Heartbroken Heroine – Agnes Carson Johnson [Hopkins] [Pond] – Part II

On April 4, 1844, Agnes, Robert and 6-month-old Mary Frances, left the mission at Lac qui Parle to join Stephen and Mary Riggs at the new mission at Traverse des Sioux, 110 miles to the east on the Minnesota River. Fanny and Jonas Pettijohn had been helping to establish the new mission and they now returned to rejoin the Williamsons and Alexander and Lydia Huggins at Lac qui Parle.

Agnes renewed her acquaintance at Traverse with Julia Kephart, who ran the little school at the new mission for the Riggs children and four or five Dakota girls who attended occasionally. She only planned to stay for another year before turning that work over to Agnes and going home to Ohio. The Riggs had three children by this time. Alfred was six years old; Isabella was four; and Martha was two. Agnes and Robert moved into a one-room log cabin with a little attic above.

The mission at Traverse des Sioux was never as accepted by the Dakota as was the work at Lac qui Parle. Agnes wrote in her memoirs:

“The Indians here were not quite as friendly as those at Lac qui Parle, and seemed to wish that we had never come among them. We labored with them as best we could, teaching them to read and spell and write. I had a class of girls and to make it a little less unpleasant task to teach them, provided them with basins, towels, soap and combs and I requested them to use them each day as soon as they came in. Contrary to my expectations they seemed to delight in these morning ablutions, especially if I provided a mirror so they might once in a while take a peep at themselves… We had no schoolhouse as yet, though a few years later we built a chapel, so I had to teach them in my little log cabin.”[1]

Mary Riggs had another baby, Anna, on April 13, 1845 and a few months later, on November 6, 1845, Agnes gave birth to William Johnson Hopkins. The Dakota girls who attended class with Agnes enjoyed playing with the children and Agnes, like so many of the missionary women, formed affectionate and close relationships with her students. She wrote of one of the girls in her memoirs:

“One of these girls was an especial favorite of mine. She came quite regularly and seemed interested in trying to learn all she could. As nearly as I could find out she was about 15 years of age. The girls had to walk about a mile through deep snow. One day this favorite girl of mine was absent. I asked why she was not here but the others did not know. The next day she was absent again. This time they told me there was a young Indian man there from a distant village, and that he wanted the girl to be his wife, but as he already had three wives, she felt she could not consent and was so unhappy because her parents kept on urging her to marry him that she felt she could not come to school.

“When the girls returned to their homes they found she was dead. She had committed suicide by hanging herself. Her parents had gone that day to a store house where they had some provisions laid up and told her to care for her little brothers and sisters while they were gone. Perhaps you know that in these Indian tents they had no way of heating them, except making a fire on the ground in the center of the tent, expecting the smoke to escape through a hole in the top. On each side of this fire they drive a forked stick into the ground and laying a pole across these sticks they hung on it their utensils for cooing over the fire. To this pole this poor, girl had tied a rope attached to a strap around her neck and the pole being low, had lifted her feet from the ground to hang herself. This she did just because she would not marry the man she did not love.

“It seemed to me my heart would break when I heard this news and a few hours later as I stood by the window, looking out on a wintry scene, I saw in the distance some Indian men approaching, seeming to drag something. To my horror I found that it was the body of my dear scholar being dragged to her burial place. A blanket and buffalo robe were wrapped around the body and the straps attached by which they conveyed it to the grave. Remember they were very poor, had no wagon, or other conveyance in which to place or carry the body, and cruel as it may seem, it was they thought, their best way. So ended the life in this world of that poor Indian girl.”[2]

As she had at Lac qui Parle, Agnes recalled a potentially dangerous encounter she had with a Dakota man when she was home alone. She wrote:

“An Indian man came in – they never knocked or let us know they were coming – he sat by the stove and I soon perceived that he was drunk which made me feel a little timorous. I said nothing to him except to answer his questions, because I did not wish to arouse his anger. Presently he reached to the stove and lifted a griddle and I thought was going to strike me. I slipped out of the door and presently he went to his home. In a few days he came back and seating himself, said, ‘They tell me I was going to strike you the other day. I was drunk and that is my reason. I would not have done it if I had been sober.’ I accepted his apology, thinking it a good one for an unlearned man.”[3]

One of the reasons that Agnes was occasionally alone at the cabin was that Robert felt it was important for him to go with the Dakota on hunting trips, particularly the mid-winter expedition. He would pack up his tent and snowshoes and follow them, living with them in their camps and eating whatever they ate. According to one of his biographers, Robert did so much hard work among the Dakota that his relatives back in Ohio found him as bent over as a much older man. When asked why he insisted on going on these trips with the Indians, he explained that if he didn’t spend as much time with them as possible, he would be denying his life work which was to carry the Gospel to the Dakotas. [4]

In the late fall of 1846, Stephen and Mary Riggs took their family and returned to the mission at Lac qui Parle, to take over for the Williamsons who had relocated to establish a new mission at Kaposia on the Mississippi River south of St. Paul. At the same time, Alexander and Lydia Huggins came to replace the Riggs at Traverse des Sioux. Their three oldest children were with relatives in Ohio, and their daughter Mary stayed at Lac qui Parle with her aunt and uncle, Fanny and Jonas Pettijohn, but they brought five-year-old Eli and nine-month old Rufus with them. That summer, Agnes and Robert had another daughter; Nancy Mayes Hopkins was born on July 15, 1847. Lydia Huggins had another daughter, Frances, on August 15, 1848 and Agnes brought another daughter in to the world when Sarah Jane Hopkins was born on March 23, 1849.

Agnes' mother, her aunt, her grandfather, her half-siblings and her cousins all lived in South Salem, Ohio, which was home to the South Salem Academy, a Presbyterian School which served students from 1842 until 1907.

Agnes’ mother, her aunt, her grandfather, her half-siblings and her cousins all lived in South Salem, Ohio, which was home to the South Salem Academy, a Presbyterian School which served students from 1842 until 1907.

In the summer of 1849, Agnes and Robert were granted a furlough from the mission and made the journey to Ohio, taking all four children with them. Mary Frances was almost six years old; William was three; Nancy was almost two and baby Sarah was three months old. Unfortunately, Agnes did not include her memories of the trip in her published reminiscences, but the family certainly would have visited Agnes’ mother, Fanny, who was widowed and living in Buckskin Township, Ross County, Ohio, now known as South Salem.[5] Fanny and her three children with John McDill, James, 16, Mary 13, and Martha 11, also had a few students who boarded with her, including two of Robert’s relatives, John and Archibald Hopkins, both of whom were 19 years old.

Agnes' grandfather, Rev. Robert G. Wilson, was the third President of Ohio University at Athens from 1824-1845. He is known for drawing up the early resolutions against slavery that were passed at the Chillicothe Presbytery meeting in September of 1839. Distributed widely, the resolutions were said to have been second only to Uncle Tom's Cabin in building up abolitionist sentiment prior to the Civil War.

Agnes’ grandfather, Rev. Robert G. Wilson, was the third President of Ohio University at Athens from 1824-1845. He is known for drawing up the early resolutions against slavery that were passed at the Chillicothe Presbytery meeting in September of 1839. Distributed widely, the resolutions were said to have been second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in building up abolitionist sentiment prior to the Civil War.

Fanny lived next door to her widowed sister, Mary Wilson Irwin. Mary was 42 years old; her husband, Rev. Joseph Taylor Irwin, had passed away on May 23, 1849, just a few weeks before Agnes and her family arrived from Minnesota. Fanny’s father, Agnes’ grandfather, Rev. Robert G. Wilson, now 81 years old, lived with Mary, who had three children of her own by 1849. Robert was 11, Mary was 7 and she had a baby Joseph, born after his father had died.

The trip was no doubt a total joy for Agnes. She had always been close to her mother and in her reminiscences she recalled that her Aunt Mary Irwin was one of her “dear friends of my early years. She lived in our family and seemed almost like a mother to me.”[6] Agnes was also very fond of her Wilson grandfather and wrote of him, “My grandfather was a very loving, gentle, Christian man. No one ever when to him in trouble wanting pecuniary help but he received it. He had a great many sore trials, one of which was the death of his three sons while they were yet young. He had three daughters who outlived him, and with one of them he spent his last few years of life.” The 1849 trip was the last time Agnes ever saw her grandfather.[7]

Little Nancy's tombstone in the Red Oak Presbyterian Cemetery in Brown County, Ohio, identifies her parents as Missionaries to the Dakota.

Little Nancy’s tombstone in the Red Oak Presbyterian Cemetery in Brown County, Ohio, identifies her parents as Missionaries to the Dakota.

Agnes’ mother lived just northwest of Brown County, Ohio, where Robert’s family lived. His father had died a year earlier but many of Robert’s relatives were still active in the Red Oak Presbyterian Church and he and Agnes enjoyed renewing old friendships during their visit. As happened so often to Agnes, however, even this happy time was brought to a tragic end when her and Robert’s little girl, Nancy, became ill and died on November 14, 1849. She had just turned two in July and now they were forced to now leave her behind, buried among her ancestors in the Red Oak Cemetery.

The little family returned to Traverse des Sioux and resumed their work. Agnes had no way of knowing that her life would change forever a little over a year later.


[1] Pond, Agnes Carson Johnson [Hopkins], A Few Reminiscences of an Old Lady, 1908, Minnesota Biographies Collection,  Minnesota Historical Society, P939, (hereafter Reminiscences)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “A Chapter of Hopkins Genealogy 1735-1905;” Ella Warren Harrison, compiler, Archibald Wilson Hopkins Publisher, Jeff Williamson Private Collection.

[5] The family actually lived in South Salem, Ohio, which was home to the Salem Academy, established in 1842 by a local Presbyterian minister, Hugh Stewart. This would explain why Fanny’s boarders are listed as students in the 1850 census. The school closed in 1907 and South Salem’s population in 2010 was 244 people.

[6] Reminiscences. Agnes also recalled that Mary Wilson Irwin had six children, all of whom died before she did, including the last one who died at St. Louis while serving in the army of the Civil War.

[7] Ibid., Rev. Robert G. Wilson died on April 30 1851, in South Salem, Ohio.

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This entry was posted in Agnes Johnson Hopkins Pond, Dakota Mission, Fanny Huggins Pettijohn, Julia Kephart, Lac Qui Parle Mission, Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, Margaret Poage Williamson, Mary Ann Clark Longley Riggs, Minnesota History, St. Peter, Traverse des Sioux, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

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