Finding My Swedish Family Roots

The PBS network is airing a popular series on American television titled “Finding Your Roots.”  Its three seasons worth of programs features Americans–some of them prominent, others not–tracing their family history. Many know little or nothing about their ancestors prior to the show, not an uncommon thing for Americans.  During the show, researchers, historians and genealogists uncover as much as they can about the individual’s personal family. Sometimes the results are startling, surprising, delightful and often fascinating.

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The research that Bo did for my family led us to the place where my great grandmother’s family lived. My parents, right, visited the farm in Fagerdal where they met the farmer and his mother, who I saw on my recent trip there.

I am fortunate in that I have known my family history on my mother’s side of the dating back to the 1500s for the past 30 years. This is because nearly more than 40 years ago, my mother’s cousin Dorothy decided to dig out her maternal grandmother and grandfather family roots.  This was prior to all the Internet services available today that make such an endeavor easier. But at that time, Dorothy spent countless hours and money visiting libraries, traveling to see distant family cousins, aunts and uncles and reading every letter she could find that made mention of the family in Sweden.

Somewhere along the journey, my parents connected her to Bo, the Swedish cousin of my aunt Marie, who was married to my father’s brother. Bo had come to the States several times on business and also to visit his family here who had moved from Sweden. I was still a young girl when I first met when he rolled through Kansas to visit Marie and her family who grew up and lived in Savonburg, KS., a tiny, largely Swedish town north of where my family lived.Bo and me 68 750

He was, and still is, a jolly guy, full of jokes and stories and little known facts about his homeland that he’s happy to share. He became computer savvy early on, largely due to his Swedish government job and quickly learned how to access historical records.

Dorothy had travelled to Sweden a time or two in her quest after exhausting her resources here. She and her husband visited churches hoping to learn more about the family. The Lutheran churches in Sweden have kept excellent records for centuries of baptisms, marriages, and deaths that anyone tracking down relatives can mine. But you must know where to start. Dorothy had gone as far as she could when she met Bo.

During my first visit to Sweden with my aunt Hazel, Bo escorted us around Stockholm and showed us the city.
During my first visit to Sweden with my aunt Hazel, Bo escorted us around Stockholm and showed us the city.

She and Bo corresponded by letter with her telling him everything she had learned and where she was stuck. In the meantime, Bo became a volunteer working in the archives of the Utvandranus Hus or The House of Emmigrants in Växjö, Smaland, a southern province from which many thousands of Swedes came to the U.S. This is a wonderful museum and a must-visit for anyone interested in their Swedish heritage. Built in 1968, it houses records that date from 1840 through 1930 when approximately 1.3 million Swedes, or nearly one-fifth of the country’s population, moved to the U.S.  The museum serves as an international research center and also displays permanent and rotating exhibits about that huge migration.

Combing through the library, Bo was able to find our family records which, in turn, led to other discoveries.  He found, for instance, that my great-grandfather had come from Anga on Gotland.  That revelation eventually led us to my cousin Sivert and his family (the subject for my next blog post).  A letter, tucked into the Bible belonging to my great-aunt Clara, and written by my great-grandmother to the family in Sweden, provided a breakthrough to tracing the family to He found both the homesteads of my great grandmother and great grandfather’s family. (Read my blog Father’s Day in Fagerdal.) Dorothy, my aunt Hazel, my parents and I all have been there and stood where their grandparents once lived.

My Swedish family records dating back to the 1500s, when the original family trekked across frozen ice (so the story goes) to Sweden from Poland, fill a large ledger book. The contents are the result of endless research and expense by both Dorothy and Bo. The book is one of my prized possessions and something I will hand down to my own sons.

Bo and his wife, Eva at a dinner together during my recent visit to Sweden.
Bo and his wife, Eva at a dinner together during my recent visit to Sweden.

We are still making new discoveries about my family, thanks to Bo. Just last summer, Bo presented me with an unusual birthday gift that linked me to one of Sweden’s most prominent authors.  That is a story I’ll tell in upcoming blog.

 

A Father’s Day at Fagerdal

My Father’s Day arrived a two weeks early this year while I was in Sweden visiting family and friends.

This was my first trip there in ten years and I wanted to return to some of the places where my great grandparents had lived before emigrating to the United States in 1868. Americans rarely know much, if anything, about their ancestors from the ‘old country’, let alone know exactly where the family resided before packing up and moving to America.  I am one of the fortunate who do.

About 30 years ago, my family learned from my mother’s cousin (with help from Bo, the Swedish cousin of my aunt by marriage), that my maternal great grandmother who had left for the States as a child with her family had lived in Småland. The family dwelled in the Swedish province of Småland on a beautiful, but rocky, piece of land near a lake. They were contracted for 49 years to the farmer who owned property.  It was, as the man who currently owns the farm explained: “a very bad contract.”

You can see the wooden fence that ran along the familyäs property in this photocopy of the original photo. My great grandmother's family was contracted to work the land for the farmer for 49 years.
You can see the wooden fence that ran along the familyäs property in this photocopy of the original photo. My great grandmother’s family was contracted to work the land for the farmer for 49 years.

Like so many others at the time, the family fell on hard times when a famine hit the country. Nearly 100,000 Swedes emigrated to the U.S. between 1868 and 1873. My great- grandmother was among them. My great-grandmother, in a letter written when she was 70 to the family ‘back home’ wished she could return and see her old home once more. But as she was 70, she never made the trip. (Click here to read more about this in my blog post of May, 2015.)

My great grandmother's family from Sweden. My great grandmother is one of the two little girls standing on either end but I can never remember exactly which one she is.
My great grandmother’s family from Sweden. My great grandmother is one of the two little girls standing on either end but I can never remember exactly which one she is.

Instead, my aunt, Hazel, and I made the trip for her, visiting the ‘homeland’ together in 1991. We went with Bo to the farm in Småland at a tiny spot known as Fagerdal. It was an emotional visit as we walked around what was left of the foundation of the farmhouse and explored the nearby root cellar. My aunt recalled stories her grandmother had told about being a little girl there. Then Bo beckoned us over to a juniper bush and upon parting the branches, revealed to us the stationary paper-sized copper sign attached to a post. The inscription, in Swedish, commemorated the fact that my great-grandmother’s family had lived there from 1853 to 1867.  Tears welled in both our eyes as we read the words.

Two years later, my mother and father travelled to Sweden to visit the family, as my aunt and I had done. They too drove with Bo to Fagerdal where they met the farmer and his mother living there and went down to the pasture to see where the house had once stood and to view the sign in the juniper bush.

Our family friend, Bo, made a map for me to follow to Fagerdal when he was unable to make the trip with us.
Our family friend, Bo, made a map for me to follow to Fagerdal when he was unable to make the trip with us.

On this trip, I journeyed alone to Fagerdal with my husband. Bo was unable to join us but he had mapped out the route for me and written instructions as to how to find the place. I hoped to see once more that farmstead in the field and the sign that had so moved me 25 years previously.

We turned off the highway just outside Åtivdaberg and headed south on a two lane, well-paved country road.  Although early evening, we had a few hours of daylight left as the summer season is one of very long days in Sweden. The countryside was lush and particularly verdant in the late day golden light. It was difficult to imagine that this area at one time had suffered such a famine that families had to leave in order to feed their children.

Our rental car had a GPS to help guide our way, but Fagerdal is such a small spot (if not just the name for the farms there), that it didn’t even appear on the electronic map. As we drew closer, I stopped at a ‘sommar stuga’, or summer cottage to ask if we were on the right track. We were. After asking for directions twice more, and pointing to the map that Bo had made, we arrived at a cluster of farm buildings sitting at the end of a drive at the top of a hill. An elderly woman shuffled in the yard apparently checking on her flower garden when I hopped out of the car with my map.

The current farmer and his mother, shown here, were warm and welcoming. She invited us for kaffe.
The current farmer and his mother, shown here, were warm and welcoming. She invited us for kaffe.

She spoke no English. I did my best to explain to her in Swedish why I had pulled unannounced into her drive. The woman had a sweet smile and kind eyes but she couldn’t understand my request. She called to “Stefan,” within the house and in moments her son, a man about my own age, appeared. He spoke some English so between my Swedish and his English he figured out my reason for the unexpected visit and offered to take us down to the field. I was ecstatic.

I stand on the stones where my grandmother's family home once was.
I stand on the stones where my grandmother’s family home once was.

We followed him in the car along a rutted road down to the place where I had been so many years before. Together we walked up the little hill to the spot where the house had been and over to where the stone walls of the root cellar were still intact although now a tree was growing up from the center. Then I looked for the sign, the thing I had hoped to see once again. The farmer knew it, had seen it but search as we did, we could not find it. He was mystified and couldn’t understand why it was not in the bushes, now grown into small trees.  We walked all around the area, looking in the tall grass in case it had fallen or been dragged off by the cattle who had grazed there. Perhaps, the farmer ventured, someone had taken it. Taken it? Why? How? Where? These were questions to which he, nor I, had any answers. As disappointed as I was, I was nonetheless thrilled to stand once more at the place where my great-grandmother had been as a child. Tears again came into my eyes.  As much as I would have liked to have stayed longer, dusk was settling in and we had further to go that evening.

The stone walls of the root cellar remain intact where the family stored their vegetables.
The stone walls of the root cellar remain intact where the family stored their vegetables.

I had fulfilled one of my goals for the trip by visiting the farm once more. The farmer and his mother were warm and welcoming. She even asked us to stay for ‘kaffe’ afterwards, an invitation that I had to decline because we had to yet to drive to our hotel further south. But before we followed her son down to the farm field, he disappeared back into the house and re-emerged with a large, manila envelope from which he pulled a few papers.

My great grandmother's family farm in Småland, as it appeared in 1916 seen here in a photocopy of the original picture.
My great grandmother’s family farm in Småland, as it appeared in 1916 seen here in a photocopy of the original picture.

Among the papers were photocopies of photos of my family’s farmstead, as it appeared in 1916, when relatives who came after, still lived there. I had never seen these photos before. I did my best to photograph the copies so I could show Bo and my family back in the States. I had just finished snapping the photos when the farmer picked up the other papers from the envelope that he had placed on the porch bench. A little slip of paper fell out.

I instantly recognized the handwriting. It was that of my own father’s.  My Dad had torn a piece of paper from the little pocket calendar that he always carried with him and had written upon it his name, address and phone number. The date at the top read: September 1993. “Det är min far,” I exclaimed. “Det är min far!” (That is my father!) Tears welled in my eyes at the sight of it.

My father had written down his contact information when he and my mother had visited. He had left it with the farmer and his mother who had kept it all these years in the envelope with the photos and other information about Väster Lund, as that farm was called, perhaps just so that it would be there when I returned.  Now, 23 years later it was as if my Dad was saying: “Remember, we were here too,” and sending me his love simply with this slip of paper. It was my Father’s Day in Fagerdal.

 

Remembering Our Ancestors on Memorial Day

This weekend, millions of Americans are celebrating one of this country’s oldest and biggest federal holidays–Memorial Day.  Originally named, Decoration Day, it was created after the Civil War to honor those who had died in our military service. Today, in cemeteries across the United States, veterans’ and other organizations place small U.S. flags at the graves of those who served in our armed forces.  My Dad, along with those of so many others, is among them.

My mother's family gathers at the cemetery to honor her grandparents.
My mother’s family gathers at the cemetery to honor her grandparents.

Americans also use this day to decorate the graves of their loved ones and to gather together in cemeteries large and small, to honor those generations who have gone before them.  The U.S. doesn’t have, as do many other countries in the world, a day specifically designated as ‘ancestors’ day. Probably one reason for that is because so many Americans don’t even know their ancestral heritage. I am fortunate in that I have the history of my mother’s paternal family dating back to the 1500s. And I know my family in Sweden, from where both my great-grandmother and great-grandfather emigrated during the late 1860s. I have been to visit my family there several times and one year, took with me, my aunt, who, was the second oldest in my mother’s family and who had fond memories of her Swedish-born grandmother and grandfather.

My aunt and Swedish cousins read the entries in the history book kept by the owner of her grandfather's farm in Sweden.
My aunt and Swedish cousins read the entries in the history book kept by the owner of her grandfather’s farm in Sweden.

During that trip, now many years ago, we first met my Swedish cousins and went to the home places of both her grandparents. What a thrill for both of us. Shivers shot down my back when I first heard my cousin’s father voice because his sounded so much like that of my own grandfather–who would have been his uncle–,who died when I was only three. We were both excited when the farmer who then occupied the farmhouse where my great grand father had grown up, invited us in and proudly showed us the book that had come with the farm, documenting its history and those who had once owned it. Later on that same trip, we found his name registered with many others who had left Sweden during that time, when we visited the Utvandrarnas hus, or the House of Emigrants in Vaxjo.

My aunt points to my great grandfather's name written in the registry at the House of Emigrants in Sweden.
My aunt points to my great grandfather’s name written in the registry at the House of Emigrants in Sweden.

Then upon walking around field where my great-grandmother’s had once stood, our family’s Swedish friend and host for much of our stay, motioned for us to “Kommer här.”  He was standing next to a thick green bush and when we joined him, he parted the center of the bush with his arms to reveal a small, tarnished bronze plaque attached to a metal pole. The inscription on the plaque took my breath away. It said, in translation, that “Here in this place once lived 1858-1867 Carl Axel Carlsson and his wife who emigrated to North America”.

My aunt holds back the bush to reveal the plaque commemorating her family at the Swedish farmstead.
My aunt holds back the bush to reveal the plaque commemorating her family at the Swedish farmstead.

Carl Carlsson was my great-great grandfather. I still get chills even writing this as I did upon first seeing this. My aunt was nearly in tears. For her, this was a completion of a journey for my great-grandmother who was old enough to remember her Swedish childhood when she left with her family. At age 70, the same age as my aunt was then, great grandmother had written a letter to her family in the old country, expressing her desire to  see Sweden once more but knew that she never would as she was now too old to make the long trip. My aunt felt as is she had made the trip for her.

The family sings an old hymn that was favorite of their grandparents.
The family sings an old hymn that was favorite of their grandparents.

A few years later, my aunt decided to honor her grandparents by designing a new headstone for their graves engraved with the provincial flowers from their respective Swedish homes and an inscription that commemorated their immigration to America. All her brothers and sisters, and their spouses, gathered at the little creek-side cemetery in the Missouri countryside for a private installation ceremony that my aunt had planned. They placed flowers and an American flag on the headstone, they listened as my aunt recounted the story of our visit to the homes in Sweden and her vivid memories of her grandparents. Then they sang a hymn that had been a favorite of her grandparents:  Shall We Gather at the River. Tears welled in my eyes as they sang. Afterwards, I surprised my aunt by presenting to her an exact, framed replica of the plaque that we had discovered in Sweden and a photograph of the Carlsson family taken shortly after they had arrived in this country. It was now her turn to be in tears.

 Cheryl presents her aunt with a replica of the plaque they saw at the farmstead in Sweden.
Cheryl presents her aunt with a replica of the plaque they saw at the farmstead in Sweden.

Last Memorial Day, my brother and I drove the two hours to the same little Missouri cemetery. We placed flowers on the graves of our family members buried there, stopped by the spot where their two-story wood frame farmhouse once stood and remembered our family, my aunts and uncles, their parents and grandparents, just as they did on that day in the cemetery.  The framed plaque hung in the entryway of aunt’s home for years. When she died a few years ago, I was given the plaque. It is now displayed in my entry hall where it reminds me everyday of the trip we made together, the family we loved so much, and of a heritage of which I am proud.

 

Saving the Family Photos

Like many people, I’ve been watching the media coverage of the ongoing clean up and recovery efforts in Moore, Okla. and the other communities which were devastated by the tornado that ripped through the middle of country one month ago.  As reporters spoke with those digging through the rubble that was once their homes, I was struck by a common theme.  Although they were searching for anything that could be salvaged, the one item they all said they hoped to find was family photographs.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and Mississippi, residents there too lost  family photos in the flooding along with everything else.  Unfortunately, among those who lost everything were many professional photographers who otherwise would have archived images of weddings, family groups, baby portraits, class reunions and life’s  events. Without those archival files, none of the photos could be replaced.

Even famiy vacation snapshots are priceless when a natural disaster hits. Our photo memories of those fun times often can't be replaced if destroyed.
Even famiy vacation snapshots are priceless when a natural disaster hits. Our photo memories of those fun times often can’t be replaced if destroyed.

A family’s photographs, whether snapshots, an old family album of one’s ancestors, wedding pictures or the family portrait that a professional photographer created, are one of the few things that often can not be replaced when a disaster hits.  You can’t always predict exactly when or where a natural disaster will strike, but here are some suggestions and precautions to lessen the chances of losing your precious photographic memories.

1) Make two CDs of your images whenever you download them from your camera. This is a common practice among professional photographers, who also go one step further and use archival CDs on which to store their recorded images.  Ideally, the two CDs should be stored in two separate locations.

2) Likewise, for film images. Store your negative files and prints in separate locations.

In 1994, a major earthquake rocked Los Angeles.  My sons, shown here with the next day's newspaper headline, helped me load our family albums into the car.
In 1994, a major earthquake rocked Los Angeles. My sons, shown here with the next day’s newspaper headline, helped me load our family albums into the car.

3) Keep personal family photo albums in one place in the home so that you can quickly grab them should you need to evacuate.  When still living in Los Angeles, I kept my personal albums together in one closet.  When the 1994 Northridge earthquake shook our house and the resulting pipeline fire nearby appeared to threaten our neighborhood, I grabbed the albums between aftershocks and loaded them into the back of our car.  In that same closet were the negatives of  the portraits of my family that hung throughout the house. I pulled those storage boxes off the shelf as well and packed them into the car.  Fortunately, in our case, evacuation wasn’t necessary but I was ready to go with the family memories if it had been.

4) If you live in where tornadoes occur, move your family albums to basement temporarily during tornado season.  You won’t want to leave them there permanently unless the basement is climate controlled because excessive humidity or heat can damage your photos, negatives or slides.

Scan your heirloom family portraits because they are impossible to replace once gone.
Scan your heirloom family portraits because they are impossible to replace once gone.

5) Store your digital images on a secure on-line storage site. There are costs associated with this storage space but it may be an option for some of your most important images.

6)  Provide family members who live elsewhere with copies of your most beloved photos.  While you may not want to duplicate every photo you have there are undoubtedly some that hold more meaning for you than others that you might want to share with your family.

7) Scan your oldest, heirloom photos, if you are lucky enough to have them, so that you will have a duplicate in case you lose the original. 

Professional wedding pictures can often be replaced because professional photographers archive the original negatives or digital files.  And yes, that's me in the center.
Professional wedding pictures can often be replaced because professional photographers archive the original negatives or digital files. And yes, that’s me in the center.

8) Established professional photographers retain both the original and finished images of their work so that you should lose your wedding or family portraits in a natural disaster you can have them replaced, unless of course their own studio is also destroyed.

9) Lastly but not least, make prints of those digital images that hold the greatest meaning for you.  With the advent of digital imagery, many people no longer make ‘hard copies’ in the form of prints, preferring instead to store the images on their computers, external hard drives, phones or CDs.  But for the images you love the most, I highly recommend making prints of them. I do this myself for all my personal family photos because should something ever happen to my computer or the CDs on which they are stored, I will still have my pictures.

As I tell my portrait clients who ask for digital images only, I have stored away files of articles written when I worked as a journalist for TIME and other publications. They were recorded on 5-inch floppy disks, on a program that no longer exists, on an operating system that no longer exists, on a computer that no longer exists. But I have ‘hard’ printed copies of everything I wrote so I still have access to that material. You would be well-advised to do the same with your personal family photographs.

I hope these suggestions will help preserve the visual memories of your childhood and family should a disaster ever befall you. Most of all, I hope should you ever be caught in a natural disaster that you and your family will  be safe. Those lives are most precious than any possession or photograph and certainly can never be replaced.