Mending History 2: Translating Difficult Things


Detail from photo, Voss, Norway.

This history is not only ours and not only history
Denna historia ar inte bara var ej heller bara historia
–from a sign at the Swedish Prison Museum in Gävle

In the spring of 2015 we were working to piece together who our mystery ancestor was. My dad wrote to the pastor of Bethel Covenant Church to find out more about our family graves in the churchyard. The church, founded in 1880, sits on county road double K, surrounded by row crops in Pierce County, Wisconsin. It was the community and spiritual hub for my great and great, great grandparents. At the turn of the last century, the church’s location was known as “Swede Hill.” The pastor identified more than a dozen graves deeded to our ancestors but Maja Lisa Nelson’s was not among them. My sister Anne, an experienced researcher of family genealogy, began looking at online data bases for more information.

All of this activity was priming the pump of memory. My dad warned us that he knew there was some scandal attached to a family member and it was perhaps Maja Lisa. He overheard things during his youth—shreds of gossip, distorted and half erased over time. It amounted to this, an unmarried woman had come over from Sweden with two illegitimate children.


Four Generations. Copyright L. Steinmann, 2016

A breakthrough came when my dad went through some old photos, He found a picture we recognized as very similar to my own of Maja Lisa. His featured three women and one girl, standing or seated on dining room chairs in an open field; bare trees scratching lines across the sky, autumn leaves littering the grass at their feet. The black dresses the women wore highlighting the skin of their hands and faces. We were able to identify Ada, my great grandmother, her hand on her grandmother Maja Lisa’s shoulder. Maja Lisa and her daughter Brita Kajsa sit elbow to elbow in matching outfits, sleeves puffed at the shoulder, pale silk bow-tied around their necks. Young Ethel, my great aunt, with her braided hair combed out, rests her curled fingers comfortably on her grandmother’s knee. The photo is labeled on the back, “Four generations.”

This struck me as quite extraordinary. A woman born in Sweden, in 1816, who lived to be 92-years-old, who had traveled across the ocean and held great grandchildren on her lap. Not only was that a connection that no one else in our family’s memory had ever had—to know a great grandparent–Maja Lisa represented, more than anyone else, the Old Country, the lost world of our roots.

So armed with tantalizing tidbits, a photo, a name and dates etched into a gravestone we started to investigate. By autumn, more things started to happen. Anne discovered some old documents that a Swedish relative had posted on Anne’s note about the untranslated documents said that she could tell that, One is about her birthdate, one is a stillbirth of a baby boy, two seem to be about “offenses” but might be church related, and a final one is about leaving for America and gives a date of May 23, 1882.


The importance of learning Luther’s catechism endured through my grandfather’s generation.


My Grandpa Rudy was confirmed at the Bethel Mission Covenant Church near Ellsworth, Wisconsin.

The documents were from the Husförhörslängd, a household examination record that each priest kept for every family in his parish. Although the purpose of the examination was to discern how well parishioners had memorized and learned the Lutheran faith by reading Luther’s Catechism, it also served as a census document. It recorded birth and death dates, marital status, occupation, etc. These records have been kept in Sweden since they were mandated by law in 1686. They are a rich resource for studying genealogy.

Maja Lisa was beginning to put on flesh. We could see, just as her Wisconsin gravestone indicated, that she was born on April 11, 1816. The Swedish record showed that she was born on a farm called Risatorp in western Sweden to parents Magnus Svensson and Lena Nilsdotter.

We learned that the family had lived in Härja parish back as far as the 1600’s. They were farmers in a landscape that has been described as a generally flat area of bedrock, glacier-scraped and pock marked with sand and gravel pits, lakes and ponds amidst hilly boggy woodland with bluffs reaching heights of 1000 feet. It is close to a large lake called Vättern and a hundred miles from the sea. The sparse vegetation is made up of pine, birch, heathers, lichen and moss. The name of the farm Risatorp comes from ris, a word that means brush. It also describes the slender birch branches used to create a rod to whip someone in punishment.


Härja Church, 1901. Photo by Ludvig Ericson, Creative Commons license.

From what we can tell from such records, Maja Lisa’s life was ordinary. She had one other sibling, an older brother named Johannes.The small v next to their names indicated that they had been vaccinated for small pox, (a law was passed in 1816 making the vaccine compulsory throughout Sweden). Maja was christened in the ancient Härja parish church that is sometimes described as medieval. I read that the gray, gold lichen etched stones used to build the Lutheran church in the 1700’s were probably re-purposed from the ancient Catholic churches and even Viking-age (pagan) constructions on that same site. The family remained small. Grandfather Sven Jansson lived with them until he died at age 77. Maja was eight-years-old. She passed her catechism exams and was confirmed in the church at age 16. 

Next to columns containing checkmarks, simple names and dates were fistfuls of inked words in the commentary section. It suggested something out of the ordinary. On August 22 in 1838, a death is recorded for a gossebarn (no name is given). The only parent listed is Maja Lisa, age 22, a pigan, an unmarried daughter living with her parents on their farm. The record impartially states:

A boychild who the mother said was stillborn but the doctor said had lived.

I stayed up late, way too late, one night translating what else I could find in the records, word by word. The first challenge was to read the idiosyncratic cursive script of the parish priest. The second was to identify a word despite its shorthand style and old fashioned spelling (a major spelling and grammar reform wasn’t introduced in Sweden until 1917) and the final challenge was to translate it all into English.

I could make out that Maja had fött ett oäkta barn, given birth to an illegitimate child. This in itself was not unusual. At that time, Swedish customs of courtship often led to couples conceiving a child before getting married. That said, it is clear that Maja Lisa was in trouble. For one thing, there was no clue to the father of the child that had died. What was written next revealed the true and dire measure of the situation.

Misstänkt att hafva mördat det. Maja Lisa was suspected of murdering her infant on the day it was born.


One comment

  1. Charles Gustafson · · Reply

    Hi Lisa-

    Very attention grabbing! I couldn’t wait to get to the end. You might look at how you described the photo of four generations. I see two women sitting, one woman standing and one child standing. Good mixture of creating personal images and displaying related documents.


    Sent on my whatchamacallit.


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