My Great-Grandmother, Anna Swang


Before my mother passed away in 1999, I knew nothing about Anna Swang (pronounced "Swong").  I'd never even heard her name.  As I learned in the months after my mother's death, however, Anna was my grandmother Helga’s mother.  Helga’s photo album, which I discovered shortly after my mother passed away, contained several old snapshots of Anna taken during her middle and later years, up until about 1930.  Through research that I’ve done over the past few months here in Bismarck, during my trip around America in 2001, and previously in South Dakota, I’ve pieced together Anna’s story:


Anna Abrams was born in 1868 in Nord-Rana, a village on the central coast of western Norway.  At the age of 21, she sailed with her family to America and settled near Webster, South Dakota where she met a young farmer her age named Nels Swang who lived on a farm with his parents, Ole and Birgit, about two miles away.  Anna married Nels in 1896 at the age of 28 and by 1901 they had four children, including my grandmother Helga.


In 1902, the Swangs moved to the small but growing town of Fessenden in central North Dakota, where Nels got a job as a train engineer on the Sault Ste. Marie (“Soo”) Railroad.  A few years later, Anna -- who went by the name of "Annie" -- bought a two-story house in Fessenden in 1907 for $500.  Around 1910, Anna and Nels separated and Nels left for California, leaving Anna to raise the five children (ages 8 to 13) alone.  To support herself and her children, Anna started a business as a laundress, working out of her house and laboring incessantly to provide for her children.  She was a talented woman who enjoyed playing the piano and taking photographs.  Anna also had a good sense of humor and was a caring mother.  When her daughter Helga took a job teaching in a one-room “country school” (i.e., a rural school, as opposed to “town school”) many miles away, Anna sent photos of their home in Fessenden and of their family to her homesick daughter, Helga.


Anna continued to work into her 60’s.  In the spring of 1933, she developed an illness and died quietly in her sleep on May 9, 1933.  She is buried in the Hillside cemetery near Fessenden.


If parents are judged on the accomplishments of their children, Anna was a wonderful mother.  Her oldest son, Albert, volunteered for the U.S. Army at the outbreak of World War I but was rejected because he was too young.  After turning 18, he enlisted and was sent to France to fight in the trenches where he fought in several bloody battles, including the Aisne-Marne and Meuse-Argonne.  Albert was gassed during the War and never fully recovered. He returned to North Dakota in 1919, married in 1926 and moved to Minneapolis.


Anna’s second son, Henry, served in the U.S. Army in the mid-1920s, then was discharged and got a job in construction. He and his wife Hazel moved to Monterey, California in the early 1930’s, where he worked on the construction of several bridges, including the Bixby Creek Bridge (see News: June 14, 2001).  A few years later, Henry moved to San Francisco where he helped build the Golden Gate Bridge.


I've described Anna's daughter, Helga (my grandmother) on another page.  I don’t know what happened to Anna Swang’s two other children, Betsy and Elvin, but if the stories of Albert, Henry, and Helga are any indication, Anna was a wonderful person.  It’s taken me several years, but I’m glad that I was able to reconstruct her life story.


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Above left:  These are my great-grandparents (seated):  Anna Abrahms and Nels Swang, in a photo taken around 1928.  Anna and Nels were born in Norway, emigrated to the U.S. as children, married in 1896 in South Dakota then moved to Fessenden, North Dakota six years later where Nels worked on the Soo Railroad.  Two of their five children, Betsy (left) and Albert (center) are standing behind them.  For some reason, my grandmother Helga was not in this photo.  Anna and Nels divorced around 1910 and Anna raised their five children alone, so I don't know why Anna and Nels sat together for this portrait in 1928.

Above right:  The family photo was made into a post card and this is the writing on the back, but it's all in Norwegian!  I think this was written by Betsy to her grandmother who was in Norway.  Piecing together the story of the Swangs has been a giant puzzle and there are a lot of questions that I haven't yet answered.


Note:  In April of 2005, a kind reader named Bill Arlander, an American with Norwegian roots, wrote to me and provided this translation of the postcard:


Dearest Mother,
I wanted to send this to you so you could see what we look like now.  He that is standing is Albert, and her standing on the left is Anna, his wife.  I am on the right.  Father and mother you probably recognize.  The little girl is Albert's daughter.  How are you, we are doing well.  Must stop.  Greetings from all of us, and mostly from your daughter Louise.



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Above left:  My great-grandmother Anna Swang in an Indian dress around 1905, shortly after moving from South Dakota to Fessenden, North Dakota with her husband Nels.  All of the old Swang pictures shown here were in a photo album that my mother had kept but that I didn't discover until after she passed away in 1999.

Above center:  Anna by her house in Fessenden.  Most of these photos didn't have captions but from the ones that did, I could  tell that Anna had a good sense of humor.  I could also tell that, although she was born in Norway, Anna was very proud to be an American. Anna died in 1933 and is buried in Fessenden.

Above right:  1915 Fessenden high school diploma of my grandmother, Helga Swang, one of Anna and Nels' five children. After graduating from high school, Helga taught in a one-room schoolhouse (a "country school") in North Dakota.