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Home > Family History > My Mother's Ancestors > Ole and Birgit Svang


Ole and Birgit Svang



(Reprint From News: August 30, 2001)



All of the stories that I'd discovered about my ancestors on this trip so far had been uplifting:  the Bradstreets, who were among the most influential families in colonial Massachusetts; Ransom Myers, who fought in the Civil War, lost an arm, and re-enlisted; and Henry Reinhard, who was a successful farmer in southern Minnesota (not to mention my great-uncle Gustav -- better known, of course, as "Mr. Alfalfa").  Not all the immigrant stories, though, have happy endings as I'd discover in South Dakota.


Many years ago, my mother mentioned that her mother's parents came from Webster, South Dakota and so Webster, a town that I'd never been to, became a prime destination for my trip around America.   From research that I've done since my Mom passed away a few years ago, I discovered that my Mom's grandparent's names were Nels and Anna Swang (pronounced "swong").


Before I had left Portland, I had done some Internet research on the name Swang but found very little.  I then found an old document and learned their name originally was Svang, not Swang, and did an Internet search on that name.  The first hit I found involved a man named Ole Svang (pronounced "svong") who was a founding member of something called the Bergen Church in Webster, South Dakota back in the 1800s.  I had never heard of Ole Svang but figured that since he'd lived in Webster, he must be a relative, since my mother had also talked about Webster.  I drove up to Webster the day after visiting the Ingalls museum to find out. 


Webster sits on the plains of eastern South Dakota completely surrounded by wheat fields.  It's a quiet, pleasant place with about 2,000 residents, though it's much smaller today than in the early 1900s when it was a bustling farming town.  Strangely enough, Webster reminded me of Frank Sinatra's song, "New York, New York."  Why, you might ask?  Well, remember when Frank wanted to "wake up in a city that never sleeps"?  As I discovered, Webster always sleeps.  No, actually it's a pretty nice town. 


Webster's biggest claim to fame is that it's the hometown of Tom Brokaw.  Well, actually Tom was born in the even smaller town of Bristol, South Dakota which is a few miles down Highway 12, but he moved to Webster when he was young.  By the way, I learned that some of the old-timers in Webster still refer to Tom's dad by his nickname of "Snooks."



Above left:  Webster, South Dakota was a thriving town in the late 1800s when my great-great-grandparents, Ole and Birgit Svang, moved here from Norway and homesteaded on 200 acres nearby.  Today, it's a less-than-thriving but very pleasant small town.  This was my first trip to Webster.  It was interesting to walk through this town and to imagine my ancestors here a hundred years ago.

Above center:  The Day County Courthouse, my home in Webster.



Above left:  The Webster Welcoming Committee.  

Above center:  A place to clean my fish... that's what I look for in a motel.

Above right:  What exactly are they doing in their cars here? 


I spent the next week in Webster, mostly in the Day County Courthouse where, with the help of two pleasant women there named Janet and Amber, I learned quite a bit about the Svangs after poring through huge old Deed Record books from the 1800s that weighed about 20 pounds each.  As I discovered, this man Ole Svang, whom I read about on the Internet in Portland, was my great-great-grandfather and had a wife named Birgit.  From the records in the Courthouse, I learned that Ole and Birgit moved to Webster around 1882 where they were among the first settlers in this area (for a map of their journey, see My Mom's Ancestors:  Map and Photo Essay).  I also discovered that the railroad to Webster wasn't built until the following year so, just as my mother had said, they must have arrived here in a covered wagon.  


I also discovered that Ole and Birgit built a house -- undoubtedly, a sod house -- about ten miles north of Webster near a large lake in the Lynn Township.  This township had been named by an earlier settler (a woman, no less) in honor of a famous singer in the 1800s named Jenny Lynn, known also as the "Swedish Nightingale."  Well, actually her name was Jenny Lind, not Lynn, but the name stuck.


Here's the Trail Band once again, singing What We Left Behind, a tribute to the American pioneers of the 1800s.

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Ole and Birgit Svang emigrated from the town of Gol, Norway to America in 1866 when they were in their late 30's, lived in Minnesota, then moved to the Webster area in the early 1880s.  They had several children, including a daughter Carrie who homesteaded alone on 160 acres nearby (I've always thought of homesteaders as being male but, as I discovered, many were single women).  Unfortunately, Carrie's homestead was repossessed a few years later, a fate suffered by numerous homesteaders in the late 1800s as the ravages of drought, flood, insect infestations, and prairie fires took their toll. 


Prairie fires, by the way, were common and quite feared because back in those days, of course, there weren't any fire departments.  As I learned, a large fire swept by Ole and Birgit's homestead in 1886 killing a nearby homesteader, the first recorded death by prairie fire in South Dakota.



Left:  Three years after I visited Webster, in June 2004, I received an e-mail from a woman who had found my website.  She was also descended from Ole and Birgit Svang and sent me their photos, which she had recently found.  I'm guessing these drawings were made around the time they came to America in 1866.  Here's Ole Svang.


Left:  My great-great-grandmother, Birgit Svang.  Now I know where I got my good looks from!


As I also discovered in the Courthouse, Ole and Birgit continued to farm their land until Birgit died in 1897 at age 65.  In 1906, Ole, who was 85 years old, had his land repossessed by the sheriff because he couldn't pay off a debt to the Minnesota Threshing Company, most likely for farm equipment that he had bought on credit.  Ole died the next year and was buried next to his wife Birgit in the Bergen Church cemetery, their graves marked by a simple headstone.  It saddened me to think that after farming on his land for 20 years, Ole lost it at age 85 and died most likely impoverished and with, he may have thought, nothing to show for his life.  


That's not entirely true, of course, since they gave their children a start in America.  Indeed, Ole's son Nels married a woman named Anna Abrahamson and, in 1899, Nels and Anna moved to Fessenden, North Dakota with their 1-year-old daughter Helga, who would become my grandmother.  Heck, if Ole had decided to stay in Norway, I might be making lutefisk in Oslo now instead of traveling around the world.


When I was in Webster doing research, I located Ole and Birgit's homestead on an old plat map and decided to drive out to it one afternoon.  After driving on countless dirt farm roads across the empty, rolling hills of South Dakota, I reached their homestead on the shores of beautiful Lynn Lake as the sun began to set.  I knew that their land was now owned by the South Dakota Fish & Game Department and, since there was no one within miles, I decided to camp that night on my great-great-grandparent's former homestead.  I think Ole and Birgit, who had farmed this land a century earlier, would've wanted me to do that.


I've posted more photos of the Svang homestead on a page appropriately titled The Svang Homestead.  I've also posted additional photos of the Webster area on a page called a href="webster_photos.htm">More Photos of the Webster Area.  Gee, aren't I creative?



Above left:  A few miles down the road from Webster sits the tiny town of Bristol, South Dakota (pop. 410) settled in 1882 by a family named Brokaw.  Bristol's most famous native is NBC News announcer Tom Brokaw who was born in Webster in 1940 and then grew up here. 

Above center:  My great-great-grandparents, Ole and Birgit Svang, used to homestead by Lynn Lake on the far shore.

Above right:  An abandoned homestead near Webster.  This building is made of wood but most homesteaders in the Dakotas, including my great-great-grandparents, lived in sod houses because sod was cheap and abundant.



Above left:  Here's my Little Truck on the Prairie.  Using old plat maps, I found Ole's homestead one evening, land which is now owned by the State Department of Fish and Game.  Since there was no one around, I decided to camp here.  I'm probably the first person in my family to visit this area in at least 50 years.

Above center:  That's me on Ole's land after spending the night here.  Ole and his wife Birgit moved here from Norway (then Minnesota) in 1882, arriving via covered wagon.  As I discovered, they had a beautiful 200-acre parcel here on the shores of Lynn Lake and farmed this land for many years while living in a sod house.  There aren't any structures left on their land.

Above right:  Several months ago, I learned on the Internet that Ole Svang was a founding member of the Bergen Church (presumably named after Bergen, Norway).  When I got to the Webster area, I discovered that the Bergen Church, built in 1892, is still standing and is used for Sunday services.


Above left:  The Bergen Church was unlocked so I went in.  As I discovered, Ole's son (my great-grandfather) Nels Svang married my great-grandmother, Anna Abrahamson here on October 2, 1896.  Based on what my mother said, Nels and Anna were both wonderful people.  

Above center:  In 1897, Ole's wife Birgit died at age 65 and was buried here in the church cemetery.  Ole lost his farm in 1906, died a year later at age 85, and was buried next to Birgit.  Their gravestone says, "At rest."

Above right:  These are my great-grandparents, Anna and Nels Swang (front), around 1925.  Nels was a son of Ole and Birgit.  In 1899, a few years after getting married in the Bergen Church, Nels and Anna moved to Fessenden, North Dakota.  Standing (L-to-R) in the back are two of their five children, Betsy and Albert, and Albert's wife, Alma.  Their other three kids aren't in this photo including my grandmother, Helga, and Henry Swang, who helped build the Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur, California (see News: June 14, 2001).  I discovered this photo a few weeks after my Mom passed away in 1999.


Ole and Birgit's Children



Date of Birth

Place of Birth

Later Named

Ole Svang, Jr.

April 23, 1854

Norway Ole Swang

Lena Svang

September 19, 1855

Norway Lena Swang

Kari Svang

October 7, 1856

Norway Kari Swang

Ingeborg Svang

January 8, 1858

Norway Ingeborg Swang

Birgit Svang, Jr.

October 5, 1859

Norway Birgit Swang

Ase Svang


Norway Ase Swang

Halvor Svang

October 20, 1864

Norway Halvor Swang

Nels Svang

February 3, 1866

Norway Nels Swang (my great-grandfather)

Anna Svang


Minnesota Anna Swang

Rose Svang


Minnesota Rose Swang