Julia, Jane and Lucy Arrive – The Stevens Family Women – Part III

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]

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 in May of 1839 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 following month.

The couple’s first home together was at Chief Red Wing’s village on the west side of Lake Pepin. In the spring of 1840, however, both the Gavins and the Dentons were back at Fort Snelling. They shared the Baker House with the Samuel and Gideon Pond families for a year, returning to Red Wing in the spring of 1841.

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.

None of Samuel’s writings provide details on how many children Cornelia may have had by 1855. He does say that there was one son, Daniel Gavin, Jr., who was born during their years at Red Wing. He reportedly left home to become a sailor after his father died and was drowned in the Indian Ocean.

Major, the Stevens family contact who has been so helpful with the history of the Jedediah Stevens story, reported that the Gavins’ son, Francis Denton Gavin, was born on July 18, 1854, at Sabrevois, Quebec, Canada. He attended medical school at the University of Maryland and was the resident physician and general superintendent of the Church Home and Infirmary in Baltimore, Maryland, for 35 years. He died on August 23, 1910, and is buried at Green Mountain Cemetery in  Baltimore.

This second story may explain why Cornelia came back to the United States at some point after Daniel’s death. She died in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1872. Two children were living at the time of her death at the age of 53 years.

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.

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This entry was posted in Dakota Mission, Jane DeBow Gibbs, Julia Eggleston Stevens, Lucy Cornelia Stevens Gavin, Minnesota History, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

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