Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mary Riggs and the Dakota War of 1862

            Last week I talked about a few of the pioneer women I’ve “met” who encourage me when I feel discouraged. This week I thought I’d share a little more about one of those women and how her story ended up in one of my stories. Her name was Mary Longley Riggs. I “met” her one day when I was browsing biographies at the library. An old book drew my attention, “oldstufflover” that I am. The title gave me goosebumps. I’d been researching the Dakota War of 1862, but I’d finished for the day, browsing and creating an ever more impossible “I want to read this someday” list. (Do you have one of those? I bet we all do.)
            Well. That old book? Mary and I, Forty Years with the Sioux, an autobiographical account of Mary and Stephen Return Riggs, who “just happened” to be a missionaries among the Dakota Sioux during the Dakota War of 1862. Within the pages of that book, I met yet another woman who is on my list of “invite her to coffee in heaven someday.”  (Do you have a list like that, too? Mine keeps getting longer. But I’ll have time. Ha.)
            What made me admire Mrs. Riggs more than anything was the fact that she willingly stepped WAY out of her personal “comfort zone” to answer God’s call on her life. She’d attended schools in Massachusetts and begun to teach when only sixteen years old. Eventually, though, she was teaching “in the west” when “the west” meant Ohio. In Ohio she met Stephen Riggs. The couple eventually journeyed into “the far west” and begin housekeeping in a 10 x 18 foot room on the upper level of a log dwelling at Lac Qui Parle, Minnesota. Mary wrote, “We fixed it up with loose boards overhead, and quilts nailed up to the rafters, and improvised a bedstead … that room we made our home for five winters … there our first three children were born … and there, with what help I could obtain, I prepared for the printer the greater part of the New Testament in the language of the Dakotas.”
            The work of white missionaries among Native Americans is a subject of controversy, and I understand that, but I still admire Mary Riggs. The Riggses didn’t force their students to abandon their language. Instead, they translated God’s Word and wrote text books in Dakota. Dakota men risked their lives to see the Riggses to safety during the Dakota War. Those heroic efforts inspired me to create Daniel Two Stars, the Dakota hero of my Dakota Moons series.
            Mary Riggs had a difficult time learning another language. She was made fun of more than once for it. That had to have been hard for a young woman who had once taught school in Ohio. Her first home in Minnesota burned to the ground, but Native women came to help, sharing what they had with the young mother from a different world. Mary Riggs raised several children, most of whom also became missionaries—a daughter to China and others among Native Americans in the West.

            A few years ago, I received a call from a member of the Gideon Pond Society, asking me to come to Minnesota and speak on my research (Agnes and Gideon Pond were early missionaries in the area as well). It’s a great memory, and I’m thrilled that my three novels, which have been out of print for a long time, will soon be back IN print and available as ebooks. (Valley of the Shadow, Edge of the Wilderness, and Heart of the Sandhills all feature Genevieve LaCroix, a half-French, half-Dakota student at the Dakota Missions and her true love, Daniel Two Stars.)

Here’s Kitty parked in front of the Gideon Pond House in Minneapolis. What would Mrs. Riggs and Mrs. Pond have thought of that!

Hope your Father's Day weekend is going well and that our Heavenly Father blesses your day.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Public speaking and the historical fiction author

Stephanie will be sharing her presentation "Calico Trails in Falls City, Nebraska, on Tuesday, June 12.
Falls City Library & Arts Center
1400 Stone Street
Falls City, Nebraska.
 Supper at 5:30 (call 402/245-2913 to make a reservation) 
or come to the library at 7:00 p.m. for the free presentation

The first time someone asked me if I did public speaking as a writer, I was shocked. Of course not. I’m a historical fiction author. I hide in the library and study dead people. And then I play—alone—with imaginary friends to write a story based on the people I’ve “met”—alone—at the library. Or the museum. Or the historical society archives.

Eventually, though, I realized that I had, after all, led women’s Bible studies at church on occasion, and maybe I should give it a try. Why not take the opportunity to share what God has done in my life? So I developed my personal testimony as my first talk. I called it “A Patchwork Life,” and I used some of my old quilts to illustrate the talk—not only as a visual aid, but also as a way to make people look at something besides the speaker shaking in her boots over being up in front of a bunch of strangers.

Many writers—perhaps most of the writers I know—are actually introverts. Oh, they write and lecture and teach, but they get their energy from being alone. Since writers spend a lot of time alone, that’s probably a good thing, but it also fools a lot of people about who we really all when no one is watching. Happy to be alone. Not just at peace with silence but often energized by it.

This next Tuesday evening, I’m taking my “show on the road” so to speak and giving my Calico Trails presentation at the Falls City, Nebraska, Library and Arts Center. This is one of my favorite talks, because it includes LOTS of quilts and hence, less of me in the spotlight. I get to share what pioneer women’s lives were like in their own words, sharing some of the things I’ve read in their diaries and reminiscences over the years, and once again I’ll get to celebrate the women who have encouraged me, all the way from the 19th century.

Couldn't resist getting out of the car and taking this photo in Kansas. 
Martha Mott wrote home, asking if her parents might have some old clothes they could send her so she could make her little boy a coat. And then apologized for bothering them. I discovered her letters home in the archive here in Nebraska, and delighted as I met a sister in Christ who spoke often of her faith in a personal God. Of praying for rain, and praising God when it came. Or  didn’t. Grandmother Newton worked the farm alone while her beloved husband was away during the Civil War, and then wrote of making thirty-one quilts to give her descendents as “something to remember me by.” Her great grandson lovingly preserved her letters and entrusted them to me for a season of study. Katie Maze ended up using the box her father had made for her kitchen utensils as a casket for a child she lost to diphtheria. I bought her out of print memoir from a rare book dealer, and then enjoyed the serendipity of seeing a quilt she made in a local collection. Emily Carpenter  wrote in her diary, “Huldah sick and I care nothing about cattle.” (Emily’s family was making the trek west with a sizeable herd of cattle.) I read a fragment of Emily’s diary tucked into an archival file named for someone else.

Miss Mary Longfellow, Custer County, Nebraska
courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society
I once had a friend who said that if it had been up to her to settle the American West, we’d all still be in Boston drinking tea. The more I learn about the women of the 19th century West, the more I am inclined to agree with her. I’m a hardy soul, but I have my limits … and I think life in a sod house on a rainy day with a sick baby would have reached it. Except, of course, for God’s grace, which enabled those women, just as it enables me today. And that’s what I love about learning about the women of the past. They encourage me. They give me perspective. They remind me that, as poet Roy Lessin wrote, “The God who helped you in the past, is the one who’s faithful still.”

If you can join me in Falls City, Nebraska, please do! Falls City Library & Arts Center, 1400 Stone Street, Falls City, Nebraska. Supper at 5:30 (call 402/245-2913 to make a reservation) or come to the library at 7:00 p.m. for the free presentation. I’d love to meet you and introduce you to a few of the real women who continue to inspire my imaginary friends.

If you love reading about the real women of the past, try the Covered Wagon Women collection of actual Oregon Trail Diaries. Or No Time on My Hands, Grace Snyder’s memoir. Or something by historians Lillian Schlissel or Joanna Stratton. If you’re like me, you’ll be newly grateful for your dishwasher, your doctor, your refrigerator, your furnace, your spider spray, and light bulbs. I’m really thankful for light bulbs. And indoor plumbing. And … those women who endured.