Thursday, 11 May 2017

What I Know about Marit

Anyone who has followed the history of my Dad's adoption story knows that someone gave me a photo of a ledger from the state orphanage in Minnesota a few years ago. It gave his birth name (or it could have been a name given by the orphanage, but it turns out it probably wasn't) and my grandparents names as the adoptive family.

I did a DNA test, spent hours (months!) online searching and found his birth mother, Marit, or Mary as she was known. Once I knew who she was, there was a wealth of information on the internet on genealogical sites, including several family photos. A distant cousin, Stephen, found Mary's obituary for me. A 2nd cousin, Don, has shared some beautiful photos and some of his memories of Mary and her family. 

Mary is in the top left corner. This was taken before 1921.


Mary's parents and grandfather immigrated from a village in Norway called Selbu in the 1860s and their migration story is well documented in a book of immigrants' stories, published in 1921 and another in 1931. As it happens, the person who compiled all these stories was Mary's Uncle John, a Lutheran minister. According to the story, Mary's father and some of his cousins worked in logging camps - a dangerous occupation - until they had enough money to buy land. I gather that land ownership in Norway was increasingly scarce and families were starving trying to make a living farming on the increasingly small plots of land apportioned to them. 

Mary was one of seven children, the eldest of five who lived to adulthood, she had two sisters and two brothers. Oddly (to me anyhow), only one of the five ever married, a younger sister, Jennie. It was a descendent of Jennie who led me to my Mary, though I had to re-create her family tree to figure it out. She had entered the names of her mother- and father-in-law as her own parents and this was very confusing. 

Confirmation picture (Lac qui Parle Lutheran church); Carl is on far right of front row.


Mary was born - on this day - in 1879 in Lac qui Parle County. This means 'lake that talks' and I thought it a lovely place name. It is located on the western border of Minnesota, next to South Dakota. Her father had managed to purchase 160 acres in 1873, near the town of Cerro Gordo. She is on the farm with other family members in the 1880, 1885 and 1895 US and Minnesota Census records. Her medical records, obtained from the Minnesota Historical Society, indicate that when she was 9, in about 1888, she suffered from 'brain fever'. It seems likely that this was either viral or bacterial meningitis. She was lucky to have survived, but it apparently left her somewhat brain damaged. She attended school until she was 18 years old, but only attained a 7th grade education.

Jennie's confirmation picture. She is standing on the far right. Jennie's face is round with a square forehead, just like mine and my dad's - even Bill noticed this.



That said, in 1910 when she was 31, she is shown as the 'head of household' in the US Census, running a boarding house with her two brothers in Minneapolis. One can't help but wonder who supplied information to the Census taker. Did she see herself as the head, being older? Or was this a joke by one of her brothers? Or was she in fact the person who was running the boarding house? 

In 1911, Mary's sister Jennie got married to a Norwegian cousin. They moved west just over the border into Grant County, South Dakota. In fact, there is a great deal of intermarriage in this Norwegian branch of my family - Marit's parents were also first cousins. Intermarriage was common because small communities in Norway are often isolated by the fjords that separate them and then because immigrants often cling to the old ways when they can. Generations of intermarriage is called 'endogamy' and it makes distant cousins appear to be much closer than they actually are, the total shared DNA being larger than it would be if marriage occurred between members of different communities, 'exogamy'.

Mary's paternal grandfather. Cousin Don - who kindly shared this photo with me - remarked on how strong and worn his hands look. Definitely the hands of someone who has laboured long and hard.


In addition to ties to Revillo, in Grant County SD, at some point each of Marit's two brothers - and possibly other members of this family - obtained farmland in the North West of North Dakota, in Williams County. Mary's obituary says that she also homesteaded in North Dakota for a while. I wonder if this was perhaps the story that was put about by her family to explain her long absence from home...

On 18 Apr 1915, Mary gave birth to a baby boy, named Albert. Albert is named after his father, Albert Peterson. Uncle Albert's birth certificate says his father was born in 1876 in Sweden and was a carpenter. Mary's address appears on the birth certificate but it is different to the boarding house of 1910. She was 36 years old.

On 17 Apr 1918 - almost exactly 3 years to the date! - Mary gave birth to my father when she was 39 years old. No father's name appears on that birth certificate, not even my Dad's given name - which was, according to the orphanage, James. Mary has yet a different address. I don't have any DNA evidence that Albert Peterson was my Dad's father. In fact, I don't have any trail of any paternal grandfather line to follow, at least not yet.

Mary's Uncle John - the Lutheran minister responsible for compiling the fabulous books about the families who emigrated from Selbu. Thanks again to cousin Don for sharing this.



I can't help but wonder - well, loads of things - but to start with, how is it that both Mary's boys were born in mid-April? Counting backwards I wonder what happened (who visited) in July? Bearing children in her mid-to-late 30s doesn't fit the stereotype in my head, which is more about teenage pregnancy. Was Mary in a long term relationship, or did she fall prey to more than one man who took advantage of her vulnerability?

On the 22nd of Mar 1919, aged 11 months, my father was placed in the Owatonna Public School (the orphanage). His 4-year-old brother Albert joined him there on the 31st of March 1919. On the 22nd of February 1919, Mary was committed to the School for the Feeble Minded and Colony for Epileptics, in Faribault MN because - according to the record - she had borne two illegitimate children.  She wasn't quite 40 years old. Her hospital record is older than 75 years, so I was able to purchase it. The record lists all her family members, so I was certain I had the right person. It says she has a mental age of about 10, that she is 'excitable' but her habits are 'cleanly'. Her physical condition is poor. The state is supporting Mary because her father, Peter, is listed as 'indigent'. There is another name on those papers, a William W Hodson, who turns out to be connected to the child welfare agency of the day, ominously named the "Board of Control". Her unmarried sister Carrie and brother Carl are living with the parents in Marietta, MN, but brother Emil is farming in Williston, ND at the time of Marit's commitment. 

My favourite photo - also from Don - of Mary, Carrie & Jennie. 


The 1920 shows Mary as an inmate in the mental institution. Her father Peter is living on a farm in Augusta, rather than Cerro Gordo, still in Lac Qui Parle County, along with his wife, his single daughter and two sons.

My father was adopted by my grandparents less than a year later, in January 1920, in time for him to appear on the 1920 US census, just as he would have been had he been born to them. They may or may not have been told about Albert. It seems likely that they would have been. However, Albert was old enough to know he was adopted and I know they kept my Dad's adoption a secret from him. This wouldn't have worked with Albert, so Albert was left behind.

Mary's father, Peter, died in 1921, aged 75. Albert was adopted by an unknown family in 1922. His records won't be available until 2022. He will have been about 7 years old by then. I'm sure that he always knew he had been adopted. I wonder if he remembered his birth mother or his little brother. 

Mary's Statistical Record tells me she was 5'7" tall (1.7m) and weighed 130 pounds (59 kg), so she was relatively tall and slender. The records also indicate that Mary's IQ was tested a number of times. In 1921, she is said to have had an IQ of 73 and a mental age of nearly 11; in 1923 the numbers were 60 and 9 years; in 1927 her IQ had dropped to 56. It's clear that she lacked any intellectual stimulation in the 'School'. Only one 'vacation' is recorded for Mary, a month from 28 Jul - 28 Aug 1927, visiting her family. Presumably this was a trial period to see if she could leave the institution and rejoin her family. If this record is complete, she had no other vacations during her 8 years of incarceration.

In 1927, at the age of 48, and presumably because she could no longer bear children, Mary was released from the mental institution into the care of her youngest brother, Carl (even though her mother was still living - it was a patriarchal society, after all). If her IQ had dropped, at least her physical condition had improved during her stay, from 'fair' to 'good', so it is possible that she was unable to adequately care for herself and two small children on her own.

The 1930 Census shows Mary living with her mother, sister and two brothers in Augusta, MN. 

The 1940 Census shows Mary living alone in Minneapolis in a rented room, that she has an 8th grade education and she works as a maid. In 1940, Mary's mother, sister and two brothers still live together in Augusta. This suggests to me that she was a pretty independent woman. I wonder if she resented having lost her children and if she felt her immediate family had a role in this. Perhaps her uncle, the Lutheran Reverend had had a hand in the decision. Or it is possible that the laws of Minnesota were such that a woman couldn't be allowed to bear children out of wedlock and keep them.

My 2nd cousin, Don, first said of Mary 'she wasn't the sharpest tack in the box', which didn't much surprise me. He seemed to remember her as difficult to get along with, opinionated, perhaps a bit arbitrary. Then again, she was 65 years old when he was born and 20 years older when she came to live in his mother's house.  Later he told me she had made the local newspaper as she had enrolled in a mechanics course as an old lady. She had it in mind to help her brothers on the farm. She seems to have been capable with her hands, as Don says he has a wooden chest that she made and did a fair job of it.

One of the ways that he thought her stubborn was that she would never use the bus system in Minneapolis but would instead walk everywhere quite quickly. I can't help but wonder if this didn't add to her longevity!

According to Mary's obituary she retired from work at the age of 86 and moved in with her niece, Mabel.  Don says she went blind in her 80s, he remembers her getting out of her chair and feeling her way along the walls. I gather this presented challenges to her niece for keeping her safe. Mary was also hard of hearing and spoke in a loud voice. I'm full of admiration for Mabel for taking care of her difficult aunt. 

Mary's mother (also Mary) died in 1941, aged 86. Mary's married sister, Jennie, died in 1957, aged 70; her other sister in 1958, aged 76. The two unmarried brothers, Emil and Carl, died in 1963 (aged 79) and 1966 (aged 76). 

Mary lived to almost 97 years of age, dying in 1976. She outlived her parents and younger siblings by 10-20 years, outlived the couple who adopted her youngest son. My dad died in 1988, not knowing he was adopted and not remembering his birth mother.

Neither Hennepin County nor Steele County (the location of the former orphanage) has my Dad's adoption records. They would appear to have been lost.  I'm still pursuing other possibilities and hope eventually to identify his father - not least because I do wonder what, in a far more perfect world than that of the early 20th century, my Dad's and my surname should actually have been.

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