As I discovered during my week in Webster, this man Ole Svang, whom I had read about on the Internet while I was back in Portland, was my
great-great-grandfather. Ole was born in 1822 in the tiny farming village of Gol, Norway and in 1850 he married a woman there named
Birgit. I loved that name – not Bridget, but Birgit.
Above: 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. These drawings were made probably around the time they came to America in 1866. This is my
great-great grandfather, Ole Svang.
In 1866, a year after the end of the American Civil War, the Svangs and their now five children emigrated to America. They made their way to Chicago,
farmed a bit of land in Minnesota that they had rented, and in the early 1880s moved farther west seeking their own land. Whether in the 1700s, 1800s
or later, this same story was emerging through my research as a common theme among many of my ancestors: people moving farther and farther west across America
in search of their own land. It's the American story, really.
Ole and Birgit found empty land, and lots of it, about 10 miles northwest of Webster and applied for a homestead in 1882. According
to the Homestead Act of 1862, after spending five years "proving up" their land by settling on it and building at least one structure,
it would become theirs free and clear. Ole was 60 years old and Birgit was 50 when they started their homestead. That was amazing, I
thought, finally owning your own land at age 60 – and then, at that age, having to farm it! There was no Social Security back then, I'm
afraid. Nope. You worked or you starved.
I learned in the courthouse records that Ole and Birgit were among the first settlers of Day County (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 1883, a year after they arrived, and so, just as my mother had told me many years ago, they had
most likely traveled here in a covered wagon. I thought that was fascinating and it made me proud.
I also discovered, through my research in the Day County Courthouse, that Ole and Birgit built a house (most likely a sod house) on their land,
which was near a large lake in the Lynn Township. The township had been named by a woman homesteader a year earlier in honor of a famous singer
in the 1800s named Jenny Lynn, who was known as the "Swedish Nightingale." Actually her name was Jenny Lind, not Lynn, but the name stuck.
Ole and Birgit had several children, including a daughter Carrie who homesteaded alone on 160 acres nearby. I had always thought of homesteaders
as being men but, as I discovered, many were single women. Unfortunately though, 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 both common and 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 a prairie fire in South Dakota.
Above: And here's my great-great-grandmother, Birgit Svang, wife of Ole. Now you know where
I got my good looks from!
I also discovered in the courthouse that Birgit died in 1897 at age 65. In 1906, Ole, who was 84 years old, was kicked off his farm by
the sheriff because he couldn't pay a debt to the Minnesota Threshing Company, most likely for farm equipment he had bought on credit. I
tried to imagine how hard it must've been, trying to work a farm when you're 84 years old. Ole died the next year and was buried next to
his wife Birgit in the Bergen Church cemetery, their graves today marked by a simple headstone.
It saddened me to think that after farming his land for over 20 years, Ole lost it at age 84. Apparently he died impoverished and with, what
he may have thought, nothing to show for his life. Upon reflection, though, I realized that's not true because they had, in fact, given 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 America while researching my ancestors.
I learned another sad story through my research in the courthouse. Birgit died in 1897 just two days after a court decision in which a judge
had decided to repossess their farm for failure of payment. That was quite a coincidence, I thought, Birgit dying just two days after losing their
family farm. It made me wonder about the circumstances of her death. Perhaps it was due to heartbreak or stress. Or maybe she had
taken her own life, being saddened about losing the farm they had worked for so many years. The cause of her death wasn't listed in the records
but I couldn't help but wonder. Suicide, as I learned, was quite common among homesteaders because farming was such a stressful life. Whether
it was suicide, heartbreak or just a coincidence, Birgit's death made me appreciate even more all of the gifts that I've been blessed with.
Once again, here's Oregon's Trail Band.
This is What We Left Behind, a tribute to the American pioneers of the 1800s.
During the week that I spent at the Day County Courthouse doing research, I located Ole and Birgit's homestead on an old plat map. And so,
on a sunny Friday afternoon, I decided to drive out to see it.
I left the courthouse and drove out of Webster on U.S. Highway 12 heading west. A few miles out of town, I turned north onto a dirt road, then
drove through the empty, rolling hills of northeastern South Dakota, which are dotted here with countless ponds and small lakes. Navigating by the
old plat maps and using my truck's odometer – the dirt cross-roads are evenly spaced every half-section, equal to every half-mile – I found Ole and
Birgit's former homestead, located a short distance from the shores of beautiful Lynn Lake.
The sun was beginning to set on the windswept prairie as I pulled my truck off the dirt road and onto their former farm. I knew their
land was now owned by the South Dakota Fish & Game Department and, since there was no one within miles, I decided to camp there 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 liked that.
I've posted more photos of the Svang homestead on a page titled, of course, The Svang Homestead.
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 grew up here in Bristol.
Above right: My great-great-grandparents, Ole and Birgit Svang, homesteaded in the 1880s by Lynn Lake on the far shore.
Above left: An abandoned homestead near Webster. This building is made of wood but most early homesteaders in
the Dakotas, including my great-great-grandparents, lived in sod houses because trees were scarce then.
Above right: Here's my Little Truck on the Prairie. Using old plat maps, I found Ole and Birgit'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 many decades.
Above left: That's me on Ole's land after spending the night here. Ole and his wife Birgit moved here from
Norway (and 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
(named presumably after Bergen, Norway). When I got to the Webster area, I discovered that the Bergen Church, built in 1892, is still standing
and is still used for Sunday services.
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.
Above left: In 1897, Ole's wife Birgit died at age 65 and was buried here in the Bergen 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: Four years after I posted this website entry, in 2005, a reader named Greg Gilbertson wrote to me saying
that his ancestors were also from Day County. Greg sent me this photo of an old-time thresher near Webster.
Above left: 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 Golden Gate Bridge in California
(see News: June 14, 2001). I discovered this photo shortly after my mother passed away in 1999.
Above right: The 1925 family photo was made into a postcard 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 back in Norway. Piecing together the story of the Swangs has
been a giant puzzle and there are lots of questions that I still haven't answered.
Note: In July of 2012, a kind reader named Anne Berg, a Norwegian living in the U.S., wrote to me and provided
this translation of the postcard:
I am sending you this card so you can see what we look like these days. You probably don't know them, but standing is
Albert and standing to the left is Alma, his wife. To the right is me. Father and mother you know well. The
little girl is Albert's daughter. How are you now, we are all fine. Need to finish. Everyone sends regards
with most from your daughter Louise.