quotes & notes from
John P. Williamson:
A Brother to the Sioux

Winifred W. Barton

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John P. Williamson: A Brother to the Sioux



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In 1958, my own family moved to a Dakota reservation to engage in missionary work. This book, a gift from my parents, was one of Dad’s inspirations.

The author is John P. Williamson’s daughter. A great deal of it consists of quoted material from other sources, especially Mary and I by Stephen R. Riggs. Where quoted below, passages from other contributors are noted.

Some of my notes involve personal connections; some relate to history, particularly the account of the 1862 Dakota Conflict, which differs somewhat from versions commonly recounted in Minnesota.

For many of the people mentioned, I have also noted their contributions to the Dakota Odowan (the Dakota hymnbook).

John P. Williamson

A Brother to the Sioux

by Winifred W. Barton

Copyright © 1919 by Fleming H. Revell Company
Reprinted in facsimile 1980, by Sunnycrest Publishing


Boyhood Days

Note (Hal’s): Approximately 1834-1847:

  • Dr. Thomas S. Williamson:
    • visited upper Mississippi, reaching Fort Snelling, 1834
    • returned with family 1835; started mission at Lacquiparle
    • moved to Kaposia, near St. Paul, at Little Crow’s invitation 1846
    • Dakota Odowan: hymns 7, 10, 32, 34, 42, 48, 52, 66, 107, 108, 133
  • Margaret Poage Williamson, wife of Dr. Thomas S. Williamson
  • John Poage Williamson, born 1835 at Lacquiparle
    • Dakota Odowan: hymns 4, 16, 25, 43, 67, 69, 76, 110, 114, 116, 118, 143, 152
  • Miss Sarah Poage, sister of Margaret Poage Williamson, also came in 1835
    • married Gideon Pond
  • Joseph Renville, trader who invited the Williamsons to his post at Lacquiparle
    • Dakota Odowan: hymns 83, 85, 89, 109, 138, 141, 142, 144, 145, 163, 164
  • John B. Renville, son of Joseph Renville, early boyhood friend of J.P. Williamson
    • Dakota Odowan: hymns 5, 77, 78, 105, 113, 147, 150
  • Rev. Steven R. Riggs
    • with his wife, joined the mission at Lacquiparle 1837
    • Dakota Odowan: hymns 2, 3, 6, 8, 11, 12, 14, 19-24, 26, 27, 38, 41, 46, 49-51, 54-57, 59, 64, 65, 68, 70, 72, 75, 79-82, 86, 88, 90, 91, 93, 96-100, 103, 104, 111, 115, 119-121, 125, 134-136, 139, 140, 146, 148, 157-159, 166, 167
  • Alfred L. Riggs
    • born at Lacquiparle, 1837
    • Dakota Odowan: hymns 1, 58, 71, 74, 87, 94, 95
  • Mr. A. G. Huggins, also on the steamboat to Fort Snelling in 1835, with his family (see below)
  • Samuel W. Pond, at Lake Calhoun 1834
    • Dakota Odowan: hymns 9, 18, 35-37, 101, 102, 128, 131
  • Gideon H. Pond, at Lake Calhoun 1834
    • married Sarah Poage (1837) and moved into Williamson cabin at Lacquiparle
    • Dakota Odowan: hymns 13, 15, 53, 60-62, 127, 129, 130, 132, 154, 160

    — end note

Their names were Samuel W. and Gideon H. Pond, and both afterwards became ministers. They settled on Lake Calhoun, near Fort Snelling, where they made some progress in teaching the Indians farming, but their greatest work was in the study of the language, which they reduced to writing, giving it an alphabet with characters the same as in the English alphabet.
In this work Mr. Renville was of great assistance, though as he did not understand English, his help was necessarily given through the French. One of the missionaries would read from the French Bible, verse by verse, and Mr. Renville would give the Dakota translation. Dr. Williamson was very painstaking. When he came to a word having more than one meaning, he would use it in different sentences,so as to be sure Mr. Renville understood its real significance. As a part of the work of translation, comparison was made with the original Greek and Hebrew. Thus the Dakota Bible grew, and stands to-day as a model of correct Dakota, as well as of correct Bible.

Compare to:
Stephen R. Riggs




School and College Days

This was the year of the famous treaty of 1851, signed at Traverse des Sioux. Uncle Sam needed more land for his rapidly increasing family, and by the terms of this treaty the Santee Sioux gave up all the woods and streams and fertile valleys of eastern Minnesota and Iowa, their deer parks and the graves of their ancestors, in exchange for a narrow reservation in the less attractive western part of Minnesota, and for promised annuities from the Government.


Early Ministry

Note (Hal’s): The following is part of a collection about the causes of the 1862 Dakota War. The whole set may be read in sequence by following links where indicated.

— end note

The summer of 1862 was a time of unrest among the Indians. According to the treaty made a few years before, the Indians were to receive pay for their ceded lands in gold. That it was to be in gold the chiefs had particularly stipulated. Now that the Civil War was on, the national currency was much depreciated and at this time one dollar in gold was worth about two dollars and fifty cents in greenbacks.


Finally word came from Washington asking them to accept greenbacks instead of gold and offering a slight premium on the stipulated amount, which was five dollars per capita. To this the head men would not agree, and insisted on the fulfillment of the treaty to the letter. So word was sent to Washington to that effect.

Meanwhile the Indians were getting very hungry. Cut off from their usual hunting grounds and without money to buy ammunition to shoot such small game as might be within their reach, they were reduced to a diet of wild tipsina and other roots, and not sufficient of these. The Governement had no rations for them. There were four stores at the agency, well stocked in anticipation of the coming payment, but they would not give credit to the Indians.

Finally Little Crow rose to speak. He said: “We have waited a long time. The money is ours, but we cannot get it. We have no food, but here are these stores, filled with food. We ask that you, the agent, make some arrangement by which we can get food from the stores, or else we may take our own way to keep ourselves from starving. When men are hungry they help themselves.”

The interpreter, perceiving the threat implied, would not interpret this, so the agent turned to John and said, “Williamson, you tell us what Little Crow says.” So John interpreted the speech.

Then the agent addressed the storekeepers: “Well, it’s up to you now. What will you do?”

Then one of them said, “Whatever Myrick does, we will do. We are not proprietors, anyway.” Myrick was of the firm “Myrick Bros.”; and being part owner of his stock, was regarded as a leader by the other traders.

So then the agent turned and said, “Well, Myrick?” But Myrick said nothing, and presently, seeming to find the situation rather tense, rose and started to leave.

But the agent stopped him. “Here, Myrick, you have got to say what you will do.”

Then Myrick replied slowly and deliberately, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass.”


The agent called on the interpreter, but he was shaking with fright and could not interpret.

So the agent turned to John, “Well, Williamson, I guess we shall have to depend on you again.”

So John stood up, while a hush fell on the assembly, and in a loud, clear voice that all could hear, he announced, “He said, ‘So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass.’ ”

Note (Hal’s):
Myrick’s declaration imitates one from A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. I can see three possible explanations:

  1. highly improbable coincidence;
  2. this story is an embellishment, adapted from the Dickens; or
  3. Myrick actually took his cue from the Dickens character, either having read the book, or having heard the line repeated (perhaps with reference to the Dakota) by others.

The third seems most probable (especially considering Folwell’s supporting evidence). A Tale of Two Cities was published in 1859, and would likely have been imported quickly and read widely by American fans. This account is written by Williamson’s daughter, who probably heard the story directly from him.

If genuine, the story is a sad comment on the ability of Dickens fans to get his point. Myrick, like the fictional Foulon, ended up dead at the hands of those he insulted, with his mouth stuffed with grass.

— end note

Note (Hal’s): Collected readings on causes of the 1862 Dakota War continue with A History of Minnesota by William Watts Folwell.

— end note

One loss during the Outbreak which touched the missionaries deeply was that of Amos W. Huggins, oldest son of Mr. A. G. Huggins who was of Dr. Williamson’s party in 1835. Amos Huggins was in the Government Service and was employed as teacher in an Indian village near Lacquiparle. A party of strange Indians rode up and shot him while he was working in his garden.

Mr. Huggins was the author of a number of hymns and school songs in the Dakota language that have been deservedly popular.

Note (Hal’s):
Dakota Odowan: hymns 29, 39, 45, 47, 73, 84, 106, 122, 126, 137, 149, 156, 161

— end note

The missionaries, who had been with the Indians since the beginning of the Military Trial, endeavouring to secure a square deal for those whom they knew to be innocent, were allowed to see the list of names when it arrived. They found on the list the name of one man, Round Wind, whom they knew had had nothing to do with the massacre. He had been convicted on the witness of two small German boys who testified that he was the man that killed their mother. The missionaries knew that he was on the other side of the river and at least ten miles away at the time of the tragedy. They at once sent letters to the President, presenting the facts and asking that his sentence be reprieved. The order for a reprieve was promptly sent and was received just in time to save an innocent life from the gallows.

Note (Hal’s):
Of about 350 death sentences imposed by the military tribunal, the Lincoln Commission upheld 40; two were reprieved (Round Wind and the brother of John Otherday), and 38 men were actually hanged (still the largest mass execution in U.S. history, and still clouded by doubts about the guilt of some victims).

— end note


Crow Creek Experiences
Starvation Time

Colonel Thompson conceived the idea that by cooking the rations together they could make them go farther and furnish more nourishment. He had a large tank made, of green cottonwood boards, holding eight or ten barrels. This tank was filled with water. The flour ration for all the Indians was mixed in a barrel with a little water and stirred into the tank; a small piece of pork was added, nothing else. The steam was turned into the tank, and it could be heard puffing and sputtering all night.

The Indians were told to come in the morning when the whistle blew, bringing their pails, and they received a ladleful for each member of the family. It was strongly flavoured with green cottonwood and was very thin and unpalateable, but it was their food for the day and all they had. [...] The Santees often refer to the time when they drank cottonwood soup.




Niobrara, Bazile and Santee

The responsibility that was placed upon the elders seems rather remarkable when we consider how short a time it had been since they were themselves in heathenism. They were always exhorted to study the Bible and to follow its precepts in governing the church. They did so with a directness and a literalness that would be rather disconcerting to church members to-day. As we read the names of those who received public reprimand for jealousy, evil speaking, quarrelling, not loving wives, not loving husbands, we are reminded of the days of the Scotch Covenanters.

One frequent cause for discipline was the use of heathen practices in times of sickness, calling in the conjurer or medicine man.


Early Years at Yankton Agency

Note (Hal’s):
This chapter includes a section on the history of the Mission Meeting.

— end note

The Last of the Chiefs

Note (Hal’s):
This section covers Williamson’s personal acquaintance with a number of chiefs, including Little Crow, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull.

Also Padaniapapi (Struck by the Ree), who was an early supporter of the missionaries, and as a newborn had been declared an American by Meriwether Lewis, whose expedition with Clarke was visiting. Padaniapapi was the chief and orator who persuaded the Yanktons to stay out of the 1862 conflict.

— end note

The days of the chiefs are past. [...] With the allotting of Indian lands in severalty, their death knell was rung, for from that time the Government dealt with the Indians as individuals, not as tribes and bands.

The chiefs were the bright particular flower of the tribal system. Their ambition and daring gave them their place, and until recognized by the Government, it was only by virtue of their superiority that they held it.


Later Years at Yankton Agency

Note (Hal’s):
Personal connections: This chapter mentions trips to Poplar, Montana, and work there with Rev. E. J. Lindsey (who married a niece of Mr. Williamson). I was confirmed at Lindsey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Poplar.

It also mentions Buffalo Lakes Church, which held a week of meetings to pray for Williamson’s recovery from an illness. Dad gave me my first lesson in reading Dakota hymns in that church, in the fall of 1958, using a copy of the words to the Doxology posted on the wall.

— end note

A Day in the Williamson Home

By J. G. B
Mr. Williamson would ask the blessing, and such wonderful blessings! Not merely thanks for food for himself and family but a blessing on all God’s hungry children. Often it would seem to be the continuation of an interrupted prayer. We never in all our visits heard him ask the same blessing twice.

Note (Hal’s):
The writer of this section is Jesse Grant Barton, the author’s husband.

— end note




A Group of Stories

Told by J. B. W.

Note (Hal’s):
The source of these stories is John B. Williamson, the author’s brother.

— end note

II. Walking Trips

In the morning when Father awoke at daylight, he immediately sat up and began putting on his shoes. At this old Napesni, who had risen first, soundly berated him. “You act like a boy who does not know anything,” he said. “When you sleep out like this, upon awakening you must first look in every direction from where you lie. There might be an enemy in sight, and in this way you may see him before he sees you. Or there may be a wild animal, or possibly a rattlesnake waiting to jump on you if you move. I see you do not know anything, so I will have to teach you.”

And so for the rest of the way and on many occasions thereafter, the wise old Indian devoted himself to instructing the young white man in all the cunning and woodcraft, the customs and etiquette of the old Indian life before it was touched by associating with the whites.


Sleeping out


III. A Ride Through the Gumbo

At home he was intent on his work, spending all but a few hours of each day at his desk, either writing, or talking with the Indians, who continually came to consult him on matters both religious and secular.

But on a journey he seemed like a boy on a vacation, finding something to interest him all along the way, taking pleasure in conversation with any one whom he happened to meet, no matter how rough or illiterate. He was always deeply interested in the development of the country for farming and stock raising and never tired of discussing it. He was a jolly companion to us boys at such times, teaching us to be resourceful in travelling and camping, and many tricks of the out-of-door life which he had learned from the Indians.


Literary Work
Doane Robinson has said: “His simple diction was always impressive, and his faculty for speaking in epigrams remarkable. I recall my first conversation with him, nearly forty years ago, in which he said among other things, speaking of the primitive Indian, ‘The Sioux was very religious, but he did not associate religion with ethics.’ ”



text checked (see note) Jan 2006

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