Norwegian Ancestors, Ole
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.
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").
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
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."
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.
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.
left: The Webster Welcoming Committee.
center: A place to clean my fish... that's what I look for in a motel.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
born in Webster in 1940 and then grew up here.
center: My great-great-grandparents, Ole and Birgit Svang, used to homestead
by Lynn Lake on the far shore.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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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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
manned by soldiers in the U.S. Army and Cavalry, most of whom were not
exactly thrilled to be stationed at this remote outpost.
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
left: The Officer's Quarters at Fort Sisseton State Park.
center: The North Barracks have been converted into a Visitor
Center and also contain a replica of the barracks.
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!
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.
center: An inquisitive horse.
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
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.
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
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
September 15, 2001 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
18, 2001 (Watertown South Dakota)
17, 2001 (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)
14, 2001 (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)
8, 2001 (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)
8, 2001 (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)
6, 2001 (Manlius, New York)
23, 2001 (Middleton, Massachusetts)
22, 2001 (Boston, Massachusetts)
20, 2001 (Pomfret, Connecticut)
18, 2001 (Denton, Maryland)
16, 2001 (Cumberland, Virginia)
14, 2001 (Roanoke, Virginia)
9, 2001 (Sevierville, Tennessee)
8, 2001 (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)
5, 2001 (Manchester, Tennessee)
30, 2001 (Hohenwald, Tennessee)
29, 2001 (Corinth, Mississippi)
27, 2001 (Natchez, Mississippi)
24, 2001 (Austin, Texas)
20, 2001 (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)
18, 2001 (Clay Canyon, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 2 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 1 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
14, 2001 (San Diego, California)
11, 2001 (San Jose, California)
2, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
19, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
30, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
19, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
5, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
* * * * * * *
Travels (2001-02) >
U.S. Trip >
August 30, 2001