Real life history detectives
By Leslee Lane Hoyum
Norwegian American Weekly
I am a big fan of PBS’s History Detectives program, and consider myself a bit of a detective when it comes to hunting down my family’s history, whether fact or legend. So, when I had an opportunity to visit the Norwegian American Historical Association (NAHA) at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., I donned my Detective Gwendolyn Wright red glasses, spiked my hair and headed south.
It was a cold overcast day in Northfield, but I was greeted with a warm, sunny smile from NAHA Administrative Director Jackie Henry. “Welcome to NAHA,” she said as she whisked me off to learn about opportunities that would allow me to understand better who I am through the experiences of my immigrant ancestors.
The NAHA collections consist of books, newspapers, manuscripts, photographs and other materials relevant to the Norwegian emigration to America and to the immigrants’ experience in America. The organization was founded in 1925 with Ole E. Rølvaag, an ardent collector himself, as its first secretary. It is significant to note that 1925 also marked the centennial of the first organized emigration from Norway to New York.
Our first stop was at NAHA’s manuscript and photo archive. I thought about what Gwendolyn always says, “A good, scientific investigation has to have clarity – a specific question and strategy – since the results, as in science, may be unexpected.” My cousins and I always have had questions about Bethlehem Norwegian Methodist Church in North Minneapolis that, for a while, was my family’s home church. So I thought I’d test the archives. “Let me see what you have on this church,” I asked Jackie. She went immediately to a file that referred to Norwegian and Norwegian-Danish Methodist congregations in Minneapolis. Yup, there was the file: Bethlehem Norwegian-Danish Methodist Church.
This was amazing to me. We opened the file, and although there wasn’t much, the collection did have a copy of the roster of founding members, including my great-grandparents, Charlie and Dorothea Swensen and my grandmother, Bertha Swensen Lane. Thinking back to my own collection, I asked Jackie whether NAHA accepts information from the outside. She just smiled and said, “Absolutely. Our archives are ever-changing, and we welcome new information about families, organizations, churches and more at anytime.” So, I offered her a photo of the 1921 Bethlehem church choir, which includes my grandfather and several of his in-laws, whom I promised to identify. First stop and we both win.
Next we went to the Rølvaag Library and visited NAHA’s library collection, which includes family histories, bygdebøker (regional histories in Norway), and a variety of historical books about Norway. “We always welcome bygdebøker,” said Jackie. “They are very popular and are always in use. In fact, you can order them for personal use through your local library via the interlibrary lending agreement.” That was new and helpful information for me.
Once again, I heard Gwendolyn whispering in my ear: The best and most reliable historical documents always are primary sources. Bam! I saw the Grue Bygdebøker from the area from which my mother’s family hails. I definitely need more information about the Halvorsens from Solør. Here it is and another trip to the library is imminent. I also was amazed by the bound family histories created by many Norwegian-American families. I commend them and see a very big project for me yet to come.
Next, we visited the Rowberg files. There are more than 200,000 clippings of a biographical nature about Norwegian Americans from a variety of sources mounted on 3 x 5 cards and filed alphabetically. Again, I thought about Gwendolyn’s methodology: Even when there’s a break in the investigative action, some corner of the brain is still sifting through puzzle pieces. Ok, I thought, what’s listed under Lane? Lane sounds more British than Norwegian, but it was Lanne in Norway. Had my family been overlooked?
I was surprised to find many Norwegian Lanes who had lived in the Seattle area. Somewhere I remember reading about Minnesota Lanes that moved to Seattle. Now I can start to make connections to them. I thought they were lost to us. Then I ran across MaryEllen Halvorsen Lane, my mother, who died April 17, 2011. Her card referred the researcher to her obituary in the April 24 Minneapolis StarTribune. I was so excited to see her listed. But what was missing? My father, his brothers and my grandparents. So, once again, NAHA and I both win, since I will provide copies of the obituaries for all the Lanes, Swensens and Halvorsens not listed. That may help another researcher down the road.
NAHA is not just a collection of archives; it is also a publisher of historical books that reflect the Norwegian-American experience. It was Theodore C. Blegen, University of Minnesota historian, who served as the association’s first editor. His high intellectual and editorial standards have characterized NAHA publications which, to date, total nearly 100 volumes. “In the tradition of Blegen,” said Todd Nichol, current publication editor, “we continue to focus on the day-to-day life of the everyday Norwegian. We also have unparalleled information about Norwegian-American women, which is indispensable to American women’s studies.” Publishing, a library, manuscripts and photos are all a part of the NAHA experience.
The organization also offers many of its collections online. Go to http://www.naha.stolaf.edu, which will walk you through documents that may help you write papers, increase your knowledge of the Norwegian-American experience, or locate clues to your family’s past. If you wish to visit NAHA in person to do hands-on research, call (507) 786-3221, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org for an appointment. You may join NAHA’s 1,100 members and use the facilities for free or pay a nominal daily fee.
You should also consider contributing copies or originals of photographs or manuscripts about Norwegian-American life, including pieces from your family, church or Norwegian-American organizations or businesses in which you may be involved.
NAHA is currently interested in obtaining documents about post-World War II emigration and immigrant life. Assumptions about that group abound, but many of them are poorly documented. Who came? Why? What kind of life did they lead? Were they more professional and urban than farmers and rural? Perhaps you can help solve these mysteries.
So, my day at NAHA was over and my mind was spinning, full of new information. But I must continue to think like Gwendolyn: Think outside the box. Carefully organize the clues and weigh the evidence. It’s time to get back on track and follow the twists and turns of my ancestors’ journey and learn more about how they helped shape America – and me!
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 13, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.