Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Flaming Christmas Tradition

(A repost from four years ago.)

This blog is primarily about Norwegian-American family history, so naturally, you might assume that I would write about a Christmas tradition that crossed the Atlantic Ocean with my ancestors a century and a half ago.  Or, perhaps a story from 80 years ago, when my farming family members were content with modest pleasures for the holidays: a box of apples, a bag of nuts, and a package of ribbon candy brought home by a horse-drawn sleigh through the snow. Then, there is always the puzzling tradition that Norwegian-Americans are still known for: the inevitable holiday consumption of lutefisk.

But, this time, I would instead like to tell you about a more recent holiday tradition: the "Flaming Ice Cream Snowballs" that were always served on the Christmas Eves of my childhood.

Flaming ice cream? Was this something like Baked Alaska--doused with alcohol and artistic flare, and brought to the table consumed in a glorious blue flame? Or, perhaps Snowballs were more related to international-flavored crunchy fried ice cream enjoyed in Mexican Restaurants? But no, the humble Flaming Ice Cream Snowball had a more commercial, blue collar beginning.

Soon after Foremost Dairy Foods created Flaming Ice Cream Snowballs, my mother discovered them in the frozen food compartment at the local Safeway store in Richmond, California. Each year during most of the Fifties and Sixties, they seemed to appear in the store right after Thanksgiving and disappear after the supply had run dry on about New Year's. Mom never failed to remind Dad, who did the majority of the family grocery shopping back then, to "be sure and bring home the snowballs!"

It was no matter that Snowballs were a simple, relatively tasteless, fast food treat. The fact that they were a once-a-year opportunity made them very special to my sister and me, but I think Mom enjoyed the fun of them even more.

Each one was a ball of vanilla ice cream covered with icing, and then dipped into fine coconut. The top was iced with green and red frosting in the shape of a sprig of holly. The snowballs came a half dozen to a box, with a paper doily and red candle for each. When Mom served the snowballs for Christmas Eve dessert, she placed each one on a doily, and pushed a slender candle into the holly-shaped icing. As soon as she lit the candles, she would turn the dining room lights out so that we could all admire the Snowballs in their brief moment of glory. A minute or two later, on came the lights again; everyone blew out their candles and slowly began scrapping off small spoonfuls of the coconut icing before finishing the ice cream.

I do not recall when Snowballs disappeared from the grocery store frozen food cases, but Mom still misses them to this day. I sometimes find myself waxing nostalgic over the memory of them, too, but, it certainly isn't because of their taste. Over the course of a few years, their limited epicurean value suffered even more when the holly-shaped icing atop each Snowball was replaced by a plastic insert. Instead, the nostalgia felt is more due to the realization that even the smallest, most unassuming traditions can bond people, especially during the holidays. Old or new, traditions mean family and security--something we all continue to long for from year to year.

Written for the 61st edition of the Carnival of Genealogy

Image: Flaming Ice Cream Snowballs

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Just Because It's Set in Stone...

There is a very important lesson that any family historian, and indeed, any researcher, needs to learn, and that is to not trust any single source of information as solid fact, not even a headstone or memorial.

Just because it's set in stone, it doesn't mean it's a stone fact.

Perhaps just to ensure that I do not become overly confident as a researcher, two examples of why any one source of information cannot be trusted completely (including those engraved in stone) has hit home with me in recent weeks.  The first example is detailed out in my prior blog post:  Solving the Case of the Missing Civil War Soldier, Thor Paulsen Sloan.  For quite some time, I could not determine where my Norwegian-American Civil War soldier from Wisconsin was buried.  I deduced that his remains were unlikely to be lost, because although he was wounded on the battlefield at Kennesaw Mountain in June 1863, he died as a patient in a Union hospital a few days later.  It turns out that the reason I could not initially find the location of his burial plot was because his name and/or his regiment were recorded incorrectly on important sources: the interment record for the relocation of his remains from the Kennesaw Mountain area to the National Cemetery at Marietta, Georgia, and the headstone at his gravesite.

The second recent example was related to me by a presenter at a genealogy workshop I attended earlier this month.  Family History Expo is a large genealogy conference held each November in the Seattle area.  Eric Stroschein, professional genealogist, was speaking on the subject of genealogical proof standard and the importance of using proper sources and documentation during research.  He detailed a story that illustrated why any single fact should not be taken as the gold standard without a reasonable exhaustive search to back it up, using other sources.

A client had hired Stroschein to research a potential family connection with a Confederate soldier who drowned during an early submarine test dive.  The name of the lost soul was one of several etched on a memorial erected in dedication to the submarine crew members, who died in the line of duty.  The surname of the prospective ancestor was rather unique, and this aided Stroschein while searching among censuses, military records, and other sources.  But, although he was able to trace many records for an individual with the same unusual last name, that surname was always connected with a first name different from the one on the memorial.  In the end, Stroschein succeeded in proving, through Civil War pension records and other sources, that the first name of the client's ancestor is incorrect on the memorial.  Now, that was unexpected.

This possibility makes a genealogy hobbyist feel a little insecure, does it not?  To think that information recorded on official documents, or even on solid tributes, such as headstones and memorials, may contain errors perpetuated by careless or hapless record keepers or decision makers upon the deceased individual... for an eternity.  But, this is where genealogists can really make a difference.  Perhaps it is the excitement of the chase that keeps many of us interested in pursuing family history, but it also has to do with an obsession to set things straight--to weave the various manuscripts, artifacts, and stories into an assemblance that makes sense, and that hopefully, corrects as many errors as possible.

So, as you continue to research, remember to always look for the unexpected, and to conduct as exhaustive a search as possible to answer your genealogical questions.  Your ancestors just may be depending on you to set the record straight!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Solving the Case of the Missing Civil War Soldier: Thor Paulsen Sloan

Only one branch of my mother's Norwegian-American family arrived in the United States early enough to be involved in the Civil War.  Thor Paulsen Sloan (Slaaen) gave his life fighting in the Union Army.  He died on June 27, 1864, as a result of wounds acquired during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia.  Sloan left the Gudbrandsdalen Valley, Oppland, Norway in 1856, along with his parents, Poul Torgeresen and Kari (Svensdatter) Slaaen, and his older brother, Torger Paulsen Slaaen.  The Slaaen Family settled in Coon Valley, Wisconsin, and owned 160 acres on Section 36, Town of Washington.  Thor, who farmed alongside his parents, was born in Nord-Fron, Oppland, Norway on May 20, 1834.  Described as 5 feet 8 inches tall, with blue eyes, dark hair, and a light complexion, he was known to be an intelligent and "quiet, honest, and conscientious man" who had beautiful handwriting. [Buslett, Fifteenth Wisconsin, p.361]

Sergeant Thor P. Sloan, ca. January 1862.
The beginning of the Civil War prompted Sloan to volunteer for military service.  Like many other Norwegian immigrants, he was prepared to give not just allegiance to his newly chosen country, but his life.  When Thor P. Slaaen enlisted for a three-year term in the Union Army on December 11, 1861, he began using an Americanized version of his name:  "Sloan."  At age 28, he was appointed to the rank of Sergeant in Company E of the 15th Wisconsin Regiment, known as the "Scandinavian Regiment."  The men of Company E referred to themselves as "Odin's Rifles."  Sloan spent three months in basic training at Camp Randall, leaving there in March 1862, to join the war with his regiment.  Until July 1863, military records list him as "present" with the 15th Wisconsin, participating in the siege of Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River in Tennessee,  the raid on Union City, Tennessee during the spring of 1862, the 400 mile retreat with General Buell to Louisville, Kentucky, and the Battle of Chaplin Hills at Perryville, Kentucky, and other events.

Thor P. Sloan in civilian clothing, ca. 1860.

The Battle of Murfreesboro in Tennessee, from December 1862 to January 1863--also called the battle of Stone River--brought the first serious casualties for the 15th Regiment. Sloan was taken prisoner during the battle, but he managed to escape soon after.  In a letter dated January 12, 1863, he wrote to his friend, Osten Rulland.  (Note: I have seen several translation versions of this letter from Norwegian to English; this version is printed in Waldemar Ager's Colonel Heg and His Boys.)

Dear Friend,

It is a long time now since I heard from you or sent you a letter.  First I must tell you that I am, thank God, hale and hearty as of this date.  Quite some time ago I heard that you had returned home and that you are in poor shape as to health.  This is very deplorable; but you can thank your lucky stars for having escaped the situation we are in.  What a life--what an existence!  And what miserable times and fierce struggles we have had to endure in storms and rough weather, both night and day.  And on top of this, the rations and supplies have generally been poor.  I can honestly say that I would care for neither gain nor anything else if I could only be out of the service, free and unfettered.  But there is no use talking.  a man must do his duty.

Briefly I also want to tell you that we have had a rather miserable Christmas, even though I, thank goodness, am in good health and ought to be satisfied.  But we have again endured much and seen many a human being mangled and in misery--all merely because of the politicians.

During the period from December 26 until January 4, I can say that we were lying with rifle in hand without any fire and at times with poor rations.  We took part in the battle at Knob Gap near Nolensville and later at Murfreesboro.  At Knob Gap we were very lucky as we did not lose a single man dead or wounded. But what a fix we were in at Murfreesboro where the enemy rushed at us by the thousands and showered us with bullets like a hailstorm.  It is a God's wonder that not everyone of us was shot down or taken prisoner, because we generally--when either the rebels or our force attacked--were bullheaded enough to stay to the very end.  On the last day of the fighting General Rosecrans said to our Brigadier General Carlin:  "If the troops in front of your brigade should fall back, then you must post your men and hold the enemy in check."  Carlin answered:  "I have only 800 men left of 2,000 and I fear that my men have lost courage and will do little now since they have always been in the front ranks."  To which Rosencrans replied:  "For the sake of the country, and for our own sake, you must do your best because your toops are now the only ones we can depend on."

At the time it did not matter because the rebels made no more attempts to pierce our line.  Our captain was killed and our lieutenant wounded.  Eleven men of my company were wounded.  Captain [Mons] Grinager was wounded, as was Captain Gustafson.  Lieutenant Fandberg and Captain Wilson were also wounded and Lieutenant Colonel McKee was killed.  All told we lost fifteen men killed, seventy wounded, and thirty-four missing--a total of 119 men.  Some of the wounded have later died.  There is fear of a renewed attack.

A sincere greeting to you and your parents as well as all my other acquaintances.  Best wishes to you.  If you are able to write, I hope you will send me a few words in return.

Thor P. Sloan

Sloan was appointed to the rank of 1st Sergeant of Company E on May 1, 1863, and in July, he was assigned as a clerk in the headquarters of Colonel Hans C. Heg's brigade.  On August 17, 1863, the brigade left Winchester, Tennessee to fight in the Chickamauga campaign, in which over half of the brigade's soldiers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.  Sloan survived and was detached from his regiment on November 18, 1863, to go on recruiting duty back in his home state of Wisconsin.  The break from battlefield action must have brought him a sense of relief beyond measure, but it was only temporary.

In March or April 1864, Sloan returned to his regiment and was commissioned as the First Lieutenant of Company E.  He then served with the 15th on Major General Sherman's effort to capture Atlanta, Georgia.  On June 21, during the battle of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia, he was making coffee in camp along with Captain Gustafson and Lieutenant Simonsen.  An enemy grenade fell directly into the campfire and a fragment struck Sloan in the head.  He died in a nearby Army hospital in the town of Big Shanty a week later, on June 27, 1864.

Lt. Thor P. Sloan, like other casualties during the Civil War, was initially buried on his last battlefield--in this case, Kennesaw Mountain.  Following legislation enacted by Abraham Lincoln, the U. S. Government began to purchase land to create a system of National Cemeteries, in which to bury those who served in the military.  You can read more about it in this document:  History and Development of the National Cemetery Administration

It took some time to determine where Thor P. Sloan lies buried now.  In fact, it had been one of the biggest genealogy brick walls I had yet encountered.  Logic told me that Sloan was probably interred in a National Cemetery during the decades following the Civil War.  The likely location was Marietta National Cemetery in Georgia, which is closest to Kennesaw Mountain (Big Shanty, Georgia), and contains many burials of fatalities that occurred during the June 1864 battle.  But, no burial records anywhere revealed the ultimate resting place of Thor P. Sloan.  I was puzzled; it was unlikely that he was one of the many unidentified Civil War dead, since he died of his wounds while being treated in a hospital.

It was only recently that I tried yet another search on Ancestry.com.  This time, a search for variations of Sloan's name, including "T. P. Sloan" brought up a U. S. National interment document for "E. P. Sloan," who died on June 27, 1864, during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.  Aside from the first initial of the name, all of the facts were correct except for one glaring difference:  the document indicated that E. P. Sloan was from Company E of the 15th Ohio Regiment, whereas Thor P. Sloan served in the 15th Wisconsin Regiment.  When I checked the roster for the 15th Ohio Regiment, there was no "E. P. Sloan" listed.  I determined that the reason "Not Found" is written in red ink near the top of the document is because the name of the deceased could not be connected with the listed regiment.  But, allowing for the inevitable and frequent human errors that occur in record keeping, I suddenly knew who "E. P. Sloan" was.  He was most likely my ancestor, Thor Paulsen (T. P.) Sloan.  My brick wall had crumbled!

By consulting Findagrave.com, I was able to locate a photograph of "E. P. Sloan's" headstone at the Marietta National Cemetery in Cobb County, Georgia.  The headstone for Grave C2311 appears to be an exercise in cautious simplicity.  The interment record keepers could not verify "E. P. Sloan's" regiment, so they must have decided to leave everything off the marker but the name.  The marker looks decidedly stark and incomplete... lonely, in fact.

Thor P. Sloan's contributions to the Union Army's efforts are well documented in various Civil War records, as well as in books about the history of the 15th Wisconsin Regiment.  However, I find it ironic that, in death, Sloan's final resting place became somewhat of an enigma.  It leaves me wondering if any relative before me discovered the record-keeping error made during interment to Marietta National Cemetery.  I doubt that Sloan's immediate family would have been any wiser, because his father, mother, and brother only lived long enough to know Thor to be resting alongside the battlefield where he met his demise.  The interment of Sloan's remains in a National Cemetery seems to have occurred well after the deaths of the immediate family members.  In any case, it is unlikely that these early Coon Valley, Wisconsin farmers would have been able to make a trip to far-away Georgia to assess things for themselves.

Even more ironic than the confusion surrounding Sloan's final resting place, is that a man in determined service of his new host country could have endured so much and met such an unexpected demise.  After several years of constant horrors in primitive battle, suffering imprisonment and daily cold, hunger, and other discomforts, he died of wounds received while sitting over a coffee pot, just a few months shy of the completion of his tour of duty.

Such are the lessons of history, and of the unfairness of life.

The Family of Thor Paulsen Sloan:

Thor P. Sloan was a younger half-brother to my great great grandfather, Hans Thorsen Sloan (Slaaen).  Thor had one full sibling--also a brother:  Torger Paulsen Slaaen was born in Nord-Fron, Oppland, Norway on October 13, 1831.  Like his brother, Torger also served in the Civil War, which he survived.  He married Kari Engebretsen and had two children, Mari and Peter.  His wife, Kari, died in 1859, and Torger was married for a second time in 1863 to Sophia Pedersen Stroemstad.  They had four children:  Caroline, Karen, Theodor, and Julius.  When Torger died in 1890, he was buried in the Upper Coon Valley Cemetery in Wisconsin.

Thor P. Sloan's father, Poul (Paul) Torgersen Slaaen--the son of Torger Hougen--was born in Nord-Fron, Oppland, Norway on January 14, 1806. He died on January 22, 1882.   His wife, Kari (Svensdatter), was born on November 6, 1800 in Oppland, Norway and died on October 29, 1890.  Both husband and wife are buried in the Upper Coon Valley Cemetery (Wisconsin), some 800 miles apart from their fallen son, Thor.  Kari's headstone is pictured here (photos courtesy of Kevin Sloane of the Coon Valley area).


--Ancestry.com (U. S. National Cemetery Interment Control Forms, 1928-1962)
--15th Wisconsin.net (http:www/15thwisconsin.net/15etps01.htm), accessed on March 31, 2008.
--Buslett, Ole Amundson.  Fifteenth Wisconsin (translation by Barbara G. Scott).  Ripon, Wis.:  B.G.Scott, 1999.
--Familysearch.com (Norway, Baptisms, 1634-1927)
--Findagrave.com (Grave of E. P. Sloan, Marietta National Cemetery, Cobb County, Georgia)
--Holand, Hjalmar R.  Coon Valley: An Historical Account of the Norwegian Congregations in Coon Valley.  Minneapolis, Minn.:  Augsburg Publishing House, 1928.
--Slaeen, Kari Svensdatter, photograph of headstone at Coon Valley Cemetery, Wisconsin, courtesy of Kevin Sloane of Viroqua, Wisconsin, October 2012.
--Sloan, Thor Paulsen, photograph:  courtesy of Dale and Lois Finch of Brainerd, Minnesota, July 2005.
--U. S. National Archives & Records Administration, Military Service Records, Union Civil War (1861-1865), Thor Paulsen Sloan.
--Waldemar Ager.  Colonel Heg and His Boys: A Norwegian Regiment in the American Civil War.  Northfield, Minnesota:  The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 2000.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

The 95% Baard Johnson

In an earlier post, "In Defense of Character:  Writing With Caution," I wrote about the difficulties of trying to find more information on one of my great great grandfathers, Baard Johnson.  Baard emigrated from Nord-Trondelag, Norway in 1866, with his wife, Thibertine (Bertina), and their two children, Ole Martin and Ellen Julie (Julia).  On July 28, 1872, Baard died from typhoid fever at age 37, a couple of years before fulfilling his homesteading requirements in Granite Falls Township, Chippewa County, Minnesota.  For as long as I've been researching this family, and throughout the process of writing the Johnson family history, I have lamented the empty spot on the family tree where Baard's image should have been.  Perhaps I need lament no more, because I believe I have found, at last, an image of my g g grandfather, or, the "95% Baard Johnson," as I like to call him. Any reasonable doubt can be relegated to about 5%.

Likely photograph of Baard Johnson (carte-de-visite size), ca. 1870.
Verso below.

To my early Norwegian-American family, having a likeness of each family member was important due to the uncertainty of life, in general.  During the mid-19th century, photography--the new art--was taken quite seriously.  As surely as family members had their birth and death dates religiously recorded in the family Bible, new photographs were commissioned whenever changes in family size or other milestones dictated the need.  Newly married couples, small groupings of the latest-born children, or entire families would dress in their Sunday finest and sit for the local photographer.  In addition, many Norwegian emigrants had their likenesses taken at their point of departure in Norway, in order to send mementos to anxious family members and neighbors.  Others waited until they had chosen the spot where they wished to establish residency in the U.S., and then proudly commemorated the occasion with a photograph.  So, where was Baard?  Why did no one in my extended family have any photographic evidence of his existence, when even his young wife had a photograph taken of herself in the early 1870s?

The verso of my suspected g g grandfather's likeness shows that "A. Brandmo" was the photographer.  Andreas Brandmo worked out of Montevideo, Minnesota beginning in the 1870s, and he was part owner of the Brandmo and Lodgaard Studio from 1886-1896.  Montevideo was next door to many of my ancestors' homesteads in early Chippewa County, and the photographer's distinctive name shows on the verso of many family images passed down through the decades.  Though A. Brandmo's decorative stamp changed slightly over the years of doing business, this particular verso appears to contain one of the oldest stamps, by virtue of its simplicity, when compared to Brandmo's other stamps.  The paper copy of the verso has a faded pink tint, which barely shows on this online copy.

One dismal, wet afternoon several months ago, while sitting at my desk engrossed in genealogy, I was perusing a stack of small carte-de-visite (2-1/2 x 4-inch) photographs and suddenly felt a figurative light bulb switch on over my head.  I had obtained the photos through a cousin, after having seen them for the first time several years before.  When I began sorting through the stack, I was intrigued that many of the card-like photos were taken by the same early photography studio (Brandmo) in Montevideo, Minnesota, very near to where Baard and Bertina Johnson had set up their homestead.  None of the photographs had identifying markings other than the photographer's stamp.  Yes, my ancestors were guilty of the same lack of foresight as yours:  they knew the people in the photos, so why did they need to label them?  The first time I sorted through the stack, several years earlier, I had quickly picked out the earliest known photograph of my great great grandmother, Bertina Johnson.  It was easy to recognize her distinctive face from other photos of her as an older woman.  Due to her apparent age in the photograph and her residence at that time (near Montevideo, MN), I estimated the photo to be dated between 1870-1875.  None other among the mostly male sea of faces made any impression on me at all, and I assumed most to be neighbors and friends of my Johnson relatives at that time.

However, this particular winter day brought a revelation.  Perhaps it was because I had been studying other Johnson family photographs at the time, and certain facial features were burned into my short-term memory.  Perhaps I was "in the zone," while indulging in one of my favorite hobbies.  Perhaps it was something about the soft light of a gray day filtering the images on the cards in a way that opened my mind to new possibilities.  Whatever the cause, as I held up a photo of one young, blond gentleman, I sensed something very familiar.  (I've learned to not ignore intuition until facts prove otherwise.)  It was also interesting, and unusual, that there were two copies of the same photo:  one in very poor condition, and the other in quite good condition.  I knew for certain that the stack of small photographs had once been in the possession of Ole M. Johnson (my great grandfather, and the son of Baard).  It made sense that if the photo in question was truly Ole's father, then one photo likely would have been displayed or kept in a frame, and thus, became faded over time, while one copy had been put away for safe keeping.  This was probably the missing Baard Johnson!

The first thing I did was to line up the candidate photograph of Baard Johnson with his two children, Ole Johnson, and Julia (Johnson) Larson, along with his wife, Bertina Johnson, in order to compare facial features.  I found that as a young man, Ole had the same fine, lank hair as did the suspected photo of his father, Baard.  The clinker, however, was comparing it to the photo of Julia Johnson (the daughter):  both Julia and the "95% Baard Johnson" had the same bold, squared jawline, combined with a strong chin.  Even their ears were shaped the same!  Convinced, I shared the photographs with some Minnesota cousins who had actually known Ole M. Johnson (Baard's son) personally, and asked them to give me feedback on family likenesses between photos of Ole, his sister, Julia, and the newly discovered photograph of "95% Baard Johnson."  I'm pleased to say that I received several thumbs up.

Although there is no way that I know of to completely prove the identity of the man in the photograph in question, my usually-reliable intuition tells me that the search for my missing great great grandfather has ended.  I'm posting photographs of the entire family here, so that others may judge for themselves.

No matter what the brick wall, there is always hope that it will crumble!

[Photographer information source: Minnesota Historical Society, Directory of Minnesota Photographers, http://www.mnhs.org/people/photographers/B.htm]

Baard Johnson? (father, ca. 1870)

Julia Johnson (daughter, ca. 1888)

Ole M. Johnson (son, 1886)

Bertina Johnson (mother, ca. 1870)

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Fourth of July, Norwegian-American Style

This photograph of a large neighborhood gathering was taken on Independence Day, 1916, at the Nels and Ellen Langseth farm in Sinclair Township, Clearwater County, Minnesota, about four years before my mother was born in nearby Dudley Township.  The Langseth family left Norway for the United States in 1902 [1].  To rural Norwegian-Americans, July 4th was the most important day of the year, next to Christmas.  Everyone strived to complete farm chores early in the day so they could attend huge community gatherings and have plenty of time to visit with one another.  I hope they all brought enough food!  On second thought, there is no chance they would have run out of vittles.  Pass the lefse, please... and save me a dish of that hand-cranked ice cream!

[1] 1920 U.S. Federal Census for Sinclair Township, Minnesota.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

In Search of Great Grandma's Girlhood, Part II

For months I've been meaning to get back to scanning a box of loose photographs given to me by a cousin who lives in New York, who had previously borrowed them from relatives in Minnesota and Idaho.  These photographs--already quite well-traveled--were part of an extensive collection that once belonged to my great grandparents, Ole Martin and Malla (Larson) Johnson, of Leonard, Minnesota.  Due to a severe Pacific Northwest snow storm, I had a few precious days off work.  I decided to roll up my sleeves and warm up the scanner (hopefully, my husband is not now feeling as neglected as the scanner was until this past week). 

Recently, in one of the old Johnson cabinet card albums, I discovered a previously undetected tin type photograph of Malla (Larson), looking several years younger than she was at the time of her wedding in 1886 (see my previous blog post:  "In Search of Great Grandma's Girlhood.")  I was overjoyed to find this photo, because it is now the youngest image the family has of Malla.  I say that it was "previously undetected," because my ancestors, like yours, did not often take the time to write down the identities of people in their photographs.  Everyone knew who they were at the time, so what was the urgency?

Perhaps unmarked ancestral photographs were left untouched in order to present a challenge for relations to come... for people like me, who take pride in being the family historian, and who also possess capable facial recognition skills along with a love of the chase.  And, a chase it is!  Many of you know that familiar adrenalin surge when recognizing someone in a newly acquired vintage photograph, or feeling the slow spread of certainty after an initial reaction of "I know this person!"  You have just "bagged" another ancestor and not returned home from the hunt empty-handed.

Anne Marie ("Mary") Sloan (right), 1884/85
Though I was not actively looking for it, I acquired a piece of another great grandma's girlhood among the tin type photographs I scanned yesterday.  In this especially lovely pose from the mid-1880s, I knew I had seen the girl standing on the right before, though the hat made it more difficult to see all of her features. The girl sitting next to her was unfamiliar--a cousin, or friend, perhaps?  Suddenly, it hit me that the girl on the right looked like my mother's maternal grandmother, Anne Marie ("Mary") Slaaen (or Sloan--the Americanized version of the family name).  Her face in the photo above has a bit more "baby fat" than what I remembered in her wedding photograph, so I zoomed in on the two in order to compare.  One in the same!

Mary (Sloan) Berge, Feb. 1886
In 1886, at the time of her wedding to Ole Benhart Berge in Leenthrop Township, Chippewa County, Minnesota, Mary Sloan was 17 years old.  In the earlier photograph, she appears to be 15 or 16.  Now, Mary was not related to either Ole or Malla (Larson) Johnson, the original owners of the photographs.  What then, was my other maternal great grandmother doing in Ole and Malla Johnson's photo collection?

I then remembered the situation as my mother had previously described to me.  In early Chippewa County, as in any sparsely populated pioneer community, it is true that everybody knew everybody.  When friends gave likenesses to friends, it was a kind gesture that was usually reciprocated.  But, Mary Sloan had an even more important reason to give her photograph to young Ole Johnson, because the two of them courted for awhile.  Mary Sloan, at about age 16, dated Ole Martin Johnson, a local homesteader and landowner, who was eight years her senior.  At the same time, Malla Larson, also age 16, dated Ole Benhart Berge, who was four years her senior.  Somewhere along the line, Ole Johnson must have decided that Malla Larson would make a better partner for his chosen way of life, whereas Mary Sloan fell in love with Ole Benhart Berge, a future mail carrier and railroad worker.  Both couples, linked to better suit their mutual strengths, were married in February 1886:  the Berges on February 6, and the Johnsons on the 28th.  So, Ole Johnson got his helpmate in lovely Malla, and Ole Berge got his sweet Mary; the stars were aligned correctly, at last, and the Johnson/Larson and Berge/Sloan legacies were begun.

Ole and Malla Johnson, Feb. 1886
 Ole and Malla Johnson facts:

--Ole Martin Johnson, August 6, 1860-April 20, 1948; born at Lassemoen farm, near Grong, Nord-Trondelag, Norway; immigrated with parents and sister in 1866; died from heart disease.
--Malla (Vigesaa) Larson, April 20, 1868-April 19, 1948; born near LaCrosse, Wisconsin, USA; died one day short of her 80th birthday from pneumonia and stroke.
--Ten children, all of whom lived to old age.
--Lived in Granite Falls Township, Chippewa County, Minnesota; Fosston, Polk County, Minnesota; Leonard, Clearwater County, Minnesota.
--Married 62 years.
--Died within hours of each other; both buried under a double headstone at East Zion Cemetery near Leonard, Minnesota, across the road from their last residence.

Ole and Mary Berge, Feb. 1886
Ole and Mary Berge facts:

--Ole Benhart Berge, October 30, 1864-January 24, 1949; born at Storberget farm near Lillehammer, Gudbrandsdalen, Norway; immigrated with mother and sister in 1869 (father immigrated the year before); died  from stroke.
--Anne Marie (Mary) Sloan/Slaaen, June 20, 1868-June 7, 1947; born in a covered wagon near Swan Lake, Nicollett County, Minnesota; died from leukemia.
--Twelve children; two died in infancy.
--Lived near Leonard, Clearwater County, Minnesota; Maynard, Chippewa County, Minnesota.
--Married 61 years.
--Both buried at Maynard Lutheran Cemetery, Maynard, Chippewa County, Minnesota.

Special note:  Ernest Johnson, son of Ole and Malla Johnson, married Esther Berge, daughter of Ole and Mary Berge, on March 22, 1917 in Chippewa County, Minnesota.  Ernest and Esther Johnson were my maternal grandparents.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

In Defense of Character: Writing With Caution

When researching and writing my Johnson family history a few years back, I came across a conundrum:  how does one diverge all of the important details about a person without being unfair to the person's overall character?

My great great grandfather, Baard Johnson, was as close to a "black sheep" in the family as I could find.  He was also a bit of an enigma.  He died a few short years after arriving in America from Norway, there are no known exisiting photographs of him, and virtually no information about him was passed down through the family over the years.  Most of what I learned about him was gleaned from a Norwegian bygeboker--a local history that included genealogical information about the Grong area of Nord-Trondelag.  Though I centered my family history on Thibertine (Bertina) Olsdatter Johnson, as for her first husband, Baard Johnson, I was not quite sure how to present what little I had discovered about him.

In the late 1850s, Baard Johnson and his father, John Baardsen, worked as cotters on an old and established farm along the Namsen River near Grong, Nord-Trondelag, called Lassemoen.  It was owned in major part by Bertina's father.  When Ole Danielsen Lassemo decided to retired from active farming, he passed  his part ownership of Lassemoen to two of his four daughters--the unmarried ones.  On July 6, 1860, at the age of 25, Baard Johnson married Ole's third daughter, Bertina, at Trones Chapel.  Before courting the diminutive and auburn-haired Bertina, Baard surely must have considered the advantages of having a wife with part ownership in a well-established Norwegian farm, at a time when land ownership was a rare and expensive opportunity.

Bertina Johnson, ca. 1875

Baard and Bertina Johnson had two children while living at Lassemoen:  Ole Martinus Baardsen (my great grandfather), born on August 6, 1860, and Ellen Julie Baardsdatter, born November 22, 1862.  Note that the birth of Ole is a mere one month after the couple's wedding.  It was not uncommon for 19th century Norwegian farm women to be expecting a child at the time of their wedding.  This was because, in part, courtship with parental approval was taken as very serious business and it was expected that a couple would wed once they became intimate.  In addition, traveling pastors were frequently not available due to harsh weather making travel impossible, and couples often had to wait up to several months before a ceremony could be arranged.  However, since little Ole was born at the height of summer, it seems there would have been enough of an opportunity for Baard and Bertina to have been married earlier in the year.  This situation raised a red flag in my mind, as if there had been some indecision about having a wedding at all.

By 1866, Baard and his wife, Bertina, had cashed in their part ownership of Lassemoen to acquire the funds to emigrate to America.  They arrived in Minnesota in June 1866 and spent the first couple of years in Goodhue County, probably staying with friends who had already arrived from Norway, while Baard acquired first-hand knowledge of American farming practices.  In 1868, part of the Dakota (Sioux) lands to the west in existing Renville County was opened up to homesteading by the U. S. Government.  Baard Johnson packed up his family in a wagon and headed out to claim 60-acres near the town of Granite Falls and the Minnesota River, in newly-formed Chippewa County.

After several years of homesteading, Baard Johnson fell ill and died at age 37 on July 28, 1872.  His death certificate indicates that he died of "fever"--most likely typhoid fever, which was a constant concern during hot Minnesota summers, when tainted water sources could infect unsuspecting homesteaders.  Baard was buried immediately beneath a wooden cross on his homestead, but in about 1900, his grave was relocated to nearby and newly created Saron Lutheran Cemetery, in preparation for the sale of the homestead.  Marking his grave at Saron is a sturdy white marble headstone, standing with visual emphasis among a sea of plainer granite ones.

One concern I had regarding Baard and Bertina Johnson's relationship was that during the ten year span between the birth of their second and last child in 1862, and Baard's death in 1872, they had no more children.  Pioneer families usually set out to have as many children as possible, not only because their survival depended upon having enough family members to do necessary work, but also because there was no reliable form of birth control other than abstinence.  Why then, did Baard and Bertina have no more children?

Someone suggested to me that perhaps Baard Johnson had been ill for a long time before his death, but I doubt that Baard would have emigrated from Norway and taken on the hardship of homesteading if he had been ill all the while.  It was only six years between emigration from Norway and death.  Another family member suggested that perhaps Bertina was incapable of having more children, but this theory does not mesh with the fact that she promptly had eight more children after marrying a second husband soon after Baard's death.  The only plausible theory is that Bertina did not allow Baard to be intimate with her for some years.  As a traditional Norwegian wife, she accepted that her place was with her husband, wherever he may go.  But, somewhere along the line, her respect for her husband may have been shaken, and this could have resulted in no more children being born.

I asked as many of my Johnson relatives as I could about Baard Johnson--whether they had heard anything at all about him.  The only one who was able to respond in the affirmative was my mother, who was raised by Baard's son, Ole Martin (Baardsen) Johnson and his wife, Malla, on their farm near Leonard, Minnesota.  My mother does not recall Ole mentioning his father at all, which was a little unusual.  What she does recall is that her grandmother, Malla Johnson, once referred to the father-in-law she had never met as a "crook."  Whoaa!  What exactly did that mean?  I could not ask Malla to explain, since she died before I was born, and my mother knew nothing more about the matter than the brief words that had spilled from her grandmother's mouth one day.

Ole M. Johnson, 1886

In the end, I chose not to document Baard Johnson's memory in quite this manner.  After all, a person is innocent until proven guilty, and Baard could hardly stand up and represent himself at this point.  Family members who personally knew my mother's grandparents, Ole (Baard's son) and Malla Johnson, insist they were exceptionally honest, kind, and hardworking people. But, I also know from my mother that they could be a little critical and judgmental at times, and it is entirely possible that whatever alledgedly caused them to regard Baard Johnson as dishonest could have been based upon a single incident, or even on a misinterpreted action.

Author Sharon DeBartolo Carmack encourages writers to portray their ancestors as whole and sympathetic characters in her book, "You Can Write Your Family History" (Betterway Books, 2003).  Any person who has ever lived has imperfections in addition to good points.  If Baard Johnson did make a mistake (or several), which caused his family to question his honesty, it is not for me to judge him, especially without all of the related facts.

Among the pages of the "official" Johnson family history, this is how I chose to describe a perceived flaw in character or supposed lack of judgment, all at once acknowledging a dicey, but somewhat nebulous concern, while preserving the dignity of Baard Johnson's memory:

...The gap in childbirths is perhaps more adequately explained in terms of emotional strain or an underlying difference of opinion.  Bertina Johnson was known to be of a kind and gentle character, and it is difficult to imagine her turning away from her husband without some kind of provocation.  Still, the reason for the large gap in childbirths remains uncertain.
Therefore, I leave it up to future generations of the Johnson family to draw their own conclusions on the matter of Baard Johnson's character... unless, of course, they happen to read this blog entry!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In Search of Great Grandma's Girlhood

Tin type photograph, ca. 1884/1885. Malla Vikesaa Larson (left), with possibly her sister,
Karin (Vikesaa) (Larson) Pedersen.  Probably taken in Chippewa CO., Minnesota.
Toward the end of last year, I anxiously awaited the arrival of a genealogical treasure from Minnesota.  Having to wait for something containing such down-to-earth evidence as "newly discovered" vintage photographs can cause a genealogist/family historian to nearly jump out of her own skin in anticipation.  The album was brought by car from Minnesota to Idaho in July, and in October, it was transported from Idaho to the Seattle area by the sister of a cousin's wife.  When the box containing the precious cargo was finally in my hands in November, I could hardly bear to open it.  I have since scanned all of the photos inside and placed a link to the Picasa web album on the side bar of this blog (Ole Martin and Malla Johnson Photo Album B).

Years ago on a trip visiting cousins in Minnesota, I borrowed a faded crimson velvet-backed cabinet card photograph album that once belonged to my maternal great-grandparents, Ole Martin and Malla (Larson) Johnson, of Leonard, Minnesota.  Some of my cousins seemed to remember that there had been a second album--one with a greenish-yellow cover.  Until last year, its whereabouts were unknown.  It was assumed that the album had been destroyed during a basement flood years earlier, or was simply lost.  But, the album with the greenish-yellow backing finally surfaced in the possession of another Minnesota cousin, who had held it since her own mother's belongings were distributed among family members some years ago.

My mother remembers seeing the two photograph albums as a child, but since she was not allowed to pull them from the cabinet where they were kept to look at them as she pleased, she was not intimately familiar with the photographs they held.  As a young adult, she left her grandparents' farm and never laid eyes on the two photograph albums again until I was able to place them in her hands recently.  Over 65 years had passed.  What a feeling it was to be able to do that!

The second cabinet card album that I awaited last year was the last known place to search for an early photograph of Malla (Vikesaa)(Larson) Johnson--my mother's paternal grandmother.  The earliest known image we had of Malla was her wedding photograph, taken in 1886, when she was nineteen years old.  In addition, none of the family had ever been able to obtain her birth records.  We were certain of her birth date:  April 20, 1868, but the location was always generically mentioned as "somewhere near LaCrosse, Wisconsin."  I have deduced that her birthplace was likely in Coon Valley, where her parents lived briefly among other Norwegian immigrants before relocating to homestead in Chippewa County, Minnesota.  I longed to find further proof of her early life, or a photograph of a date earlier than her wedding.

Sitting loose in the second cabinet card album was an old tintype photograph, badly scratched, but still fairly clear.  When I picked it up and held it to the light, I immediately recognized the girl in the plaid dress as my great grandmother, Malla (Larson) Johnson--the woman who raised my own mother.  Though she is no longer a child in the photo, perhaps a youth of 14-16 years of age, I felt a sense of accomplishment at identifying one more piece of Malla's earlier life for posterity.

Malla Larson as a youth, ca. 1884/85 (cropped
 and zoomed from photo above)

Malla Larson Johnson in her wedding photograph, February 1886
 (cropped and zoomed).  Chippewa County, Minnesota

The found-again tin type photograph also potentially gives our family the likeness of one of Malla's illusive older sisters, both of whom were much older than she.  Karin (Vikesaa)(Larson) Pedersen was the one sister no one could find a likeness of.  If it is indeed Karin (Larson) Pedersen to the right of Malla in the photograph, she would have been a married woman in her mid-thirties at the time, with three out of four children already birthed, and only seven or eight years left to live.  Karin was born on 7 October 1847 in Bjerkreim, Rogaland, Norway. She married Erick Stallen Pedersen, a Minnesota native of Swedish descent, on 26 September 1876, in Chippewa County, Minnesota.  The couple eventually settled in Northland, Polk County, where Karin died on 9 January 1892.

In the earliest photograph of my great grandmother, Malla, I see a Norwegian-American farm girl who is probably newly confirmed as an adult in the eyes of the Lutheran pioneer church.  The calm girl in the plaid dress soon after became the no-nonsense farm wife--shy and retiring when it came to strangers, but forthright and confident within her own realm.  Malla (Larson) Johnson would give birth to ten children, all of whom survived into old age, and she experienced prairie homesteading, coping with blizzards, rampant disease, and locust plagues on top of day-to-day hardships. She was known not only for her hospitality, but for her ferocity at protecting and caring for the family's chickens, as well as for the large lefse she could bake atop the cast iron stove, and her never-idle hands, which continually knitted socks as she rested beside the fireplace each evening.  She hummed only one tune--Norway's National Anthem, and instructed her granddaughters to make their sewing stitches as nice on the back as on the front, and also to be sure to clean in all the corners, because "God will see it if you don't."  When Malla died on April 20, 1946, on her 80th birthday, she had lived about as full a life as one could expect.  I am grateful that she raised my mother, who has helped me to know my great grandmother vicariously by supplying me with endless tales of growing up on Grandma Malla's farm.