Do an Ancestral Deep Dive in Just Hours
Even when it’s deadly cold outdoors I will bundle up and venture forth for my daily constitutional. Perhaps a part of me wants to prove that I have the same mettle as my pioneer forbears. Except for me, a warm house, a mug of hot chocolate, and 500 cable channels are just moments away.
“Who Do You Think You Are?” is both a popular TV program and a useful question to ask oneself. Knowing where you came from can help determine where you’re going. Plus, it might explain certain things such as my shameful fondness for pickled herring.
One wonders what fickle flick of fate may have resulted in any of us not being here. It could have been something as minuscule as a flea hopping onto one particular person and infecting him or her, whereas had the bug had chosen someone else, he or she may have started a flea circus.
Until recently, researching your progenitors involved digging through musty record books or skulking around forgotten cemeteries. Thanks to modern wonders like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, anyone can delve into their past with a few mouse clicks. It’s like having 500 cable channels at your fingertips.
Some years ago, our eldest son constructed our family tree on Ancestry.com. It’s fascinating to dig around in our ancient ancestral background. I’m not going to vouch for its accuracy, though. Columbus never actually understood where he was going; how reliable was the recordkeeping back then?
Unsurprisingly, almost all of my lineage can be traced to Scandinavia. No illustrious names jump out, which was somewhat disappointing. I was secretly hoping that I was heir to a pickled herring empire. Or perhaps one of my forbears had copyrighted a Nordic flatbread recipe and I was in line to collect an unclaimed lefse fortune.
My 23andMe analysis likewise revealed nothing juicy. I am approximately the whitest guy on the planet, with the vast majority of my DNA originating in Norway. Here again, I was met with disappointment. None of my DNA paints a direct line to anyone rich and famous such as King Harald or Lady Gaga. My paternal haplogroup (whatever that is) is shared with the Vikings, but there’s no mention of Ragnar Lothbrok.
I met with my cousin, Jeanie, and our second cousin, Irene, one recent afternoon to discuss our shared ancestry. Irene is the LeBron James of genealogy. She has assembled an astonishing collection of documents and photos and has visited numerous forgotten cemeteries to dig up (ha!) lost information.
In fact, “information overload” is the best way to describe my experience that afternoon. I learned the names of forebears whom I’d never heard of before. Affecting ancestral details flowed like coffee at a percolator convention. Sadly, no lost lutefisk fortune was uncovered.
Our ancestral stories involve mostly poverty and hardship. Many of the tales made me feel like a slacker.
For example, my great-great-grandfather, Jens Johnson, was born in Norway in 1840 and was orphaned at age 15. Jens came to America when he was 21 and homesteaded near Minneota, Minnesota. By the time he passed away in 1917, Jens and his wife, Annie, had had seven children and owned several hundred acres of farmland in Nordland Township. The Johnsons were well enough off that they were able to give some land to their daughter, Betsy.
Betsy and her husband, Henry Baard Nelson, headed west and homesteaded on the barren plains of eastern Dakota Territory. An old newspaper clipping says that in the early days, Betsy helped put food on the table by finding wild duck eggs. I learned that Henry dealt in swine during his later years. Henry went by H.B., but it was joked that this could have also stood for hog buyer.
Among Irene’s trove was a circa 1903 studio photo of the guy who started our farm, my great-grandfather Charlie Sveen. As a young man, Charlie left the verdant environs of Romedal, Norway, for the stark desolation of the Dakota frontier. After enduring his first prairie blizzard in his sod claim shack, I wonder if he wondered, “What on earth was I thinking?”
The photo includes Charlie and his wife, Anne, and their six children. Charlie peers back at the camera with deep-set, ice-blue eyes. Seated at his right is his and Anne’s daughter, Elida, my Grandma Nelson. Grandma was about 10 years old when the photo was taken, but I instantly recognized those cheekbones, the shape of that face.
The afternoon I spent with Jeanie and Irene was very gratifying, even though it didn’t result in the discovery of any long-lost heritable riches. That is, other than the priceless treasure of ancestral lore.
Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide.