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Katherine, the Brick Wall

As I work on learning the details of the life of my great-great grandfather Thomas Sherman, I continue to puzzle over his activities during the 1860’s. The biggest riddle remains the identity of his first wife, and my great-great grandmother. According to family lore, she was German, and her name was Katherine Stillenbaugh or Stanabaugh. Thomas and Katherine were said to have resided in or near Indianapolis where their daughter, Anna Petronellia, was born in 1865. Katherine reportedly died shortly afterwards. No record of her has been found to verify any of the family story.

I know these facts about Thomas and his family during that decade:

  • In 1860, Thomas’ name appears on the U.S. census for Madison County, Kentucky in the household of his father, Daniel “Shearman”. Thomas was a 19-year-old blacksmith.
  • In 1862, a man named Thomas Sherman, presumably my ancestor, filed suit in Madison County over the taking of a horse by Confederate soldiers.
  • In June 1863, Thomas and his brother Anderson registered for the Civil War Draft at Ninevah, Johnson County, Indiana.
  • Thomas and Anderson’s younger sister Gilla married John Cobb in Johnson County in 1864.
  • By 1870, Thomas worked as a blacksmith in another man’s household in Edgar County, Illinois. His four-year-old daughter lived with his mother, Rebecca, in the same county.

It seems that Thomas relocated from Kentucky to Indiana sometime during the Civil War. He joined his older brother Anderson and lived in the county just south of Indianapolis. This much fits the family story. But what about the rest of it?

Anderson had lived first in Brown County and then moved a few miles northeast to Johnson County. Among his neighbors was a German family named Stilgenbauer, a name several of them Anglicized to Stillabower or Stilabower. These names are tantalizingly close to the Stillenbaugh name reported by the grandchildren of my German ancestor. Did she belong to the Stilgenbauer family? If so, I cannot find a likely candidate named Katherine on the 1860 Indiana census. I have been unable to locate a marriage record for Thomas in Indiana, nor have I found burial information for Katherine Sherman. Nothing I have found so far verifies her identity.

I need to locate some more Indiana records! I need to do more research on the Stilgenbauer family. We have had this brick wall ancestor for far too long.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks nos. 13 and 14—Alex and Ada Mattila


Suomi, or “Finland” as most people know it, is a Nordic country east of the Bothnian Sea. Three ancient tribes settled there, the Finns, the Tavastians, and the Karelians. Even after Finnish unification under the Swedes, the eastern area known as Karelia retained an identity of its own. The people had long traditions of folk music and mysticism, and today the Karelian culture is perceived as the purist expression of true Finnic ways and beliefs. The Finnish epic poem, The
Kalevala, draws mostly from Karelian folklore and mythology. Many of the works of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius took influence from The Kalevala.

Ada and Alex Mattila came from Viipuri, Finland, at the southern end of Karelian lands. This historically Lutheran province of Finland, known for its iconic Vyborg Castle, now lies divided between Finland and Russia in the area between the Baltic Sea and the White Sea. Over the centuries, the Swedes and the Russians have exerted a heavy influence over Karelia.

Beginning in the 13th century, these two fought bitterly over it, and a treaty in 1323 divided Karelia between them. The city of Viipuri (“Viborg” to the Swedes and “Vyborg” to the Russians) became the capital of the new Swedish province and ultimately the second-largest city in Finland. The surrounding area became part of Viipuri parish.

The Swedes retained control of Finland, including their part of Karelia, for the next 500 years until the Napoleonic Wars. In the meantime, the Russians maintained the remainder of the ethnic Karelian lands. After Napoleon, the Russians received Finland from the Swedes as part of the war settlement, and a unified Finland became a Duchy of the Russian empire. Thus the Karelians were reunited for the next hundred years under one ruler, the Czar.

Early Life

Into this troubled land and time, Alexander Mattila was born. His parents were Elisabeth (“Liisa”) Myllynen and Antti Abelsson Mattila. The father was listed as “Anders” in the official Swedish-language records of the time. “Antti” and “Anders” are the Finnish and Swedish renderings of the English name, Andrew.

The Mattilas lived in the rural village of Alasommes/Alasommee, Viipuri province, Duchy of Finland, and Alex was probably born at home. The actual date remains in question with various records reporting April or May, on the 8th or ninth of the month as his birth date. Some documents give the year as 1878, others say 1879. The Viipuri rural parish record lists his birth date as May 9, 1878 with his baptism following three days later on the twelfth of May.

Alex was the youngest of at least nine children, and he was the only boy. The father died when Alex was quite small, and his mother made her living by laying out the dead. The boy Alex often accompanied her.

As a young man in 1904, Alex worked and resided at Kolikkoinmaki, Finland. He planned to marry Ada Alina Lampinen, and marriage banns were published in January 1904 at the Lutheran church in Viipuri.

Fair-haired Ada was the daughter of Matti Lampinen, a lodger, and Anna Miettinen. Ada was born on September 25, 1879 in the village of Nunnanlahdentie, Kuopio Province, Finland, north of Viipuri. The area now lies in the province of Eastern Finland, created in 1997. On November 16, 1879, Ada was baptized in the Juuka parish. Ada’s children later said they knew nothing of her family.

Ada and Alex were married in Viipuri on May 14, 1904, and Ada transferred her church membership to the Viipuri rural parish in July. By 1905 Alex was working as a laborer in Viipuri. Conditions in Finland were hard at that time. Harsh Czarist rule left the Finns with little power over their own affairs. There were periodic famines, and tuberculosis afflicted many people.

Perhaps some of these problems led Alex and Ada to devise a plan to immigrate to America. Alex applied for and received a Finnish passport in February 1905. Leaving Ada behind temporarily, he traveled to the port town of Hanko on the south coast of Finland to catch a boat to Liverpool, England.

There he boarded the Cunard steamship Ivernia on March 25, 1905 bound for the United States. He arrived in Boston, Massachusetts on April 9, 1905. He reported to the authorities that he planned to join his “uncle” (actually his brother-in-law) Oskar Silberg in Superior, Wisconsin. Many Finns settled in the Great Lakes area where the climate resembled that of Finland, and industries needed workers.

Ada followed later, probably after Alex had set up a home for them. She applied for a Finnish passport in June 1905 but no passenger record for her has been found. She had certainly arrived in the U.S. by November 27, 1906 when their first child, Martha Louise, was born in Hibbing, Minnesota.


Building a Family in Minnesota


For the next several years, Alex worked to establish himself in the multi-ethnic Hibbing area. At least until 1915, he labored among other Finns and other men from all over Eastern Europe in one of the numerous iron mines of northern Minnesota. Meanwhile, he and Ada struggled to learn English. The U.S. census reports that Alex could speak English by 1910 but Ada and little Martha could not. A new language was easier for men to learn because they went out to work every day and heard it spoken there. When reading the 1920 census, one can almost hear their heavy Finnish accents. Their household is listed under the name Alex Sandermattila.

On March 6, 1915 Alex filed a Declaration of Intent to become a citizen of the United States. He was described as five feet, five-and-a-half inches tall, weighing 160 pounds, with a light complexion, medium brown hair, and brown eyes. The same description appears on his World War I draft registration card dated September 10, 1918. He became a citizen of the United States in 1922.

During the World War I years, Alex and Ada added more children to their family. These came as a surprise to their daughter Martha, ending her 10 years as an only child. Her sister, Aida Sylvia, arrived on October 2, 1916.

Aida lived the longest of the Mattila children, passing away at age 83 on June 18, 2000 after suffering a broken hip. She married twice, first to Walter Jametsky. They held their wedding reception at the Mattila house, and Alex Mattila’s older sister Anna Mattila Anderson attended. She was a staunch member of the Finnish Temperance Society, and when she found out that Alex was serving liquor to the guests upstairs, she got mad and went home.

Aida and Walter had one daughter, Judith Ann, and soon divorced. After the divorce, Aida and Judy lived with the Mattilas while Aida worked as a hotel elevator operator. Aida later married John Kerzie on May 23, 1953. They lived in Chisholm, Minnesota in the house where John was born. John worked in the mines and was active in labor union affairs. Aida kept house, putting her college training in home economics to good use.

A brother for Martha and Aida entered the household on June 5, 1918 with the birth of Hugo Alexander Mattila. Hugo had a wild streak and got into a bit of trouble as he grew. Once he went on a “bum” to California, hitching a ride on a train with a pal. The friend fell off and was killed. Another time, Hugo joined the cavalry, did not like it, and needed his mother to pay for his release. Along the way, he also worked as a ski jump instructor and boxed in Golden Gloves. Contrary to the advice of his temperance-minded aunt Anna, he enjoyed visiting local taverns. When he had too much to drink there, his policeman brother-in-law Bjarne Bentsen would take him home in the police paddy wagon.

Hugo eventually joined the Army Air Corps. During World War II, he served as a bombardier in Europe and achieved the rank of Lieutenant. While in the service, he married Ann Dorchock. During their marriage, Hugo went to college on the GI Bill and earned a degree in Civil Engineering. Meanwhile, he and Ann had three children: Robert Ray, Beverly, and Karen Marie. Sadly, little Karen passed away at the age of 6 in 1952 due to spinal meningitis.

Sometime after that, Hugo and Ann divorced, and Hugo remarried right away. He and Donna lived in Gainsville, Florida and had 6 children together: Kathleen, Virgina, James, Karen, Kelly, and Brian.

Hugo suffered a stroke later in life and was confined to a wheelchair. He died from the effects of a fire in his home on December 5, 1987 at the age of 69.

The last child and second son of Ada and Alex Mattila, Peter Bernhard, was born on November 19, 1919. Pete was not yet a teenager when Martha’s children Joyce and Ron were born, and he played with them as he grew up. He took them skiing (on barrel staves) and golfing (with homemade clubs while he worked at the local golf course).

Pete and Hugo would get wind-up toys for Ron for Christmas and then invite him over to play with them before Christmas. Later, both of the Mattila sons joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and lived in the camps.

Eventually, like his brother, Pete joined the Army Air Corps. He made it his career. His nephew Ron joined the Air Force, too, and during the Korean War they served near each other in Japan. According to Ron, Pete liked to get in bar fights when he was off duty. A few years later, on June 1, 1959, Pete died unexpectedly from a heart attack at age 39 while serving at Eglin Air Force base in Florida. The family later speculated that because Pete had never shown any signs of heart trouble, the Air Force was concealing his true cause of death.



A Carpenter’s Life                                                


By 1920, with his family of two daughters and two sons complete after 15 years in America, Alex Mattila had found some financial success. He owned a home without a mortgage on 2nd Avenue in Hibbing. He and his family lived on the ground floor, and they rented upstairs rooms out to two other families.


Finland is known for its carpentry industry, and somewhere along the way Alex learned this craft. By 1920 he had left the mines and was working as a carpenter. He continued in this occupation for the rest of his life, working at various times for the Messba Construction Company and the Ryan and Stavn Lumber Company where he worked at the time of his death. Years after he died, people in Hibbing would remember him walking down the street, carrying his carpenter’s toolbox. He built houses, but in his spare time, he enjoyed fashioning little hand-carved toys for his children and grandchildren. He also built a lovely dollhouse for his granddaughter, Sharon Bentsen.

As their finances improved, the Mattilas moved to a home Alex built on Thirteenth Avenue in Hibbing. They also purchased some farmland near the Hibbing airport. They hoped it would be valuable someday. Until they felt ready to sell it, they used the land to grow vegetables and other food. Ada often took the children and grandchildren out there to pick berries and mushrooms.

Alex sent his daughters to college in the 1920’s and 1930’s although only Martha actually graduated. She earned a 2-year degree allowing her to teach elementary school, and she promptly left Minnesota for adventure in Montana.

There she taught at the Two Tree country school near Redstone and lived with the Ole Bentsens, a nearby farm family. Their younger children, Jennie and Otto, attended the school. Martha married their older son, Bjarne, at the end of the school year on June 2, 1928.

Martha and Bjarne stayed in Montana long enough for their eldest child, Joyce Beverly, to be born on April 8, 1929 in Plentywood. After that, they relocated to Minnesota where they lived next door to the Mattilas, in another house that Alex had built. Not long after the move, Martha and Bjarne had a son, Ronald Duane, on January 14, 1931. Bjarne worked as an electrician in the mines for a while and then joined the Hibbing police force.

The Mattila’s seemed to enjoy having grandchildren next door. Ada always had a cake ready for snacking while they relaxed in the covered porch. She regularly offered them her homemade bread, which she would let rise on the stovetop before baking it in the coal stove. Alex liked to tease her that the big stove served double duty as her dressmaker’s model.

Alex and Ada also spent time teaching the ways of the old country to the children. Joyce used to accompany her grandmother to the local Finnish sauna and her grandfather on trips downtown. Ron helped his grandfather make dandelion wine. Both kids were amazed that neither grandparent celebrated birthdays, nor did their grandfather attend church. They did their own doctoring, including lancing boils and pulling bad teeth with the pliers.

They continued to speak Finnish at home, and Martha spoke with Ada in that language when she did not want the children to eavesdrop. Later, when Aida and Judy lived in the Mattila house during the 1940’s, Judy learned very little English before she started school. The teacher had to contact Aida to request that she work on English skills with the little girl.

Ada and Martha did not get along particularly well, and others sometimes had to settle their differences. Since they lived next door to one another, they shared a clothesline in the back yard. Ada valued tidiness, and she always collected her clothespins from the line when she took in her laundry. Martha preferred convenience and left her clothespins on the line until next time. Unfortunately, by then Ada had usually collected all of Martha’s clothespins and taken them inside. The battle of the clothespins escalated until Bjarne finally stepped in. He painted all of Martha’s clothespins red so there would be no confusion as to their ownership.

Aside from these typical family squabbles, life went along more or less as usual through the World War II years. The family avidly read letters from Hugo and Pete in the war zone, and the parents must have worried about them. We can wonder how they felt when their Viipuri homeland was ceded to the Soviet Union in 1944. Most of the Finns living anywhere near Viipuri walked out of the area and resettled in other parts of Finland. Russians moved in to fill the void, and very few Finns live in Vyborg and its environs today.

A Sorrowful Ending

In early April, 1945, Alex returned home from a trip downtown and reported in his accented English, “Roosevelt, he die.” No one believed him. Yet, it was true. Four-term President Franklin Roosevelt had passed away just as Alex had heard in town.

A day or two later, on a Saturday evening, Ada handed Alex his usual silver quarter to spend during an evening out. He always walked into town to gather with friends at a local tavern on Saturday nights. Several hours later, the police came to the Mattila door.

The family learned that while Alex walked home along the railroad tracks that night, he had been struck and killed by a train. Someone needed to go down to identify the body. The task fell to his son-in-law, Martha’s husband Bjarne.

No one was more stunned than Ada. She said, “I no live long now.” Yet she did live another three years. After her husband’s death, she finally joined the local Lutheran church, something Alex had never wanted to do. She also remained active in the Finnish Temperance Society and the Order of Runeberg, a Finnish cultural group.

One spring day three years later, on May 12, 1948 she went down the street to fetch her young granddaughter, Judy, who was out playing. While they walked back home together, Ada collapsed and died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 68. She was buried next to Alex in the Maple Hill Cemetery in Hibbing. Later, their son Peter was buried near them.

When she died, her estate was distributed according to a plan Alex had devised during the 1930’s. Aida received the house and its contents, Hugo received the money, and Peter received the farm. Martha, deemed “sufficiently provided for” by having already received an education and other forms of Alex’s goods, was disinherited.

That Alex and Ada had so much material wealth to leave behind is a tribute to their spirit. They had the courage and initiative to leave a bad situation to make a better life for themselves in a new land. They found a happy community of like-minded immigrants and thrived despite a language barrier, social stigma against immigrants, economic hardship during the Great Depression, and anxiety from two world wars. They gave their American-born children the tools they needed to succeed in life. They could be proud of what they had achieved.

The Shermans and the Census

My Sherman family lived in southeastern Illinois from about 1870 on. I have spent several hours with the United States census records for Coles and Edgar counties trying to learn more about this family. I had hoped to learn the following:

  • How this extended family moved through the area,
  • Where the Sherman family originated,
  • Whether other Shermans who lived in these counties are related to me.

The earliest Sherman ancestor I have identified is Daniel Sherman (about 1800-aft. 1862). Not all of Daniel’s children settled in Illinois, but I know that Anderson, Evaline, Thomas, John, and Jasper passed through there. Daniel himself does not appear on the Illinois census, and I believe he died before 1870.

In that year, Anderson Sherman lived in Indiana, but the others had moved on to Illinois by then. According to the census, most of them lived in Paris Township, Edgar County. Daniel’s widow Rebecca lived in a household with her son John and her 4-year-old granddaughter Annie, who was Thomas’ daughter. Jasper Sherman and his wife Armecia, and Evaline Sherman Alvey also lived in Paris Township. Thomas was also widowed, and he worked in nearby Hunter Township at the time. Other Sherman families lived in Embarrass and Grandview townships, but I do not know whether any of them are related to my family. My Shermans had lived in Kentucky before the Civil War, while these other Shermans seem to have come from Germany, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

By 1880, I can find no family members still living in Paris Township. Thomas now lived with his daughter and new wife in Edgar Township. Rebecca and Jasper had died and are buried in Symmes Township. John had married and gone back to Kentucky. Anderson had joined Thomas in Illinois, but he lived in Elbridge Township, as did a Sherman couple from Pennsylvania. I have not located Evaline Sherman Alvey on the 1880 census. The unidentified Shermans who had lived in Embarrass Township in 1870 remained there in 1880, but the other Sherman family no longer lived in Grandview Township.

These migrations through Edgar County do not provide much insight into my Sherman family. I have learned only that while their mother was alive, they all lived fairly close together, but they split up and began to go their own ways after she died in 1876.

So what, if anything, can I learn about Daniel Sherman from these census records? Of course, they indicated he probably died before 1870, but they do not tell me when or where. Furthermore, the records conflict on where he was born. Each child reports different information for his/her father’s birthplace:

  • Anderson (the oldest son) identifies his father’s birthplace as Kentucky or Pennsylvania,
  • Evaline said her father was born in Kentucky or New York,
  • Thomas listed his father’s birthplace as unknown or New York,
  • John always said his father was born in Kentucky,
  • Jasper died before the birthplace of parents was recorded.

Daniel himself always reported his birthplace as New York, a state sometimes echoed by Evaline and Thomas, so that is probably correct. Unfortunately for me, New York is a big place, and I know only that Daniel lived in Kentucky by the late 1820’s. None of the other Sherman families in Coles and Edgar Counties came from New York. No help there.

I have learned all I can from these census records. Now I have four other daughters (Polly, Emily, Eliza, and Gilla) to locate on census records for the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. As far as I know, they did not move to Illinois, so I will need to look for them in other states. First, I need to verify married names for Polly, Emily, and Eliza. Then I will search for their census records, too, in hopes of learning more about this family.

Exciting Possibilities, Disappointing Results

This week I came across two databases I hoped would provide some new family information. No such luck!

Perhaps others can find something they need in these places:

  • Edgar County, Illinois Death Records, 1877-1892. Family Search has digitized these records, and you can browse them online at My Sherman family lived in Edgar County in the 1870’s, and two of them died there. I hoped to find their death records. Unfortunately, Rebecca Sherman passed away in 1876, the year before this record-keeping began. Jasper Sherman died in 1878, but his name does not appear on the register.
  • Michigan Marriage Records, 1867-1952., a subscription site, added this database recently. After years of searching, I have not found a Michigan marriage record for my great-grandmother Laura Riddle, who is said to have married George Edmonds in the 1870’s. Would this comprehensive Michigan database reveal a long-sought marriage record for her? In a word, no. This woman’s life in Michigan continues to elude me.

Searching these databases did, however, open some new lines of inquiry:

  • Did Jasper Sherman die in another county even though he is buried in Edgar County? I could check the death registers in surrounding counties.
  • Who was the “other” Laura Riddle I did find in the Michigan database? That Laura, the same age as my Laura, also married a man named George (Whitney). Their marriage took place in 1871 in Van Buren County, one county northwest of St. Joseph County, where my Laura lived. The record states the Van Buren Laura was born in Kalamazoo while my Laura was born in Mendon. Are they related? Perhaps research into the Riddle family of Van Buren County can shed some light on my own Riddle family.

Even though I did not find the quick answers I sought in these databases, I have eliminated a couple of sources, and I have some ideas for further research. I will continue hunting.

A Discouraging Year So Far

On this beautiful Cinco de Mayo, the second anniversary of my nephew Tyler William Reed’s death, my thoughts wandered to family deaths in general. I realized that in the first four months of this year, we already have had four deaths in my extended family. Not a good start.

In 2016 we have lost the following loved ones:

  1. Ronald Duane Bentsen, my uncle, passed away January 15, the day after his 85th birthday.
  2. Angela Nicolucci, my second cousin, died February 5 at the age of 43.
  3. Sharon Flageolle, with whom we share a granddaughter, lost her cancer battle on March 22 at the age of 53.
  4. Judith Ann Tegg, my mom’s cousin, died on April 9 at the age of 73.

Four months, four deaths. Usually they do not come so quickly, one after the other like this. Each month, I have had the unpleasant job of collecting obituaries and photos for these people and entering the information into the family history that I keep. Now their names appear on the family tree with birth and death dates in neat brackets.

The reminders of these sad deaths remain raw, but I feel the need to memorialize these family members while memories of them remain fresh, too. I want them to be remembered. So I continue to work on the tree, adding death dates no matter how unwelcome the news. We just have had so many in such a short time.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks nos. 11 & 12—Ole Bentsen & Sofie Sivertsdatter

Between the years 1865 and 1930, an astonishing 780,000 Norwegians left Norway for the United States. Rapid population growth coupled with slow industrial growth in Norway left little opportunity for the young. Consequently, only Ireland with its potato famine contributed a greater share of its population to American immigration. Ole and Sofie Bentsen were among those who left in search of free land in America.

They came from the Land of the Midnight Sun where the sun neither sets in the summer nor rises in the winter. The Bentsens both hailed from the scenic Versterålen island group of Norway’s Lofoten archipelago in the Norwegian Sea. The main towns in this municipality, Andoy, Bø, Hadsel, Sortland, and Øksnes, sit on the narrow coast between mountain and fjord. Although far north of the Arctic Circle, the islands enjoy a maritime climate with mild winters. The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, regularly offer a spectacular display to the people of Vesterålen. Perhaps this compensates some for the scarce winter daylight.

In this stark, treeless land, Ole Jorgen Lorentsen was born on September 6, 1880 at Bø to Lorents Nikolai (“Nick”) Anderson and Karen Marie Johansdatter. Norway did not require surnames at this time, but by the time Ole was born, the family had sometimes begun using the Bentsen (or Bentzen) name for everyone. Ole was baptized on December 12, 1880 at Bø parish. He grew up as the youngest child in the household with his parents and two older sisters, Lina and Riborg. Two foster children, Fresenius Pedersen and Riborg Hansdatter, also lived with them.

Vesterålen’s main industry is cod fishing supplemented with a little agriculture. By 1900, twenty-year-old Ole was one who made a living this way, sometimes spending two or three weeks at sea. According to the Norwegian census that year, Ole and Fresenius Pedersen worked as fishermen away from home at Aalesund, Norway.

Ole also served in the Norwegian military, as required by law, where he earned an award in marksmanship. During his service, he completed an assignment on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, home of the fairy-tale Snow Queen. While he was there, he found two petrified leaves that he always regretted leaving behind. Today Spitsbergen houses the Global Seed Bank.

After leaving the service, Ole went to Stokmarknes to work. There he met Sofie Marie Sivertsdatter, daughter of Sivert Knudsen and Martha Karoline Dorthea Hansdatter. Ole and Sofie married on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1904 at Hadsel Church in Stokmarknes. Born July 3, 1878 at Valfjord and baptized on September 1, 1878 at Hadsel in Hadsel parish, Sofie was a bit older than her husband, as were many Norwegian brides. She was the youngest surviving child of her parents. Others included a half-brother Johan Martinessen, a sister Kaspara Helmine Sivertsdatter (Mina), and a brother Hans Sivertsen. As many as eight other siblings pre-deceased Sofie.

Sofie had a typical Norwegian upbringing. As a child, she walked a long way to school every day. Teenaged Sofie served as godmother to her brother Hans’ son Sydolf in 1894 and to her sister Mina’s daughter Helene in 1897. Before moving to Stokmarknes as a young woman, she lived for a time in a nearby village. There she cared for livestock for a man named Elias Knudsen, who was perhaps an uncle.

Most Norwegians during this time belonged to the state-supported Lutheran Church, and Ole and Sofie joined, too. She was confirmed June 18, 1893 at Eidsfjord parish, and he was confirmed on September 13, 1896 at Hadsel parish. The church recorded each confirmand’s knowledge of the catechism, as Very Good, Good, or Not So Good. Both Ole and Sofie had Good ratings.

After marrying Sofie, Ole left for America to make a home for his five-foot, four-inch, auburn-haired bride. He traveled first to the Norwegian port city Trondheim. On April 20, 1904, he started the next leg of his journey aboard the Cunard ship Salmo bound for Liverpool, England. There he boarded the Ivernia, and two weeks later on May 4, 1904 he arrived in Boston, Massachusetts. He took a train to Lake Park, Minnesota and worked there for the Northern Pacific Railroad earning a dollar a day. Sofie remained behind with her family to await the birth of her first child, Riborg Marie Hansene Bentsen (1904). Riborg’s baptism record states that her father lived in “Amerika”.

The following spring, Sofie and Riborg left Trondheim on the Tasso on April 12, 1905. They sailed on the Dominion from Liverpool and arrived in Quebec on May 3, 1905. Sofie remembered the trip well; the ship ran aground on a sandbar in the St. Lawrence and took several days to get moving again. When they finally could disembark, Sofie and her infant daughter traveled by train to Chicago and then on to Lake Park to meet Ole. They lived there for a couple of years and welcomed their first son, Bjarne Kaurin, into the family in 1906.

By 1907, they were ready to claim the free land the government offered on the grassy sea of eastern Montana. The family traveled together by train and landed in Culbertson, Montana on July 30, Sofie’s 29th birthday. Settling on a quarter section of land in a Scandinavian community near Medicine Lake, they built a two-room sod house that was lined with wood boards.

Another daughter, Signe Eline, joined them in 1908. The Bentsens had her baptized in a hayloft during a meeting of area ministers.

In 1909, in nearby Williston, North Dakota, Ole filed a Declaration of Intention to become a citizen of the United States. His application describes him as 5 feet 10 inches tall with black hair and brown eyes.

The new homesteaders tried to be self-sufficient. Sofie made the children’s clothes on a hand-powered sewing machine she had brought from Norway. She also knitted the family’s stockings. She even found time to do beautiful Hardanger embroidery. Still, Ole and Sofie found that making a living on just 160 acres in the arid west was not easy.

The U.S. government finally recognized the problem and began opening areas for larger homesteads of 320 acres. The Bentsens sold their quarter section and filed on a half section of land 13 miles southeast of Redstone, Montana, near the Canadian border.

In later years, they reminisced about that first summer of 1910 on the new place. They had few neighbors, and the family of five lived in a 10×12 foot shack that Ole built. But that summer the bright and beautiful Haley’s Comet appeared, relieving the tedium and loneliness.

The Bentsens had acquired livestock including three horses, some cows, sheep, and chickens. The new area had been surveyed only by township units at that time, so Ole estimated where his section line would be. He plowed a furrow to mark it, using his three horses and a walking plow. When the rest of the surveying was done, most of his fence posts stood in that furrow.

The first winter on the new homestead, Ole took a team and sled on a 35-mile trip back to Medicine Lake for supplies. While stopping over at his parents’ home near Homestead, he became ill with typhoid fever. He remained there for 6 weeks, leaving Sofie home alone with three little children, ages 6, 4, and two.

That winter was very hard for Sofie. Every morning she would go to the nearby creek to chop a hole in the ice so the livestock could water. One bleak day when all seemed hopeless with food and coal nearly gone, a couple of neighbors arrived. They brought her some coal and butchered a calf for her. The family all remembered the happy day when Ole finally returned home.

During the following summer of 1911, Ole built a two-room house which they added on to in later years. Originally, for illumination at night they used kerosene lamps, which they cleaned and filled daily. They dug a 15-foot well by hand. Ole hauled the first crop to the nearest railroad at Medicine Lake. Bjarne later recalled helping his father build a barn.

In the early years on the homestead, wild game was plentiful so Sofie cooked many meals of duck, prairie chicken, and rabbit. She did the cooking on a coal stove, and in summer the children gathered cow chips. They burned these in the stove, and it worked very well to save on coal. The family and their neighbors mined their own coal from a mine about five miles away.

Sofie did the clothes washing on a wash board, and she boiled sheets in a boiler. For wash water, she collected rain water in a barrel in summer and melted snow in the winter. If the rain barrel was empty, she would fill it with well water (which was very hard water), mix in some lye, and let it stand overnight. By morning the lye would settle and leave the water soft. She heated sad irons on the stove for ironing.

A bachelor homesteader arrived in the area and asked Sofie if she would bake bread for him. He said he had tried, but even his dog wouldn’t eat it. She baked for him as long as he was on the farm, into the 1920’s.

Coyotes were numerous and a menace. One morning Sofie was milking a cow when a coyote jumped out of the brush and killed a sheep just a few yards away. The coyote did not get to enjoy his kill because the Bentsens got the mutton.

The free range cattle in the area were very dangerous, too, and would attack anyone on foot. One day Ole’s horses broke loose and strayed, so Ole walked 30 miles to see if they had gone back to the Homestead area. On the way there, he was semi-surrounded by range cattle ready to attack. He waved his jacket at them. They retreated just far enough to allow him to duck below a nearby creek bank. He walked in a crouch along the creek until he was out of their sight. He later found the horses near Homestead and was able to ride back home.

Ole and some neighbors hauled lumber from Culbertson and built the Two Tree schoolhouse for the neighborhood. Riborg was one of the first students, and her parents began to learn to speak, read, and write in English when she started school. The community also used the school building as a community hall, church, site for pie and basket socials, and even an occasional dance. The school closed in the late 1940’s with Riborg’s daughter Shirley Bedwell serving as the last teacher.

One of the first years on the homestead, the family wanted a Christmas tree. Ole cut a poplar pole and drilled holes in it. He inserted juniper branches and they decorated it with little baskets and chains made of tissue paper. They also drained some eggs, wrapped the shells in tin foil, and hung them on the tree. Neighbors thought the tree was real and wondered where he got it.

The year 1918 was a busy one for the Bentsens. On July 8, 1918 Ole, Sofie, and their children became naturalized citizens of the United States at Plentywood, Montana. Bjarne, Signe, and Jennie Wilhelmine (born at home in 1916), were named in the naturalization process although they already were citizens, having been native-born. That summer Ole also registered for the WWI draft. He bought his first car, a 1918 Overland touring car which he did not use much that winter because the roads were poor and not plowed. The last child, Otto Sigurd, was born at home in November that year.

The next year, on July 26, 1919, Ole received a Patent for his 320 acres near Redstone in Sheridan County, Montana. He continued to farm the land for the next 33 years. In January 1952, he and Sofie sold their farm to their younger son, Otto, and his wife Bernice.

Ole and Sofie retired to Plentywood where Ole did Norwegian wood carving and made model boats. He also built a two-room storage area behind their small house. Sofie called it “Ole’s dog house.” Sofie was active in the ladies’ group at the Lutheran Church. She continued cooking and baking, making lefse and fattigmand every year for Christmas until 1965 when she fell ill.

Sofie died from emphysema and chronic bronchitis at age 87 on January 19, 1966 at Sheridan Memorial Hospital in Plentywood. She was buried on January 24 at Redstone Cemetery. At the time of her death, she had very little grey hair. She had always compared herself to one of her grandfathers who had lived to be 80 but also did not turn grey.

After Sofie died, Ole lived alone. He had given up his car and subsequently rode a bicycle around Plentywood until he was 90 years old. After that, he walked the 8 blocks to downtown. In the winter months he went to stay with his youngest daughter Jennie in Havre, Montana. This continued until 1972 when at age 92 he moved into Pioneer Manor in Plentywood.

After 10 years of widowhood, Ole died of uremia on his son Bjarne’s 70th birthday (August 26, 1976). Like Sofie, he passed away at Sheridan Memorial Hospital in Plentywood. He was 95 years old and still had a full head of white hair. He was buried beside Sofie on August 30 at Redstone Cemetery, Redstone, Montana.








The Busy Local Genealogy Scene

This week I reconnected with some genealogy friends I had not seen in a while. We gathered at Lucile’s restaurant in Denver, a Creole and Cajun place, for lunch.

Sandy Ronayne, President of the Colorado Genealogical Society (CGS), organizes these monthly lunches for the club. I cannot always attend, but this month I made it. We chatted about happenings in the local genealogy community and discussed our current research projects.

This month we talked about the good opportunities we have had this month to further our genealogical education. Several people had been to hear CeCe Moore’s presentations on DNA and genealogy at the CGS 2016 seminar. Most folks have already registered to hear F. Warren Bittner, CG, speak on April 30 at the Palatines to America Seminar and Book Fair. In the Denver area we often get to hear these and other nationally-known speakers.

We have some wonderful local resources, too. John Putman was to speak on New England research at the CGS meeting in April. Unfortunately, that meeting was cancelled due to snow. We hope Mr. Putnam can be rescheduled.

With all this going on, I find myself having to draw a line on how many events I attend. I need research time as well as fellowship and education time, so I must strike a balance. This month I participated in the lunch, and I have registered for the Palantine seminar. I also went to the Norwegian genealogy group meeting earlier this month. Despite taking time for three genealogy outings, I still had some time to pursue my own family history research project.

We have a wonderful genealogy community in the Denver area. One can participate as much or as little as one likes, because some group always has something going on.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks no. 10—Laura Ruamy Riddle (1853-1933)

Laura Riddle’s name seems appropriate for a person who led a puzzling personal life with the men who fathered her children. After she reached adulthood, her family knew and referred to her as Laura Edmonds and a couple of her sons carried the Edmonds name, but she never used that name herself. Instead, she always conducted business and signed documents with her maiden name, Laura Riddle.

She began life ordinarily enough on October 9, 1853 as the fifth of eight children born to John Davis Riddle and Olive Dunbar. On their farm in Mendon Township, St. Joseph County, Michigan, she learned to keep house, raise crops, and care for livestock. She used these skills the rest of her life.

At about age 20, she reportedly married George Edmonds. Although women of her era usually married either in their home church or at their father’s house, no record of this marriage has been found in any county in Michigan. All her sisters and two brothers had marriages recorded in St. Joseph County, but Laura did not.

Laura and George did have three sons. Francis (Frank) was born in 1876 in adjacent Berrien County. Both Lewis and Joseph, in 1877 and 1880 respectively, were born in St. Joseph County. That year, George and Laura lived near Laura’s family while he worked as a laborer on a farm and she kept house.

After 1880, George Edmonds disappeared from Laura’s life. No divorce or death record for him has been found, but a man named George Edmonds did marry another woman in St. Joseph County in the early 1880’s. Laura seems to have been left alone to support three little boys, two of whom were always described as “slow”.

Like many other single women, she headed west to find opportunities for making a living. Her older sister Theodocia had already moved to Nebraska with her husband John Evert and their children. Laura joined them in McCook.

In January 1885, she settled north of McCook on a 160-acre tract adjacent to land owned by her brother-in-law in Red Willow County. On June 24, 1885, she went to the McCook Land Office and filed a pre-emption claim on the land. By then she had erected a 14×16 house with a door and 2 windows and had broken 18-20 acres. She reported herself to be a single woman, but oddly claimed to have just 2 children. Perhaps one son had actually stayed behind in Michigan for a while or was living with John and Theodocia Evert. Unfortunately, no record for Laura and her boys has been found on the 1885 Nebraska census, so we do not know who resided in her household that year.

That August the Land Office approved her claim. She paid the $200 cash entry fee, a rate of $1.25 per acre, for her land.

Laura remained in Red Willow County for several years. It must have been hard for her when John and Theodocia Evert decided in 1888 to relocate to the Sandhill region of northwestern Nebraska, near Hyannis. Laura stayed behind in the McCook area. Perhaps she had a boyfriend.

By 1892, Laura also decided to move on from the McCook area. She filed a claim on a 160-acre homestead north of Palisade, Nebraska in Hayes County, claiming she supported 3 children. There she and the boys built a 14×18 frame house and a sod stable, a cave cistern, a hog corral, and a chicken house. They cultivated 45 acres. In 1896, Laura’s daughter Grace was born there, father unknown. Laura received the final certificate for this homestead in January 1899.

Sometime during this period, her son Frank left the family home. He moved on to Wyoming and Montana, working as a sheepherder. He registered for the WWI draft in Big Horn County, Wyoming. In 1944 he died from a broken neck when he was thrown from a horse in Montana’s Lewis and Clark National Forest. He is buried in Great Falls, Montana.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Laura’s household in Hayes County consisted of herself (“Laura Riddle”) and three children (Lewis, Joseph, and Grace “Edman”). According to Grace’s sister-in-law, Bertha Reed Evert, “They were very hard up (or poor). Grandma [Theodocia] Evert went to visit Laura. Grandma Evert told me Laura was a widow then and was having a hard time making a living as the boys wasn’t (sic) big enough to get work all the time. So Grandma Evert brot (sic) Grace home with her.”

Bertha Evert thought Grace was about 2 years old when she went to live with the Everts, but the 1900 U.S. census for Hayes County lists 4-year-old Grace in her mother’s household. By 1910, however, 14-year-old Grace was enumerated with Theodocia Evert in Grant County. Interestingly, another member of the Evert household that year was a laborer named Samuel H. Reed, who later became Grace’s father-in-law.

Theodocia raised Grace as her own child and left Grace a share of her estate equal to that of her natural children when she died in 1929. How typical this was of the generous Theodocia whose son Warren’s wife, Blanche, described her as the “most kind and loving person I ever knew.”

Perhaps Grace’s move took place in 1904 when Laura and the boys decided to take new homesteads even further west in Dundy County, Nebraska. Congress had recently passed the Kincaid Act which allowed larger homesteads in western Nebraska. Several Palisade-area homesteaders sold their small farms and moved on. That year, Laura had inherited some money, $43.14, for her share of the proceeds from the sale of her mother’s farm in Michigan. Laura, Lewis, and Joseph sold their place in Hayes County for $350 and each filed claims on adjacent tracts near Haigler, Nebraska.

Again, poverty made life difficult. A neighbor’s affidavit described Laura as a poor widow who “has had to work where she could for a living while holding this [Dundy County] homestead. With her son they took nearby pieces of land without even a team to start with, buying a horse at a time”. She worked for a neighbor in Palisade in return for a wagon and harness. Eventually she improved the homestead to include a 20×26 house of stock boards with a board roof covered with tarred paper and sod, a well and pump, a corn crib, a stable and chicken house, 2 miles of wire fencing, 20 cottonwood trees, and 60 broken acres. She rented pasture space to neighbors.

Acquiring the final certificate for this homestead proved difficult. The case file is marked “Confidential” because neighbors contested her claim, alleging that she had not spent the requisite time actually living on the homestead. The Field Division in Cheyenne, Wyoming referred her case to the U.S. Land Office in Lincoln, Nebraska for investigation.

Her 480-acre Dundy County land finally proceeded to Patent in 1912. The investigator found “Inasmuch as the claimant was very poor when she took this land and has had to work for her living, and is well along in years, and seems to have complied with the law as to residence and as to improvements in a substantial manner, and apparently good faith, commensurate with her means and ability, I recommend that final certificate issue and the case pass to patent.” He suspected that at least one of the neighbors had given self-serving testimony in hopes of acquiring her land for himself.

Lewis and Joseph faced similar difficulties and allegations. Joseph’s land finally proceeded to patent, but Lewis surrendered his claim.

Lewis and Joseph continued to live with Laura and remained with her through most of their adult lives. About 1926, Laura and Joseph sold their homesteads and moved with Lewis back to Palisade, Nebraska. Joseph purchased a house in town, and the mother and sons lived there together. Their neighbor, Kenneth Ungles, recalled that Laura was a big, strong woman. He remembered Lewis and Joseph doing odd jobs like raking leaves.

Laura passed away from a stroke on September 2, 1933. She left an estate of personal property worth $900; Joseph received all of it as compensation for taking care of his mother from 1929-1933. Lewis died a couple of years later on November 23, 1935. When Joseph became too infirm to care for himself in 1949, Clyde Coles, the same man who had rented pasture land from Laura 40 years earlier, became his guardian. Joseph died on January 3, 1956. The mother and her two sons are buried next to each other with a single headstone in the Palisade Cemetery.

Regardless of the mysteries surrounding the men in her life, some things about Laura Riddle are very clear. She led a hard life. She struggled as a single mother to support disabled children, and she had to give one child away. She endured spitefulness and condescension from some of her neighbors. Yet she also made life-long friends and had the support of a loving sister. Despite every hardship, she always made her own way and never gave up.





Some Norwegian Research Tools

Genealogists like to take training classes to keep their skills sharp. Here in the Denver area I have many opportunities to attend seminars offered by well-known American genealogists. But for Norwegian genealogy, I do not have a lot of options.

This week I came across not just one but two chances to learn more about Norwegian research methodology:

  1. Of course my local Sons of Norway lodge offers my first and best option. We meet nine times a year to exchange research tips and information. This month my own husband/tech advisor led a program on how to use bygdebøker—local history books that contain a wealth of genealogical information. Several hundred rural communities in Norway published these books. Some members of our Norwegian research group have purchased these for the areas where their ancestors lived in Norway so we had a chance to thumb through a couple of the books. Of course, they are written in Norwegian, so that presents a problem for those of us who do not read the language. For those with some fluency who do not want to purchase one, some college libraries in Minnesota and North Dakota have collections of these.
  2. We have become acquainted with a Norwegian genealogist, Martin Roe, who writes a blog in English. Hooray! I have subscribed to his blog at, and I expect to learn a great deal about Norway and Norwegian genealogy from him.

Slowly but surely I am gaining more expertise in Norwegian research. Although I am not actively researching a Norwegian line this year, I will have the tools when I need them.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks no. 9—A Mystery Man

Great-grandfather, who are you?

The identity of one of my great grandfathers remains a mystery to me. My grandmother Grace Riddle Reed stated that she did not know her father’s name and never met him.

Grace was born on a homestead near Palisade, Nebraska on August 30, 1896. Her mother was Laura Riddle, and Grace had three much-older brothers (probably half-siblings), Francis, Lewis, and Joseph.

Laura was supposed to have been married in Michigan in the 1870’s to George Edmonds although no marriage record for them has been found. George seemed to be out of the picture by the time Laura relocated to Nebraska with her sons in the mid-1880’s. By then, Laura had resumed using her maiden name Riddle, and her middle son Lewis went by that surname, too. Francis and Joseph continued to go by the Edmonds name. As far as I know, Laura never remarried.

Grace was born while Laura worked her second homestead near Palisade, Hayes County, Nebraska more than ten years after moving to that state. We have no clues in our family papers for the identity of Grace’s father. We know only of these associates of Laura:

  1. George Edmonds. Perhaps Laura reconnected with him at some point, either if he traveled through Nebraska or she returned home to Michigan for a visit.
  2. Robert Mickey and Wm. Hyatt. These men witnessed Laura’s intent to make proof of her claim for her first homestead near McCook, Red Willow County, Nebraska in June, 1885.
  3. William F. Smith and John Lane (Layne). These men also witnessed her intent to make proof, and they subsequently executed affidavits in support of her homestead claim in August, 1885.
  4. Cyrus “Si” Smith. Laura worked at his wagon and harness shop in Palisade, Nebraska. He executed an affidavit in support of her Palisade homestead in 1898.
  5. Richard Ryan. He also executed an affidavit on her behalf in 1898.
  6. Leslie Lawton. By 1904, Laura knew this Civil War veteran, and she also worked for him near Palisade. He was instrumental in encouraging her to relocate from Palisade to Haigler, Dundy County, Nebraska to take up a larger homestead. They lived together for a time while Lawton was separated from his wife.
  7. Clyde Cole. This son-in-law of Leslie Lawton homesteaded on a place adjacent to Laura’s in Dundy County. In later years, he served as guardian to her son Joseph Edmonds.
  8. Wm. Palmer and C. F. Fay. These men served as witnesses for Laura’s intent to make proof of her Dundy County homestead in 1911.
  9. B. H. Bush, and W. J. Hacker. These men signed affidavits in support of Laura’s Dundy County homestead application in 1912.

Would any of these men be a likely candidate for my great-grandfather? Someone fathered Laura’s little girl at the end of 1895, but she did not disclose that information to her daughter.

I think the only way we will ever learn his identity is through a DNA match. My father has taken a couple of autosomal DNA tests, and he inherited 25% of his DNA from our mystery man. Perhaps we can uncover a match if another descendant of my great-grandfather ever takes such a test.