Thomas Smith was born in March, 1800, in Union District, South Carolina, to Rev. William and Mary (Smith) Williamson. His father was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Fair Forest. In 1805, the family moved to Adams County, Ohio where Thomas studied in local schools in preparation for Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. The next step for him was medical school because he wanted to become a physician. After a time studying in Cincinnati, he transferred to New Haven where he received the degree of Doctor of Medicine from Yale in the spring of 1824. The new physician returned to Ohio to start practicing medicine in West Union but in a short time he moved to Ripley to continue his practice for about eight years. In 1827, he married Margaret Poage who was the daughter of Col. James Poage. During the next six years the Williamsons had three children but all three died, with two of them passing away in just a few months of each other. The three-fold tragedy of death contributed greatly to Thomas’s decision to enter the ministry; he had experienced the saving grace of God while in college and longed to become a missionary of that gracious message to the American Indians.
In the spring of 1833, the physician of bodies placed himself under the care of Chillicothe Presbytery to study theology for the purpose of becoming a physician of souls. Dr. Williamson left medicine and spent a year in Lane Theological Seminary studying divinity before he was licensed to preach in 1834. He then made a survey tour of the Indians of the Upper Mississippi to find where he could best serve as a missionary. The native Dakotas drew his attention. Licentiate Williamson reported back to Chillicothe Presbytery regarding his desire to minister to the Dakotas, which led to his ordination on September 18, 1834, to minister with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). The Williamsons, accompanied by his wife’s sister, Miss Mary Poage, and by the Alexander G. Huggins family, departed Ripley on April 1, 1835 and arrived at Fort Snelling via steamboat, May 16. The fort was located at the confluence of the Mississippi River and the St. Peter’s River, which is currently the Minnesota River.
During the Williamsons’ few weeks of adjustment and logistical preparation for their ministry among the Dakotas, they remained inside the protection of Fort Snelling. The arrival of missionary Williamson to the frontier provided the opportunity to organize the first Presbyterian congregation in the area that would later become the state of Minnesota. The organizational service was held on Thursday, June 11, 1835, with Rev. Williamson presiding. The nineteen members were organized as the Presbyterian Church at St. Peters with four elders, one of whom was the commander of Fort Snelling, Major G. A. Loomis. Kenneth Lawson’s book about Major Loomis notes that Williamson would later conduct the wedding ceremony for the Loomis’ daughter, Eliza Edna, when she married Lt. Edward A. Ogden. It was the first marriage service with a clergyman officiating in what would become the state of Minnesota. The first Presbyterian congregation in Minnesota was organized and met in a U. S. Government fortification manned and protected by the U. S. Army.
The Williamson party left the security of Fort Snelling with fur trader Joseph Renville as their guide into the frontier to settle in their place of ministry among the Dakotas. On June 23, they boarded a boat owned by a fur trading company to travel on the St. Peter’s River to Traverse des Sioux, where they left the boat and walked about 125 miles to Lac qui Parle (Lake that Talks) arriving at their destination on July 9, 1835.
The Williamsons settled in the area and began their ministry to 400 impoverished Dakotas living in only a half dozen houses in a village. Other Indians were being helped to some degree by the Federal Government, but these Sioux were so remotely located that help was not provided. Dr. Williamson worked diligently studying the Dakota language. However, to learn the language of his mission field he first learned French because it was commonly used in the area and because the French had been writing about the Dakota for years. Often, missionaries tried to communicate with the Dakotas through interpreters, but Williamson believed it was essential to learn the language of the people not only for conversation, but also so he could communicate the Word of God in the vernacular. It would take over forty years for him and his ministry colleagues, Gideon H. Pond and Stephen R. Riggs, to translate into Dakota the Bible from the Hebrew and Greek originals. It was not long before the missionaries saw fruit from their work. By May 1836, three Dakotas had been received into the church, then in May 1839 ten more professed their faith, five were added in 1840, nine more in 1841, and then nine again in 1842. In the winter of 1862-63, Dr. Williamson walked every Saturday to Mankato from his home to preach to four hundred Dakota men who were imprisoned by the government during a recent war. In February 1863, Rev. Williamson and Rev. Gideon H. Pond baptized three hundred of the prisoners who had come to believe the gospel.
When the Old School and New School division of the PCUSA took place in 1837, Rev. Williamson’s ministry laboring under the authority of Chillicothe Presbytery of the Synod of Cincinnati with ABCFM initially brought him into the New School. However, Chillicothe Presbytery continued as an Old School presbytery once the contested issues between the Schools during the first two years of the split were tenuously settled; each side of the division was claiming the same presbyteries in several cases. A survey of the New School Assembly minutes has no mention of Dr. Williamson until 1860 when he was enrolled a commissioner from Dakota Presbytery of the Synod of Minnesota, which had been added to the list of synods in 1858. He was listed in 1860 as a member of the Standing Committee for Foreign Missions. He represented the Dakota Presbytery in the Assembly again in 1868. In 1870, the minutes for the reunited church show that enrollment included the former New School Synod of Minnesota with its four presbyteries in the PCUSA.
Dr. Williamson had presided at the organization of the first church in Minnesota, so he led the proceedings for the organization of the Synod of Minnesota at St. Paul in 1858. He delivered his sermon from the text, Deuteronomy 8:2, “And thou shalt remember all the ways which the Lord thy God led thee.” The passage was applied as he recounted the history of his early missionary work among the Dakotas. After telling about many experiences of trial, danger, and want, sometimes bordering on starvation, he recounted the divine goodness to him and his associates. The Foreign Missionary of August, 1879, recorded his words for posterity.
However weak and unfaithful we have been, we must testify that the Lord who sent us has faithfully fulfilled to us all his promises. When he has caused us to pass through the waters, he has been with us, and the rivers, though deep, have not overflowed us; when the flaming prairie has threatened to consume us, we have walked through the fire and have not been burnt.
When we have called upon him in the day of trouble, he has ever shown himself a God who hears and answers prayer.
When assailed by deadly weapons, a hand not ours has arrested or turned aside the knife or arrow intended to reach our vitals, and we have been kept from violence, and enabled to return good for evil. Further, when all about us have been alarmed, he has fulfilled the promise, “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flies by day” [Psalm 91:5]; and when our neighbors have been unable to sleep protected by a guard of armed men, we have slept soundly, guarded only by the Shepherd of Israel.
Reverend and Physician Thomas Smith Williamson died June 23, 1879. It is noted in the inscription on his grave marker in Green Lawn Cemetery in Nicollet County, Minnesota, that was for 45 years a missionary to the Indians. For historical perspective, it was in June 1876 that Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his troops fought at the Little Bighorn where they were killed by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. During Rev. Williamson’s ministry he found himself bringing the gospel to the Dakotas, having concern for their welfare, interceding with government authorities on their behalf, and founding churches, but at the same time he did not condone their actions when they fought with other Indians or the U. S. Army.
Notes—The image of the title page of the history of First Church, Minneapolis, is included to add visual interest and because of the unusual title. The book has some information on the Ft. Snelling Church. Minnesota achieved statehood on May 11, 1858. G. A. Loomis, who was an elder in the Fort Snelling Church, has had a biography written about him by Chaplain Kenneth E. Lawson, Christ and Country: A Biography of Brigadier General Gustavus Loomis, Greenville, SC: Ambassador International, 2011. The General Assembly (GA) minutes of the New School (NS) are available in digital form online. It should be noted that the NS minutes are not as complete as those of the Old School (OS). There are points in the succession of minutes where the NS GA met at two or three year intervals. The published NS minutes do not have a list of the ministers within the denomination as is often the case in the OS minutes.
Sources—R. J. Creswell, Among the Sioux: A Story of the Twin Cities and the Two Dakotas, Minneapolis: University Press, 1906. The grave marker inscription for Dr. Williamson was read from a photograph by Steve Krahn taken on Oct. 22, 2011, as on the Find a Grave website and as pictured in this biography. Stephen R. Riggs’s In Memory of Rev. Thos. S. Williamson, M. D. was originally published in The New York Evangelist, July 17, 1879, and was reprinted as a pamphlet; it was a helpful source and particularly beneficial because it was written by a missionary colleague. It includes a brief tribute by Williamson’s son, A. W. Williamson.