A Short Life Line

One of the first names to capture my imagination in genealogy research was my uncle, Justin Anker Olson, who was no more than 2 years old when he died more than 100 years ago on the family homestead in Harding County, South Dakota.

Justin was the fifth of nine children born to John and Annie Olson, and the other eight all reached adulthood, a blessing of its own considering mortality rates in the early 20th century.

According to church records, Justin was born on May 29, 1907 in Fort Ransom, North Dakota, and was baptized at Standing Rock Lutheran Church. The following spring, Grandpa John loaded his wife and five kids and their worldly possessions into a horse-drawn wagon and joined another dozen Fort Ransom families heading southwest to seek homesteads in South Dakota cattle country.

After traveling about 350 miles over America’s northern prairie, the Olsons settled at place called Clark’s Fork in Harding County outside Buffalo. During the bumpy ride, one can only imagine baby Justin being held by his mother or passed between two older sisters, ages 8 and 6 at that time, giving them a live doll with which to play.

The Olson homestead near Clark’s Fork in Harding County, S.D. around 1916.

That first fall in Harding County, Grandpa broke just two acres of ground before filing papers for his 160-acre homestead in February of 1909 and planting corn and trees on those two acres while also breaking ground on 21 more acres and building a 1½-story frame house, 16 by 30 feet with a cellar underneath, according to BLM records. That strongly suggests that the family camped in their wagon for that first winter in South Dakota, and the exposure may simply have been too much for the little guy. Pop said Justin just got sick and died.

Whatever the nature of his illness, sometime in 1909 baby Justin died and was buried on the homestead, where four more Olson kids were born, starting with my dad in May of 1910. I can only imagine that Pop represented a healing addition to a family that had just lost an infant son in the preceding few months.

The last I know of Justin is that nine years after his death the Olsons moved back to Fort Ransom, and Grandpa John faced the grim task of disinterring his baby son and carrying the remains back to North Dakota, where Justin was reburied in Standing Rock Cemetery. The return trip also took place in a horse-drawn wagon, with Grandma Annie holding another newborn, my uncle Reuben, in her arms. Reuben was the last of John and Annie’s nine kids, which included six boys and three girls.

Pop said Grandpa found only a few bones when he opened Justin’s grave, but he saved what he could, including the headstone that he’d fashioned from a cast iron stove lid in his  blacksmith shop and upon which was inscribed the baby’s  name, birth date and death date.

I’m told that stove lid remains in family hands, but no one knows where.

(Note: This was written as a Writers Kickstart prompt,  500 words or less, on the topic Short Life Line.)

7 Comments

Filed under Memoirs, Prompts

7 responses to “A Short Life Line

  1. Keith, you are such a brilliant writer. Your memoir is in the works with each new family piece you write. America wants to read a book about you and your family written with your wit and insight. Well done!

  2. Poor baby Justin. 😦 I know this was a writing prompt but was this true as well? I love to learn about ancestors.

  3. “Justin” is such a cool name. I’m one of those woo woo types who believes that we never really die, just change form. In my opinion, our higher selves may seek another frequency that this world can’t provide when we “die”. It’s so EASY to theorize when it’s not my own flesh and blood, so I have no idea of what it’s like to lose a baby, I can only imagine. My grandfather came from 14 siblings and one of them died, and my grandma came from 8, so I can potentially understand the farm culture of days gone by. I lost my mind on more than one occasion, and that created some serious heartbreak too. People tell me I got my mind back, but I’m not so sure. I think maybe the old one died, and a new one was born. Or maybe it just changed form. At any rate, your story was well received in my humble opinion. Have a Blessed day.

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