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 Chrisopher 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 Congrations 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.