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

Over the next few years of Jane’s life, she remained as active as possible. Her biographer, The Rev. R.J. Creswell, furthered yet another legend about Jane when he wrote about her in 1906. He said:

“In 1881 she met a poor Indian woman, suffering extremely from intense cold. She slipped off her own warm skirt and gave it to the woman. The result was a severe illness which caused her partial paralysis and total blindness from which she never recovered.”[1] Jane herself refutes this story in a letter she wrote to Mary Riggs on Christmas Day, 1862:

“I believe I told you of losing my skirt that I intended to wear just before leaving Pajutazee. I suppose Mrs. Daniels thought I looked too slender and she gave me a quilted skirt but when Marion came I lent it to her and took cold which brought on dysentery and I was unwell for some time. Marion did not know the cause of my illness but she gave me back the skirt as soon as she got another and afterward when Mr. Kerr sent her a bundle containing one she did not need she gave me that also.”[2]

It is true that Jane began to lose her sight in 1880. One of the last letters I have that Jane sent to her cousin Elizabeth Burgess is dated March 14 and March 23, 1881, but is not written in Jane’s handwriting, indicating that she dictated it to someone who wrote it for her. It provides an amazingly personal portrait of Jane’s life when she was living alone in St. Peter.

“I suppose the winter has been unusually hard almost all over the U.S. and remembering that your delicate constitution did not bear the cold so well as mine I have often felt anxious about you although I knew you were surrounded by every comfort that love could give… Before the snowdrifts intercepted our communication with the west I rec’d letters from Nancy Hunter once or twice a week but they come very seldom now. The last one was dated 21st of Feb and she said she had not heard from me for four weeks and feared I was sick and that she had done wrong in leaving me but they needed her there and I have been very comfortable all winter. Have not had a wearisome night or an hours sickness and notwithstanding the storms I have not been confined to the house a single day although there has been a great deal of stormy weather this winter no single storm has been so severe as I have seen in goneby years but I think there is more snow than there has been any winter since we came to St. Peter. Some mornings the men and large boys were all busy shoveling the snow to make roads from their doors and for a time wood was scarce ____but Andrew had left me plenty of good wood. The man who with his family occupy the lower part of the house had it sawed. His boys brought it up so that I have had no trouble all winter.

“Before the weather became very cold I slept in the other room where I have a cook stove and used this for a sitting room but when the weather became severe I found it more comfortable to cook, sleep and eat in my sitting room. It has a nice little parlor cook stove that I bought long ago with money that you sent me and it makes this room very comfortable indeed. I cover the fire at night and in the morning step out of bed uncover the fire, take up the ashes, lay in dry wood and go back to bed till my room is warm and then rise and get my breakfast which is not much trouble but I always eat it with good relish. This climate gives us good appetites.

“I don’t trouble much about cooking. Martha Stout usually sends me a loaf of light bread once a week when the traveling is practicable. I told Mrs. Ericson I would like to have her send me a piece of cooked meat once a day and I would make it right at the end of the month. My little stove bakes potatoes very nicely. I can buy anything I wish downtown. Mr. Ericson calls at the P.O. or does any other errand I wish both her and his wife are very kind and thoughtful seem to take pleasure in doing me any favor. They are Swede Lutheran of the middle class.

“Andrew Williamson tried to leave everything comfortable for me. All my brothers’ children seem to desire to do anything to add to my comfort. Andrew left money subject to my order so that I could draw it at any time and the others seem just as willing to do for me. The man who had the greater part of my money failed but I draw the interest on four hundred dollars (in other hands) semi-annually a piece of land that had been unsuitable on account of the grass hoppers was sold the last of Dec. and from that source I will now draw nine per cent interest on eight hundred & fifty dollars from the sale of the land and there is some other money owing to me that I may receive the lower part of the house rents for six dollars a month and although I make some reduction on account of the many kindnesses I receive. Still I have all that I need with something to give the church and the poor.

“I am acquainted with many of the poor often bringing their children outgrown garments and their own that for some reason they are willing to spare to be distributed to the needy. And other winters I have been in the habit of seeking out those who were sick or in want but the walking has been bad this winter and I have gone out very little except to church to attend our missionary meetings when the weather is favorable or a lady calls to walk with me to the evening meetings but when the wind blows I stay at home. I am sometimes troubled when walking with a sharp pain striking me just above the left ankle that for a moment deprives me of the use of that limb. It hurts me very little when sitting and I have never felt it at all when lying on the bed. I suppose all old people have their pains and aches but I think very few suffer so little as I do. I have a cold now for the first time this winter but it does not make me sick though I am not so strong as I was earlier in the season. We are having pleasant weather now and the snow melts a little every day but it is still very deep and warm rain would probably cause a great flood.

“23. I stopped writing rec’d a letter from Nancy as she had still no letter from me and was troubled about it I wrote her a very long letter and then it was necessary for me to write to Andrew and although I stay at home very closely people thinking I am lonesome call very often. Mrs. Aiton spent a week with me lately. She is all the one that can talk with of Ohio friends. Should I live till June I think Andrew and Nancy both will visit me and although I am not lonesome I shall enjoy a visit from them very much. That you may be enabled at all times to cast your care on Him who cares for you is the desire of your ever loving Cousin Jane.”[3]

It is true that Jane began to lose her sight sometime in the 1880s. Mary Butler Renville, an old friend of Jane’s from the mission at Pejutazee, was happy to greet Jane in the summer of 1882 at the meeting of the Women’s Board of the Northwest Missions in Minneapolis. She wrote the following for the Iape Oaye newspaper’s July 1882 edition:

“There was dear Miss Jane Williamson, blind and suffering otherwise yet with untiring patience, long we clasped hands without a word. She, too, loved our darling Ella. The elder father of Mrs. Cunningham, James Ellison, can see to read and is so helpful to blind Aunt Jane. They are both ready to hear the master say, ‘Come up higher, I need thee.’ ”[4]

The Iape Oaye had also reported in the December 1881 issue that Jane had gone to spend the winter with the Cunninghams in Bloomington Ferry. The last letter of Jane’s that I have located was written from Bloomington Ferry on February 12, 1883. Like the March 1881 letter, it is not written in Jane’s handwriting but at the end of the letter there is a note saying, “By Mrs. Ames.” There are two letters in one with the first part to Elizabeth Burgess:

“Ever Dear Cousin,

“I have been very anxious to hear from you for a good while fearing you were sick. Cousin Lizzie’s letter came last week saying you had been sick but was better & I feel thankful that you are better… I thank Cousin L. very much for mentioning Winnie. It is a great comfort to know that she is contented and doing well. Where the children of Missionaries are wholly consecrated to God I think they have greatly the advantage of other in learning among the heathen. J. B. Renville said to me after hearing John Williamson preach he speaks right to the heart and then it is so much easier for them to speak the language it gets into their feelings. I have a letter from Winnie’s father the first of January. It is a great comfort to me probing in any darkness to receive letters from friends. I had a letter last week from Andrew. He is kept very busy. Charges me to want for nothing. I had one also from Martha Stout they are in usual health. My brother’s children are all very kind and I feel I have a great deal to be thankful for.  

“The winter thus far has been very cold and stormy and I have some more pain than I did a while but still I am quite comfortable at times and my nights are not as bad as they were last winter. Sometimes I have been a little troubled thinking I might lose my hearing also. Then I remember the admonition be careful for nothing but in everything tell your requests to make known unto the Lord by prayer and supplication & I try to cast my burden on him.

“Nancy H. usually writes to me every week but it is not probable we shall get regular mail while these storms continue. They have lately organized a woman’s society in the church here. I contribute some things for the relief of some of the needy that Nancy has mentioned in her letters but there is some doubt about their receiving these soon on account of the many snowdrifts. Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham are in usual health which is never good.. Very many thanks to Cousin Lizzie for her kind letter,

Your ever affec. Cousin, J.S. Williamson”

The next letter is to Winifred Williamson, who is obviously in Marietta, Ohio, staying with the Burgesses and meeting relatives.

“Dear Winnie,

“I am so thankful to hear from all the letters that you are contented, well & doing well. I want to tell you what a pleasant visit I had from your Cousin F_____- Brown. She stayed here a couple of weeks when Mr. Cunningham was quite unwell, she was so very kind anticipating my little wants, rubbing my aching limbs. She didn’t expect to stay so long but couldn’t get home on account of storms and instead of complaining of homesickness, she was cheerful, added a great deal to our happiness. All of ____ she told me too if she heard of my being sick she would come and stay with me again. I am so glad that you can have an opportunity of becoming acquainted with our Marietta friends. 

Give my love to Cousin Lizzie, Cole & all the friends.

Write to me when you have time. Your Aunt, Jane S.W.”[5]

It is sad that Jane spent her final years unable to continue writing to her relatives and other missionaries. Losing her sight brought a veil of silence to the remainder of her days. Her dear cousin Elizabeth lived until February 28, 1889, but apparently received no more letters from Jane after 1883, or if she did, her family no longer saved them with the earlier letters. Andrew Williamson did say, in 1884, however, that Jane “is better than I ever expected to see her again. Her mind appears to have entirely recovered, and except that she is entirely blind she is very well for a lady of 82.” [6]

Andrew was attending a meeting in Minneapolis when he visited with Jane so even though he wrote this letter from St. Peter, it appears Jane was still living with the Cunninghams in Bloomington Ferry. By 1885, however, Jane was living back in St. Peter with Martha and William Stout. The 1885 census clearly records her name with the family which includes William Stout, Martha Stout, Alfred Stout and Jane Williamson, who was eighty-four years old when the census taker came around in the spring. The Word Carrier Dakota newspaper for May 1888, also reported that Jane was at her home in St. Peter. It is clear that at some point, John and Amelia Williamson brought Jane into their family at the reservation in Greenwood, South Dakota, but no date has been found. John and Amelia were away from Greenwood and serving at Pine Ridge from 1890-91 so it’s unlikely that Jane was in Greenwood while they were away.

William and Martha Stout and their son Alfred left St. Peter sometime between 1885 and 1900 and settled in Gresham, Oregon. The federal census was taken there on June 11, 1900, and William Stout was no longer living. Martha is recorded as a widow with Alfred, who is listed as thirty years old. It may be that their move from Minnesota prompted Jane’s move to join John and his family in South Dakota.

The nearest indication we have that Jane was living in Greenwood by 1893 is a letter that John Williamson wrote to Andrew on November 10, 1893.

“I don’t see but what Aunt Jane’s general health is as good as when she came here and she may continue with us for months, but one thing has occurred to me that I wished to consult you about and that is the disposition of her body in case of her decrease. I asked her about it and she did not express any particular choice in the matter. She immediately commenced talking about the expense of funerals and did not want any more expense than could be helped. Then I asked her if she would prefer to be buried at St. Peter and she said she had expected to be buried by her brother, but it would be a good deal of expense, so she would not object to be buried here. I have two children buried here and she could be too but there is something appropriate in being buried by the side of those you have spent your life with, where it is not a burdensome duty. So I feel satisfied to either course, but as you have taken the care of Aunt Jane, I think you should decide the matter. And I would like to know what you have to say of this matter.

Your loving brother, John”[7]

The next letter from John to Andrew that has been found was written over a year later, on February 20, 1895.

“Aunt Jane I think is failing some but slowly. The doctor does not think there is any particular disease preying on her but a general failing of her powers. She is most of the time in a dreamy state but not a quiet state because she is too energetic. She is generally knitting though she has not touched her knitting for weeks. And she imagines something is wrong with it and someone must fix it for her and if no one is there to answer her she becomes much excited and cries over it so someone must be by her all the time or nearly so. And her mind is now so weak she can’t remember whether it is day or night a good part of the time. She does not sleep as much as we do I think. At least she never sleeps more than an hour or two at a time day or night. Someone sits in the rocking chair by her bed all night and sleeps what they can. We have a girl that is very good help for my wife.

“Your Aff. Bro.

John P. Williamson”[8]

Jane passed away on March 24, 1895. John wrote to Andrew a few days later:

“There was nothing unusual in Aunt’s demise. I wrote you I think a week before her death. We could see there was no improvement and probably a sinking because she would take no nourishment but we saw no evidence that her departure was imminent until the morning she died. My wife told me to come and see her about daylight. She lay quiet but it was not just like asleep. Her breathing was slower and rather non labored than usual and her pulse was weak and irregular. At first I thought that she would only last a few minutes but after a while she seemed to gain a little. She noted what I said to her. Sarah asked if she would like me to pray and she said yes and distinctly said Amen at the close of my prayer and started to say something more but did not articulate so we could hear her. Mr. Smith and Mrs. Brazeau came in after a while but she recognized them but said nothing. She continued about the same. I thought would last till night but just at noon her breath became suddenly weaker and… the copy of the letter ends.[9]

The Dakota newspaper, The Word Carrier for April-May 1895 published the following obituary for the beloved Aunt Jane.

“There fell asleep March w4, 1895, at the home of her nephew, John P. Williamson, D.D. Greenwood, S.D., Miss Jane Smith Williamson, aged ninety-two years sixteen days.

“In the Dakota mission we all knew Aunt Jane. A good many other people knew her too, because there was something about her that was hard to forget. She was very short, only four feet eight inches. She was a very ready talker. But it was not for these things she is specially remembered. She is remembered for her burning Christian zeal. It rested as a coal of fire on the head of every one she came in contact with. And her zeal was specially directed to two objects: the salvation of the African and the Indian races.

“Aunt Jane was born in South Carolina, cradled in the arms of African nurses who were brought to the free state of Ohio by her father that they might become the Lord’s freemen. She saw the children of these slave women who her mother had been forbidden to teach to read in South Carolina, grow up under her instruction and that of others to become enlightened Christians, and some of them ministers of the gospel. Living in the border land on the banks of the Ohio until she was forty years old, she had the opportunity of witnessing many a wordy conflict over the slavery question, and probably she was not always a silent witness, for stories are still told in hat neighborhood of the days seventy years ago when Aunt Jane was teaching in the log schoolhouse, and though she said she was not afraid and did not want them to come, armed men stood guard round the house to provent the mob from coming and cleaning out the place, because it was, as they said, an abolition nest. We think also there was probably some ground for the accusation, because Aunt Jane prayed for the colored people to the last day of her life and would say she thought we ought to do more for the colored people than for the Indians, because there were so many more of them.

“Aunt Jane wanted to come with her brother, Rev. Thomas S. Williamson, M.D., and be a missionary to the Indians when he came in 1835, but thought it her duty to stay where she could take care of her father, Rev. Wm. Williamson, in his old age. After his death she came in 1843, and was in active work teaching the Indians at Lac qui Parle and Kaposia (now West St. Paul) and Yellow Medicine for nineteen years, until the massacre of 1862. Since then she has not been in active work among them, but her busy mind has found many ways of serving them. And many of the strong Christians in our Indian churches both in pew and pulpit were her pupils; so being dead she yet speaketh. Aunt Jane’s labors among the Indians were in perilous times. At Kaposia the mission house was more than once assaulted by drunken Indians with clubs and knives. From Yellow Medicine the missionaries fled for their lives at the time of the massacre. Aunt Jane with her brother and his wife were the last white people to flee, going along hours after the rest had fled. I think Aunt Jane would rather have died there, but thought it her duty to leave.”[10]

The story concludes with a retelling of the time that Jane saved Thomas’s life by feeding a starving Indian man who wanted to kill Thomas. All of the versions of that part of the legend of Jane Williamson are told in Dakota Soul Sisters, Jane Williamson Part IX.

Jane’s biographer, Rev. R.J. Creswell concluded his summary of her life as follows:

“Without husband or children, alone in the world, she did not repine, but made herself useful, wherever She was, in teaching secular learning and religious truth, and in ministering to the sick and afflicted, the down-trodden and oppressed. She never sought to do any wonderful things – but whatever her hand found to do, she did it with her might and with an eye to the honor and glory of God. Hers was a very long and most complete Christian life. Should it ever be forgotten? Certainly not, while our Christian religion endures.” [11]

Longtime readers of Dakota Soul Sisters may recall how I described the way Jane Williamson came into my life back in 2001. (See March 24, 2014, Introduction to the Story of Jane Smith Williamson). I had first heard of Jane when I was in elementary school but hadn’t thought of her for over forty years when her name suddenly came to me while I was walking in Kaposia Park in South St. Paul on a beautiful autumn afternoon. I wondered what had become of Jane and whether her story had ever been told.

That “encounter” with Jane in Kaposia Park has become part of my own set of legends about Jane Williamson. There have been others. As every researcher, genealogist or historian knows, there often come times in your work when for no apparent reason, you put your fingers on a file that appears to have nothing of interest to you only to find it contains exactly what you needed. In other cases, you might just be browsing for a photograph and assuming you’ll never find the one you need, when it pops up in a totally unlikely location.

Jane’s story has come to me that way many times, not the least of which was in July 2003, when I made my first trip to Greenwood, South Dakota. My sister and I had made our usual visit to Mission Sunday on July 13, 2003, at Lac qui Parle State Park where a restored version of the original Dakota Mission Chapel hosts the annual gathering. At the potluck following the morning worship service, I asked Rev. Clifford Canku to give me detailed directions to the cemetery at Greenwood which he did. He basically said to go to the Indian school at Marty, South Dakota, and turn south to the river.

We were staying in Sioux Falls so the next day we set out from there for Marty, which is about 125 miles to the west. It was hot and dry and dusty all the way. When we got to the school, I pulled into a parking lot outside of what seemed to be the only building that was open. There was a sign on the road ahead of me pointing to Greenwood but I just wanted to be sure we were in the right place. As I went to enter the door to the building, a Dakota man came out and greeted me and asked if he could help. I thanked him and said I just wanted to be sure I was on the right road to get to the cemetery at Greenwood.

Greenwood Cemetery with Struck by the Ree

The cemetery at Greenwood, South Dakota is located at the highest point over looking the Missouri River. The monument on the left is the burial site of Struck by the Ree, a famous Yankton chief.


He got the strangest look on his face, his jaw dropped open and he said, “What? Why are you going out there?” I explained that I was a historian looking for Jane Williamson’s grave and he actually seemed to grow pale. He shook his head slowly, mystified and said, “I don’t believe it. I just mowed the grass out there yesterday.” He made it clear that he’d had no reason to mow the grass at the Greenwood Cemetery. He certainly didn’t know I was coming, but I think to this day that Jane had something to do with it.

Struck by the Ree Monument Greenwood

The inscription on Struck by the Ree’s marker reads: Here lies Paoani Apapi [Palaneapape] Struck by the Ree Head Chief of Yankton Sioux Consumation of the Treaty of 1858 Ceding to the United States the [south}east quarter of South Dakota. He was in his day the strongest and most Faithful friend of the Whites in the Sioux Nation Aged 84 yrs.

In any case, we headed out the barren road to Greenwood. The road to the cemetery came in on the left hand side and led us to the highest spot above the Missouri River. Indeed, the grass had been mowed inside the cemetery gates. If it hadn’t, we would not only have never found any graves, but we wouldn’t have even tried to walk in since the grass around the cemetery was several feet tall and snakes can be abundant in that part of South Dakota. Instead, we meandered our way into the cemetery. The tallest and most dramatic stone marked the burial site of Struck by the Ree or Strikes the Ree, Chief of the Yanktons, who lived from 1804 to 1888. Struck by the Ree was the first Indian child who was baptized into Christianity by Lewis and Clark when they reached this part of the Missouri River in 1805. I couldn’t help but be moved by the fact that in 1805, a little two-year-old girl in South Carolina was being taken from South Carolina to Ohio so that her father could free their slaves in a free state. Now that little two-year-old Jane Williamson was buried within a few feet of this Yankton chief who had become the first child baptized during the Corps of Discovery Expedition in 1805.

Glewwe Jane's Stone.old

Jane’s stone is as clear and crisp as it was when she was buried in 1895. The insignia marker next to the stone is too dark to read but it is the official Daughters of the American Revolution grave marker for descendants of Revolutionary War families.

Then, of course, I found Jane. The lettering on her pink granite stone is as sharp as the day she was buried in 1895 and standing proudly next to the stone is the marker which identifies her as a Daughter of the American Revolution. She is buried under a small grove of shrubbery near John and Sarah Amelia Williamson and two of their children, as well as other family members. It had only been two years since her name had come to me on the site of the Kaposia Mission, now Kaposia Park, in South St. Paul, Minnesota. As I stood there, I realized that yes, I had found Jane, but I knew very little about her life and that this day really marked the beginning of the journey to tell her story. Now, sixteen years later, I still want to find out more.

Greenwood House and Church

This photo of Greenwood was probably taken in about 1900 and it shows the Chapel and School house with the tower.


Glewwe Greenwood House.old

When I visited Greenwood in 2003, this is all that remained of the chapel. Greenwood at that point was basically a ghost town. There were two trailers off in the distance but no other signs of life except for two very happy dogs who came out to welcome my sister and I to town. When I returned in 2009, the entire place was bustling with all kinds of trailers. Families were living in the former reservation building and although the ruins were still there, the place was coming back to life.


Glewwe Greenwood Church.old

The church at Greenwood wasn’t built until long after Jane was gone. John P. Williamson lived long enough to see its completion and was buried from the new building in 1917.




Greenwood Aerial

Greenwood at one time was quite a major community along the Missouri River. This photo, again taken about 1900, gives some sense of the size of the village when Jane lived there.

Jane Williamson as JPEG

Aunt Jane (1803-1895)


[1] Cresswell, Rev. R. J., Among the Sioux: A Story of the Twin Cities and The Two Dakotas, The University Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 1906, p. 77.

[2] Jane Williamson to Mary Riggs, December 25, 1862, MNHS, Riggs Family Papers, P726, Box 1. Marion Robertson had passed away years before 1881 and although Jane mentions becoming ill after giving Marion her skirt, she never mentions such a thing again.

[3] Jane Williamson to Elizabeth Burgess, March 14 and 23, 1881, Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Item 45, Folder 5.

[4] Iapi oaye: the Minnesota Sioux Tribe’s “Word Carrier“. Minnesota Historical Society Microfilm Call #: 1063. Mary and John Renville’s daughter Ella had passed away on February 14, 1882, so Jane would have shared Mary’s grief at this loss in another mission family.

[5] Jane Williamson to Elizabeth Burgess and Winifred Williamson, February 12, 1883, Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Item 46, Folder 5. The Lizzie in the letter is Elizabeth Williamson Voris Cutler, the daughter of Elizabeth Burgess. Cole is apparently a grandson of Elizabeth Burgess. I don’t know who Winnie’ cousin F_______-Brown might be.

[6] Andrew Williamson to “Dear Friend,” written from St. Peter Minnesota, August 14, 1884. Dakota Prairie Museum, Aberdeen, SD, 1-74-14-243

[7] John Williamson to Andrew Williamson, November 10, 1893, MNHS, Williamson Papers, P726, Box 1

[8] Ibid., February 20, 1895

[9] Ibid., April 1, 1895

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

[11] Cresswell, Rev. R. J., Among the Sioux: A Story of the Twin Cities and The Two Dakotas, The University Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 1906, p. 79.

This entry was posted in Dakota Mission, Jane Smith Williamson, Marion Robertson Hunter, Martha Williamson Stout, Nancy Hunter Lindsey, Sarah Amelia Van Nuys Williamson, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

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