Friday, August 10, 2007

The Irish Adventure of the Hannah Parr

Gulbran Olsen Berge, ca. 1870s.
Chippewa County, Minnesota.

On April 12, 1868, Gulbran Olsen Berge departed Christiania (Oslo), Norway for Quebec aboard the Norwegian emigrant sailing ship, Hannah Parr. Berge left behind a wife, Karen (Bue) Berge, and several children in Gudbrandsdalen Valley, Norway as he made his way to the United States to secure a new life for his family. The ship's list, published on the Norway Heritage website, recorded his passenger information as: Gulbrand Olsen Berget, 32, married - Residence Gausdal, Gudbrandsdalen.
The voyage of the Hannah Parr should have been just another routine crossing, despite primitive conditions that were common aboard early emigrant ships, but it ended up being one of the better documented sailing voyages in the history of early Norwegian-American migrations because of its exceptional nature. After the ship left Norway, it was not until 107 days later that the travelers finally reached their destination of North America, since severe storm damage forced them to make an extended layover in Ireland.

The Hannah Parr encountered severe weather when it reached the mid-Atlantic. On the second day of the storm, a large wave over the stern took out the pilothouse and its gear, as well as the kitchen, and left the ship with hardly any riggings or sail. After the storm subsided, the ship made its way slowly back to Ireland, where it docked for repairs at Limerick.

Gulbran Berge kept a diary throughout the voyage, though it consisted of mostly short reports about weather conditions. His descriptions became more extensive during and after the storm. For April 27-28, 1868, his notes read:

...We ran into a bad storm that lasted 2 days, and everyone thought they would die. The storm began the night of the 28th and lasted until 12 o'clock midnight of the 29th. We lost almost everything that was on the deck. The captain's quarters were completely wrecked. ...The kitchen was washed overboard. The sails and riggings were destroyed by the wind. ...The captain would have been blown off the ship if the one who steered the boat had not rescued him. The foremast was blown off, but we made some use of it. The captain said he had never been in such a storm before. He had never heard of another emigrant ship that it had happened to like it did to us. Three people were hurt, and some were so tired because they had not slept for 72 hours.

The ship turned about and headed back to the nearest land for repairs, anchoring temporarily in the Irish islands at the mouth of the Shannon estuary before continuing on to Limerick. On May 7, Berge wrote:

...Many came on board to sell food and other things. They took up the anchor, and since no steamboat had come we continued on our way because we had the tide with us [...] In between the rivers it was very pretty. The leaves, potatoes, and corn were as big as they were in mid-summer in Norway. When we came ashore we were met by many people, and they looked at us like we had come from another world. They followed us around so much we could hardly move. At night three or four men had to keep watch on deck, and every day hundreds of people came to look at the ship without sails.

While the Hannah Parr was undergoing repairs, there was a great deal of interaction between the traumatized Norwegian emigrants and their curious, hospitable, and lively Irish hosts:

May 10 - [We] all wished to go on a trip on the railroad for a few miles inland, and this was an enjoyable trip. Some gentlemen treated us to 40 pints of Port wine which was all drunk up, and some felt happy from it [most likely a translation mistake, since letters by other passengers mention "porter" (beer)].

May 11 - ...When we were in Limerick we had a very good time. The people did all they could to make it pleasant for us [...] Two hundred of us went to the theater, and even though none of us understood what they said, we enjoyed it. The work on the ship went slow... we were laid up there about six weeks. We sailed from Limerick the 9th of June, and although we were not ready we had to leave because the tide would go out so no ship could come in or go out for 10 days. We transferred to a steamship four miles out of town where we cast anchor to get ourselves entirely ready, and we thought we would be there only a few days. While we were anchored there, most of the passengers had to send word back to Limerick for food because we left in such a hurry we didn't get time to buy all we needed.

After departing the Irish coast to face the Atlantic once again, the Norwegian emigrants found that new passengers accompanied them on the remainder of the voyage, namely: lice, and the dreaded disease, typhoid fever. Only a few deaths resulted, however.

Clair O. Haugen and James Overdahl collaborated on Hannah Parr research, and Haugen wrote a background article for the Norway Heritage website: The LONG Crossing of the Hannah Parr. Also included online are Hannah Parr related photographs, the diary of Gulbran Olsen Berge, and letters by two of his fellow travelers describing events.

Hannah Parr the Subject of Arts Collaboration in Limerick

Recently, a children's theater group in Limerick, Ireland performed a play about events surrounding the 1868 voyage of the Hannah Parr, after discovering that some Norwegian children from the ship were buried in a local churchyard. With the help of Haugen and Overdahl, known Hannah Parr descendants were contacted and asked to submit vocal greetings to the Irish children, to help give a better sense of history of the ship and its passengers. In my own greeting, I asked the children to remember that "an act of kindness can last several lifetimes." Without the hospitality of the citizens of Limerick, my great great grandfather, Gulbran Olsen Berge, would not have continued his voyage to America. Had he not continued his travels at that time, it is likely that his son, Ole Benhart Berge, would never have met his Norwegian-American wife, and my grandmother would never have been born, and consequently, I would never have been born... and so it goes.

An Irish entertainment website contains a review of the collaboration between the Island Theatre Company, St Marys Local Arts Group, and the 16 children from Limerick who participated: Cheebah - Hannah Parr.

Growing New Roots on the Minnesota Prairie

Ole Benhardt Berge, 1869, Norway.

Karen Bue Berge, 1879s.
Chippewa County, Minnesota

The Berge family was eventually reunited a year later, in 1869, when Gulbran's wife. Karen, and their two children, Othillie and Ole, made the transatlantic crossing from Norway. It was the custom for family members to have photographs taken at the point of embarkation, and to mail them home as mementos. In 1869, little Ole was photographed with a miniature pipe in his mouth. It was a sight meant, no doubt, to make Farfar and Farmor extra proud of their grandson, the liten mann (little man) who was about to brave the open seas to help his papa make good in America. The pipe and the original box it was sold in is currently in the possession of one of Ole Benhart Berge's grandsons in Minnesota.
Gulbran and Karen Berge homesteaded in Leenthrop Township, Chippewa County, Minnesota, and had two more daughters after being reunited: Gunda and Sophie. Their son, Ole, who immigrated to America as a boy, eventually had 10 children of his own, one of whom was my grandmother, Esther Agnes Berge. Gulbran Olsen Berge died in his forties from tuberculosis; his death certificate indicates that he was interred at Saron Lutheran Cemetery, also in Leenthrop Township. Saron Lutheran Church, which was built a few years after Berge's death, does not include the grave in its registry, and a marker has not been found.

Many years after Gulbran's death, his sea voyage diaries were stored in a garage and became weather damaged. Only one volume of his notes survived, and it was translated from Norwegian to English by one of Gulbran and Karen Berge's daughters, after which the translation was distributed to many family members. So, because of multiple, individual steps, including the unexpected kindess of Irish strangers, and the passing down of an old weather-worn and nearly unreadable diary, this bit of Norwegian emigrant history has survived to inspire us all.

Inspiration, in my opinion, is what the pursuit of genealogy and family history is all about. Genealogy should never be an end unto itself, with family data existing merely as a collection of names and dates. When genealogy is combined with family and social history, a living timeline of people, events, and challenges can be woven together in a braided chain that serves to strengthen the meaning of our current reality. Thus, genealogy and family history mirror collective human experience in a very personal way.