On June 30, 1891, my great-great-grandfather, Ole Olsen Kvalevaag, of Avaldsnes parish, Karmøy Island, Norway, wrote the following in a letter to his son, my great-grandfather, who’d emigrated to America and changed his name to John Walker (my translation):
I myself have been sick awhile, 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…. I myself have plowed every furrow this year….
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….
You, Jan, are scared to come home, you say, because you have to go to Madla [for military service], 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 can 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.
I don’t have John’s replies, but what I see in this letter (as well as the others in the collection) is the Declaration of Independence writ small (to an extent), in one family’s history. My great-grandfather resisted a lot of pressure and well-meaning warnings (not to mention guilt) in order to strike out on a new path in a new country. He left familiar things, and things that felt right, to try it the American way.
He ended up rich by the standards of his time and place, incidentally. The later letters make it clear that his father had borrowed money from him.
I’m grateful to be an American, grateful both to God and to my risk-taking ancestors.
Happy Fourth of July.