I’ve been having a splendid time at the Gale Family Library of the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota. My research fellowship allows me the opportunity to do catch up on research that I’ve meant to do for years but simply couldn’t always find time to accomplish.
This week, I found three quite remarkable letters that are not cross-indexed in the library database, meaning that I had never found, nor seen them before. The earliest letter is from Cornelia “Lucy” Gavin to Samuel Pond. It is dated December 12, 1867, and was written from Baltimore, Maryland, to Samuel’s home in Shakopee, Minnesota. Samuel had written to Cornelia after a silence of 12 years and reached her by mailing it to Cornelia’s sister Mary who was living in Monmouth, Illinois. In her response Cornelia mentioned that the last letter she had received was addressed to her husband, Daniel Gavin, who had died in 1855.
Cornelia’s original story is told in Dakota Soul Sisters as Julia, Jane and Lucy Arrive – The Stevens Family Women – Part III. At the time I had very little information on how many children she and Daniel Gavin had after leaving the mission, or what happened to her in later years. Her letter to Samuel Pond fills in many of those questions and reveals in the most poignant way the struggles a single woman faced when she was widowed and left with five children ranging in age from 9 months to age 14.
I was then happy to find another Gavin family letter. Minnie Gavin, Cornelia’s daughter, received a letter from Samuel Pond and responded to him on April 23, 1874. She continued the story her mother had begun a few years earlier, revealing the tragic circumstance of the deaths of her brother Elie, her sister Carrie, and of Cornelia herself in 1872. All of the details of both of these documents have been added to Cornelia’s Story.
A third letter, also written to Samuel Pond, added substantial information to another Soul Sister’s story, that of Persis Skimmer Dentan. I had been in touch with living descendants of the Dentan family, but this letter, written in 1878, provided a personal link to Persis. Her story can be found in The Story of Persis Skimmer Dentan where I have added this updated information. At the time I wrote her original tale, I had little information on her four sons and what happened to them. It was a thrill to have Persis herself update the story.
What I found really interesting is that Cornelia in her letter mentions that she visited Persis in the spring of 1864, presumably in Illinois where Cornelia was staying with her step-sister Annie Kirkpatrick. She said that “after 19 years separation I first saw her in the street closely veiled, and knew her by her walk.” Persis, in her own letter to Samuel, also recalled Cornelia and their year of living together at the Baker House at Fort Snelling with fondness. Somehow finding evidence of life-long friendships among the Soul Sisters is always rewarding.
The three letters are in the vast collection of Pond papers at The Minnesota Historical Society but I found them because of a quite remarkable compilation of important documents relating to the Dakota missions in Minnesota that was created by Grace Lee Nute. The documents in her collection are transcribed from the originals and filed as Manuscripts Relating to the Northwest Missions, 1863-1896. All three are in the Manuscript Collection #P489, box 21, along with dozens of other treasures at the Gale Family Library where I’m lucky enough to spend my summer!