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Williamson, Jane Smith (1803–1895)

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Photogravure of Jane Williamson, undated.

Photogravure of Jane Williamson, undated. Reproduced in “What Israel Ought to Do,” a Sermon on Home Missionary Work in Minnesota, by Rev. Wm. C. Covert, October 12, 1899. Jane Williamson is the only woman pictured in this overview of Presbyterian missionaries in the early years of the Dakota Mission. The photograph from which this photogravure was made has never been located and its date is unknown.

Jane Williamson was a schoolteacher and anti-slavery activist in Ohio before she came to the Presbyterian Dakota Mission at Lac qui Parle in 1843. She spent the remaining fifty-two years of her life working with Dakota people.

Jane began teaching school in Manchester and West Union, Ohio, in the 1820s, when she was a teenager. Slavery was against the law in Ohio at that time. Directly across the Ohio River in Kentucky, however, it was legal. Many enslaved people risked their lives crossing the river to reach the Ohio side, where they could be free.

The Williamson family had been involved in the Underground Railroad since 1805, helping fugitives escape from slavery. Jane welcomed the children of former enslaved people to her classroom, even when men from Kentucky tried to recapture them at every opportunity. At times, armed guards from Jane's family and her father's church had to surround the school to protect her and the children.

When Jane was eleven years old, her mother died. She lived with her father and stepmother until her father passed away in 1839. Four years later, she left behind her school and family in Ohio at the age of forty. Her brother, Rev. Dr. Thomas Williamson, worked at the Dakota mission at Lac qui Parle with his wife, Margaret. Jane joined them there in 1843, intending to help with their growing family.

After moving to the mission, Jane learned the Dakota language and taught at the mission school. Her students called her Dowan Duta Win, or Red Song Woman, because her favored method of teaching was to translate English hymns into Dakota and instruct the students by singing the words. Called “Aunt Jane” by her fellow missionaries, she was less than five feet tall. She was known for her habit of giving cakes and nuts to her students from her apron pockets.

In 1846, the Williamsons moved their ministry to the Dakota village of Kaposia on the Mississippi River in what is now South St. Paul. In 1851, the Dakota sold their land on the west side of the Mississippi River to the US government and moved to a reservation. The Williamsons accompanied the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands to their new location along the Minnesota River in western Minnesota Territory. There, they established a new mission the Williamsons called Pajutazee (after the Dakota place name Pejuhutazizi Kapi: the place where they dig for yellow medicine).

On August 18, 1862, a faction of the Dakota attacked the Lower Sioux Agency. It was the first organized incident of the US–Dakota War of 1862. Thomas and Margaret sent their children and grandchildren away with others attempting to escape, then followed two days later with Jane. They all made it safely to St. Peter thanks to the assistance of several Dakota men who were members of the mission church: Simon Anawangmani, Robert Hopkins Caskedan, Lorenzo Lawrence, Paul Mazekutemani, and Peter Tapetatanka.

After the war ended in September, a US military commission sentenced 303 Dakota men to death. They were imprisoned in Mankato, where Jane and Thomas ministered to them. Jane received permission to bring the men pencils and paper so they could write to their families. She wrote letters to President Abraham Lincoln on behalf of Robert Hopkins Caskedan and Peter Tapetatanka that helped bring about the stay of their death sentences. Lincoln later pardoned both men.

On December 26, 1862, thirty-eight of the men were executed at Mankato. In the spring, the remaining prisoners were moved to Davenport, Iowa. Thomas followed and continued to serve them. Back in St. Peter, Jane welcomed several of her Dakota former students into her home while they attended school in the area.

By the mid-1880s, Thomas and Margaret had passed away. Jane began having trouble with her eyesight, and it became difficult for her to live alone. John Williamson, Thomas and Margaret’s oldest son, was in charge of the Dakota Mission on the Yankton Reservation in Greenwood, South Dakota. He brought Jane to live with him and his family. It was there that she spent the final years of her life among the Dakota people to whom she remained devoted.

Jane Williamson died on March 24, 1895. She is buried in the cemetery at Greenwood, South Dakota. A Daughters of the American Revolution emblem, awarded to her in honor of her father’s participation in the Revolutionary War, adorns her tombstone.

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John Felix Aiton and family papers, 1835–1898
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence, diary entries, school papers, and financial records of Aiton, an early Presbyterian missionary teacher to the Dakota Indians (1848–1855) and Nicollet County farmer (1856–1857, 1861–1892); and the letters of his two wives, Nancy Hunter Aiton and Mary Smith Briggs Aiton.

Barton, Winifred W. John P. Williamson: A Brother to the Sioux. Clements, MN: Sunnycrest, 1980. Reprint of 1919 edition.

Elizabeth (Means) Burgess letters, 1820–1887
Special Collections, Marietta College Library, Marietta, Ohio
Description: Correspondence of Elizabeth Means Voris Burgess, Jane Smith Williamson’s cousin, wife of famed abolitionist Rev. Dyer Burgess.

Evans, Nelson Wiley, and Emmons Buchanan Stivers. A History of Adams County, Ohio: From its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Including Character Sketches of the Prominent Persons Identified with the First Century of the Country’s Growth. West Union, OH: E. B. Stivers, 1900.

Riggs, Stephen Return. Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux. Williamstown, MA: Corner House, 1971.

Stephen R. Riggs and family papers, 1837–1869
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence and miscellaneous papers, including letters to Riggs and Williamson family members.

Willand, Jon. Lac qui Parle and the Dakota Mission. Madison, MN: Lac qui Parle Historical Society, 1964.

Williamson genealogy and collected correspondence, c.1740–Present
Jeff Williamson Private Collection, Rosemount
Description: The collection includes thousands of pages of genealogical and historic information compiled by Jeff Williamson throughout his lifetime.

Williamson Family Papers, 1800–1879
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence, articles, and accounts of this physician who was also a missionary to the Dakota Indians at Lac Qui Parle, Kaposia, and Pajutazee.

Williamson Family Papers, undated–1860s
Manuscript Collection, Dakota Prairie Museum, Aberdeen, South Dakota
Description: Miscellaneous correspondence related to Thomas S. Williamson, John P. Williamson, and other family members.

John Poage Williamson Papers, 1871–1879
Manuscript Collection, South Dakota State Historical Society, Pierre, South Dakota
Description: Miscellaneous correspondence related to Thomas S. Williamson, John P. Williamson, Andrew Williamson, and others.

Related Images

Photogravure of Jane Williamson, undated.
Photogravure of Jane Williamson, undated.
Black and white photograph of Dakota Indians at Williamson home (Pajutazee Mission) near Yellow Medicine, 1862.
Black and white photograph of Dakota Indians at Williamson home (Pajutazee Mission) near Yellow Medicine, 1862.
Color photograph of Jane Smith Williamson’s gravestone
Color photograph of Jane Smith Williamson’s gravestone

Turning Point

In May of 1843, Jane Williamson leaves behind her large, extended family in Ohio, all of whom are involved in the Underground Railroad, to join her brother and sister-in-law in present-day Minnesota, where they are ministering to a small band of Dakota at Lac qui Parle.



Jane Williamson is born in Fair Forest, South Carolina.


Jane’s father, Rev. William Williamson, becomes pastor of three churches: West Union Presbyterian Church in West Union, Ohio; First Presbyterian in Manchester, Ohio; and Ebenezer Presbyterian in Cabin Creek, Kentucky.


Jane’s mother, Mary Webb Smith Williamson, dies when Jane is eleven years old.


Jane and her older brother, Dr. Thomas Smith Williamson, inherit several enslaved people from relatives in South Carolina. After traveling over eight hundred miles on horseback to South Carolina, the siblings bring them to freedom in Ohio.


Jane teaches students in the family’s home, known as The Beeches, in West Union, Ohio. She offers free lessons to the children of freed African Americans.


Thomas Williamson leaves his medical practice in Ripley, Ohio, and comes to Lac qui Parle with his wife, Margaret Poage Williamson, and their one-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.


William Williamson dies in West Union, Ohio. Jane inherits the family home in West Union and continues her work as a teacher.


Jane leaves Ohio and moves to Lac qui Parle, where Thomas and Margaret Williamson have established a Presbyterian mission among the Dakota people.


The Williamsons establish a new Presbyterian mission at the Mdewakanton Dakota village of Kaposia, where Taoyateduta (Little Crow IV) has recently inherited the position of band leader from his father, Wakinyantanka (Big Thunder; Little Crow III).


Jane and the other Williamsons establish a new Dakota mission named Pajutazee on the Yellow Medicine River near present-day Granite Falls.


The US–Dakota War begins in August. Jane and the Williamsons escape to safety in St. Peter. They live and farm on a small piece of land where Thomas has a house built.


Jane brings the condemned Dakota prisoners in Mankato pencils and paper so they can write letters to their wives, mothers, sisters, and other family members held captive at Fort Snelling.


Jane teaches Dakota and white students in her home in St. Peter, bringing several of her former pupils to live with the family and assisting them in obtaining an education.


Jane moves to the Yankton Dakota Reservation in Greenwood, South Dakota, where her nephew, Rev. John Poage Williamson, is the head of the Presbyterian mission.


Jane Williamson dies and is buried in the Dakota Cemetery at Greenwood, South Dakota.