Connecting the dots on a family’s immigration story

This is a story of connections that span an ocean.

In Norway there’s Simon Bjørklund and in America there’s his third cousin, Sara Torvik, an Underwood native now living in Maryland.

Last year, Simon came to Minnesota to see where members of his family immigrated in the late 1870s. Sara called on her cousins and their wives – Chet and Marlys Habberstad and Richard and Elle Habberstad all from Underwood – to assist. They might not all share family genes, but they each have a passion for genealogy and keeping family connections alive.

This photo was taken at a recent family get together including family from the other side of the world and the other side of the country (clockwise starting at left), Elle Habberstad, Simon Bjørklund, Sara Torvik, Joe Rogness, Kay Rogness, Marlys Habberstad and Richard Habberstad. Contributed photo

The links they’ve made start with the immigration story of Sirianna Kongsli Sversvold. She traveled to the new country in the 1870s with her husband, Ingebrigt, and their two children, Serine, who was 3, and Mary, 2. Also making the trip were Ingebrigt’s parents, his brother and his sister and her family.

It must’ve been an exciting venture for Sirianna, but also mixed with some sadness since none of her family made the trip.

The Sversvolds looked forward to new opportunities in America. The property in Norway was too small to feed a large family,” Simon wrote about the venture.

Sirianna was pregnant during the trek and gave birth to the couple’s son, Oluf, shortly after they arrived. They traveled to Campbell and later to Aurdal Township in Otter Tail County.

The family was among 800,000 Norwegians who emigrated during the 1800s, said Simon in an article about his family. There were 2,500 who made the trip from his municipality of Malselv in northern Norway.

Sara Torvik at the site of the first settlement in Otter Tail County. The family’s first settlement was established at Sharp Lake in Maine Township at this location in 1874. The family (Ingebrigtsens) moved to the area in 1873, but lived near other relatives in Aurdal Township for the first year. Contributed photo

“Very little is written about this,” he said of the migration to other countries.

Although it was the land of opportunity, it wasn’t a rosy existence. It was hard work breaking the land, and their living quarters were cramped, Simon said in his family history accounts. The men worked in the woods preparing lumber when, during the winter of 1872, typhoid fever erupted. Sirianna died during the epidemic. She was only 29 years old. Through all the documents from the time, the family has not been able to locate where she was buried, he said.

Each of her children grew up in the area, married and had children. Her granddaughter, Sara’s mother, Lillian Torvik, took up the mantle to learn more about the family. Using her investigative skills, she gathered information about the family and, in 1976, traveled to Norway with her husband, Freddie. She made many connections with family, including a second cousin, Klara Skoglund, Simon’s mother.

Lillian traveled to Norway again in 1986, taking Sara and her brother, Peter, to meet more family members.

It was just the beginning of the connections between the families. Lillian passed on her research to Sara who continues to keep the connections and family history current.

Simon had visited Sara in the past, but his trip to Minnesota was a chance for him to see where the Sversvolds settled. They visited the Otter Tail County Historical Society, several cemeteries and the homestead where the foundation stones remain.

This photo, taken in 2017, includes Simon Bjørklund (back left) with Sara Torvik (left) and members of Sara’s family. Contributed photo

During his trip, he stayed with Richard and Elle Habberstad. Chet and Marlys traveled with him to the family historic sites.

Chet and Marlys have a similar passion for family history. They’ve done extensive research on their family trees from Norway and Sweden. They’ve been to Norway seven times to visit family and learn more about their own roots. During their first trip, they stayed seven weeks, he said.

Chet serves as Underwood’s representative on the Fergus Falls Area Sister City Commission. Nordhordland, Norway is their sister city. Chet has also been president of Numedalslag, focusing on his family tree, for 29 years.

The stories each has discovered in their search for family information serves as the glue for the family bonds. Those are connections that family on both sides of the ocean strive to learn more about and maintain.

Chet attended a reunion for his family in North Carolina and was told by one family member while there that they’d been looking for his family for 19 years. They took Chet’s father to another family reunion in East Grand Forks where 700 members from the Lillegard side of his family tree gathered.

“We were apparently the lost branch,” Chet said. “We also found people that we knew who were actually related to us.”

Chet has written his own account of his family’s lineage and has been able to trace those ties back to the 1300s.

This photo, taken at Chet’s 75th birthday party earlier this summer, includes (L to R) Richard Habberstad, Elle Habberstad, Marlys Habberstad and Chet Habberstad. Chet and Marlys, who live in Underwood, love family connections and history, especially those connections that span an ocean. Chet has personally documented his lineage and serves on the Fergus Falls Sister City organization with Nordhordland, Norway and has been president of his family’s Numedalslag for 29 years. He and Marlys have visited Norway seven times. The first time they stayed for seven weeks. Each time they make connections with family and learn more about their families’ history. Contributed photo

During one of their visits to Marly’s family in Sweden, they saw the picture of a woman attached to a cabinet. “Morris, Minnesota” was written on it. When Chet inquired about it, he was told, “Oh, that’s the lady who went to America in her slippers.”

The lady was Marlys’ great-great-grandmother, Anna Kartvedt. She was a widow whose three sons had immigrated to America.

Her youngest daughter and her husband were going to travel to America, as well, in the mid-1880s.

Anna’s oldest daughter, Ingeborg, had a large family and was staying in Norway, but went with Anna to the docks to say goodbye to her family making the ocean voyage. Anna wore her slippers, giving the appearance that she would be heading back home after the ship’s departure, but, before the vessel sailed, she jumped on board to immigrate with her children. It had been part of Anna’s plans to make the trip. Ingeborg was left to return home, alone.

“They say Ingeborg never got over it,” Chet said.

Anna lived with a son in Morris before moving to Bottineau, North Dakota, with the rest of her children. She died in 1919.

Some of the family stories are sad. Some of them are joyous. Some give interesting tidbits, like the family members who got a mail order bride only to have the bride move back to her home.

Each is a link in the family connection.

“Those connections are important to us,” Simon said.

Staying in touch and sharing information is much easier today thanks to e-mail, Facebook and Messenger, he said.

No matter what the method, it’s the connections that keep the families together, no matter how far apart they may be – even if it’s across the ocean.