I have tried to tell the stories of the women of the Dakota Mission chronologically in the order in which they arrived in Minnesota or, in the case of the Dakota women, the day they became members of the mission church. Thanks to the wealth of genealogical resources available on-line, I’ve been able to document a great deal of previously unpublished information about some of the lesser known women. In the case of Persis Skimmer Dentan, however, much of her story remains a mystery.
We do know that Persis was a missionary at the Ojibwa Mission at Mackinaw in the 1830s. In 1836, Rev. Samuel Francois Dentan came to Minnesota from Switzerland with another missionary from Lausanne, Switzerland, Daniel Gavin. They were initially stationed at Trempeleau, Wisconsin. In 1837, Persis Skimmer met and married Samuel Dentan but apparently she continued her work at Mackinaw while he traveled on to Fort Snelling with Daniel. According to Stephen Riggs, Samuel Dentan was at Fort Snelling in the spring of 1837 when he became ill and Persis came down from Mackinaw in a canoe with two Indian women. They traveled over 100 miles, sleeping in the scow at night.
After Samuel’s recovery, Persis and Samuel were sent to Wabasha’s band in present-day Winona, Minnesota. Samuel Pond wrote in his memoirs that Samuel was very odd and eccentric and that “Mrs. Dentan labored harder for the Dakota than anyone. She also studied hard.” [Minnesota History, Minnesota Historical Society Press, June 1940]. The Dentans left Wabasha’s village and lived in the Baker House at Fort Snelling with Gideon and Samuel Pond and their families and with Daniel and Cordelia Gavin for about a year beginning in the spring of 1840. By that time, their first son, Frank Dentan, had been born.
They were then sent to the Red Wing mission on Lake Pepin where they remained until 1846. It was there that their next three sons, Daniel Gavin Dentan, Lucius Dentan and Albert Dentan, were born. The Dentans then moved from Red Wing to Red Rock, across the river from Kaposia village where the Williamson’s were located, for a few months in 1847, but they left the mission completely a short time later and moved to Illinois. The Iape Oaye newspaper of April 1874 reported that Samuel Dentan died in Missouri. I have not found a death certificate or date for Persis.
When I originally published this post in April 2013, I said that I hoped that by publishing this brief story about Persis, a descendant might be found who could provide more information about this woman who worked so tirelessly for the Dakota mission in its earliest days. It wasn’t long before I heard from two family members who are descended from Persis and Samuel Dentan’s son, Daniel Gavin Dentan, whom they refer to only as Gavin Dentan. They corrected the spelling of the name to Dentan, not Denton, with the accent on the second syllable. They also corrected Persis’ maiden name to Skimmer, not Skinner. One wrote: “The library in Red Wing, Minnesota, has quite a lot of information about both of them since they were the first settlers there. Persis spoke French, thus she could communicate with Sam who also spoke French and came from the Presbyterian Missionary Society in Lausanne Switzerland. Persis, I think, was French Canadian.”
I found out a bit more about what happened Persis and Samuel’s sons when I located a letter that Persis wrote to Samuel W. Pond on September 29, 1878, from what she described as “Bavaria Galena Co.” The family lived in Illinois, and Samuel later died in Missouri, but there is no Bavaria or Galena County in either Illinois or Missouri so it isn’t clear exactly where they were living at the time of the letter. Persis thanked Samuel for his last letter and then continued:
“For 4 or 5 years even, I was obliged to avoid writing almost entirely. Being housekeeper for Albert and Gavin, I was obliged to work, and as my eyes always tire first, I could seldom dare use them when my work was done.
“Gavin is now married and Albert boards with him, so I had a neat little house built very near to Lucius’ house, where I live quite alone. Thus you see, 3 of my sons live very near me. Frank, who was the baby when we lived in the stone house, settled in the S. part of the state.
“He was united with the Presbyterian Ch and was a respected, and somewhat useful member for many years. As a farmer, he was very successful and at length, found himself just where he had longed to be, even from his boyhood. That is, able to support himself and family if blind – an affliction he always feared from weakness of the optic nerve.
“Last Aug. he settled up his business, paid off his debts and finding himself in possession of a nice property, he resolved to work less and devote more of this time to social and religion duties and more than all to give more time to his Ch. Alas! For our plans! On Sabbath morn at 10 o’clock he was thrown from his mule, was taken up September 3th [sic] and died in a few hours! He was 38 years old – an unusually strong and vigorous man, having known little of pain. Oh! Mr. Pond! You know what this has cost me – how my heart aches – and most of all because he gave so much time to money making, when he should have served the Ch 1st I do not write much and so must tell you briefly my love for those dear friends of the stone house is as strong as ever. Dear previous friends! All gone but yourself! Sarah, Delia, Mr. Gavin, Mr. Dentan, Mrs. Gavin, Gideon – All gone! Well we shall join them soon. May be we have a little more work to do. Let us be faithful to the end. Now that I am alone, and little to do, I think much of earlier days of my companions in toil and discouragement. What dark days! were many Let us praise God for many blessings on those Sioux
Write when you can. If my eyes permit I will write you at length sometime.”
The brick house that Persis mentions is the Baker House at Fort Snelling where she and Samuel lived for about a year beginning in the Spring of 1840, when their first child, Frank, was a baby. Persis called to mind her dear friends from that time, Samuel Pond’s sister-in-law, Gideon Pond’s first wife, Sarah Poage Pond; Delia, who was Cordelia Eggleston Pond, Samuel’s first wife; fellow missionaries Lucy and Daniel Gavin, and Gideon Pond, Samuel’s brother, who had died in January 1878. All of the women’s stories have been told previously on this site.
Samuel and Persis’ descendants provided some additional information about the other three sons in the family. Daniel Gavin Dentan, born in about 1842 at Red Wing’s village, grew up in Illinois and married Effie Livsy. He was a superintendent of schools and they had four children: Claude Dentan, Frank Daniel Dentan, Estelle Dentan and Lucius Livsy Dentan. Tragically, Daniel was murdered in his hotel room while on a business trip to Kansas, leaving Effie a widow with four young children. She sent the two oldest boys, Claude and Frank, to what her descendants describe as a “Presbyterian Farm” somewhere in Illinois. Claude did well and became the first Presbyterian minister in Haines, Alaska, before setting in Colorado. Frank, however, ran away from the farm when he was eleven years old. He made his way back to his uncle Albert and borrowed some money to go to linotype school. He became an accomplished typesetter and moved to Sydney, Illinois, where he purchased The Sidney Times and became its editor. He married Nellie Ione Magill and they eventually settled in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he founded the Dentan Printing Company.
Estelle Dentan, Persis and Samuel’s only granddaughter, disappointed her mother and stepfather by eloping at the age of sixteen with Ed Kingman. Her mother succeeded in having the marriage annulled and bustled Estelle off to nursing school in Colorado Springs. As fate would have it however, twenty years later Estelle ran into Ed Kingman at a coffee shop and immediately married him again. The youngest son of Daniel and Effie, Lucius Livsy Dentan, became a partner with his brother Frank in the Dentan Printing Company.
The descendants who contacted me are both from Daniel and Effie’s branch of the family and they did not have any additional information on Persis’ other sons, Lucius and Albert. They did, however, provide an overview of their own siblings and subsequent generations, mentioning that “every single person who is a descendant of theirs has been academically successful and also successful in their chosen professions.” One wrote: “Someone in this family set really high academic standards and truly, I think it must been Samuel Francois and Persis Dentan who did that.”
It is rewarding to learn that Persis, who “studied hard,” according to Samuel Pond, is acknowledged even today for the priority she and Samuel placed on educating their children and future generations of Dentans.
 Nute, Grace Lee (Compiler) Manuscripts Relating to Northwest Missions, 1863-1896, Minnesota Historical Society Manuscripts, P489, Box 21