Wednesday, May 25, 2016

When Oral Histories and Historical Records Collide

Oral family histories are an irreplaceable treasure. My aunt Mildred captured so much of it in her two memoirs, Remember and Nibblets and Bits. Those of us further out on the family tree will be forever grateful.

And at the same time, human memory is an imperfect thing. And what we thought was true doesn't always line up with the historical record. So I am learning as I try to research my maternal grandmother's father, Mikkel Braaten. 

My grandmother, Inger Pauline Braaten Hovick (1884-1975), and I have something in common. Both of our parents were first married and widowed, and we are each the product of our parents' second marriage.

For Grandma, the story goes that her father Mikkel and his first wife, Anna or Anne Tønset, had seven children back in Norway. Anne died of cancer, and a grief-stricken Mikkel took the children and immigrated to the United States, settling near Fergus Falls, in northeastern Minnesota. Mildred paints an emotionally vivid picture of that painful trip.

I've been spending the past several weeks trying to piece together a paper trail of their lives, searching both American and Norwegian records. Even now after some considerable research, I still don't have birth dates for all of Mikkel and Anne's children, but of the ones I initially knew, the last was 1875. But wait. The Minnesota State Census in that very year has Mikkel living near Fergus Falls with a woman named Minnie and five children! Now, both can't be true. It's inconceivable that Anne could give birth and die, the rest of the family immigrate and settle in Minnesota, all in time to be captured by the 1875 census-takers.

And for cryin' out loud, who on earth is this Minnie woman?! Well, perhaps "Minnie" could be "Annie." The old census-takers are notorious for simply writing down what they thought they heard, not bothering for accuracy. And when I later found record of children born to Mikkel and Anne here in Minnesota after 1875, the pieces fell into place.

Anne did not, in actual fact, die in Norway! She and Mikkel and three children came over together. Once here, they had four more children before Anne's death in 1882. I found her grave in Fergus Falls.

So this seminal family story, filled with such heartache, well... it didn't happen.

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