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

Agnes, Robert and the children returned to the Dakota mission at Traverse des Sioux after little Nancy’s death in November of 1849, and resumed their work with Alexander and Lydia Huggins. Despite their ongoing frustration at their lack of success in growing the Christian community, Agnes expressed her love of the place in her memoirs:

“The spot at Traverse des Sioux where we lived was a most beautiful one. We were right in the midst of what one of our missionaries called a garden of roses – the wild roses were so abundant. We were just a short distance from the old crossing, called by the Indians, Giuwega.”[1]

Agnes also wrote to the Mankato historian Thomas Hughes and commented on his description of the Traverse mission site:

“The spot you have marked ‘marsh’ was always a lake where we had high water, and I want to say just there that we had a sort of cellar under the school house which we used for a store house for the Indians as they usually had a variety of things they wanted to leave when they went off on their hunts, also we had a small cellar under the old log house these may account for the old cellars you found. The old log warehouse you mentioned, I have only a very indistinct remembrance of. Let me tell you what I think it looked like. It was nearly twice as long as its width, it stood lengthwise up and down the river, had no windows, was built out of small round logs not hewed, had no chimney and one door, which was in the north end I think.”[2]

While Agnes continued to focus on working with the Dakota girls she loved, Robert reportedly concentrated almost exclusively on reaching the people with the word of salvation. Agnes’ memoirs say little about his methods but Thomas Williamson wrote:

William Johnson Hopkins was about five years old when this photograph was taken with his father Robert in 1850.

William Johnson Hopkins was about five years old when this photograph was taken with his father Robert in 1850.

“His perceptive powers were not above mediocrity; indeed, I think they were rather below the average. Hence he acquired certain kinds of knowledge with difficulty; but his memory was retentive, and his judgment was remarkably sound and strong. He manifested little or no fondness for arguing, and spent less time in this way than most men; yet he was remarkable for skill in detecting any fallacy in an argument, as well as the clearness and kindness with which he would point it out.

“….As he had never associated much with polished society, the first impression he made on strangers was not always favorable. But no good man could be much acquainted with him without loving him. His piety was an intelligent, living, active principle. A strong desire to do good to his fellow men was governed by a determination in all things to obey God. When he knew what was his duty, I suppose he never hesitated to do it….From the time he was first licensed to preach the gospel, he ever manifested a strong desire to be engaged in his chosen work; and when he could have no congregation at home, he would walk twenty miles or more in the winter to a camp of a few families of Indians on Saturday, remain with them over the Sabbath, with such accommodations as they could afford preaching to two, three or half a dozen of them, and return on Monday, wading through the snow, and sometimes through ice water nearly to his neck.

“He was characterized by great earnestness. His passions and affections were strong; so much so that they often impaired his appetite and strength. When matters of great interest were discussed in our mission meetings, he was sometimes to prostrated, that it was necessary for him, though on other occasions the strongest among us, to go into another room and lie down. Closely connected with this earnestness and these strong passions, was the greatest defect of his character, a lack of prudence or caution…[3]

Despite his frequent absences and what may have been a challenging personality, it is clear that Agnes loved her husband very much and supported him in all of his efforts. They had another daughter in the spring of 1851; Ann Kelly Hopkins was born on May 15. Lydia Huggins had also had another daughter that spring; Harriett Huggins was born on March 6, 1851. The Traverse des Sioux mission was now a lively place with the seven youngest Huggins children all still living at home and with Agnes and Robert’s family of seven-year-old Mary, five-year-old William, two-year-old Sarah and baby Ann.

The signing of the 1851 Treaty at Traverse des Sioux resulted in the Dakota being removed to reservations in western Minnesota and ceding all of their land along the Mississippi River.

The signing of the 1851 Treaty at Traverse des Sioux resulted in the Dakota being removed to reservations in western Minnesota and ceding all of their land along the Mississippi River to the Federal Government.

The missionary families found themselves at the heart of one of the most significant and exciting events in Minnesota history in the summer of 1851. Traverse des Sioux was chosen as the location for the historic signing of the Federal Government’s 1851 Treaty with the Dakota. Hundreds of distinguished officials, reporters, observers, traders, legislators and Federal representatives poured into the tiny riverfront community. Perhaps as many as a thousand Dakota also arrived, setting up their camps and staging athletic competitions, dances, and feasts for days surrounding the scheduled treatysigning.

Agnes described the scene:

“There was a great flood in the summer of 1851, from early spring till nearly October. The treaty between the U.S. government and the Dakota Indians was made in July of that year. The commissioners from the government, three in number, came in June. Their chief was Luke Lee… There were no houses where the white people could be entertained so they camped in tents. They were encamped on the bluff near an old trading house occupied at the time by Mr. LeBlanc. The bluff was not an abrupt one, but formed a series of terraces. There was a scarce fringe of trees along the river, but from there to the top and perhaps as far back as two miles from the bluff, there was not a bush or trees to be seen. There were a great many white men assembled to be present at the treaty. Governor Ramsey, General Sibley, Hon. H.M. Rice were there. There were editors there from some of our papers, Mr. Goodhue of the Pioneer Press and many others. There were also traders there to collect debts from the Indians as they should receive the pay for their land. Mr. and Mrs. Richard Chute of St. Anthony were there, and incidentally, their tent was left behind and they sought and found a boarding place with me. The Indians were there in great numbers. Many of them were from the far west, and these were more uncouth and savage than who lived around here.

“The Indians pitched their tents on difference terraces of the bluff some distance west of the white people’s camp. Daily the Indians had their feasts, their dances and their games of different sorts. The Indians seemed a little afraid to make a treaty – were afraid of being wronged and were very cautious. The commissioners were very kind to them and treated them with great respect.

“The commissioners prepared for a celebration for the 4th of July. The mission families (Hopkins and Huggins) were invited to be present at the celebration and Mr. Hopkins was asked to make an address and lead in the opening prayer.”[4]

Agnes recalled that morning in her Reminiscences as follows: “Mr. Hopkins rose early that fair beautiful morning and went, as was his custom, for a bath in the Minnesota River. I made haste to prepare breakfast for my family of seven, my youngest child was seven weeks old that day, but the father never came back and the body was found three days later.”[5]

Frank Blackwell Mayer described how word of the tragedy spread throughout the community:

“Friday morning last (July 4) as we rose we were startled by a horseman riding into camp & announcing, ‘Hopkins is drowned’! But the night before the gentle Missionary had been among us & attracted all by his pleasant manners. We could not realize the news. He had gone early that morning to bathe in the river, his usual custom. He did not meet his family at breakfast & soon his clothes were found on the bank. Every effort was made to discover the body by the assembly of white men & Indians, but without avail. A net was finally stretched across the channel in hopes that it might arrest it in it downwards course should it float. Three days had passed and a terrible storm arose, peal after peal of thunder called the dead man from his grave & he arose, a ghastly object covered with the mire & filth of the treacherous stream, his hands clenched in agony & his limbs stiffened in death yet tranquil was his face, as tho’ a prayer had passed them with his breath. A noble looking Indian & and a voyageur raised him from the water still turbid with the passing storm, laved him & swathed him in linen & as the canoe glided with its ghastly load towards the former desolate home of the widow, it was followed by a long line of silent spectators, Indians, French & Americans. It stopped at the point where he was last seen & in the faces of the Sioux quivering lips & moistened eyes were seen tho’ Indian stoicism opposed their utterance. An aged woman bent beneath a century stood before the body. She burst forth into a flood of grief as she grasped her robe convulsively & bent herself in agony. ‘Oh, my son! My son!’ She exclaimed ‘he had pity on me, he fed me, he clothed me, & when I was sick he nursed me.’ This was all I could gather, for the sobs smothered her words. She retired weeping, & then returned & the tears seemed dry the fountain was exhausted, she had lost a friend. The Indian is accused of wont of feeling, yet this woman was an Indian (& there were others near her in silent grief). The rude coffin was soon prepared, the widow took a last look, her grief was too deep for tears, silent, chill. Then the hammer & the nails the unostentatious procession to the grave, the hymn, a prayer, the clods returned upon the coffin lid…..”[6]

Agnes was only twenty-five years old on that “fair beautiful morning.” Jane Williamson, her friend and colleague, described Agnes’ grief as she wrote to a cousin in Ohio a few days later on July 10, 1851: “Sister Hopkins has had the desire of her eyes removed as by a stroke. Yes, she is a mourning widow and her four children are fatherless…You will know how to feel for his poor afflicted wife and her little ones. The Indians say she stands in his door or walks by the river weeping….I know dear cousins that you will pray for our dear bereaved Sister. May the Lord sustain, comfort, guard and guide her and her little ones even unto death…”[7]

Robert's body was moved to the Greenhill Cemetery when Traverse des Sioux was taken over by the City of St. Peter, Minnesota.

Robert’s body was moved to the Greenhill Cemetery at some point after  Traverse des Sioux was taken over by the City of St. Peter, Minnesota.

Robert’s body was buried on the mission grounds next to the body of Mary Riggs’ brother, Thomas Longley, who had drowned in that same river eight summers earlier.[8]

I think often of what Agnes must have been feeling that morning when Robert left to take a bath as he usually did. Even years later when she wrote her reminiscences, her comments suggest that she was too busy to think too much about where he was going that morning. She mentions that she had to prepare breakfast for her house guests and she had a new baby to care for. It isn’t hard to imagine that she might have been a bit frustrated and perhaps a nice, cool morning bath was something she herself would have enjoyed on a warm summer day.

Then I think of the hours that passed that morning when Robert did not appear to lead that opening prayer or give his address. Certainly the ceremonies continued without him and the procedures leading to the signing of the treaty were put in place. What was Agnes thinking? Did she expect Robert to show up, chagrined at being late, perhaps apologizing for getting carried away with his own thoughts as Thomas Williamson pointed out in his comments in Robert’s obituary? At what point did she truly begin to worry? That night at dinner? The following morning? Frank Mayer reported that messengers arrived to announce that Robert was missing on July 4. Was Agnes at the riverfront with baby Ann and the children as searchers began the efforts?

Mayer does say his body, a “ghastly object covered with the mire and filth of the treacherous stream” was finally recovered and swathed in linen before being taken to the “desolate home of the widow,” and that “her grief was too deep for tears, silent, chill” when Robert’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Agnes had lost her father, two sisters, her own baby girl and now her husband. She had also now lost her position in the mission, her income and her own religious calling. No single woman with children could be expected to continue to work at the mission. Everything she loved, valued and aspired to attain was gone beneath the swirling current of the river. Is it any wonder that “she stands in his door or walks by the river weeping?”

Agnes had no way of knowing that Robert’s death would ultimately lead to the next and longest phase of her life.


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

[2]Thomas Hughes Papers, Box 1, Mankato State University, Mankato, Minnesota. For additional information on Traverse des Sioux see posts for Fannie Huggins Pettijohn and Lydia Pettijohn Huggins. Nothing remains of the mission site or any of the buildings today but the location encompasses the current site of the Nicollet County Treaty Site History Center walking trails on Highway 169 just north of St. Peter, Minnesota.

[3] Obituary Notice of Mr. Hopkins, Missionary Herald, September 1851, Jeff Williamson private collection.

[4] Reminiscences. Richard Chute and his wife, who is only described as “his lovely wife,” (With Pen and Pencil on the Frontier in 1851: The Diary and Sketches of Frank Blackwell Mayer, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1986) were Agnes’ houseguests. Chute was a representative for the W.G. and G.W. Ewing trading firm of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and a brother-in-law of Madison Sweitzer, who was also W.G. Ewing’s brother-in-law. Sweitzer’s controversial role at the Traverse des Sioux treaty signing has been evaluated by historians for generations. (See Minnesota History, June 1951, Minnesota Historical Society.)

[5] Ibid.

[6] With Pen and Pencil on the Frontier in 1851: The Diary and Sketches of Frank Blackwell Mayer, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1986

[7] Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Marietta, OH, Item 23, Folder 3 Jane Williamson to Dearest Cousin from Kaposia, Minnesota Ter., July 10, 1851

[8] Thomas Longley was visiting his sister’s family at the Traverse des Sioux mission when he drowned on July 15, 1843, at the age of 22 years. Both of the drowned men’s bodies were later removed to Greenhill Cemetery, sometimes called the Old Settlers Cemetery, which is located west of the original Traverse des Sioux town site in what is now St. Peter, Minnesota, at Sunrise Drive between Traverse Road and Dodd Avenue.

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This entry was posted in Agnes Johnson Hopkins Pond, Dakota Mission, Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, Minnesota History, St. Peter, Traverse des Sioux, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

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