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

One of the things that I personally have trouble understanding about Mary and Stephen Riggs is their unwillingness to allow their children to learn the Dakota language and become friends with Dakota children. Even though they often had Dakota children living in their own family, they still persisted in their belief that contact with the Dakota would have a negative impact on the children. Stephen Riggs wrote, however, that this attitude began to change when they returned to Lac qui Parle in 1852.

“In carrying on missionary labor among a heathen people, the question, What shall be the relation of the children of the mission family to the people? Is often a difficult and perplexing one. The springs of the home life must be kept, as far as possible, from being contaminated. And yet the daily intercourse with those of impure thoughts and impure words is contaminating. Shall we make the family a garden inclosed [sic]?  If so, the children when small must not learn the language of the natives. Mary and I adopted this principle and carried it out very successfully.Up to the time of our return in 1852, our children had hardly learned any Dakota. Now our boy Alfred was fifteen years old, and had assigned to him duties which made it necessary that he should understand the Indians somewhat, and make himself understood by them. So he commenced to learn the language. John P. Williamson had commenced to talk it much earlier. Doubtless, the advantage in speaking a language is with those who learn in their very childhood, other things being equal. The reason for the exclusion in had partly passed by, and the taking of Dakota children into our family, and being closely connected with a boarding school of Dakota children, made it impossible, if it had been desirable, longer to keep up the bars.”[1]

If Mary’s standards concerning her children’s interaction with the Dakota were less rigid during this phase of their lives, it may have been because the work of the mission was also more relaxed. This was a very different Lac qui Parle than the Riggs had known in 1837 when the first arrived. Joseph Renville had been dead for many years and no longer had the kind of influence and control over the villagers as he had wielded during his lifetime. His children, especially his daughters, had adopted many customs and fashions of the white women and none of his sons had the desire or opportunity to assume Joseph’s leadership role. Lac qui Parle was still a trading center but was no longer dominated solely by the Renvilles.

As the only mission family at the station, the Riggs had no choice but to manage the farm operations which had been under the purview of Alexander Huggins and Jonas Pettijohn for so many years. Stephen Riggs hired Amos Huggins to come up to Lac qui Parle from Traverse des Sioux in 1852 and Amos records in his own journal the kind of work he did, often with the help of Dakota men and women. [2]

Stephen conducted worship services on Sundays but most of his efforts continued to be in his translation work while Mary focused on teaching the Dakota girls who lived with them how to sew, do laundry and become good housekeepers. Lucy Spooner was with the family and served as teacher to the Riggs children.

Then tragedy struck on March 3, 1854. Stephen Riggs described what happened:

“The spring had opened early, the ground was bare of snow, and everything was dry. Our cellars had been in the habit of freezing, and to protect our potatoes and other vegetables we had been in the habit of stuffing hay under the floor all around, in the fall. This hay had not yet been removed, and was very dry. The cellar was dark, and a lighted candle was needed by those who went down for nay purpose. The mother was preparing for the family dinner, and so had sent down the little boys Thomas and Henry, in their seventh and fifth years respectively, to bring her up potatoes. Through carelessness, and without thought, perhaps, they held the lighted candle too near the dried hay. It took fire immediately, and in a few second of time so filled the cellar with smoke that the boys with some difficulty made their escape.

“There was no supply of water near than the river and spring run, down quite a hill. Bu every boy and girl were soon carrying water. The difficulty was to reach the fire with the water. The floor was flooded and a hole was cut through, but the fire had taken such a hold of the whole interior that our little pails full of water were laughed at by the flames. The effort was now made to save something from the burning house. Some articles were carried into the other house which stood nearby. But hat also took fire, and both houses were soon consumed, with almost all they had contained. A few books were saved, and the chief part of Miss Spooner’s wardrobe and bedding, her room being on the corner away form were the fire commenced. Before noon the fire fiend had done his work and our mission houses were a mass of coals and ashes. Very little had been saved….

“The adobe church that stood partly under the hill, was the only building that escaped. Thither we removed what few things we had saved….”[3]

For Mary, the fire was devastating. She cut her hands badly while trying to break a window to get out of the house and was unable to grab as many things as she wished to save. Her correspondence following the event is filled with descriptions of all of the things that were lost. She did save her beloved escritoire but lost all the mementos of friends and family that were precious to her. She and Stephen had no clothing except what they had on when the fire broke out. The same was true for the children, including the Dakota children who were living with them. Lucy Spooner managed to salvage some of her own dresses and generously gave Mary as much clothing as she could spare. There were 13 people in the house when the fire began. One of the Dakota students was not at home but had gone to visit her parents. [4]Anna Jane Riggs Warner, writing in the Dakota newspaper Iape Oaye many years later, recalled that the family’s two pet cats died in the fire.[5]

It wasn’t long before supplies and assistance began arriving from the Williamsons who were at their new mission site at Pejutazee, about 30 miles away. The fur trader at the McLeod post, Antoine Frenier, brought potatoes, flour, coffee, sugar, pots and pans as well as some clothing for Stephen and the boys. The family’s first meal after the fire came from a Dakota man who brought a piece of beef while his wife prepared a pot of beans.

Rebuilding began immediately and Stephen and the boys began hauling timber and preparing boards for the new house. Everyone slept in the chapel, with nine people in one room and the four Dakota students in the other.[6] On June 1, Selah B. Treat of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Boston, Massachusetts, made a visit to Lac qui Parle to discuss their situation. Stephen Riggs wrote:

“The whole line of mission work was carefully reviewed. The result was, that we gave up our plan of rebuilding at La-qui-parle and sought a new place. The reasons for this were; First, We had from the beginning been widely separated in our work, spreading out our labors and attempting to cultivate as much of the field as possible. This had obviously had its disadvantages. We were too far apart to cheer and help each other. Now, when we were reduced to two families, Mr. Treat advised concentrating our forces. That was in accordance with our own inclinations. And, Secondly, The Yellow Medicine had been made the head quarters of the Indian Agency for the four thousand upper Indians. The drift was down toward that point. It was found that we could take with us almost all of the Christian part of our community. The idea was to commence a settlement of the civilized and Christianized Dakotas, at some point within convenient distance from the Agency, to receive the help which the government had by treaty pledged itself to give. And so we got on our horses and rode down to Dr. Williamson’s, twenty-five or thirty miles; and Mr. Treat and Dr. Williamson, and Miss Spooner, and Mary and I, rode over the country above Pay-zhe-hoote-ze, which was selected as the site for the new station, afterward called Hazlewood.” [7]


[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. 126 (hereafter referred to as Mary and I). John Williamson, the son of Thomas and Margaret Williamson, was two years older than Alfred but the boys had spent much of their childhood together at Lac qui Parle. The Williamson children were allowed to play with Dakota children and learned to speak the language when they were very young. It is ironic in some ways that many of Mary and Stephen Riggs’ children spent their lives serving the Dakota mission and benefited greatly in their ministry by knowing how to speak the Dakota language.

[2] Amos Huggins Journal, 1851-1852, Minnesota Historical Society, Huggins digitized collection. http://www.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00679/pdfa/00679-00011-1.pdf

[3] Mary and I, p 126-128. The freshwater spring at the mission was located down a long, winding, steep path behind the Riggs’ home. Hauling water from that spring was always a challenge and certainly would have been futile during a raging fire.

[4] Those at home included Stephen, Mary, Alfred, 16; Isabella, 14; Martha, 11; Anna, 8; Thomas, 7; Henry, 4; Lucy Spooner; and three Dakota girls which makes twelve. The fourth Dakota girl was gone visiting her parents so I have no idea who the thirteenth person might have been.

[5] Iape Oaye, December 1879. Anna said that Stephen Riggs enjoyed the cats and missed having one of them curled up on his lap.

[6] Riggs, Maida Leonard, Ed., A Small Bit of Bread and Butter: Letters from the Dakota Territory, 1832-1869, Ash Grove Press, 1996, p. 207 (hereafter A Small Bit).

[7] Mary and I, p. 130-131. There are several spellings for the mission at Yellow Medicine which was called Pejutazee or Pejutazi-zi. Riggs spelling is unique to his memoir.

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