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

No matter how many times I read or write about the tragic events of August 18, 1862, I continue to be struck with the emotional toll that the attack at the Lower Sioux Agency that morning had on the families of the mission. I can only compare it to how I would feel if I were to wake one day and learn that half of the people in my own community had carried out a violent and deadly attack on the other half. Knowing people on both sides of the action would make it impossible to explain or be rational about what was happening. I would also be terrified that somehow my own family would be caught up in the violence and killed along with many other friends and neighbors. I would have no idea who to trust or who to believe. I wouldn’t know where to run to find safety. Even after the situation was under relative control six weeks later, I would still be shaken with the trauma, confusion, fear and anger that result from such an experience. People whom I had known for nearly thirty years were now my enemies; I had watched their children grow up and start their own families; I had established close personal friendships with many who now were being imprisoned and accused of murdering my friends and neighbors.

St. Anthony Township was established in 1861 in what is now northeast Minneapolis. This undated photo of an early farmstead bears little similarity to the elegant and prestigious Village of St. Anthony as the area is known today.

St. Anthony Township was established in 1861 in what is now northeast Minneapolis. This undated photo of an early farmstead bears little similarity to the elegant and prestigious Village of St. Anthony as the area is known today.

Mary Riggs perhaps felt similar emotions as she rounded up her children and sought safe harbor with friends in St. Anthony. Although Stephen was with her until finding suitable rented quarters for the family, he returned to the Lower Sioux Agency at the end of August and remained with Sibley’s troops, including accompanying them to the Battle of Wood Lake on September 23, 1862. He was then engaged by Sibley to serve as a translator for the Military Commission which began the trials of the accused Dakota on September 28. Stephen wrote to Mary several times a week during the trials and over the next few months as events unfolded, leading to the mass execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato on December 26, 1862.

Even Mary’s own great-granddaughter, however, wrote that “Mary Ann barely mentioned the uprising in her letters, but there are many bitter references about her losses. Her letters to Lucy Spooner Drake and son, Alfred, included many requests for replacement items. She told of her frugality and the complicated financial arrangements necessary to reconstruct three new homes during seven years of her life.”[1]

Mary’s letters to Stephen in these first weeks after the war began are filled with questions about finances and concerns about the future. She did not hold back in expressing her anger against the Dakota. “I hope you will be careful of yourself and not unnecessarily expose your life to Indian treachery and cunning. I feel as though there is no wickedness of which they are incapable.”[2]

Over time, Mary’s anger tempered toward those Dakota whom she believed were innocent and she expressed gratitude to those who had assisted the missionaries in their escape to safety. She felt especially sad about Robert Hopkins Chaska, who had been a faithful church member along with his wife Sarah. Mary learned that Robert had been arrested because he had been seen at the Battle of Birch Coulee and she was worried about Sarah.[3]

When reading her many letters over these weeks and months, however, it is clear that Mary tortured herself with counting over and over again the many possessions she had lost. Her precious escritoire, the daguerreotypes of the children, her breast pin, the five irons that she’d owned, her father’s metal tongs, a specific quilt and of course, items of clothing, silverware, books, sewing items – all are listed over and over again as she asked Stephen to make sure that the Indians would be required to return these stolen goods. On October 13, 1862, she wrote to Stephen: “My head gets so pained and crowded attending to so many things, that I can’t sleep. Besides, I have a boil under my arm.”[4]

The war and its aftermath took a toll on Mary’s health as well. She made frequent mention of her condition in her letters to Stephen and pined for his presence more and more as the months wear on. Stephen’s letters in response are filled with details of life in the military camp and the confusion and rumors that swirled around every event. Although he always mentioned his desire to see the family, it is evident that Stephen was very much caught up in the drama of the historic events, reminding Mary to make sure the girls would copy his letters so that a detailed record of his role would be preserved.[5]

By mid-October of 1862, Mary knew that the mission buildings and their home at Hazlewood had been burned to the ground, but she still believed that if Stephen would just be persistent, he would find the family’s belongings in the Dakota camp. It is sad to read her letter to Stephen of October 10, 1862. “If the Indians are returning stolen goods…I am almost willing to go up there to hunt up our things. I could identify them better than anyone else. A good part of my sheets and pillow cases and towels were marked with indelible ink and some of my table cloths. The newest white tablecloth was not marked. It was the snow drop pattern, a little figure in the weaving as big as a pea. I had three new quilts, one was dark furniture print (not patch work) the color was chiefly brown with red roses. I had a new comfortable of the same print. The two patch work quilts that were new; one was mostly pink and other miscellaneous colors pieces in a square and the corresponding square was all of a kind, a buff or shade of orange. The other was an irregular star made up a good many pieces of various colors put together of very soft wool with red stripes at the ends and serged with worsted of the same color. I wish you could get it and another equally good but of home manufacture and serged at the ends with blue yard, both were new….Who took our carpets? I wish they would give them back. Do you think they will?….Some of the Indians must have some of our pillows. If they give you two or three pair, it would save buying feathers. Inquire about them. All the daguerreotypes I had, but one of Alfred, Isabella and Anna in a frame were in cases in my work box.”[6]

Stephen did eventually find Mary’s escritoire, her treasured portable writing desk that she had bought on her honeymoon. He wrote to her on October 15, 1862, that he had found an escritoire that he thought was hers in Antoine Renville’s tent. It was “a good deal abused,” and Renville said he didn’t know where it came from. Stephen also chastised Mary somewhat, writing that “There were a great many of our things in the first camp here besides those that were offered to me – but I had no disposition to hunt them up. Indeed, I had other and better work to do.” [7] His patience with Mary’s complaints was apparently wearing thin as he was living with the daily drama of the trials and his belief that hundreds of Dakota were to be executed at any moment.

Instead of hundreds, of course, it turned out that 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato that December. Stephen finally returned to the family in St. Anthony the next day. He spent the remainder of the winter there and in March of 1863 joined Dr. Thomas Williamson in his ministry to the remaining Dakota prisoners who were still being held in Mankato. When the prisoners were removed to Davenport, Iowa, in April, Stephen returned to St. Anthony but was soon recruited by Henry Sibley to serve as translator for the military in what have come to be known as the punitive wars against the Dakota. Riggs himself wrote that the purpose of the expedition was “to further chastise the Sioux.”[8] Stephen remained with Sibley’s troops in the spring and summer months over the course of the next two years.

In the meantime, Mary continued to manage the family home in St. Anthony while the Riggs children moved on with their lives. Alfred, the oldest, married Mary Buell Hatch on June 9, 1863. She was from the church in Illinois where Alfred was a pastor. Stephen was with the military expedition when the family first met Alfred’s new bride. Mary wrote to him on June 11, 1863, that Alfred’s Mary is very companionable and as Anna J. says, ‘isn’t stuck up’ and we are well pleased with her.”[9]

Stephen returned home to the family in the fall of 1863 and spent several months working on a revision and completion of the New Testament in the Dakota language. Then in the autumn of 1864, he left Mary again and spent three months in New York, proofing and editing the translation. It wasn’t clear at this point whether the mission work of the American Board of Commissioner of Foreign Missions would ever resume among the Dakota people and Stephen wasn’t sure what he should do. He briefly considered leaving the mission and becoming a preacher for a white congregation. Although he did not make that move, he did decide that it was not necessary for the family to live in Minnesota now that the Indians had been removed.

Beloit, Wisconsin's downtown is pictured in the early 1900s but many of the buildings were in place when the Riggs moved to the city in 1865.

Beloit, Wisconsin’s downtown is pictured in the early 1900s but many of the buildings were in place when the Riggs moved to the city in 1865.

Mary and Stephen’s son Thomas was attending college in Beloit, Wisconsin, and Stephen decided that although Beloit was further away from Crow Creek, where the Dakota families had been removed, it was closer to Davenport, Iowa, where Dr. Williamson was interested in reducing the amount of time he was spending there with the prisoners. Stephen and Mary moved into a small cottage in Beloit in September 1865. Their youngest daughter Anna Jane had just completed her studies at Rockford Female Seminary and joined the family in their new home. Their oldest daughter Isabella came to Beloit with her fiancé, Rev. Mark W. Williams. They were planning to be married once the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions approved their desire to enter mission work in China. Martha, Mary and Stephen’s second daughter, did not move to Beloit with the family but accepted a position as a schoolteacher in Mankato, Minnesota.

The younger children, Henry, then 16 years old; Robert, 11; and Cornelia, age seven, enrolled in school in Beloit. The family was together for Isabella’s marriage to Rev. Williams on February 21, 1866. The newlyweds departed for China in April after visiting Mark’s family in Ohio.

Over the course of the next three years, Stephen continued to travel to the newly established reservation at Niobrara, Nebraska, where both the women and families from Crow Creek and the newly pardoned prisoners from Davenport had been reunited in 1866. He believed that Mary was doing well. He wrote: “Since we left Minnesota, Mary had apparently been slowly recovering from the invalidism of the past. She enjoyed life. She could occasionally attend religious meetings. The society of Beloit was very congenial. Sometimes she was able to attend the ministers’ meetings, and enjoyed the literary and religious discussions and criticisms. The last winter – that of 1868-69, she became exceedingly interested in a book called ‘The Seven Great Hymns of the Medieval Church.’ She read and reread the various translations of ‘Dies Irae.’ But she was attracted most to the ‘Hora Novissima’ of Bernard of Cluni…For years past Mary had almost ceased to write letters. Neither her physical nor mental condition had permitted it.”[10]

This wasn’t quite true. Several letters from Mary during the Beloit years are included in her great-granddaughter’s collection of Mary’s correspondence. Stephen apparently believed that she was doing well but Mary’s letters to him tell a different story. On March 5, 1866, she wrote: “I don’t feel like writing. It requires so much effort me and I have nothing pleasant to write about. My sense of justice compels me to try, though it is such a laborious task to write. But I want to hear from you just as often as if I could write longer and oftener. Is that selfish? If so it is a loving selfishness. Good Bye.” [11]

Two months later on June 1, 1866, she wrote again to Stephen: “I have felt very sad all afternoon without knowing any special reason why. Perhaps our pecuniary expenses for the last two years is one cause. It doesn’t seem right to me to be spending our own funds simply to eke out our family supply of food and fuel at the poverty rate we have lived, with the Presidential Com. doubtless supposes we have been comfortably provided for at their expense. Where is our clothing to come from?”[12]

Mary's letters in her final years suggest that she was experiencing depression and loneliness.

Mary’s letters in her final years suggest that she was experiencing depression and loneliness.

On July 19, Mary wrote to Stephen again: “For some days past, I have wanted to write you and yet felt very reluctant to commence until I had something pleasant to write. I feel greatly at a loss what to write and what to refrain from writing. I used to think if I wrote frankly and freely you would know better how to pray for us, but I have found this longing for human sympathy worse than useless.”[13]

Mary and Stephen had become grandparents by this time. Alfred and his wife Mary had a son, Frederick Bartlett Riggs, in May 1866, at their home in Illinois. That December, Mary and Stephen’s daughter Martha was married to Wyllis Morris in Mankato.

Mary still continued to worry about money. She wrote to Alfred on January 28, 1867: “My poor health has of course been one cause of our increased expenses, but not the chief one, for all this time, we have tried to curtail them in various ways, by dispensing with the daily use of tea and coffee, by purchasing very few books and but a scanty supply of clothing, hoping that the high prices would soon be lessened. When the appropriations for 1867 were being made, I hoped your father would at least ask for $850 instead of $750 which we had been receiving. But he shrank from asking for more than an additional fifty, for two reasons, one that we are living away from the Dakotas, the other, that we are already receiving a larger salary than any other family in our mission. We have not been informed whether $800 has been granted us for the present year, but we think it probable. How a family of seven can live comfortably on $800 I don’t now see, but I can try and trust. I have written you these particulars that you might understand the circumstances, and judge wisely. …Your father doesn’t want a hand in this matter, not even impliedly. He has trained himself from early life to endure ‘hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.’ ”

Stephen continued to be away from home for months at a time during these years, working on various Dakota language projects at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and traveling to the Niobrara reservation to work with the Dakota. Mary’s letters to him continue to express frustration, sadness and longing for him to be home with her.

Stephen was home in Beloit on March 10, 1869. Mary had been planning to attend the minister’s meeting at the home of the Presbyterian minister that evening. Stephen wrote: “…the day was chill and cold, as March days often are. She had been out in the yard seeing to the washed clothes and had taken cold. In the evening she was not feeling so well, and decided to stay at home. For several days she thought – and we thought – it was only an ordinary cold, that some simple medicines and care in diet would remedy.

“On Saturday, as she seemed to be growing no better, but rather worse, I called in Dr. Taggart, who pronounced it a case of pneumonia. The attack, he said was a severe one, and her lungs were very seriously affected. Her hold on life had been so feeble for several years, that we could not expect she would throw off disease as easily as a person of more vigor. But at this time, her own impression was that she would recover. And the doctor said he saw nothing to make him think she would not.

She was occasionally flighty and under strange hallucinations, caused either by the disease or the medicines. On the following Thursday, she evidently began to be impressed with the thought that she possibly would not get well…”

Mary died on March 29, 1869, at the age of 55. She is buried in the Beloit Cemetery.

Mary died on March 29, 1869, at the age of 55. She is buried in the Beloit Cemetery.

At seven o’clock in the morning on March 22, 1869, Stephen wrote: “The battle is fought, the conflict is ended, the victory is won and that sooner than we expected. Your mother’s life’s drama is closed – the curtain is drawn…quietly, peacefully, without a struggle…she passed beyond our reach of vision….Yesterday she had said to me, ‘I have neglected the flowers,’ I asked, ‘What flowers?’; She replied ‘The Immortelles.’ Dear, good one, she has gone to the flower garden of God.”

Mary was only 55 years old when she died. Her youngest child, Cornelia, had celebrated her 10th birthday only a few weeks earlier on February 17. It isn’t clear from her letters whether she ever saw her first grandson and she certainly never saw her first granddaughter, born on the mission fields of China. She did not survive to know that four of her seven children, Alfred, Isabella, Martha and Thomas, would spend their lives as missionaries; Isabella in China but the others among the Dakota people. Mary had always worried about the potential negative impact the Dakota might have upon the family and always strived to make sure her children were not influenced by Dakota children but instead, she raised a whole new generation of Dakota-speaking missionaries who remained with the mission for decades.

This unidentified photo is in the Huggins digitized collection of the Minnesota Historical Society. I believe it is quite possibly Stephen Riggs and his second wife, Annie Baker Ackley, who was 23 years younger than Stephen.

This unidentified photo is in the Huggins digitized collection of the Minnesota Historical Society. I believe it is quite possibly Stephen Riggs and his second wife, Annie Baker Ackley, who was 23 years younger than Stephen.

It is difficult to imagine, but Stephen Riggs, who was then 60 years old, remarried on May 28, 1872, in what he described as “an arrangement previously made.” [14] Annie Baker Ackley, a widow, had been a teacher with the Riggs family at Hazelwood. She was 23 years younger than Stephen and they had a daughter together when Stephen was 62 years old. Edna Riggs was born at Beloit, Wisconsin, on December 2, 1874. She was only eight years old when Stephen Riggs died on August 24, 1883.

Before I began writing Mary’s story for Dakota Soul Sisters, I confessed in an earlier post that I didn’t really like Mary Riggs. I found her attitude to be unsympathetic to the Dakota people and her values to be almost exclusively focused on her personal possessions. In comparison to some of the other women of the mission, she always stood out to me as the most selfish and uncaring of all of those who gave up so much of their personal lives to minister to the Dakota. I’ve now lived with Mary’s story for several months and I think it is in her final letters than I began to find a gem of likeability in Mary. As her story is revealed, it is clear that her husband was away for months on end throughout their marriage, often leaving her without any financial security or access to any resources. Even in her final years, as her personal depression begins to be more and more evident in her writings, Stephen continued to believe that she was doing well and refused to do anything to resolve her fears and anxiety about their financial situation.

I’ve had to face my own sympathetic response to her situation while also acknowledging that she was a gifted and observant writer. Her descriptions of spring flowers, of a kitten curled up on a rug by the fire, of her children’s antics and testimony of her love for Stephen are personal, intense and filled with passion. Perhaps rather than being the most selfish of the women of the mission, Mary may in fact be the most generous, sharing her personal worries, fears, concerns, sadness and grief rather than always presenting a public face of joy in serving her Lord.


[1] A Small Bit of Bread and Butter: Letters from the Dakota Territory, 1869-1832, Ed. By Maida Leonard Riggs, Ash Grove Press, South Deerfield, MA © 1996, p.236 (hereafter A Small Bit)

[2] Ibid., p. 237

[3] Ibid., p. 249. Robert’s wife Sarah was the daughter of Catherine Totedutawin whose story is included in Dakota Soul Sisters. Mary had known Catherine and her family since 1837 and found it hard to believe that Robert was involved in any kind of violence against whites.

[4] Ibid., p. 244

[5] Stephen Riggs to Mary Riggs, October 17, 1862, Minnesota Historical Society, Riggs Collection Item 1150/39. Stephen wrote: “I hope one of the girls will copy those portions of my letters which are of value. The history of the Expedition will be of importance in the future. And the characters engaged are of some consequence.”

[6] A Small Bit, p. 242-243

[7] Stephen Riggs to Mary Riggs, October 15, 1862, Minnesota Historical Society, Riggs Manuscript Collection Item 1150/38

[8] Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux, by Stephen R. Riggs, © 1880, reprinted by Corner House Publishers, Williamstown, MA, 1971, p. 197. (hereafter Mary and I)

[9] A Small Bit, p. 252

[10] Mary and I, p. 210

[11] A Small Bit, p. 268

[12] Ibid., p. 269

[13] Ibid., p. 270-271

[14] Mary and I, p. 245

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This entry was posted in Dakota Mission, Fanny Huggins Pettijohn, Hazlewood Mission, Mary Ann Clark Longley Riggs, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

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