Mrs. Aiton Times Two – Nancy Hunter Aiton and Mary Briggs Aiton

In June of 1925, Miss Margaret Aiton of Minneapolis donated “some twelve letters” to the Minnesota Historical Society. Minnesota History Magazine described the gift as follows:

“Some twelve letters written by Jane Williamson, Sister of the missionary Dr. Thomas S. Williamson, from the Yellow Medicine mission in 1853, have been presented by Miss Margaret Aiton of Minneapolis, daughter of Mrs. John Aiton, to whom they originally were written. The letters are of special interest because they interpret from a woman’s viewpoint the situation which confronted the early missionaries. Miss Aiton has also presented a biographical sketch of Dr. Williamson and reminiscences of the mission by her mother, together with a number of photographs of members of the Williamson family.”[1]

Many of these letters have been cited in earlier posts, especially those about Jane Williamson. What the article didn’t say is that the letters weren’t actually written to Margaret Aiton’s mother, who was the second Mrs. Aiton – they were written to Nancy Hunter Aiton, John Aiton’s first wife. Jane Williamson and Nancy Aiton were close friends and their letters to each other do indeed “interpret from a woman’s viewpoint” the story of the Dakota missions at Red Wing, Kaposia and Pejutazee. The magazine article also indicates that Miss Aiton also turned over several photographs of the Williamson family. That information is important and tragic because all of those photographs were destroyed in the infamous photo purge at the Minnesota History Center when thousands of prints were thrown away because some enterprising staffer saw that the Society did not have the negative and did not take the time to track down the provenance of those prints. In the case of the Williamson family, most of their own photographs were destroyed when their house was burned to the ground in 1862 and some of the photographs donated by the Aiton family were the only existing copies of those images.

That sad story aside, the story of Nancy Hunter Aiton and her friendship with Jane Williamson is an important part of the historical record. I would give anything to find a photo of Nancy but so far nothing has surfaced. She was born on October 20, 1828, in New York State, the daughter of Moses and Elisabeth Hunter. She had three brothers, James, Robert and Andrew.

When Nancy was a young girl, her father brought the family to Quincy, Illinois, where he served as principal of the Quincy Mission Institute. Rev. Dr. David Nelson founded the Mission Institute in 1836 and the school operated Quincy’s best known Underground Railroad Station, Mission Institute #1, just north of present day Madison Park. The Underground Railroad was an informal, secret system of aiding fugitive slaves by passing them along from “station to station” until they reached Canada and freedom. The Underground Railroad lasted in Quincy from the early 1830s to the late 1840s. Nancy grew up in that abolitionist home and held to her strong anti-slavery beliefs for her entire life. She was also a student at the mission institute during her teenage years.

Quincy IL Courthouse

Nancy Hunter grew up in Quincy, Illinois. This scene of the city includes the courthouse and one of the main streets in the shopping district. Nancy’s father was the principal of the Mission Institute in Quincy.

In January of 1846, Thomas Williamson apparently learned that a student at Lane Seminary, John Felix Aiton, had approached the ABCFM about coming west as a missionary to the Dakota. Thomas wrote to David Greene of the ABCFM that “Mr. Aiton is engaged to a young lady in Quincy, Illinois… They would do well at Red Wing. I have been told that the woman he is about to marry is very likely to be a suitable companion to a missionary.”[2] That young woman was Nancy Hunter. She and John Aiton had been engaged since 1845.

John Aiton was born in Stonehouse Parish, Lanarkshire, Scotland on November 15, 1817. He was the son of Thomas and Jean Muter Aiton, and came to Canada when he was seventeen years old, while his parents remained in Scotland. In about 1837 he came to Ohio and attended the Mission Institute at Quincy before beginning his studies at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati.

Lane Seminary

Lane Theological Seminary was a Presbyterian theological college that operated from 1829 to 1932 in Walnut Hills, Ohio, today a neighborhood in Cincinnati.

In the summer of 1848, when Nancy was nineteen years old, John graduated from Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, along with his classmate Moses Newton Adams, whose wife was the other Nancy, Nancy Rankin, whose story was shared in the previous post. Both John Aiton and Moses Adams wanted to be missionaries to the American Indians in the west and both received the same advice that they needed to be married before they even considered going to the mission field.

Nancy Hunter married John Aiton on July 5, 1848, and Nancy Rankin married Moses Adams on July 8, 1848. Both couples left for the Dakota mission in Minnesota Territory within a few days of their weddings. Both couples were also welcomed by the Williamsons at Kaposia. The Aitons were sent south to assist Rev. Joseph and Martha Hancock at the mission at Red Wing, Minnesota, and Moses and Nancy Adams were assigned to the mission at Lac Qui Parle, Minnesota. Joseph Hancock had been a classmate of both John Aiton and Moses Adams while they attended Lane Seminary in Cincinnati.

Kaposia Village (2)

Seth Eastman painting of Kaposia on the west bank of the Mississippi in what is today South St. Paul, Minnesota. John and Nancy were originally stationed in Red Wing, Minnesota, about 40 miles from Kaposia but both of them visited and worked at the Kaposia mission during their time in Minnesota.

When Nancy and John arrived at Red Wing, Joseph Hancock and his wife, Martha Houghton Hancock, had one daughter, Marilla Hancock, who was four months old.  It wasn’t long before Nancy and John learned they were expecting their first child as well. Nancy came to stay with the Williamsons at Kaposia during her confinement. She and John arrived at the village on February 20, 1849. John returned to Red Wing a few days later but Nancy stayed until their daughter Elizabeth was born on April 9, 1849.[3] A week later she wrote to John that Dr. Williamson said she could return to Red Wing in three weeks or so and said she wished that John could be there to give their daughter a kiss this morning.[4]

John wrote a letter to his new baby daughter on April 20, 1849, when she was just eleven days old. He was at Red Wing and Nancy and the baby were at Kaposia.

“Dear daughter,

“Today I hear that you look in Mother’s face. You are not yet acquainted with Red Wing and the people here so I cannot tell you anything about home except that I am very glad to hear about you. I hope that you will give yourself to God as soon as you can learn from your Mother that all men are in need of a Savior. God says, ‘Remember thy creation in the days of thy youth.’  I am glad that you are in good health; also that you sleep well. Put your little arm round Mother’s neck and kiss her.

“The lord bless you, Farewell,

Your Father John Aiton”[5]

The correspondence between John and Nancy began in 1845 when he was attending Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Nancy was in Quincy, Illinois. Over the years, they wrote hundreds of letters, many of which are in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. The letters are very intimate and full of loving messages. Despite that intense connection on paper, John and Nancy actually lived apart a great deal of the time.

For example, on February 3, 1850, when their daughter Elizabeth was ten months old, Nancy wrote to John from her mother’s home in Quincy, Illinois. It isn’t clear where John was but Nancy told him, “So you were writing to me last Friday night when I was thinking perhaps he will come tonight. I was knitting and sat until ten rather later than usual and then felt satisfied that you would be otherwise employed. I am glad to hear that you have plenty to do and are contented.” It appears that John was nearby and this may have been the time when he was working as a Bible salesman in Illinois.

Nancy’s letter continues:

“The sun is now set and what a beautiful day it has been and Mother and I had a fine walk down to Mr. Furnell’s. Sarah is still confined to the bed and Mrs. F. very poorly. Twas right cold last week but we had plenty of wood and I kept thinking that if this month is cold the next will be warmer perhaps which was quite a consolation you know. Indeed I felt quite well and cheerful all the week. I washed your clothes and have them all ready with very little inconvenience and I thought I had great reason to be thankful. There is scarce any lameness now and very little pain and good appetite so ought I not to be thankful and cheerful not if you would concern we would be happy and have mush and milk.” [6]

Nancy’s health is often mentioned in these letters and was an ongoing concern although she was able to return to Red Wing, Minnesota, with John within a few weeks of writing this February 1850 letter.

By July 23, 1850, however, when little Elizabeth was fifteen months old, Nancy once again returned to her mother’s home in Quincy, Illinois. Nancy’s brother Andrew, who was twenty years old, was the last of her siblings to live at home with his mother. Before they left Minnesota Nancy wrote to Jane Williamson at Kaposia:

“My Dear Miss Williamson,

“Till the last I have promised myself the pleasure of seeing you again, by getting on The Nominee as it went up; but now I must give it up as The Franklin Nr. 2 is early enough this week to take us clear home before the Sabbath which will save us much time trouble and perhaps expense. I have left my bureau for you. Please accept it as a token of my gratitude for your multiplied kindnesses to us. Mr. Aiton says perhaps it will cost you more to get it than it will do you good. This I would pay were I going up, so please charge it to my account. The little roll of pieces I designed for the little girls, the thimble for Mary, the calico was given to me by a dear friend last summer but I do not need it now and perhaps it may do you some good. Please wear it for my sake, not because it is pretty.”[7]

Only a few days after John and Nancy arrived in Ohio, their little daughter Elizabeth became ill and died. As is so often the case when a young child passed away in this era, nothing is noted as a cause of death. Children just died. Historians today have speculated that some of them may have been lactose intolerant, or had some gastrointestinal problem that didn’t allow them to absorb nutrition. This latest journey to Ohio may have been made because Elizabeth wasn’t well, but Nancy’s health also became an issue again. In any case, words and notes of sympathy arrived from friends and family.

One of the most unusual came to Nancy from Mary Napexni, a little Dakota girl who had known Nancy at Kaposia.

“Dear Mrs. Aiton,

“I think the rose you sent me very pretty. You were very kind to spin that good yarn to keep my feet warm in the winter. I think you for the knitting needles. I have commenced knitting my stockings. I read Bowyer-Smith through three times and thank you for sending it to me. I have read Mother stories and some other books. I read some chapters in the Bible every day now. I read about Jephtha’s daughter today in school.

“I was very sorry when I heard little Elizabeth was dead. My little Brother is dead too. He was put in a box and buried on the bluff. Aunt Jane goes with us up to the grave sometimes. We can see it from the kitchen door. On the same hill are some red stones the Indians pray to but I know that they cannot hear nor help them.

“Please do not forget,

“Mary Napexni”[8]

Mary Napexni Letter

Mary Napexni was probably about eight years old when she wrote to Nancy Hunter Aiton to thank her for items Nancy had sent to her from Illinois. Mary was a student of Jane Williamson’s at Kaposia and learned to read and write in both Dakota and English at Jane’s school.

On October 11, 1850, Nancy Jane Williamson wrote to Nancy Aiton.

“Dear Mrs. Aiton,

“We were very much pleased and surprised to see Mr. Aiton come off The Nominee. We were very glad to hear from you once more.

“I was very sorry when I heard that little Elizabeth was dead.

“Mary’s brother is dead, too, but may we not hope that they are together praising God among the holy angels. Once when I went out with Mary to see her brother’s grave she said his soul had come out at a hole she showed me. But I hope she will learn better after a while.

“We think the crewel and perforated paper very pretty. Aunt said that she thinks when we get our woolen things all made she will let us have some time to make markers. I think the marker you sent me very pretty and thank you for remembering me and taking to make it.

“From your friend,

“Nancy Jane Williamson

Letter Continues

“October 12

“Mr. Aiton spent last night with us but he did not talk much of dear Elizabeth’s death and we supposed it made him sad to think about it.”

Jane Williamson added her own thoughts on October 16, 1850:

“Bro. Aiton has just informed me that he is sending to you and although it is my usual bedtime I will add a line to what N.J. has written. Oh, if you could have considerably left home this winter how we should have loved to have had you with us. We would all have felt it a very great privilege. Still it does seem very desirable that you should spend a season with your Mother and bro. Even the hope of seeing you in the Spring rejoices us. But Mr. A. now feels that the way is not quite open for him to labor in Minnesota. May the Lord direct your steps.”[9]

By the winter of 1850-51, Nancy was pregnant again and John was teaching at a school in Chili, Illinois, while she stayed in Quincy. Their son, Thomas Hunter Aiton, was born early in 1851. On March 12, 1851, Nancy wrote to John that the baby was lying on the floor “stretching himself, making observations and taking some exercise withal. He slept in bed all night las night and has been very good today. He would listen attentively to any you would say to him for he loves to be talked to.”[10]

Only a few days later John Aiton wrote to Nancy concerning the situation with their position in the mission in Minnesota.

“The news in the Dr’s letter were about what I expected. If Mr. Hancock and Mr. Pond are not in favor of increasing the number of the missionaries, then it will not be well for us to go there. And perhaps it would be best for us to give up the expectation of joining the Sioux Mission. The Dr. does not appear have much hope of our joining that mission. He speaks of us keeping a boarding school at Red Rock. But the obstacles on our part, is want of money. The missionaries have generally calculated what the U.S. will allow and it will not be sufficient to maintain the children. Thus the children will require our time and not afford us anything to live on. And if the ABCFM does not see fit to undertake such a school then the moneyless family would be made, in my estimate to enter on so money-need a scheme. Still if God says so, then he will alter the way…..Please do not call the boy bub. I greatly dislike it.” (He circled the last sentence.)[11]

Despite John’s expressed concerns about whether they should leave the mission for good, by May of 1851, the Aitons returned once again to Minnesota. They were called back because Joseph Hancock’s wife Martha had passed away on March 20, 1851, leaving him alone with three-year-old Marilla and seven-month-old Willie Hancock. Nancy and John’s own son, Thomas Aiton, was baptized at Kaposia by Rev. Williamson on May 30, 1851, and a few weeks later Jane Williamson brought four of her Dakota students by steamer down the river to Red Wing to visit Nancy there.

steamer at Red Wing

Red Wing today is a charming historic city on the Mississippi River. In the 1850s it was rapidly becoming populated by white settlers and river traffic increased over the years. Jane Williamson took four of her Dakota students on a riverboat to Red Wing to visit Nancy Aiton in 1851.

On October 2, 1851, Jane Williamson wrote to Nancy to share her concern that the obituary that Mr. Hancock prepared may have not reached the office of the Pioneer in time to appear in that week’s paper. The obituary Jane referred to was for little Willie Hancock who had died on September 27, 1851, at the age of thirteen months. Jane had returned to Kaposia after being at Red Wing with Nancy and John Aiton and Joseph Hancock following Martha’s death.[12] She was preparing for a trip to Ohio and took Nancy Jane Williamson and Marion Robertson with her when she left with Stephen and Mary Riggs on October 31, 1851.

Nancy Aiton came to Kaposia to cover Jane’s classes during her absence. Sarah Rankin, who had been stationed at Red Wing with the Aitons and Hancocks, wrote to Nancy from her new posting at Lac Qui Parle on March 28, 1852.

“I was very much surprised to learn in a letter from Mrs. Pond that you had left Red Wing and gone up to Kaposia and have taken Miss Williamson’s school. I won’t believe it if I hadn’t heard it so straight. I think Miss W. must have started off very suddenly. I think Mr. H. must be very lonely there all alone. Where is Marilla and has she got well? I have been very anxious to hear from her. I suppose Thomas has got to be a great boy by this time if he grew as fast as he did last summer. I think about Willie a great deal. I feel very lonely at times when I think of him but he is gone and our loss is his gain. I expect your mother was very much disappointed in not seeing you this fall. Sister said that she was expecting you home on every boat when they left…Sister sends her respects to you and Mr. Aiton and says she would be happy to hear from you. I send much love to Mr. A and all inquiring friends.”[13]

Nancy took care of Jane’s students and they exchanged letters during this time which are cited in Jane Williamson’s story in Dakota Soul Sisters. Jane returned home to Kaposia in May of 1852. She brought with her a young sixteen-year-old Mary Smith Briggs, who had been one of Jane’s students in West Union, Ohio, when Mary was a young girl. This was perhaps the first time that Mary Briggs met John and Nancy Aiton and it wasn’t long before Nancy and John once again went to visit Nancy’s family in Illinois. They were in Illinois when the Annual Meeting of the Dakota Mission was held that fall but were back in Kaposia by November 18, 1852 where John was serving as the government teacher at the school as opposed to being affiliated with the Kaposia mission. Nancy’s brother, Andrew Hunter, came out to Kaposia to join them in 1852.

In October 1852, the Williamsons, Mary Briggs, and Nancy Aiton’s brother Andrew moved to their new mission which they named Pejutazee. It was located by the new Upper Sioux Agency reservation northwest of the Lower Sioux Agency reservation. The Dakota were being relocated to the new reservations following the ratification of the Treaty of 1851. Jane wrote to Nancy from their new home on November 18, 1852.

“Soon after we came here Mr. Hunter went to Lac qui Parle for a cartload of potatoes. Smith [Smith Williamson] accompanied driving him in the wagon to bring a piece of furniture bro had left. Then bro insisted that I should comply with an invitation Mrs. Riggs had sent me and pay them a visit and as I am not fond of riding in wagon he said I might take the side saddle and ride Filly. I enjoyed riding in the wagon and on horseback by turns very well. We were almost thru when I was taken sick and was quite unwell. Sabbath could not attend Sioux preaching. We expected to start home Monday but the horses could not be found. Your bro searched diligently till Tuesday evening.

“Wednesday morning your bro harnessed the oxen and started. Mr. Riggs put his horse on the wagon and brought Nancy Jane, Smith and me in it. We did not reach home until sometime after dark. The snow was falling very fast and we had some difficulty finding the house. Mr. Hunter camped but started before day and arrived early in the morning. He is very energetic and never complains of being sick or tired. We find him a very pleasant member of our family, too fearful of giving trouble and ever ready to oblige he appears humble and devoted and I cannot but hope the Lord use him as an instrument of good to his poor people. Yet I know I ofttimes hope to be disappointed but I doubt not that you pray the Lord to guide us all in the way that we should go. He will soon speak Sioux well, nearly those hard sounds very accurately.”[14]

Just a few days after Jane wrote this letter to Nancy, her brother Andrew and a hired French man named Jacques planned to head back to Traverse des Sioux to bring back the flour and corn meal that had not made it into the carts and boat for the first trip. Thomas Williamson was very worried about them because the weather was rapidly worsening, becoming colder with snow and ice constantly building up. Jane said the two men were both “full of energy and youthful adventure and profess not to dread the trip.”

Things did not work out as the men planned. Jane told Nancy about the situation in a letter to her on January 12, 1853:

“Dear Sister Aiton,

“If the letters mailed by your bro. at Traverse des Sioux reached you in safety you undoubtedly have listened to the frightful howling of the fierce north wind with painful anxiety. And day after day when the churning rays of the sun were obscured by the drifting snow you thought of and prayed for a brother who might be exposed to the terrible tempest.

“We too were painfully anxious for him and the young man who was with him. My bro sometimes said all the comfort he felt respecting them was in knowing that the Lord reigns and the reason we had to hope Mr. Hunter was his child.

“On last Monday evening they both reached home but I am sorry to add your brother’s feet had been so badly frozen that he has not been able to walk on them since. When bro opened his feet he exclaimed I can’t see how you walked on these feet. Andrew replied, “I knew friends were praying for us. The Lord helped me. When I took one step I thought I could take one more.”

“For two or three days after he came his feet had so little sensation that the dressing gave him very little pain but he suffers acutely now when they are dressed. Still he bears it without a murmur.”

“When he is able he will give you particulars. Suffice it to say the Indians that came before them had used hay they left by the way and notwithstanding their efforts to preserve them by calling down but armed the storms they give out. Mr. Jacques made a little sled and putting some crackers and their bedding on it prevailed on your bro to leave the teams. They came on J driving the sled.

This on New Year’s Day. While many were rejoicing they were painfully pursuing their way. Mr. H. sometimes holding onto J. They got in sight of Brown’s but wandered a little could not reach it, slept without fire but having plenty of blankets were not cold. Sabbath morning the wind rose and they started for the house. The snow in the timber was soft. Jacques had left his snowshoes behind, and drawing the sled caused him to sink. Made walking very laborious so he put some crackers in a pillowslip, left all the rest and they reached the house in the forenoon. No one is living there this winter and there is no door that shuts but wood was very convenient. Mr. Jacques kept a good fire, carried in plenty of hay for them to sleep on and under the next morning they started early and reached home about 8 p.m.

“We are very sorry your bro should suffer so but feel it our privilege to be permitted to nurse him and although we may not do it so well as a widowed mother or an only sister he seems content and much oftener speaks of his mercies than his afflictions.

“The provisions they had left when they arrived at Traverse they laid up where they thought it would be safe but a dog got it. They got what meat they thought would be enough coming back but it was not sufficient. Mr. H. said he never felt so strong after the meat gave out…

“He relishes his food very much now hope he will soon be better but he can’t get well very soon.

“When we consider how terribly stormy the weather was we feel thankful that their lives were spared. Still I feel very sorry to see him suffering and it gives me much to feel that this suffering was brought by exerting himself to bring food to us.

“When starting I said to him, ‘Don’t you dread the trip?’ ‘All I dread about it is the anxiety you and others will feel for us,’ was your brother’s reply. Yet I felt sad when they started.”[15]

Jane continued to keep Nancy informed about Andrew in a letter she wrote between February 4 and 15, 1853:

“Dear Sister Aiton, 

“Your favor of December 27 did not reach us till yesterday though one of a later date had been previously read.

“Your Brother’s feet are still mending but the right one from which the toes were taken is more painful than usual today. He said just now ‘If I can’t along without complaining with part of a foot how should I do if I had a whole one?’ Thus you see he is Andrew yet. But he does not very often make light remarks and few I think would have such an affliction with so much cheerful resignation as he does.

“I think Dec. was the most terribly stormy month I ever saw with us. How was it with you? Jan. came in cold but upon the — it was pleasant. The howling wind today is rather to remind us of the painfully anxious days and nights we spent when Mr. H and J were returning from Traverse.

“Mr. J says one night very similar the cold was so terrible that they stowed the fire and made their bed on the hot rocks having a large fire at their feet after lying sometime he tried to look out, the fire had burned out the place where it had been was covered with snow and a drift was forming on them. They had a tent but the wind was heavy they could not often sit it. They also had more bedding that they needed but the snow would wet it to prevent this. They had taken with then a bed tick filled with hay but when the horses had nothing else to eat they fed it away….

“The wind has abated but the mercury is 26 below. When it is so cold we are seldom comfortably warm in daytime but we have bedding enough to keep us warm at night. Were you to stop in the first object that would strike your attention would be Brother lying on the floor for we have not a bed for him. At night he lies in a feather straw bed but in the morning we usually lay off the feathers. This being an increasingly cold day he lies on both today although a shade more —

“I think his countenance has increased its animation and he looks more interesting than when he was so ill. I said to him the other day, ‘If we only had one comfortable room for you.’ He quickly replied ‘Aunt, I would not be half so happy as I am here.’ He always seems content with such things as we have and will such attention as we can give. He often regrets that he did not do more to comfort and relieve his mother and sisters.

“Mr. Jacques’s great toe is still quite sore but he goes around. He is planing plank today. Workbench is the house floor covered with shavings and he is trying to put up the plank for the — room might be comfortable warmed with the stove. Your bro takes in half in the planing and putting up the — and longs to be able to assist.

“I fear you will find it sad to think his bed is no the floor but although attended with some inconveniences he is perhaps rather better off than on a bedstead. It is easier to get around at a suitable distance from the floor to have his feet dressed. The dead flesh is now all off them and they have ceased to be offensive. The heel on the right foot is healing rapidly and we hope. The bone of it injured a small part of his bone on the left heel is bare but bro thinks the bone of it is not near so much injured as he had feared. A scale came off the bone on the outside of that foot but the flesh has grown over it and the skin is growing over it nicely. There is still a little piece of anklebone on the great toe. The toes on the right foot were all taken at the lower joint and although a little of the living flesh was cut in taking the toes off the dead flesh extended far below the sole and though this is now off it has [bottom of page torn off].

“Your bro sits at the stove today….Had you come in a little while ago you might have seen him with Grammar in hand for I have persuaded him to recite with the children and he sometimes assists them in arithmetic. But he has laid his book aside and he is now is trying to sharpen a plane bit on a whetstone. It being too cold for Mr. J. to work out he is again assisting at the partition when it is possible. This room will be warmer. But the upper floor is only loose boards and much of the heat escapes in that way.

“The kitchen stove throws out but little heat but although we have not a very comfortable house we have much to be thankful for. Sister’s health is better than usual. I had feared Miss Briggs might be lonesome or discontented but she is more pleasant and seems happier than before we left Kapoja. Gets her lessons well and recites in grammar with the others….

“For the last few days your Bro. has had his bed taken up in the morning and sits and lies on a pallet by the stove during the day. The absence of the bed leaves room for the table and he sits with us to eat. This looks pleasant though he has to have his feet propped on a box under the table. When hanging down they are painful. He has got clear of the rheumatism in his hips. Bro thinks the rheumatism was worse in consequence of his leaving his overcoat. We were very sorry when we found he had left as the one he wore was much shorter. He said his reason for leaving it was he could not wear so much under it as the short one and it was more clumsy. He had a very good pair of mittens but would not wear them before he started down thinking he wished to save them because you had knit them. I got Mary to knit him a pair of coarse white yarn, charged him to take both pair with and the deerskin ones he had to wear over…. Jane S. Williamson” [16]

In the spring of 1853, Nancy Aiton was once again expecting a baby and John took her and Thomas to Nancy’s mother in Quincy, Illinois. Nancy’s mother had hoped to come out to visit them in Minnesota but the snow and ice that marked the winter of 1852-1853 made travel impossible and Nancy felt it best to have the baby in Illinois. Jane Williamson continued to keep them informed of Andrew’s progress with his feet.

The last letter I’ve ever found from Jane Williamson to Nancy Hunter was written on March 3, 1853. Sadly, Nancy was recovering from the stillborn birth of an unnamed child and suffering from consumption, or what we now call tuberculosis. It was a letter that again brought Nancy up to date on how Andrew was doing. She told Nancy that Andrew was very anxious to make a trip to Illinois to visit the family, but that he still wasn’t well enough to travel. It appears that John Aiton returned to Kaposia without Nancy, who remained in Quincy in the hope of recovering her health.

John, who was the government teacher at Kaposia, soon expanded his role as Kaposia became the new seat of the Dakota County. His home was the site of the first meeting of the Dakota County Commissioners on July 4, 1853. The first precinct elections were held at Aiton’s and John was named deputy registrar of deeds for the county. He also became the first postmaster – one date says April 26, 1853 and another February 4, 1853 until October 16, 1854, when the county seat was moved to Mendota. It isn’t clear whether or not he ever made a trip back to Illinois during this time.

A letter from Nancy to John dated September 20, 1853, shares some of Nancy’s thoughts:

“I thought it was my duty to go and do what I could to make you happy my few remaining days and did I think you felt so I would do my utmost. But I am very frail and thankful to enjoy a mother’s care while I am not unmindful of a tender husband’s sympathy. Thomas climbs in and over his little bed by himself. Appears to be pretty well. I hope you will keep up good courage and come back when your business permits. Leave not to pray for your affectionate wife. N.H. Aiton.”

A few days later, on October 1, 1853, Nancy writes that she cannot yet bear the thought of parting from him. The letter ends mid page and she says no more.[17]

Unfortunately, Nancy Hunter Aiton died by the spring of 1854 when she was just twenty-five years old. She left one son, Thomas, who was three years old when Nancy passed away. I have not found any record of when and where Nancy was buried, nor any obituary for her in the missionary files. As we have learned, however, John Aiton, or perhaps Nancy’s mother, kept all of Nancy’s letters that she had received from Jane Williamson and it is those letters that have provided the foundation of the story of Nancy’s brief life, one hundred sixty-five years after her death.

Right Hazlewood Mission

The Hazlewood Mission was established by Stephen Riggs in 1854. Riggs asked John Aiton to come to Hazlewood after Nancy’s death to help teach English and Dakota. The Williamson mission at Pejutazee, where Mary Briggs was living, was just three miles away and the mission families often worshipped and socialized together.

On November 1, 1854, John Aiton was hired by Rev. Stephen Riggs to come out to the Riggs Mission at Hazlewood to help with teaching the Dakota. It appears that John left his son Thomas with Nancy’s family in Illinois since he never mentions having to care for him in the years following Nancy’s death. John taught at Hazlewood that winter. The Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for 1855 reports that he taught Dakota School in the mornings and English in the afternoons. Attendance in the morning classes was poor so they were dropped but John taught the English school through the end of the spring 1855 term.

Stephen Riggs soon received an inquiry from S.B. Treat of the ABCFM asking him when John Aiton arrived at Hazlewood and pointing out that he had not been informed that John was even there. Riggs replied that John was only there as hired help and that he expected him to leave soon. He said he’d hired him to teach five days a week for $21 a month.[18]

While John was at Hazlewood he renewed his acquaintance with Mary Smith Briggs, the young woman who had come out to Kaposia with Jane Williamson in May of 1852. Mary was a former student of Jane’s from West Union, Ohio, and was born on June 17, 1836. She was the daughter of George Briggs and Rachel Blake Briggs and had two sisters. The eldest, Harriet Briggs, was born on November 22, 1834 and the youngest, Hannah Briggs was born on December 12, 1839. Mary was the middle daughter.

When Mary arrived at Kaposia with Jane Williamson in 1852, forty to fifty Dakota were at the river’s edge to welcome the boat. Mary had never experienced such a thing but enjoyed the adventure and moved into the two-story Williamson home with the family. Dr. Williamson informed the ABCFM of her arrival but didn’t ask that she be officially enrolled as a member of the mission. John Aiton first met Mary at Kaposia, but John was married to Nancy at the time and as a man who was nineteen years older than the young new teacher at the mission, it is unlikely that they would have exchanged more than a few words over the years. It is more likely that Nancy Aiton knew Mary much better than her husband did.

Mary accompanied the Williamsons to their new mission near the Upper Sioux Reservation in 1852. They made the journey in late fall, arriving in November and the weather had turned very cold. In a letter to her cousin Elizabeth on November 29, 1852, Jane Williamson mentioned that she and Mary slept on the upper story with the little girls, reporting that they had two stoves but one had no feet and couldn’t be moved to make it as warm as she would have liked.[19] Despite the cold and the challenge of finishing their new home in time for the storms of winter, Jane Williamson wrote to Nancy Hunter Aiton that “Miss Briggs is happier than she has been since we left Kaposia.”[20] Mary was with the Williamsons during the entire episode with Andrew Hunter’s frozen feet and would have come to know Andrew’s sister Nancy Aiton through her many letters to Jane Williamson. But Nancy Aiton died in the spring of 1854, and Mary’s new friendship with John Aiton flourished.

On March 3, 1855, Stephen Riggs wrote to S.B. Treat and informed him that John had been paying attention to Miss Briggs who wanted to return to Ohio in the spring, surmising that John might go with her and bring her back.[21] On April 11, 1855, John Aiton wrote to Mary Briggs from Hazlewood. “Think not, Miss Briggs, that in these sense you had to place in this heart. I plucked one little spray for you. Good night, dear lady, of my many thoughts. May God order all our steps for Jesus; sake. Amen.” [22] Thomas Williamson performed the wedding ceremony of John Aiton and Mary Briggs on April 20, 1855, at the Williamson mission at Pejutazee, less than a year after Nancy Hunter Aiton’s death. John was thirty-seven years old and Mary was just eighteen when they were wed. They took a wedding trip to St. Paul where they remained for a year before purchasing Ten Trees Farm in Lake Prairie, Nicollet County, Minnesota.


Mary Briggs and John Aiton were married at the Pejutazee mission by Rev. Thomas Williamson on April 20, 1855. The Dakota called John ‘Man with the White Hat’ and Mary was ‘Mary Goodpath’ because she had big feet. John Aiton described himself as five feet, five inches tall, light complexion, blue eyes and black hair when he was later discharged from the Union Army. They were married for thirty-seven years and had nine children together.

John’s tradition of writing romantic letters to his wife continued with his marriage to Mary. The letters are numerous and they both express promises of passionate commitment. In the first months after their wedding, John occupied himself with divesting of his various properties, especially those at Kaposia where he had served in public office. He sold his claim in Township 22 to W.R. Brown for $177.00 and sold another lot in Block 1 to Addis Messenger for an undisclosed sum. He received payment in full on April 23, 1857.

John and Mary settled on the farm in June of 1856 in time for the birth of their first child, George Briggs Aiton, born on June 15, 1856. John did not, however, immediately enter into what seemed to be a career as a farmer. Instead, he and Mary took the baby and moved to New Hartford, Illinois, in August of 1857. John took a position as a teacher in the village which is located approximately fifteen miles north of downtown St. Louis, Missouri, on the Mississippi River. It is known for being the site where the Lewis and Clark Expedition spent the winter of 1803-1804. John’s son Thomas left his Hunter grandmother in Quincy, Illinois, and joined the family in New Hartford. Illinois, when he was five years old.

George Briggs Aiton

George Briggs Aiton was John and Mary’s first child and oldest son. He was valedictorian of his graduating class at the University of Minnesota in 1881 and spent his professional career as a superintendent of schools in Zumbrota and Austin, Minnesota and retired as principal of East High School in Minneapolis.

John and Mary had two children while living in New Hartford. Jean Muter Aiton was born on January 25, 1858, but did not survive infancy and died in 1859. Another daughter, Rachel Mary Jeanne Lincoln Aiton, arrived on April 21, 1860, just a year before the first battle of the Civil War when the new Confederate States Army attacked Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina. John Aiton was forty-four years old but never questioned the patriotism that prompted him to immediately enlist in the Union Army and devote the next four years of his life to bringing an end to slavery and fighting to preserve the nation as a united country.

Mary and John returned to Minnesota and Mary remained on their Nicollet County farm while John was away in the Union Army. He was occasionally in the area and in the summer of 1862, he was stationed at Fort Ridgley in Minnesota and later at Judson, Minnesota. There is nothing in the historical record about exactly where he was when the U.S. Dakota War broke out on August 18, 1862, but Mary took the children and moved into St. Peter for safety during the six weeks of the war. By the fall of 1862, however, the Ninth Minnesota, which like several other regiments raised in the fall of 1862, was stationed by companies and smaller units at a score of newly created forts and outposts on a defensive line running north to south.  They spent all winter at those posts, then gradually were replaced by others.  Eventually the small garrisons were pulled out once the threat from returning Dakota was eliminated.[23] John Aiton was stationed at one of those posts in south central Minnesota in what is now an unincorporated community known as Judson, Minnesota.

Mary had their third child, a daughter, Mary Mathilda Aiton, on February 15, 1863, in Nicollet County, Minnesota, which would mean either at Ten Trees Farm or in the town of St. Peter.

Mary wrote to John on Sunday, March 10, 1863. Her own parents had moved to Nicollet County by this time, coming out from West Union, Pennsylvania. Her father, George Briggs, was sixty-two years old and her mother, Rachel Blake Briggs, was fifty-seven. Her father was farming and her mother apparently lived in town while Mary and the children remained at Ten Trees Farm. Mary was at Ten Trees Farm with John’s son Thomas, who was twelve years old; Mary and John’s son, George, who was seven; their daughter Rachel, who was almost two years old; and the new baby, Mary, who was three months old.

Mary’s letter provides insight into the efforts she took to provide food and clothing to the family with limited funds while John was away in the Army. Mary’s letters are all written without any paragraphs or punctuation. I have edited this one a bit to make it easier to understand what she is saying.

“My dear husband,

“I received two letters from you this week and with them the news that you had left Judson Tuesday. I sent a letter to the post office that day but suppose you will not get it. I felt so badly to think you did not get home once more before you left. Do you think you will get home this summer at all? Perhaps you are one of the number that was left at Judson. I hope so, feel anxious to hear, was at town last week, took down $1.25 worth of turnip seed, 80 cts worth of eggs, got the boys hats, $4 apiece, shoestring, five cts, so all the purchases I made.

“I made – called at the Dr’s on my way home, got a certificate of our marriage. Aunt Jane made me a present of a bonnet, a better one than I could have afforded to have bought. I had given up getting one this summer. Sold all the barley. I have got eleven dollars for what I sold. Father has got fifteen bushels. He has just two sacks of wheat left so my wheat will go next. It was $40 I let Aunt Jane have. Mother was down Wednesday. I sent down 95 cts worth of rags and eggs. I got a pair of shoes $1.75, bandbox 25 cts, six yards of coarse linen, 40 cts a yd, for the boy’ pants. It is so much cheaper than cotton. I was glad to get it. I am through for this summer. I will not get a dress. Mr. Ellison paid.

 “I have on hand now $20.50. If Doake does not come soon I shall let Aunt Jane have $10 more which will make it $50.00 – and pay the interest on that note. I will soon go down hill, then if you get your pay I would not blame you if you did not buy something to eat if your appetite is as poor as mine. I often feel like not eating at all. I have such a pain in my side of late. I have no energy to do anything, only what is really necessary. I don’t think I ever felt so languished before. I believe if I could get out more I should feel better. If I had any way of going I should try it.

We have some little chickens out. I think our cow will have a calf in a few days. We will be glad to get butter once more. Mother has been sick, bed fast, part of the time. I was here for her last week and did my own and washed my bedclothes. Besides I have hardly done anything since the baby is getting so fat, begins to try to catch hold of things and wants to sit up very much. Can raise its head clear off the pillow.

“March 14 – Mrs. Huggins, Aunt Jane, was here Tuesday. Said you had not left Judson. I am so glad. I saw a solder pass yesterday. I suppose belongs to your company. I shall watch for him to come by. I will send you that History. The baby is sick; has had the coup. Mary Cronan has been here two days getting me to help her on her silk dress. I put in a comfort today. Want to get it out this week. Out of forty eggs, I got five chickens.

“Friday 15 – Beloved Husband, I received your letters last night, assuring me that you are really at Judson. It is almost too good to be true. I hasten now to send my letter. I did not know before where to send it, this and my former one convey some of the same ideas but I shall send it for I have no time to write anew. My morning work is just done.

“Lucy is still in bed though awake. The baby still sleeps. She is three months old today. I see a team coming out of the settlement so I hurry. George is getting his lessons – Geography, spelling. We go to Fran’s to quilt today. It rained last night. Thomas is helping Grandfather plant the corn he drops. He is planting three acres. They plant the sugar corn today and squashes. Mother is not ready to go yet and she has not got her money. Jeanie has had the diarrhea for over a week and doesn’t seem to do her any good. She is getting thin. I feel sorry. Mr. _________(?) is gone. You will be lonely. Can you not come home soon? It has been over three weeks since you were here. Mother is getting better.

“I must close, Your wife

 P. S.

Write to me often,

Write to me soon

Letters are dearer to me

Than the fairest flowers of June.[24]

The postscript in this letter is actually quite amusing to one who has been reading and researching John and Mary’s letters. John was very fond of regaling Mary with reams of poetry in his letters, romantic poetry that he both copied from others and created. On April 30, 1863, only a few weeks after she sent him this charming love poem in her letter, she asked him very directly to stop writing poetry to her. She said, “I wish you would not write poetry. I positively have not the ability to appreciate and it grates most terribly. I did not read all you wrote last.”[25] Apparently in March she was kind enough to try to respond to his poems by adding her own but in only a few weeks, she was once again fed up with his outpourings and just told him to stop it.

Jane Williamson as JPEG

Jane Williamson had been Mary’s teacher in West Union, Ohio, when Mary was a young girl and they were now living a few miles from each other, Mary on the farm and Jane in St. Peter. Mary’s letter mentions that Jane and Lydia Huggins paid her a visit.

This letter from Mary also provides insight into how the community of former missionaries continued to help each other. Stopping by the “Dr’s,” is, of course, referring to Mary’s visit to Thomas Williamson’s family in St. Peter, including seeing Aunt Jane who gave her the new bonnet. It is also the first and only time that we uncover the information that apparently Jane had loaned John and Mary some money and Mary is now paying Jane $50 in interest. Mary also refers to “Doake,” which may be Hugh Doak Cunningham, a longtime mission teacher who was related to the Williamsons. Mrs. Huggins is certainly Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, one of the very first missionary women at Lac Qui Parle in 1835 and was now retired and living in Traverse des Sioux on the family farm near St. Peter.

John was able to visit the family in June of 1863 when his regiment had been sent to Fairmount, Minnesota but later that year he was sent to Fort Osage in Missouri, an abandoned military fortress that had ceased operations in the 1820s but which was used as a garrison during the Civil War. In January 1864, he wrote to Mary from the Jefferson Barracks Military Post, located on the Mississippi River at Lemay, Missouri, south of St. Louis. He was discharged from there to go to a hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was to have a tumor removed from his nose. The operation took three hours and he told Mary they were very careful. He remained at Jefferson Barracks for a few weeks and was then sent to a camp on the East Branch of Black Water, nine miles west of Warrensburg, Missouri. Subsequent letters came to Mary from Kansas City, Missouri and Memphis, Tennessee. He wrote to Mary on July 9, 1864, to tell her he was in Gazaso Hospital in Memphis and on September 10, 1864, he let her know that he was recuperating at a private home in Memphis but was soon sent back to the hospital.

Jefferson Barracks

John was stationed at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri for several months during the Civil War.

John wrote to Mary on Christmas Eve, 1864, from his hospital bed.

“Dear Wife! Two days ago I received a letter from you of Nov. 11th. It contained much of interest to me. But especially that clause “your and my interest are forever divided,” seems to me to suppose the contingency…when you have the data whence to calculate the amount of money that I shall have when I get home, if indeed I do not die first. But to answer all at once, I have no very distinct idea what I shall do, not even whether to make home on the prairie or in the woods. And if you will only try to get through this winter cheerfully, then leave to God the future, it will much aid your own happiness and the happiness of others.

“Indeed, I gather from your letters that sometimes you get considerably out of humor with your husband. For myself I do intend to live more reasonably than heretofore. I should like to live a few years longer and see you and the children in comfort before I die. And as I have planned so much, and done so little, prefer to wait a little and do something. Now I will ask one question. How much money have you on hand and how much will be unspent of it next Sept? I have no idea. One thing we must have a team, either of horses or of oxen. That will do.

“I do hope that George will try to be a good writer. I hope to see your trees flourishing and us all in health. Our weather is still changeable, mild, terribly calm, etc. Some days I feel chilly all day. I know of only one way to get a discharge and that is for you to write to the President. And yet as it is now the shortest day, it might be best to stick it out. They say that a good part of the 19 prisoners of Co. B, one alive, it is truly awful.

“Our folks are very busy getting up a Christmas dinner. B and C and the dining room are all decorated with evergreens and fancy colored paper. “Beau batchers” Johnny calls them; his mother is a widow, her beau is off getting his neck ready for the halter of matrimony. If he can live with her than I am no guesser. She cannot write her own love letters so I get to hear of matters through a third person. Great stuff, for me to write, perhaps you will say. Well I write of ever thing and so it goes. But this is also Miss Adams and her beau’s Miss King is hers also. So you see that our ladies do not labor without love in return.

“They say Miss Fargo is dead! She was a summer nurse; had left her husband. She looked like a very high tempered person.

“Monday – Better day, cloudy and damp. Col. Summer inspecting, does it thoroughly, as usual. But not since their dinner yesterday as I went to meeting at 3, after suffering the gnawings of hunger two hours, I seem to be unable to go beyond the usual hour of eating. Indeed others expressed themselves in like matter. I would either have a common meal in its time, than an extra good one by waiting a while longer. By 3 o’clock my hunger was over and by supper time felt as usual.

“Nothing new. I sleep under the blankets, but hope to need no additions. I send my best wishes to the children and yourself. May God keep you all. Kind remembrances to Gran, to Grandfather and to Hannah, etc., etc., etc. Ideas will not flow today.

“Gazaso Hospital, Memphis, Tenn. December 27th, 1864

“Dear Wife, I am in usual health. My nose is improving under the medical treatment lately begun. I have just received your letter of the 19th mail mark. It is a very good letter but very shabby paper. Please supply yourself with paper, worthy of yourself. I am indeed glad that you have realized something from that ___________. I am glad that you feel like using it.

“We shall indeed be thankful that God has given us the means of living on ourselves. Do not think of vising me down here. If God sees fit, I should like to travel with you from Pike, to Ill, to Minn, again. But that is far in the future and to buy a team will cost us a sum of almost too much for our purse. But you are considerable for planning and you may think of the subject. I lately rec’d your letter of Nov. 11th. Am glad that you are teaching the children. I lately wrote to Janet and to Jean. Yesterday Col. Summers inspected, etc. and ordered 30 to be sent off. McMillan, long playing off they say, goes. Day is cloudy; really muddy, although last night was clear. I taste neither tea nor coffee nor stimulant and think that I am less nervous. God bless you all, and keep you in his grace.

“Wednesday, 28th Dec. 2 o’clock. Bright day. Good news of Sherman’s capture of Savannah. Every face seems to wear gladness and the heavy Dutch linen curtains are down from the windows; so that good news, bright skies, better daylight, all contribute to render all happy.

“After receiving your letter yesterday, I tore my sheet in two, intending to copy any part of it, I have continued to send it all. You will not take offence at me noticing your language. And I want you to credit me with a desire to help to keep you comfortable next winter. What do you think of trying the woods next winter? I hope that you will buy at least 100 lbs of pork, even if it is 12-1/2 a lb; or at least a good hindquarter of beef. I must send the boys a copy of letters, which I hope they will make good progress of copying and if we are all well, we hope to occupy a good part of next winter in the woods, getting out building materials, fences and wood. How would it do to rent the place for one third of the crop or will you get enough planted to do us? I prefer you bossing it, at least till I get home. I write this at table in Ward B. Guess Jerry has gone, discharged for disability, etc. Our side of B is very empty, leaving me alone on chocolate. Half diet is very good.

“The richest of heaven’s blessings attend you all,

“29th – Cool and clear. All well. Please excuse the faults and accept the best wishes of your Husband. Affectionately, John Aiton”[26]

John Aiton was discharged from the Union Army on March 31, 1865, in Memphis, Tennessee. He made his way home to Ten Trees Farm and joined the family once again. His oldest son Thomas was fourteen; George was nine; Jean was seven and Mary was fourteen months old then John returned. He and Mary had five more children between 1867 and 1875. John was fifty-seven years old when their youngest son was born.

John and Mary’s children are:

  1. George Briggs Aiton, June 15, 1856-February 23, 1931. In 1884 he married Mabel Niles, who was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Mabel died on January 1956. George graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1881 as valedictorian. Mabel was a teacher and George was the Superintendent of Schools in Zumbrota, Minnesota, Austin, Minnesota and Principal at East High School in Minneapolis.
  2. Jean Muter Aiton, January 25, 1858-1859. Baby Jean was born and died in Pike County, Illinois, while John and Mary were living in New Hartford, Illinois.
  3. Rachel Mary Jeanne Lincoln Aiton, April 4, 1860-February 1, 1942. Rachel died in San Diego, California and apparently never married.
  4. Mary Mathilda Aiton, February 15, 1863-August 26, 1946. Mary married a man named Woodruff and is buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Olmstead County, Minnesota.
  5. Robert Bruce Aiton, July 30, 1867-October 14, 1929. Robert married Sara Levina Oles, (March 29, 1869-September 17, 1946) in May 1888 in Pine City, Minnesota. They lived in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
  6. Hannah Aiton, April 9, 1868-September 14, 1919. Hannah married a man named Edwards and both are buried in the Aiton plot in Lakewood Cemetery.
  7. Isabel Maack Aiton, June 23, 1873-January 6, 1940. Isabel married Albert Olson and they are buried in the Aiton plot at Lakewood.
  8. Margaret Aiton, April 6, 1872-January 18, 1933. Margaret never married and was interred at Lakewood in the family plot.
  9. John William Aiton, August 8,1875-December 4, 1937. John married Cora Kremer, August 22, 1882-March 11, 1969, and they lived in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
Aiton Tombstone from TDS

John and Nancy Hunter Aiton’s only surviving child, Thomas Hunter Aiton, died of typhoid in 1883 at the age of thirty-two. He is buried with John Aiton in the Green Lawn Cemetery in Traverse des Sioux, now St. Peter, Minnesota.

John’s son Thomas lived to be only thirty-two years old and died of typhoid fever on January 3, 1883. Mary’s mother passed away on June 9, 1877 at the age of seventy-one. Her father moved into the farm with the family and passed away on October 20, 1898 at the age of ninety-seven years.

Mary was fifty-six years old when John Aiton died on August 24, 1892 at the age of seventy-four years The St. Peter Herald of August 26, 1892, reported the story of his passing.

“The people of this city were pained to learn of the very sudden death on Wednesday afternoon of one of the oldest and most esteemed citizens of Nicollet County. At his home in Lake Prairie at four o’clock on Wednesday, John Aiton passed way after an illness of but two hours and from which he appeared to be recovering. Even up to within five minutes preceding his death he was sitting upon the lawn conversing with his oldest son, George, who chanced to be home on a visit at the time. A short time prior to his death a physician had been summoned but arrived too late to be of service. Mr. Aiton was one of the pioneer settlers of Nicollet Count and also o Minnesota. He came to this state when but few white men had crossed its border and for almost half a century had been one of the most useful citizens. He was a man above reproach and his life had been consecrated to his fellow men. Of noble purpose, lofty aims and perfect integrity, John Aiton had many friends and no enemies.” [27]

John Aiton is buried in the Green Lawn Pioneer Cemetery at Traverse des Sioux with many of his mission colleagues and early Nicollet County pioneers.

DAR Monument at TDS

Mary Briggs Aiton was the founder of the Captain Richard Somers Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and was chosen to unveil the monument to the old French Cemetery in what was then Traverse des Sioux in 1913. The original stone that Mary unveiled was replaced with this new marker in 1939.

After John’s death Mary moved to Minneapolis where she organized the Captain Richard Somers Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1908. She lived at 828 University Avenue S.E. in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1913 she was selected as the D.A.R. member to unveil the organization’s monument commemorating the French Cemetery in Traverse des Sioux. Mary was the oldest living member of the Dakota mission at the time. She had outlived her parents, her husband, her sisters and two of her children, Jean, who was just a year old when she died in 1859, and Hannah Aiton Edwards who died in 1919. Mary had been a young girl when she met and worked with the founders of the Dakota mission and had experienced life with the Dakota before they were confined to the reservations in west central Minnesota. Although she and John left mission work when they married in 1855, Mary then spent life as the wife of a Union soldier in the Civil War, never knowing when or if he might return home.

Aiton Moccasins09102019

Mary Aiton donated these moccasins to the Minnesota Historical Society, along with other items in 1912 and 1915. Nancy and John Aiton had received them when they were stationed at Red Wing. The center-seam moccasins are now in the Sibley Historic Site colllection. They have never been worn and have smoked leather uppers, fine silk ribbonwork on the vamps and cuffs and white seed-bead edging on the low cuffs.

Mary spent thirty years as a widow in Minneapolis. I have no doubt that her children took good care of her after John’s death. Several of them had settled in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in Itasca County, but others were in the Twin Cities near Mary’s home in Minneapolis. Unfortunately, after John died in 1892, their rich romantic correspondence came to an end. Still, Mary understood the role she played in the mission history of Minnesota and in 1912 and 1915, she contributed several keepsakes from the mission to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Mary Smith Briggs Aiton died on February 3, 1922, and is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Several of her children were buried in that same plot in the coming years even though her beloved husband John was interred in Green Lawn Pioneer Cemetery in what is now St. Peter, Minnesota.

Mary Aiton Tombstone

[1] Minnesota History Magazine, June 1925, p. 204

[2] Thomas Williamson to David Greene, January 24, 1846, MNHS, ABCFM Corres.

[3] Jane Williamson to Agnes Hopkins, March 16, 1849, Gretchen Furber private collection

[4] Nancy Aiton to John Aiton, April 16, 1849, MNHS, Aiton Family Papers, P1447, Box 1

[5] Ibid., John Aiton to Elizabeth Aiton, April 10, 1849

[6] Ibid., Nancy Aiton to John Aiton, February 3, 1850

[7] Ibid., Nancy Aiton to Jane Williamson, July 23, 1850

[8] Ibid. Mary Napexni to Nancy Aiton, undated. The Bowyer-Smith book that Mary referred to in the letter is The Child’s Remembrancer-a Memoir of Bowyer Smith a Pious Child who died Jan. 30, 1811, aged 7 years and 2 months, by the Rev. Basil Woodd. The book was published in 1825. The story of Jephthah’s daughter is from The Book of Judges, 11:30-11:39. It is a particularly sad passage which describes how Jephthah promised God that he would offer up a burnt offering of the first person he saw come through the door if God would bring him safely home. The first person was his only child, a daughter whom he loved. Mary clearly wrote her last name in English as Napexni. In Dakota that “x” represents a sound that doesn’t really exist in English but is sometimes written as “sh.” Documented spellings of the name include Napahshue, Napayshne, Napesni, Napashue, and Napexna.

[9] Ibid., Nancy Jane Williamson and Jane Williamson to Nancy Aiton, October 11 and October 16, 1850

10] Ibid., Nancy Aiton to John Aiton, March 12, 1851

[11] Ibid. John Aiton to Nancy Aiton, March 18, 1851

[12] Ibid., Jane Williamson to Nancy Aiton, October 2, 1851

[13] Ibid., Sarah Rankin to Nancy Aiton, March 28, 1852. It isn’t clear if John Aiton remained at Red Wing during this time or whether he accompanied Nancy to Kaposia. Nancy probably had little Thomas with her. Sarah Rankin expressed concern about Rev. Joseph Hancock and his daughter Marilla and continued to mourn the death of Willie. Just a few weeks later Sarah married Joseph Hancock and returned to Red Wing as his wife and stepmother to Marilla.

[14] Ibid. Jane Williamson to Nancy Aiton, November 18, 1852

[15] Ibid. Jane Williamson to Nancy Aiton, January 12, 1853

[16] Ibid. Jane Williamson to Nancy Aiton, February 4-11, 1853

[17] Ibid. Nancy Aiton to John Aiton, September 20 and October 1, 1853

[18] S.B. Treat to Stephen Riggs, March 12, 1855 and Riggs to S.B. Treat, April 12, 1855. MNHS, NW Mission MS P489, Box 18.

[19] Jane Williamson to Elizabeth Burgess, November 19, 1852, Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College, Marietta, IL, Item 28, Folder 3

[20] Jane Williamson to Nancy Hunter Aiton, February 11, 1853, MNHS, Aiton Family Papers, P1447, Box 1

[21] Ibid., Stephen Riggs to S.B. Treat March 3, 1855

[22] Ibid. John Aiton to Mary Briggs, April 11, 1855

[23 Email to Lois Glewwe from Stephen Osman, September 7, 2019

[24] Mary Briggs Aiton to John Aiton, March 10, 1863 to March 15, 1863, MNHS., Aiton Papers, P. 1447, Box 1. Mary Aiton refers to Lucy and Jeanie in the letter as though they are the children in the family but Jean Muter Aiton had died in 1859 and the only other girl in the family at that time was Rachel and the baby Mary.

[25] Ibid., Mary Aiton to John Aiton, April 30, 1863

[26] Ibid., John Aiton to Mary Aiton December 24-29, 1864

[27] St. Peter Herald, August 26, 1892

This entry was posted in Andrew Hunter, Dakota Mission, Hazlewood Mission, Hugh Doak Cunningham, Jane Smith Williamson, Kaposia Village, Lac Qui Parle Mission, Lydia Pettijohn Huggins, Marilla Hancock Holiday, Marion Robertson Hunter, Martha Houghton Hancock, Mary Napexni, Mary Smith Briggs Aiton, Minnesota Historical Society Photo Purge, Moses Newton Adams, Nancy Hunter Aiton, Nancy Jane Williamson, Nancy Rankin Adams, Sarah Rankin Hancock, Traverse des Sioux, Underground Railroad, Willie Hancock, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s