Olsen letter #2

[Having no useful thoughts to share this evening, I turn to the second installment in my translations of a series of letters from my great-great-grandfather in Norway to my great-grandfather in America.lw]

Letter addressed to: Mr. John Walker, Millington, Po., Ills., Kendall Co., North Amerika.

Kvalevaag, the 30 June, 1891.

Mr. Jan H. Olson

Dear children,

Having received your lively letter, for which I am very thankful, and say thank you for, and from which we can see and hear both of and from you, that everything is well and good with all of you in every respect, ja, it is precious to hear from one’s dear ones that everything is fine in every way, for which we must thank the Lord, who upholds us each day. Ja, it is grace upon grace for our part that He does not turn His back on us also, as so many others have done in our misery, and at an inconvenient time. Ja, thanks and praise to His holy name for all good both for soul and body. Ja, I can also tell you today that we are all sustained in life by God thus far, although in many infirmities, so that we aren’t always so brisk in health, we who are now old. Mother especially has [been] and is so very poorly, and so she has been for a long time now. She spent no little time in bed, but now in Pentecost she has been in bed most of the time. But what shall we say? We have to suffer through anything. We endure much evil and hard work every day, for we haven’t much help in our old age.

I myself have been sick a while, but now, thank God, I am better again; and it’s a good thing, because I haven’t had much of anyone to help me with the farm work this year. There’s me and Marte [sister] and the mare—we are the ones who have done the farm work this year. I myself have plowed every furrow this year. I haven’t hired a day-laborer this spring, but now I am going to have hired help with me in the peat bog, for you have to have people for that, and I was ready, although I was alone, as soon as the others. And for that I can thank the Lord, who has strengthened and helped me, and He is a good helper to have with you in everything.

Ja, it is certainly hard to think that we, who have brought up so many as we have, are now alone in our old age. Ja, it is sorrowful to think of, that we should have two sons in America, and [they] go and work for day wages, with nothing of their own to hold on to, and will not be at home in their own home and country. Ja, it is amazing how a person can be, ja, I often wonder about it when I think of you, that you could forsake your dear home, and live in that America. Ja, it is certainly said of America, this time by me, “for I would not live there, although I got gold and green forests.” Ja, I know that for sure.

You, Jan, are scared to come home, you say, because you have to go to Madla [a naval base. A reference to military conscription, I think] you say; ja, setting aside the fact that you have to, for you aren’t too good for that place, nor is anyone else; for as surely as you are, and want to be, a Christian, there is something the Lord has commanded, that we should submit to God and king. I ask you not to refuse this, for think how the Lord could lay upon you something that might be worse for you if you avoid this; for I can tell you that there are many who have been punished by God for it. And if you mean to stay in America until you are free from the Excise [military service], you will have to stay there through your 47th year. What harm would it be if you had to be there a few weeks? It is at most the first year too, however; so you shouldn’t be scared, since you have flat feet.

Ja, you will have to do as you will for me, but something must be done now, whether you decide one way or the other. If neither of you comes home, Mother and I will turn ourselves over to strangers now, for we don’t need to go on slaving as we are doing. I’m saying it right out to you now, that [both of] you will have to deal with us so that you can answer for it to God and Man; for we now have nobody but Marta home, and if she didn’t have sympathy and conscience toward us, we would be all alone.

Oh, if you hadn’t gone to America, and had been home since the fish returned, we’d be comfortable people now. There was uncommonly good seine fishing, as there has been here for two years now. Think, those who had the berth here at Kvalevaag got 615 kr[oner]. for each man. We got a nice unloading share ourselves in Kvalevaag; we got 1115 kr., 93 øre in one load, and we got another 600 kr., and out of this I got 334 kroner, 38 øre for myself. Ja, thank God for that, who gave it to us. And from the codfish I took in something over a hundred kroner. Herring wasn’t so much for us, for we weren’t at it as long. We were at Sira [island] only a night, then we were at Urter and the Feøy [islands] 3 nights, but we got nothing there; we didn’t get any herring before it came to us, and then we got 3 leaks in the boat the first day, but she made it short and good [?] that time; she was near our area [?]. Ja, God be praised and thanked for all good things, who is so good toward us in all ways. I got myself 60 or 70 kroner’s worth of herring; that was nothing unusual; but if I had managed, just managed to get out with the seine, we would have done well, for think how the fish have been here two straight years now, and we have been so faithless and not believed that there would be any fish, and have let others have our own berths and inlets. Oh, how it hurts me that I couldn’t get men in the boat for myself; that I would have done well with the seining. Ja, now it is too late for regrets, but it cost us; and everyone who has salted herring has done very well this year, likewise those who have salted cod have also done well, and that’s fine and good to hear, for if we live and make it to winter we can expect to get a good price for everything.

I can also tell you that there has been a big mackerel catch this summer at Drevgamne [?], something that hasn’t happened in many years, so that people almost sank themselves. Two mackerel boats were lost—the one from Akkresogn, and all 3 on the boat were married, and there were 3 widows and 18 or 20 children left behind; and the second boat was from Sveisogen, and it was the man you called the South Wind [?], they disappeared without a trace as well; it was a Saturday morning which blew up a big storm out of the northwest and the heavy sea which was the cause of their being lost. They were forsaken by all the mackerel they had taken that night. Ja, 2 men were lost codfishing this winter from Sovik; they were Peder Skuteberg and his brother Johannes. There are also many children left behind. They lie now west of Kaholmen; there is their grave; ja, now Peder has sailed enough.

Also I will tell you a little about the weather now. It has been very dry and cold this spring, so that it doesn’t look as good on the farm this year as it did at this time last year, but now we’ve gotten much warmer weather and rain, so that we may hope now in the Lord that He will remember us this year also with His blessing on the land as on the sea.

You ask if we’ve gotten many lambs. We got 21 lambs in all, and now 3 of them are dead. You got 3 lambs, and now the fox has taken one from you on Jellaa. We still have pigeons and six chickens. I will tell you that we lost another cow this spring. It was 2 ½ years old. It hadn’t calved yet. That is now the third cow we have lost since you left. I also lost the pretty blue mare, ja, that was a loss of money to me; but it isn’t mine—it is the Lord’s, all I have; I am only His steward over it; for He can take and give when He wills. No one dare say anything to Him; but we want to do the best we can toward Him.

You ask me if I have talked with Lava’s [John’s wife’s] family. No, I haven’t done that. I was in Stavanger 3 days, before Christmas, but I didn’t find anyone. I was there to get Ole, we thought, for a Christmas visit, but no. When Mother saw me coming over the grass hill parcel, she called out, “You are coming alone!” Then you know what she did, cried and shrieked, “No, I will never see him again!” But I will get there as soon as I have time, for you may believe that I have it busy now, since I am alone and have so much to manage as I have, ja, ja.

You [both] will have to do as you think best, but one thing must and shall be done now—either one way or the other, you must say and do [it] now, for I will not go on any longer this way, like a slave. If you want it, you must come and take it right away, otherwise we will turn it over to outsiders and get maintenance [from them]. You should come home in the fall, if you want it, and to fish. So you would be along with the net fishing boat, and I would go with the seining; then we’d see if we couldn’t make some money if God wills. Now you have heard my opinion and what I would like you to do. Now do something.

Ole Olsen Jr.

[There are further pages attached to this letter. I will post them at a later time. lw]

25 thoughts on “Olsen letter #2”

  1. He sounds like a stereotypical Jewish grandmother. I wonder if they went to America simply to escape the constant laying on of guilt trips.

  2. Be that as it may, the whole letter is like opening a door and letting in all these folks who are of my blood and my history….. somehow…….

  3. Greybeard, you jest at scars that never felt a wound. Here’s an elderly man who raised children, so he hoped, to be the prop of his and his wife’s old age, and he finds himself alone, instead, with only strangers to give the family holding to.

    It’s sad. It’s a story that plays out all over the world. I, who live in a declining centre in a not-very-important part of the world, feel it particularly keenly, because EVERYONE who raises children in these parts knows that one day, the children’ll wave goodbye and leave for good.

    I’ve waved off three already. I’ll never see them on a daily basis again, or even at Christmas. (Travel isn’t that cheap for us.) I try not to kvetch, but it’s not easy.

    Lars, this is a fascinating letter. I’d like more instalments, soonest, maybe with a handwriting sample.

  4. What interests me in particular is that, although Ole writes glowingly of all the money to be made fishing, he also has to admit the considerable loss of life involved in the work. “Come home and you’ll make money,” he seems to be saying, “if you live.”

  5. I am an anomoly in that I grew up in the big city and have spent most of my adult life in remote rural communities. Many of the parishioners in the congregations I serve are the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the immigrants that left Norway in the late 1800’s. I find it ironic that they face the same dilemna as their ancestors like the elder Mr. Oleson faced. Their children have either left for the big city, only to return on the occasional holiday, or they have no interest in farming. When I talk to their children who’ve left, some did so for economic reasons. (See the WSJ article linked in another post.)But many others left to escape an overly enmeshed family structure. They love their parents and siblings, just not as much of them as they get living nearby.

  6. Guilt trips are integral to post-lapsarian human relationships. It was most likely guilt that preserved this letter intact, as something that hurt so much, it couldn’t be thrown away. We should be thankful for guilt, because occasionally, it prods us to do stuff that virtue won’t.

    And on a different note, as a translator, I’m wondering how many different words could translate the ubiquitous “ja” – at least four, I think – “oh”, “well”, “really”, “indeed”. Do people in your part of the world still use it day-to-day? And if so, how do they spell it?

  7. And another thing.

    (You can see what a chord this post has struck with me. Thanks for the therapy.)

    The son changed his name. He CHANGED his NAME.


    I can see a time when a son of mine will take off for the tiger economies, and once there, he will change his name to something practical and local, such as Chen or Jun or Wong. When it happens, I’ll take myself for a long walk through Hebrews and ponder the meaning of “no abiding city.” I still won’t like it much, though.

    So, Lars, was your ancestor’s name change one of those forced Ellis Island ones, or was it voluntary?

  8. There are two versions of the story, both of which involve, not my g-grandfather, but his brother, who came to America first. I’ll give you the standard version.

    Apparently, when he stood in front of the naturalization judge, the judge asked “What’s you’re last name?” and he replied, “Kvalevaag.”

    “What kind of name is that?” asked the judge.


    “Well why don’t you want to use an American name?” He then opened a phone book at the “W”s, ran his finger down to “Walker,” and said, “There. Walker. That’s an American name. Why don’t you call yourself Walker?”

    If you’re trying to please the judge who gets to decide whether you get to be a citizen, you tell him yes.

  9. There is another version of how my grandfather changed his and therefore the family name.

    This story came to me after my older brother went to the Walker reunion in Minn. this past summer when afterwords he met a couple of Norwegians from the reunion, (who wanted to meet my dad…),and someone from Minn. who drove them down to Iowa to see my dad near Blairsburg, Iowa.

    Here’s how it goes. Grandfather Martin, I’m told, was Ole Mathias Kvalevaag. He came to the US about 6 to 8 years before Lars’ dad, John. In the process of “settling down in the land of milk and honey, he ventured up to the Dakotas and met a sweet young thing with whom he….knew Biblically. NOT wanting to settle down there, not wanting to have a baby so soon in his early life and not wanting the blemish on the family name, Ole beat feet back to Iowa and quickly changed his name to Martin Walker. He figured the girl’s dad wouldn’t be able to ID him that way. (Apparently the girl’s dad was not successful. Martin later married my grandmother, Bertha, also a Norwegian and from Ill.)

    There seems to be several different stories, depending on who you talk to.

    It is also interesting that one of Martin’s sons, John, my dad, has written very similar letters to me or phone calls that are so similar to Lars’ letter #2, it was like my dad and the great grand parents got their heads together and wrote in similar veins.

    “Why did you leave? When are you coming back? Why would anyone want to leave Iowa?/(Norway?)

    It’s much better here on the farm working for yourself for great money…instead of for someone else and getting min. wage…. etc…

  10. I wasn’t going to go into that version. It was very likely me your brother got the story from.

    According to an Aged Relative, Ole Mattias’ purpose in choosing the name Martin Walker was to pass as an Irishman. I assume that means on paper. I doubt if he could do an Irish brogue that would have fooled anyone, “Shoor, I’m Martin Valker from County Vexford, begorrah.”

    The similarity in letters is interesting. Makes you wonder about genetics and communication styles.

  11. 😮

    I’m adjusting my mental picture of Norwegian bachelor farmers to less Keillor and more Casanova.

    Family scandals are wonderfully similar, the world over.

    I’d tell you some of my skeletons, but really, all you need do is take any book of folk songs out of the library and sing them through. At least one will fit.

  12. Greybeard: I find it ironic that they face the same dilemna as their ancestors like the elder Mr. Oleson faced.

    Ori: Seems perfectly sensible to me, when something has proven itself, it becomes part of the culture and gets reused as needed.

    When my Israeli parents whined about the fact that I live so far away, I reminded them that their parents have done the same thing. Yes, they left Europe out of ideology (Zionism), but so did I (personal freedom, which I consider incompatible with the draft).

  13. It is interesting, I think, that until a couple of years ago, I never knew there was more than one side of the family. Now, there are at least two. As for dirty laundry; well what my grandfather did or didn’t do in the 1800s isn’t really laundry but rather most interesting history to me.

    IF this story is true, it appears that I had a most human grand father who was faced with life’s decisions like all of us are and who may or may not have made good or bad decisions. Was the Lord guiding him in his early years? IF this one event is true, I’d say not, at least on this one.

    I find it most interesting that today, we all face similar decisions in our lives and we have or have not the help of the Holy Spirit in all of it. More of our choices…made or not made.

    If this story is accurate, well, Grandpa Martin made a choice to leave Norway. From there he made further choices; some good, some bad. Since then, one of his 4 sons made 98 1/2 years of choices, my brother and I have made our life times of choices, my sons have and will make theirs and their sons will make theirs. Some good/some bad…

    Someday a great, great relative in the future will maybe think something else is of interest in the family.

    This also is why I’m so curious about my family history. People are so fascinating; why they did what they did, how they lived, etc…especially if we are related to them.

    Martin died in a car accident when my dad was between 8 and 11 years. He says he hardly knew him. He has few if any memories of Martin, his own dad. I find that sad. Another reason to know more and as much family history as I can. I’d like my dad to know his dad a bit more than he does.

    After talking to my dad’s 3 brothers and 3 sisters over the years, (all but one were older than my dad and have passed on.), none of them had much information about Martin, except for his drinking habits and how he recovered from that particular problem. I know some of the sisters kept huge collections of photos, Bibles and note books on the family. Tin-types, Brownies, “Kodaks”, Polaroids, etc… As a kid I can recall many boxes of all this stuff in a storage shed on one of the farms. I’ve no idea what’s become of it all now.

    One little interesting note, I think, is that all of Martin’s and Bertha’s kids became Lutherans of course. They were all Lutherans, not Christians. Being a Christian was never mentioned in any of their homes except for the one who was “born again” in his 70s. His nick-name was Wheezer. But that is another story for another time.

  14. I phoned my dad last night. He has no recollection of you when you came to Iowa with the Norwegian couple to talk with him. (At 98, why am I not surprised?) We talked about this letter you’ve shared with us. He likes to hear me read parts of it. (I can see him nodding and grinning as I read, even if I am not there with him.)

    I asked about the families’ Lutheran traditions. He did add one item. IF you are Lutheran AND are sprinkle baptized, you will get to heaven when you die. There just isn’t any other way, according to him. Please note that only sprinkling works here.

    It matters not what the Bible says. But, there is a side benefit. Because my dad is a Lutheran, I am automatically a Lutheran as well as my two sons and their five children. Salvation then is kinda inherited……

    I might be living in sin as I attend my Baptist church… but I’m saved by his Lutheran “grace”.

    Saved by faith alone, as Father Luther used to say, just doesn’t hold water for dad. He’ll agree with it shaking his head and smiling, but he tells you right away that being a Lutheran is all that really counts!

    Kinda leaves me with a warm hole…..

    But, getting back to the letter… Dad did pause for thought when he heard his great, greats wanted his own dad to return home to them… even as my dad had wanted me to return to Iowa….

    This does give me a nice warm thought….

  15. Uh, I never came to Iowa with Norwegian people to meet your dad. I met him at a family reunion here in Minnesota.

    And since I’m still a Lutheran, I don’t think I’ll get into an argument about baptism here…

  16. HHhhhmmmm.. Now I am wondering…

    As far as dad says, he’s never been to one of the reunions in Minn. Only my brother and cousin this past autumn.

    Someone drove from the reunion to a truck-stop near Blairsburg, Iowa with at least one Norwegian couple who were a bit elderly, maybe another woman and the man who actually did the driving…. The older couple wanted to meet my dad, who is the last living son of Martin.

    So, if it’s not you, then I must speak to my brother again…

    As for Baptism…Why waste time arguing ? We all have our own beliefs… In the mean-time, what do ya think about those Minn. Hoosiers….er….ah.. Minn… Vikings… ah.. Minn. Bluebirds… or whatever…

  17. That must have been cousin Jim and his wife Doris, after the latest reunion this August. They were driving the Norwegian cousins around. I never learned their itinerary.

    I met an elderly man who was one of Martin’s sons at a previous reunion, several years back. Was it an uncle of yours?

  18. Well, Lars,

    After another phone call to my dad; He and my brother came up to the reunion last year too.

    Dad’s wife recalls she, dad and maybe my brother were at the reunion about 7 years ago also.

    And, it’s no wonder my brother doesn’t remember you at the truck stop Near Blairsburg, Iowa this year…you weren’t there after all.

    My dad’s story might change any minute, considering his age… but my brother…well…that is to be seen.

    I’ll have to find out when the reunion is being held in 2011 and see if I can make it back from here.

    In the mean-time, I’ve got to get that e-mail finished so I can get back on the “Walker trail…”

    And let us not ever forget Nov. 1 as the 6th anniversary of my wife’s coming to America for good.

    We must also remember Nov. 1 as the National Icky Schwartz remembrance day.

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