I've often wondered about my last name name and the French side of my family. It wasn't until recently that I became more interested in my Norwegian heritage.
My grandmother's name was Oneta Girtina Diesslin, née Gulleifson. When I was little we would visit her and my grandpa in their home in North Saint Paul. My grandpa built the house himself. I grew up sitting under one of the old fashioned blow dryers in the basement beauty parlor while one of my aunts did my grandma's hair. There are pieces of the house that I loved and they still stick out in my mind: the giant mirror with a gold-painted frame, the white shop door with its glass doorknob, and the enormous trunk in one of the upstairs bedrooms. It's always been there in the background, un témoin du passé, and a fixture of my childhood. Now the trunk is displayed proudly in my parents' house and I couldn't help but wonder about it.
I asked my mom and she told me that her mom had written her a letter explaining the story of the trunk. It didn't take long to find the letter my grandma had written, along with a Norwegian newspaper article, a typed account from one of her cousins, and another article published in Country Living. Now that's research I don't mind doing!
I was never a big history buff in school, but family history fascinates me to no end. Not just my family's history either. When I'm introduced to someone new, the first thing I try to do is guess where they're from based on their last name (sometimes in my head, sometimes out loud). I'm not sure when or where this started, but I'm pretty sure it stems from the time my family spent in Switzerland. I went to school with kids from countries all over the world. When you're in the U.S., the first question people ask you is "What do you do?" In Europe, it's "Where are you from?"
I often think about that and wonder about the answer. I love how old family photos can help trace a family history, but a trunk? What answers could I get from an old piece of furniture? Anna Ander's datter Stende 1873. Those are the words painted in an elegant script on the front. It turns out that Anna Stende is my great-great-grandmother. She brought the trunk over with her on the voyage to America. Like other immigrant trunks, it was likely filled with clothing, cookware, books and other belongings. These large wooden trunks served a practical purpose, yet they're often carefully decorated with detailed ironwork and a special painting technique, called rosemaling. The bright colors used were an attempt to brighten up dark interiors (think Norway in the middle of winter). The more elaborate the decoration, the more likely the piece was part of a dowry.
In the 19th century, a wave of Scandinavian emigrants came in ships bound for America. According to an article published in the Norwegian newspaper Budstikken, the Valkyrie departed Bergen on April 25, 1873 (the same year painted on the trunk). There were 303 passengers on board, including my Great-Great-Grandmother Anna and her sister Gunvor. Their ship didn't arrive in Quebec until June 19, nearly two months later. It was a difficult trip from the start. The departure was delayed because an escaped prisoner was on board. Apparently he was in trouble for owing money but the situation was resolved when someone else on the ship paid his debt. Not long after departure, when the ship was passing through the English channel, a terrible storm caused it to crash into another ship. The collision caused significant damage to the Valkyrie but it still fared better than the other ship which sank. The crew was able to patch the largest hole until they could find someone to tow them to nearby Dover, England. There they were able to repair the damage and restock supplies. Ten days later they set out again for round two. Once at sea, they ran into all the usual issues that come along with the harrowing journey across the Atlantic: storms, seasickness and icebergs. Apparently the icebergs "weren't a threat" on this particular voyage and they eventually made it to their destination before going their separate ways.
Anna eventually married Ole Erickson, a blacksmith from Sweden. They settled on 80 acres (!) of farmland west of the Cities in Renville County. Anna and Ole had seven children, including Caroline, my great-grandmother. She died well before I was born but I remember her unsmiling portrait hanging in my grandparent's house. Why didn't people ever smile in pictures back then? I still have so many questions but now I know a little more about my ancestors and how they got here. And it all started with a trunk!