Riggs – Part I

The next white woman missionary to arrive in Minnesota was Mary Riggs. She and her husband, Rev. Stephen Return Riggs, arrived at Fort Snelling on June 1, 1837. Mary was 23 years old and she and 25-year-old Stephen had been married for a little over three months. Mary was already pregnant with their first child. Mary’s life among the Dakota people was about to begin, a life that was filled with adventure, tragedy, happiness, loss, heartache and joy.

Mary Riggs is one of the best known of the women of the Dakota mission and certainly one of the most prolific writers.  Hundreds of letters she wrote to family over the years were saved by the recipients.

Mary Riggs is one of the best known of the women of the Dakota mission and certainly one of the most prolific writers. Hundreds of letters she wrote to family over the years were saved by the recipients.

Mary Ann Clark Longley was born on November 10, 1813, in Hawley, Massachusetts. She was the sixth child in a family of twelve children born to General Thomas and Martha Longley. Five of her sisters and brothers died before the age of fourteen, leaving Mary with just two older siblings, Alfred and Lucretia, and four younger, Joseph, Moses, Thomas and Henrietta.

Mary’s father Thomas, who fought in the Massachusetts Minutemen in the War of 1812, was apparently prosperous enough to provide his children with quite extensive and high quality education. Mary attended school at Mary Lyon’s Female Seminary in Buckland, Massachusetts, during the winter term, possibly boarding with her maternal grandparents, the Taylors. At the age of sixteen, she taught school during the summer at Williamstown, Massachusetts, and enrolled in school in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1832. The following year Mary attempted to open her own school in Agawam, Massachusetts but by 1834, she and her sister Lucretia were enrolled in the Ipswich Female Seminary in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

The Ipswich Female Seminary was an early school for the secondary and college-level education of young women,founded in 1828 by two women, Zilpah Grant and Mary Lyon.Grant strongly believed in “the delicacy of the female constitution, and the greater delicacy of her reputation”. Students were kept isolated from the community, forbidden from stopping in the street or standing near the front windows of their lodgings.

The Ipswich Female Seminary was an early school for the secondary and college-level education of young women,founded in 1828 by two women, Zilpah Grant and Mary Lyon.Grant strongly believed in “the delicacy of the female constitution, and the greater delicacy of her reputation”. Students were kept isolated from the community, forbidden from stopping in the street or standing near the front windows of their lodgings.

The focus of the seminary was to prepare girls for careers as teachers and missionaries. It offered a rigorous curriculum, including English, arithmetic, geography, chemistry, human physiology, history, the natural sciences, religion, vocal music, and calisthenics, and placed an emphasis on standards of personal conduct and discipline. At the end of the term in 1835, Mary was recruited to become a school teacher in Bethlehem, Indiana, which for a young woman of the 1830s was the very far west.

According to Stephen Riggs, “singular provinces” intervened in Mary’s life at this point.[1] Since a young, single woman could not travel to Indiana from Massachusetts on her own, Mary had to find an appropriate chaperone to bring her westward. Her travel guardian ended up being Rev. Dyer Burgess, a fiery Presbyterian abolitionist who lived in West Union, Ohio. It just so happened that Stephen Riggs was also in West Union at that time, boarding with the Burgesses while teaching in a subscription school in the riverfront community.

Stephen was from Steubenville, Ohio. There are a couple of stories about why he was in West Union. One report indicates that Stephen Riggs met Thomas Williamson when Stephen’s mother had fallen ill in Ripley, Ohio. Dr. Williamson came to the house to treat her and although Stephen’s mother did not survive, he and Thomas became friends. This would have been in July 1829. Other reports indicate that Thomas Williamson and Stephen Riggs were classmates together at Jefferson College in New York. Stephen Riggs himself only says that “Dr. Thomas Williamson, of Ripley, Ohio, had started for the Dakota field the same year that I graduated from college.”[2]

Stephen and Mary Riggs met at the home of Rev. Dyer Burgess and his wife Isabella in West Union, Ohio. Rev. Burgess was one of the most famous and fiery abolitionists of his day and his home still stands today across the street from the West Union Presbyterian Church.

Stephen and Mary Riggs met at the home of Rev. Dyer Burgess and his wife Isabella Ellison Burgess in West Union, Ohio. Rev. Burgess was one of the most famous and fiery abolitionists of his day and his home still stands today across the street from the West Union Presbyterian Church.

In any case, Mary and Stephen met at the Burgess home in West Union in 1835 and although Mary went on to Indiana and taught school while Stephen completed his education and obtained his license to preach, they corresponded and spent time together during holidays.

It is clear from family stories, that both Mary and Stephen had decided that their future would be spent on the mission field even before they married. Mary had been trained, after all, at a female seminary that focused on just such a vocation and Stephen had long desired to “go somewhere among the unevangelized.”[3]

In preparation for their wedding and their future mission work, Stephen and Mary journeyed to Hawley, Massachusetts, planning to arrive in time for Thanksgiving Day 1836. Mary shared her concerns about her family’s opinion of Stephen in a letter she wrote to her brother Alfred on June 6, 1836, while she was still in Bethlehem, Indiana. “…there is one thought which, though it may seem of minor consequence, will thrust itself before me and give me pain, viz., the possibility that my dear kindred may not affectionately regard Mr. Riggs. I am conscious that his habit and manner may differ somewhat from ours, still as far as merit or worth is concerned I do not doubt that he is not only worthy, but more than worthy of your mercy…”[4]

Whatever the family’s reaction may have been to Stephen’s habit and manner, he wrote that he “found a warm reception and I, the western stranger, was not long overlooked.”[5] Stephen found work preaching at the little church in West Hawley while he and Mary gathered their credentials and awaited the paperwork necessary to be hired by the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (A.B.C.F.M.).

Mary Ann Clark Longley was 23 years old when she married Stephen Return Riggs. They both entered into marriage knowing that they were destined to spend their lives as missionaries.

Mary Ann Clark Longley was 23 years old when she married Stephen Return Riggs. They both entered into marriage knowing that they were destined to spend their lives as missionaries.

Mary and Stephen were married on February 16, 1837, in Hawley, Massachusetts, surrounded by family and friends who gathered not only to celebrate their wedding but to bid them farewell as they set off for the foreign mission fields of western Minnesota. Stephen wrote:

“The snow drifts were still deep on the hills, when, in the first days of March, we commenced our hegira to the far West. It was a long and toilsome journey – all the way to New York City by stage, and then again from Philadelphia across the mountains to Pittsburg in the same manner, through the March rains and mud, we traveled on, day and night. It was quite a relief to sleep and glide down the beautiful Ohio on a steamer. And there we found friends in Portsmouth and Ripley and West Union, with whom we rested, and by whom we were refreshed, and who greatly forwarded our preparations for life among the Indians.”[6]

Regular readers of Dakota Soul Sisters will recall that I posted my personal feelings about Mary and Stephen Riggs a few weeks ago on this site. I mentioned that Mary often seems to me to be overly focused on worldly goods throughout everything she writes. It’s an odd clash of high-toned spiritual theology mixed with long lists of items she either has, needs, wants or has lost. She begins this litany of possessions as her honeymoon journey to Minnesota begins. On April 5, 1837, she wrote to her parents:

“Brother Joseph Riggs made us some valuable presents. His kindness supplied my lack of a good English merino, and Sister Riggs had prepared her donation and laid it by, as the Apostle directs, one pair of warm blankets, sheets and pillow cases. …We found Mrs. Burgess not behind…in her plans and gifts. Besides a cooking stove and furniture, she has provided a fine blanket and comforter, sheets, pillow cases, towels, dried peaches, etc. perhaps you will fear that with so many kind friends we shall be furnished with too many comforts. Pray, then, that we may be kept very humble and receive these blessings thankfully from the Giver of every good and perfect gift.”[7]

Then the theology kicks in as Mary writes: “There we go far hence to the Gentiles not knowing the things which may befall us there. Give our best love and respects to…all the dear friends…so willing to assist our preparation for departure and residence among the poor Indians.”[8]

Mary then includes an interesting comment, “Since my arrival here I have ascertained that a church has been formed at Lac qui Parle. Mr. Renville’s Indian wife is a member. I wish a letter from this, our dear church at home, to the one at Lac qui Parle…”[9] Mary Riggs certainly knew at this point that there was a mission at Lac qui Parle, but apparently she had now received the news that Mrs. Joseph Renville, along with several other Dakota women, had been baptized and were now members of an actual Presbyterian Church at the mission. She thus asked her parents to send her “letter’ from the church at Hawley to the church at Lac qui Parle officially transferring her Presbyterian membership credentials to the new congregation. Mary was no doubt quite surprised when she did arrive at Lac qui Parle and realized that the church she may have expected to attend was little more than a corner of the Williamson’s house where a handful of Dakota converts and the missionary families gathered on Sunday mornings.

At this point it is important to note that despite the focus on worldly goods evident in so much of her correspondence, Mary Riggs’ most valuable contribution to history is her letters. According to Maida Leonard Riggs, Editor of A Small Bit of Bread and Butter: Letters from the Dakota Territory, 1832-1869, Mary’s family and friends saved over 250 personal notes and letters that they received while she lived in Minnesota. In addition to that correspondence, the Minnesota Historical Society has a vast collection of letters written by Stephen and Mary Riggs to each other and to their children. Many of those letters form the basis for Mary’s story as told in Dakota Soul Sisters. She is by far the most well-documented of all of the women of the mission and although her letters often include her own biases and complaints, she is an important presence in Minnesota history and we will find much to learn from her story as one of the Dakota Soul Sisters.


[1] Riggs, Stephen R., Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux, published March 1880 and reissued by Corner House Publishers, Williamstown, MA, 1971, p. 7 (hereafter referred to as Mary and I)

[2] Ibid., p. 6. The Williamsons established the first Dakota mission in Minnesota in 1835.

[3] Mary and I, p. 5

[4] Riggs, Maida Leonard, Ed., A Small Bit of Bread and Butter: Letters from the Dakota Territory, 1832-1869, Ash Grove Press, 1996, p. 16 (hereafter A Small Bit).

[5] Mary and I., p. 6

[6] Ibid., p. 7

[7] Ibid., p. 8; A Small Bit, p. 22

[8] A Small Bit, p. 22

[9] Ibid, p. 22

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This entry was posted in Lac Qui Parle Mission, Mary Ann Clark Longley Riggs, Minnesota History, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Contrary Mary – The Story of Mary Ann Clark Longley Riggs – Part I

  1. Carrie Zeman says:

    This is a fascinating beginning of Mary’s story. I’ve often thought that we might find Stephen and Mary more likable if they hadn’t left us so many letters, and Stephen hadn’t written so extensively about their lives. For all their expressed theological humility, it is annoying that Stephen judged that they would be important figures in history and set about creating a commensurate documentary record. It leaves us as historians on edge, having to filter for their sense of self-importance. On the other hand, maybe we should give the Riggs credit for being honest. Sibley and Ramsey, for example, probably took equal care to craft the extant historical record to reflect their own sense of importance. But they were not transparent about it so it is harder to detect their egos at work in the body of evidence they left us to consider.

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