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52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks, no. 23—Lorenz Nikolai Bentsen, 1854 – 1919

In the late nineteenth century, the Bentsen clan lived in Bø Municipality on the southern coast of the Vesterålen District of Nordland, Norway. There, on the Fjaervold farm on the island of Langøya, Lorenz Nikolai Möller Andersen was born on 5 July 1854 to Anders Bentsen and Anne Larsdatter. To shorten up this long name, he usually went by “Nick”.

When he was three months old, Nick was baptized into the Lutheran Church of Norway at the Bø parish church built in 1824. The pastor baptized several babies that day, the 16th Sunday after Trinity.

Bø kirke

Nick’s legal name has created some confusion. Our American family records do not match the official Norwegian records recording his name. Nick’s descendants remembered him as “Nikolai Lorenz” rather than “Lorenz Nikolai Möller”. Perhaps they assumed his first name was Nikolai because he went by the nickname “Nick”. They may never have known he had a second middle name because he seems to have dropped it after he came to America.

The descendants also knew him by the “Bentsen” surname he adopted when he immigrated to the United States. In Norway he had used the patronymic name, “Andersen”, derived from his father’s first name, rather than a surname. Norway did not require surnames until the 1920’s, long after Nick had left.

When Nick was born, his family consisted of his parents and an older sister, Kristine Andrea Andersdatter, born in 1851. An unnamed younger brother was stillborn in February 1857.

According to the Norwegian records, Nick’s father was Anders Bentsen (1823-1857). This lineage differs from what Nick’s granddaughter, Signe Bentsen Fleming, has reported in her book Bentsen-Sivertsen History 1800-1988. She states that Nick’s father was a man named Peter Kolbentsen.

Which is correct? Every Norwegian record lists Nick’s patronymic name as “Andersen”, not “Petersen”, indicating that his father’s name was in fact Anders, not Peter. Nick’s baptism, confirmation, and marriage records all report his father’s name as Anders Bentsen. Furthermore, both Nick and his son Ole took the surname Bentsen, not Kolbentsen, when they immigrated to the United States. Indeed, Ole and his sisters had used the Bentsen surname name occasionally even in Norway. It seems likely that Nick’s father was in fact Anders Bentsen. More research remains to be done on the identity of Peter Kolbentsen and his relationship to the family.

Nick’s father passed away in 1857 when the boy was just three years old. By 1865 Nick and his sister Kristine were living on different farms as foster children. “Necolai Andersen”, age 12, lived that year on the Svinøen farm owned by Nils Holgersen. Nick was listed in the household of Anders Grægusen (who had been one of his baptism sponsors) and his wife Andrea Krane.

A couple of years later on 30 May 1869 Nick was confirmed in the same Bø parish where he had been baptized. He was 14 years old. The record indicates he had received his smallpox vaccination four years earlier, in 1861.

On 11 August 1873, again in Bø parish, Nick married Karen Marie Johansdatter, daughter of Johan Larsen (1824-1876) and Sara Andrine Möllersdatter (1814-1880). Nick was 19 and Karen was twenty-two.

The couple lived on the remote island fishing village of Skjæringstad in Vesterålen, Nordland. Over the next several years they moved around to Svinøya and ultimately to Hadsel. Nick engaged in the treacherous fishing industry in addition to his farming work



During this time, they had at least four children:

  • Peter Andreas Norum Lorentzen, born 13 September 1874 at Barstrand Farm. He was baptized 11 October 1874 but does not appear on the 1875 census, so he probably died in infancy.
  • Lina Andrea Bentsen, born 29 January 1876 at Skæringstad. Lina worked as a seamstress until she was 28, and then she married Johan Jorgen Kristian Johansen in Hadsel in 1904. They moved on to Troms and had one daughter named Betty Karoline on 23 October that year. Nick and Karen both served as baptism sponsors for Betty. Lina’s family emigrated to the United States in 1909 and settled in Seattle. Johan disappears from the record after that, and Lina then married Emil Torbergsen in 1915. She died in Seattle at the age of 55 in 1932. Her daughter Betty married twice, first to James E. Harrigan about 1925 and then to Howard Cummings in 1949. Betty and Howard lived on Langley Island near Seattle, and there she came to a terrible end in 1954. While driving home from work one day, Howard heard on the radio that his 49-year-old wife had been found brutally murdered in the woods behind their home. A teenaged boy was tried for the crime but was acquitted. Later, a local handyman confessed to the murder.
  • Riborg Oline Bentsen, born 18 April 1878 at Skæringstad. Riborg died in Hadsel parish on 13 July 1894 at the age of sixteen. The parish record does not give a cause of death.
  • Ole Jörgen Bentsen, born 6 September 1880 at Svinøya. In 1904 Ole married Sofie Marie Sivertsdatter at Hadsel. Nick served as a baptism sponsor for their first child, Riborg Marie Hansene, on 23 October 1904 in the same parish. Interestingly, Riborg was baptized the same day her cousin Betty was born. Riborg’s baptism record gives her father’s residence as “Amerika”. By then, Ole had already emigrated to make a new home for his family. Sofie and the infant Riborg joined him the following spring.

By 1905, then, what was left in Norway for Nick and Karen? They were 51 and 54 years old, no longer young, living the hard, hard life of most Norwegians. They had buried two children in Bø. Their daughter had moved to Troms and perhaps already was making the plans for her eventual emigration in 1909. Their only surviving son and their nephew Fresenius had already gone to America.

In addition to these local concerns, big changes were in the wind in Norway that year. After nearly a century of Swedish rule, Norway achieved its independence that May. Uncertainty lay ahead. With no close familial ties in Bø, and facing life under a new and untested monarch, Nick and Karen made the decision to leave. They were expatriated from the Lutheran Church of Norway on 2 September 1905.

They emigrated at the end of the month on 30 September 1905. Traveling under the “Andersen” surname on the steamship Salmo from Trondheim, they changed ships in Liverpool, England and sailed on to Montreal on the Parisian. From there they took the Canadian Pacific Railway to the U. S. port of Sault Sainte Marie. On 21 October 1905 they headed for Lake Park, Minnesota to join their son Ole and his family.

Nick worked alongside Ole on the railroad in Minnesota. Over the next couple of years, they must have carefully saved their money while they searched for an opportunity to acquire the free land they craved.

During this time, in Becker County, Minnesota, Nick pursued American citizenship. The Declaration of Intention papers he filed on 28 December 1907 described him as five feet, nine inches tall, 180 pounds, with light complexion, grey hair, and dark brown eyes.

In 1908 Nick and Karen again followed their son’s family, this time to a Scandinavian community in Montana. The town of Homestead was a Great Northern Railroad stop on the Big Muddy River south of Medicine Lake. The elder Bentsens moved in with Ole and his family in a 2-room sod house. Nick located a likely homestead, and that summer Ole helped his dad build a house on this land, the NE/4 of Section 8, T30N, R56E, Montana Meridian.

The next spring Nick began farming his intended homestead, a quarter section (160 acres) located a mile away from Ole’s place. He broke 20 acres for flax that year. On 29 June 1910, when he was 55 years old, Nick officially filed for his homestead at the Government Land Office in Glasgow, Montana. Each year after that, Nick broke 10-23 more acres until 1916 when he was farming 100 acres of flax, oats, and wheat.

He and Karen also raised sheep as everyone in Norway had done. In the spring they put their sheep on an island in Medicine Lake so they did not need herding.

A Sheep on Langøya

Island in Medicine Lake, Montana


As an experienced fisherman who was familiar with the seafood business, Nick began importing frozen fish from Seattle, Washington. Once a week he would leave early in the morning by team and wagon to pick up the shipment at the railroad station in Culbertson, Montana. He sold fish to settlers as he traveled northward on the way home.

Nick became a naturalized citizen on 10 November 1913 at Plentywood, Sheridan County, Montana. Nick finally acquired title to his own land in 1917. He received the patent for his homestead from the U. S. government on June 25 of that year.

Unfortunately, his wife Karen had passed away the previous autumn. With her no longer at his side, Nick took steps to sell out. He sold the land and auctioned off their belongings.

When the sale was over, Nick left the land he had worked so hard to acquire. He lived the remainder of his life with his son Ole, who had relocated to a larger homestead south of Redstone, Montana. Less than two years later, Nick died on April 25, 1919 at 64 years of age. The State has no record of his death.

After a lifetime of hard work, Nick had finally possessed a farm of his own only to give it all up. He and Karen had no time together to enjoy it. They are now buried side-by-side at Big Lake [Homestead] Cemetery, not too far from where they homesteaded.

Most People (But Not Mine!) Owned Land

This week I spent my research time looking at land records for Illinois. My ancestor Thomas Sherman lived there from about 1870, and many of these records are online at Family Search ( I hoped to find some mention of his second wife, Mary. Unfortunately, I found no record of land ownership for him in the records I could search from home.

Thomas worked as an itinerant blacksmith for most of his life. After the Civil War, he lived in the following places:

  • 1870 – Baldwinsville, Hunter Township, Edgar County, Illinois
  • 1872 – Logan, Brouiletts Creek Township, Edgar County, Illinois
  • 1880 – Edgar Township, Illinois
  • 1881 – East Nelson Township, Moultrie County, Illinois
  • 1884 – Mattoon, Coles County, Illinois
  • 1887 – Nelson, Coles County, Illinois
  • 1889 – Johnstown, Cumberland County, Illinois
  • 1891 – Janesville, Cumberland County, Illinois
  • 1900 – Morgan Township, Coles County, Illinois

According to the U.S census, Thomas owned no real estate in 1870, but by 1900 he owned a home. From the land records available to me for the intervening years, I can conclude that normally he did not own land. I can still look at a few of the records not yet available online, but I do not expect to find anything.

Thomas probably was a man who followed the work, owning just his personal property and blacksmith tools. His family led a nomadic life. The rich information sometimes found in our ancestors’ land records is not available for Thomas Sherman.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks no. 22—Olive Hall Dunbar (1823-1902)

My Grandma Grace probably never met her Grandma Olive. Grace grew up in rural western Nebraska. She never mentioned a visit from her grandmother, nor did she speak of traveling to visit her.

Olive had traveled, though. She lived in three states, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Michigan. Born at Chatham, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, on June 10, 1823, she was the 10th child of seafarer and salt maker Benjamin E. Dunbar and his wife Rhoda Hall. They lived on the Cape until Olive was about eight years old.

At that time, in the early 1830’s, the market for salt made from sea water had dwindled. The Dunbars sold their holdings and moved inland to then-Portage County, Ohio. They settled in Stow, and the father died soon after their arrival.

Olive probably never saw the ocean again. She and a couple of younger sisters grew up in the home of her widowed mother, surrounded by her older siblings and their families. Her father left her some town property, so a prominent local man became her guardian and watched over her estate. By the time she was nineteen, she had met someone to marry.

She and John Davis Riddle probably were wed on January 7, 1843 by a Justice of the Peace in Summit County, Ohio. Curiously, their names on the marriage record do not match those on other records they created through their lives. He signed as “John Davis”, omitting his Riddle surname. She gave her name as “Olla” rather than Olive.

Olive’s first two daughters, Tamson and Theodocia, were born in Ohio in 1845 and 1847, respectively. John and Olive probably farmed in Summit County.

A few months after Theodocia’s birth, Olive sold her inherited town lots. She and John left for Michigan where they acquired a farm and added to their family. They lived the rest of their lives near Mendon, Michigan. Together they had eight children and also raised one of their grandsons:

  1. Tamson Rebecca (1845-1922)
  2. Theodocia Orlinda (1847-1929)
  3. Isaac Newton (1849-1915)
  4. Ethan Henry (1851-1931)
  5. Laura Ruamy (1853-1933), my ancestor
  6. John Hoxey (1855-1937)
  7. Seymour Alfonso (1858-1934)
  8. Olive Delila (1865-1947)
  9. Aden Ralph (1867-1947), Tamson’s son

Olive reportedly worked hard as farm wife. Her grandchildren recalled that she kept a spotless kitchen floor, scrubbing it daily.

By 1890, the children had grown up. Three of them, Theodocia, Laura, and Seymour, left Michigan to homestead in Nebraska. Did Olive ever see them again?

The passing years did not treat John and Olive kindly. His vision failed, making farm work difficult. The couple finally made a pact for their care with their oldest son Newton. If he remained single, worked their farm, and cared for them, he would eventually inherit the property. Unfortunately, they did not reduce this agreement to writing.

After John committed suicide by hanging himself in his barn in 1896, Olive continued to live on the farm with Newton. When she passed away in 1902, he assumed the farm would be his.

His brother Ethan thought otherwise. He sued his brother for his share of the farm. Because there was no written agreement giving the farm to Newton, Ethan won.

Olive’s farm was sold at auction. Newton received $1174.88 in recognition of his care for his parents, and the other children each received $43.14. Olive’s property had consisted of bushels of wheat, rye, corn, hay, and oats; two cows and a calf; 25 chickens; 16 bed quilts; a feather bed; 4 pillows; 4 cotton bed sheets; a feather tick; table linens; crockery and tin ware; a churn; a milk safe; a clock; 10 chairs; a cooking stove; a rag carpet; an extension table; and 8 framed pictures.

Olive was laid to rest in the Mendon Cemetery, next to John, on June 3, 1902.



A Different Sort of Summer Research Trip

Have you ever visited the Pawnee National Grassland in Colorado? The web link to their page on the National Forest Service site is too long to display here, but you can find information easily by doing a web search.

We visited the Grassland with some of our young grandchildren for a camping trip over the weekend. There we found a nice, shady campsite along Crow Creek, short hiking trails suitable for kids, and even a display of old farm implements used by homesteaders.

The grassland lies in northeastern Colorado, near the Nebraska and Wyoming borders. Thus, my Riddle and Reed ancestors had homesteads just across the state lines of those two states. Visiting the Pawnee National Grassland gave me an idea of what those homesteading experiences might have been like. The Forest Service has put up several interpretive signs that helped me understand the history and geography of the area:

  • We learned that fur trappers worked along Crow Creek, cowboys drove cattle along a trail running between Montana and Texas, and settlers followed the Overland Trail along the South Platte River. My own later-arriving ancestors homesteaded in Nebraska in the 1880’s and Wyoming during World War I, so I assume they came west by train.
  • The prairie sees extreme temperatures. We endured a hot summer weekend with the thermometer reaching into the upper 90’s, just as my ancestors did.
  • We saw birds. Boy, did we see birds. The Pawnee National Grassland is a well-known bird-watching area, and we saw our first lark bunting—the Colorado state bird. Okay, perhaps we have seen them before but did not know what they were.

The grandchildren particularly liked the short prairie grass. They loved tramping about in the knee-high greenery. I tried to view it more as my homesteading ancestors must have, seeing what would have been quite a challenge to replace using the primitive farming equipment we saw at the campground.

The Grassland provided a spot for a great camping trip. We loved the opportunity to spend some time with the next generation. I got a renewed appreciation for the hardships my ancestors (both single women!) faced in coming to this part of the country. Although this was not the research trip to a repository or cemetery that I usually take, it had value of its own. It gave me a much better sense of my family’s journey.


52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks, no. 21—John Davis Riddle (1821-1896)

Somewhere in Pennsylvania, a baby boy named John Davis Riddle was born to unknown parents in May, 1821. Family records give the date as May 10, but his cemetery marker says May 15. He was often known as J. D.

We know nothing about J. D.’s childhood or where he spent it. The first record of him appears in Summit County, Ohio when at the age of 21 he married Olive Hall Dunbar on the 12th of January, 1843. Oddly, the name on his marriage record is simply “John Davis”, not John Davis Riddle.

J. D. and Olive remained in Edinburgh, Ohio for a few years after their marriage. There they had two daughters, Tamson Rebecca (1845) and Theodocia Orlinda (1847).

The autumn after Theodocia’s birth, the young parents made preparations to leave the state. In September, 1847 they sold land that Olive had inherited from her father, and sometime later they went to find a new home in Michigan.

The couple settled south of the small town of Mendon, Michigan in the southwestern part of the state. They began life as Michigan farm folk, and their first son, Isaac Newton was born there in 1849. Other children followed including Ethan Henry (1851), Laura Ruamy (1853), John Hoxey (1855), Seymour Alfonso (1858), and Olive Delila (1865).

Life was not easy. The Civil War period presented several difficulties. J.D. suffered an accident that resulted in the loss of an eye. In 1867, daughter Tamson became an unwed mother who could not provide for her child. J. D. and Olive took in the boy, Aden, and raised him as their own.

Another tragedy occurred when another grandson, Tamson’s second son Frank Blakesley, died in 1874. The four-year-old died of burns suffered while playing in hot spots where brush had been burned on the Riddle farm the previous day.

After that, J. D.’s troubles continued. He developed a cataract in his remaining eye. By 1880, the U. S. census reported that he was blind. Somehow, he continued with his farm, probably with the help of his son Newton.

The years went by. In 1896, he was 75 years old and could take it no more. On August 16, 1896, a despondent J. D. hanged himself in his barn. It was said he feared poverty.

John Davis Riddle was buried in the Mendon Cemetery. His widow, Olive, and all his children survived him.

Reading, Genealogically Speaking

Often when I hear a program by a professional genealogist, I learn that I should try to familiarize myself with the history of a place before I begin doing research for that locality. This is good advice.

The study of what we consider history was current events for our ancestors. They lived in a time and place affected by the politics and economics going on around them. Events such as wars, natural disasters, and financial panics can explain their actions.

Nearly every day I make time to do some genealogy reading. This summer I am enjoying a well-told tale about the peopling of British North America by Edward Bailyn, The Barbarous Years: the Conflict of Civilizations 1600-1675,. I have numerous Colonial lines, so I need to know about the relationships between colonists and Native Americans and about the relationship of the colonies with England. I need to know about the laws of the time for things like licensing and indentures. I need to know about the importance and activities of religious groups. Bailyn describes it all.

I often take notes as I read. Anecdotes from specific times or places can add interest to my family stories.

I also update a handy timeline of American economic crises. From this I can tell at a glance whether a sudden move could be explained by widespread financial trouble. The list includes:

  • 1764, England prevented the colonies from making paper money,
  • 1819, a recession after the War of 1812,
  • 1837-43, a prolonged recession,
  • 1873, a banking collapse,
  • 1893, a railroad collapse,
  • 1907, the panic of 1907,
  • 1929, stock market crash and beginning of the Great Depression.

Reading enhances my understanding of the time periods when my ancestors lived. Good background knowledge makes me a better researcher. Those genealogists who advise us to do this have the right idea.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks, nos. 19 & 20

I wish I knew the identity of my ancestors no. 19 & 20. I wonder if they ever knew they had a little granddaughter named Grace born on the Nebraska prairie in August, 1896.

Their son, my mystery great-grandfather, would have spent time with my great-grandmother, Laura Riddle, during the holiday season of 1895. Who was he? How well did they know one another? Did he know about his little girl?

Other than his whereabouts at the end of 1895, my only other information about this man consists of a guess as to his heritage. The clue comes from an autosomal DNA test.

My dad, one of the man’s grandsons, took a DNA test and learned that nearly a third of his DNA comes from northern Europe. Because all his known ancestors immigrated from the British Isles, the man who contributed 25% of his DNA must have been the source of most of the European heritage. German, perhaps?

I keep hoping for an unexplained DNA match that points to a relative of my mystery man. If a close match to an unknown line ever turns up, I hope to discover his identity, and that of his parents. Until then, I will know them only by their numbers, 19 & 20.

Searching (and Not Finding) Illinois Death Records

What is it with my family? They seem to have had an aversion to getting their vital statistics recorded.

Take my second great-grandparents’ generation, the Shermans. I can look in vain for their death information. Some examples:

  1. Thomas Sherman (1841-1912). His obituary says he died at Charleston, Coles County, Illinois. The county kept a death register at the time of his death, but is his name on it? No. Nor is his name on the cemetery listing for Mound Cemetery where he reportedly was buried.
  2. John Sherman (1845-?)l He was Thomas’ brother, and he was still living at the age of 85 in 1930 in Madison County, Illinois. Yet his name does not appear on the Illinois list of deaths for the period 1916-1947. Is his name just missing, or did he live to be older than 102?
  3. Jasper Sherman (1849-1878). Another of Thomas’ brothers, he died in Edgar County, and he was buried in Swango Cemetery. Unfortunately, his name does not appear on the Edgar County death register.
  4. Mary Scott Sherman (ca. 1845-?) Thomas’ second wife who disappears from the record after 1880 when the couple lived in Edgar County. Thomas remarried in 1881, so I hypothesize that Mary died 1880-1881.

Why are all these people missing from the Illinois death registers? I can understand one, or maybe two going unreported. But everyone? This seems to be a familial pattern of noncompliance.

To get my family tree filled in, I need to turn to some other records. Land records come to mind, but these folks were blacksmiths without a lot of money. They did not purchase much land, and they often left no wills.

I find this line very difficult line to document, a good mental challenge. The vital records can offer a nice place to start, but they do not provide a lot of answers for this family.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks No. 18—Katherine S.

Katherine, Katherine. Who were you and where did you come from?

This ancestor of mine reportedly died in Indiana right after the Civil War. My family knows virtually nothing about her. All the information I have came from my great-aunt, Bertha Reed Evert, who was our ancestor’s granddaughter. Bertha was born twenty years after her grandmother died, so anything she knew was hearsay.

She told this story: Katherine Staninbaugh/Stanabaugh/Stillenbaugh Sherman was a German girl who immigrated to the U.S. when she was eight years old. She married Thomas Sherman during the Civil War. She died in Indianapolis shortly after the 1865 birth of her daughter and only child, Anna Petronellia, Bertha’s mother.

That’s all we know. No record of her marriage, death, or burial has been found. Nothing is known of her birth family or where they may have lived besides Indianapolis.

We do know that the Shermans resided for a time during the 1860’s in a small community south of Indianapolis, in Johnson County, Indiana. They had German neighbors named Stilgenbauer. Was Katherine one of them?

Several cousins and I have spent years trying to unravel this mystery. Despite our diligent efforts, we have found no clues as the identity of our mysterious Katherine. My Dad’s DNA test tells us he has some northern European ancestry although he is mostly English, so some German ancestry for him would make sense. He received 1/8 of his DNA from our mystery woman.

I find this search for Katherine long and frustrating because we never seem to make any headway. Still, I would really like to locate a family for her, so I will keep working on it.

A Gathering of Norwegians in Colorado

This week I have had a chance to get in touch with my Norwegian roots. I served as a delegate from my Fjelldalen Lodge #162 to the District Six Sons of Norway biennial convention in Loveland, Colorado. In a nod to our state’s mining heritage, we used the theme, Mining Our Heritage.

What a great opportunity to meet with fellow Americans of Norwegian descent and to engage in the fraternal aspect of our organization! Folks came from Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and all over Colorado. We enjoyed these activities even as we conducted the business of the convention:

  1. A heritage night where many delegates donned their traditional native costumes, or bunads, and modeled them for the group,
  2. A folk art competition where members submitted their Norwegian craft work, including hardanger embroidery, wood carving, and rosmaling for competitive evaluation, and
  3. Daily snacks of cookies made from traditional Norwegian recipes.

I do not have a bunad, so I wore my Norwegian sweater (the hotel was really cold although it was nearly 100 degrees outside) for the heritage night. I contributed some cookies for the snack table. Perhaps I should have entered some of my hardanger embroidery for the competition, but I did not take the time to prepare anything. Those who did earned ribbons for their efforts.

When I returned home, I had a letter from the Sons of Norway waiting for me. It informed me that I have earned the Level I Cultural Skills pin for proficiency in Hardanger embroidery. Earlier this spring, I had submitted to the national organization photos of three Hardanger embroidery pieces I stitched over the winter—a sugar and cream doily, a hexagon-shaped doily, and a bookmark. The pins tells me that I have mastered the basic Hardanger stitches. Maybe I should take the time to prepare and embroidered piece for competition at the next biennial convention.