Friday, March 25, 2011

Grandma Karen and Her Feather Bed

It was nine feet tall and six feet wide
soft as a downey chick
It was made from the feathers of forty eleven geese
took a whole bolt of cloth for the tick
It'd hold eight kids n' four hound dogs
and a piggy we stole from the shed
We didn't get much sleep but we had a lot of fun

on Grandma's feather bed [1]

Karen Bue Berge, early 1900s.

Karen (Bue) Berge was one of my maternal great great grandmothers--each one of them a Norwegian immigrant who experienced the anguish of leaving home and family they would likely never see again, in order to forge a better life on the mid-19th century American frontier. Before Karen died from pulmonary emphysema in 1914, she devised a will, which was uncharacteristic of farming women of her time. It reads:

First. I order and direct that my executrix hereinafter named pay al my just debts. And I direct that my funeral expenses and the expense of the admistration be paid out of and made a charge upon the homestead hereinafter devised.
Second. After the payment of such funeral expenses and expenses of adminstration I give and devise unto my beloved daughter, Gunda C. Overson, my homestead, described as the East half of Lot 13, and all except the East ten feet of Lot 14 in Block 21, in the original Townsite of Granite Falls, Minnesota.
Third. I give and devise unto my beloved daughter, Sophia G. Skrukrud, two lots now owned by me in Lillehammer, Norway. I request that the said lots last mentioned be retained unsold by my said last named daughter, as I consider it would be for her best interest to retain

Fourth. I give and bequeath unto my said daughter, Sophia G. Skrukrud, my featherbed, now in my possession at my home.
Fifth. I give and bequeath unto my four children, Ole B. Berge, Ottilia A. Erlandson, Gunda C. Overson, and Sophia G. Skrukrud, all my clothing, personal effects, and wearing apparel, to be divided among them as nearly equally as may be. And I do further give, devise and bequeath unto my said four children all the rest, residue and remainder of my estate.
Lastly. I do hereby constitute my said daughter, Gunda C. Overson, to be the executrix of this my Will, hereby revoking all fomer Wills by me made.

[Karen Berge]

Witnessed by
Ole P. Skorseth
Bert O. Loe

That Karen would have even mentioned her feather bed among the specific items bequeathed in her will, including a homestead and properties in Norway, is quite interesting. It either attests to her pride of ownership of such an item, or it was an attempt to eliminate sibling squabbling over a highly favored piece of furniture. It made me smile to discover the reference when reading her will for the first time.

Karen Bue Berge (seated), with her daughters, ca. 1910.  Standing, (L to R):  Gunda Overson, Sophie Skrukrud, and Othilie Erlandson.

Karen Olsdatter Bue was born on August 19, 1839 on Bue Farm in Faaberg (near Lillehammer), Norway, to Ole Pedersen Kraaboel Bue and Berthe Pedersdatter Bue. Karen had four siblings: Martha Olsdatter Bue (b. April 5, 1835), Petter Olsen Bue (b. 1841), Simon Emil Bue (b. March 21, 1847), and Thina Olsdatter Bue (b. 1849). On December 28, 1860, she married Gulbran Olsen Berge in Faaberg. The couple emigrated from Norway before their marriage had aged a decade. In April 1868, Gulbran boarded the sailing vessel, the Hannah Parr, bound for Quebec in North America, while Karen stayed behind in Norway with their two children, Othilie Annette (b. October 27, 1861) and Ole Benhart--my great grandfather (b. October 30, 1864). Karen was expecting a third child at the time of her husband's departure, but the baby, named Gunda C., died soon after being born on December 21. Gulbran Berge never saw his new infant daughter.

During the spring or summer of 1869, Karen and two children left Norway to join Gulbran in Minnesota. Several more children followed after the couple settled on a sixty-acre homestead in Leenthrop Township, Chippewa County: Gunda Caroline (b. June 26, 1872), Berthe Bergine (b..May 5, 1874 and died as an infant), Jorgen Benhart (b. in 1878 and died in 1880), and Sophie Georgine (b. July 16, 1881).

Karen Bue Berge as a middle-aged woman.  Chippewa County, Minnesota, 1870s.

When their youngest child was but a year old, Gulbran came down with consumption (tuberculosis), and passed on soon after, leaving his family to fend for themselves. His funeral was attending by about eight-five neighbors and friends during the height of a prarie winter in January 1883. Karen and her underage children, Gunda and Sophie, were probably aided by her grown children in the years to follow. There were twenty years separating the births of Othilie, the eldest child, and Sophie, the youngest, and Othilie had become a married woman a few years before, in 1879.

Karen's obitutary, published in the Granite Falls Tribune on September 3, 1914, was more extensive than for most women of modest means, especially a longtime widow:

Mrs. Berge, the mother of Mrs. Overson, passed away last Friday, September 4th, after a long illness. Her age was 75 years.

Deceased was born in Lillehammer, Norway, August 12th, 1839, and came to this country when a young woman. She has resided in Chippewa County for the past 43 years, being one of the first settlers and pioneers of the county. Previous to her residence there she lived at Mankato for three years.

She was a woman of a kind disposition and open hearted hospitality, the characteristics predominant among most pioneers, and always willing to do more than her share to lighten the
world's burdens for others.

She is survived by four children who will revere and honor her memory. They are Mrs. Edw. Elandson, Maynard; Mr. Ole B. Berge, Leonard, Minn; Mrs. G. T. Skrukrud and Mrs. Overson, of this city.

Funeral services were held this afternoon, the hour being 2:00 o'clock at the house and 2:30 at the United Lutheran church. Both Rev. M. B. Eriksen, of Maynard, and Rev. O. J. Eriksen, of this city officiated. Interment was made in the Lutheran cemetery. [3]

[1] Excerpt from "Grandma's Feather Bed." Music and lyrics by Jim Connor; performed by John Denver.
[2] Last Will and Testament of Karen Berge, Chippewa County Court Records, Montevideo, Minnesota.
[3] Obituary of "Mrs. Berge" [Karen (Bue) Berge]. "Granite Falls Tribune," September 8, 1914.

Friday, March 11, 2011

"New" Vaterland Family Photos

In my last post, I wrote about the Hans Thorsen Slaaen and Anne Thorsdatter Vaterland family that settled in Coon Valley, Wisconsin, after emigrating from Nordre Fron, Gubrandsdalen, Norway in 1853. Their youngest child, Anne Marie Slaaen, was one of my great grandmothers, who was born in a covered wagon near Swan Lake as the family traveled from Wisconsin to homestead in Chippewa County, Minnesota.

Photo #1, ca. 1860, inscribed "Anne and Mary 'Sloan."
Photo courtesy of Michael Siverhus.

The Slaaen (Sloan)/Vaterland branches are the parts of my mother's family that I know the least about. But, no sooner did I renew my interest in pursuing more information, than I received a wonderful surprise from one of my internet cousins. I say "internet cousin," because although we are blood related, I have only met Mike through e-mail correspondence. He contacted me a few years ago after seeing a notice I had posted in the Chippewa County Historical Society newsletter. I have several internet cousins whom I share information with, and this collaboration has helped me to make great inroads in genealogical research. Hopefully, I have been of some help to them, as well.

(Note: I use the names Slaaen/Sloan interchangeably, because although the original Norwegian surname was "Slaaen," the family adopted the Americanized version of "Sloan" after a few years in America.)

The surprise was a couple of photographs Mike found while visiting his mother recently. He thought they applied more to my side of the family than his, and so, he sent them along. The lovely mid-19th century photo above is of sisters: "Anne and Mary Sloan" is written on the back.

Photo #2, ca. 1875, is inscribed: "Sister to "Pa's--Grandmother Annie Sloan."
Photo courtesy of Michael Siverhus.

This second photo, which is of excellent clarity and quality, is apparently of two sisters with their elderly mother (seated), although the inscription is more difficult to decipher: "Sister to Pa's--Grandmother Annie Sloan." The main questions are: who is "Pa," and which woman is the "Grandmother" referred to in the inscription?

There was another problem getting in the way of accurate identification of the women in the two photographs. As with many families, the names "Anne/Anna/Annie" and "Mary/Mari/Marie" were popular among Norwegians, and there were more than a few of the same name among the Slaaens and Vaterlands, and more than a few spelling variations, as well.

Photo #2 really set me thinking. I was not aware of any "Sloan" sisters by the name of Anne and Mary, although the shorter woman standing on the left looked familiar to me. I compared the photo to one of my great great grandmother (Anne Vaterland Slaaen), taken with the rest of her family, ca. 1890, and lo and behold, I found it to be the same woman. Could it be that the women in the second photo are actually Vaterlands, then, and not Sloans?

Photo #3:  Anne Vaterland Slaaen, ca. 1890,
 Chippewa County, Minnesota (cropped photo from the
 Hans T. Slaaen family portait in my previous blog post)

The woman in Photo #3, whom I know to be my great great grandmother, Anne Vaterland Slaaen/Sloan, appears harried and thin, almost gaunt, compared to the calm and appealing older woman standing on the left ("Grandmother Annie Sloan") in Photo #2, but they are indeed the same woman. Look carefully at the hairline, the droop of the eyes, the set of the mouth, and the distance between the nose and mouth. In 1890, Anne was in her seventies and had experienced a lifetime of hard work. Some 15 years earlier, as in Photo #2 (see cropped version below), she was not quite as thin.  Photo #2 had to have been taken in the mid 1870s, because Marit Pedersdatter Vaterland, the seated woman who appears to be the mother of the other women, died in 1878 in Washington Township, La Crosse County, Wisconsin.

Cropped image of Anne Vaterland Slaaen,
 ca. 1875 (from Photo #2)

My conclusion? The photos are actually Vaterland women, and not Slaaens/Sloans, in spite of the inscriptions on the back of the photos. Anne may have married a Slaaen, but her sister and mother could not lay claim to that name. When someone wrote on the back of the photos, perhaps many years after they were taken, Anne's maiden name had probably been forgotten, and the exact relationship of the women in Photo #2 was no longer clear.

But, did Anne Vaterland Slaaen actually have a sister named Mary, as the inscription on Photo #1 indicates?  While searching for proof, I took another look at a pioneer biography of Anne Vaterland Slaaen's father that I found in a book by Hjalmar R. Holand, some years ago. It reads:

"Thor Johannessen Vaterland was born in Nordre Fron, Norway, April 8, 1808. He emigrated to America in 1858, and settled in Coon Valley on section 35, Town of Washington, La Crosse County, the same year. He was married to Marit Pedersen with whom he had two children: Mari and Anne..." [1]

Thanks to my internet cousin, not only have we "found" two more photographs of our great great grandmother, Anne Vaterland Slaaen, but we have also met the acquaintance of her sister, Mary/Mari Vaterland, and their mother, Marit Pedersdatter Øyen Vaterland.

I now have a photograph of my great great GREAT grandmother; how cool is THAT?

[1] Holand, Hjalmar R. "Coon Valley: An Historical Account of the Norwegian Congregations in Coon Valley." Augsburg Publishing: Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1928, p.201.

Other source:

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Little Church in Upper Coon Valley--A Family Icon

In 1841, Gulbrand Gunderson Skaret and his family from Sigdal, in eastern Norway, became the first white settlers in Coon Valley, Wisconsin. Sadly, this first immigrant family did not fare very well, suffering the hardships of wilderness and isolation, and death from Asiatic cholera after ten years of working the land. It would not be until the end of the decade that other Norwegians began to find some success in Coon Valley, and immigration to the area began in earnest. After a heavy period of settlement from 1852-54, almost all the well-situated and valuable land was spoken for.

It is no surprise why early Norwegian immigrants clustered around the welcoming scenery in Coon Valley, Wisconsin. According to many who lived in the valley, which lies a few miles south east of La Crosse, Wisconsin, there is scarcely found a more quiet, pleasant and secluded place. The surrounding wooded ridges, about 500 feet high, act as a protective wall around the entire valley, providing a sense of peace, security, and even coziness. The valley is about 25 miles in length, with numerous branch valleys, but it feels like everyone belongs to the same neighborhood with similar conditions and interests.[1]

The vast majority of early settlers in Coon Valley were poor. My immigrant ancestors were no exception. Women were expected to work exceptionally hard at all sorts of different tasks, so it is no wonder that Norwegian immigrant women often looked older than their years. They were expected to do all of the housekeeping and food preparation. They also had to spin, knit, weave, and sew inbetween heavier tasks, maintain the barn(s), bind wheat together during harvests, and engage in child rearing and holiday preparation.

Several branches of my mother's Norwegian family settled in Upper Coon Valley after coming to America. The first of my ancestors to arrive was the Slaaen family. Soon after, they adopted an Americanized version of their name: "Sloan." A pioneer biography for Hans Thorsen Slaaen, my great great grandfather, is included among others for the Upper Coon Valley during this early period of settlement (when the biographer writes that Hans T. Slaaen "moved west" from Coon Valley, Wisconsin, he meant only as far as Chippewa County, Minnesota):

Hans Thorsen Slaaen was born in Nordre Fron, Gudbrandsdalen, Norway, the son of Thor and Kari Slaaen. He emigrated to America in 1853, and settled in Coon Valley on Section 36, Town of Washington, La Cross County, in 1858, where he owned 160 acres. In 1851 [Norway] he was married to Anne Thorsdatter Vaterland, with whom he had the following children: Thor, Mathia, Karen, Thorwald, John, and Maria. Hans T Slaaen moved west, and died there.[2]

The Hans Thorsen Slaaen family. (Left to right), back row:  Karen, Thorwald (?), John (?), and Anne Marie (my great grandmother); front row:  Thor, Hans, Anne, and Mathia.  Photo ca. 1890, probably Chippewa County, Minnesota.

The Slaaens, like most of their fellow Norwegian immigrants, were devoted Lutherans. Originally, there was only one congregation in the whole of Coon Valley. In 1859, some members withdrew and built their own church in Lower Coon Valley, while a third was built in the Upper Valley at about the same time. The first Upper Coon Valley church that the Slaaens attended, pictured below, was in the cemetery opposite the later (1928 era) church, which was situated on an acre of land purchased from Christopher Hansen for the sum of $6.00.[3]

Although the old church was not large or costly, it took twelve years before it was ready. During the Civil War years times were particularly difficult, although the minister's wages were relatively high for the number of worship services the congregation received.[4]

"The Old Church in Upper Coon Valley"--the original Coon Valley Church was a log cabin.  This photo of an early painting was taken in the 1980s by Kristie Formolo, when she spotted it hanging on a basement wall during a tour of the current Coon Valley Church.

Norwegian immigrants depended upon the Lutheran church, not only for matters of faith, but also for security, community, and socialization outside of their day to day labors. Churches such as this one were the core of the early Norwegian-American experience, creating stability and offering support, promoting neighborliness, and making it possible for neighboring families to come to know one another well. With the help of the church, the Norwegian immigrant cluster in the familiar yet foreign landscape of Coon Valley resulted in the mingling and marriages between families from many parts of Norway. The rest is, well... family history!

[1] Holand, Hjalmar R.. Coon Valley: An Historical Account of the Norwegian Congregations in Coon Valley (Written for the 75th Anniversary of the Congregation in 1928). Augsburg Publishing House: La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1928, p.10.
[2] Holand, p.193.
[3] Holand, p.93.
[4] Holand, p.98.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Will the Real "Norden" Please Flap Your Sails?

In family history research, it is all too easy to take a wrong turn, as I was recently reminded.

A good part of my research for a recently published family history dealt with the emigrant voyage of my great great grandparents, Baard and Thibertine Johnson, and their two children, Ole and Ellen Julie (Julia). There was no doubt, according to Digitalarkivet (Norwegian census), that the family sailed from Bergen, Norway aboard the bark-rigged ship, Norden, on May 5, 1866. Many of the passengers, including my ancestors, were destined for the midwestern United States via Quebec. It was a common route for America-travelers at that time.

Though my family book has been published, I am a firm believer in always keeping an eye out for new sources and details. So, even though the ink has dried on the page, it does not mean that every last word has been written. While sleuthing around for information concerning a different project, I found an obscure bibliographic reference on the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA) website that caught my interest: Tollefson, Arne. "The Voyage of the three-masted vessel, the 'Norden,' in 1866, from Bodoe, Norway, to Quebec." Norden, 23 (Dec. 1931). The article is based on the recounting of voyage events by a surviving Norden passenger.

Wow! What's this? I excitedly tracked down the journal via interlibrary loan. When it arrived, I was a bit disappointed to find it is only two pages long, yet it is quite interesting, nonetheless. I had hoped to find detailed information about the exact voyage my great great grandparents experienced. Instead, I found something quite different--a valuable lesson.

It turns out there was not just one ship named Norden that made a voyage from Norway to Quebec during the spring of 1866, but two! How could that be? Well, I cannot claim to know how the mid-19th-century shipping industry handled vessel identification concerns, but from a 21st-century research perspective, the potential for making an incorrect assumption loomed large.

According to the article, the other Norden was built at Bath, Maine in 1849, and was sold in 1863 to a Bergen shipowner, who renamed it from the original: Zenobia. By 1866, this Norden was described as " ...old and decrepit. The hull was mellow with age. The masts were rotten. It was wide of beam and a slow sailer." "My" Norden was eight years older than that, so what did that make her, I wonder? At least she held together long enough to get my ancestors to dry land in North America.

Another interesting fact is that the Norden on which my ancestors sailed left Bergen on May 5, 1866, and took only 30 days to reach Quebec. The Maine-built Norden left Bodoe, Norway on June 3, 1866, carrying about 700 passengers, and it did not arrive in Quebec until ten weeks later. "...the Norden staggered westward on her unhurried way day after day, and through-out the long nights for weeks and weeks--aye months." The ship's supplies were running out, and the water supply was low, and what there was on hand became foul. At the end of the tenth week, another ship was hailed off the New Foundland coast so that flour and salt pork could be purchased. Ten whole weeks at sea... I can only think the good ship and crew must have fought a head wind the whole way.

Though fairly short, the article relates a compelling story, well told, even though it is not my own ancestors' story, as I had hoped.

Perhaps the moral of this story is that before we can assert something as a fact, we should always seek the "triangle of proof": three sources that indicate roughly the same thing. The instructors in a certificate program in genealogy and family history that I attended always cautioned their neophyte genealogists to seek the triangle of proof as a method of weighing the truth of any fact.

Early on in my research, had I not known from another source that "my" Norden was built in 1841 at Åbo Gamla Skeppsvarv, Finland (thank you, Norway Heritage), or seen the passenger list information, complete with dates, on Digitalarkivet, or known from family members that my Johnson ancestors lived closer to the port of Trondheim than Bodoe, Norway, I might have turned a wistful blind eye to some minor inconsistencies in the article and globbed onto it as one of my prime sources. And, I would have been completely mistaken. Thank goodness I was on the track of the correct Norden from the very beginning, and, thank goodness both "old and decrepit" ships named Norden managed to limp from one side of the Atlantic the other in 1866.