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

Artist Seth Eastman pained this image of Kaposia in approximately 1847. The two story house on the far left is believed to be the "new" mission house built by Andrew Robertson.

Artist Seth Eastman pained this image of Kaposia in approximately 1847. The two story house on the far left is believed to be the “new” mission house built by Andrew Robertson.

When Jane Williamson arrived at the new mission at Kaposia, she found herself living in a unique community. Although white settlement was not legally permitted on the west side of the Mississippi River in 1846, the land on the east side of the river had been opened to whites as a result of the 1837 federal treaty with the Dakota. The village was only nine miles from Fort Snelling which was the largest settlement of whites in the region, and explorers, tourists, government officials and travelers often visited Kaposia.

The Kaposia band of Mdewakanton Dakota had lived among whites for generations. Unlike their Wahpeton kin at Lac qui Parle, who were isolated hundreds of miles from any ports or cities, the Kaposia were frequent visitors to the fort. Samuel Pond had come to the village over a decade earlier to attempt to teach Chief Taoyateduta’s father, Wakinyantanka, (aka Big Thunder or Little Crow IV) how to use a plow and government farmers had been assigned to the village since the 1830s.

Rev. Alfred Brunson was the first Methodist missionary at Kaposia. He established the mission and school there in May of 1837.

Rev. Alfred Brunson was the first Methodist missionary at Kaposia. He established the mission and school there in May of 1837.

They were also familiar with missionaries because the Methodist Church had established a mission school and church at Kaposia in 1837, led by Rev. Alfred Brunson as Superintendent, Rev. David King as missionary and teacher and John Holton, who was to assist with farming. The group included Holton’s family as well as James Thompson, an enslaved man from Africa who was married to a Dakota woman. Brunson had brought Thompson to the site and raised the funds to purchase his freedom for $1,200.00. It was the Methodist group who built the first frame house at Kaposia, the one the Williamson’s moved into when they arrived in 1846, and who started the first school, where Rev. King taught and studied as he attempted to learn the Dakota language. Unfortunately, Brunson became ill and was replaced by Rev. James Kavanaugh in 1839, who brought his family as well as two white missionary women, Mrs. Boardman and Miss Julia Boswell, to teach in the Dakota school.[1]

Rev. Kavanaugh ran into disagreements and problems with Wakinyantanka and moved his family across the river to the settlement known as Red Rock, today’s Newport, Minnesota. He hoped to continue the school at Kaposia but Wakinyantanka grew frustrated and forced the Methodists to give up the school and the mission in 1843.

For the next three years, the Kaposia band had no opportunity to learn to read and write their own language and when Wakinyantanka died in October 1845, unrest and anxiety was prevalent among the Dakota. It didn’t help that Wakinyantanka did not name one of his sons who were living at Kaposia as his successor but chose Taoyateduta to take the position as Little Crow V. The transition did not go smoothly. When Taoyateduta showed up to claim his position, he was ambushed by two of his brothers who shot him through both of his wrists as he folded his arms across his chest. Refusing to let the physician at Fort Snelling amputate his arms, Taoyateduta managed to survive but had deformed wrists and hands for the rest of his life. His two rebellious brothers were killed and he then contacted the federal Indian Agent to ask him to send a missionary to the village to bring education and church teachings to Kaposia.[2]

It was in this challenging atmosphere that Jane arrived in October of 1846.

Eastman also painted one of the more permanent structures that the Dakota used at Kaposia. Made from bark and wood posts, the structures were used during the summer months.

Eastman also painted one of the more permanent structures that the Dakota used at Kaposia. Made from bark and wood posts, the structures were used during the summer months.

We know from Thomas Williamson’s letter to S.B. Treat that the house they were to move into wasn’t ready for the family. Eben Weld, the farmer appointed to the Kaposia by the government, had been living there since the Methodists left, and some repairs were needed. He also reported that their luggage didn’t arrive from Traverse des Sioux until November 20, 1846.[3] Unfortunately, Thomas didn’t explain where the family stayed while waiting for their clothing and supplies and while he was repairing the house. It was getting cold in Minnesota by the end of October; too cold to sleep outdoors. The group included Thomas, Margaret, Jane, Marguerite Renville and the Williamson children: John, Andrew, Nancy, Smith and Martha. It may be that they went to the home of friends in the area like Gideon Pond and his wife Sarah, who was Margaret Williamson’s sister. They were at the mission at Oak Grove, about 20 miles from Kaposia, and may have provided a place to stay for the new arrivals, at least until the house was ready. With the Dakota away, they may also have temporarily moved into one of the winter houses made out of bark that the Dakota had built earlier.

While on winter hunts, the Dakota used portable houses made of deer skins that we know as "teepees." Most images of Kaposia include both teepees and bark houses.

While on winter hunts, the Dakota used portable houses made of deer skins that we know as “teepees.” Most images of Kaposia include both teepees and bark houses.

Thomas made it clear in the letter that they did not open a school immediately since the Kaposia band had already left for the winter hunt when the family arrived at the village in October. He mentioned that only one family from Lac qui Parle had remained on site for the winter.[4] This reprieve from beginning classes made it possible for the family to get to know their neighbors and to become familiar with their new location.

Andrew Robertson brought his family to Kaposia in 1846 and was the first person Thomas Williamson accepted into the Presbyterian Church upon "profession of faith." This photo includes notes on all the places Andrew lived during his time in Minnesota.

Andrew Robertson brought his family to Kaposia in 1846 and was the first person Thomas Williamson accepted into the Presbyterian Church upon “profession of faith.” This photo includes notes on all the places Andrew lived during his time in Minnesota.

One of the families they met soon after their arrival was that of Andrew Robertson. Andrew was a Scotsman who had been in the country since 1837. He had worked with Rev. David King at Kaposia, assisting with the farming. His wife Jane was the daughter of Dakota woman, whose own father was white. Jane’s father was also white. She had been educated at the Ojibwe mission at Mackinac and became Andrew Robertson’s second wife in May of 1836.

Jane Robertson, whose Dakota name was Daybreak Woman, was the daughter and granddaughter of Dakota women who had married white men. She became the first female Superintendent of Indian Education on the Dakota reservations in Minnesota.

Jane Robertson, whose Dakota name was Daybreak Woman, was the daughter and granddaughter of Dakota women who had married white men. She became the first female Superintendent of Indian Education on the Dakota reservations in Minnesota.

Jane’s mother had remarried by then to Hazen Mooers, a noted trader who lived on Grey Cloud Island about ten miles south of Kaposia. Jane and Andrew lived with them for the first few years of their marriage. When the Williamson’s arrived at Kaposia in 1846, the Robertson’s had five living children and were settled in their home about a half mile south of the mission site at Kaposia. Their firstborn son, James Wabasha Robertson, had died at the age of three years in 1838. A second boy, Thomas, was born in 1839, followed by Marion in 1840. Angus arrived in 1842 and Gustavus was born two years later in 1844. Francis was only six weeks old when the Williamson’s arrived and the Robertson’s subsequently had three more children: Marie, born in 1848; William, born in 1850; and Martha, born in 1855. Eventually most of the Robertson children attended classes with Jane Williamson at the mission school at Kaposia and became great friends with the Williamson children.

The little community around Kaposia increased again when Samuel and Persis Dentan, who had been stationed at the Dakota mission at Red Wing, left the ministry and settled in Red Rock, across the river from Kaposia. (The Story of Persis Dentan was covered in an earlier Dakota Soul Sisters entry.)

Thomas used the first few months at Kaposia to design a new mission house for the site that was to measure 30’ x 36’ with 18-foot posts 11 rooms with closets. He hired Andrew Robertson to begin construction on the new house, which took more than two years to complete.[5] He also spent time in the future capital city of St. Paul, just four miles to the north, familiarizing himself with clergy in the area and establishing relationships in that community.

Thomas Williamson went looking for a teacher for school children in St. Paul and Harriet Bishop responded. She spent two nights with the Williamson's at Kaposia in July 1847 and opened the first public school in St. Paul a few days later.

Thomas Williamson went looking for a teacher for school children in St. Paul and Harriet Bishop responded. She spent two nights with the Williamson’s at Kaposia in July 1847 and opened the first public school in St. Paul a few days later.

One of the problems that Thomas discovered in St. Paul was the lack of a school for the children there. He estimated that there were at least 36 children in the city who had nowhere to attend school. His concern prompted him to write to Catharine Beecher who ran The Beecher School in Albany, New York. Catharine was the sister of the famous abolitionist author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose serialized, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was published in 1851 in the National Era, became a major factor in the start of the United States Civil War.

Thomas explained to Catharine Beecher that his sister Jane had a successful school for Mdewakanton Dakota children at Kaposia but he was concerned about the children in the growing city of St. Paul. He asked for Beecher’s help in identifying a woman who could come out to teach these children. Harriet Bishop, a 30-year-old teacher who was attending Beecher’s School, was seeking a new adventure and quickly agreed to go.

On the morning of July 16, 1847, the steamer “Lynx” arrived at Kaposia. In her book, Floral Home, published in 1857, Harriet described the scene: “All nature had conspired, too, for a glorious day when we first looked on Little Crow’s village, or Kaposia, where our boat landed. The ringing of the bell occasioned a grand rush and with telegraphic speed every man, woman and child flew to the landing. To an unsophisticated eye like mine, the scene on shore was novel and grotesque…blankets and hair streaming in the wind, limbs uncovered, children nearly naked, the smaller ones entirely so, while a papoose was ludicrously peeping over the shoulder of nearly every squaw. In the midst of the waiting throng appeared the missionary and his sister.”[6]

This image of the steamboat Charles Carroll from the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, portrays a typical steam boat from 1846. This is the kind of ship that brought Harriet Bishop to Kaposia. Dozens of travelers passed the village of Kaposia on similar ships, gawking at the Dakota as they headed for St. Paul.

This image of the steamboat “Charles Carroll” from the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, portrays a typical steam boat from 1846. This is the kind of ship that brought Harriet Bishop to Kaposia. Dozens of travelers passed the village of Kaposia on similar ships, gawking at the Dakota as they headed for St. Paul.

Harriet spent two more days with the Williamsons at Kaposia and then Dr. Williamson arranged for two Mdewakanton women to escort her by canoe to the capital city. She called at the home of J.R. Irvine, where she was to stay and within a few days she opened her first school in a former blacksmith’s shop. Classes opened in her humble school room on July 19, 1847. Of the first seven students who showed up for school, only two were white. Harriet could speak only English so she relied on a mixed blood Dakota girl who could read and speak Dakota, English and French to help her communicate.[7]

By the summer of 1847, Jane and the rest of the family were preparing for a trip back to Ohio. Thomas wrote to David Green on June 15, 1847, saying that he needed to take John and Andrew to relatives out east where they could attend school. He also wanted to recruit some new workers for the Dakota mission.[8] It had been over five years since Thomas and Margaret had been east and they hadn’t seen their daughter Elizabeth during that time. It had been four years since Jane had visited friends and family in Ohio and they were all anxious to make the journey. By October, 1847, however, Thomas had not had an answer from David Greene and wrote to him again, reminding him that the passage to the east would be closed in two weeks as the rivers froze.[9] Apparently Thomas decided they would make the journey whether they had permission or not and the family left Kaposia in early November.

Such a trip was not unusual. Most mission families took what might be called a furlough from service at least once every four years or so. The breaks usually lasted several months since it could take four to six weeks of travel to get to Ohio, where most of the missionaries were from. In the case of this 1847 trip, it isn’t clear whether the two youngest Williamson children, Smith and Martha, who were five and three years old respectively, were along for the journey. It was quite common for the mission families to take care of one another’s youngest children during such furloughs. In Jane’s case, she was no doubt anxious to check on her property as The Beeches was being rented and she had originally planned to return there after only two years but now it had been twice that long. She also wanted to see her cousin Elizabeth and to learn how the rest of the family was doing.

After several months in Ohio, Thomas, Margaret and Jane returned to Kaposia on May 5, 1848. They had left John and Andrew behind to go to school, but seven-year-old Nancy was definitely with Jane and her parents on the way home. Jane wrote to her cousin Elizabeth on June 8, 1848, describing the trip back to Kaposia.

“We left Ripley on the evening of the 17th of April and arrived here on the 5 of May. We spent the first Sabbath in St. Louis and were in Galena from Friday till Tuesday evening. We became acquainted with some pleasant people there and I wanted to have enjoyed their company much but sister and Nancy Jane had been unwell all the way and in Galena were so sick that I longed to reach even our Indian house. Nancy Jane is still unusually delicate but has… recovered her health and her mother is much better than she was and she can do light work without much fatigue and sits down or has to lie down more than once or twice during the day.

“My own health was good by the way but I have suffered much more from ill health since our return than altogether before in this country a few days after our arrival I was taken with chills and fever when recovering from this a carbuncle on my shoulder caused me painful days and wakeful nights. For two weeks I was unable to do anything but teach: had I been at home I should have rested from this also. I am still weak and much reduced but the carbuncle is discharging and I was able to assist a little with the washing yesterday. I scarce know how we should have done had not the Louis included Miss Cunningham to come with us. We would feel it a great privilege to have her remain with us but as she is much needed at some of the other stations. If sister should continue better perhaps we ought not to wish it. She will be better and useful at either of the stations.

“We have in the family a hired man and a young man who came to teach the man and boys of this village. The latter Mr. Cook is quite young makes the Dakota sounds with ease and thus far appears pleased with his work. The people of this village manifest a much greater desire to learn since our return than before. More of them also attend our religious meetings.

“A short time since we made a feast and invited the men. Bro gave a temperance lecture quite a number of them promised to abstain from spirit water, some for two moons others for four. You may suppose from these circumstances that we are much encouraged but could you dearest cousin hear the nightly drumming, songs and savage yells which accompany their scalp dance you would feel that they are still mad on their idols. O that the Lord would grant the influences of His Holy Spirit both to them and us.

“I teach in our little sitting room. The scholars come 1, 2, 3 or more at a time just as they choose or perhaps as they can for when the women are working their corn the girls must have the care of children and each one generally has a child on her back when she comes to read. I am seldom destitute of scholars and always busy if I have one. This was written between their going out and coming in.”[10]

Thomas also reported to Selah Treat on the situation at Kaposia upon their return from Ohio.

“It is one month today since we landed here on our return from Ohio. I did not find all the assistants I wanted but Mr. Cook and Miss Martha Ann Cunningham are here now…Among those attending both our religious meetings and our school are the chief and several of the principal men of the village. Mr. Cook teaches the men and boys. He is a native of Canada but of New England parentage. He came at his own expense hoping to get a job as a government teacher but Col. Bruce’s term of office expired before he got here and no one is now making these decisions….The women are taught by Jane with the assistance of Miss Cunningham who came out with us at the expense of the Board….She was willing to come without an appointment thinking perhaps she might wish to return after two years. Thus far she remains very usefully employed for owing to the poor health of Mrs. W. and my sister we have much needed her assistance but if they should recover their health as we hope it is expected she will go to reside with one of the Mr. Ponds.”[11]

Thomas Williamson had met Sylvester Cook in Bloomington, Fayette County, Ohio, in January of 1848. Cook was teaching school at the time but was willing to come out to the Kaposia mission as a teacher. According to Thomas, “He is very well spoken of by his employers and others whose judgment I suppose we may safely reply.”[12] More of Sylvester Cook’s story will be told in the Dakota Soul Sisters story about Harriet Newell Pettijohn.

Martha Ann Cunningham was 29 years old when she arrived at Kaposia. She was relocated to teach at Samuel Pond’s mission at Shakopee in September of 1848 and then helped at the Traverse des Sioux mission with Moses Adams and his wife until spending her final few weeks in Minnesota at Lac qui Parle. Her brother, Hugh Doak Cunningham, and Hugh’s wife, Mary Ellison, a cousin of Jane Williamson, were with the ABCFM from 1856-1865 and the youngest Cunningham girl, Marjorie, visited the mission in 1862 and escaped the war with the Stephen Riggs party in August 1862. I’ll cover the Cunningham sisters in more detail in a future post.

Once Jane had recovered from the fever and chills which accompanied her discomfort from a carbuncle, she returned to teaching the women and girls at Kaposia and experienced some of the most successful years the Dakota mission had ever known.[13]

[1] Unlike the Presbyterian women who came to the Dakota mission under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the Methodist women, like Mrs. Boardman and Julia Boswell, do not appear as prominently in the historic record. The Methodist church abandoned its ministry to the Dakota in 1843 and nothing further is known, at least about Julia Boswell. Mrs. Boardman, however, had quite an interesting story. She was a widow when she came out to Kaposia with Rev. Kavanaugh in 1838. She then married W.R. Brown at Red Rock in1841. They had met when both were working at Kaposia where she was a teacher and Brown a carpenter. In 1846, they became foster parents to Helen Hastings Sibley, the illegitimate daughter of Minnesota Governor Henry Sibley. Helen’s Dakota mother had died in 1843 and the Brown’s raised her until she married in 1859. Dr. Thomas S. Williamson treated Helen as a medical patient in October 1847 and repaired her broken arm in 1848. Helen’s story will be told in a future post on Dakota Soul Sisters.

[2] Lorenzo Lawrence, the son of Catherine Tatidutawin, one of the featured Dakota Soul Sisters, reportedly went with Taoyateduta when the new chief traveled from Lac qui Parle to Kaposia to claim his position as chief of the band after his father’s death. Thomas Robertson shared the story: “Lawrence (Ton-wan-ite-ton) also was, among his own people, a tough character. He and another man (Sunkasistina) at one time shot and killed two of Little Crow’s brothers. Lawrence afterward married one of the widows, and lived with her up to the time of her death. So he had other things in view when he put himself under the protection of the whites.” (Reminiscences of Thomas A Robertson, Minnesota Historical Society Microfilm Collection, Call #M582 Robertson, 1918, p.17)

[3] Thomas Williamson to David Greene of the A.B.C.F.M., November 30, 1846. Minnesota Historical Society, ABCFM Correspondence, BA10-A512b, Box 3.

[4] Ibid. The Wahpeton Dakota of Lac qui Parle and the Mdewakanton Dakota of Kaposia share deep kinship bonds and several Wahpeton families had left Lac qui Parle to relocate to Kaposia when the problems with crop failure and closing of the school and mission there prompted them to leave. Taoyateduta had grown up at Lac qui Parle because his mother was from there and she left Taoyateduta’s father when the future chief was just a toddler and took him back to her family at Lac qui Parle. Both bands shared family ties with the original Renville ancestor and many of the families from both groups were interrelated.

5] Thomas S. Williamson to S.B. Treat, June 5, 1848: Minnesota Historical Society, ABCFM Correspondence, BA10-A512b, Box 3. Thomas mentioned to Treat that they still needed to finish their house at Kaposia.

[6] Bishop, Harriet E., Floral Home or First Years of Minnesota: Early Sketches, Later Settlements & Further Developments, New York, NY 1857

[7] The woman mentioned could be Marguerite Renville, although neither Harriet Bishop nor Thomas Williamson mention her by name. Marguerite had come to Kaposia with the Williamson’s in 1846 but her name is not listed as a teacher there so it is possible that she went to St. Paul to assist Miss Bishop. She married Alexander Duncan Campbell, Jr., in 1849.

[8] Thomas Williamson to David Green, June 15, 1847. Minnesota Historical Society, ABCFM Correspondence, BA10-A512b, Box 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jane Williamson to Elizabeth Burgess, June 9, 1848, Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Item 15, Folder 2. This is the earliest letter from Jane at Kaposia that I have found.

[11] Thomas Williamson to Selah B. Treat, June 5, 1848, Minnesota Historical Society, ABCFM Correspondence, BA10-A512b, Box 3.

[12] Ibid.

[13] A carbuncle is a red, swollen, and painful cluster of boils that are connected to each other under the skin. A boil (or furuncle) is an infection of a hair follicle that has a small collection of pus (called an abscess) under the skin. Usually single, a carbuncle is most likely to occur on a hairy area of the body such as the back or nape of the neck.

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This entry was posted in Alfred Brunson, Andrew Robertson, Dakota Mission, Harriet Bishop, Jane Anderson Robertson, Jane Smith Williamson, Martha Ann Cunningham, Moses Newton Adams, Persis Skimmer Dentan, Sylvester Cook, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

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