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An Exchange of Health Histories

Look at your family tree and you will see many of the health problems that will affect you someday. We all have heard this common wisdom.

I had a rare opportunity to do so last month when my Baltic cruise included a one-day stop in Helsinki. My relatives in Finland were eager to get together.

We spent the morning in a conference room at the new Oodi Central Library. There we compared family photos and swapped stories. One of my cousins also thought to bring up the idea of illnesses that might run through our Lampinen heritage.

None of us carries the Lampinen surname today, but we all descend from Matti Lampinen (1835-1894) and Anna Miettinen (ca. 1832-?). This couple was of Karelian stock and lived in eastern Finland.

Karelians have well-documented histories of heart disease. The cousins reported that many in their families suffered from this. The same is true among my Finnish relatives in the United States.

The cousins also told me that members of the small Karelian population tended to marry one another, and this in-breeding resulted in the prevalence of allergies and asthma among these people. I also see this tendency toward allergies in descendants of my Finnish great-grandparents.

Looking at my extended family tree confirmed some of the health predispositions I had already observed in my small group of Finnish-American relatives. I added the information about heart disease and allergies to my family health history when I returned home. I also sent it around to my American cousins.

Not everyone has the good fortune to compare health notes with distant relatives. I am glad one of the cousins I visited that day wanted to trade this type of information. All of us now know more about what lies in our genes.

The Trip—Part 4

Our recent Baltic cruise ended with two stops in one of my favorite countries, Germany. Both locations had genealogical significance for my husband/tech advisor. He was eager to see the ports of Rostock and Kiel and the surrounding countryside.

His mother’s German family originated in various areas of Germany including the coastal states of Mecklenburg and Schleswig-Holstein. He continues to work to locate precise information about his ancestors who probably lived there several hundred years ago.

In Mecklenburg, we docked in the old Hanseatic port city of Rostock. There we toured Schwerin Castle. It sits alongside a beautiful lake, and we had the opportunity to view the building from the water. Inside, we saw only part of the interior because the remainder had suffered water damage from rain the day before. Not only does this building serve as a museum for historic Mecklenburg, but it also houses the local parliament. We found it to be a busy place.

After our tour, we took an open-air tram to a restaurant. Later, we enjoyed some free time for shopping and ice cream. As we walked around the old city center, we wondered whether any ancestors had ever visited Rostock.

Our ship docked the next day in Kiel, the capital of Schleswig-Holstein. The city had close ties with the Vikings and the Kingdom of Denmark from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century. Although it was heavily bombed in World War II, it has now been completely rebuilt.

We visited the Kiel area on a sunny Sunday, traveling by bus and by ferry. This gave my husband/tech advisor a great opportunity to view the lands of his ancestors. Most places in Germany close on Sundays, and we found that the Kiel area follows this practice. We were glad we had done our German souvenir shopping the previous day.

This region provided us with some of the great German food that we love. We stopped for lunch at a modern-looking, family-owned place where we had beer, wine, and schnitzel. No one will forget this meal after a young waitress spilled an entire tray of beers on one unfortunate woman’s head. The good-natured victim was very gracious, saying that she had always wanted to try a beer shampoo. After we got her cleaned up and had eaten our meal, we all enjoyed some schnapps. To our delight, the proprietors gave us additional bottles of schnapps to take home.

Later in the afternoon, after our ferry ride, we had the opportunity to stop for coffee and German pastry in a small shop. Boarding the bus again, I began to eye the clock. Our all-aboard time for the ship was 3:30. To my relief, the bus rolled up to the terminal at 3:26.

I needn’t have worried. Eco-terrorists had our ship hemmed into the harbor. It took the German police 6 hours to clear them out. Our waiter at dinner said this had never happened before, but I wonder whether it will become a regular occurrence at the German ports. It would be a shame if the ships had to stop visiting there.

Stops in Mecklenburg and Schleswig-Holstein provided us with the opportunity to see the lovely, lake-filled area of northern Germany. We wondered, as we always do, how our ancestors could bear to leave such a place. We know that economics or war always gave people the reason to leave, but still it must have been a hard thing for them to do.

The Trip—Part 3

Our third genealogy stop during our recent Nordic vacation put us in Helsinki, Finland. We had no idea we would do anything but go sightseeing there when we booked the trip. That famous genealogy serendipity stepped in to change our plans.

A Finnish finder of lost relatives contacted me last fall and put me in touch with a couple of third cousins in Finland. I mentioned to them that I would be in Helsinki in June. “We must meet you!” they responded. And so we made a plan.

Our ship, the Zuiderdam of the Holland America line, docked in Helsinki about 7:00 a.m. the day of our visit. My husband/tech advisor had done some advance planning for us, and he knew of a bus stop in the docking area. We left the ship, boarded the bus, and headed into Helsinki.

We had arranged to meet my cousins at the new Oodi Central library in the heart of the city’s cultural district. Completed in 2018, Oodi serves as Helsinki’s living room. This peaceful, open-plan space has new facilities not formerly seen in libraries. Only about one third of the building contains books. A café, restaurant, public balcony, movie theater, AV recording studios, and a makerspace (complete with 3D printers and sewing machines) occupy the rest of the building.

The library was completed with the climate in mind, using local materials. The façade consists of Finnish spruce planks. The glass-enclosed upper floor offers a panoramic view of the city, including Kansalaistori square and the Finnish parliament. Already one upper corner has become known as the best spot in Helsinki for taking selfies.

My cousins could not have been more welcoming. One had reserved a study room. She promptly unpacked tea and cookies for us to enjoy while we talked genealogy. Another unrolled the massive family tree she had created. I brought along all the unidentified Finnish family photos I had recently received from a cousin in Minnesota. We talked and talked about our Finnish forbears.

At lunchtime we walked through a city park on our way to a restaurant. The cousins wanted to show me a statue there. My grandma’s cousin, Ida Andelin, had served as the model. The subject of the statue, the Weeping Woman, comes from a character in Finland’s epic poem, the Kalevala.

When we reached the Kuu restaurant, we enjoyed a traditional Finnish meal. My husband had venison stew, and I had perch. Being from a landlocked state, I order as much seafood as I can when I am near the water. Afterwards, my cousin handed me a few pieces of Fazer Pihlaja candy, the oldest candy produced in Finland. It’s good, and I have since learned that I can order some more. I plan to do so and share it with the rest of my family.

The day in Helsinki could not have gone better. I learned a great deal about my family. I had an insider’s view of Finnish life and experienced warm Finnish hospitality. My cousins urged me to return someday and promised that next time we would go to the sauna. We’ll see.

 

 

The Trip—Part 2

Copenhagen, Denmark. Our next stop after Norway, this Scandinavian capital city began over a thousand years ago as a Viking fishing village. Today it houses Danish royal palaces, the world-famous Tivoli Gardens, and an historic 17th century waterfront. We spent two days in this amazing city, visiting these places and again searching for our ancestral roots.

My husband/tech advisor had a particular reason for visiting Copenhagen. He descends from Jørgen Rasch, a renowned lute player in the Danish court in the early 1600’s. My husband has spent hours researching this man.

He learned that Rasch likely was born in the late 1500’s in Dessau, in the Principality of Anhalt, now part of the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. This city lies along the Elbe River and today is home to the famous Bauhaus college of architecture.

Jørgen, initially known by the German variation of his name, Georg, made his way from Dessau with his musical talent to the court of the famous Danish King Christian IV. During this reign (1588-1648), Jørgen became well-known as a musician. The king seemed to hold him in high regard.

To honor Jørgen Rasch and his other musicians, he had their likenesses painted on the ceiling of one of the rooms in Rosenborg Castle. Christian IV pursued many ambitious building projects including Rosenborg, originally a large country house, erected in 1606. This castle now serves as a museum and houses the Danish crown jewels. It is open to the public.

My husband and his brother eagerly walked over to Rosenborg to see the painting shortly after we arrived in Copenhagen. We spent a long time gazing up at the likeness of their ancestor. Surrounding tourists chuckled at their less-than-successful attempts to take selfies with a ceiling image. They said my husband resembled his curly-haired ancestor.

Like him, my husband trained as a musician on a stringed instrument, the violin. One of Jørgen’s descendants migrated to Norway, and my husband’s Norwegian grandmother belonged to that line. Many in that family play the violin, and my husband likes to think they inherited their talent from Jørgen Rasch.

This second leg of our trip allowed him to fulfill his long-time wish to see his distinguished ancestor’s portrait on the ceiling of a Danish castle.

 

The Trip—Part 1

Norway and the Baltic offer spectacular views, visits to historic cities, and access to ancient cultural sites. We just returned from this region after a three-week trip with relatives.

Our group spent the first part of the vacation in Norway. My husband/tech advisor and I both have Norwegian roots. We like to see where our ancestors lived.

His family came from the Ringsaker District of Hedmark, near Norway’s largest lake, Lake Mjøsa. We took the train north from Oslo to get there, and then we rented a car to drive through the area. Because his family had not owned land, they had always migrated from farm to farm around the lake, stopping wherever they could find work. Our surname, Hjelmstad (helmet place), comes from the name of a farm where the family had lived only one year. His great-grandfather was born there.

After we arrived back in Oslo for a short stay, we took the train to Norway’s west coast. We traveled along the lovely rural interior from lowland farming country up through chilly mountains cut by sparkling waterways. Some of our ancestors had settled along this route to Bergen, and the train ride provided an opportunity for us to see the modern-day sites of their farming and logging communities.

Much of my deep Norwegian ancestry comes from the Sognefjord north of Bergen. We boarded a ferry from the city and glided deep into this fjord. I got a wonderful sense of the places my people had known so well. Their settlements date back to Viking times. I could imagine the sight of Viking boats sailing along the fjord.

It must have been heart-wrenching for our families to say good-bye to friends and neighbors and leave this beautiful country for the unknown of America. Yet Norway during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was one of the poorest of countries. Only Ireland during the potato famine sent a larger percentage of its population to America than Norway did.

Our families’ oral histories tell us our great-grandparents had no economic opportunity in Norway and felt they had no choice but to leave. The Hjelmstads relate the story of their ancestor, Thore Walstad, who was an older man when he made the journey with his wife, grown children, and grandchildren. He cried when he had to leave Norway.

My Bentsen family spoke of the incentive of free land for making the journey to America. Both our families took advantage of the homestead laws to secure farmland in North Dakota and Montana. These thrifty, hard-working people built prosperous farms that the families still own today.

We think they made the right decision to leave, but it must have been hard, so hard to do it. Thore Walstad probably was not the only one who sobbed at the thought of leaving the beautiful homeland we just visited. He would be amazed at the prosperous country Norway is today.

 

 

Preserving the Work

We genealogists spend a lifetime compiling family histories. How can we preserve this information for posterity?

Our descendants often are not as interested in our family trees as we are. Notebooks and folders of information can end up in the trash when children do not want to house them. Digital files disappear when a computer becomes outdated or subscriptions lapse.

Some options exist for preventing the loss of genealogical work:

  1. Write a book. When I began working as a genealogist, many of the people I met had this ambition. A book offers a place to gather family trees, family photos, and family stories. The writer can distribute copies to relatives and hope some of the books survive. The odds get better if one donates a book to a genealogical library near where the family lived. Although I still see some people working on ancestry books today, the time and expense required for this option deter many people from choosing to write them.
  2. Contribute to online family trees. I have posted my father’s family, so far as I know it, to the online tree at Family Search (www.FamilySearch.org). A cousin in Finland has put much of my mom’s family on the collaborative site, WikiTree (www.wikitree.com). The LDS church runs Family Search, and they vow to preserve information in perpetuity. I do not know the long-term plans for WikiTree. Downsides to this option include the time necessary to input or clean up data and the danger that someone else will edit in bad information.
  3. Apply for membership in heritage societies. Only recently did I become aware of this as an option for preserving one’s family history, but it makes sense. These societies require detailed, sourced applications tracing family trees back multiple generations. They preserve the submissions. You can use this method to place your family tree with groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, or the Mayflower Society. Many such organizations exist, and often people can qualify for one or more. One woman I know belongs to nine heritage societies, and she joined in part to preserve her own family tree work. Some of the societies offer assistance in preparing an application.

I have already used a couple of these options. I documented my grandmother Grace Riddle Reed’s heritage back to her colonial ancestors and distributed the book to family members about twenty years ago. After that, I began annually writing ancestor character sketches and sending them around as Christmas gifts. I have completed these as far back as my second great-grandparents, except for the one line I do not know yet, Grandma Grace’s father.

We all need to find ways to preserve the family history we collect. Doing the research may offer the biggest satisfaction in genealogy, but we owe ourselves the knowledge that someone, somewhere will save what we collect.

Old Photos

A woman sitting next me at a genealogy meeting earlier this week told me about a family photo album she acquired recently. It had been for sale on eBay.

She recognized it because she had seen it in person, years ago. Its owners no longer wanted it but did not make the effort to offer it to other family members. Instead, they posted it for sale online. Genealogists cringe at this behavior.

I had my own experience this month with family photos belonging to another. My mother’s cousin on her Finnish side inherited their grandmother’s photo album.

It contained many images of relatives in Finland, all taken a hundred years ago and more. None had labels.

A few years ago, this cousin visited me and brought along the album. She had no idea who the photo subjects could be, and she asked me for help in identifying them. It saddened both of us that I recognized no one although I could see a strong family resemblance to my Finnish grandmother.

The cousin took her album home again, and that was that. She died a couple of years later. I assumed the album passed down to her son. I did not pursue the idea of acquiring a copy of the unfamiliar contents.

Last fall a couple of our more distant cousins in Finland contacted me. We began exchanging family information, and they asked about family photos. I mentioned the cousin’s album.

They wondered whether I could get my hands on it. Perhaps they could identify some of the people.

Their interest encouraged me. I contacted the cousin’s widower and explained that I may have discovered a way to add some value to her album. I asked for scanned copies of the photos to share with our Finnish cousins.

He replied that he had no interest in keeping these pictures. Nor did his son. He would send me the originals.

The photos arrived in the mail a few days later. My husband/tech advisor has scanned them all.

I will e-mail them to my Finnish cousins to see if they recognize anyone. When I visit them next time I am in Helsinki, I will take hard copies of those and some other family papers. We plan to meet at the new Oodi library in Helsinki to discuss our family history.

Without their encouragement, I may not have acted to preserve these photos. They, too, might have ended up on eBay or in the trash. Instead, I now have digital copies that I can share with all my Finnish-American cousins. With some luck, I may be able to tell them who some of the people are. I just wish my mom’s cousin was still around for this exciting opportunity.

Unwed Mothers

We continue our research on our Nordic ancestors. We are trying to accomplish as much as we can before our upcoming trip to Norway and the Baltic. My husband/tech advisor, an accomplished Norwegian genealogist, has worked his way far back on several of my Norwegian lines.

He has identified an interesting phenomenon in Norway. German researchers mention the same curiosity. These societies had numerous unwed mothers.

I do not know why this occurred so often in Norway. In Germany, the laws of the time encouraged illegitimacy in a couple of ways:

  1. The German states issued marriage licenses only to those men who owned property. They thought they could eliminate poor families with this policy. They found out that people would pair up, married or not. Many illegitimate births occurred during this time.
  2. German inheritance laws made it important to have a family. One did not want to marry a barren wife. Better to verify that she could produce at least one healthy child before marrying her.

Perhaps Norwegian couples had similar reasons for the birth of so many out-of-wedlock children. We have not yet investigated the applicable Norwegian laws.

If social policies did not encourage this behavior, I can think of only one other reason for it, an immoral society. This seems implausible. Why would Norwegians be less moral than their neighbors?

We need to find the true explanation for all those uægte children.

A Place for a Family Tree

Have you ever used WikiTree? This website (https://www.wikitree.com/) offers social networking to build a world-wide family tree. Speakers at genealogy events often mention it.

I had never made time to visit this site until recently. Then one of my newly-discovered cousins in Finland told me she was posting our shared family tree on this site. I decided to take a look.

This week I set up an account and located her tree. She has done a tremendous amount of work, tracing our shared Lampinen family line back many generations. I found that this site provides a great place for us to collaborate.

As a native Finn, she has advantages in pursuing Finnish research that I do not have. Sites like Ancestry or Family Search hold all the records from Finland that I can reach. I have trouble determining the methodology the record keepers used, and I find it difficult to decipher the words.

My cousin knows the Finnish language. Plus, she can visit the repositories where the records are kept if she needs to. She, rather than I, suits the role of Finnish researcher for our extended family.

On WikiTree, I can add the particulars from my American Finns to supplement her work. Together, we can add an entire family to the world-wide family tree.

Nordic Trip Preparations

As Easter approaches, I think it offers a good time to switch gears a bit. I have focused so far this year on extending my Norwegian lines as I prepare for a trip to Norway and the Baltic. My husband/tech advisor has been a tremendous help in this.

He and I traveled in Norway once before, in 2013. We thought at the time that my family originated in Nordland, just as his is from Hedmark. We identified my ancestral farms in Nordland and visited many of them. Unfortunately, we had not worked back in time nearly far enough.

Turns out, a few of my family members were not born in Nordland at all. Some migrated there in the first half of the 1800’s, probably to take advantage of the opportunity to make a better living in the fishing industry.

I had four great-great grandparents in Nordland. After these past four months of research, we know more about their roots than we did during our last trip:

  1. Lorents Nicolai Möller Andersen (1854-1919). Nick, as he was known, was born at Bø in Nordland to parents who had resettled there. Anders Bentsen (1823-1857) and Anne Larsdatter (1819-?) both came from the area northeast of Bergen, along the famous Sognefjord. Their families lived in this region for as far back as church records go.
  2. Karen Marie Johansdatter (1851-1916). Karen, Nick’s wife, was born at Dønnes, also in Nordland. Her family, unlike Nick’s, appears to have lived there a long time. Both her father Johan Larsen (1824-1876) and her mother Sara Andrina Möllersdatter (1816-1880) were baptized in Nordland’s Alstahaug parish.
  3. Sivert Knudsen (1843-1907). Sivert was born in the remote Øksnes municipality of northern Nordland. His parents, Knud Sjursen (1816-1885) and Brita Kristoffersdatter (1816-1887) eloped there in 1842. They were originally from the Voss municipality of Hordaland, east of the city of Bergen.
  4. Martha Karoline Dorothea Hansdatter (1841-1900). Sivert’s wife Martha also was born at Øksnes, as were her father, Hans Enok Pedersen (1813-1898) and grandfather, Peder Andersen (c1768-1828). Her mother, Maren Anna Serina Andersdatter (c1812-1886) came from nearby Bø. This family had long lived in Nordland, at least for several generations.

I can see then that two of my ancestors, Karen and Martha, had Nordland roots, but their husbands did not. Suddenly, I have two more areas to visit the next time I go to Norway.

Luckily, the itinerary for my upcoming trip by chance includes both these places. My train route from Oslo to Bergen will go through Voss where Sivert’s family lived. Once I reach Bergen, I will take a ferry tour of the Sognefjord, the home of Nick’s family.

With these discoveries and plans in place, I will take the opportunity now to work on my Finnish lines a bit. I plan to meet a third cousin or two while I am in Helsinki. They have been hard at work on our shared Lampinen family tree, and I want to do my part. Until we leave, I will assemble what information I can to share with them.