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

Mary and Stephen Riggs left Hawley, Massachusetts on the first of March 1837, and arrived at Fort Snelling in Minnesota (then known as Wisconsin Territory) on June 1, 1837. They stopped to visit friends along the way, including the Burgess family in West Union, Ohio, and Stephen’s relatives in nearby Ripley, Ohio, where they eventually boarded a steamboat for the trip to Cincinnati. Mary wrote to her brother Alfred from there on April 26, 1837. She revealed that she had an artist paint a miniature portrait of her for $5.00 and that she was sending it to Alfred. She told him “ The only way I have to console myself for such an expenditure on my homely face is by hoping…that it will stimulate the possessor to more devotedness, more benevolence, more love to him and his cause in whose service we trust, we are engaged.”[1] Unfortunately, the portrait of a young Mary apparently has been lost to time.

escritoireMary also purchased a portable writing desk in Cincinnati. She described it to Alfred, “You wished me to write you what escritoire we purchased, etc. The only good one to be found in the city was one which was altogether too ornamental of mahogany with brass corners and flat handles smaller than yours, but containing a drawer in the largest side. We took it

Mary's escritoire may have looked something like this one. It is opened in the photo on the right.

Mary’s escritoire may have looked something like this one. It is closed in the top photo and opened for use in the image above.

however rather than have none and shall furnish it with inkstand sandbox paper, quills, etc., etc. so that we have writing apparatus available.”[2] That writing desk was to become one of Mary’s treasured possessions and she composed hundreds of letters on it for nearly three decades.

The newlyweds took the steamer Isabella from Cincinnati to St. Louis, departing on May 1, and stopping at Louisville, Kentucky, where Mary was able to make a brief visit to her friend Jane Dickey who was teaching in nearby Jeffersonville. By Friday, May 5, the steamer had left the Ohio and entered the Mississippi, reaching St. Louis on the following evening. Mary described the city as a “depot of iniquity.” She wrote: “It being almost impossible to obtain accommodations for ladies in this city and disliking a removal of our effects on the Sabbath, we made our home on the boat Isabella until we left for the boat on which we now are. Today for the first time, if memory has not provide treacherous, I have seen some of the dark sons of the forest, form the Seneca nation, a peaked oppressed tribe. Most of them were dressed in Coats, etc., but one still wrapped his blanket round, & decked his straight black hair tufted with feathers, and his ears weighted down with gew gaws. Will my soul burn with love unquenchable for these tawny tribes while life remains? I trust it will.”[3]

The steamships that brought Mary and Stephen to Minnesota were similar to the one pictured here. The Monmouth's tragic journey from New Orleans to the Red River ended on October 31, 1837. She carried 700 Creek Indians, 300 of whom drowned in the Mississippi River. In the 1830s some 18,000 Creeks were moved from Georgia and Alabama to the west. The image is a watercolor painted by Paul Bender in 1998.

The steamships that brought Mary and Stephen to Minnesota were similar to the one pictured here. The Monmouth’s tragic journey from New Orleans to the Red River ended on October 31, 1837. She carried 700 Creek Indians, 300 of whom drowned in the Mississippi River. In the 1830s some 18,000 Creeks were moved from Georgia and Alabama to the west. The image is a watercolor painted by Paul Bender in 1998.

Mary and Stephen had not intended to remain in St. Louis but they missed the Fur Company boat that they were to take north and had to hope for another one to arrive in a week or two. Then they apparently changed their plans and took a steamer to Galena, Illinois, on May 12, hoping to catch a boat there for Fort Snelling. Their stay in Galena, however, extended until May 25, during which time Mary and Stephen visited one of the city’s famous lead mines. By May 31, the travelers were 100 miles above Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and reached Fort Snelling the following day, three months after leaving Massachusetts.

Followers of Dakota Soul Sisters may recall that the missionaries in the Fort Snelling area at the time included Julia and Jedediah Stevens; Jedediah’s niece, Cornelia Stevens (the future Mrs. Daniel Gavin); their foster daughter Jane DeBow; the still single Samuel Pond; and Persis and Samuel Denton. Mary mentioned in a letter to her brother Alfred on June 2, 1837, that Mr. Pond and Mr. Renville had arrived from Lac qui Parle. That would be Gideon Pond and Joseph Renville, Sr.[4] On June 20, the Riggs gathered at Lake Harriet for worship with the Methodist missionary, Rev. David King, and the former black slave, James Thompson, who worked with King at the Mdewakanton Kaposia village in what is now South St. Paul, Minnesota.

Most of the memoirs and reports of these early days of the Dakota mission imply that Mary and Stephen had come to the area for the purpose of working with the Williamson and Huggins families at Lac qui Parle, but Mary’s letters indicate otherwise. On June 22, 1837, she wrote to her grandfather to let him know that they were staying with Jedediah and Julia Stevens “until a house now occupied for a school can be so prepared that we can occupy a part….We have decided to remain until September at least, when a missionary meeting is expected and the probability is that we shall stay a year, as Mr. Stevens is very desirous of assistance and can accommodate  us with a part of a house with a trifling expense, so that we can, while Mr. Pond is with, enjoy perhaps as good an opportunity for acquiring the language as at ‘Lac qui Parle.’ ”[5]

Mary and Stephen thus settled into their first home together in the former schoolhouse on Lake Harriet. Writing to her mother, Mary once again enumerated her possessions in a lengthy list designed no doubt to reassure her parents that she was keeping a good house even in the wilderness of the Upper Mississippi. These weeks near the fort also provided Mary with her first opportunities to interact with the Dakota people. Although today her words may sound harsh, she shared with her mother how difficult it was to know exactly how to treat her new neighbors. “Some Indian women came in yesterday with strawberries which I purchased with beans. Poor creatures, they have very little food of any kind at this season of the year and we feel it difficult to know how much it is our duty to give them. If we make a practice of giving there will be no stopping place. I think it will at least be right to buy what they bring to sell, and pay them abundantly, and thus encourage industry and supply them with some food.”[6]

Mary also described the plague of everyone during the summer months – the dreaded mosquitos. “…the mosquitos are far more abundant. At dark, swarms fill our room, deafen our ears, and irritate our skin. For the last two evenings we have filled our room with smoke almost to suffocation to disperse these over officious insects. It would be in vain for me to wish for a quite night of sleep with a mosquito bar which we have recently obtained…”[7]

On August 4, 1837, Mary mentioned in a letter to her mother that they expected Dr. Williamson to be down in September and that they would then perhaps come to a determination of their situation. As it happened, Thomas Williamson apparently convinced his friend, Stephen Riggs, to come back to Lac qui Parle with him. The party left the fort on September 1, arrived at Traverse des Sioux on September 7, and made it all the way to Lac qui Parle by September 13. (See “Getting There – Fort Snelling to Lac Qui Parle” posted in October 2012, for stories of travels to and from the mission.)

Artist J. M. Rongstad created a drawing of the Williamson mission house at Lac qui Parle in 1981. The house was really one and a half story structure, measuring 30 x 20 feet. The upper floor was 10 x 20 feet and contained a storage area and the bedroom where Mary and Stephen lived.

Artist J. M. Rongstad created a drawing of the Williamson mission house at Lac qui Parle in 1981. The house was a one and a half story structure, measuring 30 x 20 feet. The upper floor was 10 x 20 feet and contained a storage area and the bedroom where Mary and Stephen lived.

Mary and Stephen’s first home at the mission was a single bedroom on the second floor of the Williamson mission house. Stephen made them a bedstead and they used a box they brought from Ohio as their table. Mary’s letters during these first few weeks reflect the fact that she had no way to send them. She wrote anyway, anticipating the day that someone would arrive who could take outgoing mail to Fort Snelling and bring them all long-awaited letters from home.

Mary also couldn’t help but complain to her mother on October 8, 1837. “I cannot avoid telling you of this evening’s disappointment. At dark, the man who had been to Traverse des Sioux returned, bringing all our effects that were left there, but the very barrel packed expressly to bring up this fall, even though all the other articles were left. It contained most of our stove furniture, such as tea kettle, boilers, etc., and our tin ware and many other things that we thought we could not well dispense with. I did not feel reconciled and perhaps I do not feel quite right, though I wish what is best for us and I am sure God knows and will do what really is so and will bring good out of the inconvenience occasioned by a want of proper cooking utensils, etc.”[8]

Alfred Riggs grew up in the Dakota mission and carried on his parents' ministry as principal of the Santee Normal Training School founded in 1868 by his childhood friend John Williamson.

Alfred Riggs grew up in the Dakota mission and carried on his parents’ ministry as principal of the Santee Normal Training School founded in 1868 by his childhood friend John Williamson.

Mary gave birth to the couple’s first child, Alfred Longley Riggs, on December 6, 1837, in the bedroom above the school at Lac qui Parle. She wrote to her parents describing Dr. Williamson’s kind care and the skill of the Dakota women in helping Mary learn to nurse the new infant. Margaret Williamson, Lydia Huggins and Sarah Pond also assisted Mary with the baby. Alfred was the sixth missionary child at Lac qui Parle. Amos Huggins was five years old; Elizabeth Williamson was four; Jane Huggins turned three a few weeks after the new baby arrived; John Williamson was two years old; and Eliza Huggins was nine months old. Mary even commented to her parents that “Mr. Riggs has succeeded in the domestic department and as an assistant or perhaps chief nurse even, during the night.”[9]

On their first wedding anniversary, February 18, 1838, Stephen and Mary wrote poems to each other reflecting on the many ways in which their lives had changed in just one year. Stephen concluded his verse as follows:

“But now those scenes are numbered with the past,

Now you are far, far, far away from home

A wife and mother in a heathen land,

The poor, the maimed, the halt, the blind around

Yes here are poverty’s most beggared sons

Who for the breath of life are perishing

God keep you here and bless out little one

And keep us all and bless our dearest friends

And give us all a crown of life in Heaven

And make us shine as stars forever here.”[10]

That spring, Stephen left Mary at Lac qui Parle while he traveled to Fort Snelling on May 27, for supplies. He returned two months later with 30 letters and notes from friends and family and Mary was overjoyed to read them over and over again.

As she replied to the mail, Mary mentioned one real challenge with her new position, however. Throughout her correspondence she often refers to the difficulty she had learning to speak the Dakota language. “As for studying Dakota, I find it a very different thing, with the present calls upon my attention, to fix it upon this unwritten Indian language, from what it was to prepare a lesson in history or mathematics. I fear it will be a long time before I shall be able to talk much Dakota – to tell them about Jesus Christ.”[11]

In October 1838, Mary wrote to her mother: “Of course I have been very busy as I have taught all that we have both usually taught, and at this season, there are many more scholars than in the summer. One day 30 came, most of whom read and write, though they usually remained only a short time, and I am always glad to have them go as soon as they have finished their lesson for I cannot make them sit still or refrain from talking. If I could talk, I think I could teach them silence and order, but I am as a little child that can lisp a few words, and those, often, incorrectly.”[12] Things had not improved by January of 1839 when Mary again wrote to her mother: “I frequently say to myself if I could talk Dakota as I can English, then I could transform our miniature Babel to the quiet regularity I always loved. But as it is, I must try to do what I can, though it is but little…”[13]

One of the other challenges that Mary faced was to determine how much access to Dakota people she and Stephen would encourage in their own home. In March of 1839, Mary wrote to her parents, mentioning that there was an Indian girl who might come to live with them. Her name was Anpetuokitaniwin or Dawning Day/Appearing Day Woman. “The parents are desirous that we should receive her, but we know not what is best. On Alfred’s account I tremble…”[14]

The girl was a baptized member of the church and had been given the English name, Isabelle Burgess, after Dyer Burgess’ wife in West Union, Ohio. She showed up on Mary’s doorstep a few days later with a letter in hand from her father, Wamdiokiya or Eagle Help, which Stephen was able to translate for Mary. He asked them to keep her for four winters and although he knew she would be sad, he promised to see her often. She was ten or eleven years old and Mary wrote home, “Thus you see we have this little girl committed to our care before we had fully decided what would be best. If she is contented to remain, I hope we may be the instrument of leading her to God.”[15]

She was the first of dozens of Dakota girls who were to live with the Riggs family over the course of their decades in ministry. Another young girl, whom Mary said was named Anna, joined the family on April 5, 1839. Anna only stayed until August 1, 1839, when Mary said she had gone home to her parents for a visit on Friday and returned the next morning requesting her clothes since her parents wanted her to go back and live with them. Mary did not mention Isabella but was distressed that Anna was “returning to her heathen home and habits.”[16]

The Williamsons, who had taken a trip home to Ohio in October 1838, returned to Lac qui Parle in June 1839. Alexander Huggins’ sister, Fanny Huggins, came out to join the mission with them. Earlier that year, Gideon and Sarah Pond and their little daughter Ruth, had returned to the Fort Snelling area to rejoin the mission work there.

Mary and Stephen's daughter Isabella also became a missionary. She married Rev. Mark D. Williams in 1866 and they were sent to China where Isabella died in 1897.

Mary and Stephen’s daughter Isabella also became a missionary. She married Rev. Mark D. Williams in 1866 and they were sent to China where Isabella died in 1897.

On February 21, 1840, Mary and Stephen welcomed another child, a daughter whom they named Isabella Burgess Riggs, once again honoring their Ohio friend, Mrs. Dyer Burgess. They learned afterwards that Mrs. Burgess had died in November 1839, leaving a $500 bequest to the Lac qui Parle Mission. There were now nine children of the missionary families at Lac qui Parle. The Williamsons had three; the Huggins had four; and Stephen and Mary had two. The children played with their Dakota friends and learned the Dakota language as quickly as they learned English. Mary was never quite sure how she felt about their interaction. She wrote to her parents on December 17, 1841, “Mrs. H.’s little daughter of seven years delights to pack her little sister of two, holding her by a blanket as do the Indians. I do not suppose this habit will be as injurious as many I could name, but it shows the influence of ‘fashion,’ and you will see by it that our children are in danger of becoming little Indians in their tastes, feelings and habits.”

Martha Riggs married Wyllys K. Morris in 1866 and they were teachers at Good Will Mission at the Sisseton Agency, at the Omaha Agency in Nebraska and at Porcupine, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation. They had five children. Rev. John Eastman, one of Martha's former pupils, said the final prayer at her funeral in 1910.

Martha Riggs married Wyllys K. Morris in 1866 and they were teachers at Good Will Mission at the Sisseton Agency, at the Omaha Agency in Nebraska and at Porcupine, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation. They had five children. Rev. John Eastman, one of Martha’s former pupils, said the final prayer at her funeral in 1910.

Another daughter, Martha Taylor Riggs, was born to Mary and Stephen on January 27, 1842. She was four months old when the family made their first trip home to visit Stephen’s family in Ohio and Mary’s in Massachusetts. It had been five years since they had been to the “States” as they called the country east of the Mississippi River. Mary wrote to her parents on February 26, 1842, that they had decided to leave two-year-old Bella with Fanny Huggins and that they would possibly have four-year-old Alfred remain with family in Ohio, rather than bring him along to Massachusetts.[17]

As it turned out, Alfred did go along on the trip back to Mary’s home in Hawley, Massachusetts. Stephen Riggs wrote: “Mary visited the old home on Hawley hills. The old grandfather was still there, and the younger members of the family had grown up. Here during the summer, the little boy born in Dakota land gathered strawberries in the meadows of Massachusetts. Our schoolbooks and hymn-book were printed in Boston; and in the autumn we came to Ohio. During the winter months the Bible printing was done in Cincinnati.” [18]

In the spring of 1843, Mary, Stephen, Alfred and Martha, now already over a year old, began their journey back to Lac qui Parle. They had three new recruits with them: Robert and Agnes Johnson Hopkins and Julia Kephart, all from Ripley, Ohio.[19] Mary was also thrilled that her brother Thomas had agreed to come out and work with them for a time and she anticipated his arrival at Fort Snelling by the time they arrived there.

For some time, Stephen Riggs had been looking for a new location for a mission station on the St. Peter’s River (now the Minnesota River) and during this journey back to Lac qui Parle he decided that a post at Traverse des Sioux would be an excellent spot. There was a bit of scrambling among the mission families at this point. Samuel and Cordelia Pond had gone to Lac qui Parle to help while the Riggs were out east. They now returned to the Fort Snelling area. The Williamsons had left Lac qui Parle in June of 1842 because a late frost had destroyed the crops and the doctor took a temporary post as surgeon for the garrison at the fort. He was committed to remain there until the fall of 1843.

Stephen Riggs wrote: “In these circumstances, it was deemed advisable for Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins to go on to Lac qui Parle for a year. Mary took her baby, Martha Taylor, now fifteen months old, and went up with them to bring Isabella down. Thomas Longley, a young man of 22 years, and rejoicing in a young man’s strength, had joined us at Fort Snelling…..now he and I….remained [at Traverse des Sioux] to make a beginning…We expected to meet with opposition and so were not disappointed. Thomas and I pitched our tents under some scrub-oaks, on a little elevation, in the lower river bottom, a half mile away from the trader’s.[20]

This happy homecoming and optimistic enthusiasm for beginning a new mission soon were over shadowed by tragedy. Stephen Riggs wrote:

“In the mean time the party going to Lac-qui-parle were nearing their destination. With them there were three young men who had accompanied us to Ohio, and spent the year. Their baptized names were Simon, Henok and Lorenzo. Each was about twenty years old. While on their way down, we had cut their hair and dressed them up as white men. They had all learned much in their absence; while two of them had added their names to the rolls of Christian churches in Ohio. Thus, they were returning. The party spent the Sabbath a day’s travel from Lac-qui-parle. On Monday, before noon, these young men had seen, on some far-off prairie elevation, what seemed to be Indians lying down. But their suspicions of a war party were not very pronounced.

“Five miles from the mission, the road crosses the Mayawakan – otherwise called the Chippewa River. It was a hot afternoon when the mission party approached it. They were thirsty, and the young men had started on to drink. Simon was ahead, and on horseback. Suddenly, as he neared the stream, there emerged from the wood a war party of Ojibwas, carrying two fresh scalps. Simon rode up and shook hands with them. He could do this safely, as he was dressed like a white man. They showed him the scalps, all gory with blood; but wot [sic] not that one of them was his own brother’s. This brother and his wife and a young man were coming to meet their friends. As the two men came to the crossing, they were shot down by the Ojibwas, who lay concealed in the bushes. The woman, who was a little distance behind, heard the guns and fled, carrying the news back to the village. And so it happened, that by the time the mission teams had fairly crossed the river, they were met by almost the whole village of maddened Dakotas. They were in pursuit of the Ojibwas. But had not the missionaries taken these boys to Ohio? And had not these two young men been killed as they were coming to meet the boys? Were not the missionaries the cause of it all? So…one man raised his gun and shot one of the horses in the double team, which carried Mrs. Hopkins and Mary. This made it necessary for them to walk the remainder of the way in the broiling sun of summer. Mary found her little girl too heavy a load, and after awhile was kindly relieved of her burden by a Dakota woman, who she had taught to wash. The excitement and trouble were a terrible strain on her nervous system, and prematurely made the grey hairs come here and there among the black.”[21]

Mary was relieved to reach the mission at Lac qui Parle and be reunited with little Bella, whom she hadn’t seen for over a year. She brought Bella and Martha back to Traverse in the company of Alexander Huggins, his sister Fanny Huggins and his brother-in-law Isaac Pettijohn, who were coming down to help build a house for the new mission. She wrote her parents on July 8, 1843: “…as we came in sight of husband’s tent, I pointed it out to Isabella when she asked ‘Where’s papa’s house?’ and soon I saw Mr. Riggs and brother Thomas and little Alfred coming to meet us.”[22]

A week later, on July 15, 1843, Mary’s brother Thomas drowned while bathing in the river. Stephen described what happened: “Mr. Huggins had the toothache and about 10 o’clock, said he would go and bathe, as that sometimes helped his teeth. Brother T. proposed that we should go also, to which I, at first objected, and said we would go after dinner. He thought we should have something else to do then; and remembering that once or twice I had prevent his bathing, by not going when he wished, I consented. We had been in the water but a moment, when turning around, I saw T. throw up his hands and clap them over his head. My first thought was that he was drowning. The current was strong and setting out from the shore. I swam to him – he caught me by the hand, but did not appear to help himself in the least  – probably had the cramp. I tried to get toward shore with him, but could not. He pulled me under once or twice and I began to think I should be drowned with him. But when we came up again, he released his grasp, and, as I was coming into shallow water, with some difficulty, I reached the shore. But the dear boy Thomas appeared not again. The cruel waters rolled over him. In the meantime, Mr. Huggins had jumped into a canoe, and was coming to our relief. But it was too late – TOO LATE!”[23]

Mary was inconsolable at her brother’s death. She had only been with him for a few days before she went to Lac qui Parle and then for less than a week at Traverse des Sioux. She described the loss: “…that evening we terminated in sadness, what had been to us a happy feast of tabernacles by moving into our humble dwelling. For a little while on the Sabbath his remains found a resting place beneath the house his hands had reared. I kissed his check as he lay upon a plank resting upon that large red chest and box which were sent from home, but, owing to the haste and excitement, I did not think to take a lock of hair. It curled as naturally as ever although dripping with water, and the countenance was natural I thought, but it has rather dimmed my recollections of him as he was when living. I felt so thankful that his body had been found before any great change had taken place, that gratitude to God supplanted my grief while we buried him. Mr. Huggins and Fanny sang for us an Indian hymn made from the 15th chapter of 1st  Cor. And then ‘Unveil thy bosom faithful tomb.’ We came home just after sunset. It is but a little distance from our dwelling and in the same garden of roses, as Thomas termed it but a few days since, where he now sleeps…”[24]

So it was that Mary, now 29 years old, began her new life at Traverse des Sioux on the Minnesota River.


[1]Riggs, Maida Leonard, Ed.,  A Small Bit of Bread and Butter: Letters from Dakota Territory, 1832-1869; Ash Grove Press, 1996, p. 23 (hereafter A Small Bit)

[2] Ibid., p. 24

[3] Ibid., p. 28

[4] Ibid., p. 35

[5] Ibid., p. 37, 39

[6] Ibid., p. 41

[7] Ibid., A mosquito bar is another name for a mosquito net.

[8] Ibid., p. 51

[9] Ibid., p. 59

[10] Ibid. p. 65

[11] Ibid. P. 71

[12] Ibid., p. 82

[13] Ibid., p. 88

[14] Ibid., p. 91

[15] Ibid., p. 92. Wamdiokiya or Eagle Help, was the first Dakota man who mastered the Dakota alphabet and was able to write letters in his own language. He reportedly took his daughter away from the Riggs when they criticized him for going to war against the Ojibwe after one of his wives, Mazaskawin/Silver Woman, was killed in an Ojibwe raid in the winter of 1839. He had a long and significant history with the missionaries and was hired by Stephen Riggs and Thomas Williamson to help other Dakota people learn to read and write for $5.00 per pupil in 1840. His son, Henok Appearing Cloud, was one of the three boys that Stephen Riggs took to Ohio in 1842.

[16] Ibid., p. 101. It isn’t clear who Anna is from Mary’s letters. There is an Anna Anpetu listed on Stephen Riggs list of boarding school students, 1835-1860 and an Anne without any last name is on Alexander Huggins’ 1845 list of church members at Lac qui Parle.

[17] Ibid., p. 142

[18] Riggs, Stephen R., Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux, published March 1880 and reissued by Corner House Publishers, Williamstown, MA, 1971, p. 75 (hereafter referred to as Mary and I)

[19] Jane Smith Williamson, Thomas Williamson’s sister was also with this group. She was coming to Lac qui Parle to assist Margaret in caring for the children. She remained at Fort Snelling where the Williamsons were living until they all made the journey out to Lac qui Parle in September 1843.

[20] Ibid., pp. 77-78

[21] Ibid., pp. 78-79. Agnes Hopkins’ version of this incident will be included in her biography on Dakota Soul Sisters.

[22] A Small Bit, p. 152

[23] Mary and I, pp. 80-81

[24] A Small Bit, pp. 152-153

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This entry was posted in Dakota Mission, Lac Qui Parle Mission, Lorenzo Lawrence, Mary Ann Clark Longley Riggs, Traverse des Sioux, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

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