Mending the Past 13: Land of Memory

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Mittens from the collection at Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

“The native Härjaborna [Härja-born] speaks Härjadialekt [Härja dialect]. It is of course a form of Västgöta Dialect, about which much is written and preserved. I remember that it was a difficult experience in the big world when as a 12-year-old came to attend Daretorp school [in the neighboring parish] and was teased for my Härjadialekt.” –Per-Göran Claesson, from Härja parish. He writes about parish history and life on his website Sekularum (2009). Maja Lisa and her home of Risatorp are mentioned, still noted in local lore.

Re-connecting with relations in Sweden was opening up Maja’s story to unimagined proportions. We had almost forgotten her all together. We certainly had next to no notion about where she or the rest of the family came from except we have always said Grandpa’s family was from Västergötland.

Now we knew about tiny Härja Parish just south of the town of Tidaholm, in Skaraborg county, in the province of Västergötland. It was the center of Maja’s universe, the garden from which my grandfather’s side of the family sprang. Neighboring parishes include Velinga, Daretorp and Gustav Adolf, all of which figure in the family tree. This place had soil and sky and and was an entire world unto itself, with its own language, people, religion, stories and ways of living. It was everything, for many generations of my family, and after emigration it became almost nothing. Very little of it was talked about, remembered and passed along to future generations.


Mikael sent a land map of Riset from 1802. The yellow area “Torpets Ägor” marks Risatorp (The text at the left “Risa-drågs Ägor” shows the border towards Risadråg. The pink area in the mid right shows where the farm houses of the land owners of Riset were situated)

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Mikael has visted the area and sent us a photograph. This newer cottage stands where Maja’s house once stood. He describes the land as “very poor, situated in stony and meagre woods.” The name Riset means brushwood.

Mikael from Karlstad provided us with a detailed history of the farm where Maja Lisa lived most of her life. From what he told us, the family had been in Härja Parish for at least 300 years. Maja Lisa and her brother Johannes were the only children of farmers Magnus Svensson and Lena Nilsdotter. The family did not own their parcel of land but had in fact inherited a lease on a portion of the Riset estate that can be traced back to 1661 when an ancestor acquired it. Through several generations of inheritance and sub-division of Riset among many children, the lease to just one portion called Risatorp  was inherited by Maja’s grandmother (born in 1749) and her husband. Their son Magnus was born at Risatorp in 1789. This was Maja Lisa’s father. 


A 19th Century Torpare’s cottage

The family lived like most did in 19th Century Sweden, as farmers in an agricultural nation where about 90 percent of people lived in the countryside. Like many torpare (tenant farmers), the family paid rent to the owner of the estate in the form of in-kind labor. They probably lived in a typical two-room torpare cottage, consisting of a kitchen and a living/bedroom. Such homes were built of wood that in Maja’s time, despite the iconic image of the little red Swedish cottage, were not usually painted Falu Röd (a red paint based on a copper mining by-product) which was a note of status. There were other torpare nearby as well as the owners of the entire Riset estate. Together they formed a hamlet or neighborhood of sorts called Riset but their cottage and small farm was Risatorp.

Maja’s family did not rank very highly in Swedish society. They were not nobility, civil servants, clergy or hemmansegare, property owners. People who owned their own land, usually noted in the PCM, were tax payers and qualified to vote. Maja’s family worked for the estate, living on their own leased parcel and Maja and her brother, as soon as they were old enough, became statare, hired hands, working on the estate or neighboring farms. While torpares had it better than some, such as those who did not possess any land at all and were itinerant or lived in cottage dugouts called backstugas, it was not an easy life. The oppressiveness of the torpare system was one reason many Swedes were compelled by the opportunity to own their own land in America.

Writing in 1864, Englishman Horace William Wheelwright, author of Ten Years in Sweden, wrote about the torpare system, “I cannot say I altogether like this system. There is far too much dependence about it, and the poor torpare are obliged to be too much under the tally system. Their holding is often a very poor one and let too dear, and the holder is scarcely ever out of debt. He is obliged to work for his landlord whenever he is called upon; to buy all his feed and seed corn of him at a far dearer rate than if he went to market with ready money; and just at the very time when their labour is of most value on their own little estates, they are perhaps, most wanted on the head farm. The consequence is that, as far as I could see, their own land is generally in a wretched state;”

Maja Lisa and her family also survived several hard years of famine during the 1860’s and 70’s. Shortened growing seasons because of weather resulted in poor harvests. Both people and farm animals suffered from the food shortage. Torpare, poor farmers, were among the last to receive relief from the government which was offered through grants to local committees. These committees, adding insult to injury, notoriously required starvation victims to earn their aid through work. Bark bread, wheat bread extended with tree bark, became a symbol of the starvation and suffering of the lower classes and the systemic failures that led upper class farmers to export oats to Great Britain for its carriage horses while Sweden’s poorest people starved. The result was massive distrust and disgust with authority.

Through all the years of hardship and change, Risatorp remained central to Maja Lisa’s life. It was where she was born and gave birth. It was where the family clung together. By age 28, Maja Lisa was the mother of two children, raising them while living with her parents at Risatorp. By the time she was 38, her mother had died and Maja continued living and farming Risatorp with her father. She was a grandmother by age 48 and her daughter’s husband Karl August Quist became an important person in the family’s fortune.

What had become of Nils Nilsson? I still imagine that someday a record of his existence will come to light, but for now he remains on the margins of this family story, either as a romantic figure or a villain or, in the end, a tragic person. We have been able to trace his peregrinations from one farm and parish to another until the early 1850’s. His daughter and son were children by then, did they even know him? The last record of him was in Barnarp Parish near the town of Jönköping at least 30 miles south of Härja Parish. The parish record says that Nils moved to “an indefinite place” in 1853 and then they “deleted” him from the PCM in 1857. I believe this means he left without an interview with the parish priest. We have wondered if he emigrated around this time. Perhaps he became homeless and eventually died in penury. We have no records to confirm what happened to him.

Meanwhile, Maja’s family was facing the loss of Risatorp farm. According to the terms of the lease the tenancy would expire with the death of Maja’s father and the land returned to the landowners of Riset. Risatorp was a fairly large tenant farm and it supported Maja’s entire family which included her father, her son, and her daughter and son-in-law with a growing family. Where would they go when her father died?


Nils Magnus Nilsson’s and Carl Qvist’s signatures from the 1873 land map notes (they signed the document as owners of the adjacent Risadråg)

In about 1870, Magnus Svensson was 80-years-old. A farm along the peat bog edge of the Riset estate, called Risadråg, was sold to Maja Lisa’s son Nils Magnus Nilsson and her son-in-law Carl August Quist. They each owned half. For as long as Maja’s father continued to live, the two families worked two farms, Risadråg and Risatorp. The cottage at Risatorp was moved to Risadråg so that there were two homes next to each other. In 1874 Maja’s father died and, according to the terms of the lease, Risatorp, the bit of land that had been in Maja’s family for generations was returned to the owners of the farm estate. By now Brita Kajsa and Karl August Quist had four children, Maja lived with her son Nils Magnus and the two families had much less land to farm.

It is not surprising that in 1880 Maja Lisa’s son, Nils Magnus Nilsson, at age 35, took stock of the family’s diminishing fortune and placed a very large bet on emigration to America. He left on his own in April of 1880 to prepare the way for the family. After his departure, the 1880 PCM lists the residents of the farm at Risadråg. There is Brita Kajsa and her husband Karl August Quist, their four children, Ada, Johan, Axel and David. Maja Lisa is listed at the top of the column, the hemmansegare, owner of her own property, at last.

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