The Hancock Wives – Martha, Sarah and Juliet

In a lovely setting in Oakwood Cemetery in Red Wing, Minnesota, six tombstones tell the sad story of Joseph Woods Hancock, his three wives and two young children.

Joseph was born in Oxford, New Hampshire, on April 4, 1816. He went on to graduate from an academy at Bradford, Vermont, and taught in various schools. In 1841, he headed west and made it to Quincy, Illinois, where he met John Aiton at the Quincy Mission School Institute where John Aiton’s father-in-law, Moses Hunter, was the principal. At the time, neither young man knew that they would soon be fellow missionaries in Red Wing’s village in Minnesota Territory.

The natural mineral springs at Saratoga Springs, NY, were known to the Iriquois early in the 1700s as a source of healing. The Grand Union Opera house, pictured here was part of the world’s largest hotel built by Gideon Putnam beginniing in 1802. The hotel was demolished in 1953. According to legend, the creation of the potato chip is associated with Saratoga Springs. The legend holds that a diner visiting the restaurant Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs in 1853 was unsatisfied with the texture of the fried potatoes he had ordered and sent them back to the kitchen multiple times in protest. The chef, George Crum, allegedly became so annoyed with the customer that he sliced the potatoes much thinner than he usually would, covered them in salt, and deep fried them. The customer was finally satisfied.

In any case, Joseph Hancock’s name became known to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) as early as January 24, 1846, when Thomas Williamson wrote to David Greene: “A classmate of John Aiton’s is an excellent teacher and will be sending you testimonials.” [1] Joseph, however, didn’t follow up immediately but did find a temporary position in Iowa where he taught at the Winnebago mission. He also traveled to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and taught there for a while but soon found that although he had come west because he had been told the climate would benefit his health, he didn’t feel any better and returned east, settling in Saratoga Springs, New York, where the natural springs assisted in restoring his health.

Dana, Massachusetts was an up and coming community when it was incorporated in 1801. Martha’s parents moved there from Vermont in the 1840s. Today Dana is nothing but a ghost town with only the original roads and a few stone walls and foundations remaining. The state of Massachusetts disincorporated Dana in 1938 and the entire area was flooded to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir to provide water to Boston. Dana, however remains above the water mark today and is open to the public. This marker informs the public that the city is on the National Register of Historic Places.



Joseph Hancock married Martha Marie Houghton on August 21, 1846, in Dana, Massachusetts. It may be that Joseph met Martha while he was attending the Academy at Bradford, Vermont, which was about fifty miles south of Martha’s family’s home in Sutton, Vermont. By the time of the marriage, Martha’s parents had moved to Dana, Massachusetts. Martha was the ninth of eleven children born to Captain William and Marilla Clay Houghton. There were five girls and six boys in the family. All of her older siblings were married and settled in their own homes by the time Martha and Joseph married when Martha was twenty-six years old and Joseph was thirty. Only Martha’s younger siblings, Henry, who was twenty-three, and Marilla, who was twenty one, were still single and living at home.

Martha’s younger brother, Henry Oscar Houghton, was the founder of today’s Houghton-Mifflin Publishing Company in 1872, and served as the Mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1872-1873.

After their wedding, Martha and Joseph settled about 160 miles north in Saratoga Springs, New York, where Joseph had a position as a teacher. They welcomed their first child, Marilla Persis Hancock, on March 28, 1848. Joseph himself described what happened next.

“During the latter part of the year 1848 an invitation was sent me by a former fellow student to join him in laboring as a missionary among the aborigines of our country. He was about to graduate from the theological seminary near Cincinnati, Ohio. I had left my studies on account of poor health five years previously, and had been residing at Saratoga Springs, N.YH. My heath had so much improved, by living at the Springs several years, that I had married and was engaged in teaching school there.

“After due consideration of the matter, my wife and I concluded to offer our services to the American Board of Foreign Missions, to labor among the Dakota or Sioux Indians. Our offer was accepted and a commission was sent to us from the officers of the Board.

“But it was now too late in the season to undertake the journey to the Northwest Territory. Facilities for traveling, especially in that direction, were not what they are now. Such a place Minnesota was not then known. The location assigned to us was described as follows: ‘An Indian village on the west bank of the upper Mississippi river, a few miles above Lake Pepin.’

“We postponed our journey till the following spring. During the month of March in that year, a new territory, called Minnesota was formed by act of the United States Congress. So we learned, before we left the East, that our future home would be in Minnesota Territory.”[2]

Martha and Joseph visited friends in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts during April 1849 and met with the officers of the mission board at Boston, returning to Saratoga Springs in May. They then packed up their clothes, furniture and supplies and had them shipped to Galena, Illinois, where they hoped to reclaim them in a few weeks.

Joseph Hancock was 30 years old when he married Martha Houghton, who was 26. He was not an ordained Presbyterian minister but was still hired by the ABCFM to go to Minnesota to work at the Dakota Mission at Chief Wakute’s village named Red Wing.

The first leg of their journey was made by stagecoach. They took the train from Schenectady to Buffalo, New York, and then came to Chicago, Illinois, by steamboat. Joseph purchased a horse and wagon in Chicago and proceeded to Galena, Illinois, to retrieve their belongings and board a steamer for Minnesota. Joseph described this part of the journey:

“This was by far the most toilsome part of our journey. The highways were scarcely changed from their natural condition. The streams were without bridges, and many swampy places let our wagon wheels sink so that we were often ‘stuck in the mud.’ But we struggled on, gathering rich experience for future work in a new country, and after several days arrived safely in Galena. At that place we were detained a few days waiting for a steamer to take us to the end of our journey.

“Our freight, shipped from Saratoga to this place, had not yet arrived. Being instructed by the missionary helper who was already at Red Wing, I purchased a stock of provisions and groceries, and also a good milch cow, while in Galena. With these additional equipments, we were transported on the steamer Franklin to our future home in a wigwam village.”[3]

It is hard to imagine how Joseph and Martha managed to pull their wagon out of the mud considering that they had a fifteen month old toddler to care for on their journey. Martha no doubt was responsible for Marilla’s care and safety. None of the source documents regarding the care of children on the trail mentions how parents could sleep outdoors and still make sure that children didn’t wander off in the night. It is also difficult to understand how Joseph knew the way from Chicago to Galena, Illinois, without a guide to direct the way. Martha no doubt was relieved when they finally made it onto the steamer at Galena and headed for St. Paul. They had the experience on board of meeting Henry Rice, a prominent Minnesota fur trader and politician, during their journey.  Joseph and Martha also made several acquaintances among the other passengers.

Henry Lewis created this lithograph of Red Wing’s village in 1855. Tatankamani was the most famous of the line of hereditary Dakota chiefs known as Red Wing by the whites. When he died in 1829, his stepson and nephew, Wakute, was named chief and was the leader of the village when the first missionaries arrived in 1838. He welcomed Joseph and Martha Hancock when they arrived in 1849 and encouraged people to attend and  support the mission school.

When they arrived at Red Wing on June 13, 1849, Joseph described the welcome they received:

“As we slowly approached the shore, a large number of Indians from the village had collected, evidently eager to know why a steamboat should stop at their port. It was a strange sight to many of the passengers on board the boat, who were on their way to the new towns of St. Paul and Stillwater, to see such an array of painted faces gazing at them.

“The Indians seemed glad to see us who landed among them. Men, women and children, all gave us a hearty hand shake. Our belongings were soon dumped ashore, with the exception of the horse and cow. These two animals stoutly objected to being sent ashore. It was mainly by human strength that they were compelled to walk the plank. Evidently they had not been acquainted with painted faces and blankets. The thought of being now far separated from friends and excluded from the civilized portion of the world was not a pleasant one to us, but it seems a greater grief to our horse and cow.

“There were three white persons then living in the village who soon met us with a hearty welcome and assisted us to establish our home in a log-house. These were Rev. John F. Aiton and wife, who had been here a few months only, and Mr. John Bush, who had married an Indian wife, and who had been sent here to assist the natives as a farmer.”[4]

All of the Dakota missions used Dakota grammar books like this with simple illustrations to help Dakota children learn to read and write in their own language.

Martha thus found herself in her first Minnesota home. The cabin had been built by the Samuel and Persis Dentan who had come to the Red Wing mission on behalf of the Swiss missionary group in 1837 and it was very comfortable. There was a small garden fenced with rails, and the house was quickly made ready for its new residents. Joseph and Martha spent most of that summer learning the Dakota language and working with the children of the village to become acquainted with them and determine the best way to teach them to read and write. Fellow missionaries sent them Dakota language primers that they had developed with simple words in English and Dakota illustrated with clearly understood drawings. Martha appreciated the friendship and assistance that Nancy Aiton was able to provide. Nancy and John Aiton’s first child, Thomas Aiton, was just two months old when Joseph and Martha arrived at Red Wing in June 1849, so the two women shared childcare challenges together.

Like their fellow missionary teachers, Joseph and Martha were frustrated that some of the Dakota parents did not want their children to attend school at all and the children who did attend often stayed away for days or weeks. They were not accustomed to being made to stay in one place for any length of time and would come and go in and out of the classroom during the day. Joseph learned to bribe them with cakes and boxes of raisins that he would give as a reward at the conclusion of classes to convince the children to stay in the classroom.

In late summer, the older students were unable to attend school at all since they were needed to chase the blackbirds away from the corn as it became ripe. Once the corn was harvested, the Dakota began to make preparations to leave the bark houses they used in the summer and take their teepees and go away from the village to their winter hunting grounds. Most of the families were gone from Red Wing by the end of October. Joseph and Martha were left to resume their study of the Dakota language as they, too, prepared for the winter months.

Dr. David Lowry was assigned to the Winnebago reservation in Long Prairie, MN, in 1848. He is the one who convinced Joseph to leave Red Wing and join him because Joseph had worked with the Winnebago in Iowa years earlier.

Then in early November, Rev. David Lowry showed up at Red Wing and urgently requested that Joseph and Martha go with him to Long Prairie, Minnesota, where they were need as teachers at the new government school there. Joseph had worked with the Winnebago band in Iowa  earlier and decided that it made sense for them to proceed to Long Prairie rather than spend the winter at Red Wing without any Dakota in the village. They embarked on the 150-mile journey northwest through completely unoccupied territory.

Joseph described their trip as follows:

“Packing up such clothing as would be needful, we were soon on board a steamer for St. Paul. From thence we traveled to Long Prairie in a lumber wagon drawn by two horses. At St. Paul we obtained a supply of provisions for the journey to the Winnebago reservation. The distance was said to be 150 miles, through an uninhabited wilderness. Our load was four passengers with their baggage and a driver. We left St. Paul on a Monday morning and arrived at our destination on the following Saturday. It was a long, lonely journey through the wilderness, the more fatiguing because on frozen ground. Through the forest the road passed over stumps wide enough for a team to go through.

“We camped out at night by the primitive roadside, sleeping on the ground in blankets and buffalo robes around the campfire. We cooked our fresh beef by holding it on sticks before the fire. Such traveling was indeed a novelty. On the last day of the trip, while going over a stump, one of the axletrees of our wagon was broken and we were at a standstill for a short time. Soon, however the living part of the expedition was moving on, some going on horseback and the rest on foot, leaving the lumber wagon and heavy baggage to be sent for another day. We arrived at our destination on Saturday evening after dark.”[5]

In 1848 the U.S. government removed the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) from their reservation in the northeastern part of Iowa to Long Prairie in Minnesota Territory. The Ho-Chunk found the land at Long Prairie a poor match for their needs as farmers. In 1855 they were moved again, this time to a reservation in southern Minnesota. Martha and Joseph spent the winter and spring of 1849-1850 with the band at Long Prairie, MN. This photo of a typical Ho-Chunk village was taken by the Whitney Gallery.

The school at Long Prairie consisted of a building with two large rooms, one for the girls and the other for the boys. School attendance was very different that the Hancocks experienced at Red Wing. There were fifty to seventy students in class each day and Joseph and Martha only taught in the English language.

When spring of 1850 arrived, Martha and Joseph received word that they were urgently needed back at Red Wing. John and Nancy Aiton were anxious to leave the mission there and return to Illinois. Joseph was told that if he and Martha didn’t return the mission at Red Wing would close.

Joseph doesn’t mention any problem with this movement to and from Long Prairie but apparently the mission board didn’t know what was going on. John Aiton wrote to S.B. Treat at the ABCFM on October 30, 1849, to say that Joseph and family were on their way to spend the winter with the Winnebago. John reported that he had paid Joseph the $250 that he had drawn from the board in the spring.[6] Joseph wrote to Treat, but not until January 1, 1850 when he informed him that he and Martha were with the Winnebago until the spring and that they had eighty scholars and four teachers.[7] There is no indication that Treat responded to Joseph but on January 24, 1850, he wrote to John Aiton and told him that he had no information on Joseph’s movement and doesn’t know why he left Red Wing. [8] Treat’s reaction implies that although Joseph Hancock was in Minnesota Territory under the auspices of the ABCFM, he was really a government teacher and not a mission school teacher. He was not an ordained minister either so perhaps his connection to the mission board was not as clear as that of the other mission leaders.

In any case, Joseph and Martha remained with the Winnebago until June of 1850 when they returned to Red Wing. Martha was seven months pregnant when they embarked on this trek back to Red Wing. Joseph described their journey as follows:

“The spring had been backward and rainy. Streams and swamps were almost impassible for teams; and therefore, after due deliberation, we concluded to travel by water. We took the longest way around to be our shortest way home. Obtaining a skiff, we started on the Long Prairie river, which runs northerly and empties into the Crow Wing river. The latter runs easterly, and we were informed, would convey us to the Mississippi river. 

“It was a bright morning in June when we went aboard our boat. Besides myself, wife and our little child, a young man, wishing to leave the place, took passage with us for St. Paul. He was a great help to us, being skillful in the use of oars. With our necessary baggage we took provisions for several days, because we could not expect to see any human habitation until we should arrive at Fort Ripley. This fort was at the time occupied by United States soldiers, and was on the Mississippi a few miles below the mouth of the Crow Wing river.

“We enjoyed our first day’s journey down the winding stream, till the middle of the afternoon. Then we noticed that some clouds had begun to spread over the sky, hiding the sun. Soon muttering thunder was heard and evidently a shower was near. We turned our boat to shore and had just time to haul it upon the land and turn it bottom upwards, putting ourselves and lading underneath it, when the rain began to pour down in torrents. Shower after shower followed till night came on and we remained there until the light of another day dawned upon us. The clouds had disappeared and we launched our boat again.

“Still and smoothly we passed along the winding stream. Before noon we entered a forest. As the forest became more dense our river began to widen out until it seemed to be covering the whole country. The frequent rains had caused a flood. Keeping as best we could in a northerly direction, we soon found that we had left the true channel by going into a bay. After rowing about between the tall trees for some time, and watching the course of the currents, we found the way back into the Crow Wing river.

“There we turned easterly, and had been pursuing our new course but a few hours when we were overtaken by three long birchbark canoes, filled with Indians. It was a delegation of Menomines [sic], who, with their agent, had been looking over the country for desirable place for settlement. They were now returning home. They came alongside with about twice our speed. Seeing one white man among them, I hailed him for information as to our present distance from Fort Ripley. He did not know the distance, but they expected to reach the fort by sunset of that day. It would be impossible, however, for us to get there in our skiff till near midnight. I asked them to take Mrs. Hancock and our baby aboard, and to put them in care of an officer’s family at the fort. They granted my request and the three canoes were soon out of sight.”[9]

Joseph, of course, has nothing to share with the reader about how a very pregnant Martha felt about being sent off in a canoe with a total stranger and three Indians. Unlike some of the Dakota Soul Sisters, Martha is completely silent. I have never found a letter, a note or any kind of memoir of hers in any of the sources. In any case, she and Marilla, who was now two years old, were cared for at Fort Ripley and Joseph joined them there the following day.

Upon reaching Red Wing, Martha and Joseph and Marilla were warmly welcomed by the Dakota. John and Nancy Aiton had departed for Illinois two or three days earlier so they immediately began to take on the responsibility of the school and continue their study of the Dakota language. Joseph had bought a hand bell in St. Paul and the children soon learned to assemble for school when they heard the bell. He continued to give them raisins at the end of the day as an incentive for them to return the next morning.

Joseph submitted his annual report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the summer of 1850. He said that he had begun his work at Red Wing on July 18, 1850, and that he had twelve boys and five girls in school who are regular in attendance. He wrote: “In intellectual capacity I do not find the North American Indian inferior to the Anglo Saxon one.”[10]

The Dakota men and women frequently dropped in at their little cabin, sometimes to ask for a little sugar or flour but Joseph reported in his memoir that they always bought payment in the form of some fresh fish, a piece of venison or wild fowl. On August 25, 1850, Martha gave birth to the couple’s first son named after Joseph, but always known as Willie. There is some indication in the source documents that Martha may have gone up to Kaposia to stay with the Williamsons when Willie was born. That would make sense since she and Joseph were working alone at Red Wing and it would have been difficult for Martha to keep an eye on Marilla while awaiting a new baby. In July of 1850, Joseph and Martha were joined by Sarah Rankin, the seventeen-year-old sister of Nancy Rankin Adams, the wife of Rev. Moses Adams. Sarah had come out to join them in their work at the mission at Lac Qui Parle in May of 1850. Shortly after Sarah arrived, Nancy became ill and she and Moses returned to Quincy, Illinois. Sarah was going to accompany them back east but instead chose to remain with the mission and was sent to Red Wing to assist Martha Hancock and Nancy Aiton with their children.

It is clear from the historical record that Martha became ill in the winter of 1850-1851. The History of Goodhue County, Minnesota records that, “After two years of service among the Sioux her health gave way and she died on March 21, 1851.”[11] Joseph wrote to S.B. Treat of the ABCFM the following day.

“My dear companion, the wife of my youth, my dearest earthly friend, has ceased of her labors. How suddenly, how unexpectedly she was called away! Her toils are ended. She has entered her rest. Died on the morning of the 20th. Two motherless children are left to me. The elder is not quite 3; the youngest only 7 months. Dr. Williamson came down to officiate. Miss Williamson is also with us. She attended Mrs. H. during the last 12 days of her life with all the care of an affectionate sister. Mrs. H’s parents reside in Dana, MA. I have written to them but perhaps a few words of sympathy from you might be a comfort to them in their distress. Capt. Wm. Houghton, Dana, MA.”[12]

Joseph shared his tribute to Martha for the Missionary Herald:

“A letter from Mr. Hancock, dated March 22, announced the death of Mrs. Hancock at Red Wing two days previously. She was the daughter of Mr. William Houghton, of Dana, Massachusetts. Her health has not been good since August last, though she seemed to be gaining strength during the first part of the winter. Having been quite anxious to prepare herself for usefulness among the Dakotas, her zeal has probably been too great for her physical ability. ‘Her death was peaceful and happy. She had a hope which was an anchor to her soul, in the hour of dissolution.’ She was asked several times, Mr. Hancock says, ‘when conversing upon the approach of death, whether she regretted having left her friends, to die so soon among the Dakotas’ and she always answered that she did not in the least regret having become a missionary, and her only sorrow was that she had been able to do so little for them. She expressed a desire to live, that she might train up the two children which God had given her, and labor in other ways for his kingdom and glory. At the same time, however, she was willing that her Heavenly Father should do what seemed to him good. ‘The Lord is good’ she often exclaimed. ‘He will do what is right. I commit my husband and my children to his kind care.’ She had but very little pain till the last ten hours of her life and then it was so slight, and so different from what she had anticipated that she could hardly believe herself dying. She always said that she dreaded the valley of the shadow of death, but the Good Shepherd took away all her fears, and made her pass through it without being conscious of her state. How sweet the surprise must have been, when she found herself beyond the place which she so much dreaded, without having experienced the least of her fears!”[13]

Jane Williamson had been with Martha at Red Wing since early in March and Thomas Williamson came to the village to conduct the funeral service. Martha was the first white person buried in Goodhue County, Minnesota. John and Nancy Aiton rejoined the mission a few weeks later and went to Red Wing to help Joseph care for seven-month-old Willie and little Marilla. Sarah Rankin remained with the missionaries at Red Wing until late October 1851 when Moses and Nancy Adams returned to the mission at Lac Qui Parle with Sarah.

That same fall, Joseph took Marilla and Willie to Kaposia where they stayed with the Williamsons while Joseph attended the annual meeting of the Dakota Mission. On his way back to Red Wing, he stopped to pick up the children only to find that Willie was very sick. Even with Dr. Williamson there to care for him, little Willie died on September 27, 1851, at the age of thirteen months. Joseph buried him next to his mother in the cemetery at Red Wing.

In October 1851, John and Nancy Aiton were asked to go to Kaposia and help there while Jane Williamson made a trip to Ohio with her niece, Nancy Williamson, and Marion Robertson, the Dakota girl who had lived with the Williamsons for most of her life. Joseph, now alone at Red Wing with his daughter Marilla, wrote to S.B. Treat just before Christmas 1851.

“Aitons left me in October to accept an opening at Kaposia. My little daughter is with the Williamsons in Dr. W’s family for the moment and I am boarding with the farmer at Red Wing. I have written to H.O. Houghton in Cambridge, Massachusetts for some tombstones. If he furnishes them will you have them shipped to Red Wing.” [14]

Even as Joseph dealt with the loss of Martha and Willie, he also soon realized that he needed to remarry. He had known Sarah Rankin since she had come to assist with the work at Red Wing in July of 1850 and then moved back to Lac Qui Parle in November of 1851. Sarah wrote to Nancy Aiton from Lac Qui Parle on March 18, 1852. Nancy and John Aiton had left Red Wing and were at Kaposia while Jane Williamson was on furlough in Ohio.

Sarah wrote,

“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 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.”[15]

Just five weeks later, on May 2, 1852, Joseph married Sarah Hancock at the mission at Lac Qui Parle. He was sixteen years older than nineteen-year-old Sarah but he needed a wife and Sarah already knew Joseph and had cared for Martha and their daughter Marilla. Almost exactly nine months after the wedding, Sarah and Joseph welcomed their first child, Stella Ann Hancock, who was born on February 16, 1853, at Red Wing.

That summer, Joseph wrote to the mission board to request a leave of absence from the mission for two months. He and Sarah wanted to travel to Saratoga Springs, New York, and Montpelier, Vermont, to visit friends and hoped the ABCFM would provide the necessary funds for the trip. He told S.B. Treat that the Indians had scattered and that all of their houses at the village were burned to the ground by white settlers before the Dakota returned from the winter hunt that spring. Joseph and Sarah attended the annual meeting of the Dakota mission in June 1853 and Joseph was ordained there as part of the proceedings. He  filed the Report of the Red Wing Station on June 16, 1853, informing the board that the mission family consisted of himself, his wife Sarah, two daughters, Marilla and Stella, and another woman named Maria Gould.[16]

By July 1853, Sarah was staying with family in Quincy, Illinois, with baby Stella, and Joseph was on the way to Ohio, where he planned to leave Marilla with her namesake and aunt, Marilla Houghton. Joseph’s father wrote to the mission board on August 9, 1853, to inform them that Joseph was in Montpelier, Vermont, but that he was so sick he could not leave and perhaps might never be well enough to leave.

Joseph did ultimately recover and he and Sarah and baby Stella were back in Red Wing in the fall of 1853. Marilla was still with her aunt in Willoughby, Ohio, when the aunt wrote to S.B. Treat on December 9, 1853, reporting that Joseph had told her that she could apply for funds for Marilla each year. She said she didn’t want to do that but would like to know what that amount would be should she need to do so. [17]

Joseph wrote to Treat on January 23, 1854 to report that he and Sarah and the baby left Red Wing on January 2 in a sleigh. They reached Traverse des Sioux four days later and Joseph left Sarah and Stella there with Moses and Nancy Adams while he continued on to the new Lower Sioux Agency near Redwood Falls, Minnesota. He described the new reservation to Treat:

“The New Agency is located on the west side of the Minnesota between sixty and seventy miles, by land, from Traverse des Sioux, and about thirty miles below yellow Medicine. It is well situated in respect to wood, water and grass. The Gov’t has erected several buildings and now employs some fifteen men in getting out rails for fencing at that place. The Agent informed me that it is the intention of Gov’t to erect buildings for a school there, early in the Spring. The location I think, is as good as may be found on the reservation. But I expect that the Gov’t School will not be offered to the care of our mission. Am fearful that it will not be placed under protestant influence.  

“We stopped with Brother Pond last Wednesday night on our way home. He is still doubtful whether it will be his duty to go to the reservation and labor for the Dakota any longer. The prospect is still abroad. Some in the “Big Woods” and some at their former hunting grounds.

“While at the East and since my return two preachers of the M.E. church have settled at Redwing [sic]. One has been appointed to preach here two thirds of the time. The other a local preacher. I feel now that my services here (with the present population) are not distressingly needed. I unite with them in holding meetings and in the Sabbath school. Shall also preach occasionally at a settlement nine miles distant in the State of Wisconsin.

Joseph Hancock outlived all three of his wives and was 91 years old when he passed away in 1907.

“My health has been quite good during the Autumn and Winter thus far. I was dropped as teacher for the Gov’t at the end of July last, and shall be under the necessity of drawing upon the Board for funds in time to come. I have sold one of the seven village lots claimed here, for forty dollars and some rails, for eight dollars and used up the money….The sum estimated by our mission will but little more than furnish us with clothing , fuel and lights for the year. But I have no reason to complain of the Board and do not speak of this in the way of complaint. I only wish to have it understood that I am not able to go on the same footing with others in the mission in regard to support. So that the Board may know what to expect should I be retained in its service hereafter.” [18]

For the next few months Joseph continued to write to Treat asking what he should anticipate but finally on May 2, 1854, he asked for release from the ABCFM, telling Treat that the Indians don’t want them anymore. Sarah also signed this letter. There is some indication in correspondence between the mission board and other missionaries that it was Sarah who convinced Joseph to leave mission work, but Joseph never implies such a thing.

The official release came through on September 11, 1854, along with the news that Joseph was joining the American Home Mission Society. He had inquired about whether he could purchase their home at the mission and ultimately the ABCFM gave him the house at no charge. The Missionary Herald Annual Report of 1854 reported that, “Mr. Hancock will now minister to the whites at Red Wing…no Dakota are there.”[19]

This montage of photographs is from the current website of the First Presbyterian Church of Red Wing, MN. I assume the portrait of the man is Joseph and that the little chapel and subsequent church are early images of the congregation that Joseph founded when he left the ABCFM and became a Presbyterian minister to the white settlers in Red Wing.

Like the Pond brothers and Moses Adams, Joseph became a minister to the white settlers in Red Wing. He founded the First Presbyterian Church of Red Wing on January 13, 1855 with seven charter members. The little congregation met in the mission house, a carpenter’s shop, a summer shanty, and a one-room schoolhouse before erecting the first church building in 1857. Joseph stayed as pastor of the church for seven years. Joseph and two other Presbyterian pastors from the area founded the Winona Presbytery in 1855 and Joseph expanded his work in the community by becoming the first postmaster of Red Wing . Governor Alexander Ramsey appointed him Registrar of Deed in 1855 and that fall, he was elected to that office by the people.

Joseph and Sarah had a second child, Alta Emily Hancock, on February 8, 1856. Stella was just shy of three years old when the new baby arrived and apparently Marilla was still living with her aunt in Ohio. Sarah was twenty-four years old when Alta was born. Sadly, Alta died at the age of sixteen months on June 13, 1857. Sarah and Joseph were heartbroken at losing another child. Two years later, on August 19, 1859, Sarah also died. She was only twenty-six years old and Joseph was again a widower with six-year-old Stella in his care.

Juliet’s father, James Thomson, was the founder of the First Presbyterian Church of Mankato, MN, in 1855. The church, pictured here as it looks today, has been in continuous service since that time.

This time it was once again the church community that stepped in to help Joseph care for Stella and ultimately to find a new wife. Joseph married Juliet Thomson in October 1860, a year after Sarah’s death. Juliet was twenty-three years old; Joseph was forty-four. She was the daughter of Rev. James Thomson, who had founded the First Presbyterian Church of Mankato, Minnesota, in 1855. Joseph and Juliet had one child, James Otis Hancock, born in November 1867. By that time, Joseph had retained his membership at the First Presbyterian Church of Red Wing but turned his professional focus to education. He was superintendent of schools for Goodhue County from 1862 to 1867 and from 1870 to 1880, and published a short history of the county in 1893.

Juliet was sixty years old when she passed away on August 19, 1897. She is buried next to Joseph’s first two wives in Oakwood Cemetery in Red Wing, Minnesota. Joseph himself died on October 25, 1907,at the age of ninety-one years. He had outlived three wives and two of his children and spent his final years enjoying his grandchildren. He and Juliet lived with Joseph’s oldest daughter, Marilla Hancock Holliday, the daughter of Martha Houghton Hancock, and her family in their final years. Marilla had grown up in Ohio being raised by her mother Martha’s sister, but she married William Holliday in 1874 and they raised their family in Red Wing, Minnesota. Marilla and William left the cold winters of Minnesota behind and moved to Palacios, Texas by 1920 after their own children were married and living on their own.

Joseph’s second oldest surviving child, Stella Ann Hancock, who was Sarah Rankin Hancock’s daughter, never married and after Joseph died, she lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, with Nancy Rankin Adams, her mother’s sister, who was also the widow of Rev. Moses Adams, as a housekeeper and companion. Joseph’s only surviving son, James Otis Hancock, moved to Seattle, Washington, with his wife and family in 1907 after Joseph died and Stella eventually joined them there. In the 1930 federal census Stella was eighty-two years old and was living with another elderly woman in Beaverton, Oregon. I have not found any record of her death.

The photo below is of the stone markers at the Oakwood Cemetery in Red Wing, Minnesota, where Joseph and his wives and children are interred. The tombstones tell the story of sadness, of religious passion and of grief as both Martha and Sarah are buried there with their infant children alongside Juliet and Joseph.

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

[2] “Missionary Work at Red Wing, 1849-1852,” by Rev. Joseph W. Hancock; presented at the monthly meeting of the Executive Council, May 12, , p. 165. MNHS, Aiton Papers, P1447, Box 1. The former fellow student Joseph mentions was John Felix Aiton, who had already arrived at Red Wing with his wife, Nancy Hunter Aiton. Some sources say that Joseph Hancock visited Northwest Territory with John Aiton in 1848 before he and Martha actually moved to the Red Wing mission from New York, but neither Hancock nor Aiton mention such a visit in any of their correspondence or memoirs. Joseph Hancock was accepted by the ABCFM even though he was not an ordained minister in 1848.

[3] Ibid., p. 166

[4] Ibid., p. 167

[5] Ibid., p. 170.

[6] John Aiton to Selah B. Treat, October 30, 1849. MNHS, ABCFM Corres., Box 6

[7] Ibid., Joseph Hancock to Selah B. Great, January 1, 1850

[8]  Ibid. Selah B. Treat to John Felix Aiton, January 24, 1850

[9] “Missionary Work at Red Wing, 1849-1852,” by Rev. Joseph W. Hancock; presented at the monthly meeting of the Executive Council, May 12, 1902. MNHS, Aiton Papers, P1447, Box 1, p. 171-172.

[10] Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indians Affairs 1850, submitted by Joseph W. Hancock, p. 82, MNHS

[11] The History of Goodhue County, editor in chief, Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge, H.C. Cooper, Jr. & Co., Chicago, IL, 1909

[12] Joseph Hancock to S.B. Treat, March 22, 1851, MNHS ABCFM Corres., Box 6

[13] Missionary Herald, May 1851. MNHS MS Collections

[14] Joseph W. Hancock to Selah B. Treat, December 13, 1851, MNHS ABCFM Corres. Box 6

[15] Ibid., Sarah Rankin to Nancy Hunter Aiton, March 28, 1852

[16] Ibid., Joseph W Hancock to Selah B. Treat, June 14, 1853; Mission Report, June 16, 1853.  I do not know who Maria Gould was and her name occurs nowhere else in the source documents.

[17] Ibid., Marilla Houghton to S.B. Treat December 9, 1853. No response to Marilla’s letter has been found.

[18] Ibid. Joseph W. Hancock to S.B. Treat, January 23, 1854

[19] Missionary Herald Annual Report of 1854, p. 261. MNHS MS Collection

This entry was posted in Juliet Thomson Hancock, Martha Houghton Hancock, Nancy Hunter Aiton, Nancy Rankin Adams, Sarah Rankin Hancock. Bookmark the permalink.

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