The third woman who arrived at Fort Snelling with Jedediah Stevens on May 30, 1835, was 16-year-old Lucy Cornelia Stevens. She was Jedediah’s niece, believed to be the daughter of his brother Orren Stevens of Peterboro, Madison County, New York.
The missionary Samuel Pond called her both Miss Lucy C. Stevens and Miss Cornelia Stevens. In one letter that she herself wrote to Gideon and Sarah Pond, she simply refers to herself as follows, “Remember your unworthy C.” implying that she referred to herself as Cornelia. [Pond, S.W., Jr. Two Volunteeer Missionaries, 1893, pp. 129-130, 176-177]. Julia Eggleston Stevens called her Nealy in at least one of the letters posted on this site and in the later letters cited herein, she is always identified as Lucy.
Whatever she was called, it is somewhat strange that Cornelia is not mentioned in any of the Jane DeBow stories but it may be that she was not with Jedediah and Julia Stevens at the time they took Jane to live with them at Mackinac. They may have only been joined by Cornelia as they were leaving Michigan for Fort Snelling. In any case, she left quite an impression on those who knew her.
Samuel Pond, Jr. described Cornelia as follows: “Miss Stevens was at that time a young girl of sixteen, light-hearted, brilliant and witty, and also strikingly beautiful if contemporary authorities may be relied on. It is no wonder that Miss Stevens shone forth as a vison of beauty among the homesick sourjourner on the Upper Mississippi… Miss Stevens was so young when she came among the Dakotas that she learned their language with comparative ease, and spoke it more fluently and accurately than any other of the missionary women. She also had the advantage of natural quickness in learning languages, which enabled her to acquire a fluent use of French, an acquisition which aided her in supporting her family in later years.”[Pond, S.W., Jr. Two Volunteer Missionaries, 1893, p 65]
Samuel Pond goes on to say, “Miss Lucy C. Stevens used a few simple lessons written by Samuel Pond to teach the Indian children Dakota but the school was soon discontinued and a few half breed girls were taken in as boarders and taught English. The school was started with six pupils, full blood Indian children in the winter of 1835-36. Samuel Pond and Miss Cornelia Lucy Stevens taught. The boarding school was established for the half breed daughters of white fathers who wished their offspring to be educated.” [Pond, Samuel, “Two Missionaries in the Sioux Country,” Minnesota History, March 1940, p.30 and note #27 ] The memoirs also mention that Cornelia contributed several Dakota words for the dictionary that Samuel Pond was compiling. Years later, writing in the April 1874 issue of the Dakota newspaper, Iape Oaye, Alfred Riggs wrote of Cornelia, “She pronounced Dakota better than any other woman, perhaps better than any man.”
As a teenaged girl, Cornelia lived under the strict supervision of her uncle Jedediah. It is almost surprising that he would permit her to teach with Samuel Pond, who was still single and only ten or so years older than Cornelia. One source even indicated that Samuel was courting Lucy before he met his future wife. As it happened, Samuel Pond, Jr. wrote that “The bridesmaid (at Samuel’s wedding on November 22, 1838) was the beautiful and accomplished Miss Cornelia Stevens…” [Pond, S.W., Jr., Two Volunteer Missionaries, 1893, p. 130]
None of the historical records indicated just when Cornelia met her own future husband but we do know that she and Rev. Daniel Gavin were married on June 12, 1840, when Cornelia was 19 or 20 years old. Despite the fact that Daniel was a missionary and a Protestant, he was a somewhat unlikely suitor for Jedediah Stevens’ niece. He was a French-speaking native of Switzerland who came to America as a missionary under the auspices of the Societe des Missions de Lausanne. The Society, founded in 1828, commissioned Daniel and one of his dearest friends to go to Trempealeau, Wisconsin, in 1835 to establish a mission there. Before they could make the journey, Daniel’s friend drowned and he was sent instead with Rev. Samuel Denton. The two were both at Trempealeau when Samuel Pond stopped to meet them on his way back from Connecticut in 1837. Daniel had learned quite a bit of the Dakota language by visiting with the wife of a French fur trader known as Mme. Chapelle. He was very pleased to learn that Samuel and Gideon had created a Dakota alphabet and was eager to work with them on the language. A conference was planned for September 1837 but Daniel was not able to attend at the last minute.
Denton and Daniel were joined by another missionary named Rossier who was sent to establish a mission at Red Wing while they moved to Winona and to St. Peter’s or Mendota. It would have been during Daniel’s time at Mendota that he met Cornelia and deepened his friendship with the Pond brothers.
Samuel Pond developed a long-lasting friendship with Daniel Gavin. He wrote: “Mr. Gavin is a man of unusual ability, cultivated mind, agreeable manners and ardent piety. His acquaintance with classical authors in the Greek and Latin tongue was thorough and extensive. He was graceful and eloquent in his public ministrations and beloved by all his associates….Many years afterward Mr. Pond wrote of him, ‘Although I once had many friends, I had no other friend like him.’ ” [Pond, S.W., Jr. Two Volunteer Missionaries,1893 p. 111]
In the winter of 1838-1839, Daniel was invited to join Thomas Williamson and Stephen Riggs who were at work translating the Bible into Dakota at the Lac Qui Parle mission. Mary Riggs, Stephen’s wife, wrote that “having Gavin here is very helpful – probably the best French translator they’ve ever had.” [Riggs, Mary, A Small Bit of Bread and Butter: Letters from the Dakota Territory, 1832-1869, Prairie Village Ash Grove Press, 1996, p. 38] Despite Mary’s words of praise, Daniel didn’t get along well with Stephen Riggs and he left Lac Qui Parle on April 1, 1839, and married Cornelia the next summer.
They shared the Baker House with the Samuel and Persis Dentan and the Samuel and Gideon Pond families for several months after the wedding, before being assigned to the Red Wing mission on Lake Pepin in the spring of 1841. Their son David was born there that year, followed by another child who died at the age of 18 months, presumably in about 1844.
In 1845, however, Samuel and Cordelia Pond received the sad news that Cornelia was dying and that the Gavins had to leave the mission. The Ponds went to Red Wing to say goodbye. Samuel wrote: “In 1845 Gavins had to leave because of Cornelia’s failing health. The Lausanne Society is abandoned. Cornelia had come to Indian country in 1835, a merry girl of 16, and had been in this section 10 years – now she was apparently going away to die. ” [Pond, S.W., Jr. Two Volunteer Missionaries, 1893, p. 177]
No historical record has been found that would explain why Daniel Gavin chose to move to Sainte-Anne-de-Sabrevois in Quebec, Canada, but that is where he and Cornelia went. Miraculously, Cornelia’s health improved dramatically and she became well again. Daniel worked among the French Catholics in the community and Cornelia taught French and music. She and Daniel did not have long to enjoy their new life in Canada, however. Daniel Gavin died 10 years later, in 1855.
When Daniel died, Cornelia had five children to care for on her own. David, who was born at the Red Wing mission, was about 14 years old; Elie, the first of the children born in Canada, was nine; Carrie was five years old; Minnie was three and baby Frank was just nine months old. David struck out on his own as a young teenager and went to sea as a sailor. He was tragically drowned in the Indian Ocean when he was just 18 years old.
On December 12, 1867, Cornelia wrote to Samuel W. Pond, describing the course her life took in subsequent years.
“I continued at the mission in Canada doing what I could in the way of teaching tho. my health was very miserable until my voice failed me entirely. Then my friends thought a change of climate advisable and as my brother was residing in this vicinity [Baltimore, Maryland] and my sister Annie [step-sister] wished to open a school for young ladies, it was proposed that I should take charge of the domestic part of the establishment and if able teach French. I came here early in the spring of 1861.” (Nute, Grace Lee (Compiler) Manuscripts Relating to the Northwest Missions, 1863-1896, Minnesota Historical Society Manuscripts P489, Box 21. All further citations from this letter and a subsequent letter from Minnie Gavin are from this collection.)
Unfortunately, the school failed, partially because of the economic and social impact of the Civil War, and Cornelia’s sister Annie soon married a man named Kirkpatrick and moved to Illinois in the summer of 1862. Cornelia’s oldest son Elie, then 15 years old, was in school in Canada but she had Carrie, Minnie and Frank with her. She took in private students for a time but soon found she could not afford her rent nor provide for the children. Annie asked her to come to Illinois so Cornelia left one of the girls with her brother and the other with friends and took eight-year-old Frank and went to Illinois.
She shared an interesting aside with Samuel Pond when she wrote him in 1867:
“I visited also my own Mothers friends in Wisconsin and ferreted out Uncle Stevens family – Evarts and Julia I saw – also saw Aunt no 2nd and the young ones – but my Uncle was absent on a visit to the Gov. Hospitals on the Miss. Went as far as New Orleans where he found Dwight who was very ill. They did not return till after I left consequently I did not see either of them. I have written to my Uncle several times since but he has not condescended to answer me. I suppose if the truth were known it was because I was too conservative for his radicalism. What havoc this war had made even in families who have not otherwise been materially affected by that horrid war.”
Cornelia missed her daughters during the time she was in Illinois and soon decided to return to Baltimore where she taught her two daughters and her brother’s girls for a time. She became ill again, though, and realized that she was no longer strong enough to teach school for six hours a day. She made the difficult decision to take Frank to Canada to study at the school where Elie was now teaching and placed the girls with friends while she moved in with a family as a governess. In the summer of 1866, Elie began to suffer from exhaustion and thought that he should leave Canada for a warmer climate. He joined Cornelia and the girls in Baltimore and taught French at one of the are schools. He then developed a severe cold and never recovered. Cornelia was by his side when he died on August 26, 1868, at the age of 21 years, the third child that Cornelia had lost.
By this time, daughter Carrie was teaching in a family who lived in Washington, D.C., and Cornelia took a position at a residence for the sick and elderly known as the Church Home. It was run by The Sisterhood of the Good Shepherd, an Episcopal Order that was born out of the original Church of England. Her daughter Minnie, then 15, was a boarding student at the school operated under the same organization.
It is almost impossible to comprehend that Cornelia had to face yet another tragedy when Carrie was stricken with tuberculosis in the spring of 1869. She came to stay with Cornelia and died on June 11, 1870, at the age of 19 years.
Minnie Gavin wrote to Samuel Pond on April 23, 1874:
“Frank and I were with her at the Home. It was such a comfort to those of us left to be together! Dear Mother never recovered the shock of Elie’s death though she worked as usual and tried to be brave for our sakes. When Carrie died her physician thought mother’s end very near; but God did not take her yet. He spared her to us, to Frank and me, two more blessed years, and then on the 8th of September 1872, He took her to Himself. It was a bright Sunday morning just about eight o’clock when she fell asleep. She suffered terribly all through her last sickness and the heat was intense, but never a murmur passed her lips.”
Cornelia was only 53 years old when she died. She had outlived four of her children and her husband. Daughter Minnie followed the Episcopal Order to their new home in Louisville, Kentucky, the next year and son Frank remained in Baltimore where he graduated from medical school from the University of Maryland and was a resident physician and general superintendent of the Church Home for 35 years before his death in 1910.
Despite all of the reports of Cornelia’s beauty as a young girl, no drawing or illustration or even a later photograph of her or of Daniel Gavin has been found.