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August 30, 2001 (Webster, South Dakota)

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My Norwegian Ancestors, Ole and Birgit

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 NBC announcer 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 right:  The Day County Courthouse, my home in Webster. I spent an entire week here in the Recorder's Office, piecing together Ole and Birgit's story.  As I discovered, they homesteaded near here for 20 years but, like so many others, lost their farm to drought, pestilence and, ultimately, to a debt they couldn't repay.



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.  These drawings were probably made around the time they came to America in 1866.  Here's Ole Svang.


Left:  And here's his wife, my great-great-grandmother, Birgit Svang.  Now you 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 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:  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.


    1925c_Family_Portait_Writing.jpg (42289 bytes)

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 Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur, California (see News: June 14, 2001).  I discovered this photo a few weeks after my mother passed away in 1999.

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 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:

Dear Mother
I am sending you this card so you can see what we look like these days.  You probably don't know them, 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.



Wonderful Fort Sisseton

One of the reasons I like to travel is discovering terrific out-of-the-way places that few people know about.  During my 3-month trip around America in 1995 (see Previous Roadtrips, 1995-1999), the most outstanding "hidden jewel" that I discovered was the Cumberland Island National Seashore on the southern coast of Georgia.  So far during this trip, that honor goes to Fort Sisseton State Park in northeastern South Dakota.


I drove out to Fort Sisseton (SIS-a-ton) during my fourth evening in Webster while doing research at the Day County Courthouse, having spent the previous nights at a motel, on Ole Svang's homestead, and at a rather mundane State Park nearby.  I planned to stay at Fort Sisseton for a night or two before heading up to Bismarck, but I enjoyed my stay there so much that I stayed for a week and a half, mostly getting caught up with my website and e-mail, and just relaxing. 


I'm still trying to figure out why more people don't visit this park.  And I left only because the empty campground would be filled the next night for the start of Labor Day weekend.  Compared to all the crowded, dingy State Park campgrounds that I stayed at in the South that cater to obnoxious beer-chugging, muscle-t-shirt-wearing powerboat owners, this park was a gem.  Even not compared to them. 


As I walked around Fort Sisseton, I kept thinking about F Troop, the 1960 TV series about a cavalry fort on the frontier.  Here's the song.

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Fort Sisseton was built in 1864, a few years after the Dakota Uprising, on what was then the wild frontier of the Dakota Territory (think "Dances With Wolves" for the era and the setting, and you'll get the idea).  For the next 25 years, the fort was manned by soldiers in the U.S. Army and Cavalry, most of whom were not exactly thrilled to be stationed at this remote outpost.   


After Fort Sisseton was abandoned in 1889, the buildings fell into disrepair but in 1960, the land was acquired by the South Dakota State Parks Department.  They've worked hard ever since to restore the fort and have done a magnificent job.  There are about 15 buildings open to the public, each labeled with an interpretive sign and filled with interesting displays inside, including the North Barracks, which now serves as the spacious and informative Visitor Center.  


Above left:  The Officer's Quarters at Fort Sisseton State Park.

Above center:  The North Barracks have been converted into a Visitor Center and also contain a replica of the barracks.

Above right:  Sunset over the peaceful and empty campground.  The old stable, reputedly the longest stone structure in the U.S., contains the campground's restroom and showers.   This is the only place where I've showered in a stable!



Above left:  I was going to stay at Fort Sisseton for only a day or two, but I liked the peaceful campground here so much that I stayed for a week and a half.

Above center:  An inquisitive horse.

Above right:  The lonely highway near Fort Sisseton.  There's very little traffic on this road during the day and virtually none at night.  Fort Sisseton is one of the most peaceful places I've ever visited in the U.S.


This park reminds me of Fort Snelling in Minneapolis or Fort Laramie in Wyoming except there are very few visitors and, unlike those parks, there's also a campground.  The wonderful 14-site campground overlooks a beautiful prairie that provides magnificent sunset vistas across the prairie each night.  Amazingly enough, the campground was empty (or nearly empty) every night I was there.  The restrooms and showers are located in the former stable that's reputed to be the longest stone building in the U.S., and the grounds are very well-kept.  


A gentle wind blew through the campground each day, the weather was perfect, I was well-stocked with carrot cake from Jim's Supermarket in Webster, and I fell asleep each night to the soft chirping of crickets.  For nine peaceful days, all was right with the world.


I still can't figure out why more people haven't discovered this place.  Fort Sisseton is one of the best kept secrets in the Dakotas and it made my list of 10 Favorite State Parks in the U.S.  There isn't a lot of glitz here, but if you like solitude, are interested in history, and enjoy watching beautiful sunsets over the prairie from a quiet campground, you'll really love this out-of-the-way gem.


Next News

September 15, 2001  (Bismarck, North Dakota)



Previous News

August 18, 2001  (Watertown South Dakota)

August 17, 2001  (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)

August 14, 2001  (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

August 10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)

August 6, 2001  (Manlius, New York)

July 23, 2001  (Middleton, Massachusetts)

July 22, 2001  (Boston, Massachusetts)

July 20, 2001  (Pomfret, Connecticut)

July 18, 2001  (Denton, Maryland)

July 16, 2001  (Cumberland, Virginia)

July 14, 2001  (Roanoke, Virginia)

July 9, 2001  (Sevierville, Tennessee)

July 8, 2001  (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)

July 5, 2001  (Manchester, Tennessee)

June 30, 2001  (Hohenwald, Tennessee)

June 29, 2001  (Corinth, Mississippi)

June 27, 2001  (Natchez, Mississippi)

June 24, 2001  (Austin, Texas)

June 20, 2001  (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)

June 18, 2001  (Clay Canyon, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 2  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 1  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 14, 2001  (San Diego, California)

June 11, 2001  (San Jose, California)

June 2, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

May 19, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 30, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 19, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 5, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)


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Home > Travels (2001-02) > U.S. Trip > August 30, 2001