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November 8, 2007

Alexander G. Huggins Diary and Huggins Family Photographs

Filed under: What's New — Matt Anderson @ 1:29 pm

The Minnesota Historical Society has recently acquired a collection of materials so exceedingly rare that one wonders how they survived and where they have been. The collection, created from the 1830s to the 1860s by missionary Alexander Huggins and his family, was recently discovered in an estate sale in Palo Alto, California.

Huggins DiaryIn 1835, Thomas S. Williamson and Alexander G. Huggins organized the Dakota mission at Lac qui Parle on the Minnesota River. This was west of and well beyond “the thin fringe of white settlement” around Fort Snelling. Until now it was not known that Huggins kept a diary of his daily life. This diary offers an extraordinary glimpse into lives of the Dakota in this area and is therefore a potential treasure trove for scholars. The diary deals with Dakota customs, such as making “holes” in children’s ears and Huggins’s invitation to a “dog feast.” There is a great deal of information on the interactive economy between the missionaries and the Dakota: Huggins writes of buying deerskins, trading bread and butter for ducks, and exchanging shirts for buffalo tongue. The Dakota language was crucial to Huggins’s work. He discusses meeting with Wamdiokiya or Eagle Help, the first Dakota man to learn English, in order to determine the correct spelling of Dakota words, and he writes about preaching in Dakota. There are references to prairie fires, buffalo hunts, and descriptions of Dakota guides and villages, all interspersed with a wonderful cast of Dakota people whose names have not been well known to historians.

For historians of the American West, the most interesting parts of the diary may well be Huggins’s entries narrating two of his travels. The first was a seventeen-day trip from Fort Snelling to Lac qui Parle in 1835. The Huggins family traveled with the family of Dr. Thomas S. Williamson up the Minnesota River, first on the American Fur Company’s Mackinaw boat, then by oxcart from Traverse des Sioux to Joseph Renville’s stockade at the lake. Huggins’s diary also beautifully documents a thirty-day trip across the prairie from Lac qui Parle to Fort Pierre on the “Missourie” in present-day South Dakota. Stephen Riggs accompanied Huggins on this trip and published an account in his book Mary and I…, but his text is far more prosaic.   

A smaller diary kept by Alexander’s son Amos, who was killed during the Dakota War, and an autograph book kept by his daughter Mary are also part of the collection acquired by the MHS. Even more exciting are three carte de visite albums and twelve daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes with images of all of these Presbyterian missionary families. Many images are identified and are entirely new to historians. Scholars are already hoping to identify the others using internal clues.        

The MHS library already holds rich collections supporting the material in this acquisition. We have a collection of papers from the Huggins family, as well as papers of the three other well-known missionary families: the Riggses, Ponds, and Williamsons. Many of these families lost their papers while fleeing the Dakota War in 1862. We also have early material created by the Dakota including letters written to the government and between family members. The acquisition of these new Huggins papers provides a deep and powerful new perspectives on both whites and Dakota people at a time of great change in Minnesota’s history.

Thanks to the many individual donors who made this acquisition possible.

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