Thursday, April 05, 2007

Why Did She Do It?

Time for an exercise in genealogy and social history detective work. Are you ready?


You are a Norwegian immigrant woman of good health living on the Chippewa prairie in southwestern Minnesota. You and your first husband came from Norway with two young children in 1866, and set up a homestead near the Minnesota River in 1868--one of the first pioneer families to settle in the area. In 1873, your husband dies from typhoid fever during the height of summer, leaving you alone with a 12 year old son, a 10 year old daughter, livestock to tend, crops to bring in, and bills to pay.

Along comes an upstanding local young man to the rescue, also a Norwegian immigrant. He quickly proposes, even though he is nearly ten years your junior. You decide you will marry him, but become pregnant before the homestead in your first husband's name can be finalized. The homestead is your son's rightful inheritance from his father, and you do not wish to start over again under your second husband's name. So, you decide to live together until the marriage can take place. The child, a daughter, is born about eight months before you marry her father. You are 32 years old at the time. After the homestead claim is finalized and your son by your first marriage is secure in his inheritance, you marry your second husband in March 1874.

With me so far?

During the mid-1870s, southwestern Minnesota suffered from repeated locust infestations, which severely depleted resources and plunged many families into heavy debt. You and your new husband, your baby, and your two children from your first marriage find it hard to make ends meet. Your husband tries farming, but he eventually makes plans to read for the law and become an attorney, and slowly relegates the farm responsibilities to your son, who is now becoming a young man. Circumstances will improve in the future, but for now, times are hard.

While waiting to be legally married, you become pregnant yet again. A few months later, during the summer of 1874, you and your husband give your healthy and beautiful one-year old daughter to her paternal grandparents, who live on a homestead nearby. You give birth to a new baby boy in September 1874. In future years, you will have six more children with your second husband, and the only one "given away" was the first-born daughter.


Since you are a kind, thoughtful woman of traditional Norwegian upbringing, raised as a practicing Lutheran, you would not indulge in considering your own needs first. If you struggled to put food on the table and manage a homestead, you would still carry on, stoically working for the good of your family. If you were tired or had postpartum depression, you would most likely just deal with it. You may not have really wanted to come to America in the first place, but were obligated to follow your husband's dream.

Secondly, your new in laws (your second husband's parents), only had one other son living with them, but he was old enough to help with farming. They had no daughters, however. What would the grandparents gain by bringing a one year old girl into their household? Perhaps they would gain household help in future, but for the time being, the toddler would provide only company and extra work.

In spite of giving your daughter to your in-laws to raise, she is still listed as a member of your immediate family in church congregation records. She lives only a few miles distant; you attend the same church, and you are fortunate enough to see her often.

When your "donated" daughter is 16, she writes a letter to family friends saying that she is indeed your husband's daughter, but that she has lived with her grandparents since the age of one. There is no question, therefore, that your daughter continued to live with her grandparents.


Why did you allow your daughter to go live with her grandparents? Was it illness during pregnancy or postpartum depression? If so, why did the grandparents not give your daughter back when you were well again? Was it poverty during those early years of homesteading? Once again, things eventually got better, and your daughter could have been returned to you... so, why not? Was filial duty the reason? Perhaps your mother-in-law anxious for a daughter of her own to raise, and you bended to her wishes under pressure? Was it your cultural obligation to provide comfort to your in-laws in the form of a dependent child?

I encourage you to think about the questions presented here and come up with possible explanations, taking into consideration, of course, Norwegian culture and tradition, the pioneer way of life, and potentially unknown factors.

Let me know what you think.

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