Jane DeBow, strictly speaking, may not exactly qualify as one of the Dakota Soul Sisters. She was only a six-year-old child when she arrived at Fort Snelling in May of 1835 and her participation in the mission there ended four years later in 1839. Jane’s story, however, is remarkable if for nothing else than the astonishing ways in which it has been embellished, revised and exaggerated until she ended up becoming an iconic image of the ultimate pioneer woman in America.
Her story is interwoven, of course, with the story of Julia Stevens, who is described as Jane’s foster mother in most historical accounts. Ironically, the curious researcher can Google Julia Stevens forever and find little information about her. Do the same for Jane and page after page after page of family trees, newspaper articles, reminiscences, interpretations, children’s books, academic articles and fanciful re-creations of Jane’s story abound. The earliest mention of Jane in the historical record is recorded in birth records for Genesee County, New York, where she was born to Peter DeBow and Jane Barthol DeBow on November 20, 1828, in the city of York. The cited family tree for this information later says that she was born in Batavia, New York, which was then called East Bethany. Her father’s birthdate is recorded as July 16, 1792, but no death date has been found. Jane’s mother, Jane Bartholf DeBow, was born in 1800 in and died in 1833.
According to the genealogist who recorded the DeBow family history, Peter and Jane Bartholf DeBow’s first child Alzina, was born about 1821 but died in infancy, as did their second child, James Debow, who died in 1823. A daughter Mary, born on August 12, 1824, survived and married John Hallock (1809-1878). They had one child, a daughter Mary E. Hallock, who died at the age of 18 years in 1868. Jane herself was their fourth child and she was followed by Rosette, who was born in 1829 but died in infancy.
The genealogist who provided this family information goes on to say that Jane, “in the family of Rev. J.D. Stevens, left home for Minnesota in the fall of 1834.” The author, however, goes on to say that Stevens was part of the entourage of the Williamson mission band which spent the winter of 1834-35 at Mackinac, Michigan, and arrived at Fort Snelling in May 1835. Stevens and Williamson, although both missionaries with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, never even met each other until their first encounter at Fort Snelling in May 1835, where the Williamson party arrived two weeks prior to the Stevens family group. It also seems a bit ingenuous to describe a six-year-old as “leaving home.” www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mnwabash/biographies.htm
Several other sources report that Jane was kidnapped or abducted by Jedediah and Julia Stevens. Janet Cass, author of “Uncommon Woman; Jane Gibbs,” reports in Early American Life, April 1, 2001, that Jane had been living with a neighbor family, the Vedders, since she was five years old because her mother was hospitalized with a head injury. The Vedders reportedly operated a boarding house where Jedediah and Julia were apparently staying while they passed through Batavia, New York in 1833. The author suggests that Jane was comforted by Julia Stevens who had recently lost her own little girl. (Jedediah and Julia’s daughter, Julia Ann, had died on January 2, 1833, just three months shy of her fourth birthday.)
Cass also says that Peter DeBow set out to retrieve his stolen daughter as soon as he heard she was gone and that he was soon hot on their trail. Supposedly while the Stevens were spending the night at a boarding house in Ohio, Jedediah overheard a fellow traveler say that he had encountered a man on the road who was in pursuit of his kidnapped daughter. Jedediah then roused Julia, Jane and his niece Lucy and they fled the area in the middle of the night. Peter subsequently died, never knowing what happened to his little girl. http://www.citypages.com/1999-02-01/feature/see-jane-see-jane-learn-see-jane-grow/
An unidentified writer who investigates haunted houses, reported that Jane was eventually able to make contact with her family in New York though her father had already died never knowing what had happened to her. http://www.hauntedhouses.com/states/mn/gibbs_farmhouse.htm
The Gibbs Museum of Pioneer and Dakotah Life, which showcases its collections on the farm that was owned by Jane DeBow Gibbs and her husband Herman, simply says “In 1835 Jane DeBow (Gibbs) arrived at Fort Snelling as a child of six…” www.rchs.com/Gibbs%20Museum%20Education%20Museum%20tours.htm
Wikipedia confidently tells the researcher that Jane was abducted from her home at age five by the “Stevensons,” a missionary family.
Perhaps one of the most surprising of the stories, written by Missy McDonald, and published in Appleseeds, February 2005, is entitled “Little Bird that was Caught: Jane DeBow Gibbs.” The writer reports that Jane was an African American settler who came to Minnesota from her home in Batavia, New York, at the age of five. Emphasis is mine. http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/15873386/little-bird-that-was-caught-jane-debow-gibbs
The most extensive semi-fictional biography of Jane was commissioned by the Ramsey County Historical Society in 1998. Anne E. Neuberger was chosen to write Jane Gibbs: Little Bird That Was Caught. The book has become a popular read for eight- to fourteen-year-olds. In a 2011 interview about her experience writing Jane’s story, Neuberger wrote:
“I traveled with Jane, she in a covered wagon and me in my imagination, from the state of New York, through woods and on rivers and lakes of the Midwest. It was fascinating to imagine what Mackinaw Island was like in the 1830’s, as well as my home state of Wisconsin. What had Jane seen, smelled, and wondered during her stay at Fort Snelling?
“I asked myself questions, trying to understand what might have happened. Some things I could only guess at: How often was Jane afraid? When did she realize she would not be going home? When did the land that would become the city of Minneapolis become home to her? Other things I could learn: how Dakota girls swam differently from Dakota boys, how a wedding was celebrated in this wilderness, how turtle soup was made, what a great man Chief Cloud Man was.
“I came to care about Jane and to admire her. What surprised me, though, was that I was to ‘meet’ two people who somehow came through to me very strongly. Samuel and Gideon Pond were brothers who had also come from the east to live in what would become Minnesota. They were very intelligent, spiritual, and caring men, who figure significantly in the state history of those years. In a way that is hard to explain, I felt drawn to them, not just as story characters, but as if they were glad to know I was writing this story. This wasn’t a ghostly encounter by any means—just a sense that they had an awareness of my work. I even felt a bit sad when the writing was finished and I came back to my own time in history.
“But I did come back and found adventures in other books to write. And I know that through this book, readers can also enter in the lives, challenges and joys of Jane, Cloud Man, and the Pond brothers.” http://www.childrensliteraturenetwork.org/magazine/bookscope/tag/jane-gibbs/
Attempting to unravel what really happened when one is confronted with such a vast array of secondary sources and sketchy original documents (such as the U.S. Census of 1830 which only names the male head of household and only provides a nameless headcount for any women or children on the property) is a challenge. (See http://www.athrillingnarrative.com for Carrie Zeman’s outstanding and provocative discussions of finding the truth in the face of diverse stories, legends, myths and realities.)
It is possible to verify that Jane was born on November 20, 1828, in Batavia or East Bethany, Genesee County, New York. Her father Peter DeBow is listed in the 1830 Genessee County census and there is a Jacob Vedder in the same district in the 1830 census who could have been the boarding house owner who was caring of Jane during her mother’s illness. Jedediah and Julia Stevens were stationed at the Stockbridge Mission near Green Bay, Wisconsin from 1829 to 1835, but certainly may have been on furlough in New York in 1833, when Jane was taken by them. They had lost their oldest child and only daughter in January of 1833, but they did have two sons when they took Jane into their family. Dwight Stevens was born in April 1831 and would have been about two years old during the visit to Batavia. Evarts, who was about a year younger, was born in in September 1832. Both boys were born in Wisconsin.
Jane’s first encounter with Native Americans in the west would have been at the Stockbridge mission when she was five years old. Then in the spring of 1835, the Stevens brought Jane to Fort Snelling where they were to set up a new mission among the Dakota people there. Many of the fictionalized stories about Jane cited above mention how strict and uncompromising Jedediah Stevens was with Jane and the boys. His colleagues at the mission commented on Jedediah’s self-righteousness and feelings of superiority, implying that he may have been a difficult man to live with and the fictional stories account how Jane loved to escape to run to Cloud Man’s village to play with her little Dakota friends.
Author Janet Cass writes: “Unpublished verbal accounts passed down through Jane’s descendants depict Reverend Stevens as an arrogant man who showed little or no paternal devotion to the child whom he had wrenched from everything family. It was Jane’s kidnapping, in fact, which led to her Dakota neighbors calling her Zitkadan Usawin, “Little Bird That Was Caught.” According to Cass, Jane’s daughter Abbie Gibbs Fischer, recalled years later that her mother told her “The Indians were always sorry for her because her [biological] mother was away…Mrs. Stevens never could punish her for it made the squaws so angry.”
It was from the children that she learned to speak the Dakota language and according to Abbie, Jane served as a translator even though she was just a child. [No source information is provided for Abbie Gibbs Fisher’s quotations.]
Jedediah Stevens’ service with the mission was terminated in 1839 and he went to work as a government farmer to Chief Wabasha’s band near what is now Winona, Minnesota. Two years later, he moved the family to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where he became a Presbyterian pastor to the white settlers in that region. Jane was 13 years old. For the next seven years she remained with the Stevens, who had two more sons by 1844. The family moved often – from Prairie du Chien to Platteville, Wisconsin, where Julia died in March 1845 – then on to Waterville, Wisconsin, and at some point all the way to Elizabeth, Illinois. From the time of Julia’s death until Jedediah remarried in 1847, Jane apparently kept house for the family. She was just 20 years old when she married Herman Rice Gibbs in Elizabeth, Illinois, in November 1848. He was fourteen years older than Jane.
The unidentified author of the Gibbs family story from the afore-mentioned Haunted House website, reports that Herman Gibbs was a school teacher from Indiana who had gone to Illinois to work in the mining field. He was good at many things and one of them turned out to be farming and running a business. He cared deeply about the importance of education and had a giving, generous nature as did Jane. [No source information is provided for this characterization.]
Shortly after they were married, Jane and Herman relocated to Minnesota, purchasing 160 acres not far from the spot where Jane first met the Dakota people as a child. Family stories record how bands of the Dakota who had known Jane in the 1830s, now came in groups of up to 150 and spent two or three weeks each year camped on the Gibbs farm, which was located along an old Indian trail that had been used by the bands for many decades.
For their first five years in Minnesota, the couple lived in a small, one-room 10’ x 12’ dugout with a sod roof. In 1854, Herman built a one-room farm house just a few yards away from the original soddy. He and Jane spent the next 13 years in the one-room house where they welcomed their five children. The oldest, Ida Gibbs, born in 1853, arrives on the scene with a story as mysterious as Jane’s own family of origin tale. She is described as adopted and in one source, “rescued and adopted,” but no details are known. Jane and Herman’s firstborn child, Abbie Gibbs, was born in 1855, followed by William, known as Willie, in 1858. Frank Henry Gibbs was born on February 14, 1862, and Lillie Gibbs arrived in 1865.
In 1867, the one-room farmhouse was enlarged to an eight-room, two-story house with a parlor, six bedrooms, the hired men’s room and a summer kitchen. Herman sold the land across the street to accommodate the construction of the first schoolhouse and classes were held in the Gibbs home until the school was completed in 1871.
The family suffered a tragic loss in 1867 when nine-year-old Willie died after inhaling smoke while helping fight a grass fire. It is Willie’s ghost that supposedly makes the Gibbs House one of the most haunted sites in Minnesota. http://www.hauntedhouses.com/states/mn/gibbs_farmhouse.htm
Of the girls, Ida is listed in the 1880 census as a servant working for the James Lane family in Minneapolis. She was 27 years old and I have not located any subsequent marriage, census or death records for her. Abbie Gibbs married a man named Fischer. She was the one who inherited the Gibbs farm. Lillie married a man named LeVesconte and became a relatively prolific author of fictional family memoirs and reflections on early pioneer life in Minnesota. Frank married Effie Ovitt in 1888 and they had two sons, both of whom died. Robbie Gibbs, born in 1889, died in his first year and Ernie, born in 1891, passed away at the age of eight years. Frank’s daughter, Alice C. Gibbs, was born on July 6, 1894. She married George Herbert Nelson and had four children: Gordon, Donald, Ione and Earl Nelson.
Herman passed away in 1891 at the age of 77 and Jane lived until 1910 when she died at the age of 82 years. They are buried in Hillside Cemetery in Minneapolis alongside Willie and Frank and Frank’s family. In 1943 the Gibbs property was sold to the University of Minnesota. It was taken over by the Ramsey County Historical Society in 1949 and opened to the public that same year.
It is perhaps ironic that Jane DeBow Gibbs, whose life in Minnesota began with her abduction in stories shrouded in mystery, has ultimately ended up being among the most famed women in pioneer history. Her house, her property, her grave and her photos help us feel that we know her better than many other Dakota Soul Sisters. Thousands of children know her name and love to visit the Gibbs Farm. Still, it is apparent that much of her story has been romanticized, idealized and fictionalized from the time she was just a little girl. Like so many historical figures, Jane’s true life story is lost to the ages.