Ann “Nancy” Margery Rankin Adams – Living Life with Moses

One of the challenges of writing about the “soul sisters” is that several of them are completely silent. They left behind no written record, no letters, no diary, no journal, and no memoir of their years with the Dakota mission. Nancy Adams is one of those silent sisters. In order to tell her story, we have to rely on her husband, Rev. Moses Newton Adams, who was possibly the most un-silent of all of the missionaries. In fact, the only actual mention of Nancy Adams in the historical record is a letter from John P. Williamson to his father, Thomas, where he refers to Nancy’s ‘meddlesomeness.” [1]

I didn’t want to rest Nancy’s entire story on that one comment so I’ve gone through Moses Adam’s letters closely and tried to find something of Nancy in those abundant documents.

Nancy Adams

Nancy Rankin Adams married Moses Adams in 1848 and worked with Robert and Agnes Hopkins and Stephen and Mary Riggs at the Lac Qui Parle mission in Minnesota. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Ann Margery Rankin was born on December 19, 1827, in Jefferson County, Tennessee. She was known as Nancy, as Annie and Ann M. Rankin, and was the daughter of James and Sarah Gant Rankin. James Rankin was related to Rev. John Rankin, the famous abolitionist of Ripley, Ohio, and like John, he did not keep slaves but fought to abolish slavery his entire life.

When Nancy was a young girl, her parents sent her to live with Rev. John Rankin’s family in Ripley, Ohio, to receive her education. The Rankins in Ripley had thirteen surviving children between 1816 and 1839. If Nancy joined the family when she was about eight years old in 1835, there were already eleven boys and girls in the little house on top of the bluff in Ripley, Ohio spanning the ages of nineteen to infancy. James Rankin and John Rankin may have been brothers. Both were born in Dandridge, Tennessee, where James’s family still lived. The Rankin surname is a very common one in America. My own great-great-grandmother was Elizabeth Rankin from Scotland. I don’t think I’ll try to unravel the Rankin family tree as part of Nancy’s story, however.

Rankin House Ripley

The John Rankin house sits high atop the bluffs overlooking the Ohio River in Ripley, Ohio. A light was always in the window so that people who were attempting to escape from slavery could find their way to the Rankin’s where they would  be sent to safety in the north on the Underground Railroad. Nancy lived with the Rankin family while she went to school as a young girl.

Nancy thus spent her childhood and early teen years in one of the most prominent abolitionist Presbyterian families in all of America. Rev. John Rankin is renowned throughout history as the inspiration for the story of Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Ohio River, which flowed in the valley below the Rankin home was the sight of Eliza’s dramatic escape from Kentucky. Rankin’s home on the very top of the bluff is a national historic site today in Ripley, Ohio. It is said that a candle always burned in the window of the house to help those escaping from slavery find their way to the Rankin home from which they would be spirited away to the north on the Underground Railroad.

Nancy was twenty years old when she met Moses Newton Adams in Ripley. He was born in Adams County, Ohio, in February 1822, to Robert and Betsy Baird Adams, and was a cousin of Rev. Stephen Riggs, who may have inspired Moses’s interest in working with the Native Americans. Moses graduated from Ripley College in 1845 and three years later received his degree from Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. He applied to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to become a missionary soon after graduating. His application was met with a single piece of advice that he not even consider going to the mission field until he had a wife.[2]

Moses Newton Adams

Rev. Moses Newton Adams had a reputation of being a source of contention in nearly every position he held. He described himself to S.B. Treat of the ABCFM as “5’11” high, a high but not wide forehead, large light blue eyes, long full face with high cheekbones and thick lips, dark hair and light complexion. All he said about his wife Nancy was that she was twenty-one years old at the time.

This was not an unusual response from the mission board. Whether it was a man who wished to minister in India, China or the American west, no single men were allowed to go to the mission field. The board recognized that not only would a man need a companion and caregiver to see to his meals, clothing, health and wellness, but as a single man, he would never be allowed near the women of that mission field by himself. The board knew that it was the female missionary who would be able to freely move among the women and children of the community, earning their trust, securing their friendship and thus leading them to be willing to come to church services. This requirement led to many marriages between a man who desired to bring Christianity to the mission field and a woman who perhaps saw no other future for herself beyond a relatively safe and uninteresting life in a place like Ripley, Ohio.

Less than two months after being advised to find a wife, on July 11, 1848, Moses Adams notified David Greene of the ABCFM that, “On last Saturday evening, the 9th, in the Central Congregational Church of this place we were married. We hope for a boat for Galena today.” [3] Seventeen days later, Moses and Nancy arrived at the village of Kaposia in Minnesota where they were welcomed by Thomas, Margaret and Jane Williamson and where they immediately began their efforts to learn the Dakota language.[4]

No matter how many of these stories of the early missionary women I research, I am always amazed at their courage and their longing for not only spiritual blessing but for adventure. For a young women like Nancy her only possible future in Ohio meant marrying and being a wife or remaining single and becoming a schoolteacher. There would be no travel; no hope of any kind of diversion from domestic life. Many of these young women took a chance and when a zealous young man asked if you’d like to go live in the wilderness among the Indians, it may have been too enticing to ignore. As we know from the stories we’ve already told in Dakota Soul Sisters, that decision was not always rewarded with success. Many died very young in child birth or of tuberculosis or other diseases. Nancy, as it turned out was one of the lucky ones.

Two months later, at the Annual Meeting of the Dakota Mission at Kaposia on September 12, 1848, Moses and Nancy were approved for appointment to the mission at Lac Qui Parle where they would serve with Robert and Agnes Hopkins and Stephen and Mary Riggs. It isn’t clear exactly where Moses and Nancy were staying at the Lac Qui Parle mission. Robert Hopkins reported to S.B. Treat of the ABCFM that they were staying with him and Agnes on September 12, 1848, but Mary Riggs later wrote that she and Stephen gave them the kitchen and one bedroom for the winter, leaving only two rooms for themselves and their children.[5]

Moses Adams brought a particular focus to his ministry upon his arrival at Lac Qui Parle. He was an early proponent of the boarding school model of educating the Dakota. He called the school at Lac Qui Parle a boarding school and almost immediately upon their arrival he and Nancy took in a young Dakota girl named Lydia Wakanmane. Lydia was named after Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, and was about eight years old when she joined the household of Moses and Nancy Adams. She was baptized at Lac Qui Parle on August 30, 1840.[6]

Nancy and Moses concentrated on learning the Dakota language, apparently becoming proficient enough that Nancy was given responsibility for teaching the day school for the Dakota for four and a half months in the winter of 1849-1850.[7] Moses soon began to make his presence known within the Dakota mission because of his criticism of the AB CFM and Thomas Williamson in particular. On October 2, 1849, he also wrote to S.B. Treat that he was very opposed to Rev. Gideon Pond taking his seat in the Minnesota Territorial Legislature. He was the only missionary who expressed any opposition. On January 12, 1850, he wrote to Treat again to express his belief that the ABCFM was not taking a strong enough stance against slavery. He also criticized Thomas Williamson for not forcing the Dakota to forsake their long tradition of men having more than one wife.[8]

Dr. Williamson did not condone polygamy but he also believed that women who were married to a man who had another wife should not be banned from joining the Christian church. The wives were actually sisters in many cases and Thomas didn’t feel they should be punished for that tradition. He also realized that should a Dakota man be forced to set aside one or more of his wives, it was those women who would suffer since they would lose their home and source of support. He and Moses Adams never resolved their differences over the issue.

In May of 1850, Nancy’s sister, Sarah Rankin, came out to join Nancy and Moses at Lac Qui Parle where she hoped to serve as an assistant missionary. Sarah was five years younger than Nancy and was seventeen years old when she arrived in Minnesota. Unfortunately, shortly after Sarah came to the mission, Nancy became seriously ill. There is no indication in the historical record of exactly what she suffered from but on July 8, 1850, she and Moses went to Kaposia and visited the surgeon at Fort Snelling. He advised Moses to take Nancy to St. Louis for treatment as soon as possible. Instead, Moses decided to take Nancy to Quincy, Illinois, and he informed the ABCFM that Sarah would return to Quincy with them.[9]

Over the next year, Moses was engaged to preach in the Schuyler Presbytery for six months and also received a commission from the Home Missionary Society for a year, which the ABCFM allowed him to accept. In March of 1851, he wrote to S.B. Treat to report that Nancy was still not well enough to return to Lac Qui Parle but by October 1851, she had apparently recovered. Moses wrote to S.B. Treat from Galena, Illinois, on October 3, 1851: “We left Quincy, Illinois last Monday and arrived here yesterday. Mr. Riggs and part of the family have gone east. Mrs. Adams’s sister Sarah, now at Red Wing, will join us on our return and go to Lac Qui Parle as assistant missionary as before.”[10]

Sarah had not gone back to Illinois with Nancy and Moses but had remained in Minnesota and was assigned to the mission at Red Wing, Minnesota, where Rev. Joseph Hancock was stationed with his wife Martha and their daughter Marilla, who was born in 1848, and their son Willie, who was born in August 1850. Martha died on March 20, 1851, and Sarah apparently remained at the mission with Rev. Hancock to help care for the children. Sarah’s story will be told more completely in a future post but suffice it to say that she did return to Lac Qui Parle when Nancy and Moses came back to the mission but she then married Joseph Hancock there on May 2, 1852 and returned with him to Red Wing.

At that time in 1852, Moses and Nancy had five Dakota children living with them and were expecting Lydia Wakanmane to return to the family in a few days. Writing to S.B. Treat on June 7, 1852, Moses said that “Food is more scarce than I have ever seen. The Indians are starving to death.” Ironically, three years earlier Moses wrote in the Missionary Herald magazine of September 1849 that “God humbles the people by making them starve.”[11]

In July of 1852, Moses asked Treat if he could bring his sister out to help Nancy. He said he had a cousin he was thinking of bringing on but would prefer his sister.[12] A month later, in August 1852, Stephen Riggs returned to Lac Qui Parle with Miss Lucy Jane Spooner and Miss Mary Roach Spooner. The sisters were cousins of Moses Adams. Lucy Jane went to live with the Riggs and Mary joined Moses and Nancy. The Spooner sisters will be featured on a future Dakota Soul Sisters post.

Throughout this time at Lac Qui Parle, Moses Adams began to have problems with Stephen Riggs. On December 9, 1852, Moses wrote to S.B. Treat and bowed out of the boarding school at Lac Qui Parle because “Riggs is unwilling to hold with me and be an equal part of the undertaking.” He thinks that he and Rev. Hancock could do it at a different location, not Lac Qui Parle or Red Wing.[13]

In June of 1853, Joseph Hancock wrote to S.B. Treat that Moses was in attendance at the annual meeting of the Dakota mission at Red Wing and that he asked for release from the ABCFM which was granted with regrets. It was decided that his request for articles to be taken with him is to be treated liberally. That same month, Moses wrote to S.B. Treat that the reason he was leaving was because of the ABCFM’s stance on slavery and Thomas Williamson’s views on polygamy. Treat responded by telling Moses that was nonsense and the reason he was leaving was because of his disagreement with Riggs over the boarding school at Lac Qui Parle. Treat subsequently wrote to Thomas that “Mr. Adams had better be out of the mission for he will only make trouble.” On August 22, 1853, Treat wrote to Adams confirming that he had been dismissed from the ABCFM.[14]

Moses and Nancy appeared to do well at the new church in Traverse des Sioux. They continued to take in Dakota children and were paid for doing so although I have not been able to unravel who was paying. In the Northwest Mission documents of January 1854, the Chief Clerk of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Charles Mix, wrote to Minnesota Territorial Governor Willis Gorman and told him to pay Moses Adams for the tuition, and care of several children for the third quarter. Moses had hoped for payment for three quarters.[15]

Nancy and Moses remained with the church at Traverse des Sioux until 1860. They apparently continued to live in Traverse and it may be that this is when Moses began to travel the region on behalf of the American Bible Society. When the Williamsons showed up in Traverse after fleeing the violence of the U.S. Dakota War of August 1862, they moved into the Adams’s house since Moses and Nancy weren’t there but were expected to return home very soon.[16]

While they were pastoring the church at Traverse des Sioux, Nancy and Moses adopted their daughter, Ella Christiana Adams. Ella had been born in 1848 but first shows up with Moses and Nancy in the 1857 Territorial Census of Nicollet County, Traverse des Sioux, Minnesota. She is listed there as eight years old and was a white child whose parents were from Sweden. Her birth surname is not listed in the historical record. The family went through a time of grief when Nancy’s sister Sarah died in Red Wing. She had only been married to Joseph Hancock for seven years and left a daughter, Stella Ann, who was six years old. Another child, Alta, had been born in March of 1856 but the baby only lived fourteen months and died on July 2, 1857.

There is only one historical record of Moses and Nancy from the time they left the church at Traverse in 1860 and January 1871 when Moses was appointed the new Indian Agent at the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota. Mary Riggs wrote to her husband Stephen on October 13, 1862, that Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Wakefield of St. Peter called and visited Mary where the Riggs’ were living in St. Anthony.[17]

Gabriel Renville

Moses Adams had an ongoing feud with Gabriel Renville who was the chief of the Dakota at the Lake Traverse reservation. Moses was there as a federal government Indian Agent but according to many, acted more like a missionary, favoring Christian Indians and directing the Dakota to give up their traditional ways.

As of January 1, 1871, Moses was named the Indian Agent at the Lake Traverse Reservation. His appointment was opposed by chief of the Dakota there, Gabriel Renville, and the Scouts Party, which was made up of the mostly Christian Dakota who had worked as scouts with Henry Sibley in the years following the War of 1862. Moses received the post because the reservations had each been assigned to a specific denomination and Lake Traverse was Presbyterian. Jared Daniels, who was the agent there, was Episcopalian so Moses was approved to take his place.

In what seems to have become a pattern with Moses, he soon found himself in the middle of controversy when a non-Christian Indian filed for a clerkship on the reservation and was rejected. He filed a complaint against Moses in Washington, D.C., saying that Christian Indians were being favored and paid more. As impetus grew in the Scout party for Moses to be removed, federal officials began visiting the reservation. Chief Gabriel Renville tried to resign but his followers refused to accept that and the feud between Moses and Renville continued through the end of 1873.

One of the main problems was that an Indian Agent was not to act like a missionary and was not to favor Christian Dakota over non-Christians. Moses instead, railed against Gabriel Renville who had more than one wife and who continued to live as a traditional Dakota, participating in dances, hunting and traveling on Sundays and generally attempting to protect Dakota culture. In the fall of 1874, the federal government sent E.C. Kemble to Lake Traverse to try to resolve the situation. Kemble’s report did not support Moses’s imposition of religion on affairs of the government. He did not demand that Moses resign but he did bring Gabriel Renville back to the executive board. Things did not improve and finally it was Stephen Riggs who convinced Moses to resign. Even having done so, Moses and Nancy remained on the reservation until May 1875.[18]

Now fifty-three years old, Moses turned to his former colleagues from the ABCFM in an attempt to find a new position. John Williamson wrote to his father Thomas on March 15, 1875, and reported that Moses wanted to leave government work and return to the mission. He had specifically asked if he could be assigned to the mission at Fort Peck, Montana. John told Thomas that he was hesitant to approve the request because of Moses’s head-strongness. This is the letter where John also says that he is concerned about Nancy’s meddlesomeness.[19]

I’m led to two possibilities when I read that about Nancy. First of all, she had spent twenty-seven years married to Moses, who over and over again finds himself in disagreement with his colleagues. That alone might have caused her to meddle in mission business if only in support of her husband. The other possibility is that Nancy and Moses were perfectly suited to each other and both found fault with others and with their superiors consistently. In either case, I doubt that Nancy Adams had a very peaceful and happy life.


Fort Gibson in Oklahoma was established in Cherokee and Muskogee Counties in 1824. Moses Adams was chaplain at the Fort from 1878 until he retired in 1892.

The Annual Meeting of the Dakota Mission was held at Greenwood, South Dakota, on the Yankton Reservation in the fall of 1878 and Moses and Nancy were there as visitors. Iape Oaye, the Dakota newspaper, reported that Moses was a chaplain in the U.S. Army and was stationed at Fort Gibson in Muskogee County, Oklahoma.[20]

While Moses and Nancy were at the Lake Traverse Reservation, their daughter Ella apparently got married, although no marriage certificate has been located. In the 1880 census in St. Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota, Ella is listed as a widow, aged thirty, with two sons: Charles Rankin Frost, born on December 18, 1874 and David Frost, born in July 1876. Living with the family is Newton Robinson Frost, a twenty-one year old single man, who is listed as Ella’s brother with the occupation of grocer. My interpretation of this information is that Newton Robinson Frost was actually Ella’s brother-in-law, not her brother. This would explain why Ella’s sons are in the census with the last name of Frost, even before Ella and Newton Frost were married on March 13, 1882. They had three children together: Wilford N. Frost, born in December 1884; Edith Margaret Frost, born on February 8, 1890; and Howard Edwin Frost, on May 3, 1893.

1564 Laurel Avenue - Adams

Nancy and Moses lived in this home at 1564 Laurel Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota from 1892 until at least 1902, when Moses passed away at the age of eighty years.


Ella and Newton lived in St. Paul, Minnesota and that is where Moses and Nancy chose to settle when Moses retired from the chaplain position at Fort Gibson in 1892. Their home was at 1564 Laurel Avenue in St. Paul and they joined the Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church which was just a few blocks away. In July 1898, on their 50th wedding anniversary, the church hosted a reception in their honor. The Dakota newspaper, The Word Carrier, of July 1898, reported that Ella and Newton were there along with the Misses Brown of Denver and Miss Whitney. Even former Minnesota governor Alexander Ramsey attended the event.

Moses Adams passed away on July 23, 1902 in Buffalo, New York, but his body was returned to Minnesota and he was buried on July 28, 1902 in Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul, Minnesota. Nancy lived until at least 1914 when she is listed in the St. Paul City Directory as a boarder at 1853 Marshall Avenue; for some reason her death is not listed in any of the archival resources and there is no listing for her with Moses at Oakland Cemetery. I have not found her listed in the 1920 census so it appears as though she passed away sometime between 1914 and 1920.

The only letter written by Nancy that has survived was sent to Warren Upham, the secretary of the Minnesota Historical Society on March 13, 1904. She had donated a Catlinite Indian pipe to the society and wrote to Upham to describe its origin.

Nancy Adams letter 1904

This is the only document actually written by Nancy Adams that has surfaced. She wrote to Warren Upham at the Minnesota Historical Society in 1904.

“Dear Friend,

After the Indian Outbreak in ’62 quite a number of the Indians left the Sisseton reservation and took up claims in the neighborhood of Flandreau [in present day South Dakota]. They were very destitute. Did not have axes, spades or hoes to commence farming with. Rev. M.N. Adams had six thousand sent him from Washington, D.C., to purchase for them things that they could not farm without. When these things were given to them, they were so over-joyed that they presented him about 1863 or 1864 with the pipe which I sent you yesterday. They considered the presenting of a pipe to a man the greatest honor that could be conferred upon him.

“Respectfully Yours,

Mrs. M.N. Adams

“P.S. – D.F. on this Catlinite pipe is for David Faribault, who carved it.”[21]


In 1989, Jeffrey Tordoff researched the pipe that Nancy Adams donated to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1904. While some of Nancy’s information was incorrect, the pipe is an intriguing example of craftsmanship around 1840.


Unfortunately, a 1989 further examination of the pipe has revealed that it was probably carved in 1840, not in the 1870s and that if David Faribault did carve it, it was David Faribault, Sr., not the David Faribault, Jr., whom Moses Adams may have known in the 1870s. Still, the pipe and the story reflect Nancy’s ongoing support of and admiration for her husband and reflect her goal to preserve his reputation for posterity.

In the 1910 census taken in St. Paul, Minnesota in the spring of 1910, Nancy was eighty-two years old and was living with her niece Stella Hancock, who was fifty-seven and single. Stella was the only surviving child of Nancy’s sister Sarah, who had been married to Joseph Hancock for a few years before she died when Stella was six years old. At some point Stella moved to Beaverton, Oregon. She is listed there in the 1930 census as a servant to eighty-seven-year-old Betty Anderson. The last listing for Nancy is the aforementioned 1914 city directory where she is listed by herself as a boarder at the house on Marshall Avenue. She had been widowed for at least twelve years and was near her daughter Ella and her grandchildren. Her son-in-law, Newton Frost, donated Moses Adams’s papers to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1925. The Adams papers make for a very interesting journey through decades of early Minnesota history from one of the most opinionated and troublesome characters who ever graced the work of the Dakota Mission.

[1] John Williamson to Thomas Williamson, March 15, 1875, MNHS, Williamson Papers P786, Box 1

[2] David Greene to Moses Adams, May 21, 1848, MNHS, ABCFM Corres.

[3] Ibid., Moses Adams to David Greene, July 11, 1848

[4] Ibid., Moses Adams to David Greene, July 28, 1848.

[5] Ibid., Robert Hopkins to S.B. Treat, September 12, 1848 and Mary Riggs October 18, 1848.

[6] MNHS, Williamson Papers, P786, Box 4

[7] Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1850, p. 80, MNHS

[8] ABCFM Corres., Moses Adams to S.B. Treat, October 2, 1849; January 12, 1850.

[9] Ibid., Moses Adams to S.B. Treat, July 24, 1850.

[10] Ibid., Moses Adams to S.B. Great October 3, 1851.

[11] Ibid., Moses Adams to S.B. Treat, June 7, 1852 and Missionary Herald, September 1849.

[12] Ibid., Moses Adams to S.B. Treat, July 8, 1852.

[13] Ibid., Moses Adams to S.B. Treat, December 9, 1852

[14] Ibid. Joseph Hancock to Treat, June 1853; Treat to Adams, June 6, 1853; Treat to Adams, August 22, 1853.

[15] Charles Mix to Willis Gorman, January 26, 1854, MNHS, NW Missions, P489, Box 18. Throughout the ABCFM correspondence and mission reports, the payment to missionaries for room, board and education for Dakota students is recorded at usually $75 a year, pro-rated per quarter.

[16] ABCFM Corres., Thomas S. Williamson to S.B. Treat, September 8, 1862.

[17] Mary Riggs to Stephen Riggs, October 13, 1862, MNHS Riggs Family Papers.

[18] Rogers, Elwin, For God and Land: Brown Earth, A Dakota Indian Community 1876-1892. Pine Hill Press, Sioux Falls, SD, pp. 13-15. Source: Sterling, Everett W. and Marion Hopkins, “Indian Land Policy Since 1887 with Special Reference to South Dakota,” South Dakota Historical Collections, vol., 13, 1926.

[19] John Williamson to Thomas Williamson, March 15, 1875, MNHS, Williamson Papers P786, Box 1

[20] Iape Oaye, November 1878

[21] Tordoff, Jeffrey, “Conundrum in Catlinite: Exploring the History of a Masterpiece,” Minnesota History, Winter 1989, p. 313-318

This entry was posted in Agnes Johnson Hopkins Pond, Dakota Mission, Jane Smith Williamson, Kaposia Village, Lac Qui Parle Mission, Lucy Spooner Drake, Margaret Poage Williamson, Mary Ann Clark Longley Riggs, Mary Spooner Worcester, Moses Newton Adams, Nancy Rankin Adams, Sarah Rankin Hancock, Traverse des Sioux, Underground Railroad, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

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