Wednesday, January 09, 2019

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks (Week 2): Challenge


Grandma would never have had a child out of wedlock... right?

One of the first challenges I had to master as a budding family historian was to resist the temptation to judge too hastily.  It is a common pitfall, especially in the beginning when the cascading effects of success in genealogy research encourages one to gather more and more, faster and faster!

My goal was to write a well researched family history, so I tasked myself with finding out the date of my great-great grandmother's marriage to her second husband.  It was not forthcoming via the usual sources.  There was no family Bible to be found, no family data on the matter, and nothing showed up in the usual online sources.  There were no anniversary celebration announcements in their local papers.  The data did not even appear on after Evangelical Lutheran Church of America records were scanned and transcribed for the family's locality in Chippewa County, Minnesota.

Eric and Bertina Winje with four of their children, ca. 1888.

Thibertine "Bertina" Olsdatter, my great-great grandmother, emigrated from Nord-Trondelag, Norway in 1866, traveling on the sailing bark, Norden.  She was accompanied by her husband, Baard Johnson, and their two children, Ole (my great grandfather), and Julia.  After setting up one of the earliest homesteads near Granite Falls in Chippewa County, Baard died from typhoid fever at age 37 during the summer of 1872, leaving his widow to figure out a way to support both the farm and her family.  To make matters worse, Baard died in July, during the height of growing season.  This would never do.  Who would labor in the barn and in the fields, and bring in the crops?  Though Bertina was by default a hard worker (she was a Norwegian-American pioneer woman, after all), it was way too much responsibility for one diminutive woman of less than five feet in height with two underage children to handle.

Early pioneer communities embraced a creed of helping one another because it was often a matter of life or death for those in need.  Bertina probably found that her neighbors and fellow congregation members rushed in to assist in whatever ways they could, without being asked.  One of her Norwegian neighbors had a 21-year-old son by the name of Eric Winje.  Although he was ten years younger than Bertina, it seems that he may have helped the widow with the farm work and took a liking to her.  She was, after all, petite, red-haired, good natured, and so I've heard, fun-loving.  They were married soon after, as the understanding goes.  Their first child, a lovely dark-haired daughter they named Berthe Regine ("Regina"), was born on July 12, 1873.  I assumed, therefore, that the marriage took place before Regina was born.  For one thing, Bertina was a traditionally raised Evangelical Lutheran, and for another, childbirth while unmarried resulted in unpleasant consequences during pre-modern times, even in frontier culture.  I had no reason to believe that she would intentionally risk disapproval from her community and/or church congregation.  How her character was viewed was very important to her family's overall well-being.

Bertina was probably beholding to her champion, and Eric may have been looking for a way to start his own life and separate from his father's farm.  But, not to worry--it all ended well, and the couple eventually had seven more children and lived to see their 50th wedding anniversary.  My search for a marriage date continued.  Anxious to find out more about the homestead, I sent for the property records.  When the papers arrived, the elusive date was found inside the document.  (Research note:  although you can find homestead certificates on, what you will see is only the first page--the certificate.  To see the entire file that contains much more information, you need to send away for it at the National Archives and Records Administration.)

The Land Entry File shows that Baard Johnson began his homestead commitment in October 1868.  The title transfer granted to his widow under the provisions of the Homestead Act was made on October 19, 1875, only two days before the expiration date of the claim.  On the document, Bertina is listed by her new married name of "Winje," and also identified as the widow of "Berndt" (Baard) Johnson.  On the final affidavit (the last page of the file), her marriage date to Eric Winje is listed as March 15, 1874, about eight months after the birth of their first child, Regina.

Wellll, Grandma, what's the story?

A genealogy instructor later helped me with this puzzle.  According to her, as a widow, Bertina had several choices:  1) complete the 5-year homesteading requirement on her own; 2) forfeit the application; or, 3) remarry before the 5-year requirement was completed and apply again under her new husband's name, thus delaying the land claim process an additional five years.  Since Bertina had a son (Ole) by her first husband, she obviously wanted to protect Ole's right to inherit his father's land.  The result was that Eric and Bertina decided to live as common-law husband and wife for nearly two years before getting married.

What were the repercussions of their decision within their conservative community, you may ask?  Remember, we cannot attribute modern-day tendencies and sensibilities to eras of the past.  They had they own stuff to deal with.  That is why studying social history while you do genealogy is so important:  you must learn to understand the times and environment that your ancestor lived in.

Although individuals within their early pioneer community may have privately understood and been forgiving of the circumstances, I do not think Eric and Bertina would have risked being perceived as "living in sin," especially since Eric planned to develop a career as a lawyer.  His intentions were fully honorable, but for all intents and purposes, he needed to be viewed as an upstanding citizen.  This meant he needed to abide by the religious and social expectations of his neighbors and peers as much as possible. When he and Bertina did marry, they probably traveled to another county, or at least well outside of their church district for the ceremony and associated paperwork.

I came to the conclusion that the couple most likely pretended to be officially married as soon as they began cohabitation, for the following reasons:  1) not wanting to start the homestead application over from scratch, 2) protecting Ole Johnson's right to inherit his birth father's homestead, 3) the marriage date is "missing" using the usual research methods in the expected localities, 4) they did not dare lie about their marriage date in Federal Government records, even though they hid it from everyone else, and, 4)  the obituaries for both Eric and Bertina incorrectly list "1872" as the year of their marriage (this tells me that the daughters providing the death certificate information were either told the incorrect date, or taken into their parents' confidentiality and asked to keep the actual date a secret).

The real challenge with similar puzzles?  Do your social history homework, think carefully about human nature, and consider every angle before making a judgment.  If possible, ask the opinion of researchers who are familiar with the culture and times of your ancestors.  Even then, you may only be able to discuss a situation based on probability instead of certainty.

It's okay, Grandma... your secret is safe with us.


Source (marriage date for Eric Winje and Thibertine Olsdatter Johnson):  Land Entry File, Cert. 2749, "Johnson, Berndt," Final Affidavit Required of Homestead Claimants," NARA, Washington D.C.