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

By the early spring of 1851, it was becoming clear that the federal government’s plans to remove the Dakota from the west side of the Mississippi River and open the land to white settlement were moving ahead quickly. For the men and women of the Dakota mission, the treaty would mean that each family had to make a decision about whether to accompany the Dakota to the proposed new reservations in western Minnesota or to leave mission work behind forever. The mission board back in Boston was unsure what course of action to take. They had no intention of giving up their ministry to the Dakota but it was clear that the missions at Kaposia, Red Wing, Shakopee and Oak Grove would have to be closed or relocated. It was unclear whether they’d be able to sell their property on the Mississippi River or where they would find the funds to establish new mission stations on the future reservations.

Jane had little time to be overly concerned about the future. Thomas and Margaret’s youngest child, Henry, was born on March 1, 1851 and a few days later Jane went down to Red Wing to take care of Martha Hancock, who was dying. Her husband, Joseph, was unable to care for their nine-year-old daughter Marilla or their son, Willie, who was just five months old, while also trying to care for Martha. Jane stayed for twelve days until Martha passed away on March 20, 1851. When he wrote to S.B. Treat to share the news of Martha’s death Joseph said, “She [Jane] attended Mrs. H during the last 12 days of her life with all the care of an affectionate sister.” [1]

Three months later, on June 29, 1851, Taoyateduta and his men, along with Thomas Williamson, Steven Riggs and others boarded the steamship Excelsior at St. Paul for the scheduled signing of the new treaty at Traverse des Sioux. Thomas Williamson was back at Kaposia when fellow missionary, Robert Hopkins, drowned in the Minnesota River. His loss sent waves of grief and shock throughout the mission and the Dakota communities. Jane was a dear friend of Robert’s wife Agnes and her heart ached for her friend’s tragic loss. She was also concerned about what Agnes would do, assuming that she would take the children and return to Ohio.[2]

Jane wrote to her cousin Elizabeth in Ohio on July 10, 1851, to tell her about Robert’s death and Agnes’ plight. She also thanked her for sending some much needed financial assistance:

“When Mr. Livingston came here he brought me some money and I felt sorry I had written you such a beggering letter. After receiving this money I went to St. Paul’s shopping for the first time since I came to Minnesota. Last Summer I promised some of my Indian girls that I wanted to take them on a steamer when I could afford it so short time since I took four of them and went down to Red Wing to see Mrs. Aiton. I had intended to spend a week but hearing sister was sick I hastened home before it had quite expired. The little girls enjoyed the trip very much except my poor scrofulous Fanny. I often think we will not have her with us long. To me she is a very precious child but she gives no decided evidence of being born of the Spirit. Oh, pray that she may be made one of the lambs of Jesus. She said to me the other day, “Aunt, Who made God? Did he make himself?”[3]

Although the 1851 Treaty had been signed, little changed at Kaposia or the other mission stations for some time. The A.B.C.F.M. was considering how best to divest themselves of their property and also fund those missionaries who wanted to remain in service and go with the Dakota to their new home. Jane once again found herself caring for others when Joseph Hancock brought his children to Kaposia to stay with the Williamsons while he attended a mission meeting. During his absence, his 13-month-old son, Willie, died on September 27, 1851. Jane wrote to Nancy Aiton at Red Wing:“I cannot help missing dear little suffering Willie and the house looks sad and lonesome without him.[4]

Jane also expressed her concern for her girls in the same letter:

“I feel much for the girls in our families. They stand on slippery places and know it not. Next week they must all go to Mendota to receive their annuities.”

Jane had no way of knowing that the “slippery places” she worried about would bring loss and tragedy to so many of her Dakota girls in the coming years. Things were changing rapidly and the Williamson’s, like the other mission families, were contemplating what the future would bring. The A.B.C.F.M. had passed a resolution in September 1851, informing the missionaries that those who wished to remain in their villages and give up mission work could do so and could buy the property, buildings, furnishings and farm animals and equipment that had been provided to them by the mission board. Those who wished to go with the Dakota were to sell the property and buildings in which they lived and worked and use the proceeds to erect new structures on the new reservation.

All of the missionaries, except for the Williamson’s and the Riggs’, decided to discontinue their work as missionaries. The Pond brothers both established Presbyterian churches in their villages and prepared to welcome the new white settlers who were rapidly populating the region. Nancy and John Aiton came back to Kaposia where John was to serve as a government teacher to both white families and the remaining Dakota in early fall of 1851. The mission at Traverse des Sioux closed although Moses Adams returned and founded a Presbyterian Church on the site. Red Wing, Shakopee and Oak Grove all ceased to function as active missions. The Riggs remained at Lac qui Parle as the Williamsons prepared to relocate.

In the midst of this time of confusion and anxiety, Jane decided to go to Ohio. I may be filling in the story without proof of her motives but subsequent events lead me to believe that she had reached a major decision in her life. Up until now, Jane had always had the option of going back to her family out east and taking up her role as teacher there. She had helped Thomas and Margaret with the children in the early years but now John and Andrew were away at school, Nancy was eleven years old; Smith was nine and Martha was seven. The baby of the family, Henry was only seven months old, but Margaret was able to manage with the help of the girls. I can’t help but think that Jane may have been tempted to return to the comfort and security of life in Ohio and renew her acquaintance with her dozens of nieces and nephews there. She still owned the Williamson farm, The Beeches, and could quite easily resume her former life.

As it turned out, her trip to Ohio in October of 1851 was not about returning there to live, but about cutting her ties with her former home completely. She left for the east quite suddenly. When Thomas Williamson wrote to S.B. Treat on December 11, 1851, he explained that:

“Sister JSW was desirous of going to Ohio within a year and as she could have suitable company this autumn I thought it would be better for her to go soon and be there in the winter rather than the summer so we proposed to Mr. Aiton to move into the house which Mr. Cook vacated last August and to take charge of the school and promised to pay him for the Dakota scholars at the same rate with sister charges, i.e., 3 dollars each per quarter of 69 days and also for my own children.”[5]

The “suitable company” that Thomas referred to was the Riggs family, who were heading for a furlough in Ohio. Agnes Hopkins and her children were with them and now Jane joined the party, along with her niece, Nancy Jane Williamson, aged eleven, and Marion Robertson, the daughter of Andrew Robertson and his Dakota wife, Jane. Marion was probably about ten years old at this time and had grown up with Nancy Jane at Kaposia. Thomas drew $50 from the mission board to pay for her transportation but assured Treat that she would cover her own expenses.[6]

Jane and the girls stayed in Marietta, Ohio, with Jane’s cousin, Elizabeth and her husband, Dyer Burgess.[7] I often reflect on what a comfort it must have been for Jane to enjoy the hospitality of her beloved cousin. Elizabeth’s husband was a successful Presbyterian minister, an avid abolitionist, and a quite well-to-do member of Marietta society. Their home was a far cry from the humble abode where the Williamson’s lived at Kaposia. By 1851, the Burgess home probably had indoor plumbing, however primitive, and may have even had the capacity to offer a hot bath to their guests.

On March 5, 1852, Jane wrote to Nancy Aiton, who was at Kaposia:

“Very dear Sister,

“Accept my cordial thanks for your kind letters. They carried long by the way have both been received and the latter brought me the latest news I have from home…

“O, with what a thrill of interest I read the names of my old scholars and all you say respecting them. I rejoice to hear that Mary tries to please you and to improve by the opportunities afforded her. May we yet be permitted to see her striving to please the Lord will all her heart. And dear little Susan too tries to be good. How glad I am that she tries. Poor Lucy. May the Lord remember her in mercy. I long to hear more particularly from Margaret. May it not be in vain that they have learned to read the Bible. It must have been very trying to you to give up the chief’s children but I am glad my little Old Woman is with you. Perhaps there still may be mercy in store for her Father.[8]

“I was much gratified to learn that Mr. Aiton had been appointed teacher but why for so short a period? You must be sadly crowded in your little house with so large a family. I often think of you fatigued in body and wearied in mind but dear Sister, there “remaineth a Rest.”

“You say will my brother be willing to take the boarding scholars again. I think it will be much better for you to keep them if you can. How I wish you were more conveniently situated for taking them. I have long thought you and Mr. Aiton better qualified for winning over Dakota children than most members of the mission.

“I have now had the pleasure of seeing all my sisters and more of my other friends than I expected and feel ready and willing to return to the Mission and render any assistance I can, but I do feel a shrinking from all responsibility. If you will take care of the children I will nurse the sick and assist in little matters. I sometimes feel discouraged at seeing so little interest manifested by the church in the cause of missions, so little sympathy for the heathen and the oppressed. I feel that I have done little if anything to awaken an interest.

“I am sitting talking with Cousin Burgess on the subject of abolition. His views are dark and dreary as it respects slavery and there seems to be more breadth than poetry in his arguments. Perhaps my sadness is somewhat increased by the pattering rain and darkness of the day…

“We have now been here more than a week. I had not intended to stay longer than this but the day after our arrival Nancy Jane complained of being very sick and in 24 hours after she was covered with an eruption which Mr. Burgess pronounces scarlet fever. For three or four days we had painful anxiety respecting her but she now takes nourishment without throwing it up and sits up an hour or two without much fatigue. Marion is not quite well today. I hope it is only cold, but she may be taking the disease. I cannot help feeling very anxious. She may escape it. But not a sparrow falls to the ground without the notice of our Heavenly Father.

“We feel that we are perfectly welcome here and have all the attention that kindness can bestow. I had intended to leave Marion in Ironton at school till we should return but hearing the measles had made their appearance in that place I brought her away in haste. It may perhaps have been scarlet fever. I do not know that they have been exposed to it in any other way…Should Marion not be taken sick and Nancy continues to mend I will probably start down the river next week. Mr. Ellison wrote me he expected to start for Minnesota early in April and there are several little matters to which I wish to attend in Adams County…[9]

Bro mentioned Mr. Robertson as being unwell. I hope he too is well again but almost would [not]. They do not write us. Good natured as Marion is she almost thinks it hard. How does her mother bear her absence…

“Please give the little folks a kiss for me and greet me in kind remembrance to Mr. Aiton and all the others.

“Yours in much love,

Jane S. Williamson”

One of the “little matters” that Jane needed to deal with in Adams County was to grant James Means her power of attorney. James Williamson Means was Jane’s cousin, Elizabeth Burgess’ younger brother, born in 1809. I believe that Jane was setting in motion her plans to remain with the Dakota mission and continue her work in Minnesota rather than returning to Ohio. She did not actually sell The Beeches at this point, but with James as her solicitor, she could do so without another visit east. Having taken care of that transfer of power, and with both Nancy Jane and Marion recovered from scarlet fever, Jane was ready to return to Kaposia with William Ellison. She had also agreed to bring Mary Smith Briggs with her. Mary was just sixteen and had gone to Jane’s school in Manchester, Ohio, when she was a child. She, like many of the young women who visited the Dakota missions over the years, planned to spend two years or so helping Jane with the Dakota women and children who attended school at Kaposia. The trip home took approximately a month, and the group arrived at Kaposia on May 13, 1852.

[1] J.W. Hancock to S.B. Treat, March 22, 1851, ABCFM Correspondence, BA10-A512b, Box 4. The story of Joseph Hancock’s three wives will be shared in a future post on Dakota Soul Sisters.

[2] See Heartbroken Heroine – Agnes Carson Johnson [Hopkins] [Pond] posted on Dakota Soul Sisters in February and 

[3] Jane Williamson to Elizabeth Burgess, July 10, 1851, Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Item 23, Folder 3. Scrofula is form of tuberculosis affecting the lymph nodes, especially of the neck, that is most common in children. Fanny passed away at Mendota in 1855.

[4] Aiton Family Papers, Minnesota Historical Society P 1447-Box 1

[5] Thomas S. Williamson to S.B. Treat, December11, 1851, ABCFM Correspondence, BA10-A512b, Box 4

[6] Ibid.

[7] See Part V of Life of Legend for the story of Elizabeth Means (Voris) (Burgess).

[8] Mary is the daughter of Joseph Napexni/Napayshne. Her life story is covered in a post about her from May 13, 2014, on Dakota Soul Sisters.  Susan was a Dakota girl (Wishkaayotankewin/Waxtongankewin) who was given the name Susan Ellison when Jane took her in in about 1848. Also known as Susan Rainbow, she was about six years old when the Williamson’s relocated from Kaposia to Yellow Medicine. Susan was sent to Bloomington to live with the Whalen family and she was tragically murdered there by six Ojibwe on June 12, 1856. More about Susan will be discussed in a future post about Jane’s adopted children. I have not been able to find any additional information about Lucy, Margaret or the girl that Jane calls her “little Old Woman.”

[9] William Williamson Ellison was born in Adams County, Ohio, on February 22, 1822. He was a nephew of Jane and Thomas Williamson. Their half sister, Mary Beauford Williamson, was his mother and James Ellison was his father. William Ellison’s mother Mary died when he was thirteen in 1835 and by 1849, William was working for William Williamson at the Kaposia mission. He was thirty years old and single when he brought Jane and Mary Smith Briggs back home to Kaposia from Ohio in May of 1852. In 1859, William Ellison married Sarah Rebecca Pond, the third child of Gideon and Sarah Poage Pond. They had seven children and spent their lives in Minnesota.

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This entry was posted in Joseph Woods Hancock, Marilla Hancock Holiday, Martha Houghton Hancock, Willie Hancock. Bookmark the permalink.

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