Life of a Legend – The Story of Jane Smith Williamson – Part I

Finally – my desk is cleared; my notes and papers are filed; other projects are under control and I can return to Dakota Soul Sisters. I’ve met so many people over the past two years who have told me how much they enjoy these stories of the women of the Dakota mission and I have thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing about these remarkable individuals.

The last woman discussed on the site is Agnes Carson Johnson [Hopkins] [Pond]. Agnes and her husband, Robert Hopkins, came out from Ohio in 1843, arriving at Fort Snelling in May and then heading out to Lac qui Parle in late June. In addition to Rev. Stephen and Mary Riggs, who led the group back from Ohio, the party included, Thomas Williamson’s sister, Jane Smith Williamson, and Julia Kephart, a young woman from Ohio who was coming out to assist the Riggs family at Traverse des Sioux. Traveling with them were three young Dakota men who had been brought to Ohio by Stephen Riggs in 1842 and were now returning to their families at Lac qui Parle. The three were Lorenzo Lawrence, Henok and Simon. All were in their early twenties.

Julia will be the next woman discussed on this site, but I’m first of all going to tell Jane Williamson’s story. I’ve talked about Jane and her significance to the development of the mission as well as mentioning the amazing personal letters she wrote to family members over the course of her nearly fifty years of working with the Dakota mission. Details of how I first learned about Jane and obtained over 35 of her letters are provided in the post entitled: “Life of a Legend – Introduction to the Story of Jane Smith Williamson,” in March of 2014. I encourage you to review that entry as a good basis for getting to know Jane as you begin to read through her story.

On March 8, 1803, thirty-nine-year-old Mary Webb Smith Williamson gave birth to her only daughter, Jane Smith Williamson, in Fairforest, Union County, South Carolina. Mary and her husband, Rev. William Williamson, had one other child together, their son Thomas Smith Williamson, who was born on March 6, 1800, also in Fairforest. Mary was William’s second wife; his first wife, Catherine Beauford Williamson, had died in childbirth in January 1797. The baby, Esther Alexander Williamson, survived, and was the fourth and youngest daughter born to William and Catherine. Their three older girls were: Mary, born in 1790; Anne, born in 1793; and Elizabeth, born in 1795. On February 19, 1799, William married Mary Webb Smith, welcoming her as stepmother to his four little girls and later as mother to Thomas and Jane.

Thomas and Anne’s home, built in 1783, in on the National Register of Historic Places, and was opened as the Woodruff Bed and Breakfast in Woodruff, South Carolina, in 1987. The former owners, who have since retired, believed that the spirit of Thomas Williamson haunted the house – a story which no doubt attracted visitors to the lovely B&B. Today the house is a private residence in Woodruff, South Carolina.

Thomas and Anne’s home, built in 1783, in on the National Register of Historic Places, and was opened as the Woodruff Bed and Breakfast in Woodruff, South Carolina, in 1987. The former owners, who have since retired, believed that the spirit of Thomas Williamson haunted the house – a story which no doubt attracted visitors to the lovely B&B. Today the house is a private residence in Woodruff, South Carolina.

William Williamson was born in 1762 in Granville County, Virginia, and, like his father, Thomas, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. The family lived in Stovall, Granville County, North Carolina. After the war, Thomas Williamson bought a cotton plantation about 250 miles to the southwest in Spartanburg, South Carolina, with his wife, William’s mother, Anne Newton Williamson. Thomas and Anne owned enslaved[1] people although Anne was opposed to slavery and was related to John Newton, an early slave ship operator from England, who did not publicly renounce slavery until 1788. Newton wrote the well-known hymn, “Amazing Grace,” published in 1779. The hymn has long been believed to be his outpouring of gratitude for God’s grace and forgiveness for his role in the slavery system.

When William Williamson was about 25 years old, he enrolled in Hampden-Sydney College in Hampden-Sydney, Virginia, graduating in 1790. He studied theology and became a Presbyterian minister in 1783, serving churches at Fairforest, Union and Grassy Creek in South Carolina, until 1805. The family lived in the parsonage next door to the church in Fairforest, about 18 miles from William’s parents’ plantation in Spartanburg.

Mary Webb Smith, Jane’s mother, was the second of eleven children born to Samuel and Mary Webb Smith. Born in Essex County, Virginia, in 1763, Mary grew up on her father’s farm next door to the Williamson farm in Stovall, North Carolina. She was well-educated and was characterized by James W. Alexander as follows:

“Colonel Smith’s daughter, Mary “Polly” Webb Smith, understood the Calvinist doctrines better than any woman I ever saw. I have spent days in conversation on theological points with Polly Smith. Her religion was not merely theoretical; but deeply practical. She was truly a devout and humbler person.”[2]

Mary was an avid abolitionist who detested the entire concept and practice of slavery even though her family owned enslaved people. When she and William married, she ignored South Carolina’s laws which forbade teaching enslaved people to read and write. They did not have the option of freeing the enslaved people they owned in South Carolina, but William began to join with other Presbyterian ministers who were becoming more and more outspoken about the evils of slavery. From 1802 to 1804, William and two pastoral colleagues, James Gilliland and Robert G. Wilson, were leaders of what became known as the Second Great Awakening in America. They held evangelistic meetings in Nazareth, South Carolina, near Fairforest and saw a great revival in the church, as well as increased opposition to slavery.

William and Mary’s grandson, John Poage Williamson, described what happened to the family in an article he wrote for a book, Home Mission Heroes, published by the Literature Department of the Presbyterian Church, in New York in 1904.

“William Williamson’s wife, Mary W. Smith, was a woman of the same noble and consecrated spirit as his mother. Sitting one morning in the parsonage of the Fairforest Presbyterian Church in South Carolina, a baby girl in her arms, and a little boy at her knee, just old enough to prattle and to drink in his mother’s feelings, someone knocked at the door. It was the patrol, who immediately proceeded to read her the order from the officers of the district that she must at once cease instructing her salves, or be prosecuted according to the law…But in Mrs. Williamson’s eyes God’s law was far above Man’s laws. So, the patrol had hardly shut the door when she said, ‘Thomas, the gospel must be taught to every creature, go to the cabin and tell the children to come to school.’

“Further notices, a trial, a fine followed…The immediate result was that in less than twelve months that delicate mother with Jane on her lap, was climbing the Allegheny Mountains on horseback. Just ahead was her good husband with little Thomas astride behind him; and their 27 negroes [sic] stringing along as they pleased – all bound for the Ohio River, across which was the land of liberty.”[3]

The Williamsons left Ohio in 1805, with the families of fellow Presbyterian pastors Robert G. Wilson and James Gilliland. In addition to five-year-old Thomas and two-year-old Jane, the party included William’s four daughters, who ranged in age from 14-year-old Mary to 8-year-old Esther. Today the trip is around 420 miles on paved highways but in 1805, they traveled on foot and horseback over mountain trails and through woodlands, sleeping on the ground at night while trying to feed the entire entourage two or three times a day with only occasional access to a wayside inn or tavern. All three families were leaving behind relatives and all personal property as well as bidding farewell to their congregations in the churches they had pastored for so many years.

When the Williamsons arrived in Ohio, they stayed in the home of Thomas Kirker, the second governor of Ohio, in West Union, Ohio.

When the Williamsons arrived in Ohio, they stayed in the home of Thomas Kirker, the second governor of Ohio, in Liberty Township, Ohio.

The three pastors had been in contact with the newly established Presbytery at Chillicothe, Ohio, and were warmly welcomed and received into the Presbytery on August 28, 1805. William and Mary stayed with the Thomas Kirker family on the Kirker farm in Liberty Township, Adams County, Ohio, along with their six children.

A plaque on the wall of the Kirker home reads: 1805 - Homestead of Thomas Kirker, 1760-1857, Settled in Adams County, 1793. Justice of hte Peace, 1797; Member, Constitutional Convention, 1802; Ohio Legislature, 1803-1815, 1816-1917, 1821-1825; Governor of Ohio, 1807-1808. Presented in honor of service during the War of 1812. By Ohio Society - National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, March 25, 1875.

A plaque on the wall of the Kirker home reads: 1805 – Homestead of Thomas Kirker, 1760-1857. Settled in Adams County, 1793. Justice of the Peace, 1797; Member, Constitutional Convention, 1802; Ohio Legislature, 1803-1815, 1816-1917, 1821-1825; Governor of Ohio, 1807-1808.  Presented in honor of service during the War of 1812. By Ohio Society – National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution,    March 25, 1975.

 

 

The Kirkers were members of the West Union Presbyterian Church in West Union, Ohio, where William Williamson became the first pastor in 1805. William soon purchased several acres of land around Manchester, including property in West Union, Ohio, where he built the family home, known as The Beeches. He also pastored the Ebenezer Presbyterian Church in Cabin Creek, Kentucky, just across the Ohio. River from Manchester, Ohio, and in 1814, he became the first pastor of the Manchester Presbyterian Church.

 

William Williamson built his family's first home in West Union, Ohio, in 1805. The charming cottage was named The Beeches for the trees which surrounded the homestead. Jane Williamson lived here from 1805 until 1843.

William Williamson built his family’s first home in West Union, Ohio, in 1805. The charming cottage was named The Beeches for the trees which surrounded the homestead. Jane Williamson lived here from 1805 until 1843.

Jane Williamson was just two years old when the family settled into their new Ohio home. As the baby of the family, with four older sisters and one older brother, Jane no doubt received lots of attention. She was taught to read and write by her parents and certainly her older sisters helped her with her schooling while also instructing her in sewing, needlework and other household tasks. Jane and her mother Mary shared a special bond and Mary delighted in her young daughter. She had never expected to marry and when William asked her to become his bride in 1799, she was already 35 years old, far beyond the age most women were thought to be marriageable. When Thomas was born in 1800, Mary perhaps felt that he would be her only child, but then, when she was nearly 40 years old, little Jane arrived.

William and Mary raised Williams’ daughters and their own children to be thoughtful and serious about their studies and especially about the theology of the Presbyterian Church, a denomination which was constantly shifting and changing as the issue of slavery in America continued to cause friction between the north and the south. Jane grew up around a dinner table where her parents and siblings discussed and argued about both political and religious issues. From several historic sources, it is clear that William Williamson was a significant player in the forming of the Underground Railroad which has its roots along the Ohio River between Kentucky and Ohio in the very early 1800’s. In addition to serving the churches which employed him as their minister, he also operated a ferry boat between Manchester, Ohio, and the Kentucky shore on the south side. What better way to secretly assist individuals who were fleeing a life of enslavement in the south and bring them to freedom in the north?

Like many of the Presbyterian pastors and citizens who lived on the Ohio side of the river, the Williamsons, the Wilsons and the Gillilands were all secret participants in aiding escapees on their journey to freedom. Of course, all of their activities had to be done without ever communicating openly about what was happening or who was being transported. So-called slave catchers from the south were constantly patrolling the waterfront on the Ohio side, stalking those they suspected of harboring formerly enslaved people in an effort to recapture the escapees and return them to their owners in the south. For the Williamson children, it was no doubt a frightening but also exciting operation world which they sensed all around them.

When Jane was ten years old, her grandfather in South Carolina, Thomas Williamson, passed away at the age of 77 years. He specified in his will that all of the enslaved people he owned were to be freed at the time of his death. William’s mother Anne was unable to fulfill her husband’s instructions as long as they remained in South Carolina so she brought their household of enslaved persons and joined William and his family at The Beeches in West Union, Ohio. Jane was at an impressionable age and no doubt loved hearing her grandmother’s stories about life in the south and her lifelong opposition to slavery.

Jane's mother, Mary Webb Smith Williamson, is buried in the Founders Cemetery adjacent to the Manchester Presbyterian Church in Manchester, Ohio, where William Williamson was pastor.

Jane’s mother, Mary Webb Smith Williamson, is buried in the Founders Cemetery adjacent to the Manchester Presbyterian Church in Manchester, Ohio, where William Williamson was pastor.

Shortly after Anne’s arrival, Jane’s life entered a period of fast and dramatic change. When she was 11 years old, her beloved mother Mary passed away at the age of 50.[4]  By that time, Jane’s brother Thomas was living with the John Gilliland family and attending a boys seminary in Ripley, Ohio, 20 miles west on the Ohio River. Six months later, Jane’s sister Mary married James Ellison, a prominent member of the Adams County, Ohio, establishment. Nine months later, on June 13, 1815, Elizabeth Williamson married Robinson Baird, a businessman in Ripley. Then, on May 27, 1816, William married his third wife, Hannah Robb Johnston, a widow from his Cabin Creek church in Kentucky.

Jane was now at home with her father William, step-mother Hannah, grandmother Anne Williamson and William’s two daughters, Anne and Esther. The day after Christmas in 1816, Anne married Dr. William Willson, a prominent physician in Ripley, Ohio, and on March 27, 1817, Esther married William Kirker, the son of the second governor of Ohio. Still more family members made the journey to Ohio from South Carolina in 1819, when William’s sister, Anne, and her husband, Colonel John Means, brought their own 24 enslaved individuals to freedom and established their new home near William and his family in West Union.

The arrival of her Means relatives introduced Jane to her South Carolina cousins, Elizabeth, who was four years older than Jane, and the younger boys, Thomas, 16; John, 13; James, 10; and Hugh, who was just five years old when the family came north. Jane and Elizabeth became lifelong friends and the majority of Jane’s famous letters, which are preserved in private collections and museums across the country, were written to Elizabeth between 1840 until Elizabeth’s death in 1899 at the age of 90.

Thomas graduated from Jefferson College in 1820 and that same year, on April 25, 1820, Jane’s grandmother, Anne Newton Williamson, died at The Beeches at the age of 83 years. Thomas left for medical school at Yale University and Jane, now 17 years old, remained at home at The Beeches with her father and stepmother.

Then, in 1819, a letter arrived for Jane from her mother’s brother, John Granville Smith, in Granville County, North Carolina, informing her that she had inherited a woman enslaved there and her two children, left to her by another member of the family who had passed away. If she did not want to claim the woman and children, they could be sold and she would be sent $300.00. Jane was horrified at the idea of owning another individual but she also could never agree to receive any proceeds from their sale. She and Thomas began to plan how they could get to North Carolina and finally in 1821, they set out on horseback to visit their mother’s family and bring the woman and her children back to Ohio and set them free.

John Poage Williamson described their arrival in North Carolina as follows:

“As they neared the old stamping ground of their fathers, they were filled with expectancy and longing as they called to mind the stories their parents had told them of the large circle of dear friends and relatives who lived there. They stopped one night at the plantation of one of these near relatives. The large house with wide porches stood some distance from the road, with negro quarters in the rear. They were courteously, though somewhat cautiously, entertained. In the morning when prayers and breakfast were over the negro boys who had taken their horses the night before, were seen holding them at the mounting block.

“The host then called Thomas to one side and said, “Now Thomas, as you have told us the object of your visit, I wish to tell you that it will be impossible for us to entertain you on your return; and for the future, if you continue in your course, the farther away you stay the better.”

“Thus it was that for conscience sake the ties that bound them to earthly kith and kin were rudely severed.”[5]

The woman, who now was considered Jane’s property, was named Jemima. She was born in about 1800 and in 1817 was permitted to enter into marriage with an enslaved man Joe Logan, who belonged to John Granville Smith. They had two children at the time that Jane and Thomas arrived in North Carolina in 1821, but one of the children died before they were to leave for Ohio. Jemima’s husband, Joe Logan, begged Jane and Thomas to buy him so that he could go with Jemima and their daughter but they had no money to do so and had to leave Joe behind.

Joe was not about to accept the separation, however, and in 1822, he escaped from the Smith plantation and made his way to The Beeches where Jemima was living with the Williamsons. Although he was never legally free, Joe Logan made a life for himself in Ohio and his owner, John Granville Smith, knowing Joe would never be taken alive, did not pursue bringing him back. The Logans lived and worked at The Beeches until 1841, when they were able to buy a 26-acre hillside farm immediately north of West Union and erected their home there. Joe as an active participant in the Underground Railroad and although he had to look over his shoulder every day of his life to watch for slavecatchers, he lived as a free man until his untimely death in 1849, following an accidental shot to his foot which led to lockjaw. Jemima lived until September 23, 1885. They had several children who made their homes and raised their own families in Ohio, a living legacy to Jane and Thomas Williamson’s and the visit they made to their southern relatives so many years earlier.

_________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] In recent years, there has been a conscious effort on the part of historians and others to not refer to individuals as “slaves,” because that name can connote that the individual has only that identity rather than the more appropriate “enslaved person,” because slavery was imposed on them, not a personal characteristic or choice. To our ears, it may sound contrived or confusing but I am attempting to be sensitive to current considerations.

[2] The Life of Archibald Alexander DD LLD, 1st Professor of the Theological Seminary at Princeton, NJ, by James W. Alexander DD, 1870

[3] John P. Williamson: A Brother to the Sioux, by Winifred W. Barton, Sunnycrest Publishing, Clements, Minnesota, 1980, p. xiv

[4] Mary Smith Williamson’s tombstone in the cemetery at the Manchester Presbyterian Church in Manchester, Ohio, bears the following inscription, “In memory of Mrs. Mary Williamson, Late Wife of the Rev. W. Williamson, who died on the 21st of March AD 1815 in the 50th year of her life. Blessed are the dead who died in the Lord.” Family records indicate that Mary passed away on March 21, 1814.

[5] John P. Williamson: A Brother to the Sioux, by Winifred W. Barton, Sunnycrest Publishing, Clements, Minnesota, 1980, p. xv. John Williamson indicates that both Thomas and Jane were the inheritors in this case but other accounts from Adams County, Ohio, specify that it was Jane who was the one named in the estate documents.

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