A different ancestry

Robert Stanger Contributing writer

I’ve always considered myself to be Swedish, just as my classmates and companions in multi-nationality southwest Erie considered themselves to be Italian, Greek, German and Irish. My father was born in Sweden as well as my mother’s mother. There was a grandfather who came from Norway, but this was practically Sweden, after all.

I also believed for much of my life that my widowed paternal grandfather, who lived on a small farm east of Erie where my father and two younger sisters were raised, was my true grandfather.

Then reality intervened in the form of reports from 23 and Me and Ancestry and a visit to a genealogical archives facility in Lund, Sweden, during a trip to Europe some years ago.

As result of the nationality background checks, I feel a little like the guy in the Ancestry TV ad who says that thanks to the genealogic background service “We found we weren’t German at all,” as he had assumed, “but Scottish.” The ad then shows him wearing a kilt.

And as result of the visit to the Lund facility, we learned who, without much doubt, was the paternal grandfather for me and my six older siblings. None of us had ever raised the question as to my father’s paternity, possibly out of fear of raising his ire. But the physical resemblance between my father and his purported father was nil.

According to 23 and Me, I am 100 percent European and 96.5 percent Northwestern European, 28.3 percent broadly European but just 47.8 percent Scandinavian. I am also 15.8 percent Finnish.

Why so comparatively little Scandinavian, despite my parentage? Apparently, because there has been so much movement among the European people over the years. And my Scandinavian forebears lived along a prime shipping channel, the Oresund, which lies between Sweden and Denmark.

That understood, where did this Finnish background come from? My family never said anything about any “Finnish” relatives.

However, there is a significant minority in northern Norway, the Sami people (also known as Laplanders) who are of Finnish derivation. So my maternal grandfather, who was from Tromso (which is the world’s largest city north of the Arctic Circle) was apparently part Sami, a people known for their reindeer herding prowess.

(It’s absolutely amazing what can be determined from the thimble-full of saliva one sends to these services that determine one’s heritage.)

My maternal grandfather, Christian Olsen, went to see young out of Tromso. How he ended up in Erie is rather humorous. It seems that he was told that there was good money to be made by working on the Great Lakes. However, no one told him that the lakes freeze over in the winter, thus bringing shipping to a halt.

So at the end of a season, my grandfather found himself stranded in Milwaukee. Whereupon he decided to join the U.S. Navy as there was a recruiting station in the city, and he and a companion from his ship went to the station.

“I’ll take you,” the recruiter reportedly told Christian.

Christian was then sent to Erie to serve on the USS Michigan (later renamed the USS Wolverine as a new battleship had preempted the Michigan name).

The Michigan was the Navy’s (and probably the world’s) first iron-hulled vessel. It was built in Pittsburgh and hauled to Erie in sections where it was assembled and launched in 1844. It was 163 feet long and weighed 685 tons. It had a 170 HP steam engine which could propel it at 8 knots via a side paddlewheel. It was also partially propelled by sails, and was formally called a “two mast topsail steamer.”

So many young officers that served on the Michigan met young women in Erie that the city was called the “mother-in-law” to the Navy.

I well recall the ship, by then the Wolverine, as was it was tied up on Presque Isle’s Misery Bay below the Perry Monument for many years following its active service.

Community efforts to save the ship for posterity failed and it was scrapped in 1949. An observer said the ship bucked and weaved as it was towed across the bay to the scrap yard at the foot of Cascade Street as if the vessel knew of its intended fate.

The vessel’s prow was saved, however, and can now be seen at the Erie Maritime Museum.

Just as it’s a shame that Erie didn’t save the Wolverine, it’s too bad that other communities don’t save more of the vestiges of their past. Wouldn’t Warren be a richer community today if the old Irvine/Newbold mansion — which rose so strikingly along the Allegheny River — had been saved?

Nearby, it seems that deterioration is easily besting state efforts to preserve the old stone house (which dates to 1841) in which caretakers for the former Irvine Estate lived.

Following his maritime service, my grandfather worked ashore, a transition which didn’t end well for him as he was killed at age 55 when working on the railroad.

It wasn’t much of a chore to find out the likely surname name of my true paternal grandfather during the visit my wife and I made to the Lund Archives, as Swedes do seem to keep close records on their family background.

Incidentally, the scenery was striking in the Lund/Helsingborg area at the time of our visit, as the rapeseed (used to make canola oil) was in bloom in riotous yellow on huge, rolling fields. The yellow fields and blue of the late spring sky duplicated the colors of the Swedish flag.

All we did was to give my father’s birthdate to the genealogical assistant who interviewed us — March 19, 1883. His name quickly appeared on the ledgers, “Christian Otto Brun,” a son of Agneta Svensdottir. No father was recorded on the ledger.

“Brun” is a common Danish name the archives assistant said. “In fact, that’s my name,” he said.

My wife, whose maiden name was Brown remarked later that she could be called “Judith Brown Brown.”

But just who was this “Mr. Brun”?

We posed this question to the archivist after we had returned home.

His reply was that his searching revealed that household records from Helsingborg (which was where Agneta lived) that at the same address as was hers at the time there also was living a Danish waiter named “Christian Brun Lund.” (“Lund” is just an extra surname often used in Denmark.)

“Maybe he can be the father of Christian Otto Brun?” the archivist inquired. We agreed that that was very likely the case.

We later learned that Mr. Brun had been a restaurateur in southern Sweden for most of his working life. He married and had a daughter who worked in an apparel shop for women.

My grandmother Agneta later married a Danish carpenter from the island of Bornholm who was 13 years her junior. Perhaps she saw in him someone who could support them should they immigrate to America. Things certainly seemed difficult for Agneta in Sweden.

At any rate, Agneta sailed for America in 1892 at age 41 with my father, then 9 and with a daughter, Freda, who was just 3. Her husband, Rudolph Fritz Stange (the “r” to our name was tacked on by immigration clerks) had come over earlier to establish a footing for the family.

The tiny family traveled first class. When in Erie they and Rudolph settled on a small five-acre farm east of Erie complete with outbuildings and a small three-room home which is where their children grew up (a third child, Sophia, was born in 1895). Agneta and Rudolph, both of whom died in their early 80s, lived at the home for the rest of their lives.

A question remains in my mind: How could the family in their apparent straits have supported the first class travel and the purchase of rather impressive property once in Erie? Could there have been a benefactor of some sort? As a young woman, Agneta had worked as a maid on an estate north of Helsingborg before moving to that coastal city located just a few miles across from Denmark. Could someone there have helped the family out … perhaps a former lover? Agneta certainly took the mystery to her grave.

The Erie home was close to the Buffalo Road, the main east-west conduit at the time, which my father followed when walking into Erie’s Central High School, from which he graduated in 1903 at age 20.

He then worked in Erie industry for the rest of his life, including 44 years at Griswold, the now-defunct cooking ware maker (many of whose products are now collectors’ items) where he was the comptroller. He married twice (his first wife died at 39) and had seven children, two of whom died young. Naval service left his oldest son disabled, and he died at 44.

He thus had ample need to use one of his favorite phrases “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.” He died at age 87.

But I do imagine that he had a better life in America then he would have had in Sweden.

His half-sister, Freda, married a widowed Irish farmer and had a daughter and five sons. One son became a priest. They had a dairy farm in Harborcreek Township, where Freda was the tax collector for many years. A force of nature who also raised a daughter of her brother and the son of one of his sons, Freda Sheridan was a fervent convert to Catholicism who carried on at the farm after her husband died.

Her life was certainly much different than if she had remained in Sweden.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River, and has the stories to tell about it.