Monday, January 11, 2016

The Emigrants


When I recently saw the movie Brooklyn, one of the most poignant scenes was, as I recall, soundless. The harbor scene where the young Irish girl stands on the deck gazing sorrowfully at her  mother and sister standing on the dock far below. She knows she may never see them again.  

As I said, if there were sounds I don't remember them, didn't hear them. And as for movement, my memory is of the entire scene taking place in slow motion. Such stillness with each figure frozen in his or her own separate anguish. And it goes on and on, the camera panning the faces of the passengers and of the ones staying ashore. There is none of the exuberance and chaos of most movie ship-launching scenes—the throwing of confetti, the waving of handkerchiefs, the tossing of caps in the air, the wild cheering. Just this endless, dreamlike montage of heartbreak. This documenting of families coming apart at the seams, and wanting things to be different.

It all put me in mind of each set of my ancestors and their leave-takings from their respective homelands. I had often wondered about the circumstances that brought each family to that point, but I had thought of each departure separately. Being bathed in this movie scene, I felt the full impact of separation experienced by all my families and all the families of anyone who ever emigrated.

Presbyterian Cemetery, Northampton PA
The first of my people to cross the Atlantic (at least, the first I have any record of) were my 4th great-grandparents, John and Jane Love Hays. It was sometime between 1730 and 1736. There is no passenger list or census to establish the date. I don't know who they may have left behind when they said good-bye to Northern Ireland. John and Jane, with at least two, possibly three children, embarked from Londonderry in Donegal county. There they'd been called Ulster Scots—meaning that at some point in the preceding century or two, their ancestors had come from the Scottish borderlands to settle in northern Ireland. But opportunities for Ulster Scots were limited by the church and government regulations imposed by the British. That repression—combined with several years of poor harvests—is the likely reason they emigrated. Once they arrived in Pennsylvania, they would be known as Scotch-Irish. They settled ultimately in Northampton County where they kept a public house, a store and a tannery.

Leonard in his later years
The next to arrive, on July 6, 1836, was my twenty-one-year-old great-great grandfather, Leonard Odenweller. He left from the German port of Bremen on the brig Talisman. The passenger list shows only that he came from Mannheim and that his occupation was “smith”. I don't know who his family was, why he left, or what his immediate destination was. The 1940 US Federal Census shows a Lemard Odenwilen living in Darke County, Ohio, conveniently abutting Miami County where my great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Danley, lived with her family. I google-mapped Leonard's Wayne Township and found it to be about forty miles from Elizabeth's Bethel Township. My guess is that the two of them met and married sometime shortly after 1840. The 1850 census is yet to be found, but the 1860 census shows that Elizabeth and Leonard had moved to McDonough County, Illinois and had produced six living children. Two others died in infancy and were buried, nameless, in the Craig Cemetery in Scotland, Illinoisidentified only as "infant sons".

Syver and Barbro
Then came the Norwegians in August of 1849. In June, Syver Guttormsen and his wife Barbro Helgesdatter had said farewell to their brothers and sisters and Barbro's parents, and to their farm in the beautiful Valdres valley. With their ten children (ranging in age from four months to twenty-two years), one daughter-in-law, and seven neighbors, they set sail from the port of Drammen and spent ten weeks on the bark Benedicte. From New York, the party made their way to Wisconsin where they had temporary shelter at a parsonage in Rock Prairie County. As leader of the whole enterprise, Syver went off and found land in neighboring Green County where, within a few months, they were settled in their new homes and were back to their farming life.

A bark like the Drafna  
My father's grandmother Bergit, also from Norway, made the passage a few years later. She  was seventeen when she and her three-year-old brother came with their parents, Knud Halvorsen and Ragnild Pedersdatter. In Drammen, they boarded the bark Drafna and arrived in New York on July 16, 1852. After they came ashore, there is no record of what happened to them until they fetched up several years later in the Norwegian Settlement in Albany,Wisconsin in the very community founded by Syver and Barbro Guttormsen. The 1860 US Census showed them living in the same household as mothers- and fathers-in-law of Helge and Bergit! I hope some day to find out how that all came about.

Last to arrive was my Swedish great-grandmother Stina Ellstrom. In April of 1880, just a few weeks after her twentieth birthday, she boarded the steamship Marsdin in Gothenburg to come to "Amerika". In contrast to the Guttormsen family's experience of making the crossing as a party of twenty, Stina was embarking on a solo voyage. I looked at the lines before and after her name on the passenger list to see if maybe she had another young woman as her travel companion. Someone to help her through the imagined hard times of rough seas, frightening storms, menstrual cramps, sea-sickness, unwanted attention from a randy deckhand. There was no such companion. But I did see, just above her name, the names of a slightly older couple who were also traveling from her little town of Elfsbacka. Maybe they were shepherding her through the process. Once they arrived in the New York harbor, however, they parted waysthe couple's destination being Chicago. Stina, according to the passenger list information, was heading to Moline, Illinois. When I checked for other Ellstroms in Moline, I found that she had at least one brother and one sister waiting to welcome her at the end of her long journey. Over the next few years, all but two of her seven siblings had emigrated to the Moline area.
 
Stina (front left) with her siblings in Moline

 So all these families separated themselves from their former lives, braved the seas, survived the conditions of traveling steerage class, and arrived in unknown territory. They made their way westward where somehow they found each other, connected, and combined into new families. And so... here I am!

Drafna image courtesy of Norway Heritage
http://www.norwayheritage.com/gallery/gallery.asp?categoryid=2



Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Tending Graves


When I was in Norway, I spent a lot of time visiting churches and churchyards. The churchyards were incredibly well maintained by the family members who tended the graves of their relatives. No matter what time of day or what day of the week I happened to visit a church, someone was there at a grave site watering, trimming faded blossoms, planting new flowers, or cutting the grass. 

Some grave yards had little grave-tending stations set up with a water spigot, watering cans, a trowel and trimming shears. Sometimes I would encounter whole families cheerfully sprucing up the family graves. One day, late in the afternoon, I saw a woman who evidently had come straight from work. She was dressed for the office, had her handbag with her—and her gardening gloves. She must have thought when she left work, “Oh I have a few extra minutes. On my way home, I'll just stop by and trim around Granny's grave—the grass will be getting a little high.” She was the only one there that day, and it was so peaceful among the gravestones of various design, a gentle breeze tossing the branches of the bushes that gracefully dotted the churchyard. I could see how people would be drawn to spend a little time at the end of the day in the presence of their by-gone companions—and of ancestors they may never have met but had always known through the family tradition of visiting and tending their resting places.

The first time I encountered folks tending graves was the day that I went with three other members of our Valdres ancestor-hunting group—in a car. (After days of being herded on and off buses to visit sites of ancestral interest, it was such a relief to be in a little car with only three people.) One of them, Linda, wanted to go to look at the church in the town her family had called home. Wyonne, the driver, was a Minnesotan who had lived in Oslo for twenty-five years and therefore spoke Norwegian. We arrived at the church to find it locked so Wyonne, who is not a shy person, approached a little knot of people in the churchyard. They were variously watering, weeding and cutting grass. It was a mother, father, a couple kids, and the grandmother. They communicated to Wyonne that the caretaker was away, but maybe his son could be reached. They helped Wyonne call him on their cellphone and she managed to talk him into coming to unlock the church for us. She hung up and announced that he'd be arriving on his motor scooter in ten or fifteen minutes.

In the meantime we hung out and watched the family leisurely enjoying themselves in the beautiful churchyard on that beautiful day. They would take breaks now and then. Sit down on the ground or, in the grandmother's case, on a nearby bench. Chat. Have a snack. Wander around through other sections of the grave yard. It wasn't like they were hurrying to finish a chore so that they could get it over with and move on to a more exciting activity. This was the activity. Occasionally we would all smile and nod and gesture at each other in the awkward, well-meaning way people do when they can't communicate with words.

Eventually Anfind roared up on his motor scooter, grinning and nodding. And then we got our own personal tour of the church, with Wyonne relaying our questions to him. Then Linda, Floyd, and I would wait forever for her to do the translation of his answers. We had to be patient, partly because she would become so involved in the conversation with the very entertaining Anfind that she would forget we were waiting. And partly because she couldn't get him to stop talking—he was having such a good time telling her stories and jokes. So the two of them were having a knee-slapping time while we stood by, watching and laughing. Periodically we were let in on the fun.

We found out that Anfind and his father (who was in his 80's) dug the graves by hand. When he wasn't digging graves, we wondered what else Anfind did.

Anfind: Well, I get the church ready for weddings.
Us: How do you do that?
Anfind: Oh, I set up the chairs at the altar.
Us: Show us how!

So he demonstrated and described how the whole wedding was conducted. In the beginning of the ceremony, the chairs are set so that the bride and groom face each other across the aisle in front of the altar. After they make their vows, the groom's chair is moved so that he and his new wife are seated next to each other, symbolizing their new union. When we learned about that part, we made Anfind move the chairs side by side so that Linda and her new husband could sit next to each other. And then I took a picture of the seventy-something newlyweds. Next, Wyonne asked Anfind if, since Floyd was a pastor, she could take a picture of him standing up in the pulpit. Of course the affable Anfind agreed and smiled and laughed along with the rest of us as Floyd gestured from the pulpit. We all had such a good time. We hated to say good-bye. But we had other churches and churchyards to visit—and it was Anfind's day off. So we smiled and nodded and waved him off on his motor scooter. We said our good-byes (ha det bra), and our thanks (takk) to the grave-tending family and then piled into the car to continue on our way.

Skrautval church and gravestones

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Norwegian Married Farmer (52 Ancestors #1)

Hedalen Church

I have accepted the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge, proposed by Amy Johnson Crow of the No Story Too Small website. I'm a little slow out of the starting gate (other “52 in 52” bloggers are on post #8), and I may never catch up but I'm pleased to finally be getting my first post out there. Amy made the suggestion that 2015 be the Year of Collaterals. (A collateral is a person who is related to you but not a direct ancestor.) I am following that suggestion by choosing my great grandfather's older brother to be my first subject.

His name was Guttorm Syverson Gaarder. That is, if what you are looking at is the passenger list for the Benedicte, the ship which brought him here to the US in 1849. Depending on which other records you consult, you would also see him referred to as Thomas Gaarder, G.T. Gothompson, Guttorm Syvertsen or Gutorm Gaarder. In the precious few documents created in his brief life, his name never appears the same way twice. Setting aside the question of what should be considered his “true” name, here is what I know of his history:

He was born in May of 1827 in Valdres (a region of Oppland county in Norway), the first of thirteen children. His mother, Barbro Helgesdatter Aaslie, was just about to turn seventeen years old. His father was Syver Guttormsen Gaarder. The actual day of Guttorm's birth is not known but, according to the Sør Aurdal Parish Register, he was baptized in the Hedalen church on May 14th. He was married, presumably in that same church, about twenty-two years later. Again, the wedding date is not exact—January something—but when they boarded the Benedicte on June 4 1849, Guttorm and Thova Olsdatter were a married couple.

The Benedicte arrived in New York on August 22, 1849 with the entire Gaarder family, and from there they made their way west via the Erie Canal—yes, from Albany to Buffalo—and then across Lake Erie to Milwaukee. In Milwaukee, Guttorm's father hired a team to take them all to Luther Valley in Rock County, Wisconsin.

There they stayed the autumn with Pastor C.E. Clausen who had emigrated some years before and offered hospitality to newly arrived Norwegians. It was in October, in the parsonage in Luther Valley, that Guttorm and Thova's child was born. (Oh, did I mention that Thova was pregnant? Can you imagine traveling by ship, barge, ship again, and finally horse and wagon for three months or more while pregnant?) Their daughter, Bertha Oline, was the first Gaarder child to be born on American soil.

By December the Gaarder/Guttormsen/Gothompson family had found and bought land in neighboring Green County in the town of Albany, had built temporary shelters and settled in. What is curious is that in the 1850 US Census, Guttorm (listed as GT) is shown living with his parents and his siblings, but his wife and daughter are conspicuously missing. (As I am writing this, it is just occurring to me: There had been two other young women, Ingeborg and Berthe Olsdatter, on the Benedicte passenger list, just above the Gaarder family names! What if they were Thova's sisters? What if Thova's whole family came over at the same time? There are five other consecutive, plausible names with appropriate ages. An exciting prospect! But that research will have to wait or I'll never get my first post posted.)

Back to what is known: Syver, Guttorm (who went by “Thomas” in America), and my great-grandfather Helge all farmed on adjoining farmsteads. As far as I can tell, they led comfortable and uneventful lives until 1855, when Guttorm's life was cut short in a farm accident. It was August—haying season. The only account I've read states, “He slid from the top of a haystack and fell on the prongs of a fork which penetrated his vitals, causing death in twenty-two hours.”He was twenty-nine. He was buried in the Norwegian Settlement Church cemetery in Albany, Wisconsin. If you look really hard at the top of the well-worn gravestone, you can almost make out the letters forming an arc, spelling the name “GUTORM”.


 
Sources:
1 History of Green County, Wisconsin, Union Publishing Company, Springfield, Illinois, 1884, p.665

Norwegians in America, their History and Record, Vol. 1, Martin Ulvestad, Astry My Astry Publishing.

1850 US Federal Census, Albany, Green, Wisconsin

Find a Grave

Friday, January 30, 2015

Rowena's Birthday

                                                           Rowena Ahl Odenweller Hays
1913-2002


This Saturday, January 31st, marks the 102nd anniversary of my mother's birth.

Rowena Ahl Odenweller.  When we asked her where her parents came up with the name Rowena, all she could say was that she thought she'd been named after the character in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. (In all my life, the only other Rowena I ever encountered was a young Asian electrologist living in Greenfield in the early 1980's.) Ahl was for my grandmother's maiden name. 

When little Rowena was born there was much rejoicing, for she was the very first Ahl grandchild.  My mother may have been the granddaughter of a farmer and a factory worker, but she was born to parents who were both educators. So on top of being the adored  first grandchild, she also had a lot of academic expectations piled on her from the beginning. Here you can see her sitting in her three-year-old-sized chair poring over a book of adult-sized proportions.



At the age of twelve she won a spelling bee competing against older children, some of them high-schoolers. She took fourth place which also won her congratulatory articles in two newspapers. In a letter that my grandmother wrote to her sister, she described the grueling day which started with a car trip of several hours just to reach the site of the spelling competition. Then, once the contestants had settled in, they spelled from 9 am to 3 pm with only two five-minute breaks and a half-hour for lunch. This was not the stand-up-in-front-of-everybody-and-spell-out-loud kind of spelling bee that we are familiar with these days. Back then, or at least in this instance, the students were sitting at desks and writing the words as they were called out—fifty at a time. Then their papers were collected, anyone who misspelled even a single word was eliminated, and then the next round began. In her letter, my grandmother wrote about seeing one older boy come out of the room in tears after the first round and feeling so sorry for him. Well, my grandmother sat and sat, waiting in the hall for my mother to come out defeated.
But my mother just kept on spelling. Just kept going until she finally met her Waterloo on the word “bureaucracy” (which I just now had to think very hard about how to spell) and about which the newspaper said “the little miss could easily be forgiven”. So she came out triumphant: fourth place, media attention, AND a five dollar prize.

So how do I know all this? Well, at Christmas, my sister Sally brought me a grocery bag full of photographs, newspaper clippings, albums and letters.  It was the best Christmas present ever, and I've been plowing through the contents of the bag ever since.

In this shopping bag of treasures, I found the baby book that my doting grandmother Ellen kept of Baby Rowena's first year. The title page with the words Our Baby in gilt cursive writing  and the facing page showing what must have been a christening photograph. 



This is followed by the Baby's Gifts page which has been filled from top to bottom in Ellen's fine penmanship with entries like “carriage robe from Phoebe” and “crocheted hood from Minnie” and (my favorite)“hug-me-tight from Lydia S”.


Then there is the Baby's First Word page—which proves my mother to be an over-achiever already at the age of eight months with her pronouncement of the word “papa”, followed by “mama” a couple weeks later. Not wanting to stop the account there, Ellen proceeded to record my mother's increasing vocabulary throughout the next six months. 

There are other pages devoted to Baby's first outing (in taxi to grandparents' house), Baby's first photograph—meaning, of course, professional photograph—because there is a quite full black-paged album of amateur home photographs recording Baby's every move.  The book documents every aspect of my mother's early life so meticulously that, just in case you wanted to know, I could tell you exactly how much she weighed or how many teeth she had in any given month of that first year.   

About that photo album I mentioned?  That was a real find with its depictions of my mother being held and admired by her many aunts, mother in her highchair, mother in costumes, mother playing with her books and toy telephone and many more. But those will have to wait for another day, another post.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Helge and the Floozy

Here is a piece I wrote back when I was just getting started on my family research.  A lot of information was coming in very fast.  Sorting through and trying to making sense of it all sometimes led to some shaky hypotheses. 

Recently I became quite irritated with my great-grandfather Helge, husband of Bergit. I knew that Helge had remarried after Bergit died, but I was beginning to get the idea that maybe there had been some hanky-panky going on toward the end of Bergit's life. My suspicions stemmed from a passage I found in a biographical sketch in a history of Green County residents which read, "Bergit died in Wisconsin while Helge died in Graettinger, Iowa." I guess it all comes down to the way one reads the word “while”. Did the writer use “while” in the sense of two things happening simultaneously ? Or was he using it to mean “whereas”? What I took from my initial reading of this ambiguous sentence was that Helge and Bergit were living separatelyand that the old goat was carrying on with some floozy half his age, while Bergit, poor forgotten Bergit, was languishing away in Wisconsin.  

I was incensed. What about the family you had raised together? How could you have been lured away from your home to take up with a woman practically the age of your daughter, my grandmother Hannah? What about the noble inscription you chose for Bergit's gravestone: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith."  And this while you were off with your new “wife”? The hypocrisy!

Wel-l-l, it turns out I may have been a bit hasty in my judgment. It turns out I may have gotten a tad over-involved in my great grandparents' lives—a little off-track, you might say. It turns out I'd misread some dates and jumped to some conclusions. In fact, Helge's wife Bergit had died five or six years before he married Ida—who most probably was not a floozy.  Just a 27 year-old woman who knew she wanted a family and maybe this 61-year-old man was her only shot at that. After my first hasty suspicions, I never found a shred of evidence that Helge had been anything but a faithful husband to his Bergit. No evidence that he had been anywhere but at home by Bergit's side at the time of her death. Sorry, Helge.

I know that bona fide, dispassionate genealogists would frown on my emotional approach to family research, but I can't help it. I get very attached to these people. I am fiercely aggrieved if any of my own are slighted or injured. I worry about them when there are signs of trouble. Sometimes I attach prematurely to a so-called relative without adequate proof that he or she is actually related to me. I build a whole fantasy life for individuals I think are ancestors only to uncover somewhere along the way that they don't belong in my tree. It's a wrenching, a little death, when I have to expunge them. Knock them off my branch. I can only wish them well and hope they find and land on their own proper branches.

But back to Helge and BergitI'm so glad to have been wrong, but I'm not sorry about having cared.  And as for Ida, the "other woman", I have now accepted her into the family with open arms and am busily tracing her history.  I have already determined that she and Helge produced a daughter and a son.  I'm very concerned about her welfare however, for she seemed quite alone with her two young children after Helge died.  I wonder if there's any way to find out if my grandmother Hannah was at all involved or supportive of her step-mother and step-siblings?  Hmmm.  More emotion-laden research ahead.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Dark Page In the Family History

 

Up until recently, my family research has been mostly an exciting and enjoyable experience. The thrill of finding a long-lost relative. (Or,  more accurately, a long-hidden relative—because how could they be lost if I never knew I had them?) The smug satisfaction of turning up a missing piece of a puzzle. The fun of finding a colorful family secret that shows us to be not just a family of goody-goodies. Those have been high points in my research.


Oh, certainly there have been sad events—tragedies in each branch of the family. Such as the death of Guttorm  Guttormson, the brother of my great-grandfather Helge.   I read in a history of Green County, Wisconsin that Guttorm “slid from the top of a haystack and fell upon the prongs of a fork which penetrated his vitals, causing death in twenty-two hours.” How sad for him that his life ended while he was still in his twenties. How sad for his wife to be left alone with their young child.  But to my mind, saddest of all is the thought of Guttorm's mother, Barbro, losing her firstborn child as she was either carrying, or soon to be pregnant with, her thirteenth and last child. Yes, the whole sorry event is sad.


But the other evening, I discovered something  that goes beyond sad. What I discovered was disturbing. Disturbing enough that I wasn't sure I would sleep that night. It was a story I pieced together relating to my mother's great uncle Pete. He was her father's uncle and although I have a couple photographs of him, I really didn't know anything about him. Did he have children? Was he ever married or was he a bachelor? 

 
Uncle Pete

It only took checking a couple of census records to find some answers. The 1880 US census showed that Simon Peter Odenweller had been married to a young woman with the unusual name of Lether Creel.  They had a one-year-old boy named Roy. In the next census in 1890, both wife and child were gone.  Sad, but still just sad. The disturbing part was yet to come.


Roy did not show up again until the 1900 census when he was twenty-one years old. In that census, next to his age in the column designating status in the household, instead of “head” or “son of head” he was identified as “patient”. Looking at the lines above and below his, I saw that almost everyone on that page was identified as a patient. Some had “physician” or “attendant” by their names. Maybe he had TB and was in a sanatorium?


I looked at the previous page—again, all patients, physicians and attendants. I went all the way back to page one (there were 38 pages in all) and found the title page of the entire document.  This census file was entitled “Central Illinois Hospital for the Insane.” It was a punch to the gut.  How many years had he been imprisoned there? What kind of treatment did he suffer? Did he ever have visitors?  Who would ever know?


In those days, hospitals for the insane housed not only people with mental problems, but also people with other infirmities:   epilepsy, “post partum syndrome”, physical disabilities.  Some patients were committed by family members as punishment or as a means of coercion.  I did a little research on the Central Illinois Hospital for the Insane and found that one woman, Elizabeth Packard, had been held there from 1860 to 1863—committed by her husband because she had challenged his religious views.  After her release, this brave woman worked to bring about a piece of legislation to protect other women from similar persecution.


In a Google search, I turned up an image of the hospital in the form of a postcard. From the year 1909, the photograph showed an attractive spreading building surrounded by lovely grounds. On the postcard was scrawled the message, “This is where I sing. I guess you are right they are the only people who will stand for it. Ha ha.” I'm sure the joke was representative of the attitude at the time—no offense intended and a good laugh was had by all.


The name of the institution underwent a change some time after that postcard had been written and sent.  To reflect the changing perceptions of mental health and approaches to mental health care, it was renamed The Jacksonville Mental Health and Developmental Center.  The building itself was demolished in the 1970's.


As for my relative, Roy W Odenweller, no more information is available beyond a photo of a gravestone with his name along with some other Odenweller names.  He lived another nine years, presumably in the same institution, and died at the age of thirty—one year short of the next US census.


 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Military Records—Part 2




James Hays
1740-1817

Gideon Smith's pension application was not my only encounter with the US War Pension Application files. I had also investigated those records in pursuit of information on another Revolutionary War ancestor of mine, James Hays, whose story had me even more on the edge of my seat with all its ups and downs. In addition to the in-depth interview with the applicant, there were testimonies given by many people who swore to his upstanding character and trustworthiness, to his patriotism, bravery and truthfulness.

I remember how my hopes soared on reading each of these affidavits only to plunge when I reached the next page to find a heartless, official letter demanding yet more details. And to think how we decry the shabby way our Afghan and Iraq veterans are treated today, as if veterans in the good old days were shown the proper respect and support that they had earned. Well, they had poor ole James jumping through hoops. The officials would ask for more. He, or someone on his behalf,would give them what they asked for. There was a heart-breaking letter from him saying how he had served his country, had been happy to do so, had gone on to live his civilian life supporting himself and his family with good, honest labor, but now he had fallen ill and could no longer meet his daily needs. The following page showed simply a copy of the original application form, this time stamped “Denied”. I was incensed! How could they cold-heartedly turn their backs on this man who had stated his just and righteous case?

Then something caught my eye. It was a date—a date that was way off. It was a date way past the time James Hays had died. My James Hays anyway. It seems I had gone a few pages too far and had wandered into some other James Hays's war record—from some other war. A wave of relief swept over me as I realized there was hope yet for my James Hays. I felt bad about that poor James Hays in Kentucky who had been denied his pension, but for the time being anyway my ancestor's case was still open.

Again, stay tuned.