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.