Keys to the ancient faith

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For a musical family on the Plains of South Dakota, it was a tragedy that left ashes in the soul – not just that a fire on Nov. 26, 1898, burned down the log house at Oahe Mission north of Pierre, but also that it destroyed the Steinway Grand Piano inside.

It was that same Steinway that had traveled up the Missouri River by steamboat for Nina, the first wife of missionary Thomas L. Riggs, in the early 1870s when the Missouri River country was still Dakota Territory. It supplied just the right tone, full and powerful, to fill that big empty space in the grassland. It helped carry the message of the ancient faith to Dakota and Lakota converts through music.

Very likely it was on the Steinway that Nina taught her first son, Theodore Foster Riggs, what a piano sounded like after he was born in 1874; probably it was a silent reminder of Thomas Riggs’ grief when Nina died in childbirth in August 1878. In spring 1885, when Louisa Irvine Riggs, also with a love for music, moved into the log home at Oahe Mission as the second Mrs. Riggs, the Steinway sat along one wall; and she started to play.

And now, in November 1898, it was burned to cinders.

Three months without music

The quiet was too much – the Riggs family couldn’t live long without music.

Scarcely more than three months after the fire, on March 3, 1899, Thomas Riggs’ second wife, Louisa, writes to her step-son, Theodore, in medical school in Baltimore – the T.F. Riggs for whom the high school in Pierre is named – and explains the situation:

“We are going to order a piano: an Ivers and Pond, which we can use until we are wealthy enough to buy another Steinway, and then turn over to the school. The former is a good instrument, and a St. Paul house makes a special reduction on the price, so that we get a $500 instrument for $320 … Your father thinks we can pay $160 down, and the balance on the monthly installment plan. I am going to give $10 of my salary each month toward it.”

But Louisa is mistaken: They never buy another Steinway. It turns out the Ivers & Pond, too, had just the right tone to fill that big empty place in the grassland – not so full and powerful, but strikingly sweet – one that could serve just as well as a Steinway through the years. It had a place in the new home they built in 1902 to replace the log home that had burned.

Congregation’s gift to State Historical Society

And now, more than a hundred years after the Riggs family of Congregational missionaries brought that Boston-made piano to the middle of South Dakota, the First Congregational Church in Pierre has donated it to the South Dakota State Historical Society.

“It’s a way to keep the history alive where it can be shared,” said the Rev. Susan Carr, the pastor of the congregation.

She added that, much as the congregation likes having that reminder of the Riggs family on its premises, its church facility lacks the temperature and humidity controls that the State Historical Society has. That makes the Historical Society’s collection a better home for an old piano.

“We want to keep it in good condition. We feel an obligation to do that,” Carr said.

Added to the collection

Dan Brosz, curator of collections for the South Dakota State Historical Society, said there are now more than 33,000 artifacts from state history in the society’s holdings – including one Ivers & Pond piano.

“It’s an important piece,” Brosz said. “The Riggs family had such a huge impact in the state, especially in this region, that any connection with them is a strong story to tell. The other thing is simply that it’s a beautiful piece.”

Brosz said the piano is important because music was an important part of the Riggs family’s work conveying the Christian faith to converts among the Dakota and Lakota people. Thomas Lawrence Riggs had started mission work among the Tetons at Fort Sully, Dakota Territory, in 1872, and in December that year, married Nina Foster of Bangor, Maine. She followed him to the mission field the following spring, and doubtless the old Steinway piano made its journey by riverboat to Dakota soon after – perhaps when the Riggs family moved to Peoria Bottom in November 1874.

“Music and pianos were there at the start,” Brosz said.

Keeping culture alive

But the Riggs family didn’t only try to pass on the Christian faith. They worked to preserve Native American culture as well and make it accessible to others.

Stephen Return Riggs published a grammar and dictionary of the Dakota language in 1852. Ten years later, during the Dakota uprising of 1862 in Minnesota, Stephen Return Riggs and his family depended on the Christian converts among the Dakota people for protection. Their friends hid them on an island in the Minnesota River until they could flee to safety that night. In 1871, Riggs published a translation of the New Testament into Dakota.

Bev Huckins, a member of First Congregational Church in Pierre, said he’s more famous in central South Dakota for preaching the first sermon to the Indian people in their own language. It happened in 1840, when Stephen Return Riggs made a two-week journey on horseback from a mission station at Lac-qui-parle, Minnesota, to the Missouri River near present-day Pierre. There he crossed the river to the busy trading post of Fort Pierre Chouteau, where 40 or 50 tipis of the Tetons were camped.

Riggs later wrote that his party “gathered a good deal of information in regard to the western bands of the Sioux nation; we communicated something to them of the object of our missionary work and of the good news of salvation.”

When the First Congregational Church built its present building in Pierre in 1932, it included a stained glass window celebrating that moment when Stephen Return Riggs first preached to the Sioux people of Dakota Territory in their own language.

Thomas L. Riggs, already at home in the Dakota language from growing up among the eastern Sioux, carried on his father’s work after he moved permanently to the Oahe area. His first wife, Nina, died in childbirth. Thomas Riggs married again in 1885, this time to Margaret Louisa Irvine, one of the workers at the Oahe Mission. She was already acquainted with Native American culture because her father had been an officer at nearby Fort Sully; but she learned more by living for a time with Elisabeth Winyan, an Indian woman who taught her Dakota ways.

After the fire

After that 1898 fire, the Riggs family lived at what was called the Industrial Boarding School Building for six weeks, then at what they called “The Cottage.” It was simply two small buildings with a hallway running between them. But Thomas L. Riggs began building a fine home in the river bottom in the meantime that was finished in 1902, and it’s there the piano eventually came to make its home.

But first it made the long journey from St. Paul to Pierre, probably by railroad. And Louisa’s letters to T.F. Riggs make it clear that getting the piano the last few miles by horse and team was a matter of weeks, not days.

On March 24, 1899, she wrote: “A postal announcing the arrival of the piano in Pierre came in Saturday’s mail.”

On April 17, 1899: “The piano has not yet been brought out from town.”

On May 2, 1899: “Have I written you about the new piano? When your father and the boys went to town about ten days ago, they brought it out – it was rather top-heavy in its case, as it is an upright, but I believe they had no difficulty on the way. They returned Thursday evening, and Friday your father and Mr. Sorenson brought the piano into the house … On Saturday I let the school children come over by detachments to see the instrument and I played for them. ‘The Storm’ was called for by each set! The piano is a very sweet tone, not so full nor powerful as the old one, but very good for any ordinary sized room. The case is plain, the only carving is on the panels of the front over the keyboard. The wood is mahogany.”

Leaving the mission

Doubtless it was that piano that helped set Lawrence Riggs, the youngest son of Thomas and Louisa Riggs, on a musical journey. Born in July 1889 in what was still Dakota Territory, that youngest son of the family must have had lessons on the Steinway at first, then on the Ivers & Pond. Later, as a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Beloit College, he became a Rhodes Scholar, studying music at Lincoln College at Oxford University in England.

Meanwhile, Thomas and Louisa Riggs went on with the work as best they could in a world where geopolitics reached even to the middle of South Dakota.

“They closed the school in 1914 – because of the war, probably,” Huckins said. “He continued his mission to the Dakota and Lakota people. Thomas Riggs, the Congregationalist missionary to the Sioux people, died in 1940.

After several posts in teaching music, son Lawrence Riggs returned to the Riggs Ranch in 1950. That old friend, the Ivers & Pond, was still there; but his mother was showing her age. Louisa Riggs died in 1951.

In 1956 Lawrence Riggs moved to Pierre, shortly before the closure of the Oahe Dam, bringing the piano with him to a house on Prospect Avenue. He later gave it to the First Congregational Church. But in keeping with its original purpose, for many years the congregation allowed it to be moved to the Oahe Chapel each summer for interdenominational church services, weddings and funerals, moving it back to the church each winter.

The Rev. Susan Carr, the pastor of First Congregational Church, noted that the congregation’s act of donating the piano – it was formally given to the State Historical Society in December – involved delving into the history of the Oahe Mission. They lingered over those passages in the Riggs letters that tell about Louisa using this same piano to teach songs to some of the Lakota children at the Oahe Mission.

The underlying message for a congregation that will celebrate its 135th anniversary in 2015? Some things are still worth singing about here on the Great Plains.

“Our mission in ministry is still related to what the Riggs family began here so many years before,” Carr said.