spending seven weeks (yes, seven weeks) in Bismarck, North Dakota, I'm going to
be leaving tomorrow, sort of like the geese that I see each day flying in their
V-formations down the Missouri River valley heading south (hey, those geese
aren't dumb). If anyone had told me in August that I'd spend seven weeks in North Dakota, I
would have said they were crazy. As it turned out, though, my Mom's
family history, which I had come to Bismarck to research, turned out to be a
heck of a lot
more complicated than I imagined.
I got to Bismarck in early September, the temperature was over 100
weather has steadily deteriorated since then and nighttime low
temperatures are now starting to dip down into the teens, which makes camping at
nearby Fort Lincoln State Park a bit uncomfortable. I haven't seen any
snow yet, but I expect some any day. I complained about the hot, sticky weather in the Southeast during July, but I would have
enjoyed some of that during these last couple of weeks in Bismarck! I
was just getting used to the sweat on the back of my neck and here it is, fall
already. But not for long, because as soon as I get down to the
Southern Hemisphere, I'll do the whole spring-summer-fall thing over again
before flying back to the Northern Hemisphere in June. Yeah, I really like
the idea of avoiding winter!
I've really enjoyed my stay in Bismarck. To make
camping a bit more pleasant, I bought a portable 1500-watt heater
that makes the back of my truck nice and toasty each night.
Meanwhile, I've been spending my days either at the North Dakota Heritage Center
in Bismarck poring through census records and microfilmed newspapers
or doing field work around North Dakota while learning about my family's
working in Bismarck each day, I cross the Missouri
River and camp here at Fort Lincoln State Park almost every night. This
is just before digging into yet another scrumptious dinner of Dan's fried chicken, a
staple during my stay. Hey, it beats bratwurst!
center: Sunset from the
campground. The clouds in North Dakota are incredible, as is the
right: Reading about the Oregon Trail in
my toasty truck at night (after yet another chicken dinner). 70 degrees inside, 25 degrees outside.
left: This is the wonderful Bismarck
Public Library, my home for three weeks in September while I updated my website.
center: Rosser Avenue, a main
thoroughfare in Bismarck.
this isn't an office building. It's actually the North Dakota capitol.
Unlocking my Mother's
(Reinhard) Leu, who passed away in 1999, was a wonderful mother and a devoted
wife. As a kid, I remember some of my friends telling me what a "neat
Mom" I had. However, for reasons I never understood, my mother never talked much about her childhood.
About all I knew was that she was born in 1924, grew up in Bismarck, and in 1943 she met my Dad, who
was in North Dakota training for World War II. They got married the next
year and left North
Dakota, and my mother never went back. No one in my family, including my
Dad, knew why she never wanted to go back to North Dakota.
Here's a song
about reflection at the end of our journey. This is
Jubilee sung by one of my favorite artists, Mary Chapin
RealPlayer. If problems, see
was close to my mother (as I am to my father), and one reason I took this trip was to find out about her
childhood and to learn about her parents and grandparents, all
of whom moved to North Dakota around 1900. My goal was to learn as much as
I could about my mother's childhood and about her relatives, and to get a sense of what living here was like during the early 1900s.
I also wanted to document this
research for future generations in my family so that the stories of my mother's family will never be forgotten. Documenting
family history is something that a lot of us plan to "get around to"
sometime. Being my family's unofficial historian, I figured that I better make the time to do
it now or else I never will.
I don't have any relatives left in North Dakota, the research proved to be a real
challenge, which is one reason I ended up spending seven full weeks in Bismarck.
Some of the stories that I uncovered were happy but some, unfortunately, were
also pretty sad (as were many family stories during the Great Depression).
Though not all the stories that I uncovered were upbeat, I've come to understand
my mother a lot better through my research here during the past seven weeks.
My experience in Bismarck was amazing and, at times, staggering.
left: More shots of Bismarck:
Playing volleyball is one of the things I miss most on this trip. This is
of Mary's team (in blue) taking on Minot State.
also watched a couple of University of Mary football games. Go Marauders!
right: A pumpkin mound in Mandan.
left: Looking up the Missouri River
from my campsite at Fort Lincoln State Park. That's Bismarck in the
south and a goose-eye view of the Missouri River valley.
right: Bismarck and the Missouri River at night.
Photo Album: Clues to the Past
Shortly after my
mother passed away in 1999, I discovered an old photo album that she had
stored in her basement. The photo album was in a box that apparently hadn't been opened for
several decades. In
fact, no one in my family had ever seen the photo album.
flipped through the pages and studied the old black-and-white photos, I realized
that it had belonged to her mother, my grandmother Helga Reinhard, and it included
photos from the early 1900ís. Unfortunately, though, most of the photos werenít
captioned. I was four years old
when my grandmother Helga died so I barely remember her, but I do know that my
mother was very fond of her.
photo album also contained several pictures taken by Helgaís mother, Anna Swang (my
great-grandmother, pronounced "Swong"), who had lived in North Dakota and died in 1933 at age 65. No one in my
family knew anything about Anna other than that she had been born in Norway in
the 1800ís and had come to America as a young girl.
These were the first photos that I or any of my living relatives had ever seen of Anna and her husband Nels
(my great-grandfather). From some of the captions that Anna had written, she seemed
to be a cheerful person with a good sense of humor. It was interesting to
try to get to know Anna only through the things that she left
behind, including her photos.
During the past two years in Portland, I spent countless hours poring over Helga's
photo album, trying to figure out where the pictures were taken, who the people
were, and what their lives were like.
The photos completely fascinated me, but they also baffled me
because very few of them had captions.
The photo album was a treasure trove and I
decided that Iíd visit North Dakota some day to try to figure out who these people were and what they were like. The story of my mother's family was like a giant puzzle
waiting to be solved.
utterly fascinating to reconstruct the lives of my ancestors based on only one
photo album, and after spending seven weeks in North Dakota, I think I've solved
this captivating puzzle. I've described the results of my research
on the next two pages:
left: Questions, questions, questions.
This is a picture in Helga's photo album, which I discovered after my Mom passed
away. This woman was my great-grandmother Anna Swang,
(Helga's mother), and the caption says, "These are my two sisters, Judith
and Montana." However, the girls appear to be 20 to 30 years younger than
Anna. Were they her step-sisters? And what happened to them?
center: That's Anna's daughter (my grandmother Helga) on the left, but who were
these other women? And where was this taken?
right: I knew that Helga had taught
school in North Dakota before she got married in 1923. Were these children at her
school? What school was this, what was it
like, and where was it? After looking through Helga's photo album in
Portland, I had dozens of questions... and very few answers.
18, 2001 -- Part 2 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
6, 2001 (Fort Lincoln State Park, North Dakota)
30, 2001 -- Part 2 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
30, 2001 -- Part 1 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
September 15, 2001 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
30, 2001 (Webster, South 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 >
October 18, 2001 (Page 1)