Written by Angie Debo, Ph.D., 1972

(From the Angie Debo Collection, Box 7, Folder 66)


The history of the Jacob and Peter Debo families in America begins with the immigration of the two brothers in 1853 and 1854 respectively; but its antecedents go back into European wars. After Napoleon extended the boundary of France to the Rhine by the Peace of Amiens in 1802, he encouraged French families to settle in the conquered region. Among the colonists was the grandfather of the two young American immigrants. Then after Napoleon’s defeat and the division of his conquests in 1815 the family became unwilling subjects of the King of Prussia. A son, Nicholas Debo, married a German girl named Magdalena. Among their six children were Jacob and Peter, half German by blood, wholly French in feeling. Apparently the family home was at Besseringen, Kreil Merzig, Regierungs Bezirk, Trier, Rhenish Prussia. It is known that Peter was born there; however some records indicate that Jacob was born in Munich, Bavaria. 

Probably Jacob had landed in New Orleans and had moved up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers to Peru, Illinois by the time the 20-year-old Peter came to New Orleans with his mother and his sister, Anna Maria; for there is a family tradition of his utter loneliness and desolation when the two died there of cholera shortly after their arrival. At any event, the brothers finally settled in Peru, where they married the sisters, Theresa and Elizabeth Hoppmeier. (This seems to be the correct spelling, although the name sometimes appears as Hobmeier, Hobbmeier, or Hoppmaier, as well as Hoppmeier.)

As far as known, their mother, Mary, had been adopted into a wealthy family and had married Hausel Hoppmeier. They had six daughters: Lena, Anna, Otelia, Theresa, Grazinzia, Elizabeth and one son, Balthazar. Apparently, Theresa was born in Munich, Bavaria and Elizabeth at Phening m Bundgericht Ebersberg – Alt Baiere (Bavaria). The family immigrated to America in 1855 and settled in Peru, Ill. 

In “the old country” the father had made religious figurines to aid devout Catholics in their worship. To some he was known as “the Jesus Maker”. He was never able to find the right kind of clay in America so he finally gave it up. He was a wealthy man, but his business in Peru is not remembered. The mother, Mary Hoppmeier, said there was a “Von” on her name and was accused, at times in fun, of “putting on airs” about it. What happened to the others in their family is not clearly known, but his son, Balthazar, did live in Peru at one time and apparently inherited his father’s fortune.

The two Debo brothers engaged in aspects of the ice business. In those days before manufactured ice, it was cut from the Illinois River and stored in insulated buildings for summer use. Jacob began furnishing ice to the town, and according to his aged daughter, Mary Daft, his family was the only one engaged in this business throughout its history. Peter became the mate of a Mississippi River steamboat that pulled barges loaded with ice down the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers as far as New Orleans. It is known that his first daughter, Phoebe, and son, Edward, were born on a house boat moored at Peru, while they lived there. Edward remembers that he learned to swim before he could walk, as his father let him down into the water, holding him up by a towel passed under his body. The family moved to the comfortable house that still stands at the corner of Second and Green streets. But Peter Debo continued the New Orleans route. When Edward was a teenager, he worked on the same boat as a deck hand, and as long as he lived he talked of those great days of Mississippi River traffic. Later, he worked in his uncle’s ice plant. 

The homes of the Debo brothers were only a short distance apart, and the double cousins – Jacob’s eight children and Peter’s nine – were very close in feeling. They had many other cousins also, children of the other Hoppmeier daughters. They were a lively group. For the boys, there was swimming and fishing in the Illinois River; and for all, winter skating and sledding down the hill that bordered the valley, and summer picnics at historic Starved Rock, now a State Park. German and an increasing use of English were the languages of the home; but Peter spoke French on his river trips and he must have used French endearments to his children, for his youngest son, John, always used “ma petite” and “mon petite chou” as pet names for his daughter, Shirley.

Peter Debo’s children eventually scattered and their descendants are widely separated; but the descendants of Jacob Debo still live in and around Peru, where “Harry Debo and Son” is blazoned conspicuously on a big hardware store and 95-year-old Mary Daft, the only living member of the first generation, still keeps up the family tradition. But Peter Debo often said that there were many Debos in “the old country”, and individuals of that name have appeared throughout the years, with no known relationship, but an interesting recurrence of given names. 

In 1935 Edward’s daughter, Angie, saw a linen shop in Houston, Texas with the Debo name on the front. Entering, she found that the proprietor, also named Ed, was a Syrian, French only in name. His ancestor had been one of the soldiers Napoleon abandoned in Syria in 1799 after his grandiose scheme of Eastern conquests was wrecked with the destruction of his fleet in the Battle of the Nile. Others of the name have made contact with Angie. Rev. Darrell Debo wrote from Burnett, Texas that his great-grandfather was one of several brothers who had come to Missouri from Virginia after the Civil War. Descended from those who remained in Missouri are William Bruce Debo of Devils Elbow, Missouri and Robert L. Debo of Columbia. Robert Bruce Debo “had a French professor at the Univ. of Missouri who once told me that our family started in this country with a Peter Debo from France (who) landed in Virginia and came to Missouri through Kentucky.” In the official records of Bedford County, Va. are Debo names, beginning with a deed to Michael Debo in 1799, and later entries regarding Henry, John, Valentine, and Daniel. From another source appears a John Conrad Deboe reported by the Virginia Census of 1790 as living in Shenandoah County in 1785. (Conrad is a name indigenous to Lorraine, and the final “e” may have been added by the English practice of that day.)

William Bruce Debo also learned through Lewis (an un-French spelling) C. Debo of Ottumwa, Iowa of an Iroquois Indian named Debo living on a reservation near Quebec; and of Albert (Abdullah in Arabic) Debo of Altoona, Pennsylvania, who immigrated to the United States from Raskefa, Lebanon in 1921. The latter wrote, “The Debo family in Lebanon is very large,” but “the only other Debo family I know of, came from Tripoli, Syria, and settled in Pittsburg, Pa. in 1900.” This caused William Bruce Debo to comment, “I wonder how many Debos Napoleon abandoned?” Soon Angie received a letter from the son of Albert (Abdullah), and his name was George! The latest Debo letter was written in 1970 by Mrs. Jasper Nall of Cedar Vale, Kansas, whose father was Ray Debo; her grandfather, John R. Debo; and her great-grandfather, William Debo. Among her relatives was an Emma Debo, who had lived around Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

A genealogist consulted by William Bruce Debo believes that the Debos descended from the De Baux family of southern France, whose pedigree is clear from 900 on. (This is possible, while the guess sometimes made that the name was originally Du Bois is linguistically untenable.) But the change in spelling must have come early to account for the name left in Syria and Lebanon by Napoleon’s soldiers. Also there is a lake, “Lac Débo,” in the republic of Mali in former French West Africa. There the prenumciation [sic] is Dāˊbō. In the United States it is almost universally pronounced Dee bo. A few younger members of the family have shifted the accent to the last syllable, and three of Peter Debo’s children adopted the spelling DeBo. (The name appears as Dibo on Peter Debo’s naturalization paper, but this is clearly a clerical error.) Whatever the spelling, Peter Debo was right in saying, “It was a common name in the old country.”