Tag Archives: Fort Ransom

Reindeer and Rana Roots

My grandfather, Johannes Möller Olson (1869-1954), in the mid-1940s.

My grandfather, Johannes Möller Olson (1869-1954), in the mid-1940s.

Say what you will about the Internet, it’s a wonderful resource for genealogy.

I got interested in family history about 15 years ago  after attending a family reunion in Fort Ransom, N.D, and since then I’ve traced my roots back to the 1650s in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.  Found a link to  some Finns as well among Swedish ancestors in the area known as the Finn Forest around Lekvattnet, Varmland, but it’s tenuous. Bottom line: I have Viking blood in  my veins, and I’m proud of that. I have a drinking horn and tattoo to prove it.

My biggest genealogy breakthrough came from  a website called Ancestors From Norway, which took me over the pond and put in touch with Norwegian census reports, tax roles and local church and farm histories, some as far back as the 1600s.  By posting on genealogy message boards for specific locales, I also found helpful researchers, as well as distant cousins eager to share family history from overseas in exchange for family information from the USA. Message boards also put me in touch with distant Swedish cousins.

I’d hoped to find family links back to the Viking Age, but the closest I’ve come to that is a weak (non-blood) link by the marriage of a distant aunt some 300 years ago to a man from another family tree with lineage back to the year 800. 

My paternal Viking line is rooted in a Norwegian farm called Vesteraali outside the town of Mo i Rana in Nordland county (formerly known as Helgeland). Vesteraali lies in a river valley known as the Dunderlandsdalen, where the river Ranelva flows southwest from the Saltfjellet mountains and empties into Ranfjord at Mo, about 80 miles below the Arctic Circle. Tax records from 1865

My family raised reindeer in the old country.

My family raised reindeer in the old country.

and 1875 indicate my ancestors raised reindeer and also kept one horse and a few cows, sheep and a pig or two and planted barley, rye, oats and potatoes in the rocky soil of the Dunderlandsdalen, where the growing season is short but the summer daylight is extensive. I think that the spuds were mainly grown for animal fodder, but I’ve also heard that Norwegian farmers pooled their extra potatoes to distill aquavuit. They also built fishing boats during the winter months and skidded them to market on the frozen Ranelva. Vesteraali is no longer a working farm. It was sold to mining interests in the early 20th century, and it is now under the site of Arctic Circle Raceway. My grandfather was a fifth-generation farmer at Vesteraali. He was in his early 20s when he immigrated to America in 1893 and joined other Rana folk living in or near Fort Ransom, N.D. 

There’s a dead end in my paternal line, which dates back to two brothers, Lars and Jakob Mortensen, born in Rana in the 1690s.  But it’s a fascinating dead end, as the brothers almost certainly descend from a man named Morten. And while data on Morten remains sketchy in the municipal records, there is a Rana folk tale  about a foundling child discovered wrapped in a bolt of cloth purchased by a Rana man  from a coastal trading site in the 1650s. According to the tale, the

Grandpa Olson in 1893, around the time of his immigration.

Grandpa Olson in 1893, around the time of his immigration.

Rana man and his wife adopted the child and had him baptized as Morten, which I’m told was then an uncommon name in the region. For me, the tale provides an element of  immaculate conception for my paternal line. Both my granddad’s parents descended from Morten. Grandpa John’s father was a great-grandson of Jakob Mortensen, and his mother was a great-great-granddaughter of Lars Mortensen. I’ve found other family trees with Lars and Jakob linked to Morten Sølfestra, born around 1629, perhaps in Bergen, but that data is not sourced. According to tradition, Morten was the first resident at Naevermoen, a cotter’s farm in Storli, and he later moved to Mo and owned property at Sør-Mo. 

I come from a long line of farmer/fishermen, including my dad, who was a Fort Ransom tenant farmer when I was born and an avid sport fisher all of his life. I’m the youngest in a generation of Olsons as my dad was nearly 42 years old when I was born, and his dad was 42 when he was born, so I never really knew my granddad. His name was Johannes Möller Olson, or Olssa in the parochial spelling of Rana, son of Ole Jakob Johannessa, who died when Grandpa John was quite young. My dad said Möller, pronounced like Miller, probably would’ve become the family surname if Grandpa had remained in Norway, as the patronymic naming system was then going out of fashion.

Most Norwegians spell Olson with an “sen” rather than “son,” but we’re an exception to that rule.  Don’t know why that is, but it makes this clan of Olsons exceptional in at least one sense.

Mo church, Mo i Rana.

Mo church in Norway, source of many of my family records. (Wikipedia photo)

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A Haunting Image

Funny sometimes how easy it is to get your buttons pushed.

Walking my dogs the other day, I got slightly wigged, passing a yard with a Halloween chicken holding a human limb in its beak.

Chickens kinda weird me out, especially big ones. Like to eat ’em, but don’t care to mingle with live ones. Touched on this previously in a prompt called Squeamish Scouts.

I can thank my mom for this phobia. She put the fear of God into me about chickens when I was a toddler. My folks were tenant farmers in Fort Ransom, N.D., when I was born, and my mom kept a flock of chickens as egg-producers and occasional table fare. The birds would rush to her in the yard, and if I was with her she’d always scoop me up for fear the birds would peck me in the eyes.  She told me that story many times when I was growing up to explain my general uneasiness about handling birds.

My dad contributed to the mystique by saying Mom’s birds were like pets and a bit on the aggressive side. In my mind, my mother’s chickens were all monster-sized, as big as I was. Quick fuckers, too. Quicker and faster than I was. Never mind flying monkeys, these were winged nightmares with claws and bird brains tuned to only one station: peck-and-kill . . . peck-and-kill . . .  peck-and-kill.   The giant two-headed bird from “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” movie (1958) creeped me out worse than any snakes or spiders. All I could  do to sit through Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” too.

My Uncle Ole raised chickens in a big way and once took me into his bird barn that housed something like 600 birds in a single room.  Still haunted today by memories of the half-dozen birds in that room at the tail end of the pecking order.

Not so many years ago, a good friend  had a fighting cock as a pet, and no dog was ever a better watch guard than that feathered little fuck. He didn’t fly well, but he flew well enough to perch atop a swing set in the yard, and I swear that he laid for me every time I visited.  If he wasn’t on the swing set, he’d come a runnin’ when you drove up and try to peck your ankle as you stepped from the car.  I threatened to punt the little pecker into the next county on a number of occasions, by my pal always sided with his bird and made me behave.

Geese were also a bitch for me while growing up because I’d seen them chase people, bite them and beat them with their wings. Turkeys weren’t so bad, but peacocks always gave me the willies, and still do in stalking mode.  I don’t really mind birds so much any more. But let’s just say I’d be in the last in line to pet an emu or ostrich.

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Hand-Me-Downs

An old doll holding a crucifix in hazy green light forms a ghost-like image that calls me back to a time before my birth, but strangely familiar in a déjà vu sense. The doll in her long dress and bonnet sits at a desk, perhaps like the ones that filled the old North Dakota school house where my dear Aunt Esther taught in the 1920s and early ‘30s in the village of Fort Ransom, which sprang up when the old army post closed its gates in the 1870s. Esther was my mom’s eldest sister, and her salary paid the grocery bill to help the Highness family meet ends every

This image served as the prompt for Hand-Me-Downs in a Writers Kickstart exercise.

six months or so. Esther never had any children of her own, but she had nine siblings, seven of which during her time as a teacher still lived at home, where my Grandma Emma kept house and my Grandpa Butch did whatever he could to clothe the bunch and put food on the table. Butch never finished school but the old Norwegian was a prolific hunter and fisherman who could read well enough to educate himself in the ways of animal husbandry and serve local farmers as an uncertified country veterinarian, for which he generally received bartered goods in lieu of money because most of the local farmers in those days were as cash-poor as he was. Emma, the eldest daughter from a big Swedish family as large as her own, was an avid worshiper at Stiklestad Lutheran Church and kept her own brood bonded together with unconditional love and a soap-and-water attitude that cleansed hearts as well as bodies, and inspired the work ethic that made Esther a godsend for those lean and dry years on the prairie that made up the Dirty Thirties.  Mom said her family never had a Christmas tree until Esther was finally able to bring one home from the schoolhouse after classes were let out for the holidays. If my mom ever had a doll, it was probably a hand-me-down from Esther or from second big sister Helen, another woman who would never have a child of her own but would later take in nieces and nephews for whole summers at a time and would also care for her bedridden father in the last years of his life. Yes, the crucifix in the doll’s hand says much to me in another sense of hand-me-downs. A handful of love and right-minded spirit held out for all to see and grasp, even in the hardest of times. I cherish the homespun love and faith that my mother inherited and in turn passed down from the black-and-white world that she kept alive in her photo albums – where only good memories survived.

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Ransom Roots

I chose Ransom Man as the name of my blog because my family is rooted in the prairie lands of Ransom County, N.D., where I was born and where both of my parents grew up and where their families of Norwegian and Swedish stock were among the early pioneers.

Home base was Fort Ransom, a village that sprang up on the Sheyenne River near the site of a former army post (18671-72) named for Civil War Union Major Gen. Thomas Edward Greenfield Ransom, who died of dysentery (that’s the shits) in 1864 while chasing Gen. John Bell Hood’s rebel forces near Rome, Ga.

My dad moved us to the Puget Sound area of  Washington state when I was a twerp, but I feel tied to Fort Ransom through visits and extensive genealogy research.

Ten Things to Know About Fort Ransom

  • Scorching summers.
  • Sub-zero winters.
  • Mosquitoes the size of humming birds.  (When the University of North Dakota gets around to changing its Fighting Sioux nickname,  it might well consider Herc’n Bloodsuckers in recognition of the  insect.)
  • My uncle told me you could put a canoe in the Sheyenne and paddle all the way to Hudson’s Bay.
  • Great place to shoot gophers.  (Buffalo are gone, but deer and antelope still play there.)
  • My cousin Virgil’s place on Bear’s Den Hill near the ruins of the old fort  includes a spring-fed natural amphitheater steeped in antiquity as a probable vision quest site for Native American people, and a nearby “Writing Rock” features cup marks in an astrological arrangement similar to the oldest cup marks found anywhere in North America.
  • Mooring stones like those used by the Vikings were found in the vicinity, proving absolutely that Norse might’ve made it there (no doubt fighting the current all the from Hudson’s Bay).
  • Lefse, lutefisk and my mother’s ring cakes were all perfected there; also home of the Internet venture Youbetchatube.
  • There’s still a tavern in town, but the venerable Fort Ransom Cafe is no more. (So, if you go, you might want to pack your own lunch. But don’t worry about coffee; there’ll be a pot anywhere you go, and the Writing Rock contains the oldest cup marks . . . )
  • If you’re from there, too, we’re almost certainly related.

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