The Svang Homestead Near Webster, South Dakota


I've posted maps and photos on this page of the land that was homesteaded by my Norwegian ancestors, Ole and Birgit Svang, in the late 1800s.  Their land was located in Lynn Township, near Webster, South Dakota.  I've also included a chronology of the land and a map of what the area looked like in the 1940s. 


I took these photos during my one and only visit to the Webster area, in August of 2001 (see News:  August 30, 2001).  By the way, since their name was Norwegian, Ole and Birgit pronounced their last name "Svong."  However, each of their children Americanized the spelling of their last name to "Swang" and pronounced it "Swong."


Ole Svang's homestead comprised 200 acres according to the land records in the Day County Courthouse.  Its legal description, according to the records I found there, is as follows:


The west half of the northeast quarter of section 22, and the southwest quarter of the southeast quarter of section 15, and the east half of the southeast quarter of Section 15 all in Township 123 North of Range 57 west of the fifth Principal Meridian (the Lynn Township).


From this description I was able to locate their homestead, which I visited in August 2001.  Afterwards, and using the description, I created the maps of the homestead shown below:


Above:  Regional map of northeastern South Dakota showing the location of Ole Svang's homestead.  After acquiring his 160-acre homestead in 1882, Ole later obtained an additional 40 acres.  The homestead is north of the small town of Bristol, the home town of NBC News announcer, Tom Brokaw, who was born in nearby Webster in 1940.


Above:  A local map of the Svang homesteads.  Ole's 27-year old daughter, Kari, homesteaded the land directly south of Ole and Birgit's homestead.  Kari lost her homestead in 1890 and Ole lost his land in 1897.  Two days after Ole lost his land, his wife, Birgit died at age 65.  Ole lived until 1907 and died in the nearby town of Pierpont, and Ole and Birgit are buried in the Bergen Church cemetery.  This aerial photo is from 2022.  These lakes were much smaller in the late 1800s.



Ole and Birgit Svang were born in southern Norway near the small town of Gol, west of Oslo in the Hallingdal Valley.  They married in 1853 when he was 31 and she was 21.  Thirteen years later, in 1866, with eight children in tow, they emigrated from Norway to Quebec, Canada and they made their way to the area around Montevideo, Minnesota where, for many years, they farmed on land they rented. 


In 1882, Ole, Birgit, and their four unmarried children (including my great-grandfather, Nels) traveled via covered wagon to Day County, South Dakota.  I don't know exactly why they moved from Minnesota to South Dakota, but it was most likely for the same reason that so many other pioneers moved west:  to obtain their own land.


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.  I'm guessing these drawings were made around the time they came to America in 1866.



Above:  My great-great-grandfather, Ole Svang (1822 - 1907).  He was born in southern Norway, emigrated to America in 1866 and homesteaded 200 acres of land in South Dakota.


Above:  My great-great-grandmother, Birgit (Brekke) Svang (1832 - 1897) who emigrated to America with Ole and their six children.  Now you know where I got my good looks from!



Arriving in northeastern South Dakota in 1882, near the town of Webster, Ole and Birgit were among the very first settlers of Day County.  They applied for a homestead on the shores of Lynn Lake shortly after they arrived.  According to the Homestead Act, which had passed in 1862, they were entitled to 160 acres of land if they improved it, built a structure and lived there for five years.  My mother once told me that her ancestors in South Dakota had lived in a sod house, which was the most common type of dwelling in that part of the treeless Great Plains, so apparently Ole and Birgit had built themselves a "soddie."


The next year, in 1883, Ole and Birgit's 27-year old daughter, Kari Svang, obtained a 160-acre homestead directly south of Ole and Birgit's homestead.  When I discovered this, during my visit to Day County in 2001, I thought it was impressive that a single woman had homesteaded her own claim.  I had assumed that most homesteaders were men but, as I discovered, many single women homesteaded on the Great Plains in the 1800s.  Kari farmed there for seven years until 1890 when, as I learned, she forfeited it for not being able (or willing) to pay a $50 debt.  Something else I learned:  homesteading was a hard and often tenuous life, and many farmers on the Great Plains lost their land.  It was a difficult and often-times heartbreaking life.


After doing more research in the Day County Recorder's Office in August 2001, I learned that Ole lost his homestead in 1897 after he'd farmed it for 15 years, apparently unable to repay a debt for farm machinery he had bought from the Minnesota Thresher Manufacturing Company.  Then I learned that his wife, Birgit Svang, died just two days after they had lost their farm.  There were no coroner's records in Day County before 1890 so I wondered how she had died.  Perhaps it was from heartbreak, or maybe suicide, I wondered?  Or was the timing of her death, occurring only two days after she had lost their farm, purely a coincidence?  We'll probably never know.


Ole continued to live on the homestead until 1905; most likely he was now renting it and was living there as a tenant.  That year it was sold to a man name James Dore who apparently evicted Ole.  After losing his farm, Ole, now 83, moved to the nearby town of Pierpont.  After a life of hard work, Ole died in Pierpont two years later and was buried next to his wife at the Bergen Church cemetery, about three miles west of the Svang homestead.


Some time later, I believe in the 1940s, James Dore sold the land to a local family named Sparby, who lived about a mile west of the Svang homestead.  In 1960, the Sparbys sold the land to the South Dakota Fish and Game department, and today the land remains in public ownership.



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:

Dear Mother
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.

My Visit to Ole Svang's Homestead  (August 2001)

During my 2001 drive around America, I spent about two weeks in the Webster, South Dakota area researching my ancestors, Ole and Birgit Svang.  With the help of the nice women in the Day County Recorder's office, I found a plat map from the 1890s showing the location of the Svang homestead and I drove out there one afternoon.  Since there was no one around, I decided to camp there that evening.  I walked around the homestead and took several pictures, some of which I've posted below.  There were no structures of any kind remaining on the Svang homestead, which didn't surprise me, since my mother once told me that her ancestors here had lived in a sod house.  That house, wherever it was, had undoubtedly melted back into the earth.  Therefore, as far as I knew, Ole and Birgit Svang had lived here in a sod house the entire time.


However, in May of 2004 I received an e-mail from a 75-year old gentleman named Norm Sparby who had grown up on a nearby farm during the 1930s, long after Ole and Birgit Svang had passed away.  He told me that, as a kid, he used to play in the abandoned two-story "Swong house," as he described it.  I was excited to hear this because I realized that, after living in a sod house, Ole and Birgit Svang must've built themselves a wooden house.  Through correspondences, Norm was able to describe for me the exact location of the Svang house.  I'm hoping that with this information, I'll be able to locate the foundation of the house the next time I visit their former homestead, if I ever do.


Interestingly, Norm also mentioned the Brokaw family of nearby Bristol.  As I've noted elsewhere in my website, the NBC News announcer, Tom Brokaw, was born in Webster in 1940 and grew up a few miles south of the Svang homestead in the town of Bristol.  Norm told me that Tom Brokaw's father used to grade the east-west road that I've shown in the above map near the Svang homestead.  He also told me that it was the first time he'd ever seen a Caterpillar bulldozer.  In fact, Mr. Brokaw (known as "Snooks" to the locals) sometimes yelled at him to get out of the way!


Below I've included several photos of my visit to the former Svang homestead in August of 2001.  I've also posted the map that Norm e-mailed to me in 2004, showing the 1940 location of the Swang house.



Above left:  In search of Ole's homestead.  This is driving north on County Road 25 noted above.

Above right:  An abandoned house near the Svang homestead.



Above left:  This is looking north shortly after I arrived at Ole Svang's homestead late on a Friday afternoon.

Above center:  Looking west into Ole's homestead.  I marked up this photo with annotations.

Above right:  Looking south from my campsite.  From near to far, this is 1). Ole Svang's homestead, 2). Kari Svang's homestead, and 3). Lynn Lake.



Above left:  My campsite that windy Friday evening.

Above right: Looking west across Ole's homestead.  Lynn Lake is barely visible in the distance (center).



Above left:  From the previous photo, this is panning to the right and looking northwest across the small lake.

Above center:  My campsite the next morning looking west.  This spot is shown with a white dot in the map above.

Above right:  This is looking north across the small lake.  The white building is, I believe, a church.



Above left:  Another shot of the the road that heads west towards Lynn Lake.

Above right:  That's me on my great-great-grandfather Ole's homestead at my campsite.  I'm probably the first relative of theirs who has visited this site in many decades, I would guess.



Above left: The Bergen Church sits three miles west of the Swang homestead, near Pierpont. 

Above center:  The Bergen Church was unlocked so I went in.  Ole's son (my great-grandfather) Nels Svang married my great-grandmother, Anna Abrahamson here on October 2, 1896. 

Above right:  In 1897, Ole's wife Birgit died at age 65 and was buried here in the church cemetery.  Ole lost his farm in 1905.  He died two years later at age 85, and was buried next to Birgit.  Their gravestone says, "At rest."


As I mentioned, in May of 2004 a fellow named Norm Sparby, who had found my website, contacted me via e-mail.  Norm had grown up on a nearby farm.  He told me that he used to play in the long-abandoned Svang house when he was a kid in the 1930s.  The Svang house has since been demolished and I saw no trace of it during my 2001 visit.  However, Norm was kind enough to draw for me a map of the area, showing the location of the Swang house as it existed in the 1940s.



Chronology of the Svang Homestead 

(Day County, South Dakota)


Up until the 1870s

Land is occupied by the Yankton Sioux tribe.


Ole Halvorson Svang is born on a farm near Gol, Norway, in the Hallingdal Valley, west of Oslo. 


Birgit Nilsdatter Brekke is born, also in Gol, Norway.


Ole and Birgit marry in Norway.  Over the next 13 years, while they're still in Norway, they have eight children.


The U.S. Homestead Act is passed, allowing settlers 160 acres of free land if they farm it for five years.


Ole Svang (age 44) and his wife, Birgit (age 34) leave from Bergen, Norway and sail to America with their eight children.  They disembark in Quebec and eventually settle on a farm near Montevideo, Minnesota.


Ole (age 60), Birgit and their unmarried children (probably Kari, Nels, Rose, and Anna) move to Lynn Lake, South Dakota via covered wagon.  Ole and Birgit apply for a 160-acre homestead in Section 22 near Lynn Lake.  According to my mother, they built a sod house here.


Ole and Birgit's 27-year old daughter, Kari (also spelled Carrie) obtains a 160-acre homestead next to her parent's homestead.  According to my records, the Svang household at this time consisted of Ole (61), his wife Birgit (51), and their unmarried children:  Kari (27), Nels (17), Anna and Rose (unknown ages).


Ole and Birgit's homestead is granted to them after they had "proved up" their claim by living on the land for five years.  Kari (Carrie) Swang marries Ole Monson.


Kari is unable to pay a $50 debt on her homestead and loses her land.


Ole (age 71) sells his 200 acres of land to his wife, Birgit (61), for $175.

Oct. 2, 1896

Ole's son, Nels (my great-grandfather), marries Anna Abrahamson in the Bergen Church.

Oct. 29, 1897

The court rules that Ole and Birgit Svang are delinquent in paying off a debt to the Minnesota Thresher Manufacturing Company and orders their land forfeited.  The Svangs continue to live on the land, probably renting it.

Oct. 31, 1897

Two days after the forfeiture, Birgit Svang dies and is buried in the Bergen Church cemetery.  I don't know how Birgit died, since the Day County coroner's records only go back to 1900, but given the timing, I suspect it may have been a suicide.

Nov. 18, 1898

My grandmother, Helga Swang, is born to Nels and Anna Swang.  About a year later, Nels, Anna and young Helga move to Fessenden, North Dakota.


Ole Svang, age 83, is evicted from his homestead near Lynn Lake.  Ole's land is sold during an auction on the steps of the Day County Courthouse to the highest bidder, a fellow named James Dore.  Ole Svang moves to nearby Pierpont.


After a life of hard work, Ole Svang dies virtually penniless.  He is buried in the Bergen Church cemetery next to his wife, Birgit.

1930s (?)

The Sparby family buys the land from the Dore family.


The Sparby family sells the land to the South Dakota Department of Fish, Game & Parks for $10,327.  It's currently in a natural state and is used for wildlife production and hunting.



More pages about my mother's ancestry:


Also see: