Monday, February 04, 2019

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks (Week 6): Surprise

The Girl Who "Lived" in a Teacup

Hattie Christine Winje, ca. 1887/88
Some of our ancestors led preciously short lives.  Sadly, this was the case with a few of my great great grandmother's children, including Annie Jorgene Winje, born in 1885, and Hattie Christine Winje, born in 1883.  Although Hattie's name and vital dates were previously known due to official records and my visit to a family cemetery, how her photograph was located came as a bit of a surprise.

Hattie was an adorable five-year-old girl with fine deatures, a cleft chin, and long auburn hair--the same color as her mother's.  Soon after the youngest sibling, Annie, was born to Eric and Thibertine "Bertina" Winje, the family moved from Chippewa County in Minnesota to Duluth, near the Wisconsin border.  The girls' father, Eric Larsen Winje, was a self-educated Norwegian immigrant attorney--one of the first in Chippewa County--where he served as County Clerk and Justice of the Peace.  A career opportunity led him to the shores of Lake Superior.  In Duluth, he began working as an attorney and later became a municipal court judge.  The family exchanged their life on the prairie for new experiences within the urban environment of a growing city.  Different opportunities, including modern amenities and more advanced schooling for the children, were suddenly available.  After leaving the homestead, there was no longer any back-breaking plowing or gathering of fields to be done, and no cold and hungry farm animals to tend each morning.  The individual energies of family members could then turn to other things, and the sky became the limit.

Even with increased possibilities presented, city life offered little protection from some of life's constant dangers.  Before immunizations became available, disease was an inescapable concern in both rural and urban settings.  Wherever there was human contact, deadly diseases were a common occurence.  During the spring of 1888, Eric Winje lost his only brother to diphtheria back in Chippewa County.  Before he could even receive notification of the event, some of his children had also contracted the same disease, even though they were counties removed from their old home.  The bustling growth of Duluth typified the burgeoning social progress of the late nineteenth century, when changes in infrastructure became necessary in order to handle increasing populations.  Of major concern in Duluth was the antiquated water system, to which upgrades did not occur until the 1890s.  Before then, the city drew its water supply directly from Lake Superior, where the unscreened intake pipe was too close to shore and frequently became clogged with a build-up of dead fish, animal skins, and other unsavory things.  In spite of City warnings to residents to boil their drinking water, diseases usually spread quickly.

As her parents and older siblings looked on helplessly, on May 30, 1888, Hattie Christine Winje died from the ravages of diphtheria.  It is a disease caused by a bacterium that causes a thick covering at the back of the throat, sometimes cutting off air supply to the lungs.  Three days later, on June 2, her younger sister, Annie, also succumbed.  In later years, their eldest sister, Julia Johnson Larson, would shake her head sorrowfully when remembering the little girls.  "Stakkars liten" (poor little ones) she would say, recalling the sensless loss.

Many decades later, when I first began doing genealogy research, I held little hope of learning more about the youngest Winje girls, Hattie and Annie.  As I connected with new-found cousins across the United States, I sent them a "wish list" of things I was hoping to locate, including photographs.  One Larson cousin who lived near Lake Tahoe, California (far removed from Minnesota) sent me a packet of things to look over.  Much to my surprise, included in the batch of items was an old, very small and dark tin-type image of a young girl who looked to be about five years old.  On the back was written "Hattie Winje."  The Hattie Winje???  Yes, indeed!  Dare I hope that an image of little Annie Winje also existed?  Perhaps my cousin had overlooked it.

I immediately wrote back asked my cousin where she got the tin type.  The reply came:  "Oh, it's been sitting in a teacup that used to belong to my grandmother (Julia Johnson Larson); it's been tucked away in my china cabinet all these years."  This one-of-a-kind image survived for 117 years until it came to the attention of the family historian (me), and may actually be all that remains of a brief but cherished life.

It seemed doubtful that Annie would also be located, if an image had been taken of her during her two short years on Earth.  In modern days, we are challenged with a dearth of print photographs due to an explosion of quickly available digital options.  In the past, taking the time to have print copies of images made was too expensive and time consuming, so families tended to divide and distribute collections, often in unorganized ways.  I tend to think that Annie may have ended up in another undetermined family member's teacup.  But, thanks to persistent networking, an inherited piece of china, and a concerned cousin, Hattie's sweet face can still be seen, and her family can continue to imagine the laughter of a beloved little red-haired child who was called to her heavenly home much too soon.


--Winje family marker, Scandia Cemetery, Duluth, Minnesota.
--Death register for "Winje, Hatty C.," #102, 1888, St. Louis County, Minnesota Death Records Index (online).
--Chery Kinnick,  A Long Way Downstream:  The Life and Family of Thibertine Johnson Winje, Norwegian-American Pioneer,  Nordic Blue Press, 2008.

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