The Escape Story as Told by Jonas Pettijohn

Previous Posts about the Williamsons and the Riggs have referred to the escape of the missionaries from the Upper Agency on August 19, 1862. Jonas Pettijohn’s 1890 account of the 1862 escape is one of the most detailed and is seen by historians as a source which provides a basic account by which to gauge the accuracy of others’ accounts. Many of the dates, events and details Jonas described are verified in other memoirs of the event. The following is from:  Autobiography, Family History and Various Reminiscences of the Life of Jonas Pettijohn Among the Sioux or Dakota Indians, His Escape During the Massacre of August 1862, Causes That Led to the Massacre, by Jonas Pettijohn. Respectfully and Affectionately Dedicated to His Children, Mrs. Laura Stevens, Albert B. and W.T. Pettijohn. Green, Kansas, August 1880, Clay Center, Kansas, Dispatch Printing House, 1890. Minnesota Historical Society, Lower Sioux Agency Archives, pp. 71-79

We begin Jonas’ story when he arrived at Mary and Stephen Riggs home at Hazlewood and was reunited with Fanny and the children on August 18, 1862. A photo of the escape party is included in the Mary Ann Clark Longley Riggs post on September 14, 2013. Fanny and Jonas’ daughter Laura, who was then 14 years old, is in the group but is not identified.

The hostile Indians were then only five or six miles from us, had already fatally wounded S.B. Garvey [sic], a clerk in Nathan Myric’s [sic] store, if I am not mistaken, and were robbing all of the stores to their heart’s content.[1] Mr. Riggs, our missionary brother had read the forty-six psalm at family worship and then poured out his whole soul to God in prayer, as one who knew that God was able to protect his own children in any emergency, though entirely out of reach of all human aid. The friendly Indians were really the only human help we had, and it was but very little they could do. They urged us to leave the mission premises and hide ourselves on an island in the Minnesota river until the next night. We finally concluded the best thing we could do was to follow their instructions, in part at least.

I think it was near one o’clock Tuesday morning when we left the mission. We had one two-horse wagon and a light buggy. We went to the river as directed by the Christian and friendly Indians. As the banks were high and the water deep, we could not cross with the conveyances at all. We all crossed over in a canoe, and by the time we all got safely landed on the island  it was getting quite light. As our flight had been in the dead hours of the night, and in somewhat of a hurry, our supply of food was very scant. Sometime after sunrise a friendly voice called to us from the opposite side of the river. We knew it to be the voice of a woman. Some one of the company ventured out to see who it was and what was wanted. To our great joy it proved to be a good Indian woman with quite a back-load of bread. Our mission friends, Riggs and Cunningham, kept a boarding school and had on that bloody Monday baked a large batch of bread, but in our hasty departure we had forgotten to take it. This good woman, Rainbow was her name, had gone into the house occupied by Mr. Cunningham, and there found the bread and instead of using it herself, as she might have done, without let or hindrance, she brought it to us. I have forgotten what exclamations of joy burst from our lips, but we undoubtedly thanked God and took courage.[2]

There was another party hiding from the Indians some two miles from us farther down the river. They were nearer the hostiles than we were. About noon on Tuesday, one of the party, Mr. Andrew Hunter, a son-in-law of Dr Williamson came up to see us and talk about a way of escape.[3] However firmly we believed in the protecting care of our Heavenly Father, we also believed in making use of all prudent means within our reach to get away from danger as fast as possible. After talking the whole affair over with Mr. Hunter as dispassionately as we could under the circumstances, it was agreed that he should come up with his teams and we should all start out together. He had two wagons, one drawn by a yoke of oxen, the other by a span of horses.

Before Mr. Hunter came along with his teams, some of us thought best to go back across the river and find some of the horses we had driven down there in the night, if they were to be found. Mr. Cunningham and I went back and found one horse. When we got back to where our folks had been they were all gone. They had done just what we had told them to do before we left them; that was, not to wait for us. Mr. Hunter came along soon after Mr. Cunningham and I had left. A kind providence sent a heavy shower of rain with lightning and thunder about the time our folks left their hiding place. This storm prevented the hostiles form seeing us, as they might otherwise have done, and also made it more difficult to follow our tracks.

When Mr. Cunningham and I came back to the river we mutually agreed to separate. He was anxious to take the horse and buggy knowing they were badly needed. He was obliged to go down the river some considerable distance to a crossing, or ford. I had crossed in a canoe and soon found which way the teams had gone. It was very difficult at times to see any indications of a track at all. I could see enough to show pretty near the course they were going. Finally I came in sight of them and pretty soon overtook them. We were all quite anxious about Mr. Cunningham before he overtook us; I think it was near sundown. I believe there were just thirty-six all told, now in the company. We traveled on until near dark. We dared not make afire, either to keep the mosquitoes off, nor to attempt anything like cooking. It was well for us all that Mr. Hunter had three good milch cows with him. During the day their calves would take all the milk, but a night we would tie the calves up and milk the cows in the morning and each one of the company would get quite a good drink of fresh milk. There were persons in our company that I suppose had never before tasted warm cow’s milk.

There was a gentleman and lady out from New Jersey on a bridal trip. They had been stopping at Mr. Riggs several days before the outbreak. They were educated and cultured people. It was a rough experience for them, but to their credit be it said, we never heard a murmur of discontent, or complaint of hardship from either of them.[4]

When it rained on us at night, as it did two or three nights, all we could do was just to let it rain. Wednesday we traveled all day without a road; Thursday the same. We stopped on Thursday and slaughtered a two-year-old heifer. We had traveled about as long as we could on such short allowances. Some of the men went nearly a mile for wood, and had to wade a deep slough before they could get any. By the time they got to camp with wood, the rest of us had killed and dressed the young cow. We soon had a fire and then every one that was big enough went to roasting and eating beef. All the cooking vessels or utensils we had were two three-quart camp kettles. In them we boiled quite a lot of the beef to take with us. We remained there all the afternoon and night.

Next morning, Friday, it was clear and beautiful. When we started we changed our course of travel, going towards the Minnesota river. Our progress had necessarily been very slow, as we had traveled without a road and had to pick our way through lakes and sloughs, and quite a large portion of our company had to walk and wade, there was no alternative. By going a southeastern course on Friday, we ran onto dangerous ground sooner than we had anticipated. We struck the road leading from Fort Ridgeley to what was called the lower agency, the place where the general massacre commenced on Monday morning. We were but a few miles from the agency. We traveled on towards the Fort with palpitating hearts, not knowing who held the fort, whether the Indians or a handful of soldiers. But I am getting ahead a little too fast.

Just as we were about starting on Friday afternoon, Dr. Williamson with his wife and sister caught up with us. He had remained at his house about twenty-four hours after our company had left. Some of the friendly Indians had gone with him until he had found our track, and followed us three days before overtaking us. As there were only three of them to a yoke of oxen and wagon, they had made much better headway than we had.

The doctor had heard by way of friendly Indians, before leaving home, that the soldiers at the Fort had all been killed. Though not fully believing the report, it made us fearful that such might be the fact, and if it was so, the probability was that we were hastening to our own death. Our company now numbered forty-three persons. We had been joined the second or third day out by four young men, three of them Germans, the other a Scotch-Canadian. Not far from sundown that evening we saw three Indian men come up on a high place of ground not far from us, and appeared to take a deliberate look at us. We were glad they did nothing more. We had four guns in the company, but one of them was worthless, the others were single barreled Indian shot guns. I think we had no bullets except for the old rifle that wouldn’t shoot. So all the defense we could have made would not have amounted to anything.

As we had heard that the Indians held the Fort, we thought it best to ascertain the truth of the matter. Sometime late in the afternoon Mr. Andrew Hunter took the buggy we had and drove on to the Fort. I think it was dark when we got near the Fort. He left the buggy in some hidden place and crept up so as to find that the soldiers still held the Fort instead of the Indians. He got inside and had an interview with the officer in command. The highest officer they had as lieutenant Shehan [sic]. [5]The Indians had been fighting the Fort all day Friday and the officer expected they would renew the attack Saturday morning. He said they were almost out of ammunition and had only part of a company, and the Fort was now full of women and children Under such circumstances, he said we had better drive on to Henderson that night. As Henderson was forty-five miles distant, it was just as impossible for us to drive there that night as it was to drive to the moon.

Sometime after Mr. Hunter had gone on with the buggy, Mr. Williamson started on alone and on foot. Being a good walker he was soon out of sight of us. Dark overtook us several miles from the Fort. I was driving the foremost team, a large yoke of oxen belonging to Dr. Williamson. The oxen shied at the body of a dead man lying with his feet almost in the road. My first thought was that it was either Dr. Williamson or Mr. Hunter. A sickening smell very soon dispelled that thought, I suppose it can be said in truth, that for once at least, I was glad to smell a dead person. I was as far as possible from being glad that some man or boy had been killed here, but only glad to have the assurance that it was not one of our party. About a mile and a half from the Fort we met Mr. Hunter and Dr Williamson coming back. We called a halt and held a council. Some of our party appeared almost determined to go to the Fort. It was understood by all parties that if we went to the Fort they would take us in.

The Fort was not a fortified one like Fort Snelling at all. The Indians had fired some of the outbuildings, and the soldiers had fired some that day, each hoping to gain some advantage over the other by so doing. We had quite a discussion whether to drive on to the Fort or leave the road and take to the prairie. Dr. Williamson was the oldest man in the company had two teams. He finally said, “As for me, my family and teams, we are not going into the Fort.” Then he said, “Drive on.” That settled all controversy. I was driving one of his teams, as before mentioned. I put whip to the oxen and they all followed. We left the road and took to the prairie. We traveled until two o’clock in the morning before we stopped to rest. We never got out of sight of the burning buildings at the Fort during the night. We rested just two hours – hours of danger and suspense. We were not far from the road leading from Fort Ridgley to Henderson and as we could make better headway on a road than we could on the prairie without a road, we followed the road when we struck it.

This was Saturday morning. We had now been four days and nights, doing little more nor less than running the gauntlet. This morning the four young men spoken of heretofore determined to leave us, and leave us they did. I believe they left against the earnest protest of every one of our company that said anything on the subjects. I don’t remember of saying a word one way or another. We stopped about seven o’clock in the morning to rest a little while, and while there we heard very distinctly the guns that killed all four of those young men. With emphasis and with the utmost propriety might we well exclaim in the language of the Psalmist, “The Lord of hosts was there with us; the God of Jacob was our refuge.”

We started out soon after hearing the guns. We almost knew they were the death knells of those four young men who had left us. We traveled on until three o’clock in the afternoon before stopping again. Our teams just have rest, even at the risk of our lives. This time we stopped at a farm house, and on going in we found the table with all the dishes on it, looking as though the family had just finished a meal. We saw no indication of murder having been committed on the premises. We found a crock, or jar of cream just right for making biscuit. We made use of as much of it as we needed. We also hunted up the potato field, and green corn, and took as much of them as we needed. We committed no unnecessary outrage whatever. Here for the first time since Monday night we had nearly a good square meal and rested three hours. At six we started on and traveled until ten at night.

Sabbath morning after having prayer – I believe we invariably had prayer every night and morning – we started and went only about four miles, where we met a great number of settlers going back to their homes. We stopped and rested the remainder of the day. In the afternoon we had religious services conducted by Rev. S.R. Riggs. If I remember correctly. No doubt but others joined in the services, but I have forgotten who they were.

Monday morning we separated, some going to St. Peter, some to St. Anthony and some to St. Paul. Probably very few of us every experienced just such sensations at separating with friends, either before or since, as we did then. Our friends had nearly all give us up for lost.

You remember we went to St. Peter. We took dinner at Mr. Cronin’s and after dinner, you remember I got a chance to ride with some one and went on and left you, being as well all thought, out of danger, and I no longer having charge of a team. I got into St. Peter an hour or more before you did. My friends were almost as much surprised to see me as they would have been to see a man rise from the dead. You remember how long you had to wait outside of military lines before you got into St. Peter among friends. We all felt greatly relieved to be among friends, and also felt that our escape was, into use Scripture language, because the good hand of our God was upon us and over us.

One item more in relation to Dr. Williamson’s escape. He with his wife and sister remained in their mission home some twenty-four hours after we left. He said he felt sure the Lord had sent him to labor as a missionary among the Sioux, and he didn’t feel like fleeing at the first approach of danger. Finally one of his church members, Simon (Anawangami) came to him and told him he must go. He said they could not bear to see him killed, as he certainly would be if he remained much longer It was utterly impossible for the Christian and friendly Indians to protect a single individual, unless they could hide them so securely that the hostile Indians could not find them, and to do such a thing as that was outside of the range of possibilities,. Simon brought his own oxen and wagon and almost compelled the doctor to go It was certainly well that he did, for if he had been killed then, to all human appearance, his life work would not have been completed. He lived and labored a number of years after that, expressly for the good of the Indians. Perhaps the most work he did after that was in connection to Rev. S.R. Riggs, completing the translation of the entire Bible into the Dakota language. There was something rather pathetic in relations to that work too. He was nearing his eightieth birthday and was fast failing in health and strength. He said he must hold out until they completed the translation of the Bible. He was nearing his eightieth birthday and was fast failing in health and strength. He said he must hold out until they completed the translation of the Bible. He did so, and died soon afterwards.


[1] Garvey is actually Stuart B. Garvie and Myric is Nathan Myrick. Stuart Garvie was 31 years old and was working as a clerk in Nathan Myrick’s trading post at the Lower Sioux Agency on August 18, 1862. He was wounded in the initial attack that morning but managed to escape and joined another group of escaping whites who were being led by John Otherday, a Dakota who is credited with saving many lives of white settlers during the war. Garvie did not survive and died of his wounds on August 21, 1862. Nathan Myrick and his brother Andrew were both agency traders. Andrew was killed in the first round of attacks at the Lower Agency.

[2] Hugh and Mary Ellison Cunningham were teachers at the boarding school at Hazlewood. May Ellison was the daughter of Thomas and Jane Williamson’s half-sister Mary Beauford Williamson Ellison. She came to Minnesota to assist her aunt and uncle with the Dakota mission work in 1856 and married Hugh Cunningham at Traverse des Sioux in 1857.  The Dakota woman who brought them bread is identified here as Rainbow and in some other stories as Zoe or Zoe Rainbow or Zoe Hapa.

[3] Andrew Hunter married Thomas and Margaret Williamson’s oldest daughter Elizabeth on April 19, 1858. Their daughter Nancy, age three, and their 11-month old son John were with them during the escape.

[4] Mr. and Mrs. David Wilson Moore were newlyweds who had met Stephen Riggs in St. Paul in July of 1862 at the Merchants Hotel where Riggs was preforming the wedding ceremony of a mixed blood Dakota woman, Marion Wallace Robertson, to Alexander Hunter. The Moores apparently became intrigued at the possibility of witnessing the distribution of annuities to the Dakota and returned to the agency with Riggs in August of 1862. D. Wilson Moore was reportedly a glass manufacturer in Feasterville, New Jersey.

[5] Lieutenant Timothy J. Sheehan was a settler from Ireland who was 26 years old in August 1862. He found himself in charge of Fort Ridgeley as war broke out.

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2 Responses to The Escape Story as Told by Jonas Pettijohn

  1. Terri Dinesen says:

    One small minor “correction”. I think Hazelwood is spelled with el instead of le. I think it was named for the hazel bushes.

    • Terri, Thanks but all through Riggs writings, it’s Hazlewood. We all want to correct it all the time but it’s sort of like Fort Ridgley or Ridgeley or Ridgely – we have to use what they used at the time if we want to be accurate. Lois > Date: Sat, 23 Nov 2013 20:53:55 +0000 > To: lglewwe@hotmail.com >

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