Q&A: Who was Stephen R. Riggs?

Q&A: Who was Stephen R. Riggs?

Born in Ohio in 1812, Stephen R. Riggs and his wife Mary were sent to Minnesota as missionaries to the Dakota people in 1837.  For more than forty years, Riggs, his wife, and his family worked tirelessly to support, educate, and improve the lives of the Dakota.  Stationed at Lac qui Parle in present day southwest Minnesota, Reverend Riggs’ first goal was to translate the Bible into the Dakota language.  Having accomplished this, Reverend Riggs went on to write the first Dakota dictionary and grammar book.

In 1843, Reverend Riggs and his family opened a mission at the Traverse des Sioux near present day St. Peter, Minnesota.  In 1851, Reverend Riggs worked as an interpreter during the negotiations of the Treaty of the Traverse des Sioux.  In 1856, having been moved to the Upper Agency on the Dakota Reservation, Reverend Riggs established the Hazelwood Mission and Republic as an educational and agricultural center for Christian Dakota.

Reverend Stephen Riggs and his wife Mary, MNHS Collections

During the U.S. – Dakota War, Riggs and his family, with the protection of many of the Dakota from the Hazelwood Republic, fled toward Fort Ridgley.  Having discovered that the fort was beleaguered, they continued on to the safety of Shakopee.  After having fled, Reverend Riggs volunteered his services as a Chaplain for Colonel Sibley and his forces.  Following the war, Riggs served as interpreter during the Dakota trials and then as Chaplain to the Dakota who were sentenced to be hanged.  Riggs continued his work with the Dakota even after the Dakota exile.  Reverend Riggs died in Wisconsin in 1883.  He wrote down his entire life experience with the Dakota in a book titled, Mary and I:  Forty Years with the Sioux.

It should also be noted that despite what may have been good intentions, Riggs and missionaries like him, were at the forefront of cultural destruction.  In order to Christianize and, as Riggs believed, civilize the Dakota, he promoted and encouraged their loss of language, dress, and traditional ways of living.  In hindsight, these drastic cultural adjustments had a profoundly negative effect on the Dakota people and would play a large role in the conditions leading to the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862.

Read Stephen Riggs’ Dakota-English Dictionary

See this blog post on YouTube


Stephen R. Riggs, Mary and I:  Forty Years with the Sioux, (Boston:  Congregational Sunday School and Publishing Society, 1887).


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