Discovering a poet (temporary post)

Norwegian Rivers

Joseph Langland (1917- 2007)

written by Joseph Langland for the sesquicentennial of Norwegian immigration to the United States, 1975

“Yah, they are so kind of restless,
rushing around hills and tumbling the polished stones;
they always have somewhere to go.
Even when they pause in the precipitous valleys,
they climb
into deep long cold lakes
and then again begin
rapidly falling.

“Yah, we have seen them
pouring off mountaintops
like the first dream of a second flood.
And now, one hundred blood years later,
they amaze Norwegian-American travelers,
sailing the birdlike ferries
toward the evergreen towns
or running through summer on the cliff-hung roads
with the sheer bravado of their origins.

“Yah, now shall they see,
the affluent grandchildren,
how strong and supple minds
ran those rebellious rivers into the sea,
And now, yah, shall they hear
the low music of springs
watering those impoverished mountain meadows.

“Then let them guess as they can,
how the terrible excitements of alienation
fell on the manhood of our great-grandfathers
and the playfulness of their children,
then rose in a heartbreaking cry from their limbs
and washed from their empty hands.

“Then, yah, it was then,
stout in their sadness,
they stuffed their childhood into rosemaler trunks,
clamped them with iron bands,
locked once and for all on the eastern hemispheres,
and down those rutted trails and noisy rivers,
out through the western fjords,
they rode for half a century over the Atlantic
on one great ascending wave
toward the virgin hills and wide inland valleys
of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

“And now, yah, even now,
grandmothers sitting in their rocking chairs,
and watching their children’s children
in Bergen and Decorah, Hardanger and St. Paul,
say, half to themselves,
yah, they are so kind of restless,
they always have somewhere to go,
hearing under their vaguely troubled,
half-drooping eyelids,
the melancholy of those hard hills,
and those old stones,
and rivers calling under the walled-up fjords,
to the muffled horns of the sea … ”

Langland at 4:22

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My first visit to RootsTech in Salt Lake City

ballroomsignIf I were a better blogger, I’d have posted daily about my recent RootsTech 2016 experience in Salt Lake City while I was there, rather than waiting until I was safely ensconced back in my warm Austin home. In my defense, I was busy every day … trying both to get my first look at Salt Lake City and to experience everything RootsTech had to offer … on the technological cutting edge of family history.

I was unsure what to expect, but based on archived videos from previous conferences and the quality of some of the people involved, I decided RootsTech was worth my time this year. Even if my expectations were a little cloudy, what mattered to me was the integrity of the information provided and the expertise and character of the people providing it. I was satisfied on every count.

The general sessions each morning were inspiring, my favorite ones being the talks provided by writer Bruce Feiler and StoryCorps founder David Isay. Perhaps these appealed to me because I am interested in storytelling — and in the emerging ways to do it — and that is much of what these speakers were about also. I also enjoyed the presentations from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Mike Leavitt, Paula Williams Madison, and Steve Rockwood. I did not attend the Innovators Summit and so missed those keynotes.

For a conference with more than 20,000 registrants, it is incredibly well run and organized. One minor glitch briefly clouded my mood when a room change could have been handled better … That said, for an operation the size and complexity of RootsTech, most days I was marveling at the incredible organization of it and the all-around civility of the participants.

Speaking of the participants, I enjoyed their company, finding presenters and learners alike to be generally smart, well informed, curious, polite, interesting, and interested. It was a pleasure to be among them. At one point I even found myself sitting next to a fellow Austin resident. We were both surprised.

writinghistoryThe classes I attended included two classes on DNA, one class each on creating video photo albums and designing family history books, a computer lab on gravesite mapping, and perhaps the most valuable to me in the short term, a class on How to Write an Engaging Family History. Penelope Stratton of the New England Genealogical and Historical Society was well informed on the various styles of family histories and provided valuable information on organizing, documenting, writing, and presenting them.

The expo hall was something to behold. I left quite a bit unseen because I mostly was twirling through between classes. It was a bit overwhelming, to be honest, but also exciting to see all of the people involved in the family history endeavor and the new technologies, tools, and companies that are springing from it. I looked at artful genealogy charts and family history books, learned about the increasing number of newspaper data bases available, and was exposed to new technologies for sharing information, taking and scanning images, and for doing more things than I can remember at the moment. Like I said, it was a little overwhelming.

The conference organizers arranged for breakfast to be available each morning for participants in the hotel where I was staying, which was nice. It was a short walk from the hotel to the back entrance of the conference center, which was welcome on those cold, sometimes slightly snowy mornings, but from the back entrance, it was a more substantial walk across the inside of the large Salt Palace to the area where most of the activity was occurring. Each evening ended with a bit of light entertainment, including a jazz group on Thursday, a musical/cultural night with extended hours in the expo hall on Thursday, and a hymn revival group on Saturday.

At the beginning and end of my time in Salt Lake City, which was my first visit there, I took some time to get out and see what was around me. I looked more broadly than deeply, due to the limited time, but you can read soon, on my other blog, about my time in Salt Lake City — mostly spent trying to find the right photographic angle on the snowy mountains by Big Cottonwood Canyon, visiting the capitol building, taking a drive to the Great Salt Lake, walking through Temple Square, and making a very brief visit to the Family History Library.

FHLbooks2I had avoided the Family History Library until my last day because, having failed to organize properly before my trip, I assumed it would be of little help to me without specific questions to be answered. With limited time, I decided to at least see what it was about, so I walked in, picked a button on the elevator that looked interesting, and soon found myself browsing through a significant collection of books on Iowa history (where most of my ancestors settled at one time or another). Suddenly I was wishing I’d budgeted more time for the library! There was so much I would have loved to browse through, but before I knew it, the library was closing. Next time.

I am delighted that I made the time to go to RootsTech this year. I wish I could look forward to attending again next year, but I’m afraid I already know my work will interfere. So I’ll start looking ahead to 2018 then! Thanks for an inspiring and informative conference, RootsTech. Feel free to enjoy my full slideshow below.

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Branching out with blogging

amishbuggy2_f.jpgOne of the great things about embarking on my family history quest is traveling to the places my ancestors lived in the United States. Over the last few years this has taken me to the Midwest many times, with the added joy of working in extra visits with relatives while I am there. While I have always enjoyed traveling to the heartland, I have developed a special fondness for it in the context of my recent travels. I am also an avid amateur photographer, so I have often found myself trying to capture this region’s special qualities in photos. Much of what I find to photograph, such as the picture above, has no direct association with my family, and the photos I take are too numerous to share in standard social media … so I’ve started a new blog to share my love of this region in photos … and sometimes a few words. I’ve already posted some material from recent years but will be adding to it throughout 2016, using a broad definition of “mid-America.” Feel free to have a look at My Year of Mid-America. In the meantime, I am also working to regain momentum on the family history blogging!

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Picturing Arne and Marit

photo by Carmen MoeI see so much character and history in those faces on the left, and given all that I’ve learned about the people pictured, I wish I could meet and talk with them. By all available accounts, this is Arne and Marit Malum, our 3rd great-grandparents, who never left Norway.

When I began my family history quest a few years ago, one of the families about whom I knew the least was the Malum family from Norway. We knew their name, that they were from Norway, where later generations lived in Iowa, generally where they were buried, and that our ancestor had probably spent time in Lillehammer before migrating to America with his family in the 19th century, when our great grandmother, Petra, was still a girl of about 12.

That was a good start, but I still had a quest before me. Through various sources, I have since been able to explore the older Malum roots in Øyer, north of Lillehammer, as well as our ancestors’ probable route to Iowa through Quebec and Chicago. I learned that Malum was an adopted farm name (originally Maehlum), changed from the previous name of Solberg. I swiftly added Arne and Marit to the family tree. Until last year, however, I’d always assumed they’d remain blank silhouettes in the tree, no matter how much I tried to picture them and their home in Øyer.

Now I have the images above to consider. At first they confused me. When I saw them, I thought they looked oddly like photographs, but not quite somehow, and anyway, it seemed unlikely that they were photographs, given the era represented. Arne and Marit Malum lived between about 1789 and 1888. I’ve since learned that the images are likely charcoal drawings … of a sort … and I am still exploring more detailed information about them. I was completely fascinated the first time I saw them — fascinated with finally being able to see my ancestors as people, rather than silhouettes, yes, but also with the clothing represented and the medium used to create the images.

From what I’ve learned thus far, charcoal (or “crayon”) images were a fairly common way for people in the early 19th century to produce affordable portraits without having them painted. One explanation is provided on the rootsweb discussion board, although I have no confirmation of that being the means by which the images above were produced.

The more I’ve learned about Arne and Marit — their life in rural Øyer, their Haugean sympathies, their large family — the more questions I’ve had for them. Seeing them in these portraits has done nothing to diminish my curiosity. Now that I am able to picture them a little better, I look forward to the day when I can finally visit the valley area of Norway they called home.

Some of the great sources of help to me in my quest for Malum history were, not just my family, but also Ancestry records and the book Sleeps Not the Valley by Carmen Moe (photographer for the images).

“There was great joy when haugianier friends came to Arne and Marit’s house … In such a company of friends, they had a desire for things belonging to God’s Kingdom…” (Øyer Bygdabok, as translated, quoted by Carmen J. Moe, in Sleeps Not the Valley).

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Genealogy DNA Test: Yes or No?

DNA_icon_att2It’s been a few years since I began debating whether to do a DNA test to supplement my genealogy research. Yes, I have all kinds of qualms. And yet it is just so compelling.

Why would I even consider it? Natural curiosity, mostly. Everything suggests my background will be vastly European … mostly northern European. The immigrants that made “American Laura” came from the Netherlands, Norway, England, and Denmark. The stories told to me through the years and the records I’ve uncovered in my research are all remarkably consistent in this regard. I have no personal physical characteristics that puzzle me, and no one ever asks me what my ethnicity is. So what is the point? Am I expecting to find something unaccounted for back there? I have no idea. I just find the whole notion of our human history … especially the migration to America … completely fascinating, and personalizing it just intensifies the curiosity.

On a more practical level, I have a few “brick walls” in my family history research, and a DNA test might provide a way forward (or .. err… backward). Some of the DNA testing companies will connect you with people who share your more distant genetic background. Maybe DNA information could break through those walls, either by direct genetic connection or through the exchange of records or personal stories. In at least one case, I’ve already looked at the basic genetic information in a surname DNA project. I cannot participate in the project because it’s based only on the y-chromosome and my connection is through my late great-grandmother. However, by looking at the data, I am able to identify one of my 19th-century male ancestors from Iowa and connect him to English ancestors further back. This at least gives me some destination points for my research, even if the path there is still not entirely clear. And having destination points is kind of a big deal.

So what’s the problem? It freaks me out a little, to be honest. That’s a whole lot of information. Will it raise more questions than it answers? Will the test be difficult to interpret and understand? Will it even be accurate?  If the results are unexpected, will they disrupt my understanding of myself and my ancestors? Can the test really tell me anything? Or will it duplicate what I already know and just be a waste of time and money?

And then there’s the “does it really matter?” question. What matters are people’s experiences and the stories that get passed down, not their genetic code. I often struggle with whether to call my hobby “family history” or “genealogy.” It’s a little bit of both … but frankly, it’s the family history part that is the most interesting … and ultimately, the most important. By far the most rewarding part of my family history quest has been the stories I’ve found and the history I’ve learned in the process.  DNA won’t change those things … though it could lead me to more of them.

Finally … perhaps my biggest qualm … what about privacy issues? I consider myself a pretty centered person, but I can do the conspiracy thing pretty well, too, given an opportunity and some prompting. Will the information fall into the wrong hands and be used to deny me health coverage for some as-yet undiscovered health condition at some point in the future? I don’t really plan to use it for health information, as there’s nothing in particular I’m looking for there, but would that necessarily stop someone else from using it for that purpose? I’m not sure I really care for the idea of my genetic information being sold as part of some en masse product for research. And when I really get my imagination going, I can conjure up some future dystopia in which all those with recorded DNA information are grouped by the New Overseer according to their genetic markers … and that Viking marker somehow comes back to torment me.

I’ve read both the skeptics and the product marketers. I’ve read and listened to a few testimonials. And I’m still on the fence. I’d still be really interested in hearing from people who’ve wrestled with this. What did you consider in deciding to do a DNA test? Why did you decide to do it … or not? Did you learn what you’d hoped to? More than you’d hoped to? And if I do get to a tentative yes, which of the available tests should I prefer — Ancestry?  23andMe? Family Tree? — and why? So many questions …

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Letters to the Netherlands: May we be childlike and humble …

JanLetterFourNot long ago, I learned a saying: “One Dutchman, a theologian. Two Dutchmen, a church. Three Dutchmen, a schism.” There is truth in this.

Our great-great grandfather, Jan Willem, migrated to America from the Netherlands with his wife and children in 1889. He was from Rijssen, in the province of Overijssel in the eastern Netherlands. He came from a conservative Reformed community of faith in the Netherlands and settled in a similar community in Iowa, which was common among Dutch immigrants of the era. Many were part of communities that were more orthodox than the official Dutch Reformed Church of the time in the Netherlands. It is clear Jan knew his Bible, a deep familiarity passed on to his grandson, our grandfather. Jan remained interested in church matters, both in the Netherlands and in his new home in America, though he seems to have struggled at times with where he belonged in his new home and discussed this in his letters to the Netherlands. I can’t help but note how little things have changed in some ways …

Writing from Iowa to a friend in the Netherlands, A. Koedijk, about the Rijssen congregation, he says (as translated): “I have noted all that you wrote about church matters. I do not believe that the unity of our congregation is a result of a conviction as to the truth, but rather because of circumstances and grievances — that is not good. Rather let the congregation sing Ps 62: 4 & 5. May the Lord grant grace to do that — that is my hearty wish — and may He graciously forgive the sins we have committed together… The situation in America in regard to ecclesiastical affairs is sad — one proclaims “here is the Christ” and another “there is the Christ” — those days have arrived. May the Lord open the eyes of His children in order that they may not become confused by the frivolous spirits calling the believers … Things are regarded much less seriously than formerly.”

Jan expressed apprehension that if he joined a congregation in America they might ask him to “catechize and teach Sunday school,” and at the time he wrote to his friend, he apparently did not feel he could meet the standard of his Rijssen “catechizers,” saying, “they tell me they will risk it with me, but I have not been able to do that work to equal Voordman and Sefieget — you know that very well, brother Koedijk — nor equal to you … May we be very childlike and humble, clothed with modesty, brought to His feet to pray for mercy — and may we be privileged to enjoy that blessed peace.”

[Note: A commentary with the letter says that “Sefieget” sometimes presented facts incorrectly to test his students’ knowledge. It also points out that the question of congregational unity to which Jan referred involved whether the small Rijssen church would join with several independent congregations from Delft, Enkhuizen, the Hague, Woorden, Kampen, and other places. I do not know the answer.]

These letters are part of a larger collection of Dutch immigrant letters in the archives of the Christian Reformed Church at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I am occasionally posting very brief excerpts in no particular order.

See other posts in this series: Letters to the Netherlands

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The death of Peder Malum: I wish I’d known him …

PederMalum3In recent years, I’ve come into possession of a lot of information about our Norwegian ancestors who settled in Iowa. Sometimes it’s the result of diligent, focused searching, and sometimes it’s somewhat random … what some would call “luck” but I prefer to call “gifts.” My great-great grandfather Malum’s obituary was somewhere in between, but more the latter than the former.

I sometimes search newspapers for those little stories published in the first half of the 20th century … about family visits, reunions, vacations, business trips, and celebrations, looking for glimpses into our ancestors’ daily lives. It was in such a casual search that, to my surprise, I came across Peder Malum’s obituary from a 1900 edition of the Webster City (Ia) Tribune. I already knew a lot about him, but historic obituaries are treasures, whenever I find them. They can verify genealogy information but also draw a more complete picture of our ancestors.  Like most of its era, Peder’s obituary was more a story than an announcement … strikingly direct in describing his death, yet reassuring, focusing on his strengths rather than his inevitable flaws, and eager to evoke the eternal …

I have visited the quiet Lutheran country cemetery in Iowa where he and my great-great grandmother are buried … but honestly, I wish I’d known him …


“The death of Peter Malum last Wednesday near Kamrar, Iowa, was indeed a sudden and unexpected blow to family, friends and neighbors. He was an old man, beloved by all who knew him; hale and hearty, apparently, but like a wise man, prepared for the future while well, by getting a heart knowledge of the Great Savior of men.

He left his home Wednesday morning, telling his daughter, Mrs. Hendrickson, with whom he lived, that as he felt unusually well, he would walk over to Kamrar. He had gone nearly the entire distance of two miles when he stopped at a friend’s home and chatted for a few moments, in his light, lively manner and took luncheon, when suddenly, as he was about to leave, he fell dead. His death was caused by heart disease, and though sudden, was easy.

“Peter Malum was born in Norway, March 22, 1824; came to this country in 1872, and settled in Linn County, Iowa. In 1882 he removed to Hamilton County, where he has since lived.

“At the time of his death he was a member of the M. E. Church, of Kamrar, and was always considered a good, faithful Christian man. The funeral took place Friday at 2 p.m., and was conducted by his pastor, Rev. E.S. Benjamin. He was buried in the Lutheran cemetery, four miles south of Kamrar. His daughters, two of whom reside near Kamrar, and one near Thornton, Iowa, and his son of Des Moines, were present at the funeral. Besides his immediate relations, Mr. Malum left a large circle of friends who will sincerely mourn his death.

“His daughters and son have lost a good Christian father, but their loss is only temporary. Their ultimate gain is eternal. The sympathy of the whole neighborhood goes out to these in our midst who weep. May God bless them, and may they receive divine sympathy from on high, so freely offered to them and to all who mourn.”

Webster City Tribune, April 13, 1900


Grave of Peder Malum, Zion Lutheran Cemetery

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Learning their language

IMAG0822Having recently decided to study Dutch, one of the languages of my ancestors, I have to wonder what took me so long. I’m enjoying it thoroughly. I’ve always loved languages. I studied German and a little French in school … dabbled in Spanish with Berlitz tapes in the ’90s … Dutch, however, always felt more elusive … more obscure … even though, of all these languages, it was the only one spoken by my ancestors. I now know that my grandparents knew more Dutch than I realized; they used it only when needed. They were native English speakers, born in the United States.

Technology — and the wider availability of language learning tools — is one reason Dutch now seems more within my grasp. Before embarking on a journey with Rosetta Stone Dutch lessons, I looked at many good options, including Pimsleur and some free on-line courses, one of which — memrise — I’m using as a vocabulary supplement. I chose Rosetta Stone because I wanted to learn what the language looked like, as well as sounded like, given that I am a more natural writer than speaker. It also includes a microphone to practice speaking and provides access to a certain number of live, on-line sessions with a coach. It’s patterned after the way one learns language naturally … with no explicit grammar lessons (which I confess, as an adult, I do miss, but that’s part of the challenge!). I’m sure other language learning tools are also very good, just different.

People usually want to know why one is learning a new language … especially one deemed as impractical as Dutch, which is spoken, apparently, by only about 23 million people in the world. I am doing it because, as I said, I love languages … and I hope to go to the Netherlands some time … and it would be cool to read my great-great grandfather’s letters as he wrote them … and frankly, simply because it was my ancestors’ language, and as a family history buff, I’m odd like that. A few of my reasons are practical, most of them hugely impractical. And yet … it’s been a rewarding challenge so far … just getting started.

Next up … Norwegian … even more obscure, with fewer tools available. To keep from confusing my nascent Dutch, I’m starting with a simple list of common Norwegian vocabulary words on memrise … to prepare for when my Dutch is more secure and I can take on the full challenge of learning the language of my Nordic ancestors as well.

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Treasure Chest Thursday … and Happy Thanksgiving!

cedarchest2In counting my blessings this Thanksgiving, I know that among the blessings of family are my late grandparents. I have certain distinct memories of my maternal grandmother, and many of them involve needlework. She sewed, crocheted, and knitted regularly … as a matter of course. She did it often and well. In addition to many doilies and tablecloths, she created afghans for her grandchildren. A couple of those items are pictured here. I’m grateful now to have not just a special place to put a few of these items, but yet another memory of my grandmother … thanks to the thoughtfulness of some dear family who have shared with me a cedar chest, pictured here, that belonged to my grandmother for as long as anyone from my mother’s generation can remember. My kindhearted aunt and uncle drove it down to Texas from the Midwest and helped me find a place for it. I’m exceptionally thankful to them and to my cousins for knowing that something like this would be special to me.

And, of course, I cannot let Thanksgiving pass by without taking the time to express gratitude for the blessings that are so easy to take for granted every day … when we don’t take enough time to stop feeling entitled and ponder them. One of my blessings is being able to take a few minutes on this day to share and catch up with my fellow family history bloggers. Looking forward to a peaceful and bountiful day with family and wishing everyone a blessed Thanksgiving … wherever and however you are spending it. Happy Thanksgiving!

Treasure Chest Thursday is a weekly blogging prompt from geneabloggers, encouraging family history bloggers to blog about a family treasure, heirloom or every-day item important to one’s family.

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Time to blog again

It’s hard to believe that this blog has sat idle since March.  If you had asked me at the beginning of the year, going into a busy work season, how long I’d go without posting, I’d have guessed I’d resume blogging by June. It didn’t happen. Blogging during the first six months of every odd-numbered year is pretty much precluded for me just because of the pace and workload during that time at the state legislature where I work. The busy season ran longer than usual this year, and one thing led to another, and well … you get the picture.

I recently made a short family history trip to Iowa, however, hoping for some inspiration as to which genealogy path to follow next. While the trip was not the treasure trove of newly discovered information that some earlier trips were, the trip was not without discovery. After so long without blogging, I hope I can recover my momentum! I have missed my fellow genealogy bloggers. So I am gathering my thoughts … organizing some information … and looking forward to resuming the writing…

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