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Riggs, Stephen Return (1812–1883)

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Black and white photograph of Stephen R. Riggs, 1862. Photographed by Whitney’s Gallery.

Stephen R. Riggs, 1862. Photographed by Whitney’s Gallery.

Stephen Return Riggs was a Christian missionary and linguist who spent forty years in the Minnesota River Valley, Nebraska, and Dakota Territory. In both these roles, he aimed to “Christianize and civilize” the Dakota people he believed were caught in the “bonds of heathenism.” To further his project, he compiled the first printed dictionary of the Dakota language. Riggs’s work as a government translator and interpreter helped the United States remove the Dakota from their Minnesota homeland during the 1850s and 1860s.

Riggs began his life’s work among the Dakota in 1837 at Thomas Williamson’s Lac Qui Parle mission in the St. Peters (later Minnesota) River Valley. He established the Traverse des Sioux mission near present-day St. Peter in 1843. In 1850, he helped write the “Outlines of a Plan to Civilize the Dakota,” designed to break up the Dakota way of life and “community property system.” In 1856, he founded the Hazelwood Republic—a democratic community of Christian Dakota people who practiced Euro-American customs—near modern-day Granite Falls.

Riggs firmly believed that Christianity and what he called “civilized ways” could be taught using the Dakota language. He learned oral Dakota so he could preach the Christian gospel to mission residents. Over several years, using the written version developed in the 1830s by Samuel and Gideon Pond, he translated the Bible into Dakota. He argued that illiteracy in English should not be a bar to citizenship and urged the Minnesota legislature to grant citizenship to “civilized” Dakota—a cause that was unsuccessful. In 1852, the Smithsonian Institution published a Dakota Grammar and Lexicon (dictionary), compiled by Riggs.

Though he valued studying the Dakota language, Riggs did not work to preserve it and was deeply critical of Dakota culture in general. In 1850, he wrote a speech for the annual meeting of the Minnesota Historical Society that describes the language as “noble” but bound to disappear. In a letter accompanying the speech, he wrote that Dakota people had no future if they did not assimilate. The progress of “civilization,” he proclaimed, would either include and transform the Dakota or destroy them. By 1859, Riggs prohibited the Dakota children in the Hazelwood Community school from speaking their native language. He felt this would hasten their conversion to Christianity and break them from their “barbaric” way of life.

The U.S. government enlisted Riggs to help carry out its policy of removing the Dakota people from their ancestral homelands so that white immigrants could take the land for farms. In 1851, officials summoned Riggs to Traverse des Sioux to serve as interpreter during treaty negotiations. In this role, he translated the English version of the treaty into Dakota.

The accuracy of his work is disputed. Riggs left several provisions in the English copy untranslated in the Dakota version. The Dakota words he chose to describe the proposed “sale” of the Dakota homeland seem at odds with the Dakota view of the land as their relative—something that cannot be sold.

At the onset of the U.S.-Dakota War in August 1862, Riggs and his family fled from their Hazelwood home, never to return. Dakotas from the mission protected them en route to St. Anthony, where they resettled.

When the war ended in September 1862, Riggs gathered statements from captured Dakota warriors. A military commission used them as incriminating evidence in the trials that followed.

During the winter of 1862–1863, Riggs, Thomas Williamson, and other missionaries visited dozens of Dakota warriors in the Mankato prison and hundreds of non-combatant Dakota people in a concentration camp (a camp that confines people outside legal norms of arrest and often under harsh conditions) at Fort Snelling. During these visits, hundreds of Dakota people converted to Christianity. Riggs participated in some of the later religious services at the Fort Snelling camp and came to observe the result of the other missionaries’ work there. Though some doubted their sincerity, including Riggs himself, Riggs described these conversions as the fruit of the war and the many years of mission work in which he played a part.

In 1865, the Riggs family moved to Beloit, Wisconsin. Riggs continued his mission work for twelve more years, traveling to Dakota reservations in Nebraska and present-day South Dakota. He died in Beloit in 1883.

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Clemmons, Linda. Conflicted Mission: Faith, Disputes, and Deception on the Dakota Frontier. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2014.

Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota. Vol. 1. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1956.

Riggs, Stephen R. A Dakota-English Dictionary. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992. First published 1890.

——— . Dakota Grammar: with Texts and Ethnography. Edited by John D. Nichols. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004. First published 1893.

——— . Mary and I: Forty Years Among the Sioux. Williamstown, MA: Corner House 1971.
https://archive.org/details/maryandi00riggrich

Siems, Monica L. “How Do You Say “God” In Dakota? Epistemological Problems in the Christianization of Native Americas.” Numen 45, no. 2 (1998): 163–182.

Stephen R. Riggs and Family Papers, 1837–1988 (bulk 1837–1869)
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00797.xml
Description: Papers of the Riggs family.

Westerman, Gwen, and Bruce White. Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012.

Wingerd, Mary Lethert. North Country: The Making of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Stephen R. Riggs, 1862. Photographed by Whitney’s Gallery.
Black and white photograph of Stephen R. Riggs, 1862. Photographed by Whitney’s Gallery.
Black and white photograph of Reverend Stephen Riggs and his wife, Mary Riggs, c.1860.
Black and white photograph of Reverend Stephen Riggs and his wife, Mary Riggs, c.1860.
Black and white photograph of the Hazelwood Mission of Stephen R. Riggs in Yellow Medicine County, c.1860.
Black and white photograph of the Hazelwood Mission of Stephen R. Riggs in Yellow Medicine County, c.1860.
Black and white photograph of refugees of the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862 camping on the prairie, 1862.
Black and white photograph of refugees of the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862 camping on the prairie, 1862.
Color image of a painting of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, c.1905. Oil painting by Francis Davis Millet.
Color image of a painting of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, c.1905. Oil painting by Francis Davis Millet.
Black and white photograph of the restored Dakota mission of Stephen R. Riggs and Thomas S. Williamson at Lac qui Parle State Park, 1971. Photographed by Jack Renshaw.
Black and white photograph of the restored Dakota mission of Stephen R. Riggs and Thomas S. Williamson at Lac qui Parle State Park, 1971. Photographed by Jack Renshaw.

Turning Point

In 1835, after graduating from Jefferson College, Stephen Riggs decides to answer “God’s Call” to take up Christian missionary work among the indigenous people on the American western frontier as his life’s work.

Chronology

1812

Riggs is born at Steubenville, Ohio, on March 23.

1837

Riggs and his new wife, Mary Longley, travel to Minnesota and join Thomas Williamson's Dakota mission station at Lac Qui Parle in the St. Peters (later Minnesota) River Valley.

1843

Riggs leaves Lac Qui Parle to establish a Dakota mission at Traverse des Sioux near modern-day St. Peter.

1846

Riggs leaves Traverse des Sioux mission to return to Lac Qui Parle mission as successor to Thomas Williamson.

1851

Riggs serves as an interpreter during the treaty negotiations between the Dakota people and the United States at Traverse des Sioux.

1852

The Smithsonian Institution publishes the Dakota Grammar and Lexicon (dictionary) compiled and edited by Riggs.

1856

Riggs founds the Hazelwood Republic near modern-day Granite Falls as a democratic community of Christian Dakota people who practice Euro-American customs.

1862

When the U.S.–Dakota War begins in August, Dakota from the Hazelwood mission help Riggs and his family escape to St. Anthony.

1862

In September and October, Riggs gathers statements from captured Dakota men. A military commission uses the statements as incriminating evidence in subsequent trials, at which Riggs serves as a translator.

1865

Riggs moves to Beloit, Wisconsin, but continues his missionary work for the next twelve years during periodic travels to Dakota reservations in Nebraska and South Dakota.

1869

Riggs publishes Tah-Koo-Wah-Kan; or The Gospel Among the Dakotas, describing what he calls “the progress of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” among the Dakota people.

1870

Riggs helps establish the first Christian Church in South Dakota on the Sisseton Reservation. A new mission station, called Good Will, serves Christian Dakota exiled from Minnesota after 1862.

1871

Riggs publishes his Dakota translation of the New Testament.

1880

Riggs publishes Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux, a personal memoir of the lifelong work of the Riggs family among the Dakota people in Minnesota, Nebraska, and Dakota Territory from 1837 to 1880.

1883

Riggs dies at Beloit, Wisconsin, on August 24.