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

Today, St. Peter, Minnesota, is a charming city filled with beautiful historical buildings, many of which survived a massive tornado in 1998. In 1867, just five years after the U.S. Dakota War of 1862 broke out, the downtown looked like this. Two thousand refugees poured into the city in August 1862 as they abandoned their farms and homes in the area to escape the Dakota bands who had begun attacking white settlers. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

When the Williamson’s arrived in St. Peter, Minnesota, on August 25, 1862, the town was bursting at the seams with refugees pouring in from all over the surrounding area. Many had left everything behind and saw their houses and farm buildings burning to the ground as they fled the attacking Dakota. Hundreds were severely wounded and required urgent medical care. An empty warehouse became a refugee center and Thomas Williamson immediately set to work binding wounds and providing medical care for six hours a day.

Alexander Huggins and Lydia Huggins were farming nearby at the time of the outbreak of the war and they had joined their neighbors and others as refugees in the St. Peter warehouse. Alexander made brief forays back to the farm to feed the animals and pick up supplies. By August 25, he had apparently decided it was safe to return to the farm and the family returned home. For a few days, at least, Thomas, Margaret and Jane, along with Nancy and Henry and the Hunters, stayed with the Huggins’ family. Thomas helped care for 16-year-old Rufus Huggins when he was brought home following his injuries that he received fighting during the battles in New Ulm. Rufus Huggins’ sister, Mary Huggins Kerlinger, wrote in her journal that “Faithful Aunt Jane Williamson was with us most of the time. Mother kept her place near Rufus day and night Brother James was paroled and with us most of the time He and Jane both most skillful nurses.[1]

 By September 8, 1862, Thomas Williamson and the Hunter family had moved into the home of Rev. Moses and Nancy Rankin Adams in Traverse des Sioux, about a mile and a half from St. Peter. The Adams were away at the time and the Williamson’s found shelter there. (Nancy’s story will be told in a future Dakota Soul Sisters post.)

Thomas Williamson wrote the story of their escape to S.B. Treat of the A.B.C.F.M. from the Adams’ home. It isn’t clear where the rest of the family was but Samuel Pond, who was the minister at the Presbyterian Church in Shakopee, Minnesota by this time, wrote to S.B. Treat himself on September 2, 1862. He said:

“Soon after I heard, I started for Yellow Medicine hoping to find some of the missionaries alive. Most of them arrived at St. Peter the same evening I reached there. Mrs. Riggs and family came directly here [to Shakopee] and except for Mr. Riggs they are all here yet. He obtained a commission as chaplain and is now up the Minnesota. I brought down the family of Mr. Jonas Pettijohn. They have lost all they have. The female portion of the Williamson family are most of them at my brother’s….I handed $12 to Mrs. Williamson which I was intending to send to you.” [2]

During this uncertain time of moving from house to house, all of the missionaries were trying their best to arrive at some solution for their predicament. Word had arrived that the Williamson home and the mission at Pejutazee had been burned to the ground and nothing was left. They had lost all of their possessions, furniture, books, clothing, household items that they had accumulated over the previous nearly thirty years. They had no idea if the Dakota mission would survive this tragic crisis, nor what they were expected to do about the mission property.

I’m sure that Jane was grateful that they had been saved, even as she mourned the death of fellow mission worker, Amos Huggins, and prayed for his wife Sophia and their two children who had been taken prisoner by the Dakota. (Sophia’s story has been posted previously on Dakota Soul Sisters.) Jane also had no way of finding out what had happened to her own students and their families, especially her beloved “girls,” whom she had taught for several years and who had often boarded with the Williamson family off and on since they were young children. Rumors were circulating that the Christian Dakota and all of the whites who had been taken prisoner were going to be killed by Taoyateduta and the warring Dakota. As she had so often in her life, Jane sought her own peace and comfort for others through prayer.

During the days following the first attack at the Lower Agency on August 18, 1862, Taoyateduta moved his warriors around the region, attacking New Ulm and Fort Ridgley while the Dakota began to split into two separate factions; one made up mostly of the Christian Indians who had not been in favor of going to war, and the others who were determined to take back their land and drive the whites out of Minnesota.

Henry Hastings Sibley

Henry Sibley had spent his adult life living with the Dakota but he was not really a military expert. Governor Alexander Ramsey chose him as the one to lead the troops against the Dakota and Sibley in turn was criticized on all sides for not responding quickly enough. He arrived at Fort Ridgley on August 28, 1862 and spent the next months and years forced to go to war against the people he had come to respect and admire.

In the meantime, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey had responded to the outbreak of war by sending his predecessor, Henry Sibley, to Fort Ridgley to bring an end to the fighting. Sibley didn’t reach the fort until August 28, a full ten days after the beginning of the violence. He brought twelve hundred troops with him and found the fort overrun with refugees and still attempting to recover from Taoyateduta’s consistent attacks earlier that week. Over the course of the next month, Sibley’s forces fought the Dakota at Birch Coulee on September 2, and Wood Lake on September 23, 1862. Taoyateduta took his troops

Camp Release Monument

The Camp Release Monument in Montevideo, Minnesota, was dedicated on July 4, 1894, commemorating the release of 269 European-American captives and the surrender of about 1200 Dakota people at the end of the conflict. The four faces of the 51-foot granite monument are inscribed with information about the battles that took place along the Minnesota River during the conflict, the surrender of the Dakota bands, and the design and construction of the monument.

Hundreds of Dakota stayed with the Dakota and white prisoners that Taoyateduta had been holding.  Sibley released all of them on September 26 from the encampment which is called Camp Release in Montevideo, MN. He subsequently arrested all of the Dakota men who had not fled with Taoyateduta, took away their weapons and confined them to await their trials by a Military Commission which he appointed. He did the same to the Dakota who had originally fled with Taoyateduta but who returned and turned themselves in on October 4.

Newspapers all over the state began to call for extermination of the Dakota. The majority of those who joined that public outcry were filled with hatred and anger at what was first estimated as nearly 1,000 white settlers killed in the war. Thomas Williamson was one of the few who felt that actual number was probably much closer to three to four hundred. His perceived sympathy for the Dakota was a position that caused citizens and newspaper editorials a great deal of anger and he was vilified for his statements.

Jane herself had strong opinions about what was being done to the Dakota, but she also was needed to be with the family as they attempted to find a place to live. Mary Riggs, who was living in St. Anthony while Stephen Riggs was participating in the military commission trials of the Dakota at the Lower Agency, wrote to Stephen on October 13, 1862. She told her husband, “I don’t know if I told you that I got two pocket Bibles from Mrs. John Renville. I think they are Henry’s and Anna Jane’s. I asked her to take them to Aunt Jane at Traverse and leave them with her.”[3 Thomas Williamson indicated in January of 1863 that they were renting a house in town so apparently the Hunter family and the Williamson’s were living in Traverse or St. Peter by October 1862.[4]

I have not located any letters that Jane may have written to others from January 1860 until October 24, 1862, when she wrote to her cousin Elizabeth in Ohio so there is no record of Jane’s thoughts or attitudes during the months leading to the war or immediately afterwards. She began her 1862 letter with news of the death of John Knox Hunter, the son of Andrew and Elizabeth Williamson Hunter. John was just 11 months old when Elizabeth and Andrew bundled him up and left on their perilous journey trying to reach safety in August of 1862. Both Elizabeth and John had been unwell since that escape and little John was unable to survive.

“Dearest Cousin,

” After returning from the burial of our dear babe last evening I sat down to write to you but I had been losing sleep so long that my eyes refused to perform their office. The house looks lonely this morning with the dear little sufferer but it is sweet to think that he is at rest in that world of love, joy, and peace where distracting wars can never enter. When my heart aches for the dear Indian children we had left, the care of the little one was very soothing to my troubled mind but I shall no more feel his soft hand stroking my face in the wakeful hours of night or enjoy his loving caresses by day. As much as I loved him I did not feel that intense desire for him to live that I felt long ago for your children and some of my sisters. I felt that our Heavenly Father knew best and would do all things well.

“Why dear cousin can I not feel this about the Indians. I know that God can bring good out of even and men are only instruments in his hand. Still I am anxious and troubled all the time. The trials of the Indians are now in process in Sibley’s camp and I fear many innocent men will be condemned. Public sentiment says ‘Kill them and let them be exterminated and I fear the officers will be influenced by a desire for popularity and in some cases sacrifice the innocent with the guilty and I suppose so many are never tried in any Judicature without mistakes being made. I know Mr. Riggs will do what he can but he is kept so busy writing in the military department that he has but little time to examine into matters among the Indians. He says in his last letter this whole thing is now an unpleasant business to me but justice requires the punishment of the guilty and it will not be strange if some who are comparatively innocent should be punished too. When I last heard the man who first came to inform us of the danger was arrested I have no idea he was guilty but being a brother-in-law to Little Crow will be against him.[5]

“There is no one there but has some near relative among the accused. Their houses were burned by Little Crow to force them to battle. Their fields are used up by the white soldiers. Of course they will not be allowed ammunition to kill game. Groaning under wrongs with starvation staring them in the face I sometimes fear that despair may render even the friendly hostile. It might be said by them as of old I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction.[6]

Chaska, Robert H. and wife (3)

Robert Hopkins Chaska and his wife Sarah Totidutawin were long-time friends of the Williamson’s who assisted them in their escape from Pejutazee. Robert was arrested, tried and sentenced to prison following the 1862 military commission trials.

“When we were expecting to be robbed Lizzie hid the silver spoons under a beehive. When we concluded to start I went to look for them but being in a hurry did not find them. I told Chaskedan of it after we started.[7] He has sent them in with some other things. I had asked Sarah to take care of my winter shawl [that] was lost. Not strange either when they had to move some twenty times. The principal part of my things went to others for Sarah was sick and Chaskedan was guarding our horses. I had hoped to get some of their things till I heard their houses were burned. The things they buried were generally dug up by the soldiers.

“The box you so kindly sent reached us in safely last week. Oh how thoughtful and kind to send me that double wrapper I had needed something of the kind so much while taking care of babe at night. I put it on the first night after it came and enjoyed it more because it had been yours. Shall I have fears that you may miss it a good deal and surely I would not wish you to be cold. While Rufus Huggins stayed with us he occupied the sitting room and I had to keep babe in the kitchen which is very small and at night if it was necessary to carry him to the stove to take him through our passage to get to the stairs and through another to get down from there to the kitchen.”[8]

Just three days later, Jane wrote to Stephen Riggs and expressed her concerns over her fear that many of those who had been arrested and tried were innocent.

“Dear Bro. Riggs

            “I thank you very much for your kindness in returning the spoons. The blankets too are just as white as when committed to Sarah and as much as we need them I wept lest they might want them more.

“We all sympathise [sic] with you in the unpleasantness of your present situation. Still we bless God that you are there. Although pressed beyond measure do what you can to shield the innocent and lead the guilty to repentance, tell them of that blessed Saviour that died to save the chief of sinners.

“Mrs. I. Daniels has just been in and told us that Caskedan and Thomas A. Robertson were arrested.[9] My heart aches so that I can hardly write. Surely Caske never imbued his hands in blood. Neither did Tapetatanka I think but circumstances may be against them. There will be great triumph if some of the religious Indians are hung. When an irreligious man told me of the whole plot Monday evening he added ‘You will not believe it because Caskedan has not told you but he knows no more it than you do.’

“When brother concluded to come on Tuesday night [Tuesday, August 19, 1862] he said to Caskedan ‘You may remove the sugar, molasses, meat, etc. to your home tonight and we will go in the morning.’ He replied ‘I would like to have those things but I am more anxious for your safety,’ and immediately went to borrow a wagon and get his oxen and brother’s mare that he had taken care of. Renville told me the things were taken before he returned.

“Marion is still with us. She conducts herself with great propriety. She feels very sorry about Thomas and has gone upstairs to write to him.[10]

“Nannie rec’d a letter from Isabella on Sat. All well.[11]

“Yours with gratitude

            Jane S. Williamson

“Try to spend as much time with us as you can on your return. You will doubtless hear that our dear little Knox is at rest.”[12]

It is clear from Jane’s letter to her cousin that she was the one who was sitting up with baby John at night and providing most of his care. Elizabeth, the “Lizzie” who hid the silver spoons referred to in the letter was John’s mother but she never really recovered from the sickness she contracted during the escape from Pejutazee. She and her husband, Andrew and their three-year-old daughter Nancy, were living in the rented house at Traverse with Jane and the other Wiliamson’s.

The last of the trials of the Dakota at the Lower Agency was held on November 3, 1862 and within a few days, 392 men, 303 of whom had been condemned to death, were marched to Mankato, MN, with 17 women to cook and wash clothes on the way along with four infants and four Christian Indians under the authority of Henry Sibley and his troops. Approximately 1500 Dakota women and children were marched to Fort Snelling along with 50 men who either had not been tried or were found innocent. The men were to be held in Mankato until they could be executed; the Fort Snelling group was to be encamped at the Fort for the winter months when they could not have survived winter on the prairies without their men and with their homes and villages destroyed.

Thomas and Margaret’s son, John P. Williamson, who had returned to Minnesota from Ohio when he heard about the outbreak of the war, now joined the march of the Dakota to Fort Snelling and remained there ministering to them until the next spring. His younger brother, Andrew Williamson, had been assigned to Fort Ridgeley during the conflict and had acted courageously during the battles with the Dakota there. He now stopped by the house in St. Peter on August 9, before he was to be sent with his regiment to fight in the Union Army during the Civil War, which was raging in the east and south.

Prison at Mankato.old

The Dakota who were marched to Mankato were at first encamped at a location that came to be known as Camp Lincoln. They were later moved to an old storehouse in downtown Mankato, where they were chained together and kept in dark and damp conditions. Thomas Williamson, Stephen Riggs, Father Augustin Ravoux and Gideon Pond visited them and baptized dozens into the Christian faith over the course of their imprisonment.

On November 12, 1862, Thomas Williamson made his first trip to visit the condemned Dakota who were being held in a storehouse that served as a makeshift prison in Mankato. He walked twelve miles each way in his efforts to bring them some comfort and to pray with them. This was to be Thomas’ pattern for the next several weeks while the clock ticked toward the date of potential execution. Many of those being held in Mankato had grown up in the Dakota mission; there were Christians among them, including Robert Hopkins Chaska and Peter Tapetatanka, whom Thomas had known for many years.

Union Presbyterian St. Peter

Union Presbyterian Church in St. Peter, Minnesota, was established by Rev. Aaron H. Kerr in 1857 as the First Presbyterian Church of St. Peter. On july 25, 1869, the First Free Presbyterian Church of Traverse des Sioux merged with First Presbyterian to become the Union Presbyterian Church. The current church building was erected at 311 W. Locust Street in St. Peter in 1871, taking the bell from the church at Traverse. Jane Williamson worshipped at Union from 1872 until she moved to the Yankton Reservation in Greenwood, South Dakota in about 1888.

Jane and Margaret Williamson kept house together with Nancy and Henry still at home and with the Hunter’s and little Nancy. They attended worship services at the Union Presbyterian Church where Jane soon began teaching Sunday School and meeting and making new friends and acquaintances. In many ways, it had been more than two decades since Jane had been a single older woman living in a community that wasn’t a Dakota mission, nor home to hundreds of Dakota people. In one charming encounter that Eli Huggins shared with Minnesota historian William Folwell in 1919, we get a glimpse of some the challenges Jane faced.

“After the Sioux massacre, the Williamsons went to St. Peter where the family joined the church of the Rev. Aaron H. Kerr, though the Dr. spent most of the year with the Indians at Mankato and Fort Snelling. A southern woman, a Virginian, belonged to this church and was a southern sympathizer. One evening, Aunt Jane called on the lady and found there two other Southern sympathizers. The Williamsons had not been at St. Peter long and the other two callers did not know Aunt Jane well. It was well nigh impossible I suppose at that time when such a group got together to refrain from speaking of the war and betraying one’s sympathies.

“One of the women said these abolitionists had plunged the nation into war, not that they cared for the Negro and would make any sacrifice for him, but out of spite and envy. The hostess tried to turn the conversation and said to Aunt J., ‘Miss Williamson, you must excuse us. We are Southern women and love the South and forget that you feel differently.’ She replied, ‘I love the South, too. I am from South Carolina.

‘O,’ said the hostess, ‘I thought you were from Ohio. 

‘I came to Minnesota from Ohio,’ said Aunt J, ‘and have not been in South Carolina since  I fell heir to some black people; I did not think slavery was right and I went back to set them free.’

“There was mutual silence for some moments. Then the hostess spoke of something else. In telling this, Aunt Jane said, ‘I feared my presence was embarrassing and soon bade them good evening.’ ”[13]

This letter tells quite a story about Jane’s amazing life. In October of 1862, she was fifty-nine years old. She had spent the first 20 years of her adult life facing death threats from those who hated abolitionists and who wanted to prevent her from teaching the children of those formerly enslaved people who had escaped the south and made it to Ohio. She then crossed the country to spend nineteen years living and working with the Dakota People, establishing deep friendships and abiding affection for the children in her classes, especially her “girls.” She now had recently survived the horrific impact of a war that had divided the Dakota into conflicting factions and dispersed thousands in unknown directions to places where she might never learn what had happened to them. Her mission home, her colleagues, her ministry and her identity had all been destroyed. And yet, sitting in a lovely parlor of a southern woman’s home in St. Peter, Minnesota, in 1862, she now finds herself going full circle back to defending her abolitionist views as the United States tears itself apart in a national Civil War.

[1] Kerlinger Journal, p. 22. Brother James is James Holtzclaw, Jane Huggins Holtzclaw’s husband, who was granted a leave from his unit in the Union Army to care for his family in Minnesota. Rufus died on December 16, 1862, and Thomas Williamson conducted the funeral.

[2] Samuel Pond to Selah B. Treat, ABCFM Correspondence BA10/A512b, Box 7. Samuel’s brother, Gideon Pond, and his wife Agnes lived at Oak Grove in what is now Bloomington, MN. Gideon was founding pastor of the Oak Grove Presbyterian Church there. Apparently the Hunter’s stayed with Thomas at the Adams home in Traverse while Margaret, Jane, Nancy and probably Henry Williamson, stayed with the Pond’s in Oak Grove.

[3] Mary Riggs to Stephen Riggs, October 13, 1862. Stephen R. Riggs Family Papers, 1837-1988, Minnesota Historical Society Manuscript Collection, Call #144.G.7.1B. Mrs. John Renville is Mary Butler Renville, the wife of Rev. John Renville. She and John did not flee with the other mission families and Mary must have found the Bible in the ruins of the Riggs’ family home. Henry and Anna Jane are two of Stephen and Mary Riggs’ children but they were apparently not with Mary which is why she sent the Bibles to “Aunt Jane” at Traverse.

[4] Thomas S. Williamson to S.B. Treat, from St. Peter, January 20, 1863. NW Missions Manuscripts MS P489, Box 21 ABCFM SS310 No. 227. It is difficult to separate Traverse from St. Peter in this period. The two share a border and today are combined into the one city of St. Peter, MN.

[5] Jane is referring to Pierre Tapetatanka, also known as Peter Tapetatanka or Peter Big Fire. Four of his sisters were wives of Tayoyateduta and he had been a close friend of the chief until becoming a Christian. He was the first to warn the Williamson’s of the attacks that were to happen at the Lower Sioux Agency on August 18, 1862.

[6] Jane is referring to Judges 2:14, which describes how the Israelites were sent into slavery to Cushan, the wicked king of Syria, as punishment for their paganism. They cried out to God to save them, thus the “tents of Cushan in affliction.”

[7] Chaskedan/Caskedan/Caske is also known as Robert Hopkins Chaska, a Christian Indian who was married to Catherine Tatidutawin’s daughter Sarah. Catherine Tatidutawin’s story is told in her post on Dakota Soul Sisters.

[8i] Jane Williamson to Elizabeth Burgess, October 24, 1862, Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Item 33, Folder 4. The final page of the letter is lost so there is no signature or further information after this ending.

[9] Mrs. Jared Daniels was the wife of physician Jared Daniels who was the physician at the Upper Agency at the time of the outbreak of the war. Thomas Andrew Robertson had been a student of Jane Williamson while he was growing up near the Kaposia village and had served as a translator and go-between for Taoyateduta during the 1862 fighting.

[10] Marion lived with the Williamson’s for long periods of time when she was growing up at Kaposia. She had married Alexander Hunter just a few weeks before the war broke out on August 18, 1862. Stephen Riggs performed the marriage ceremony for them at the Merchants Hotel in St. Paul. Alexander Hunter was then killed the very next day when a group of Dakota attacked John Nairn’s store at the Lower Agency. Marion was saved at the intervention of a Dakota man named Catkana. She was three months pregnant at the time.

[11] Nannie is Nancy Jane Williamson, Thomas and Margaret’s daughter and Isabella is Stephen and Mary Riggs’ daughter.

[12] Jane Williamson to Stephen Riggs, October 27, 1862, Stephen R. Riggs Family Papers, 1837-1988, Minnesota Historical Society Manuscript Collection, Call #144.G.7.1B, Box 1.

[13] Eli Lundy Huggins to William Folwell, July 22, 1918, from East San Diego, CA. William Watts Folwell and family papers, Minnesota Historical Society, MS P355, Box 47.

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2 Responses to Life of a Legend – The Story of Jane Smith Williamson – Part XII

  1. schlepone says:

    Just want to say, again, how much I enjoy your writing! I learn so much, and often go back and read it over and over! Thank you!

  2. Carrie Zeman says:

    Lois, I’ve never read these letters Jane write. They are wonderful! So is the story about her Huggins told Folwell. Thank you for sharing them! Is that a new photo of Robert Hopkins Chaska and Sarah? I don’t think I’ve seen that portrait before.

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