WILTZ: Greatness, and not just John Williamson, once lived in our midst

I mentioned in a recent column that my next read would be "John P. Williamson: A Brother to the Sioux" by his daughter Winifred W. Barton. I've since read the book. Because Williamson was instrumental in bringing Christianity to our local area In...

I mentioned in a recent column that my next read would be "John P. Williamson: A Brother to the Sioux" by his daughter Winifred W. Barton. I've since read the book. Because Williamson was instrumental in bringing Christianity to our local area Indian population, the book would be a fitting Christmas topic.

If five readers wrote this report, we would have five different renditions. I've decided to discuss the things that stand out in my mind, and I took no notes as I read. In thinking about today's subject matter, I realize that I'm heavy on history and light on church organization. Much of the story takes place at the Yankton agency in Greenwood. The Bartons ran a mercantile business in Wagner until Jessie, Winifred's husband, died in 1943. Both are buried in the Wagner cemetery.

Williamson's success can be attributed to hard work, honesty, wisdom, toughness and intelligence. The Indian people trusted him and demanded that he be their interpreter in dealings with the government. Williamson often went to Washington on behalf of the Indian people, where he became a trusted friend of presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Grover Cleveland. Sitting Bull, Red Cloud and Struck by the Ree were also among his close friends. I would love to have known him. Williamson resided at the Greenwood Yankton Agency from 1866 to 1917 -- the year of his death. Now, for some anecdotes.

When Lewis and Clark stopped at the mouth of the James River in August 1804 to meet with the Sioux, they learned that a baby had just been born. They called for the baby, wrapped him in an American flag and proclaimed him a U.S. citizen. That infant was Struck by the Ree.

At the beginning of the Minnesota Sioux outbreak and massacre of 1862, runners were sent to the Yanktons to ask that they take part in the killing of the whites. These were to include the settlements of Yankton, Vermillion, Bon Homme and the settlers along the Big Sioux and James rivers. Chief Old Strike, as he was called by the author, called for a council. Struck by the Ree persuaded his council not to join their Santee brothers in the massacre, and the runners were sent home with that message. Old Strike changed the course of history. He is buried at Greenwood. I have to wonder if the proximity of Fort Randall would have had an effect if Old Strike had taken the war path.


When Sitting Bull surrendered himself at Fort Buford in 1881, he was incarcerated at Fort Randall for two years. He and Williamson had become friends during this time, and Williamson was instrumental in Sitting Bull's release, hoping the Standing Rock's Major McLaughlin would look after his needs. Unfortunately, Sitting Bull was later murdered at his Bullhead home by Indian police. While at Randall, Sitting Bull had the freedom to visit area friends including the Williamson family.

In 1914, a meeting for the purpose of building a new church at Greenwood was held. John Williamson lived to see the excavation of the new brick church, but not its completion. The congregation, not a board, paid the entire $11,000 cost of the new structure.

At the time of the Treaty of 1859, 2,600 Yankton Sioux moved to their new reservation. It extended 30 miles along the northeast side of the Missouri River and north to an east-west line south of today's Highway 18.

At about the same time the new church was being built, the reservation was broken up into separate parcels owned by individual Indian members. Many of these individuals could and did sell their land to white settlers. There was great prosperity for the sellers for a short time, and these people were very generous. This is how the church was paid for. With the disassembly of reservation land, no longer was there a need for a chief. It was also the beginning of the end of the Yankton Sioux Reservation

I found the subject of transportation interesting. The railroads were a part as Williamson played a key role in securing railroad right-of-ways across reservation land. Stagecoach routes were mentioned as well as the part played by steam-driven river boats. Most amazing, however, was man's willingness to walk. Walking 50 miles in a day was not unusual. Some could walk 75 miles in a day. Also mentioned was Williamson's paddling a canoe from the mouth of American Creek (Chamberlain) to the Yankton agency at Greenwood in one day.

I hope you found interesting what I mentioned today. There is so much more. I do know that I'm going to head down to Greenwood to look at graves, building sites and the church.

I would have liked to attend a Christmas Eve at Rev. Williamson's Greenwood church. A month before Christmas, a committee of four men and four women were elected to arrange the celebration including hymns, prayer, décor, gifts, food, a decorated cedar tree and the Christmas message. Imagine a setting of candle light, the glow and scent of a wood stove. Apples became a feast with everyone stuffing themselves. The children received a sack of candy, and everyone received a modest gift. With that, I want to wish all of my readers a happy and holy Christmas.

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