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

The ten years that Jane spent at Pejutazee, from 1852-1862, were perhaps her most successful in terms of teaching. The annual reports to the A.B.C.F.M. are glowing with stories of the number of students who were doing well and how improved attendance numbers were encouraging to the mission. Jane’s success and her philosophy on how best to reach the Dakota children were noted. Thomas Williamson wrote to S. B. Treat on March 3, 1855:

“Jane’s school is larger than before and having a house especially appropriated for it enables sister to govern it better than heretofore and the average attendance has I think been larger than for any two months at this place heretofore, but not so large in proportion to the population near us. Nor so large as it might have been but frequently as large as she could well manage and we thought it more important to have those who attended kept in order and make good progress than to get others into school. She still suffers inconvenience from want of the proper furniture for a school house….”[1]

Jane’s ability to attract and hold on to her students resulted in several improvements to her school room and furnishings over the coming years, although Stephen Riggs, who was running his own school nearby, was quick to point out that she used bribery to bring students in. He wrote to S.B. Treat on April 12, 1855, “We have lost some students to Aunt Jane’s school. She bribes them with bait in the form of turnips/potatoes, crackers, etc. We shall never adopt her plan but it’s okay if it doesn’t get too expensive for her. This is partly why Mary Riggs didn’t want to come here. When our boarding schools are up and running we shall care less”.[2]

Jane and the Williamson’s bid farewell to Mary Smith Briggs in April of 1855 when she married none other than John Aiton, the widower whose wife Nancy had been one of Jane’s dearest friends. John and Mary were wed on April 20, 1855 at Pejutazee with Dr. Williamson performing the ceremony. Mary’s story will be told in a future Dakota Soul Sisters entry.

The departure of Mary Briggs led to the arrival of Kate Dawes, who came to Pejutazee from Marietta, Ohio, in May 1855. Kate was not a missionary but came to the mission because of her poor health. She suffered from bronchitis and consumption and the climate in Minnesota was felt to be better than in Ohio. On July 28, 1955, Thomas Williamson reported that her health was improved and expected that she would remain with them for two more months.[3]

On the 200th anniversary of the Williamson’s in Ohio in 1805, Jeff Williamson led a group tour of important sites in Adams County, Ohio. Members of the group pause for a brief talk I gave on Jane at The Beeches, the original Williamson homestead that Jane sold in 1856.

It was during this time that Jane also continued to sever her ties, at least financially, with Ohio. She sold the original Williamson family farm in West Union, Ohio, to John L. Francis in 1856. I have confirmed the sale with the Adams County, Ohio, records office, but no price was listed for the transaction. Jane’s annual salary with the A.B.C.F.M. had been $75 for several years and I have found no indication that that amount ever increased during her years with the mission. Still, if she indeed had been paid for her Kaposia claim (see Life of a Legend, Part IX), and now apparently received the proceeds from the sale of The Beeches, she may have been hoping to set aside some funds to ensure her future.

Daily life at Pejutazee, despite the success of the school, was still difficult. Thomas wrote to S.B. Treat that everyone at the mission was experiencing a shortage of corn and potatoes because those supplies had been stolen by the Sisseton on their way back from the annuity distribution at the Lower Agency. He said the only food they had was whatever vegetables they had managed to store except when they could get fish or muskrats which are “at best poor food. Living on such poor diet is not only uncomfortable but injurious to health causing scrofula in many of the children and some of the women and men.”[4]

There was also an ongoing current of political unrest among everyone who lived and worked with the Dakota throughout the territory. Rumors were rapidly spreading about the government’s desire to instigate another treaty arrangement which would take away the ten mile strip of land on the north side of the Minnesota River and confine the Dakota to the ten mile strip along the south side. Additional rumors were flying about the supposed Education Fund that had been established in the 1837 treaty and how or if those funds were being distributed. The Dakota, too, were uneasy about their future, which was far from assured under the 1851 treaty. Their suspicions about the misuse of the Education Fund monies that had surfaced years earlier continued to multiply and it was unclear what might lie ahead for everyone involved.

Jane suffered her own mishap on February 23, 1856, when she fell on the ice while on her way to school and dislocated her ankle. She taught the children at the house while she spent several weeks recovering. It was during this time that Thomas and Margaret’s thirteen-year-old son, Smith Burgess Williamson, was killed in an accident while hauling wood on March 3, 1856. Thomas wrote to Treat: “One week ago today the Lord took a beloved child from us. He was large for his age, sprightly and active, and did most of the wood hauling for me since I don’t have a hired man. Lately he was reading his Bible with much interest and I saw him in secret prayer.” Jane was unable to attend Smith’s funeral on March 4, 1856, because of her injured ankle.[5] Knowing how close she was to her nieces and nephews, she was no doubt upset that she couldn’t participate with the family in commemorating Smith’s death.

A few weeks after Smith’s funeral Thomas and Margaret’s daughter Elizabeth came out from Ohio to join the family. Elizabeth was nearly two years old when she came to their first Dakota mission from Ohio in 1835. When Elizabeth was five years old, in October 1838, Thomas and Margaret took her to Ohio where Elizabeth was raised by Margaret Williamson’s sister, Rebecca and her husband John Knox. Thomas wrote to S.B. Treat on June 24, 1856, that Elizabeth had joined the family and that that she “had never been here before though when a child we had her with us more than three years at Lac qui Parle. How long she will remain with us, I know not. She is both a comfort and a help to us but cannot fill the place of her brother Smith.”[6]

Thomas also mentions the other tragic loss Jane and the family experienced when they learned of the death of Susan Rainbow, which was discussed in Part IX of Jane’s story in Dakota Soul Sisters.

Susan is buried in the pioneer section of the Bloomington Cemetery, 10340 Lyndale Avenue South, Bloomington, MN. Her murder was a devastating loss to Jane, who had raised her from the time Susan was a young child.

“And what affects us still more the murder of a Sioux girl eight or nine years old by half a dozen Chippeway [sic] warriors is announced. We had her in our family several years while we lived at Kaposia and she has been living among White people ever since till she had forgotten her mother tongue. I saw her a month ago in the family of one of Mr. G.H. Pond’s elders about midway between Oak Grove and Shakopee where she appeared to be doing well and said she did not wish to live with the Indians. As she was living in a dense white settlement more than 40 miles from any country which ever belonged to the Chippeways at First I disbelieved the report but it is confirmed. It seems the Chippeways had been some days in the neighborhood seen the girl and on inquiry learned that she was a Sioux the family supporting that they also were Sioux and watching for an opportunity in the afternoon when there was no man near the house wen to it and two of them went in an asked for water and when the girl took them water seized her and threw her out of the house when those without instantly murdered an scalped here. It is a very sad affair. Her relatives in this neighborhood blame us for it because we did not bring her up here last fall as they wished.”[7]

I have located no letters from Jane that were written between 1853 and December 31, 1857, so there is no written record of her own thoughts about the loss of both Smith and Susan in 1856. She also doesn’t mentionher niece Elizabeth, who appears to have returned to Ohio at some point in late fall 1856.

We do get a glimpse into her state of mind as 1857 drew to a close when she wrote to her cousin Elizabeth on New Year’s Eve.

Dearest Cousin,

“It is my usual bedtime but you by days rise vividly before my mind when we spent our New Years eve together and in friendly intercourse spent the hours usually devoted to sleep passed away. Oh, how I should love to sit and talk with you tonight but as it cannot be I will use my pen and in that way spend an hour of the receding year in conversation with you….

 “As a mission we observed this as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer. The social worship was here. In the forenoon there was preaching and prayer meeting in Dakota. In the afternoon Mr. Riggs gave us an interesting and instructive address on the subject of fasting. For some weeks past our house has been almost continually crowded with Indians but I made a fire in my chamber this morning and spent some time in trying to look into my heart and confess my sins. I still seem in so many things like an unsubdued child but I do long to have all my powers brought into subservience to the will of the Lord. I pray dear cousin that he may take away all selfishness from my heart. Subdue my rebellious will, make me meek and lowly and draw me near to him in penitence and love.

 “Our hearts have been much saddened of late by the reversal of the war between the Dakotas and Chippewas or Ojibwas. There is a place called The Big Wood that formerly belonged to the Dakotas (now owned by the U.S.) but so near to the Chippewas that it was dangerous to approach and while game decreased on more frequented groves, it increased in the Big Wood last year. Our Indians and those from several other villages lured by the abundance of bear went there to hunt. We dreaded some difficulty but they met their enemies, shook hands, smoked and then spent some days in feasting and dancing together. Came home in good humor, said they had even shook hands with the man that killed little Susan.”[8]  

It may seem strange to read Jane’s heartfelt confession of her own struggles with rebellious thoughts and selfishness but in many ways, this kind of soul searching is a common aspect of Christian belief in the 19th century. There are several other times in Jane’s life that she shares similar thoughts, usually following a tragic event or death of a loved one. Jane firmly believed that everything that happened was God’s will and if you found yourself in grief or despair, that was a sign of selfish weakness. She understood and sympathized with loss, but such expressions often led to a confession similar to this one. This time, from spring of 1856 through the end of 1857, had been a time of great loss for Jane and she took time to reflect on her spirit as the year drew a close.

Inkpaduta led the attacks on settlers in Spirit Lake, Okoboji and Springfield, Minnesota, in 1857. He was never captured and although at least one of his sons was killed following the attacks, Inkpaduta, also known as”Red End,” “Red Cap,” or “Scarlet Point,” escaped to the western plains, fought against Custer in the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn and died in Manitoba in 1881.

In addition to personal losses, the Midwest had been shaken to the core in the spring of 1857. It was actually on Jane’s 54th birthday, March 8, 1857, that the first of several attacks on white settlers took place about 110 miles south of Pejutazee. Forty men, women and children were killed in Lake Okoboji, Iowa, and Springfield, Minnesota, (now Jackson, Minnesota) by a band of Wahpekute Dakota, led by their chief, Inkpaduta, from March 8 to 25, 1857. The band roamed the twenty miles from Okoboji to Springfield, looting and plundering farms along the way before heading for the Big Sioux River, a tributary of the Missouri in what is now South Dakota. They took four women captive, only two of whom survived long enough to be rescued in May 1857.[9]

This monument stands tall in Memorial Park in Okoboji, Iowa, in commemoration of the forty white settlers who were killed by Inkpaduta’s band in 1857. Photo by author.

Jane was not at Pejutazee when the Inkpaduta attacks occurred. It seems that she had gone to Ohio in the fall of 1856, possibly accompanying Elizabeth Williamson on Elizabeth’s way back. The two women would not have traveled alone but I have not found any information as to who they have been with. In any case, when the attacks occurred, Jane was at Traverse des Sioux with three of the Williamson children, presumably Elizabeth, John and Andrew. Elizabeth apparently had decided to return to Pejutazee and John and Andrew were coming home after attending college at Knox in Galesburg, Illinois.[10]

In November of 1857, Thomas Williamson wrote to S.B. Treat about the impact the Spirit Lake attacks had on the mission community.

“The Spirit Lake event has scared all of the Dakota. They expect us to flee and I wonder if I should send my family away and stay here and if I be killed, so be it. Col. Flandreau asked Riggs and I to assemble some trusted men and then meet him and soldiers from Fort Ridgley between Yellow Medicine and Redwood. One of the murderers was killed the next night at an encampment of Dakota on the north side of Yellow Medicine, about a mile above the ford at which you camped. His wife was taken prisoner. The Dakota men came to the Agency and demanded she be released and the agent did so. The Hazlewood men protected us all night. Our house, with many windows w/o shutters was wholly indefensible. 3 men came and watched us at night.

 “At the time my family consisted of my wife, 2 daughters, our son, age 7, Henry. The Dakota boy who stays with us had been taken away by his father. I had sent our wagon and team to Traverse des Sioux for my sister Jane and 3 of our children who were on the way home from Ohio so we had no way to flee. Visiting the camp of Major Sherman I learned that Mr. Robertson had taken his family to the Lower Agency for greater security. All of the houses at the Upper Agency where J.B. Renville lives were abandoned. Even Dr. Daniels and his wife went into the Sherman camp at night. I tried to borrow a horse from our Dakota neighbors to get Mrs. Williamson to the camp, no one could help. The Indian men had left to fight the soldiers and the women and children, horses and dogs were fleeing. Before I got home I got the offer of a horse but decided that we had to stay.

 “One day during a Council with Indians an Indian ran towards the soldiers and was shot in the legs. I went to him to see what I could do. This was July 22, 1857. A woman tried to stab me, the sister of the wounded man, but a man grabbed her. Some friends went with me to get medicine at home to put on his wounds. Then, not long after the Sisseton left as did all of the Ihanktonwan and the U.S. soldiers. I was working in the garden one afternoon when our washer woman, one of our most faithful church members, told my wife and sister to tell me to hide – the father of the wounded man was coming to kill me. Jane brought him food and invited him in. He thought his son was dead but he wasn’t. I reminded him of the medicine I’d brought and he and his son have been here together since to express gratitude.”[11]

Thomas’ letter includes the earliest mention of Jane keeping Thomas safe from harm by feeding the starving Dakota man who was determined to kill the doctor when he thought his own son had died. This story was told and retold over the generations and has become one of the earliest and most prominent entries in the the retold legends of Jane Williamson.

One of the earlier accounts is found in the Missionary Herald, a publication of the A.B.C.F.M. The February 1858 issue included the following “Letter from Dr. Williamson”:

 “I was working in the garden, when our wash-woman, one of our most faithful church members, told my wife to send me word to hide as quickly as possible, for the father of the wounded man was watching about the house to kill me. She was much alarmed and advised all the family to fasten the doors and conceal themselves in the cellar or upstairs. I felt no disposition either to run away or hide, thinking she might be alarmed without case; but leaving my work, came to the house, entering at the back door which was nearest, without seeing the man, who I was then told as at the front door, with his gun concealed under his blanket. My sister, having prepared some food for him, opened the door and invited him to come in and eat. At first he paid no attention to her, but when the invitation was repeated, a few minutes afterwards, he came in with seeming reluctance, but ate, evidently with good relish, whatever was set before him; his eyes all the while dancing and flashing like those of a maniac. He had heard that his son had died of his wounds and declared his purpose of avenging his death on some white man, and doubtless came to our house for that purpose; but being hungry, the offer of food overcame his resolution. I reminded him of the medicine I had furnished and offered to give him more. He took some, admitting that what I had previously given had done good, and that he did not know whether the report of his son’s death was true. It was false. The father and son have been here together since, and expressed much gratitude for the food given him on that occasion”.[12]

In 1874, 17 years after the event took place, Thomas Sharon referred to the way in which Jane fed the Dakota man in order to save Thomas’ life.[13] Stephen Riggs mentioned the story in the sermon he offered at a memorial for Thomas Williamson that was published on October 15, 1880.[14] Two years later, the Iape Oaye of February 1882, expanded on the story as follows:

“A Dakota man had been shot by ‘our forces’ and they were told he was going to die. Catherine came running and said such an one – naming him – is coming here to kill someone. All go into the house and shut the doors and windows. Dr. W. never would do this except in case of drunken men, but they called him in from the garden. Miss W. reasoned that the man would be unlikely to kill a woman and she brought him a heaping plate of food. He wouldn’t acknowledge her for three times and then he finally took the dish. The doctor asked after his son and was told he will die. The doctor said perhaps not. I’ll give you medicine. Jane sent him off with tea, rice and sugar. Afterward two men came in, one old and one young and the older one told the boy, this is she, this is she, shake hands with her. She saved your life by sending you food.”[15]

The story continued to be repeated with ever expanding details. In the April-May issue of 1895 of The Word Carrier shared the following:

“From the North and West, a reprint – has been telling the story of an old Indian whose son had been wounded by the soldiers. He vowed that if his son died he would kill a white person. One day he thought he was dying and, painting himself black, started out with his weapons – Runners informed Aunt Jane. Sure enough the man came. Feeling that Thomas might be first white man he’d see, she gathered a platter of food and went to the door and the Indian wouldn’t look at her. She said I hear your son is very low. I will go tell my brother to give him some medicine. Perhaps it will make him well. So sit down and eat this while I go. The son recovered and the old man came back and thanked Jane with all his heart.”[16] 

Rev. R.J. Creswell shared a story about the event in his tribute to Jane Williamson in Among the Sioux, A Story of the Twin Cities and the Two Dakotas, published in 1906:

“She possessed great tact and was absolutely fearless. In 1857, during the Inkpadoota [sic] trouble, the father of a young Indian, who had been wounded by the soldiers of Sherman’s battery, came with his gun to the mission house to kill her brother. Aunt Jane met him with a plate of food for himself and offered to send some nice dishes to the wounded young man. This was effectual. The savage was tamed. He at the food and afterwards came with his son to give them thanks.”[17]

Eli Huggins was a colorful writer who shared many stories about “Aunt Jane” in his letters to William Folwell in the early 1900s.

More than sixty years after the incident happened, Eli Huggins, the son of Alexander and Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, who had known Jane all of his life, told Minnesota historian William Folwell the following story in a letter dated July 5, 1918.

“I will give you another narrative. A few years before the outbreak [the U.S. Dakota War of 1862] Dr. W. incurred the hatred of an Indian living I think in Sleepy Eyes within one or two days travel from the mission. I knew what his alleged grievance was but have forgotten. One day two women came and told Aunt J. that the Indians were coming to kill Dr. W. An Indian whose face was not familiar to her soon slipped in noiselessly Indian fashion without knocking. He did not speak or look at her. She thought she detected a gun under his blanket. The Dr. was away from the house. She said, you must have come a long ways, for you look tired. I will get you something to eat. She went out and sent a friendly Indian to find Dr. W. and warn him not to come to the house. Dinner had not been over long. She hastily prepared a generous bowl of rich soup, sweet potatoes, etc. and brought it to him. He said nothing and seemed to hesitate, but the food was tempting and he was probably hungry and no doubt it was a new and novel experience to him to be served to a white man’s meal in a white man’s house by a white woman of the upper class. He ate heartily, and went out without saying a word and never troubled the Dr. again. He told the Indians that Dowandutawin could make stronger medicine than her brother could, that she had put medicine in his food which had cured him of a bad cold, and had changed his heart which was very bad, and made it good. The Indians said the man was known to be a dangerous character, and they believed if the Dr. had returned to the house before his sister had ‘made medicine’ he would have been killed.”[18]

Six decades after the original event occurred, the story has now been changed by indicating it happened near Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, and enhanced with the information of what the specific menu was that Jane served the man on that fateful day. Huggins also offers his own interpretation of why the Dakota man was apparently awed at being served by a white woman so much so that he forgot his desire for vengeance.

Legends like this are part of what attracted me to Jane Williamson’s story. There are others that will be covered in upcoming posts. Even to her contemporaries, it seems that Jane was a remarkable person in many ways. The author of an article about Jane in North West, April 4, 1895, writes: “In the Dakota Mission, we all know Aunt Jane. A good many other people know her too, because there was something about her that was hard to forget. She was very short, only about four feet eight inches…. She was a ready talker.” A Williamson family genealogist included the following: “Aunt Jane was a little woman. Her brother Thomas lacked only an inch of being six feet, but she was small but of the type indicated by the old saying, ‘Little, but Oh my!’ ”[19]

Little, but oh, my is a perfect description of Jane and her contributions to Minnesota history. She was already 54 years old in 1857, but the most dangerous and challenging events of her life were still to come.

[1] Thomas Williamson to S.B. Treat, March 3, 1855, ABCFM Correspondence, BA10-A512b, Box 6.

[2] Ibid., Stephen Riggs to S.B. Treat, April 2, 1855. Stephen Riggs and Thomas Williamson were often at odds over the question of boarding schools during these years. Riggs firmly believed in removing children from their homes and housing them all together in large communities. Williamson had always supported boarding individual Dakota children in his home for short periods of time, with the approval of their parents, but he never embraced the concept of the Indian boarding school that came to be government policy in the later 1800s.

[3] Thomas S. Williamson to S.B. Treat, June 28, 1855, Northwest Mission Manuscripts, Minnesota Historical Society Manuscript Collection, P48P, Box 18. I believe that Kate Dawes came to the mission because of her relationship with Jane’s cousin, Elizabeth Burgess, of Marietta, Ohio. I have found out little about her but it is of note that Dawes Memorial Library at Marietta College in Ohio, is named after family and houses one of the largest collections of Jane Williamson’s letters known to exist. The only subsequent mention of her in Jane’s is a note to Elizabeth on January 10, 1860, expressing concern over “Miss Dawes’ protracted ill health.”

[4] Thomas Williamson to S.B. Treat, March 3, 1855, ABCFM Correspondence, BA10-A512b, Box 6. It is sometimes difficult to fully understand what the missionaries are referring to when they talk about food shortages. If Nancy Dawes came to Pejutazee to recover from her respiratory problems, it certainly would not be acceptable to place her in an environment where people were getting scrofula, a form of lung disease, because of poor diet. Jane also seldom mentions a food shortage for the missionaries, although she often expresses concern about the children’s clothing and diet. Throughout the missionary correspondence, however, there are several mentions of occasions when one or more of the mission family members were sick with a variety of stomach ailments perhaps caused by eating spoiled meat or lack of nutrients overall.

[5] Thomas S. Williamson to S.B. Treat, March 10, 1856, ABCFM Correspondence, BA10-A512b, Box 7. Smith was buried at Pejutazee, although a tombstone with his name on it is in the Williamson family plot in the Green Lawn Cemetery (aka Pioneer Cemetery, Traverse des Sioux) in St. Peter, Minnesota. It is not known if his body was ever actually moved to this cemetery, or if the stone is simply in his memory.

[6] Ibid. June 24, 1856.

[7] Ibid. June 24, 1856.

[8] Jane Williamson in Pejutazee, Brown Co., Minn. Terr. to Dearest Cousin [Elizabeth]- Dated December 31, 1857Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Marietta, Ohio, Item 27, Folder 3.

[9] Thirteen-year-old Abigail Gardner and twenty-one year old Margaret Ann Marble were both rescued by Dakota scouts who had been sent out to find them and ransom them from their kidnappers. Lydia Howe Noble, 20, and Elizabeth Thatcher, 19, died while in captivity. There are dozens of books and articles about what came to be called the Spirit Lake Massacre. One of the most comprehensive is Legends, Letters and Lies: Readings on the Spirit Lake Massacre of 1857, compiled and edited by Mary Hawker Bakeman, Park Genealogical Books, Roseville, MN, 2001.

[10] The record is a bit confusing at this point since John and Andrew are reported to have graduated from Knox in May of 1857 but the correspondence referring to their return indicates that they were in Minnesota by March of 1857.

[11] Thomas Williamson to S.B. Treat, November 1857, ABCFM Correspondence, BA10-A512b, Box 7. The Williamson children who were at Pejutazee in March of 1857 were Nancy, 19; Martha, 12 and Henry, 7.The three who were on the way home from Ohio were Elizabeth, 23; John, 21; and Andrew, 19. The washerwoman that Thomas Williamson mentions is Catherine Tatidutawin, whose story is told in her post on Dakota Soul Sisters.

[12] Missionary Herald, February 1858, p. 56, Minnesota Historical Society, Call #: BV2530.A1 M6

[13] Sharon, Thomas, Viola, or, Life in the Northwest / by a Western man, 1874. Minnesota Historical Society Call #: PS2804.S677 V5 1874

[14] Riggs, Stephen R., A Memorial Discourse on Rev. Thomas S. Williams, M.D., Missionary to the Dakota Indians. Delivered before the Synod of Minnesota, Friday evening, October 15, 1880. Printed by the American Tract Society, 150 Nassau Street, New York. Minnesota Historical Society Call #F605.1.W7 R5

[15] Iapi oaye: the Minnesota Sioux Tribe’s “Word Carrier”. Minnesota Historical Society Microfilm Call #: 1063

[16] Ibid., April-May 1895

[17] Creswell, R.J., Among the Sioux: A Story of The Twin Cities and The Two Dakotas, The University Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 1906. Minnesota Historical Society Call #: E78.M7 C9

[18] Eli Huggins Letters, Folwell Papers, July 5, 1918, Minnesota Historical Society, Box 47

[19] Williamson, Frances, “Notes Concerning Aunt Jane Williamson,” in the private family collections of Jeff Williamson, Rosemount, MN.

This entry was posted in Catherine Tatidutawin, Eli Huggins, Inkpaduta, Susan Rainbow, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

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