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

Jane Williamson was forty years old when she arrived at the Lac qui Parle mission. This photograph was probably taken about ten years later.

Jane Williamson was forty years old when she arrived at the Lac qui Parle mission. This photograph was probably taken about ten years later.

Jane Williamson didn’t come to the Dakota mission at Lac qui Parle as a missionary. Her intention was to stay one or two years to help Thomas and Margaret with their children and teach her nieces and nephews and the other white children at the mission as they approached school age. She had never lived with the Dakota, did not know the language and planned to eventually return to her home in Ohio.[1]

She arrived at an unusual period for the mission. Thomas and his family had been away from Lac qui Parle for over a year and most of the Dakota had gone to Fort Snelling with them or moved to other villages where they had relatives. The crops had failed because of bitterly cold temperatures and early snow; they had no sustainable food source and they took refuge at the fort for several months. They had all left in the spring of 1842, and the Riggs family set out for a furlough in Ohio at the same time. Fanny Huggins, Alexander and Lydia Huggins, and Samuel and Cordelia Pond and their families remained to carry on the work at Lac qui Parle.[2]

Upon their return from Ohio in the spring of 1843, the Riggs relocated to start a new mission at Traverse des Sioux, now St. Peter, Minnesota. Samuel and Cordelia Pond left Lac qui Parle in June of 1843 and moved in with Samuel’s brother Gideon and Gideon’s family at the new Oak Grove mission in Bloomington, Minnesota. The new missionaries, Robert and Agnes Hopkins, came out to Lac qui Parle with the Riggs in the spring of 1843 and began their ministry by learning the Dakota language and familiarizing themselves with the mission operations.

Jane had traveled from Ohio with Agnes and Robert Hopkins so she knew them quite well and it is likely that her path had crossed at some point with Fanny Huggins since she and Fanny had both been teachers near Ripley in Ohio. Only eight-year-old John and five-year-old Andrew Williamson, along with eleven-year-old Amos Huggins, were old enough to begin studying with Jane when she arrived. Elizabeth Williamson and the two oldest Huggins girls, Jane and Eliza, were living with relatives in Ohio.

Fanny Huggins taught the younger Dakota children at the mission. She learned to speak and write Dakota and taught the students in their own language.

Fanny Huggins taught the younger Dakota children at the mission. She learned to speak and write Dakota and taught the students in their own language.

Amos Huggins and John Williamson had already learned the Dakota language from their Indian playmates with whom they had grown up at Lac qui Parle. It is likely that Jane began to pick up Dakota words from the boys as her first introduction to the language.[3] Fanny Huggins was the regular teacher of the Dakota children. She had already been at the mission for four years when Jane arrived. Margaret Williamson and Lydia Huggins worked with the Dakota women, teaching them to sew and do laundry and other domestic tasks. Thomas Williamson conducted worship services and worked with Joseph Renville on translating the Bible into Dakota. He also assisted Alexander Huggins in the many agricultural pursuits that provided animals and vegetables for the mission community and the Dakota who helped with the planting and harvesting. As newcomers, Robert and Agnes Hopkins helped wherever they could while preparing themselves for their own future as teachers and missionaries.

It was during the first few days and weeks of her arrival that Jane met the Dakota women who were a vital part of the church at Lac qui Parle. Joseph Renville, the Dakota/French fur trader whose post was at Lac qui Parle, had married his first wife, Tokanne or Mary Little Crow in the Catholic Church in 1804. Mary was a Christian long before the first missionaries arrived and she had great influence on other Dakota women until her death in 1840. Her children had been raised with knowledge of the Christian church and when Jane arrived in 1843, Magdalena, Rosalie and Marguerite Renville were all in their twenties and still living at home with their father. The youngest of the family, John Baptiste Renville, was twelve years old when Jane arrived at the mission. He and John Williamson were the best of friends and had grown up together at Lac qui Parle.

Catherine Tatidutawin was the first Dakota woman baptized ino Christianity at the Lac Qui Parle Mission in 1837. She is pictured here perhaps 50 years later. (Photo Courtesy Marlin Peterson)

Catherine Tatidutawin was the first Dakota woman baptized ino Christianity at the Lac Qui Parle Mission in 1837. She is pictured here perhaps 50 years later. (Photo Courtesy Marlin Peterson)

The Renville children’s aunt, Tatidutawin, whose Christian name was Catherine, was the first Dakota woman to become a member of the Christian church after the Williamson’s and Huggins’s established the mission. She was married to Mary Little Crow’s brother, Chatka. They had two sons, Kawanke and Towanetatan and a daughter, Wawiyohiyawin. Catherine and Wawiyohiyawin were baptized into the church in December of 1837 and took the Christian names Catherine and Sarah. Sarah was about 17 years old when Jane arrived at Lac qui Parle.[4]

The women of Lac qui Parle were the foundation of the church. The year before Jane arrived they had managed to raise enough money to purchase a bell for the chapel.by selling beaded moccasins to churchgoers out east. Jane, who was named Dowandutawin, or Red Song Woman, by the Dakota, loved to listen to the women sing the Presbyterian hymns of the faith in their own language, no doubt helping her learn to speak and understand the Dakota language.

Despite the installation of the bell and the faithfulness of some of the Dakota women, most Indian men resented the missionaries and believed that the mission should be closed and that their own wives and daughters should return to traditional Dakota religion. Other Dakota men, like Catherine’s own husband Chatka, expressed interest in joining the church but he had two wives, Catherine and Rachel, who was also a church member. Ironically, missionaries like Stephen Riggs refused to allow Dakota men with more than one wife to join the church although he had no problem welcoming the women from such marriages. He believed that the men should be forced to pick one wife and set aside any others. Thomas Williamson disagreed and felt that splitting up families resulted in one or more women being abandoned along with their children and that that situation was harmful to all.

The Williamson's cabin at Lac qui Parle was built in 1836 and included a main room on the ground floor where services were held until the chapel was built in 1841. The bedrooms were on the upper floor.

The Williamson’s cabin at Lac qui Parle was built in 1836 and included a main room on the ground floor where services were held until the chapel was built in 1841. The bedrooms were on the upper floor. This image is from a series of drawings of the mission site created by J.M. Rongstad in 1991 for the Chippewa County Historical Society.

As Jane gradually became aware of the challenges faced by the missionaries, she also settled into her new life. The Williamson house next door to the chapel was 20’ x 30’ with 1-1/2 stories and a clapboard roof. There were two rooms below and three above with a large fireplace and wood plank floors. Jane was given one of the small bedrooms on the upper floor; the boys had the other small room and Thomas and Margaret probably shared with three-year-old Nancy Jane and baby Smith, who was just a year old when Jane arrived.

On June 30, 1844, Thomas Williamson wrote to David Greene of the A.B.C.F.M. to report on how Jane’s work, which had expanded significantly since her arrival. Although he didn’t specifically ask that she receive some kind of salary, he did stress her usefulness to the mission:

“Miss Williamson teaches in English, all the others in Dakota. Jane has taught from April 8 to June 30 – 12 weeks…She has been useful to us in various ways and I do not know that she has in the slightest degree added to our expenses. Still, as she has been for many years a regular contributor to the funds of the Board, I have thought it right that the Board and the Mission should have the credit of what she does in teaching Indian children and so have taken her receipt as from the Board for what she supposes would be a fair price for what she has done in teaching other than Mr. Huggins’ children and mine. It and all she does for us here might be considered as a donation of so much to the Board but she has no wish to have it acknowledged by the Board as such. Teaching English has ever been a very discouraging business but as sister has had more experience in teaching than any who have tried it here before, I hoped she might succeed better. The older scholars… most of them manifest an utter aversion to that application without which we cannot hope to see them make much progress, but some younger ones who we at present board in our families are making good progress in learning to understand as well as read our language.”[5]

Thomas’s comments to Greene provide some insight into the early development of the educational process at Lac qui Parle. He clearly states that Jane is teaching in English while the other teachers speak only Dakota in the classroom but it is also clear that she was now attempting to teach English to the Dakota children. Over time, the Williamson’s and most of the other A.B.C.F.M. missionaries realized that it was much more effective to teach young children only in Dakota and to present them with lessons in spelling and writing only in their own language. English was not taught until a student was in their mid to late teens and then only if they were interested.

Thomas also brings up the subject of boarding Dakota children in their homes. From the earliest days at Lac qui Parle, it was not at all uncommon for the missionary families to take in one or two Dakota children, especially during the winter months while their parents were out on the winter hunt. By welcoming the children into their own families, they were able to provide them with food, warm clothing and a warm, safe place to sleep. This early arrangement was practiced at all of the missions but had nothing to do with the establishment of the hated Indian boarding schools that would devastate so many Indian children in the 1880s to 1920s.

As Jane expanded her work to attempt to teach the Dakota students the English language, Fanny Huggins decided to make a trip back to Ohio with her brother Alexander and Alexander’s family. Her health hadn’t been good and she thought a trip home would be beneficial. Thomas Williamson had already asked Jane if she would be willing to take over Fanny’s classes during the Huggins’s absence from the mission and she agreed.[6]

This replica of the mission at Lac Qui Parle is located at Lac Qui Parle State Park in Chippewa County, Minnesota.

This replica of the mission at Lac qui Parle is located at Lac qui Parle State Park in Chippewa County, Minnesota.

Teaching Fanny’s classes of Dakota children is really how Jane became a teacher in the Dakota language. She had been at Lac qui Parle for 19 months when Fanny left in April of 1845. Although Jane had originally intended to go back to Ohio after two years, she had now committed to remaining at least until Fanny returned. However, when the Huggins came back to Lac qui Parle on October 31, 1845, Fanny returned with her new husband, Jonas Pettijohn, and Jane realized that she didn’t want to stop teaching the Dakota children and she decided to stay at the mission. I’m not sure anyone would have predicted that she’d never move back to Ohio but would spend the remainder of her days among the Dakota people.

 

[1] Thomas S. Williamson to David Greene, head of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (A.B.C.F.M.) October 5, 1843 – “My youngest sister is with us. She came out with Mr. and Mrs. Riggs at her own expense to teach the children of the mission. She may stay one or two years and we don’t expect her to learn the language. Having her here will free up some time for others though.” Minnesota Historical Society, ABCFM Correspondence, BA10-A512b, Box 3

[2]Margaret Williamson, Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, Mary Ann Longley Riggs, Fanny Huggins Pettijohn, Cordelia Eggleston Pond, and Agnes Johnson Hopkins are all featured in earlier posts on Dakota Soul Sisters.

[3] Thomas S. Williamson to David Greene, November 16, 1843. Thomas reported that, like him, Jane was a slow learner (of Dakota) but was making progress. Minnesota Historical Society, ABCFM Correspondence, BA10-A512b, Box 3.

[4] Catherine Tatidutawin is one of the women featured in earlier posts on Dakota Soul Sisters.

[5] Thomas S. Williamson to David Greene, June 30, 1844. Minnesota Historical Society, ABCFM Correspondence, BA10-A512b, Box 3.

[6] Ibid., August 13, 1844.

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This entry was posted in Agnes Johnson Hopkins Pond, Catherine Tatidutawin, Cordelia Eggleston Pond, Dakota Mission, Fanny Huggins Pettijohn, Jane Smith Williamson, Joseph Kawanke, Lac Qui Parle Mission, Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, Margaret Poage Williamson, St. Peter, Traverse des Sioux, Wawiyohiyawin/Sarah Hopkins. Bookmark the permalink.

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