"To understand his affection for Richard Spruce, a humble Yorkshire botanist of the nineteenth century, one must accept the possibility that the seed of one generation can be born in the next and that the spirit of one long dead can reach across time not merely to inspire but to mold the dreams of another." Wade Davis - One River (p373-4)
Davis was talking about the influence of a 19th century botanist on the life of Richard Schultes, the 20th century ethnobotonist who gave most of his life to the study of the plants of South America. This quote literally sent a shiver up my spine for I had felt the seed of one generation reaching across time, and now I was letting it shape and consume my life. The artifacts that my mother kept in a trunk that I discovered upon her death spoke to me. I had vague memories of the faded red cover on the book, Red Jungle Boy, I remembered my great uncle telling the story of the woman he almmost married, and even after more than 50 years he still carried her torch. What did her life mean? What could have been so important about Bessie that my mother kept news clippings, correspondence and her book for over 50 years. As I packed away the trunk of things mother had kept after her funeral I saved these questions for another day. Some years later on a September day, as I contemplated teachig research to an eager group of elementary students, that day had arrived, and the mystery of a seed planted generations earlier began to push its way to the surface..
Bessie's rebirth began when I worked with the third grade teachers at Richland Elementary School to put together an integrated unit on the Rain Forest. It is a popular topic in elementary schools, and it was to be their first exposure to research. I introduced the unit with Bessie because I wanted the children to see the difference between a researcher who goes out into the field and studies something, and the kind of research they would be doing in our library as we learned about what drove one woman to expore in an unknown place to meet a group of indigenous people who had limited contact with the modern world..
Real things always stimulate young minds. Bessie had gone into the forest at a time when women had to be accompanied by chaperones and were not thought to posess the strength and skills needed for exploration!. She had traveled alone, funding her own expedition. I knew that the yellowed clippings, the old book, and the pictures of Bessie among native people would provide a touch of excitement as they chose their research topics! What I had not anticipated was that the children wanted more than a cursory look at her. Why did she go to the rain forest? What did she do there? Why were those people in the photograph from the Des Moines Register naked? My students were suddenly doing what I had always wanted. They were asking questions, and it was hard to move them on to the assigned research task when they wanted to find the answers to the questions that seing Bessie raised. They were questions for which I had no real answers.
When my students showed such interest in her life and the book she had written about the young Caraja Indian, it occurred to me that I might have a good publishable project staring me in the face. I was frustrated by the lack of the kinds of materials that would quickly educate teachers to deal with the issues related to the rainforest particularly as they address the issues of the indigenous people whose lives were so impacted by modern life..
Instead of looking at the whole of the issue, I found books for children that focused on small parts of the issue. Nowhere was there an overview short enough for a teacher to assimilate as they planned their project. Not that the teacher would present her understanding in its adult fullness to the children, but surely, she should possess a full understanding of her topic. I assumed that finding enough to complete my project would be a fairly simple process.
I went to the Internet and found absolutely nothing on on Bessie. I next tried searching one of the anthropology databases from the library and also tried Proquest and several magazine indexes. Still there was nothing. If I had not had newspaper articles, the Good Housekeeping Magazine from 1931, and the correspondence with my mother, I would have concluded that she was a figment of my imagination.
I knew that her accomplishments were real, but I couldn't find any reference to her anywhere. She died just one year after the publication of Red Jungle Boy, before she was able to complete her study of Tapirape.
One of the yellowed newspaper articles I had indicated that Bessie was from Knoxville, IA. My first avenue of exploration was a letter to the newspaper in her old home town in Iowa. The editor published my letter which explained why I was interested in finding any information or memories of Bessie and within several weeks I had letters from several Knoxvillians. One was the head of the local genealogical society. These people were extremely helpful and provided articles from the newspaper of the time. One woman whose family had lived across the street from the Steens sent pictures which showed Bessie's home as it looked in the 1930's. Her grandfather had written some of the articles about Bessie and she also sent copies of those articles!
Much of the research that I found was the result of effort, but there was also an uncanny amount of "serendipity" or synchronicity to the project. One of these articles said she was studying anthropology at the University of California. One mentioned that she was teaching in San Jose. Using my meager detective skills I reasoned that she was probably attending the nearby UC at Berkeley.
I did an Internet search and found the anthropological archives for the University. I found nothing. Knowing what I do about libraries I next followed the staff links to a staff member who's webpage reminded me of Wallace Stegner's writing style. Believing that this individual might also have a tender spot for those who were doing research, I emailed him and described my project and my difficulty in locating material about Bessie.
David Kessler, at first searched electronically and found no references to any correspondence, but then he went the extra mile and located a file with 25 items. Without that first break through I might have given up, but now I was energized. The letters on the first read through were not particularly helpful, but then all this was new to me. They did have a certain pathos about them, and as I reread them a year later, I feel I know the people personally, and I am fully aware of the places and people she is talking about studying.
Following the Clues
There were other clues in these letters. Among the pieces was a brochure advertising her as a speaker. It gave a list of her other schools-- the Pratt, Columbia. I contacted the registrars office and found that Bessie had graduated from Teacher's College in 1926. Columbia also listed her undergraduate Alma Mater!-- Emmanuel Missionary College.
This was the second clue that Bessie might have been Seventh-day Adventist. The first clue for this was that she had gone to Loma Linda when she was so ill. In the 30's Loma Linda was not the cutting edge medical institution that it became later and it was in a relatively isolated "little village," but since there were many missionaries in South America they would likely have known about tropical diseases. I learned later that Loma Linda sponsored a School of Tropical Medicene in the 30's.
Emmanuel Missionary College still exists under the name Andrews University. I first contacted the library. One of the librarians remembered that faculty member was working on a "coffee table" work with photos and other memories history of the college for the University's 100th anniversary. It was to be of the college. Meredith Jones-Gray was able to make the connection between Elizabeth and her brother Thomas. Thomas had been President of Emmanuel as well as a number of other Adventist schools. She knew of living relatives. Meredith was also reading through old records and whenever she ran across any references to Thomas or to Bessie, she shipped them off to me.
Meredith has been an encouragment and constant source of information. She has provided insight into the faith that had such an impact on Bessie's family, and has offered those insights and corrections as I have worked through the process.
Now, I had the beginnings of some quite substantial information. In each of the articles I found more clues, but I was not having much luck finding any living relatives.
Once I had the information about Thomas I was able to track his children and found Meredith and Christopher Jobe in California and their mother, Ramira (who was born in Brazil). I made plans to visit Ramira and see if I could harvest any of her memories of Bessie. I had many questions. How did one family produce two over-achievers and how did they go from a farm in Iowa to such prominance?
I arrived in California in February. Meredith, an attorney, and his wife Carol were so helpful. I believe that Ramira possesed many of the gifts that her Aunt Bessie had. She was extremely bright and quite charming as well. She had also been an attorney, a voracious reader, and a woman who was curious about many things. She graciously shared what she remembered. (unfortunately she was quite too young to remember Bessie's visit to Brazil and still pretty young when Bessie lived with their family at Broadview Illinois). She had no idea what might have happened to Bessie's things when she died. I learned that Bessie had left some of her paintings at San Jose High school. I also learned the names of Burt's children from his obituary which was in one of the family albums. This would lead me to the largest find of Bessie's things and some of the more personal insights about her life.
After I returned from California I began searching for Bert's children and tried a phone number I found on the Internet for a Robert Steen still residing in Des Moines Iowa. It turned out to be the right number and from there I was able to contact the great niece, Linda Herrick, who had all the pieces of art that appear on the webpage, and the photographs of Brazil that Bessie took. There were pictures of my uncle and even a sketch that Bessie did of him probably in Santa Fe. Linda was very helpful and a good companion as we travelled to Knoxville and on to DesMoines. She helped me secure the copyrights for the Red Jungle Boy and also provided me with family stories. She had Bessie's Art Box which her brother Bert had made for her. it still contained charcoal and items Bessie had used. Ironically, Linda's husband who is a antique car buff, had purchased Bessie's 1927 Dodge Coup, which he was restoring at the time of my visit.
She had been involved in exotic animal trade for many years and still had the descendants of the original canary that Bess brought back from her first trip to Brazil!
I spent a week in Iowa in March tracking down tombstones, death records, and other artifacts. Ironically, Linda lived only 40 miles from where I was born. I was able to stay with my cousin in Sigourney, Iowa.
Another Serendipity was my visit with my oldest living relative, my cousin Pearl Barron. Pearl grew up in the same home as my Uncle Frank. She was 105 years old. I arrived and shared lunch with her at the nursing home. She had been such a bright woman for most of those years. She had taught mathematics and like the rest of the family education was the goal of life. This day she drifted in and out of the present. But she was lucid enough to remember when Uncle Frank brought Bessie home to meet the family in 1910. She said she was 14 at the time. One of post cards I found among Linda's things was written from Sigourney in 1910. Bessie wrote her mother saying she was extending her visit and was having a wonderful time. That evening Pearl died, but not before adding one more piece to the puzzle of Bessie's life. I was in Iowa for her funeral which meant that I renewed old family ties. I spent most of my time there with Linda. Linda's mother had saved some of Bessie's things which Linda now had.
Linda also knew about the engagement ring my Uncle Frank gave Bessie. When Bessie broke the engagement, Frank told her to keep the ring. She felt uncomfortable keeping it for herself, so she gave it to Linda's grandmother, May. It was a rose and in its center was a diamond. It was apparently quite beautiful. Linda remembered it well.
After Bessie died, her brother, Bert, went to California and picked up her two steamer trunks. These things remained pretty much in tact until the death of Bert's wife, May. Then one of the daughters was cleaning out--and thought that Bessie's things were not worth saving! Linda's mother had many items which you can see on other parts of this web page, but unfortunately, the moving pictures and field notes were not among them.
Returning home with all of these photos and stories I now felt I had enough information to complete my biography of Bessie. I was sad not to find her field notes or journals, but I had enough from the article which she wrote for Ladies Home Journal and from the newspaper files, archived letters and papers from her various universities, and family memories to do her justice.