History Is Not What You Thought, Part I

Our conceptions of history depart from the facts. 

Our brains are stocked with tableaus sketched for us by parents, by teachers, by Hollywood. These static visions are partly true. But they are oversimplified. They dull our sense of wonder.

When we get down to actual cases, something magical happens. History stretches forth as a varied landscape, vividly peopled by wayward actors who refuse to stay on script.

HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.

Scandinavian Shuffle

Nordic immigrants appear in the mind’s eye as quaintly dressed folk descending from a ship in New York harbor, then forging their way westward by wagon, oxcart, train, or even on foot, to reach Wisconsin, Minnesota, or the Dakotas—the paradise of a Scandinavian farmer’s dreams. 

The brig Lady Washington, photo by Miso Beno, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. The brig Victoria, in which Anders crossed the Atlantic, would have been similar.

We have read this story in Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, or in Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants. If you saw the Emigrants film back in 1971, your brain may show Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman as the Swedish trekkers.

And if you happen to be descended from Norwegians or Swedes who did indeed follow this well-trod path, then you know the image is true.

Wait a minute.

What if I told you my great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen, took a ship in 1853 from Norway to NEW ORLEANS, not New York? How does that affect the picture?

A Different Story

It’s true. Anders landed in the Crescent City. He was far from the only one. Many Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes entered America through its second-greatest seaport. These people must have been stunned—if not by the warmth and lush vegetation, then at least by the bouillabaise of nationalities, tongues, and skin tones encountered on the wharf at New Orleans.

Steamboats at New Orleans wharf, 1853, painted by Hippolyte Sebron. Public Domain.

And if stunned by these things, they must have been shocked to see African American slaves, human chattel herded like livestock to and from the auction block. This was something their kinfolk taking the northern route would not witness.

But hold on. Why, you might ask, would Northern Europeans sail the long way round, to fetch up on America’s south coast instead of the northeastern seaboard? 

The U.S. railroad system was in its infancy. Modern highways did not yet exist. The broadest, swiftest, most sure-fire route to America’s heartland was the Mississippi River. Still, only a minority came through New Orleans. Most of the Scandinavians arrived at New York or Quebec and made their way by Great Lakes ships, canal boats, and the railroads just being built.

Many who came through New Orleans were recent Mormon converts. The Latter Day Saints began harvesting Nordic souls in 1850 and soon had thousands. Church doctrine required converts to gather in Zion—that is, Salt Lake City. In March 1853, a week before my ancestor Anders Gunstensen would arrive, a sailing frigate landed three hundred Danish Mormons in New Orleans. They took a steamboat up the Mississippi to St. Louis, where they caught another boat westbound up the Missouri, getting closer to their coreligionists in Utah.

But Anders was not a Mormon, nor did he emigrate for religious reasons. He wanted opportunities not available to him in Norway. So in February 1853, he sailed from Arendal on the brig Victoria. After arriving on the Gulf Coast, he traveled up the Mississippi and settled in Menard County, a place in the middle of Illinois, just north of Springfield. 

Huh? Aren’t Norwegians supposed to go farther north? 

Most of them did, but not Anders. He and a few fellow Nordmenn chose Menard County for reasons of their own—most likely following the lead of one Gunder Jørgen Nybro, who had arrived three years earlier. 

With only a handful of Norwegians, they could not publish a Norsk newspaper like Nordlyset, established in Muskego, Wisconsin, by Even Heg, James Reymert, and others. Nor could a Norwegian in Menard County burrow into a large Scandinavian community and spend months or years learning the American language and folkways. No: Anders, Gunder Jørgen, and their friends had to deal with Americans, in English, from the start. 

Itchy Feet

The Restauration. Public Domain.

Our first Norwegian immigrants, Cleng Peerson and fifty-one fellow voyagers on the sloop Restauration, came to New York in 1825. Norwegian immigration peaked fifty-seven years later, in 1882. 

In the 1850s, when Anders arrived, Norwegians were more footloose than they had been since Viking days. Decades of smallpox vaccinations had allowed Norway’s population to grow explosively. With only three percent of her land arable, something had to give.

Ole Bull. Public Domain.

Norwegians have never been daunted by ocean waves. They headed for America, filling old-fashioned sailing vessels in the days before widespread use of ocean-going steamships. Even as early as 1853, travel to America was no strange thing. 

In March 1853, besides Anders Gunstensen and three hundred Danish Mormons, New Orleans hosted violinist Ole Bull, who performed a series of “farewell” concerts in Odd Fellows’ Hall, with nine-year-old singing sensation Adelina Patti. Bull was no stranger to America, having visited first in 1843. In 1852, he had founded a visionary colony called New Norway in Pennsylvania but soon gave up on the endeavor, which was not an agricultural success. 

Norwegians were exploring the world, particularly the United States. They found it inviting. And they did not all settle in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.

Next Week—The Black Experience.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23.

Birth of a Historical Novel

Gunsten Gundersen was the schoolmaster for the seacoast village of Øiestad, Norway. Christian Conradsen Nybro was a boat builder in that same small town.

The schoolmaster’s second son, Anders Gunstensen, and the boat builder’s eldest daughter, Johanne-Marie Elisabeth Nybro, married in Menard County, Illinois, in 1855. 

Your New Favorite Writer is a great-great-grandson of those two Norwegian pioneers.

Two little Norwegians: Grandma Sommers, left, and her sister Mabel, ages 5 and 3.

Nordmann Unawares

People in our family do not seem to believe that much is worth mentioning. I was a full-grown adult before my father thought to inform me that his mother—my Grandma Sommers— came from “Norwegian people down around Springfield.” This abrupt onset of Norwegian-ness took me by surprise. 

But it was welcome news. Norwegians, of any sort, had to be more interesting than the rest of my relations.

With no clue what it meant to be a Nordmann, or how to be one, I joined the Sons of Norway to check it out. SoN lodge meetings and lutefisk dinners soon confirmed my ignorance. There was no doubt my blood flowed from the north. But my Norwegiosity was several quarts low. 

I had grown up as a plain American. None of my kin spoke Norsk. My mom did not bake sand bakkels at Christmas. I envied my Nordic friends their silver-clasped, richly patterned Marius sweaters but did not invest the four hundred dollars to buy one for myself. 

#

Years went by.

A Brief Essay

My wife, Joelle, qualified for a Sons of Norway genealogy badge by tracing my family tree. The final requirement was a brief biography of a Norwegian ancestor. Since Anders Gunstensen was my ancestor and not Joelle’s, she made me write the essay.

“Yes, Dear,” I mumbled. The project would be a distraction. I was focused on writing fiction. She was asking me to pivot and write two pages of nonfiction about my great-great-grandfather. 

Cornered, with no way out, I glanced at the information Joelle had dug up. The more I read, the more I marveled. Anders emigrated to America in 1853 on the sailing brig Victoria, departing Arendal, Norway, in early February and landing at the end of March in . . . New Orleans.

Curiouser and Curiouser

New Orleans? Are you kidding me? Norwegians sail to New York, don’t they?

Not all of them. Anders didn’t. And after passing through New Orleans, he settled in Menard County, Illinois, near Springfield. 

Øyestad Church, photo by  Karl Ragnar Gjertsen, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Wait a minute. Norwegians live up north—Wisconsin, Minnesota—don’t they?

Not all of them. Anders didn’t.

Two years after reaching America, he married Johanne-Marie Nybro, a Norwegian girl. Compatriots in a strange land they seemed, drawn together by a common language and culture.

But hold on, now. Anders and Johanne-Marie were not chance acquaintances. They came from the same hometown. She was the boat builder’s daughter, he the schoolmaster’s son. The village was only a few hundred people. Everybody went to the same church. Anders and Maria must have known each other all their lives. 

Was There a Plan?

So, why didn’t they get married in Norway and then emigrate as a couple? They shipped separately, for some unknown reason. Maybe they had a pre-set plan to marry after arriving in the United States? Hmm. Unlikely. More likely, the decision to wed was made only later, after they reached America. 

But unless they were planning as a couple, why would both be drawn to the same small county in Illinois? Old microfilms in the Wisconsin State Historical Society Library disclosed that Johanne-Marie’s cousin Gunder Jørgen Nybro had already settled in Menard County in 1850. Gunder Jørgen must have written home in praise of his place of settlement. Such a letter would be passed around, even read aloud at public gatherings. Everybody in Øiestad must have known, from Gunder Jørgen’s letter, that Menard County was THE place to go. 

Anders, by the way, sailed from Norway February 9, the very day after his passport was granted. He did not wait for spring or summer, when the North Atlantic would be in a more friendly mood. It seemed to me that Anders left Norway in a big fat hurry. 

Fact Into Fiction?

Our Sons of Norway genealogy badge.

Still mumbling, I wrote the two-page biographical essay, which posed more questions than it answered, and we earned the lovely three-level badge for Norwegian genealogy. But the project left me frustrated, with open spaces in my ancestors’ biographies that likely would never be filled. 

The obvious next move was to make up the answers and thereby convert my ancestors’ story to a fictionalized account. A historical novel.

The image of a footloose, 23-year-old Norwegian stepping ashore in 1853 New Orleans was irresistible. Anders the Nordic farm hand meets the lush warmth of a Louisiana spring. He sniffs fecund and beguiling odors, hears a polyglot of strange tongues, and sees a mix of people—rich, poor, merchants, townspeople. White, black, and brown. Some are free while others are slaves. Some, rich planters, have come to town to buy slaves, whom they regard as livestock. 

The New Orleans wharf in 1853, painting by Hippolyte Sebron. Public Domain.

The Question of Slavery

What would Anders have thought of slavery? America’s Peculiar Institution was an enigma to Norwegians. Scandinavian immigrants in general disapproved of slavery. 

And purely from the standpoint of fiction: If this is going to be a historical novel with Anders as hero, of course he opposes slavery! Having gotten an eyeful of the slave trade during his sojourn in New Orleans, he would have been revolted.

Would he have left slavery behind when he traveled to make his home in Illinois? Not by a long shot, Gentle Reader.

The Prairie State swarmed with runaway slaves from Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and points south. Chasing the slaves were slave catchers—bounty hunters empowered by the Fugitive Slave Law to capture slaves, even on “free” soil, and return them to their owners. As a settler in 1850s Illinois, would Anders not have met freedom-seeking slaves and their hunters?  

Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth and Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants were trail-blazing novels of Scandinavian immigration, and Laura Ingalls Wilder sketched the lives of prairie sodbusters. A new book along these lines could hardly add anything.

But what if Anders and Johanne-Marie became abolitionists and Underground Railroad agents? “Norwegian immigrants aid enslaved African Americans.” That would be something new.

You gotta lotta nerve

How plausible is the premise? Did any Norwegian-Americans help fugitive slaves through the Underground Railroad? Alas, Dear Reader, I have not found any examples.

But consider:

  • Norwegian immigrants were anti-slavery activists. A Norsk immigrant named Even Heg and his son Hans Christian collaborated with other Norwegians to publish Nordlyset (The Northern Light), a Norsk newspaper that was an organ of the Free Soil Party, pushing freedom for slaves. 
  • Central Illinois, where Anders and Johanne-Marie settled, hosted plenty of Underground Railroad operations. At least nine sites in Menard County were stations or otherwise associated with Underground Railroad activity.
  • Norwegians in central Illinois, with no native-language press or other Scandinavian institutions, had to learn the English language and American ways quickly. Would not Anders have cultivated American mentors? Could those mentors be station agents for the Underground Railroad? Of course they could.
  • The factual, historical Anders, like thousands of Norwegians and other immigrants, joined the Union Army when war came. Not all Union soldiers were abolitionists, but some were. Anti-slavery principles must have been part of Anders’s decision to fight.

It is not at all far-fetched to imagine Norwegian farmers in the antislavery struggle. The Underground Railroad was an illegal clandestine movement, most of its operations conducted in secrecy. For that reason alone, its true facts will never be fully known by historians. 

The point of a historical novel is not to narrate events that definitely happened. It is to tell a story that could have happened, by which the reader is entertained or informed.

A New Literary Work

So I embarked on writing my first novel, Freedom’s Purchase. Five years later, it is greatly improved and bears a new title: The Maelstrom. Johanne-Marie’s name has been shortened to the less tongue-twisting Maria. A few facts of family history have also been altered for the plot.

Most importantly, the antislavery theme, first conceived as merely one aspect of Anders’s and Maria’s struggle to adapt to life in America, took on a life of its own and became the main conflict of the book. The invented character Daniel, a runaway slave, came to embody in some way the whole institution of slavery. Thus The Maelstrom gives equal weight to the separate stories of Anders, Maria, and Daniel. It is a braided narrative of three interwoven strands.

Yet this book also is a dialogue between two different experiences of life—the immigrant experience of Anders and Maria, and the enslaved experience of Daniel and his friends. These two perspectives speak in ways that I hope are powerful, informative, and humane.

“But how dare you, a white American male, write a character like Daniel, representing the hopes and frustrations of black Americans whose lives you did not live?”

You may with equal logic inquire how I can write of Anders and Maria, whose life as nineteenth-century Scandinavian immigrant farmers was almost as remote to me as that of Daniel the slave. 

The answer is the same in both cases: One can only do one’s best. 

We have the right to invent stories. They need not be factual. We hope they may entertain, inform, and address something in our common humanity that readers will recognize as true.

Next Time: Daniel—A Plot Device Goes Rogue

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Memoirs of Millie Marie Gunsten Sommers, Part I

This is a guest post by Millie Sommers (1889-1971), my grandmother. In 1969, at my request, she wrote a memoir of her life, mostly telling about her early days, around 1900. She wrote 13 pages, in clear, crisp longhand. I have broken it into three parts for easy reading. It is verbatim, straight from her pen, except for a few additions of my own, in [square brackets].

Grandma’s Narrative:

I was born Aug. 8 – 1889, at Greenview, Menard Co. Illinois. I was the oldest of 10 children. My father & mother were running a resturant [sic] in Greenview. But when I was about a month old, we moved to a small farm, about 10 or 12 miles from there.

Millie, age 5, and her sister Mabel, 3.

My father’s name was John Oliver Gunsten, and his folks were Norwegian, altho he was born in this country. My mother’s name was Sarah Elizabeth Foster. My father did not farm, but was a carpenter as were quite a few cousins of two other Gunsten families who lived near by.

They all worked together, with my father as Boss Contractor. He never had but little education, but was an excellent carpenter, and drew all his plans and then had them blueprinted. He also made a lot of our furniture, such as dressers, desks etc.

Several years later we moved to Lincoln, Logan Co. Illinois. There was a Feeble-minded Institution there, and they always kept several carpenters for repair jobs & other work that needed to be done. So my father was Boss Carpenter there.

School Days

I also had my first two years of school in Lincoln. Then we moved to Middletown, also in Logan Co, and about 25 miles from Springfield.

Later quite a few of my fathers relatives moved there, as did a few other Norwegian families.

My mother’s folks still lived in Greenview, about 10 miles away, but quite a trip in horse & buggy.

I finished my schooling in Middletown, which had 8 grades, and 2 yrs. High School, as most small towns had.

This was all one 2-room building – one downstairs and one upstairs, with two teachers.

I even taught several times in the lower room, when the teacher was sick or had to be away.

I was large for age and also rather quick to learn, so I suppose that was the reason I was chosen.

In those days only the “well-to-do” tho’t of going away to High School or College.

Small Town Life

After finishing school, we moved to Lowpoint, Ill. a very small town in Woodford Co. But it was a very important town, and was practically owned by three brothers. They had a large general store, lumber yard, elevator, coal, etc.

Millie, age 18.

They always kept a Carpenter for their house building etc. thru out the country, so that was my Dad. The telephone exchange was in the middle of the General store, and there were wires extending from there to different parts of the store for the cash boxes. So I was the telephone and cashier there.

There was a blacksmith, but he was independent, and let everybody know it.

Several years later we moved to Springfield. My mother’s sister lived there, and later most of the rest of her family moved there. 

The older ones lived there until their deaths. I still have one sister living there. My mother’s father lived to rather a good age, and her mother [Martha Elizabeth Smith Foster] lived to be 100. She was in good health always and able to get around rather well altho her hearing was not too good. She was knitting a suit for one of her grown up grand-daughters, and finished it soon after.

But she seemed to give up at 100 years, and 6 mos. later she died.

Marriage and Family

William P. Sommers, around age 30.

I worked as telephone operator in Springfield for awhile, then later did office work, until I was married on May 29, 1912 to Wm P. Sommers of Metamora, Illinos. He and his father [Peter Anton Sommers] owned and operated the Telephone Exchange in Metamora, as in those days most of Telephone Exchanges were privately owned.

My husband was a Telegraph Operator, and railroaded since quite young (14 yrs.) Those days they worked as apprentices ˆ(and general roustabout) in a station until they learned Telegraphy and then they were on their own.

One of Grandpa’s telegraph keys, an unusual Foote, Pierson & Co. “Twentieth Century” key from the early 1900s, popularly known as a “Pump Handle Key.” Larry F. Sommers photo.

We lived in Metamora 23 yrs. Our 5 children (4 boys & 1 girl) were born there. My husband was station agent there for awhile, then he went to work for Sinclair [Oil Corporation]. At that time they dispatched their oil [on their oil pipeline] by telegraph, and had pumping stations every 40 miles (I believe). He had to work as relief Opr. at different places at vacation time until a permanent place was open. Finally we moved to Dahinda, Knox Co., Ills. We lived there 8 yrs. but as the children had to drive 10 miles to High School, we moved into Knoxville where we still live (or at least I do.) My husband died Jan. 1957. He had retired from Sinclair after 16 yrs. The children all live away now.

Our children all graduated from Knoxville High School. The oldest Edward went to University of Washington 2 yrs. Then enlisted in the Naval Cadet Program, which was being pushed at that time on account of W.W. 2 looming up. After 4 yrs in Navy, he went with Pan American Airway where has been [sic] ever since. 

He married Mary Nelson of Knoxville, and have three children and 3 grandchildren.

Next oldest is Mabel, who married Robert Hiler of Knoxville, who is mechanic for United Airlines in California. They have one son.

The third was Stanley, who went to Knox College 2 yrs. & then enlisted as Aviation Cadet. He became a Pilot and 2ndLt. He married Mary Parkins of Galesburg just before going overseas.  

He was killed in So Pacific. Dec-1st 1942.

The youngest Franklin was also a pilot and 2nd Lt. He was killed in France at age 20 years. Sept 2 – 1943.

The next to youngest was Lloyd went into the Army, just after High School.

He spent 3½ yrs. in So Pacific and came home in fairly good shape. He then went to Knox College for 4 yrs, and taught H. School for 3 yrs. [Mistaken: Actually 2 years.]

He is now Chemist for Johns-Manville in Waukegan, Ills. He married Barbara La Follette of Knoxville, and they have two children. Cynda, the youngest is in first yr. college.

Larry who is overseas with Army Air Corp [actually, U.S. Air Force], works as interpeter [sic] of Communist broadcasts, for one thing.

Millie Sommers, 1950s

He went to a Chinese language school & studied the Chinese language. Since being in Okinawa part of the time, he has studied Japanese language. He is the one who gave me the idea of writing these memoirs. He wanted me to write of some of the things we did differently in the days when I was young, and what we did for fun. So I will try and think of some things that might be interesting.

Next Week: Fin-de-Siècle Pastimes

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author