He’s the young medical doctor from the United States who not only speaks German with the physicians he visits in Germany and Switzerland, but also tries out on his hosts another language that has the names of buttes and Plains rivers hidden in it – Dakota.
Though he’s not quite as fluent as his father, pioneer missionary Thomas L. Riggs, it’s likely that Theodore Foster Riggs speaks it largely without an accent as he visits doctors in Berlin and Berne. He’s been speaking it since he was a toddler.
Later, in England, the famous brain surgeon Sir Victor Horsley lets young Riggs watch an operation and then invites him to tea in order to learn more about the American Indians of whom he’s heard so much.
“When he learned that my parents had been missionaries among the Dakota (Sioux) Indians and that I had been born in an Indian village and that after my mother’s death had traveled extensively with my father as we visited his out stations, spending two winters in native teepees among the followers of Sitting Bull, he seemed truly interested,” the doctor wrote afterward. “He then quizzed me as to my later education, my choice of medicine and medical school, and my post-graduate experience.”
Sir Victor Horsley would have been even more interested if he had asked the young American doctor about his future plans, because the young physician – even after visiting some of the great medical centers of Europe – doesn’t foresee an urban practice.
Theodore F. Riggs, a 1903 graduate of Johns Hopkins Medical School, doubtless had it in mind already that he would be returning home one day to little Pierre, South Dakota, population 3,000. It’s the same place where he’s already learned to rope coyotes, ride like an Indian and shoot like a marksman.
And of course he speaks the language.
It’s that same T.F. Riggs for whom the Pierre High School is named after it’s built during the mid-1950s. Principal Kevin Mutchelknauss said the school was named for him in part because T.F. Riggs served a full 30 years on the Pierre School Board, from 1927 to 1957. Riggs was president of the school board in 1931-32 and again for a long span of years from 1940-54.
Ollie Redden of Pierre said T.F. Riggs’ stature in the community was not just from his work with the school board, but also because of his role as a highly skilled surgeon at St. Mary’s Hospital. Redden remembers, for instance, when the father of one of his friends would have lost his arm in a threshing machine accident if Riggs had not managed to save it.
Riggs was so highly regarded as a surgeon that he was offered, but turned down, positions with the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins University. He took pride in the fact that St. Mary’s Hospital grow from serving 133 patients in 1904, before his time, to 462 in 1914; to 1,042 in 1924; 2,108 in 1934; 2,980 in 1944; and 4,637 in 1954, the year of his retirement.
Redden adds that the Riggs family was also known for its progressive ranch up in the Peoria Flats area. The family used irrigation ditches until a tornado in the early 1940s wrecked their enormous pump and destroyed the building around it.
“They had a big ranch up there. They had registered Herefords. They had a bull sale every fall,” Redden said.
Local historian Ken Stewart of the South Dakota State Historical Society said T.F. Riggs invested a great deal of effort making life better for people – something the Riggs family’s strong Congregational Church roots always emphasized.
“The term ‘Christian’ is sometimes over-used, but in their case, it’s perfectly valid,” Stewart said.
And, he adds, T.F. Riggs was a true community man.
“He was a great believer in education and always a promoter of Pierre and this area,” Stewart said.
Where he belonged
It’s an area that had already laid claim to his family some decades before when his grandfather, Stephen Return Riggs, made the fateful choice to move from Ohio to Minnesota with his bride to begin learning the Dakota language. It was the first step to building a grammar and dictionary of the Dakota language, a work he finished in 1852, and ultimately it led to Riggs’ 1871 translation of the New Testament into Dakota. And it influenced the family’s course for generations to come.
T.F. Riggs wrote all about growing up in that family later in a book he published in 1961, A Log House was Home: South Dakota Stories for My Two Boys.
“Stephen Return came to the Missouri River country in 1840 and crossed the river in a ‘bull-boat,’ a round, bowl-shaped affair made of buffalo hide stretched on a frame made of ash saplings. The crossing was from the river bank at the end of Snake Butte to the western shore where at that time the American Fur Company had a stockade trading post called Fort Pierre Chouteau,” T.F. Riggs, the grandson, wrote. “Here he preached a sermon which is memorialized by the
beautiful window now in the Congregational Church in Pierre.”
The Place of the Large House
The Riggs family had been committed to the Missouri River country from that moment on.
“According to reliable information I was born on July 7, 1874, in a log mission station in the Dakota village called Oiglapta. This, freely translated, means: ‘Help yourself.’ The village was on the western side of the Missouri about three miles down from Fort Sully,” T.F. Riggs later wrote.
When T.F. Riggs was still small, his father began building the mission at Ti Tanka Ohe, bringing his wife, Cornelia Foster Riggs, and baby there in November 1874.
“This is the place where I grew up and around which so many of my boyhood memories are associated. At the formal closing of the Oahe Dam on August 3, 1958, former Governor Joe Foss introduced me as being the oldest living white person to have called his particular area home,” T.F. Riggs’ memoir records proudly.
“Ti Tanka Ohe (the place of the large house) was the Dakota name of the region which later was called Peoria Bottom and had its origin in the fact that not the Dakotas but the Rees before them had large council houses at the lower and upper ends of the bottom.”
Riverboats, horses, prairie fires
T.F. Riggs’ first picture of civilization is the bustling life of nearby Fort Sully – technically the second or new Fort Sully, “a stockade post which was established about thirty miles upriver from the present site of Pierre in July, 1866 and was abandoned in 1894 shortly after an extensive water system had been installed.”
Civilization is also represented by the riverboats that T.F. Riggs is accustomed to seeing and hearing on the nearby Missouri, on journeys to or from Yankton, Sioux City, Omaha and elsewhere.
“There were a number of these river steamboats, but I recall the names of only a few such as the Rosebud, Far West, Nellie Peck, Josephine, General Terry, and Peoria Belle, or perhaps it was Belle of Peoria.”
There was also a steam-powered ferry called the Jim Leighton – owned by the railroad – that carried freight, wagons and livestock between Pierre and Fort Pierre in those early days before bridges.
But other transportation is more important on the Plains. One of his first memories is of his father teaching him to ride a horse. Before long T.F. Riggs was accompanying his father on long journeys. On one trip, returning west from a trip to the east, they encountered a prairie fire.
“Father had been over to Sisseton and had taken me with him as he often did. Perhaps I was five or six years old – at any rate, I remember we had crossed the Jim River and had camped for the night. In the morning, we could smell smoke and as we drove on our way, we could see that there was a real fire off to the northwest, driven by a fairly strong wind. After an hour or so, even our team, Sam and Baldy, began to show evidence of anxiety. When the fire had come upon the high land where we could see the flames, Father stopped the team, got out of the buggy, and going to the downwind side, set a fire of our own. When we were sure that the ground had cooled enough so as not to be too hot for the horses’ feet, we turned, and going far enough to be out of the heat of the main fire, we waited until it had passed … We saw many birds in the air, and there was one coyote running toward the east apparently making for the safety of the Jim River … This must have been somewhere in the region of what is now the Redfield country.”
Western civilization and the western frontier
In the memoir it becomes clear that the Riggs family is a curious mix of knowledge of western civilization and the frontier. T.F. Riggs records that his father names his cows for letters of the Greek alphabet – “Alpha, Beta and so on” — while the horses are named for characters in the American and British novels, Ben Hur and King Solomon’s Mines.
Yet at the same time his father knows the language of the Dakota, too. T.F. Riggs notes that “he used the native language freely and in fact so perfectly that the Dakotas frequently said that if they heard him but did not see him, they could not tell that it was a white man speaking.”
The effect of that is that T.F. Riggs grows up understanding much of the Dakota’s worldview and knowing their names for things – including the features of the landscape they traveled across during his father’s missionary journeys.
“In many of his trips, I was his only companion and I can remember journeys to Mandan in what is now North Dakota or to Sisseton almost to the Minnesota line or down to the southeast of Yankton or Santee, Nebraska, or to the south to Red Cloud or the Spotted Tail Reservations, and, of course to the west up along the Cheyenne River (Wakpa Waste, Good River), the Moreau River (Hinhan Wakpa, or Owl River), and the Grand River (Palani ta wakpa, the Ree’s River).”
During some of those trips T.F. Riggs witnessed the Dakota and Lakota reverence for good horses. His father’s team of horses included a horse named Sam that he had purchased from an Indian.
“Sam had a great reputation both as a racer and as a buffalo runner,” the younger Riggs wrote. “His former owner practically ‘broke’ a group down in the Rosebud country who thought that they had some fast horses but learned that they were incorrect to the tune of many robes, tents, and other personal property … Many a time when we would stop at an Indian encampment but did not unhitch, I have seen one or more men come up to look at Sam and, after a moment or two, place one hand on his neck or shoulder, raise the right hand toward the sun, place it on the ground – then walk away. A native prayer to the sun and Mother Earth in honor of the horse so well known.”
At home with the wild
Young T.F. Riggs also has an eye for the wild, driven partly by his father. It’s his father who teaches him to watch the direction that eagles move when they soar in the sky. He learns where the eagle nests are near Chantier Creek, and on the south side of Fox Ridge, and on Box Elder Creek near Elk Horn Butte. On one occasion T.F. Riggs even climbed a nest to look at the eagle chicks, but was promptly hazed away by the aerobatics of the adult eagles.
He learns to eat Indian turnip and stew made of young dog.
He’ll go out of his way to capture a curlew egg for a cousin who collects eggs.
And he stows away more and more knowledge of the Dakota culture, including the lessons learned during one winter spent in a Dakota tent near Fort Yates, and another one spent in a place called Running Antelope’s village.
“I doubt if I absorbed much ‘book learning’ that winter, but I increased my Dakota vocabulary while playing with the Indian boys and I learned to make mud horses and buffalo and to play Shoot the Stick. This was a game where one would try to shoot a slender willow stick through a native-made ash or willow hoop as it was rolled past you. This was one of the great gambling games of the young adults.”
Doctor in the making
His education also takes him beyond Dakota, to Bangor, Maine; Glencoe, Ill.; Evanston, Ill.; and Beloit, Wis. Finally he’s off to medical school at Johns Hopkins University.
It’s during the summer vacation between his third and fourth years of medical school that he makes what he calls later his first professional call. It’s a three-day old letter asking for help from one of his father’s native missionaries who has a sick child.
T.F. Riggs rides over to the river, signals a neighbor on the west side with his slicker in order to get a boat ride across, borrows a horse and rides 50 miles one way, with rivers running high from recent rain, only to learn that the boy is already dead and buried. Lessons like that may be part of the reason T.F. Riggs eventually returns, as a fully qualified doctor, to Pierre – because physicians are few and far between.
He returns to Pierre to open an office in 1909 and is soon doing emergency surgery in the Okobojo area. On Jan. 7, 1913, he’s called away from a reception for the new governor to respond to an emergency along the old Fort Pierre-to-Deadwood trail. The mercury stands at 20 below, the radiator is freezing up and the car’s acetylene lights are none too bright. Still he gets there as needed to deliver a baby prematurely from a woman seven months along in her first pregnancy and suffering, he quickly learns, from eclampsia. It’s all in a day’s work for the young doctor.
He marries Ida Smith of Chester, Nova Scotia, at the start of 1914, but learns again first-hand how fragile health is, even for a physician’s family, when she dies just over a year later, in February 1915. He buries her at Oahe Mission.
Then in summer 1915, on a house call to distant Wood, S.D., he meets Katharine Cugle, a member of one of Baltimore’s old families and a trained nurse who is visiting relatives in South Dakota.
They’re married in September 1916. Shortly after, T.F. Riggs is introducing her to the life of Dakota, taking her grouse hunting to the Big Bend country and duck hunting to the Cheyenne River country. It is what he loves to do, hunting with dogs, especially, and he notes that his wife, Kitty, “had a number of canine crosses to bear. I really think that she enjoyed the dogs more than she did the horses except that the horses did not come into the house.”
Last words in Dakota
T.F. Riggs’ father died on June 6, 1940, at age 93, after he had been refusing to eat and drinking only a little water.
“I might have given him intravenous fluids, but he looked straight at me and held up his hand, palm toward me. I understood. It would have been only temporary help,” Riggs records. “Speaking in the Dakota language, I asked, ‘Father, do you know me?’ He nodded his head and extended his left hand and grasped mine.”
Then T.F. Riggs visits more with his father, again in Dakota, just before his father dies.
It might have been a gesture of communion for a missionary father and his son who both thought the Dakota culture worth learning, and their own ancient faith worth sharing. T.F. Riggs ends his 1961 memoir:
“This is my country! I have known some of the ills to which flesh is heir. I have known sorrow and happiness, deep rich friendship, and love. I know that Father was right when he said, ‘You are never alone.’”