Tag Archives: genealogy

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 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.)

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