Thomas S. Williamson was a missionary who worked closely with the Dakota people of Minnesota for more than forty years. Born in South Carolina in 1800, he moved to Ohio as a young boy. He went on to study medicine at Yale University where he became a doctor of medicine in 1824. Dr. Williamson married in 1827 and had three children all while practicing medicine in Ohio. But after his children had died, Dr. Williamson decided to abandon the practice of medicine and seek the gospel ministry. He began to study theology in 1833 and after becoming a licensed minister, Dr. Williamson was appointed by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to minister to the Dakota Indians.
Accompanied by his wife Margaret and his colleague Reverend Alexander G. Huggins, Dr. Williamson arrived at Fort Snelling in May 1835. As a christian minister, he was preceded only by Samuel and Gideon Pond who established a mission on the bank of Lake Calhoun. Williamson established his mission at Lac qui Parle in present day south western Minnesota. Immediately, Williamson took it upon himself to translate Dakota, a language previously unwritten. In addition to this and establishing his Mission, Williamson established a school, taught the Dakota to farm, and practiced medicine among them. Though the Dakota were not always receptive to Williamson’s message and teachings, he persevered in what he considered good work.
In 1846, Williamson accepted an invitation to establish a Mission at Little Crow’s village of Kaposia. There he preached the Christian message and taught school until the village was removed to a reservation in 1853. At this time, Williamson moved with the Dakota and established his third and final Mission at the Yellow Medicine Indian Agency. During the U.S. – Dakota War, while living at Yellow Medicine, Williamson, his wife and his sister Jane, stayed to help protect and assist settlers and Dakota. After escaping to St. Peter, Williamson helped care for wounded war victims.
Following the U.S. – Dakota War in 1862, Dr. Williamson continued his missionary work by preaching to the imprisoned Dakota at Mankato and then at Davenport, Iowa. When the Dakota were removed to a reservation in Nebraska, Williamson, while maintaining his home in St. Peter, Minnesota, spent summers teaching and preaching to the Dakota people. In 1877, following over forty years of dedicated service to his missionary work among the Dakota, Williamson finally completed a full translation of the Hebrew Bible in the Dakota language. He died in 1879.
It should be noted that although Williamson and missionaries like him during the settlement period of Minnesota were advocates of the native Dakota people, their assimilation policies were at the forefront of a cultural genocide that stripped the Dakota of their traditional ways of speech, dress, and living.
Excerpt from Ceding Contempt
Ring, ring, ring.
“What is that ringing?” I asked Dr. Williamson.
“That is the school bell.”
“Oh, the school,” remembering that Dr. Williamson had mentioned the school at Lac qui Parle earlier.
“Yes,” he explained. “My wife Margaret is teaching today. I will teach tomorrow.”
“Teacher! Teacher!” came the call of a young Dakota. “Are you coming to school today?” he asked in perfect English as he went streaking by.
“Not today, lad,” Dr. Williamson shouted after him. “Behave well for the misses.”
The boy came to sudden halt, he turned.
“Who is that?” he said pointing his finger at me.
Dr. Williamson answered by scolding the boy in the Dakota language. “Hurry off to class,” he then commanded in English.
The boy lowered his head, not ashamed, but frustrated, and continued toward the ringing bell.
“He seems very bright,” I commented with surprise.
“That is Takoda, an orphan boy and a very bright young lad, but he forgets his manners. I care for him, but he is very independent.”
“Takoda,” I repeated with curiosity.
“It means Friend to Everyone. It represents him well. He was so sad after losing his parents to disease, but he has overcome it well and he is now much more cheerful and jubilant. Though I have never been able to tell him what to do.”
I laughed at the thought.
“Do all the children attend class?” I asked, wondering to myself if all the Dakota children were as capable as this young boy I had just come across.
“No, most certainly not,” replied Dr. Williamson dejectedly. “Attendance is our greatest hurdle. We have but five or six students at any given time.”
“Is that so? I wonder why?” I thought out loud.
“For whatever reason,” explained Dr. Williamson, “some of the Native peoples have a prejudice to advancement, believing somehow that it is destructive or immoral. But also, the schemes of traders keep students away.”
“Traders? How so?”
“Many of the traders believe it is in their best interests to keep the Dakota in ignorance,” answered Dr. Williamson. “As long as the Dakota fail to understand and comprehend the new way of the world, the traders will be able to exploit such ignorance.”
“How foul!” I said in disgust.
“Yes, yes,” agreed Dr. Williamson. “It is one of many obstacles we contend with. But we must be patient and continue our work.”
Stephen R. Riggs, “In Memory of Rev. Thos. S. Williamson, M.D.,” in Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, Vol. 3, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1880).