On July 19, 1838, Alexander Huggins and Dr. Thomas Williamson wrote a letter to their mutual cousin, Robert Hopkins. Alexander and Thomas were at the Dakota Mission at Lac qui Parle, Minnesota, where they had been working for three years. Robert was 22 years old and working on his father’s farm in Union, Ohio. They had apparently learned that Robert was interested in joining them in their missionary endeavors. He had said as much to Stephen Riggs when Stephen and his wife Mary left Ohio to join the mission at Lac qui Parle in 1837. In their letter, they encouraged Robert to come and join them at the mission in western Minnesota. They also wrote: “And if you get a good wife from the Lord she might be very useful here too. It may be well to fetch an axe, a scythe, a sickle. And if you [do] fetch a companion, to [also] fetch two or three chairs.”
Robert took their advice to heart and concentrated on his education for the next few years at Hillsborough, Ohio, and then at South Hanover College, Indiana. He returned home to study theology with his grandfather, Archibald Hopkins, but he was also focused on finding that “good wife” that Alexander and Thomas recommended he bring with him to Lac qui Parle. Robert had a young woman in mind. Her name was Agnes Carson Johnson and her step-father was the preacher at a little country church just two miles from South Hanover College. Agnes also had connections to Robert’s own home town of Union, Ohio, where her maternal grandparents, Rev. Robert G. and Elizabeth Gilliland Wilson, had lived before Robert Wilson was appointed President of Ohio University at Athens, Ohio, in 1824. The Wilsons and Hopkins had many relatives in common and both families were ardent abolitionists, active in Ohio’s Underground Railroad. Robert, however, was ten years older than Agnes and could not pursue his future bride until she was old enough to marry.
In the meantime, Agnes was also pursuing her own education at a seminary for young women headed by a Rev and Mrs. McKee from Massachusetts. When she was 14 years old, Agnes felt a deep spiritual call to become, as she later wrote in her memoirs, “one of God’s people.” She turned to Mrs. McKee for advice and recalled that “…my dear old friend, Mrs. McKee, my teacher, talked with me and made the way seem plain to me. She said, ‘it is all done, you’ve nothing to do but to give yourself to Jesus,’ and I think I did give myself to Him then and there. Soon afterwards I united with the church of God and have been in the church ever since and now feel sure that Jesus is mine and I am His.”
Agnes did not come to her conviction because her young life had been filled with joy and happiness. Instead, she had experienced loss and death and upheaval from her earliest years. She was born to William Carson and Fanny Wilson Johnson in Greenfield, Ohio, on September 15, 1825, and was their first child. Her father was a physician and partner in a drug store business and her parents were faithful members of the Presbyterian Church. Two more daughters were born to the family: Elizabeth, in about 1827, and Sarah in 1829. Agnes was five years old when her father died in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1830, at the age of only 29 years, and the next year her little sister Sarah died at the age of two years in 1831. Agnes’ mother Fanny was 26 years old, a widow left with two little girls. She and the girls lived with her parents in Athens, Ohio, where Fanny’s father was President of the University. Tragedy struck the family again, when Agnes’ other little sister, Elizabeth, drowned in the Miami River in 1832 at the age of three years. Her body was never recovered.
Agnes’ mother Fanny had married Rev. John McDill, a pastor in the United Presbyterian Church when Agnes was seven years old and they moved to South Hanover, Indiana, where John McDill was pastor of a small country church. They welcomed a new baby, James Wilson McDill, on March 4, 1834. Agnes described him in her memoirs as “…the handsomest child I ever saw. He had red hair, big black eyes and fair skin.” Two other girls were also born to Fanny and John McDill: Mary, born in 1837, and Martha, born in 1839, half-sisters to Agnes. Mary married William M. Pinkerton, but died when she was only 24 years old. Agnes kept in touch with Martha throughout her life. Agnes experienced yet another loss when her stepfather, John McDill, died on July 27, 1840, leaving Fanny a widow once again.
Agnes met or perhaps renewed her acquaintance with Robert Hopkins in about 1839 while Robert was attending school at South Hanover. He was a passionate young man, determined to become a missionary to the Dakota people and Agnes was a newly confirmed Christian, devoted to pursuing some kind of ministry. They were married at South Hanover, Indiana, on August 23, 1842, just three weeks shy of Agnes’ 17th birthday. Seven months later, in March 1843, they began their journey west to the Dakota mission at Lac qui Parle. Agnes was 17 years old and three months pregnant as she boarded the steamboat that took them down the Ohio River towards their first major port at Galena, Illinois.
They weren’t traveling alone, however, but were part of a larger group of missionaries and others who were all headed for Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers in what would eventually become the State of Minnesota. Stephen and Mary Riggs, their five-year-old son Alfred and 15-month-old baby Martha, as well as Mary Riggs’ brother, 22-year-old Thomas Longley, were part of the group. Julia Ann Kephart, a young woman from Ripley, Ohio, was along to help Mary Riggs with the children, and Jane Williamson, Thomas Williamson’s 40-year-old sister, was making her first journey to the Lac qui Parle mission where she planned to assist Thomas and Margaret by teaching their children.
There were also three young Dakota men with the group who had spent the past year in Ohio, living with Alexander Huggins’ extended family, attending worship at the Red Oak Presbyterian Church, and learning how white settlers operated their farms. Lorenzo Lawrence, Simon Wasicuntanka and Henok/Appearing Cloud, had been taken east by Stephen Riggs, who had assured their families they’d be home within a few months. Now, with more than a year gone by, the men were anxious to be reunited with their parents and relatives.
After more than a month of steamboat travel, the group arrived at Fort Snelling on May 7, 1843. Jane Williamson left the group there and remained at the Fort where her brother Thomas was serving as garrison surgeon. A crop failure at Lac qui Parle in 1842 had brought the Williamsons to the Fort and Thomas had signed on for a year of service, planning to return to the mission in September 1843.
Agnes and Robert continued on with the rest of the party. Agnes described the next portion of their journey in her memoirs:
“From Fort Snelling we started up the Minnesota River in an open boat propelled by oars. We camped on the banks and cooked our suppers…..We suffered much from the myriads of mosquitoes. We baked our bread each day. It was simply flour, salt and water, baked in a frying pan before a smoking camp fire. It was very distasteful to me and I determined to have a loaf of light bread. I had some home made yeast cakes in my luggage (bought yeast cakes were then unknown), so I soaked one of them in a pail of river water, stirred in some flour and soon had some nice light yeast. I mixed a loaf of bread and set it where the hot sun would keep it warm. At night it was ready to be baked and I used a little dutch oven which was on the boat to bake it in. The oven was like a black iron kettle, flat on the bottom, and standing on three legs about three inches high. We placed coals under the oven, and a thick iron cover heavier than any you ever saw, we heated it in the fire and placed it over the oven to bake the bread on top, while to bake it on the sides we turned the over around. I attended the baking of my loaf with great solicitude and care. While it was baking an Indian man came into the camp and sat down by the fire. I paid no attention to him but I attended to my loaf just as I would have done if he had not been there. Mrs. Riggs said, ‘You should not have let that man see your bread.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ and she answered, “He may come in the night and steal it,’ which I thought was preposterous. In the morning I fried some bacon, made coffee, spread the breakfast on the ground, and went to get my bread….and it was gone. So the breakfast had to wait till I could mix some of the bread I disliked so much and bake it. I remember well that I thought, ‘so, this is the kind of people I’ve come to live among’ ”
At Traverse des Sioux, the party split once again. Stephen Riggs and Mary Riggs’ brother Thomas remained at Traverse to begin construction of buildings needed for the new mission that they planned to establish there. Alfred Riggs remained there with his father, and Mary took little Martha and continued on to Lac qui Parle where her three-year-old daughter Isabella had been living with Jonas and Fanny Huggins while Mary and Stephen spent the year in Ohio. She planned to pick up Isabella and rejoin Stephen, Alfred and her brother at Traverse des Sioux.
Agnes described the remainder of their journey in her memoirs:
“We were four or five days making this last part of our journey and had many thrilling adventures. I said Dr. Riggs had been East having some books printed in the Dakota language. He had been gone a year and had taken with him three young Indian men that they might see and learn something of the civilized life. These three young Indians were all with us on their way to their homes. On the morning of the last day of our journey, two of them proposed to go ahead on foot to reach their friends as they could go faster than in the wagons. The other one did not feel very well and remained to reside with us on the wagon. As we had an extra horse and after some hours he was told that he might ride on the horse to meet his friends. After some time we saw him coming back and when he reached us he told us in great excitement that his only brother had come to meet him and had been murdered by some concealed Ojibway Indians. We traveled on and soon came to where the bleeding scalped body of the dead man lay right across the road. The men of our party carried the body tenderly to one side and covered it with a canvas cloth. In a short time we met large numbers of Indian men, armed and very excited, in pursuit of those who had murdered their neighbor and friend. I could not understand a word they said but their gestures and tones were so fierce that I expected to be killed. The fired at our team and one of the horses was so seriously injured that we had to stop right there and then. Mrs. Riggs and I walked the remainder of the journey (five miles) she carrying her fifteen month old baby. This was July 4 1843….
“On this last five miles of our journey, Indian women came out to meet us, a lot of them. Some of them had umbrellas and they held them over us. They seemed to know this was a terrible adventure for us. One of them held her umbrella a long way. She put her arms around me and tried to help me on, and was as kind to me as any white woman could be. They offered to carry Mrs. Riggs’ baby, but the baby was afraid of them and cried so that they couldn’t….”
When Agnes and Robert arrived at Lac qui Parle in July 1843, Samuel and Cordelia Pond, who had been filling in for the Riggs, returned to the Fort Snelling area, and moved in with Samuel’s brother Gideon and his family at their new cabin at Oak Grove. Agnes and Robert moved into the Williamson cabin at Lac qui Parle. It was there that Mary Frances Hopkins was born on September 10, 1843. The Williamsons had returned to the mission by then, and Agnes, Robert and the new baby kept house in a small room on the second floor of the Williamson cabin.
Agnes wrote of one memorable encounter she had in that little second floor room:
“One day as I was alone in my room, sitting at my table writing, and everything was very still, suddenly the door of my room opened and a hideously painted Indian came walking in . His face, as nearly as I can remember, was painted half red and half black, with white streaks across. A band around his head contained a number of large feathers indicting the number of enemies he had killed. He evidently hoped to frighten me terribly. I determined I would try not to let him know how frightened I was. I sat still at my table and kept on with my writing, and in a short time he went down stairs again, probably exulting in the thought that he had frightened one white woman. This was the famous little Crow, the leader of the outbreak of 1862. Afterwards, my husband Mr. Pond tried to teach Little Crow to read music and has told me that he had double teeth all around. He learned to sing and had a fine voice. He was a fine looking man without the paint, tall, slender, and strong looking.”
Agnes was now 18 years old, a new wife and mother, and about to embark on the next phase of her life at the Dakota mission.