Saturday, March 30, 2013

635 Souls Missing: A Story of the SS Norge Disaster


SS Norge, ca.1890-1900. The ship's capacity was 800 persons. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, digital ID def.4a15903)


Titanic's Predecessor

Nearly eight years before the sinking of the RMS Titanic, another maritime disaster occurred that should have signaled significant changes needed within the ship building industry.  On April 15, 1912, and after, the news of the Titanic sinking was predominate in media coverage and popular culture, in part because of the catastrophic loss of souls (over 1500) in the frigid waters off Newfoundland, but, also by virtue of its many wealthy and well-known passengers, who had been aboard the largest, most "sea-worthy" vessel to date.

In late June 1904, the SS Norge, a Danish iron-clad passenger liner, boarded passengers at ports of call in Copenhagen, Oslo, and finally Kristiansand, Norway.  The steamship, which was full of mostly poor European emigrants (Russians, Scandinavians, Germans, Britons, and a few Americans), was bound for New York.  On June 28, under calm skies, the Norge ran aground at Hasselwood Rock, the upper portion (cone) of an extinct volcano near Rockall, off the coast of Scotland, and sank rapidly.  Of the 727 passengers and 68 crew, many of the 635 who died were lost at sea in an area where no mariner in his right mind would attempt a rescue.



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Does the greater number of souls lost on the Titanic warrant greater attention and empathy than the fewer numbers aboard the Norge?  It is useless to compare, and even more difficult to understand loss when dealing with such large numbers.  The tale of human suffering is told with greater clarity when considering one soul at a time.  Among the lives lost at sea aboard the SS Norge that summer's day in 1904 was a 15-year-old Norwegian girl named Josefine.  She had just departed her homeland in order to join her parents and siblings in Buzzle, Beltrami County, Minnesota, where they had settled the year before.  When Josefine began her journey, excited about what life would bring in her new homeland, she could not know that her adolescent dreams would end nearly as soon as they had begun.


Family Lore

When I initially began researching the genealogy of my Johnson family line with a publication in mind, I paid a visit to cousin in Oregon I had not seen in some years, who was the only son of Carl and Thea (Johnson) Humberstad (Thea being one of my paternal great aunts).  I learned something about the Humberstads, her husband's family, that I had not known before.  Carl Rafinus Humberstad emigrated from Davik, Sogn og Fjordane Norway to Minnesota in 1903 with his parents, Jørgen Simon and Anne Martinsdatter Humberstad, and his sister, Oline.  Another of Carl's elder sisters, Josefine, left Norway after the rest of the family.  I was told that her passage had been booked on the ill-fated Titanic voyage, and that she never made it to America.

Who would not be intrigued with the possibility of a Titanic tale among the relations?  Being a self-appointed family historian, I knew I had to get to the bottom of this story, even if it was not about a blood relative.  It was too intriguing to leave alone, and in truth, any Norwegian-American experience appeals to the overall community of affiliated researchers.  So, I went back home to the Seattle area and began researching Norwegian census records and other appropriate sources, and I was able to verify that "Josefine Karoline Jørgensdatter Humbørstad" did exist, in Norway.  But, after reading Titanic passenger lists forwards and backwards, and checking U. S. census records, I simply could not find anything relating to her fate.  I called my cousin to say I was not having any luck proving the information, and asked if he was certain his young aunt had been on the Titanic.  But, he did not know anything other than what he had already passed along to me.

If I have learned anything from years of doing genealogy, it is that success can often be achieved by giving a problem a good rest and revisiting it later on.  Sometimes the wait can produce additional internet sources, and sometimes it is simply a fresh approach that helps most.  This is exactly what I did when I recently decided to do more keyword searches on the Titanic passenger list and Norwegians.  Of the links that popped up was one with a description containing the phrase:  "Titanic's predecessor," and this caught my attention immediately.  I found other references to the SS Norge disaster, but also to a British diving expedition in 2003 that discovered the exact location of the shipwreck in time for the centennial of the sinking.  There was mention of a passenger list.  The SS Norge event was significant enough to the lives of many Norwegians that I was hopeful my new search would be fruitful.

When I located the emigration list for the SS Norge on the Norwegian records database, Digitalarkivet, there was no mistaking Josefine among the names listed.  As expected, she was not among the few survivors; her fate was listed as omkom (dead, or lost).  So, my cousin's young aunt had not been on the Titanic, after all, but on a Titanic-like shipwreck.

More to come on Josefine Humberstad, her family, and her fate, in the next post.

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