Mary and I
Forty Years with the Sioux

Stephen R. Riggs

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Mary and I


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Mary and I.
Forty Years with the Sioux.

Copyright © March, 1880 by Stephen R. Riggs

Chapter I.

“Friday Eve.—This morning when we awoke, we found ourselves in the muddy waters of the broad Mississippi. They are quite as muddy as those of a shallow pond after a severe shower. We drink it, however, and find the taste not quite as unpleasant as one might suppose from its color, though quite warm.”

Note (Hal’s):
This passage is an excerpt from Mary Riggs’s journal, recounting the trip to Minnesota.

— end note


Mississippi water

Chapter II. Often times we laughed at our own blunders, as when I told Mary, one day, that pish was the Dakota for fish. A Dakota boy was trying to speak the English word.



Chapter III. The human mind, in its most untutored state, is God’s creation. It may not stamp purity nor even goodness on its language, but it always, I think, stamps it with the deepest philosophy. So far at least, language is of divine origin. The unlearned Dakota may not be able to give any definition for any single word that he has been using all his lifetime—he may say, “It means that, and can’t mean anything else,”—yet, all the while, in the mental workshop of the people, unconsciously and very slowly it may be, but no less very surely, these words of air are newly coined. No angle can turn up, but by and by it will be worn off by use. No ungrammatical expression can come in, that will not be rejected by the best thinkers and speakers. New words will be coined to meet the mind’s wants; and new forms of expression, which at the first are bungling descriptions only, will be pared down and tucked up so as to come into harmony with the living language.



Chapter V. The Dakotas had a curious custom of being under law and above law. It was always competent for a Dakota soldier to punish another man for a misdemeanor, if the other man did not rank above him in savage prowess. As for example: If a Dakota man had braved an Ojibwa with a loaded gun pointed at him, and had gone up and killed him, he ranked above all men who had not done a like brave deed. And if no one in the community had done such an act of bravery, then this man could not be punished for anything, according to Dakota custom.



Chapter VI. It was one of ourselves that had gone. The sorrow was too great to find expression in tears or lamentations. The Dakotas observed this. One day old Black Eagle came in and chided us for it. “The ducks and the geese and the deer” he said, “when one is killed, make an outcry about it, and the sorrow passes by. The Dakotas, too, like these wild animals, make a great wailing over a dead friend—they wail out their sorrow, and it becomes lighter; but you keep your sorrow—you brood over it, and it becomes heavier.” There was truth in what the old man said. But we did not fail to cast our burden upon the Lord, and to obtain strength from a source which Black Eagle knew not of.

Note (Hal’s):
This death was the drowning of Thomas Longley, Mary Riggs’s younger brother.

— end note



There were times of repenting and attempted reformation, but they were followed by sinning again and again. Shame took possession of the man, and shame among the Dakotas holds with a terrible grip. He will not let go, and is not easily shaken off. Shame is a shameless fellow; it instigates to many crimes. [...] Sometimes he came to church and sat down on the door step, not venturing to go in; he was afraid of himself, as well he might be.



Chapter VII. In the work of preaching, I began to feel more freedom and joy. There had been times when the Dakota language seemed to be barren and meaningless. The words for Salvation and Life, and even Death and Sin, did not mean what they did in English. It was not to me a heart-language. But this passed away. A Dakota word began to thrill as an English word. Christ came into the language. The Holy Spirit began to pour sweetness and power into it. Then it was not exhausting, as it sometimes had been—it became a joy to preach.



Chapter VIII.

And I went to New York City, and was, the next seven months, engaged in getting through the press the grammar and dictionary of the Dakota language.

Of the various hindrances and delays, and of the burning of the printing office in which the work was in progress, and the loss of quite a number of pages of the book which had to be again made up, I need not speak. They are ordinary incidents.

The language itself is growing. Never probably, in its whole history, has it grown so much in any quarter of a century, as it has in the twenty-five years since the dictionary was published. Besides, we have recently been learning more of the Teeton dialect, which is spoken by more than half of the whole Sioux nation. And, as the translation of the Bible has progressed, thoughts and images have been brought in, which have given the language an unction and power unknown to it before.

The Dakota mission was now reduced to its lowest terms; only Dr. Williamson’s family and my own remained. If the Lord had not given us the victory when we were many, would He do it when we were few? We were sure He could do it. While it is true that the Lord is often on the side of the strong battalions, it is not always so. And spiritual forces are not measured by the same rules that measure material forces. So we toiled on with good hope, and when a year later, we were called to leave Lac-qui-parle, and commence our station elsewhere, Secretary Treat proposed that we call it New Hope.



Chapter X. Among other papers read at this time was one which I prepared with some care, giving a short biographical sketch of all the persons, who, up to that time, had been connected with the Dakota mission; a copy of which was afterward placed in the library of the Historical Society of Minnesota.
Chapter XI.

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

Hardly had the new order of things been inaugurated in 1861, when Superintendent Clark W. Thompson announced to the Sioux gathered at Yellow Medicine, that the Great Father was going to make them all very glad. They had received their annuities for that year, but were told that the government would give them a further bounty in the autumn. At one of Thompson’s councils, Paul made one of his most telling speeches. He presented many grievances, which the new administration promised to redress. But when the superintendent was asked where this additional gift came from, he could not tell—only it was to be great, and would make them very glad.

By such words, the four thousand Upper Sioux were encouraged to expect great things. Accordingly, the Sissetons from Lake Traverse came down in the autumn, when the promised goods should have been there, but low water in the Minnesota and Mississippi delayed their arrival. The Indians waited, and had to be fed by Agent Galbraith. And when the goods came the deep snows had come also, and the season for hunting was past. Moreover, the great gift was only $10,000 worth of goods, or $2.50 apiece! While they had waited, many of the men could have earned from $50 to $100, by hunting. [...]

The Lower Sioux were suspicious of the matter, and refused to receive their ten thousand dollars worth of goods, until they should know whence it came. By and by the Democrats in the country learned that the administration had determined on changing the money annuity into goods, and had actually commenced the operation, sending on the year before $20,000 of the $70,000 which would be due next summer. The knowledge of this planning of bad faith in the government greatly exasperated the annuity Indians, and was undoubtedly the primal cause which brought on the outbreak of the next summer.

As the summer of 1862 came on, the Washington government recognized their mistake, and sought to rectify it, by replacing the $20,000 which had been taken from the money of the July payment. But to do this, they were obliged to await a new appropriation, and this delayed the bringing on of the money full six weeks beyond the regular time of payment. If the money had been on hand the first of July, instead of reaching Fort Ridgely after the outbreak commenced, one cannot say but that the Sioux war would have been prevented.

Note (Hal’s): Collected readings on causes of the 1862 Dakota War continue with John P. Williamson: A Brother to the Sioux by Winifred W. Barton.

— end note

Chapter XII. At the first news of the massacres, a large number of citizens had impressed their neighbors’ horses, and had started for the Indian country. Many of them were poor riders, and they were all poorly armed. They were without military organization and drill, and were felt to be an element of weakness rather than strength. A night or two before I reached the camp, a couple of shots had been fired, supposed to have been by Indians. The drum beat the “long roll,” and the men that formed this “string-bean cavalry,” as they were called, crawled under the wagons. The next morning many of them had had a clairvoyant communication with their families at home, and learned that their wives were sick. They were permitted to depart.
Chapter XIII. The revelations of the white women caused great indignation among our soldiers, to which must be added the outside pressure coming to our camp in letters from all parts of Minnesota,—a wail and a howl,—in many cases demanding the execution of every Indian coming into our hands. The result of these combined influences was, that in a few weeks, instead of taking individuals for trial against whom some specific charge could be brought, the plan was adopted to subject all the grown men, with a few exceptions, to an investigation of the Commission, trusting that the innocent could make their innocency appear. This was a thing not possible in the case of the majority—especially as conviction was based upon an admission of being present at the battles of Fort Ridgely, New Ulm, Hutchinson and Birch Coolie. Almost all the Dakota men had been at one or more of those places, and had carried their guns and used them. So that of nearly four hundred cases, which came before the Commission, only about fifty were cleared, twenty were sentenced to imprisonment, and more than three hundred were condemned to be hung. The greater part of these were condemned on general principles, without any specific charges proved, such as under less exciting and excited conditions of society, would have been demanded.

At the close of their work, the Military Commission turned over their Findings and condemnations to Gen. Sibley for his approval. [...] Many of them had no good foundation. And they were only justified by the considerations that they would be reviewed by a more disinterested authority, and that the condemnations were demanded by the people of Minnesota.

On receiving the papers transmitted from the Military Commission, President Lincoln had placed them in the hands of impartial men, with instructions to report the cases which, according to the testimony, were convicted of participation in individual murders, or in violating white women. Acting under these instructions, thirty-nine cases were reported, and these were ordered by the President to be executed. But among so many it was a matter of much difficulty to identify all the cases. Among the condemned there were several persons of the same name—three or four Chaskays, two or three Washechoons. In the findings of the Commission they were all numbered, and the order for the executions was given in accordance with these numbers. But no one could remember which number attached to which person. [...] Extraordinary care was meant to be used; but after it was all over, when we came to compare their own stories and confessions, made a day or two before their death, with the papers of condemnation, the conviction was forced upon us that two mistakes had occurred.

Some days before this, Dr. Williamson had baptized Round Wind, who was reprieved by an order from the President, which came only a day or so before the executions, reducing the number to thirty-eight.
Many of them, the most of them, took occasion to affirm their innocence of the charges laid against them of killing individuals. But they admitted, and said of their own accord, that so many white people had been killed by the Dakotas, that public and general justice required the death of some in return. This admission was in the line of their education. Perhaps it is not too much to call it an instinct of humanity.



This first communion in the prison made a deep impression upon myself. It began to throw light upon the perplexing questions that had started in my own mind, as to the moral meaning of the outbreak. God’s thought of it was not my thought. As the heavens were higher than the earth, so his thoughts were higher than mine. I accepted the present interpretation of the events, and thanked God and took courage. The Indians had not meant it so. In their thought and determination, the outbreak was the culmination of their hatred of Christianity. But God, who sits on the throne, had made it result in their submission to him. This was marvelous in our eyes.

Chapter XIV. Generally the soldiers who guarded them treated them kindly. It was remarked that a new company, whether of the regular army or of volunteers, when assigned to this duty, at the first treated the prisoners with a good deal of severity and harshness. But a few weeks sufficed to change their feelings, and they were led to pity, and then to respect, those whom they had regarded as worse than wild beasts.
Chapter XV.

“Saturday noon, March 20.

“It is a privilege that I never knew before, to watch and wait in a sick chamber, where one is in sympathy and contact with the spirit that is mounting upward. It does seem as if the pins of the tabernacle were indeed being taken out one by one, and the taking of it down is beautiful—how much more beautiful will be its rebuilding!”

Note (Hal’s):
Recorded by Stephen Riggs while watching over his wife’s (Mary’s) deathbed in 1869.

— end note



Chapter XVI.

Note (Hal’s):
A portion of this chapter is a reflection by Alfred L. Riggs on the experience of growing up in a missionary family. My own experiences, starting over 120 years later, and at age 7 rather than at birth, are somewhat different, but much is familiar. Since I did not become a missionary myself, as he did, I’m unqualified to comment further.

— end note

Chapter XVII.

ASCENSION, or Iyakaptape, so named from its having been, from time immemorial, the place where the Coteau was ascended by the Dakotas on their way westward, was the district in which a number of the Renville families took claims. Daniel Renville, one of our licentiates, had been preaching to the church gathered there. But it was understood all along that John B. Renville was to be their pastor.

Note (Hal’s):
Iyakaptapi is the second church where I was accepted into membership.

— end note

Chapter XXI. The Sioux war of the summer of 1876 produced a great excitement at all the Agencies on the Upper Missouri. The Indians in these villages were more or less intimately connected with the hostiles. Many of those accustomed to receive rations here were during the summer, out on the plains. Some of them were in the Custer fight. They say that Sitting Bull’s camp was not large—only about two hundred lodges. The victory they gained was not, as the whites claimed, owing to the overwhelming numbers of the Dakotas, but to the exhausted condition of Custer’s men and horses, and to their adventuring themselves into a gorge, where they could easily be cut off.

The Forty Years are completed. In the meantime many workers have fallen out of the ranks, but the work has gone on. It has been marvelous in our eyes. At the beginning, we were surrounded by the whole Sioux nation, in their ignorance and barbarism. At the close, we are surrounded by churches with native pastors. Quite a section of the Sioux nation has become, in the main, civilized and Christianized. The entire Bible has been translated into the language of the Dakotas. The work of education has been rapidly progressing.


Rev. Gideon H. Pond

A Successful Life.

Note (Hal’s):
This monograph includes a portion of a tribute written by Gen. Henry H. Sibley and published in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press.

— end note

My own personal acquaintance with Mr. Pond commenced in the summer of 1837. He was then, and had been for a year previous, at Lac-qui-parle. In September my wife and I joined that station, and the first event occurring after that, which has impressed itself upon my memory, was the marriage of Mr. Pond and MISS SARAH POAGE, sister of Mrs. Dr. Williamson. This was the first marriage ceremony I had been called upon to perform; and Mr. Pond signalized it by making a feast, and calling, according to the Savior’s injunction, “the poor, the maimed, the halt, and the blind.” And there was a plenty of such to be called in that Dakota village. They could not recompense him, but “he shall be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.”

Dr. T. S. Williamson It is now almost two round centuries since Hennepin and Du-Luth met in the camps and villages of the Sioux on the upper Mississippi. Then, as since, they were recognized as the largest and most warlike tribe of Indians on the continent. Until Dr. Williamson and his associates went among them, there does not appear to have been any effort made to civilize and Christianize them. With the exception of a few hundred words gathered by army officers and others, the Dakota language was unwritten. This was to be learned—mastered, which was found to be no small undertaking, especially to one who had attained the age of thirty-five years. While men of less energy and pluck would have knocked off, or been content to work as best they could through an interpreter, Dr. Williamson persevered, and in less than two years was preaching Christ to them in the language in which they were born.

As Mr. Renville could only interpret between the Dakotas and French, Dr. Williamson applied himself to learning the latter language. Through this a beginning was made in the translation of the Scriptures into the Dakota.

Compare to:
Winifred Barton

Before leaving the subject of Bible translation, let me bear testimony to the uniform kindness and courtesy which Dr. Williamson extended to me, through all this work of more than forty years. It could hardly be said of either of us that we were very yielding. The Doctor was a man of positive opinions, and there were abundant opportunities in prosecuting our joint work for differences of judgment. But while we freely criticized, each the other’s work, we freely yielded to each other the right of ultimate decision.



text checked (see note) Apr 2006

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