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Talk about a rocky start.

Betsey Streeter Chowen was born on a ship in the mid-1790s as her family emigrated across the Atlantic Ocean from England. She would eventually make her way to Lake Minnetonka in the early 1850s.

One of her married daughters, Sarah Shaver, cleaned fish, baked bread and cooked duck for the crew constructing the lake's first sawmill in 1853. Her other daughter, Susan Gray, sacrificed fabric she needed to sew winter clothing so she could line and soften the first casket hammered together by her carpenter husband, Amos.

Today, Grays Bay is a popular fishing and boating cove on the eastern edge of Lake Minnetonka. Odds are, few of those summertime revelers realize the bay takes its name from those early white settlers, Amos and Susan Gray.

"I'm absolutely sure they named the bay after Amos, not my great-grandmother, because the men got all the credit back then," said Constance Rosekrans, 85, a Gray descendant who grew up in Wayzata before moving to Cincinnati.

Rosekrans is among the history buffs who scanned family bibles and contributed research and family lore to a new book, "Minnesota Pioneer Women, 1840-1860." Compiled by the Lake Minnetonka chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the book includes 44 sketches of early female settlers around what became Minnetonka — now Minnesota's 17th-largest city with nearly 52,000 people.

"Often stories about female ancestors are challenging to unearth," according to the book's editors, Georgetta "Gigi" Hickey and Kathleen Barrett Huston. "Documentation about women's lives tends to be scanty."

Often existing "behind their husband's names and occupations and within their households," the editors say, "they weren't famous and didn't perform heroic deeds. But their work was integral to … establish new frontiers."

When Susan Gray died at 75 in 1904, the Minneapolis Journal mentioned her brother, William Chowen, an early former Hennepin County commissioner, before noting that she birthed 11 children, "five of whom survive."

The new book from the Minnetonka DAR chapter takes a small step toward giving the area's pioneer women credit long overdue. And the Chowens, (pronounced Cow-whens), emerge as leading characters in early Minnetonka.

The matriarch born at sea, Betsey Chowen, was the second of nine children, according to Ancestry.com. Another genealogy website lists her as one of 16 siblings born to a woman aptly named Mary Pane.

Betsey married New York-born farmer Morris Chowen about 1820. A mother of five, Betsey joined her husband and five grown children as they moved west in her 50s from Pennsylvania to the Minnesota Territory.

Betsey, once photographed with a grim smile and tight bonnet, lived until 83. She was buried in 1878 in Minnetonka's Groveland Cemetery. Her five kids — George, Sarah, William, Susan and Joseph — all came west. Sarah is considered the first white woman in the Minnetonka area, according to an 1881 Hennepin County history.

Born in New York's Catskill Mountains in 1824, Sarah and her husband James Shaver staked a claim on the southern shore of Lake Minnetonka in 1852.

In her book, "Minnetonka Story," Blanche Wilson said James landed a contract as a carpenter to construct the first sawmill on Lake Minnetonka.

"Mrs. Shaver took the job of supplying the food," Wilson wrote in 1950. "Even the modern housewife in a kitchen bristling with mixers and gadgets and bulging with fresh fruits and vegetables, canned goods, cake mixes, and bisquick might weary of a dozen men appearing three times a day for refueling.

"Not so Sarah Shaver! She kept going, swishing her hoops and long skirts around her bare little cabin at an alarming speed. Fish had to be cleaned; wild ducks and geese needed picking and singeing; bread had to be set every day."

As if that weren't enough, Sarah became pregnant with twins. Bernard and Bayard became the first white babies born in Minnetonka in 1853. Sarah died in 1884, six years after her mother, whom she was buried beside.

Sarah's younger sister by four years, Susan, was born in Delaware County, N.Y., in 1828 and, at 19, married Amos Gray in Luzerne County, Pa. She came to Minnesota a year after her sister, in 1853. When a Pennsylvania man named Waters died from cholera in Minnetonka in the mid-1850s, Amos Gray offered to make a casket. "Never made one, but I can try," he said.

Rosekrans, Susan Gray's great-granddaughter, retold the story passed down through the generations: Waters' widow appreciated the coffin, but felt it too bare. So Susan Gray fetched yards of fabric which, along with the widow's wedding dress, lined the casket.

Susan was buried in 1904 near her husband, parents and sister in Groveland Cemetery. But her legacy lives on. The Grays' home still stands on Minnetonka Boulevard and her descendants still live in Orono and Long Lake.

"I heard these stories from my grandmother, who lived next door to us growing up in Wayzata," Rosekrans said. "Now we're passing those stories down for future generations."

Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His podcasts can be found at onminnesotahistory.com. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at onminnesotahistory.com.


“Even the modern housewife in a kitchen bristling with mixers and gadgets and bulging with fresh fruits and vegetables, canned goods, cake mixes, and bisquick might weary of a dozen men appearing three times a day for refueling. Not so Sarah Shaver! She kept going, swishing her hoops and long skirts around her bare little cabin at an alarming speed. Fish had to be cleaned; wild ducks and geese needed picking and singeing; bread had to be set every day.”

—Sarah Chowen Shaver’s cooking for an 1853 sawmill crew, described in Blanche Wilson’s 1950 book “Minnetonka Story.”