Mending the Past 8: The Father

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And when next his bow he drew,

It was forest birds that flew

it was pair on pair that danced with lovers’ joy–oh my

Then up the daughter sprung,

On the stranger’s neck she clung

And a pretty maiden’s kisses gave the fiddler his reply.

–The Misjudged Fiddler, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Translated by Charles Wharton Stork, Anthology of Swedish Lyrics, 1917

Who was the father of the unnamed, unbaptized boy who was born on August 22, 1838? Maja Lisa was not bound by law to tell. It took two hundred years to be sure, but we have figured it out.

It has taken a lot of searching to find these ancestors. Theirs is not a story we were given. We have dug it up, a body disinterred from its grave. If it had not been for a scrap of a photograph, a child’s curiosity and a gravestone that persists in remembering, we would never have discovered Maja Lisa and a whole line of relationships that find their current end point in our families today.

Maja Lisa was purposely erased. I could tell by my grandmother’s reluctance, many years ago, to talk about the photo I had found. My dad claims he was never told about Maja even though his own father was sixteen when his great grandmother died. According to a 1905 census, she lived on a neighboring farm in Pierce County, Wisconsin with her son Nels M. Nelson (For some reason Nils always became Nels in the U.S.) and his family. At age 89, she was called Mary Nelson (Mary was perhaps easier to spell than Maja for the census taker). It is noted that she was a widow.

This is thin but compelling evidence that the family purposely obscured the story. Maja’s name was changed from that of an unmarried mother to Widow Nelson. My dad remembers overhearing gossip, bits and pieces spoken in low voices behind a fan of fingers. Someone in the family, a woman, had came over from Sweden, unmarried with a child. He had no idea (and little interest) in who it was when he was young. I recently met at the grave site with a cousin and she told me that she remembered visiting the cemetery with her grandmother (who died in 2010 at age 102) and was shown Maja Lisa’s grave and was told that this was her great, great, great grandmother–and that she was a slut. The family had their reasons for being secretive about Maja’s story.

Maja’s gravestone confirms that she changed her name to Nelson in America. We knew that she was born and remained for her entire life in Sweden as Maja Lisa Magnusdotter (daughter of Magnus), following the patronymic system of the time. How, when and why did she become a Nelson?

We were able to find more answers by constructing a family tree using online resources. We looked at American census records as well as Swedish Parish Catechismal Meeting (PCM) notes. We knew that Maja had two more children after the child born in 1838. Her daughter Brita Kajsa, my great great grandmother, was born in May of 1841 and a son named Nils Magnus was born in February of 1845. They were Nilsdotter and Nilsson. This suggested that the father of these two children was named Nils. We also know, thanks to the notes that these two children were öakta, illegitimate. Maja Lisa never married.

It emerged slowly but surely that a man named Nils Nilsson was the father of Maja Lisa’s children. But why did they never marry? Who was he? A huge breakthrough came in November 2015 when the online family tree program Ancestry.com connected us to a relative in Sweden also researching the family lines around Maja Lisa. He had posted a treasure trove of old documents from ArkivDigital, an online archive in Sweden of millions of historic documents. My sister Anne contacted Per Jonsson saying that we were interested in learning more about Maja Lisa Magnusdotter and needed some help in translating the old Swedish in the documents. He replied graciously but cautiously, “Are you really sure that she is the same person as your great, great, great grandmother?” and “The notes in the Swedish church books is not exactly a fun reading. Are you prepared for this?”

It soon became clear what he was talking about. He provided documents that filled in a lot of blanks with regard to Nils Nilsson. He was born on August 16, 1807 in Daretorp Parish not far from Maja Lisa’s home parish. He had three sisters and one brother. His mother was named Kjerstin and his father was also Nils Nilsson. Our Nils had married Kerstin Andersdotter, a landowning widow 22 years older than he. They had a son together named Carl Johan Nilsson and they lived on Vitared Farm, next door to Riset where Maja lived with her family.

A PCM document from 1839/40, Härja Parish, provided some extra information in the margin notes that shed some light on the situation. Next to Nils Nilsson’s name it says,

Dömd för enkelt hvisbreth
och träffade med 24 dygrs
vatten och brod, samt
hemlig kyrkoplikt–r040–
skild fran sin hustru
40 Mörkhult.

The translation tells us that Nils Nilsson was”Sentenced for enkelt hvisbreth, simple adultery.” That means that it involved only one married person (him). “And received 24 days water and bread as well as private penance.” Also, in 1840 he was skild från sin hustru, divorced from his wife. It also indicates that in that same year he was living at Mörkhult, a farm near Riset, the farm where Maja lived with her family.

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Pencil etching by Anders Zorn, 1906

I would be curious to know if Maja was persuaded to name Nils or if he stepped forward. Either way, he was punished in much the same way Maja had been with prison, bread and water and kyrkoplikt. He was also divorced which meant that his entire life changed. Divorce was extremely rare at this time among the peasant class in Sweden. It was discouraged by both church and state but adultery or abandonment were the two legitimate reasons accepted at that time. As the guilty party in the divorce he most likely lost the right to all or at least half of the property from his marriage. He certainly did not retain custody of his son. He lost social status in the community probably making it difficult to find work. But possibly worst of all, “in the case of adultery, the guilty party was not allowed to remarry before the injured party was dead, remarried or gave his/her consent. In the latter case, permission was also required from the government.” So in addition to losing his family, his property and employment, it looked impossible for him to ever marry Maja Lisa. If that was what they both wanted.

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