Today’s post comes from Bill in Mpls
Here are pictures of my father’s father in one of his first performances as an American. He’s the one on the right. He was newly arrived from Sweden, having sailed in July, 1916 on a Norwegian-American ship, embarking from Kristiania, Norway. He was 20 years old and emigrated alone.
I say this was a performance because I see in these pictures an expression and reenactment of the mythology of America that new arrivals so frequently bring with them. My grandfather landed at Ellis Island and made his way westward from there. In America, Rickard Nilsson became Richard Nelson. I believe he had acquaintances or distant relatives in Grygla, Minnesota in the far northwest corner of the state. Sometime in the first year or so of his arrival, he traveled further west to Everett, Washington. There, or along the way to there, with a friend, he had these photos made. They were printed on postcard stock. Perhaps he sent one home to Sweden.
Almost everything I know, or think I know about this grandfather comes from physical artifacts or from peripheral research and speculation. He died when I was four years old. My father didn’t talk about him and I didn’t ask. To know him at all, I have to unpack the clues.
Even allowing for the invincibility of youth, it must have been frightening traveling across the Atlantic in 1916. German U-boat activity was heavy and being on a neutral country’s vessel was small reassurance. Over the course of the war, Germany sunk over 1300 Norwegian ships. That suggests that, despite the peril, my grandfather had strong motivations for leaving. My uncle once intimated that my grandfather had emigrated to avoid conscription into the Swedish army. Since Sweden was also neutral at that time (though it was being pressured by Germany for support), understanding the sense, if any, to that claim will require more study.
Grandfather stayed and worked for a time in Everett. I have an envelope dated December 1918 addressed to him in Everett and a business card from Everett Transfer and Feed Yard, where I assume he found work. A letter he wrote at that time (in Swedish) to the Swedish American newspaper seeks other Swedes with whom he might meet and socialize. Everett must not have been a Scandinavian hotbed. He sounds lonely and isolated.
At some point, Richard Nelson left Everett, Washington and returned to Minnesota. It was there, in Barrett, Minnesota that he met my grandmother. Like many parts of Minnesota, Barrett was heavily Scandinavian. My grandmother’s father was also a Swedish immigrant and her mother the child of Norwegians. It’s reasonable to conjecture that my grandfather was drawn to the area by the familiar, comfortable culture, the opportunity to use his native language, a chance to be his authentic self. That’s something all transplants crave.
When my grandparents married, it was in Minneapolis. My grandfather built a house for the family in Robbinsdale. He found work as a painter and in various kinds of maintenance. Most of his friends had Scandinavian last names. He had two sons, both of whom served in WWII. He finally became a naturalized citizen in 1943.
I think of him and of all my immigrant ancestors when the immigration talk gets ugly. We are all related to immigrants, some more immediately than others. At least one of us (I’m looking at you, P.J.) is an actual immigrant. We owe everything to those brave or desperate souls who picked up their lives and families and transplanted them here. We can honor them by regarding new arrivals, ones with unfamiliar customs and language and costume as kindred to our ancestors and cutting them some slack.
America at its best, at its most vital and dynamic, is always in the process of becoming something different.
What do you know about your immigrant predecessors? Any good stories?