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

Jane Williamson was 21 years old when her brother Thomas graduated from Yale University Medical School and returned to Ohio where he opened a practice in the growing city of Ripley in 1824. Jane had established her own career as a teacher, accepting the white children of the neighborhood as well as the children of the formerly enslaved persons in subscription schools in Manchester and West Union, Ohio. She never turned a child away because of inability to pay and earned a reputation for being an excellent educator.

A History of Adams County, Ohio, records the following story about Jane:

“Her teaching the colored people aroused bitter feeling in the community, but she was such an excellent teacher that it did not decrease the number of her white pupils, and her control of her pupils was so prefect that the bringing of the colored pupils into the school did not affect the government of her school. The progress made by her pupils was rare and her teaching so thorough that the presence of the colored pupils did not drive the white ones away. There were many threats of violence at her school, but she was not alarmed. On more than one occasion, friends of hers, dreading the attempt to forcibly break up her school, took their rifles and went to her school house to defend her. Some of these men were rough characters, and hard drinkers, and some of them were pro-slavery but they were determined her school should not be disturbed. They regarded her as a fanatic in her views, but as they regarded her as an efficient teacher, they did not propose that her work should be interfered with….Her love for children was a distinguishing trait of her character. She won their affections entirely, and then ruled them without any apparent effort.”[1]

Jane’s ardent abolitionist beliefs were combined with a deep passion that the children in her care would come to a belief in Jesus Christ and grow into mature believers and members of the church. She was an active worker in Sunday School at her father’s Presbyterian churches as well as attending and leading prayer meetings and missionary society activities. She was also surrounded by relatives. By the time her brother Thomas married Margaret Poage on April 10, 1827, Jane and Thomas had eighteen nieces and nephews, the children of their four half-sisters. The nine boys and nine girls ranged in age from eleven years to three weeks old when the family gathered for Thomas and Margaret’s wedding.

On May 2, 1828, Thomas and Margaret welcomed their first son, William Blair Williamson. It is not hard to imagine that Jane had a special fondness for the little boy and that her grief matched that of Thomas and Margaret when William died at the age of 21 months on March 27, 1830. The loss must have been bittersweet for Margaret who gave birth to the couple’s first daughter, Mary Poage Williamson, just a few days later on April 13, 1830. Another boy, James Gilliland Williamson, was born in 1832. Jane and Thomas had always been very close and it is not hard to imagine that Jane spent every minute she could visiting with these two little ones. She and Margaret formed a strong friendship and although Ripley was nearly twenty miles from Manchester on the Ohio River, trips back and forth were common.

Gravestones of the first three Williamson children in Ripley, Ohio. William died at the age of 22 months in 1830 and Mary and James both died of scarlet fever in January 1833. Mary was almost three years old and James was not yet a year old.

Gravestones of the first three Williamson children in Ripley, Ohio. William died at the age of 22 months in 1830 and Mary and James both died of scarlet fever in January 1833. Mary was almost three years old and James was not yet a year old.

It is hard to comprehend the family’s overwhelming grief when both Mary and James died just a few days apart in January of 1833. Mary was almost three years old and James just one year old when they lost their lives to scarlet fever.

For Jane, the loss of Thomas and Margaret’s first three children led to more personal loss for her. In August of 1833, Thomas gave up his medical practice and followed the call he felt to take Margaret and move to Cincinnati where he planned to enroll in Lane Seminary and study to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister. His further goal was to take his new profession not to a local pulpit in Ohio, but to American Indians in the west. After just eight months at the Seminary, Thomas was licensed as a preacher and he left a few weeks later to tour the land of the Dakota on the Mississippi River halfway across the country from Ohio. By that time he and Margaret had another child; daughter Elizabeth Poage Williamson was born on October 30, 1833, in Walnut Hills, Ohio, while Thomas was at seminary.

After four months traveling the wilderness of the area that would become Minnesota, Thomas returned home and told his family that he and Margaret would soon be leaving to serve as missionaries to the Dakota. Thomas was ordained as a Presbyterian minister at Red Oak Presbyterian Church in Ohio on September 18, 1834, and he and Margaret left for the west in April 1835. They took 18-month-old Elizabeth with them. Margaret was already four months pregnant with their son, John Poage Williamson, when they embarked on their new adventure.

I’ve often wondered about Jane’s feelings as she said goodbye to her dear brother and to her friend Margaret. Margaret’s younger sister, Sarah Poage, was going with them to the land of the Dakota and I can’t help but think that Jane wished she could also accompany them. One of her biographers suggests that she felt she couldn’t leave her father and as the last child at home, she was responsible for caring for him.[2] If that were the case, it implies that William Williamson may have already been widowed again by the time Thomas left. If William’s third wife, Hannah, was still living, Jane may have been free to go but instead she remained behind continuing to teach and attend to her church duties.[3]

It was nearly four years before Jane saw Thomas and Margaret again. They made a trip home to Ohio, leaving Fort Snelling in March of 1839, and spending three months with their Ohio families. They took two of their children with them. Their oldest, Elizabeth, was five years old, and Thomas and Margaret took her to live with relatives and start school in Ohio.[4] The other was probably the youngest, Andrew Williamson, who had been born at Lac qui Parle on January 31, 1838. It appears that they left their three-year-old son, John at Lac qui Parle with fellow missionaries, Stephen and Mary Riggs.

Unfortunately, no letters have been found to record what Jane was thinking about when she heard the stories from Thomas and Margaret about life among the Dakota. She was still caring for her father at The Beeches and was once again left behind when Thomas and Margaret returned to Minnesota in June of 1839. Just five months after their departure, William Williamson passed away on November 29, 1839, at the age of seventy-seven years. At the time of his death, the pioneering pastor who fought slavery all of his life, had 31 living grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

Jane was 36 years old when she inherited the Williamson family farm, The Beeches, from her father. I’ve often considered the kind of pressure she may have been receiving from her brothers-in-law and her older sisters. A single woman owning and operating a farm was very unusual and I don’t doubt that the family wanted her to sell the property and move in with one of her sisters’ families. She was clearly not going to marry at her age and why would a single spinster schoolteacher want to try to manage the family farm. But Jane didn’t sell and didn’t leave, perhaps treasuring her independence.

Then in May of 1842, Stephen and Mary Riggs took a year of furlough from the Lac qui Parle mission and returned east. Mary visited friends and family while Stephen managed the printing of the first Dakota/English dictionary.  At some point during that year, the Riggs contacted Jane and perhaps gave her a letter from Thomas and Margaret or simply relayed greetings. In any case, Jane became convinced to accompany the Riggs when they returned to Minnesota in March of 1843. She rented The Beeches  to an area farmer and embarked on the greatest adventure of her life at the age of forty years. She boarded the steamer at Ripley, Ohio, and traveled across the country with 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, and new missionaries, Robert and Agnes Hopkins, were part of the group. Julia Ann Kephart, a young woman from Ripley, Ohio, was also along to help Mary Riggs with the children.

Three young Dakota men also returned home with the group. Lorenzo Lawrence, Simon Wasicuntanka and Henok/Appearing Cloud,  had been taken east by Stephen Riggs in 1842. They 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. Riggs 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.

Jane arrived at Fort Snelling on May 7, 1843. Construction on the fort began in 1817. In 2016, the Minnesota Historical Society is planning a major renovation of the entire area, which has been open as a historic site since the 1950s.

Jane arrived at Fort Snelling on May 7, 1843. Construction on the fort began in 1817. In 2016, the Minnesota Historical Society is planning a major renovation of the entire area, which has been open as a historic site since the 1950s.

After more than a month of steamboat travel, the group arrived at Fort Snelling on May 7, 1843. Jane remained at the fort where her brother Thomas was serving as garrison surgeon while the others continued on to Lac qui Parle. A crop failure at Lac qui Parle in 1842 had brought the Williamson’s to the fort and Thomas had signed on for a year of service, planning to return to the mission at Lac qui Parle in September 1843.

Jane thus spent the first few months of her new adventure in the bustling community at the fort. Soldiers, government agents, traders, bands of Indians and other adventurers all visited the fort. The Williamson’s were often guests of the officers who entertained at dinner parties in this last vestige of white civilization between the Mississippi River and the west coast.

It was at the fort that Jane met her seven-year-old nephew, John Poage Williamson, for the first time. Andrew was now five years old and two more children had joined Thomas and Margaret’s family. Nancy Jane was two years old when Jane arrived and little Smith Burgess Williamson was just nine months old. Jane immediately embraced life with the family as she got to know the children and helped Margaret as much as possible.

As summer days faded away, the Williamsons began to prepare for the return trip to Lac qui Parle. They left the fort early in September and arrived at the mission approximately three weeks later after battling the weather, the big slough and the mosquitoes as they followed the Minnesota River west. Jane found herself in a tiny upstairs bedroom in the mission house. The primitive mission cabin, the humble adobe chapel and the schoolroom downstairs were a far cry from the life she had known in Ohio, but she was also excited and grateful to finally be with her beloved brother and his family in this place they had all come to call home.

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[1] A History of Adams County, Ohio, by Nelson W. Evans and Emmons B. Stivers, published by E.B. Stivers, West Union, Ohio,  1900, p. 638

[2] Ibid., p. 648

[3] No death certificate or burial site has ever been found for Hannah Robb [Johnson] Williamson, who married William Williamson in Cabin Creek, Kentucky, on May 27, 1816. She is not identified among the burials at the Manchester, Ohio Founders Cemetery where William himself is interred next to his second wife, Mary Webb Smith Williamson.

[4] It was quite common for the early missionaries to send their children back to relatives in the east, often for years at a time. Elizabeth Williamson did not return to Minnesota until 1851, when she was nearly 18 years old. She had lived with her mother’s sister, Rebecca, and Rebecca’s husband, John B. Knox, and their family in Yellow Springs, Ohio, since she was four years old. American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions Correspondence, 5/3/1838, BA10.4512b, Box 2, Minnesota Historical Society.

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One Response to Life of a Legend – The Story of Jane Smith Williamson – Part II

  1. schlepone says:

    So glad to have you back, and writing these interesting stories!

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