Above: My great-grandmother, Anna Swang (right) with her daughter, Betsy. This was taken around 1925 when
Anna was in her 50s. I don't have any pictures of Anna with her daughter (and my grandmother), Helga together.
My grandmother, Helga Swang (pronounced "Swong"), was born in 1898 on a farm near Webster, South Dakota. Her parents, Nels and
Anna Swang originally spelled Svang had emigrated from Norway to America as children, separately. I had spent several weeks in the Webster
area in August researching Helga's parents, Nels and Anna (see News: August 30, 2001).
My great-grandmother, Anna Sakrina Abrams, was born in 1868 in the small town of Nord Rana on the central coast of Norway. Interestingly, Nord Rana
is only a few miles from Nesna, where one of my other great-grandmothers, Petrina Blege, was born just two years earlier. These two women would
become, in the 1920s, the two mothers-in-law of my grandparents, Helga and Edward, and they both lived in central North Dakota at that time: Anna in
Fessenden and Petrina on a farm near Regan. I wonder if the mothers-in-law ever got together and talked about their childhoods in coastal Norway, perhaps
over some plates of lutefisk. Heck, they may have even known each other as children back in Norway long before they ever dreamed of emigrating to America.
But emigrate they did. Anna came to America in 1889 when she was 21 years old, either alone or with her family, we don't know. I also don't know why
she came to America but I'm guessing that, like so many others, it was for a better opportunity. She moved to South Dakota and lived just a few miles from the
Svang homestead, near Webster, and became a naturalized citizen in 1896, the same year she married a local farmer, Nels Svang.
Within four years Nels and Anna had four children, Betsy, Helga, Albert, and Henry, and around 1900 they moved to Edmunds, South Dakota. The family moved to
Fessenden, North Dakota in 1902 where Nels got a job as an engineer on the Sault Sainte Marie ("Soo") Railroad. Anna and Nels had another child there,
Alvin, for a total of five.
Above: Map showing the birthplaces of three of my great-grandparents in Norway in the 1800s. Anna was from
Nord Rana on the central coast.
As I learned in the Heritage Center in Bismarck, Nels and Anna divorced around 1905, which was quite rare in those days. Piecing together the story, it
seems that Nels abruptly left the family and headed to California, leaving Anna to raise their five children alone. I also learned that after Nels left, Anna
became a laundress and, after a few years, she had saved up enough money to buy her own house in Fessenden. That was another rarity back in those days, a single
woman owning her own house.
Anna worked hard as a laundress in Fessenden to support herself and her children. I thought that was quite admirable and showed a lot of pluck and
determination, traits that unfortunately haven't passed down to me! Anna worked into her 60s almost until the day she died. This was before the idea of
retirement and Social Security, when most people worked until they passed away. 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 apparently 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, in 1917, 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, became a store clerk, married in 1926 and moved to Minneapolis, where he died in 1946 at age 45, perhaps from the debilitating effects of his scarred
lungs. He's buried in the Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
Annas second son, Henry, served in the U.S. Army in the mid-1920s, then was discharged in California and got a job there in construction. He and his wife Hazel
moved to Monterey, California in the early 1930s, where he worked on the construction of several new bridges, including the Bixby Creek Bridge (see
News: June 14, 2001), one of the most iconic bridges in America; I'm sure you've seen it many times in television ads. A few years later, Henry moved to
San Francisco where he helped build the Golden Gate Bridge. He died in 1952 in Tacoma, Washington. Anna's daughter Betsy moved to Minneapolis, became a teacher
and had a daughter, and her son Alvin lived to age 78 and died in 1979 in San Francisco. I've described Anna's other daughter,
Helga (my grandmother) on a separate page.
Halley Came To Jackson is a wonderful song by Mary Chapin Carpenter. I wonder what my
grandparents thought when they saw Halley's Comet in 1910.
One afternoon in October 2001, I drove up to Fessenden, a town of about 600 people located about 60 miles north of Bismarck. I knew there weren't
any Swangs still in the area but I wanted to see if Anna's house was still standing. I also wanted to visit Anna's grave. I had a few photos
of Anna's house taken in 1916, so I spent a few minutes driving around Fessenden looking for it. Unable to find Anna's house, I stopped by the
Wells County Courthouse and, after spending an hour in the Recorder's Office poring through huge Deed books, I learned where Anna's house was and drove over
to it. No one was home, unfortunately, but I enjoyed walking around the yard. I was, most likely, the first person in my family who had visited
the house in over 50 years.
For the past several years in Portland, as I looked at the old photos, I had wondered where in North Dakota Anna's mysterious house was. And now, after
doing countless hours of research, here I was standing in her front yard. Then I got in my truck, drove over to the cemetery, found her grave and paid my
quiet respects to this stolid Norwegian matriarch.
By visiting Anna's house and grave, and piecing together her story, I felt like I had known her to some extent, even though she died many years before I was born.
Raising five kids on her own after her husband had left her and "practically giving her life for her children," as was described in her touching obituary,
I thought Anna Swang was an admirable and inspiring person. Indeed, of all of the relatives that I've researched on this trip around the country, Anna is probably
the one who I would have enjoyed meeting the most.
Above left: These are my great-grandparents (seated): Anna and Nels Swang, in a photo taken around
1925. Anna and Nels were born in Norway: Anna in Nord-Rana and Nels in Hallingdal. They emigrated with their families to the U.S.,
married in 1896 in South Dakota, and then moved to Fessenden, North Dakota six years later. Two of their five children, Betsy (left) and Albert
(center), are standing behind them. My grandmother Helga wasn't in this photo. Anna and Nels divorced around 1905 and Anna raised her five children alone, so
I don't know why Anna and Nels sat together for this portrait twenty years later, in 1925.
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 August 2007, a website reader named Kristin from Norway wrote to me and kindly provided this translation of the 1925 postcard:
Dear Mother, I will send you this card so that you can see how we look like these days. You
probably don't know them. He who stands is Albert and she who stands to the left is Alma, his wife, and I'm on the right side, father and
mother you must know. And the little girl is Albert's daughter. How are you doing? We're all doing well. I have to finish.
Greetings from everyone, but most from your daughter Louise.
Above left: Anna Swang's five children around 1908. Front: Henry, Alvin and Albert. Back:
Betsy and my grandmother, Helga.
Above center: Anna lived in Fessenden, North Dakota from 1900 until her death in 1933. I drove up to Fessenden, North
Dakota one afternoon to see what I could learn about Anna. I spent an hour in the County Courthouse and, from an old plat map, located her house.
Above right: And sure enough, it's still there. After Anna's husband Nels left her around 1905 and went to California,
Anna worked as a laundress to support her five children, including my grandmother, Helga. Anna saved enough money to buy this house two years later for $500.
Above left: Part of the purchase contract Anna signed to buy her house in Fessenden in 1907. It was hard for me to imagine a
single woman, 42 years old, with no marketable skills suddenly having to raise five children on her own after her husband left her, and then
saving enough to buy a house a few years later. Her daughter my grandmother Helga kept this paper for the rest of her life, obviously very proud of her mother, Anna.
Above center: Anna Swang died in 1933 after raising her five children. The newspaper printed a flattering
obituary about her. One son, Henry, helped build the Golden Gate Bridge (see News: June 14, 2001), her son
Albert fought in the trenches in World War I, and her daughter Helga was my grandmother.
I've learned a lot about Anna during the past few weeks and admire her for the many challenges she overcame. As I learned, the date of her birth is incorrect; she was actually born in 1868.
Above right: Driving back to Bismarck after spending a memorable day in Fessenden.