Dear Granddad: If Only November Had Been August

Emigrations were game changers, but some were more impactful than others. Our grandfather’s collision with America is a recent revision to his ancestry. He was Mathias Hemmingsen.                               

RECAP: Dad wrote that his grandfather, Ole Hemmingson, pictured in the thumbnail below, arrived in the US in 1882, along with his wife and three children.1 Dad’s genealogist asserted that three of their six children were born in Nordland County, Norway and the others, in Wisconsin’s northerly Bayfield County. 

ASIDE: The adult baselines were wrong, sending the downstream story awry.  They sketched Ole as 1847-1903 vs. actual 1851-1903; his wife, Berith, as 1860-1887 vs. actual 1853-1887. Truth was found in various Parish Records of Nordland. Then Norway’s 1865 Census was a good reflection of those records.They married in 1874 and had the following children prior to emigrating: Henriette 1874, Mathias Berg 1876, Harald 1878, Marie 1880 and Einer 1882.2 Only their George was born in Wisconsin.3

Only when birth dates were correctly established, could individual emigration records be found. Ole left for Wisconsin in 1882. Berith, Harald, Marie and Einer followed in 1886; Henriette and Mathias, in 1887.2


The story here, is in the staggered emigration. That Ole went ahead did not feel out of the ordinary, although it is possible that the reason was other than to establish himself before uprooting the family.  The updated profiles prompted a re-imagining of events surrounding their arrivals in America.

Ole Hemmingson ca 1880

Dad reported that Ole acquired 160 acres in northern Wisconsin under the Homestead Act of 1862. It was forested land that he would clear for farming. He was experienced in this area, since his people were farmers in Norway. Further, he had earned a degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Oslo and was employed by the County to survey for roads. As well, he contracted to do the construction. US Census 1900 supports both notions.3 It shows Ole as a day laborer, resident of his owned farm that was free of mortgage. Lars Rued, right next door, and under the same ownership guise, reported simply, as a farmer.

Ole, though, was just following Lars’ lead. Lars was husband to Ole’s sister, Pauline and they were to the area first. Doing Homestead was a long view, not an issue on which one would be compelled to emigrate urgently. Rather, one first had to Declare Intention to Naturalize, which usually occurred after two years in the country.

It is more reasonable that Ole had secured the County job in Wisconsin while in Norway, contingent upon a set start date.  No documents have been found to support such, but in any case, why would Berith detain at home?  


Updating the baseline revealed that Einer was newborn in Norway when Ole departed in April 1882. This has a strong ring of a plan interrupted. Einer was a robust adult, although that does not speak to his condition as an infant. Of course, under usual circumstances, Berith would need some months to recuperate. 

At the time of departure, Ole left Henriette 7, Mathias 5 ½, Harald 4, Marie 2, and newborn Einer.  He left his wife; but for her needed few more months, at no time in the foreseeable future, would it be easier for Berith to make the hard journey than now, when she would have her husband’s assist.

But, separate they did. Yes, their actions could have been due to finances, but these health issues seem more probable. Now Berith would have to contemplate getting to northern Wisconsin on her own with five young ones. Making it before the terrible twos of the babe looked the best choice from unknowing eyes, but she waited four years.

It boggles to imagine why she left Henriette and Mathias behind in 1886. That is, our 2019 hearts simply cannot understand this kind of sacrifice.  Maybe finances had become an issue. Maybe Mathias was a jerk, this boy who would be sweet as pie, as an adult. Henriette though, would soon prove to be a most competent and natural caregiver. She would have been eleven when Berith departed and able to assist her with the four younger children.  As it was, mother had only Harald 8, Marie 6 and Einer 4, in tow.

Henriette and Mathias likely did not actually view their mother and siblings vanish into the horizon. Their leave taking was more aptly on familiar ground in Hatfjelldal. Even if they were brave, they must have wistfully imaged their father’s ever diminishing shadow, to wonder if they would ever see their mother again.


Ole had an early April sea and Berith, late September.  Well did they know the north Atlantic Ocean. We descendants intuitively knew that they planned for Henriette and Mathias in summer of 1887. Surely they did. It came and went. Summer of 1888, then. Promise?

On the 8th of November 1887, Henriette and Mathias Olsen boarded Thingvalla Line’s “Hekla”. She docked in New York, Monday, November 28.3 Coming down the gangplank, Henriette had her brother’s hand in hers. She was closing out 12 and he, just past 11.  Wisconsin was nowhere in sight.


Berith arrived after a hot summer the led into the legendary brutal winter of 1886-1887, as editors at tell.4  On January 2, 2018, during that Polar Vortex, the Wisconsin State Journal reminded us of it and showed impact in our area of interest:5

Madison recorded the second coldest holiday week this season as cold temperatures nearly edged out a 131-year-old record.

National Weather Service

While the prevailing weather was unusual, she had come to a familiar climate. Many Norwegians and family were available to make her feel comfortable. Her children, with little or no memory of their father, would be in a difficult period of adjustment over discipline reassignment. She and Ole must have shielded these little ones against their own anxiety concerned with Henriette and Mathias’ aloneness, while all shared the misery of missing them.

Each new day increased Berith’s familiarity with her new home but added one more to the ache of missing her children. We can only surmise this, for there is no record of Berith in America, other than family lore, an emigrant report and corresponding ship’s manifest.

Winter 1887-1888 was not promising to be calm around the Great Lakes. We know that the children departed Norway early November.  The recent local conditions in their destination hometown were captured:6

The storm of Sunday and Monday was a very severe one and many wrecks are reported on the lakes. A number of lives were lost and thousands of dollars’ worth of property destroyed

Washburn News of October 29, 1887

Yet, aware of all dangers, the children’s sailing plans stood firm.


They had not traveled with their father, and not with their mother, nor had they been summoned for favorable seas. No. They were ticketed alone for the fierce Atlantic, in the dread of a most devastating winter. We listen to our hearts and hear them while at the bottom of the gangplank, ask in their brand new Norwegian English and wide-eyed in their Hemmingsen-then-Olsen true-blue “where is the train to Wisconsin”?


Had November been August just past, we could be assured that they asked direction in an exuberant pitch of cusp teens entrusted to adult mission. They were safely on land. They could immediately forgive their father his six-year absence, and their mother, her one. Their new land was all about hope and promise.

Ah, but this fantasy was of another genealogy miss, where Norway’s 8th of November was read as America’s 11th of August. Life can be cruel in wrong imagining.


We cannot know the tone of their gangplank ask. As they contemplated the long clack-clack to Wisconsin, were they aware of October’s brother? Indeed, had October brought only joy, leaving woe awaiting? Did they exclaim excitedly at everything new, as the train rolled by? Or had fate already robbed them of ever seeing their mother again? Did they huddle together, sobbing ever more strongly as Wisconsin grew near?

We know that George was born in October, not to the day.3 We know only, and only by oral tradition, that Berith died in late 1887. Were they in time? We fear not, for their train trip delayed their arrival into December. What hope could we hold for them? Even a moment with her, could last a lifetime.


No good story line pre-schedules the children for 8th of November. It is, however, consistent with urgency and hope. Berith did not necessarily die during childbirth. Rather, childbirth may have toyed with some other condition she had, for a slower decline.

Now, transatlantic telegraph was first available ca 1866. Norway was an early adopter of national coverage and did so by 1870.7 Telephone connection between Bayfield and Ashland Wisconsin happened in 1880.8 Therefore, even if the effort needed to be cobbled, it appears that in 1887, the Hemmingson family in Wisconsin could have sent a timely message to family in Nordland.

If the message was that she had already passed, would the sender, who had just trudged to the Telegraph Office in wicked winter conditions, opt to book his children on the next boat out? We think not. Sounds more like “hurry dear ones, for your mama is failing”


We have not found where she is buried. We do know of her weather and realize she may have a unique spot, unmarked, or one never etched. Ole died in 1903. He is not with his second family. Nor have we found Harald, Marie, or George, who predeceased him; we feel they are wrapped safe in their parents’ arms, somewhere obscure.  We must find them to know if Henriette and Mathias ever saw their mother again.  


With a nod to Harald, Marie and George: Harry died in a logging accident that Matt unfortunately witnessed. Marie succumbed to tuberculosis around 1898. Appendicitis took George around 1901, a couple of years before Ole passed. 

Ole remarried in 1892; he and Alette Ingebrigtsen had seven children. They will be subject of another post, to complete Ole’s complement of children. 


Mathias became known as Matt. Einar was Aner at Census 1900, and Edward, or Ed, thereafter. Henriette married William Wallace Church. She was known as Etta. After Ole died, Etta moved to Washington State and Matt to British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. Ed straddled Washington State and Vancouver Island.

We shall never know the reason for the emigration stagger. We do know Etta, Matt and Ed survived with longevity. They were ever so kind, and prosperous people.  They had their mother as the twigs were bent, and Ole to make sure that sorrow did not break them. Perhaps, that is all we need to know.


Left: Hemmingsen Logging at Cowichan Lake B.C., ca. 1912. Matt emigrated from Norway in 1887, was logging in the Wisconsin woods at twelve and migrated to Vancouver Island in 1906. Our woods pioneer retired in 1946 after significant innovation. CLICK for our broader genealogy and Memoirs of Matt Hemmingsen (1867-1976).

12 thoughts on “Dear Granddad: If Only November Had Been August

  1. Beautifully written – It’s hard to imagine the hardships that families endured as they emigrated to the U.S. You’re right – we’ll never know the full story of many of our ancestors, but perhaps all we really need to know is that some successfully made the trip – and became our ancestors.


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