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The wagon was fully loaded for the burn pile out in the woods, when I spotted the old painted trunk on the flatbed. I was a second grader at the time and yelled above the tractor noise: "Where did it come from?" Why does it have 1812 on it?" and "Can I keep it?"
It was 1962, and my family was in the process of moving from Lenora to my mom's home farm in Amherst. Mom said I could put my old trunk in the basement of our new house if I cleaned it up, so off the flatbed came the trunk and out came the hose.
The wooden trunk was three feet long, two feet wide, 2 feet tall and weighed almost 100 pounds with all the curved metal bands and the large lock. As I hosed off the years of dust, I could see blue painted flowers along with the writing: Arstri Herbrans Datter 1812.
This marked the beginning of my genealogy search. Little did I know that finding this trunk would encourage me to study Norwegian, travel throughout Norway meeting genealogists and researching archives to discover who Astri Herbransdatter was.
On the 24th day of August, 1882, my Great Great Grandfather Knud S. Knudson purchased a copy of the History of Fillmore County, 1882, for ten dollars. On page 457, Amherst Township, it told about him and his family:
Knud S. Knudson was born in Norway on the 23d of December, 1818. He emigrated to America, and settled in Rock County, Wisconsin, in 1846. In the spring of 1853, he married Miss Gune Gutumsdatter. They came to this place and took one hundred and sixty acres of land, upon which he erected a log-home, 12x14 feet, which is still standing. He has added to his farm, and now owns six hundred acres. His wife died in July, 1880, leaving six children, five having died before her.
In De Norske Settlementers Historie (The Norwegian Settlers History), 1912, pg 369, a translation from Norwegian also told about my Great Great Grandfaher:
Northeast from Harmony lies the Henrytown neighborhood. A Halling (someone from Hallingdal valley in Norway) with the name of Knut Knutson was the first man in Amherst Township, and he settled in Stringtown (old name for Amherst) in 1853.
The Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah has an incredible collection of trunks brought from Norway. The floral designs painted on the outside and sometimes the inside of the trunk is called rosemaling and the most famous painters can be recognized by their unique styles. My trunk has a distinctive heart shape made of metal below the hinges.
I learned that Astri (Herbransdatter) was Herbrans daughter and the year 1812 was when Astri was probably given her trunk. It was customary for the girls to collect linens and household items and store them in a trunk for marriage. Inside most trunks, including mine, there is small compartment for a hymnbook and other precious articles. Emigrants carried bedding, food, spinning wheels and tools in the trunks. On board the ship the trunks served as tables and chairs.
In 1974, I enrolled in Norwegian language classes at the University of Minnesota in order to learn more about my heritage. The day after I graduated with my Animal Science Degree, I left for Norway to learn more.
If you travel from the north to the south of Norway, it's the same distance as going from Minneapolis to New Orleans. In the summer of 1976, I traveled over 7,000 miles in Norway, hitchhiking with my backpack, speaking only Norwegian and researching genealogy. I was getting lots of leads to follow from my mom back in Amherst, who was searching almost every Norwegian Lutheran cemetery in Southeast Minnesota and Northern Iowa. I also received many letters from the now deceased Gerhard Naeseth, a well-known genealogist at the Vesterheim Genealogy Center. Mom wrote that she had found the gravestones of my Great Great Grandparents in the Elstad Lutheran Church Cemetery near Highland and suggested that the name on my trunk might be a connected to them:
• Knud Knudsen Sævre, født (birth) 18 Dec 1818, død (death) 8 Nov 1882
• Gunild Knudson, født (birth) March 8, 1829, død (death) July 1880
Since I was a student, I was able to receive an extended visa from the Norwegian government to stay in Norway. Along with my genealogy interest, I was working on my Reproductive Physiology Master Degree internship at the University of Oslo, Norway. With my mom's letter in hand, I headed downtown Oslo to the Statsarkivet (State Archives). After all those years of searching, there was my answer in Gunild's birth records: Gunild Guttormsdatter, born March 8, 1829, father Guttorm Jensen Syverud and mother Astri Herbrandsdatter Børtnes.
Gunild Guttormsdatter (Guttorms daughter) had emigrated from Norway with the trunk that belonged to her mother, Astri Herbransdatter. I was the proud owner of my Great, Great, Great Grandmother's trunk. I was so excited I called my folks, Sylvan and Char Nelson in Amherst, but they had trouble understanding my English, which had taken on a very heavy Norwegian accent.
On the website www.museumsnett.no/mka/ssa/drafna.htm, Gunild Guttormsdatter is listed as passenger #70, age 19, female, on the ship "Drafna" in 1848. A story there tells of Gunild's journey, with the Astri Herbransdatter trunk, from Norway to Wisconsin:
Leaving Drammen, Norway early in June 1848, a party of Norwegians embarked for the United States . . . they arrived in New York August 31, 1848 after spending ten weeks on a stormy sea aboard the ship Drafna. Upon arriving in New York the travelers had to take physical examinations and many of them were sick from the poor water and food . . . the party made the trip by boat from New York to Milwaukee (via the Eire Canal). Friends from Karskeland (Koshkonong) met them in Milwaukee with ox-teams . . . the small children, old people, and baggage were carried in those wagons, while the rest of the party followed on foot. Their destination, Karskeland, was reached on September 12, 1848. In 1853, the Knudsons moved from Wisconsin to Amherst.
This past summer my mother, Char Nelson; my sister, Teresa O'Connor; my son, Alexander Knud and I visited Norway. Alex took along pictures of the Astri Herbrandsdatter 1812 trunk to see if we could learn more by visiting the Hallingdal Folk Museum in Nes, Norway. We found that the curved metal on the trunk dated it to the 1700's. The trunk was most likely given to Astri Herbransdatter in 1812, when she was 20 years old. The rosemaling (painting) was done by a man called "Stavnspresten", based on his characteristic flowers and C scrolls. His real name, however, remains a mystery.
It's been nearly 40 years now since I rescued the Astri Herbrandsdatter 1812 trunk from the burn pile, and it's still as much of a treasure as the day I found it.
Deb Nelson Gourley is a layout editor at the Journal. She is presently working on a family history of her Norwegian ancestors.