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

The exile of the Dakota from Minnesota began in April of 1863 when approximately 265 men who had been in prison in Mankato, were taken by steamboat to Davenport, Iowa, where they were to serve out their sentences along with sixteen women who were to do their laundry, prepare meals and provide care for the men. Two children were also with the group.

Favorite Steamboat08222019

The men who had been imprisoned in Mankato since 1862 were removed from Minnesota to prison in Davenport, Iowa, in April 1863. As they passed Fort Snelling on April 23, 1863, their wives, children and families gathered on the shore to wave and try to make a brief connection with their relatives.

On the way to their new prison, the boat passed Fort Snelling where over 1300 Dakota men, women and children had been held since November of 1862. As the ship with the condemned prisoners drew near, the wives and family members of the men gathered on the banks and called out to the men. Most of them had not seen each other for months and no one knew if this brief moment of reunion might be their last encounter for all time.

For Jane and the rest of the Williamson family, the relocation of the two groups also meant relocation of the family. John Williamson accompanied the families from Fort Snelling to a desolated and barren location known as Crow Creek, South Dakota, where they were expected to establish farms and become self-sufficient.

Jane Williamson wrote to Mary Riggs on May 6, 1863:

“Mr. Riggs told us he had heard one boatload of Indians has started. Bro will feel disappointed if John is gone but that is little matter in comparison to what the poor Indians will feel as there will doubtless be many painful separations. May God be merciful to them. Nannie and I put in some old clothing for Sarah and her mother, thinking it would make a change when they had no conveyance for washing and if they lost it while journeying the loss would not be great.”[1]

For Thomas Williamson the move meant that his 12-mile walks to Mankato to visit the prisoners came to an end and he found himself traveling to Davenport as often as possible to carry on his work with them there.

In the meantime, Jane continued to keep house with Margaret in St. Peter. Twenty-one year old Nancy and twelve-year old Henry Williamson were living at home and the family took in Thomas and Margaret’s granddaughter, Nancy Hunter, the four-year-old child of the now deceased Elizabeth Williamson and her husband Andrew Hunter. Also joining the family was Thomas and Margaret’s daughter, Martha, and her husband, William Stout. They were living in Peoria, Illinois when the U.S. Dakota War began, but returned to the family in Minnesota in 1863, with their son Thomas Stout, who was just a year or so old.

In January of 1863 Thomas Williamson received a $400.00 loan from the mission board to build a house on farm property he owned three miles outside of St. Peter. At the time of his request, the family was renting a house in town for $100 a month and he thought it would be cheaper to have their own place further out in the country.[2] William Stout undertook the construction of the new house.

It isn’t clear from any of Jane’s letters or other documents just how she was able to bring a few of her former Dakota students to St. Peter. It is clear, however, that Marion Robertson, Bessie Means and Sophia Robertson were living with the Williamsons in St. Peter by early 1863 despite the forced exile of the Dakota from the state.[3]

Marion had lived with the family off and on ever since the Kaposia mission days when the Robertsons were neighbors of the Williamsons. She was 21 years old in 1861 when she moved to Beaver Creek with a young Scotsman named Alexander Hunter. They were married by Rev. Stephen Riggs at the Merchants Hotel in St. Paul, Minnesota, just a few weeks before the outbreak of the U.S. Dakota War in August of 1862. Upon learning of the attack at the Lower Sioux Agency, Marion and Alexander fled and tried to make their way to Fort Ridgley. They were at John Nairn’s farm when Hinhanshoon Koyagmane approached them alone on the road and shot Alexander in the breast. He took Marion captive but she was rescued by Wakewashtay who took her back to her mother’s home at Beaver Creek.

Merchants Hotel St. Paul

Marion Robertson and Alexander Hunter were married at the Merchant’s Hotel in St. Paul by Rev. Stephen Riggs in August 1862. The hotel was ocated at 159 East Third Street, now renamed Kellogg Boulevard.

Although the historical record isn’t clear, we do know that Jane Williamson wrote to Stephen Riggs on October 27, 1862. “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.” [4] Marion’s brother Thomas had been arrested and accused of joining Little Crow in battles at Fort Ridgley and New Ulm. He was ultimately acquitted and sent to the Fort Snelling internment camp.

Marion was pregnant at the time of her husband’s death and she left the Williamsons and went to Faribault, Minnesota, where her mother had relocated after the war. Marion and Alexander’s son, Alexander W. Hunter, was born there in February 1863. Tragedy struck when Marion’s three-year-old son died in February 1866, while they were in Faribault. In 1867, she married Lorenzo Taliaferro Prescott, a son of Philander Prescott, who had been killed in the war. Lorenzo was 28 years old and Marion was 27. They reportedly had a daughter and a son. Marion and Lorenzo only had a short time together when Lorenzo died on January 2, 1869, at the age of thirty. At this point, Marion took her children and went with her mother and others in the family and settled on the Sisseton Reservation. She passed away there in 1871 when she was 30 years old. It is not known what happened to her children or whether she ever saw Jane again after she left St. Peter in January 1863.

Marion’s sister, Sophia Maria Robertson, also lived with the Williamsons off and on during her childhood. She was fourteen when the war broke out in 1862 and somehow made her way to St. Peter where she lived with Jane and the family in the spring of 1853. The third girl, Bessie Means, had been taken into the Williamson family in March of 1859 at Pejutazee. She was five years old at the time and may have been an orphan. There is no mention of Bessie in any of the stories of the Williamsons’ escape as the war broke out but she was with the family in St. Peter in May of 1863. On September 5, 1865, Thomas Williamson reported to S.B. Treat that the family had two girls living with them, one of whom had come to them three years before the outbreak and the other had been living with the family for two years. He also says: “The other girl I wrote you about had suffered so much by her confinement at Fort Snelling and then on the Missouri that she was consumptive when she came here and died a month after I came home from Davenport.” [5]

On May 6, 1863, Jane wrote to Mary Riggs and mentioned how appreciative she was of the clothing and other items that Rev. Riggs had brought to the family.

“Mr. Riggs is getting his horse and I have not time to tell you how much we were all obliged by the valuable donations. Handkerchiefs and hose were just what I was needing. I have got one pair of the pants refitted for Bessie. If I can get the summer dresses made large enough for her they will save buying her one. The pretty blue saque looks so sweet on Nancy and she had nothing of the kind suitable for summer. The smaller dress needs no alteration…The pretty Delaine sets on Sophia as though it had been fitted by a dressmaker and is so suitable to the season.”[6]

Margaret and Henry edited.old

Thomas and Margaret Williamson rented rooms in Davenport, Iowa between 1863-1866 while Thomas continued to minister to the prisoners. Margaret had this photo taken in Davenport in 1863 with their youngest son, Henry.

While Jane was dealing with outfitting the girls and herself, Thomas found himself barred from visiting the prisoners in Davenport. Stephen Riggs told his wife Mary that officials felt that Thomas was indoctrinating the prisoners and telling them they weren’t guilty. This ban lasted until October of 1863.[7] Thomas apparently did not always obey the ban. He and Margaret took Henry to Davenport and found a place to rent so that he could remain near the prison camp. He never stopped believing that the men in the prison were innocent and he was concerned about their living conditions.

During that summer of 1863, work continued on the new house, which was possibly ready for the family to move in by August or September. Henry Williamson wrote to his brother John on July 28, 1863, that the carpentry work was completed on the house and that Andrew Hunter had harvested the wheat.[8] Apparently the family income depended on what was produced at the farm during this time. [9]

Nancy Williamson did, however, find a teaching position. None of her letters home indicate exactly where she was but she wrote to Jane on July 22, 1863 about working with some of her students to clean the schoolhouse.

“Dear Aunt Jane,

I thank you for your short note by Mr. Peck. I intended to have sent you one by him but had not had time to write it. I generally assisted Mrs. Radcliff in the evenings as she was very much — with her work. I expected to have time to write Saturday, but I did not. The schoolhouse was to clean up. I spent half the day, rather more than that, and was very tired when I did get back. Harriet Radcliff and Mary Humphrey assisted me. The well has been fixed so we are no longer badly off for water. The girls made a fair while I went down to Mr. — Southels’s to borrow a bucket and scrub brush. Mrs. Radcliff had given us some soft soap to take with us – so we had warm soapsuds to work with. Harriet and Mary drew all the water and scrubbed the floor; and they did it well. They each had a broom, a bucket of water, and a cloth for wiping and they worked with a will. Mary being the largest and a strong girl for her size could and did do the most. I washed the windows, the doors, the chair, the desk and benches.”[10]


Taoyateduta’s son, Wowinape, lived in the Williamson home off and on when he was a young boy. He was with his father when the famous Dakota chief was killed near Hutchinson, Minnesota, in 1863. Wowinape was sentenced to be hanged but a technical difficulty postposed the execution and he was sent to the prison in Davenport and was pardoned with the others in 1866.

In the letters I have from Jane at this time, there is no mention of the death of Taoyateduta near Hutchinson, Minnesota, on July 3, 1863. Jane had known the infamous chief at Kaposia and at least two of his children lived with the Williamsons off and on during the Williamsons time there from 1845-1852. One of those children, Wowinape, was captured on July 28, 1863. He had been with his father at the time that Nathan Lamson came across them picking berries and shot and killed the chief who was known to most whites as Little Crow. The news of his death was published all over the area and Jane certainly would have learned of it but we have no record of what her thoughts may have been.

Although no copy of his request has been found, Thomas Williamson apparently wrote to S.B. Treat in late 1863 and asked if the ABCFM mission board would help him with expenses if he were to travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Abraham Lincoln in person and seek pardons for at least a portion of the men imprisoned at Davenport. Treat responded on January 25, 1864 and granted Thomas’s request. He also sent a second letter in March wishing Thomas luck in getting the ear of the president.[11]

Thomas left for Washington on March 23, 1864, and met with President Lincoln on April 1, 1864. The President told him that he would pardon one-third of the prisoners if the Minnesota Congressional delegation would approve the request. That didn’t happen but Thomas was successful in convincing Lincoln to pardon twenty-five of the prisoners, whose names Thomas himself had selected. The pardons were granted on April 30, 1964 and signed by the president.[12]

In addition to working for the pardons, Thomas, Jane and the rest of the family were involved with receiving payment for the claim they had submitted following the U.S. Dakota War. Historian Carrie Zeman found the original missionary claims in the National Archives in 2017 and I have worked with her to transcribe many of the handwritten documents. Both the process and the itemized list of what the Williamson family lost provide intriguing details about their daily lives.

The first step was for Thomas to hire an attorney to represent him, which he did. Charles D. Gilfillan became the family’s legal representative throughout the process, which actually began back on November 10, 1862 when Thomas, his daughter Elizabeth Williamson Hunter and colleagues, Hugh and Mary Cunningham, appeared before J.B. Sackett, Nicollet County, Minnesota Notary Public.

Williamson Claim Page 6

This is page 6 of the Williamson family claim. You can imagine the challenge of transcribing the writing and amounts. On this page are listed several items of women’s clothing. There is a black silk dress almost new for $10.00; a heavy traveling dress very little worn for $6.00; 2 calico dresses, part worn for $2.00 and 4 quilted skirts at $1.50 each.

The Williamsons had worked to compile a list of the property they lost when the Dakota burned down the mission and their home. Elizabeth and the Cunninghams were basically there to affirm that they found the list to be accurate as far as they remembered. The list is ten pages long and includes horses, cattle, pigs, farm implements, tools, buggy, furniture, bedding, linens, individual items of clothing, hundreds of books, food supplies, dishes, pots and pans and every piece of silverware. The total claim was submitted for $1,789.00.

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is a 2013  film and an adaptation of the 1853 slave memoir Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. A copy of the original Northrup book is on the Williamson claim list at a price of $.075.

Several months later, on February 16, 1863, the commissioners called Thomas, Nancy Williamson and Stephen Riggs in to cross examine them about the contents of the list. Riggs spoke up and said that Thomas had underestimated the worth of what had been lost and said the claim should be closer to $2,500. Nancy ‘s cross examination is reported as follows:

“That she knew all the articles were at their house but cannot tell the exact amount, that they left the buggies – That the melodeon was a very fine one and nearly new – that her father had a large amount of furniture and household goods because he had a large family – that he had a pair of Globes one celestial the other terrestrial and were worth twelve dollars. That her father was a Physician and created the medicines whenever called upon.”

            Further deponent saith not

                        [signed] Nancy J. Williamson

The report of the claim ends with the following determination:

“We, the undersigned, Commissioners, appointed under the Act of Congress, Approved February 16th, 1863, after hearing and considering the annexed Claim and evidence, find that they claimant is entitled to

Fifteen hundred dollars as direct damages.                                                                                                  $1500.00
Paid him out of “Present Relief” Fund two hundred Dollars    $ 200.00
Balance due,                                                                                            $1300.00
We also find due him as consequential damages                         $ 200.00


Witness our hands at Minneapolis Minnesota this
20th day of October A.D. 1863.”

As far as I can interpret from the claim documents, the Williamsons received only $1,500 for everything they had owned and the balance of the money, $1,100.00, was finally released to them on August 12, 1864, nearly two years after the war began. That date is confirmed on the first page of the document.

“Department of the Interior

Washington, D.C. August 12 1864

Received of Ashton L. H. White, Disbursing Clerk of the Department of the Interior, under the provisions of the Acts of Congress approved February 16th, 1863, and May 28th, 1864, Eleven hundred Dollars, being the balance of the award of the Commissioners upon the Claim of Thomas S. Williamson numbered 243.

[Signed] C Gilfillan, Atty for the Claimant”[13]

The situation with the missionaries was complicated by the fact that the ABCFM owned the land on which the missions had been built. The missionaries were given the opportunity by the mission board to purchase that land if they wished but few took advantage of that offer and instead attempted to accurately claim only those items which specifically belonged to them personally and not to the mission. The ABCFM filed its own claim to receive recompense for lost property and buildings owned by the mission board.


John Poage Williamson married Sarah “Amelia” Van Nuys on April 27, 1866. They went with the Dakota to Niobrara and then to the Yankton Reservation at Greenwood, South Dakota, where they ran the mission and school for over fifty years.

The other major development in the post-war story that impacted the family was that the federal government finally agreed to move the Indians off of the barren Crow Creek reservation where hundreds had died, many of starvation, since 1863. On June 11, 1866, all of the women, children and other family members at Crow Creek were moved to Niobrara, Nebraska. John Williamson, who had been with the Dakota from the beginning of their removal, had married Sarah “Amelia” Van Nuys on April 27, 1866, in Winnebago, Minnesota, and now he and Sarah accompanied the people to their new Nebraska home. They remained there until spring of 1869, when John was assigned to establish a new mission and school at Greenwood, South Dakota on the Yankton Reservation.

The family continued to be faced with tragedy. They had just buried little John Knox Williamson in October of 1862 and now, in 1865, Martha and William Stout’s little boy, Thomas Williamson Stout, who was three years old, died. Nothing in the correspondence indicates any cause of death. Two years later, on May 20, 1867, Martha and William were blessed with another boy. Alfred “Alfie” Josiah Stout. Alfie was a healthy child and lived to the fine old age of 87 years.

It was now five years since the U.S. Dakota War and Jane had settled into her new role in St. Peter, Minnesota. Although Thomas accompanied Stephen Riggs on trips to Niobrara and spent time filling in for John at Greenwood, Jane never returned to mission work. She focused on her Dakota students and her Sunday School classes and took in a few students for general education. Nancy Williamson wrote to her brother Henry on April 8, 1868 and reported that: “Aunt is teaching in the sitting room. Her scholars are Albert, Edwin, Sammy, Mattie and Nancy. She only teaches forenoons.” [14] Alfred was Alfred Frazier, a Dakota boy who had come to live with the Williamsons. Mattie may be Martha Big Fire, a Dakota girl who was a daughter or granddaughter of Peter Tapaytatanka, one of the Dakota men for which Jane wrote a letter pleading for pardon, and Nancy is Nancy Hunter, Jane’s great-niece. I have no information on who Edwin and Sammy are.

These were good years for Jane in many ways, surrounded by family, involved in church, teaching students and enjoying apparent good health. She had found and connected with many of her former students and enjoyed visits with other former mission members. She corresponded with missionaries around the world and loved to hear from her nephews, John, Andrew and Henry. It was an era of relative peace and contentment before Jane’s life changed yet again.

[1] Jane Williamson to Mary Riggs, May 6, 1863, MHS MS, Riggs Family Papers, P727, Box 1. Sarah is Sarah Hopkins, the wife of Robert Hopkins Chaska, and her mother is Catherine Tatidutawin. Both are referenced in many Dakota Soul Sisters stories.

[2] Thomas Williams to S.B. Treat, January 20, 1863, NW Missions MS, P489, Box 21; ABCFM SS310 No. 227 Re Claims.

[3] Marion and Sophia Robertson had a white father and Dakota mother so perhaps were allowed to remain in Minnesota. Bessie may also have had a white parent; their identities are not known.

[4] Jane Williamson to Stephen Riggs October 27, 1862; MNHS Riggs Family Papers, Box 1

[5] Thomas Williamson to S.B. Treat, September 5, 1865, MNHSBA10/.A512b, ABCFM Correspondence, Box 10

[6] Jane Williamson at St. Peter, to Mary Riggs, May 6, 1863; MHS MS, Riggs Family Papers, P727, Box 1. It is not clear in the letter whether the Nancy Jane mentions is Nancy Williamson or Nancy Hunter.

[7] Stephen Riggs to Mary Riggs, May 12, 1863, Riggs Family MNHS Riggs Family Papers, Box 1

[8] Henry Williamson to John Williamson, July 28, 1863, South Dakota State Historical Society. Thomas Smith Williamson Papers, Volume 3471B, Folder 2. Jeff Williamson identifies the current address of the Williamson property as 36706, County Road 15, St. Peter, MN.

[9] In the ABCFM Annual Report, September 1866, Jane Williamson, Thomas Williamson, Margaret Williamson, Stephen Riggs and Mary Riggs are listed as missionaries at large but it isn’t clear if they are continuing to be paid by the ABCFM. MNHS BA10/.A512b, ABCFM Correspondence, Box 7.

[10] Nancy Jane Williamson to Jane Williamson, July 22, 1863, MNHS Williamson Family Papers

[11] S.B. Treat to Thomas Williamson, January 25, 1864 and March 19 1864. MNHS NW Missions MS P489, Box 21.

[12] In 1865, Thomas made another effort to obtain pardons for more of the prisoners. He was to meet with the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs on April 15, 1865, but President Lincoln was assassinated the day before the meeting took place. The last of the prisoners at Davenport were pardoned on March 22, 1866, are released to the new reservation at Niobrara, Nebraska. Walt Bachman to Clifford Chanku, January 28, 2011; Thomas Williamson to Stephen Riggs, April 7, 1964 and January 12 ,1865, Riggs Family Papers, Boxes 1 and 2; MNHS, Robert Todd Lincoln Papers.

[13] RG 217 Records Of The Accounting Offices Of The Department Of The Treasury Indian Accounts, 1877, 3503E, Box No. 1713. [Outside Cover] Department Of The Interior, July 22, 1864.The within Claim No. 243 of Thomas S. Williamson..

[14] Nancy Williamson to Henry Williamson, April 8, 1868, MNHS Williamson Family Papers

This entry was posted in Catherine Tatidutawin, Jane Smith Williamson, Margaret Poage Williamson, Marion Robertson Hunter, Sarah Hopkins Chaska, Wawiyohiyawin/Sarah Hopkins, Women in Minnesota, Wowinape. Bookmark the permalink.

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