Wednesday, January 12, 2005

"THE SWEDISH-BORN ORPHAN," by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

As mysteries go, this was pretty intriguing. When my last article on orphan heirloom rescues (that is, playing sleuth to get stray items back to rightful owners) appeared, I received the following from Marjie Mountainsong:
"I would like your help in returning a photo in my possession. When my mother died, I inherited her wonderful collection of old photos. I've managed to return some special ones to the families who might most enjoy them, but have been puzzled by one. It's a studio portrait of a young woman, possibly in her late teens, and the following lines are penned on the back: Theresa White; Killed Oct. 26, 1922; Funeral Oct. 29, 1922; Given to Mrs. Johnson. Some distance below in pencil rather than pen is the date: January 1899. Mrs. Johnson would be my Swedish great-grandmother, Brita Kaysa Johnson, wife of Nels Johnson, who homesteaded in Mille Lacs County near Lawrence, Minnesota (now Wahkon), from 1892 until 1932, coming there from several years of residence in Duluth, Minnesota.
I do not know whether the name White is a birth name or a married name. If she died in Minnesota, I would guess that some newspaper carried a notice of her unexpected death. The Minnesota Death Index online lists a Theresa Antoinette White as dying 26 October 1922 in St. Louis County. (Note: You can search the Minnesota Death Index at at ) That would be the area that includes Duluth, Minnesota."
A young woman killed? How? What happened to her? And why did Mrs. Johnson wind up with her photo? So many questions. I had to try to find some answers.
SURFING TIMEAs always, my first instinct was to search the Internet. Marjie had given me a head start by locating the listing for Theresa's death. Since the date was identical to the one on the back of the photo, I was quite confident it was the same woman, so I started my search by trying to put her in context through census records.
Since Theresa died in 1922, I decided to start with 1920 census and work backward. I looked for White families living in St. Louis County, Minnesota, and found Gilbert White with his wife, Theresa A. This Theresa had been born around 1879-1880 in Sweden. That would have made her nineteen or twenty at the time of the photo (January 1899), so those dates fit. Also, her photo had been given to a Swedish woman, so her own birth in Sweden seemed to fit as well. I was reasonably sure I had found the Theresa I was seeking.
LEARNING MORE ABOUT THERESATheresa was forty years old and had no children enumerated with her in the 1940 census--but could she have had a child or two already grown and out of the house? If so, their lines could lead to descendants, so I backed up to 1910 to see if there were any children in the house. Fortunately, the family had stayed in place, so it was easy to find Gilbert White in 1910, but sadly, the census confirmed that there were no children. I would have to go back in time to find collateral relatives who might have descendants alive today. The census also revealed that Gilbert and Theresa had married around 1906, so Theresa would have been listed under her maiden name in 1900--but I didn't know what that was. is in the midst of creating an every-name index for the 1900 census and is more than half-way through the project, but Minnesota is one the states that has not yet been completed. ( )
I couldn't just search on Swedish-born Theresas of an appropriate age (although that will be possible in the near future). In any case, a census record wouldn't satisfy my curiosity about her death, so what else could I do?
HOW WAS SHE KILLED?At this point, I consulted a favorite site of mine, Joe Beine's Online Searchable Death Indexes & Records ( ). I clicked on Minnesota and saw that the Minnesota Historical Society also had an online index of Minnesota deaths. I duplicated my earlier search and found the listing for Theresa's death--and then I noticed the "Add to Order" button. I clicked on it and discovered that I could have a copy of her death certificate mailed to me for $8. That would certainly help solve the riddle of her death, so why not?
Then I spotted a box that said "Obituary Research Services." I clicked on it and learned that I could order a search for her obituary for $15 ($12, if you're a Minnesota resident). Since she was killed, I was virtually certain there would be an article about her death, so I decided to make the investment. One week later, I received the death certificate, and two weeks after that, I received the obituary. I confess that this quick and efficient service made me jealous of those with Minnesota roots.
AN UNFORTUNATE ACCIDENTThe death certificate answered my first question: Her death was given as, "struck by RR engine while crossing track. Accidental. Died from shock." The article about her death-front-page news in the "Pine County Pioneer", a newspaper in the area where she had lived most of her life--explained that she died of injuries sustained when she alighted from one train and failed to notice an approaching freight train on a nearby track.
The article went on to reveal many more details. Her parents were Mr. and Mrs. Charles E. Erickson of Pine City, Minnesota, she was born in Sweden in 1879 and came here in infancy with her parents (later research in earlier census records indicated it had been 1882), she had married on June 10, 1906, and moved to Duluth about a year later. She was also an only child, so there were no sibling lines to follow forward in time in the quest for living relatives. The story it told was a sad one, but in genealogical terms, this article was a gold mine. Among other details was a list of friends and relatives who had attended her funeral. First on the list was Mrs. Nels Johnson, the owner of the photo.
WHAT'S THE CONNECTION?At this point, I contacted Marjie with this information, including the fact that her great-grandmother was a friend or relative of the mystery woman. In fact, we were later to learn that the first eight people mentioned in Theresa's obituary were relatives of Marjie's. Marjie, it turns out, is quite a detective, and rather fortuitously, was traveling in Minnesota at the time, even though she lives in Oregon. She decided to join in the hunt.
She started by researching the obituary file for Theresa's parents, as well as the 1905 Agricultural Census for Pine County, at the Pine City, Minnesota, library. Marjie found all these records and some clues about additional possible relatives, but nothing that explained the connection to Mrs. Nels Johnson. As she explains, "Seemingly, I had reached a brick wall, but it finally struck me that I still had another option. I went to the Minnesota Historical Society Library and found the microfilm for the 1922 "Wahkon Enterprise" (the town in which my great-grandmother had resided at the time). I started scrolling and found this in the November 3, 1922, issue: 'Mr. and Mrs. Dr. Swennes and Mrs. N. J. Johnson motored to Pine City Sunday to attend the funeral of Mrs. White. Mrs. White is a cousin of Mrs. Johnson.'"
Marjie went on to say, "You can, of course, believe that the two adjacent microfilm reader occupants were treated to a burst of joy from their neighbor."
TIME TO CROSS THE PONDThe mystery is mostly solved. Theresa White and Mrs. Nels Johnson were cousins, and given that Theresa was an only child and had no offspring of her own, Marjie has decided that the orphan photo was already home, as she may well be one of Theresa's closest living relatives.
That doesn't mean that the search is quite over, though. Marjie wants to find out the exact nature of the cousin relationship, and fortunately, she now has the means. I asked what she knew of her great-grandmother's origins in Sweden, and she replied with these details:
Date of birth: 6 July 1860Birthplace: Gissjo; Torp (parish); Vasternorrland (province)Parents: Anders Kristmansson and Marta Susanna Bjelkstrom
I took this information and treated myself to a twenty-day subscription to Genline ( ), a new resource of online, digitized Swedish Church records. Sure enough, there she was in the 1860 births, and, better yet, a household examination showed her with her entire family and their exact birth dates, back to the 1820s. Once again, I felt a twinge of jealousy--this time, for those of Swedish ancestry! Because Marjie's such a competent researcher, I'll leave her to connect the rest of the dots via Genline, and I have no doubts that she'll do so soon. And Theresa's photo and rediscovered story will remain safe with the one who cared enough to ask questions in the first place.

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-author (with Ann Turner) of the recently released "Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree" (as well as "In Search of Our Ancestors," "Honoring Our Ancestors," and "They Came to America"), can be contacted through and .
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Your Daily Dose of Genealogy for 11 January 2005** You can view this issue of the "Ancestry Daily News" online **


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