About this Collection
Discovering the Letters
In 1999 Siri Holm Lawson, daughter of Odd Conrad Holm and of the village of Hegra, went in search of a Norwegian-American relative she had heard about named John Holm. She posted some inquiries online at Rootsweb and some months later was able to locate information about him with the generous help of Cathy Walker of Sioux Falls, South Dakota who not only replied to the message with information from her own notes, but even hunted down further information from local community records on Siri's behalf.
This soon led to contact and numerous exchanges with John Holm's great-grandson and Alma C. Wilson's grandson Terry Wilson. Terry Wilson approached Siri Lawson about a shoebox of old letters that had come down from Alma C. Wilson written in Norwegian and thus undecipherable to living descendants. Could Siri help determine what these consisted of?
Siri Lawson, then living in Oklahoma, was lent the collection and was delighted to see what they contained. Not only did the collection contain letters written by her own father Odd and her grandmother Olava, but by a whole host of relatives from her childhood. Together these contained a great many wonderful descriptions of the seasonal rhythms and daily lives of these relatives, most of whom had passed away decades earlier.
Going well beyond the original request, Siri proceeded to carefully transcribe and translate the entire letter collection over a period of many months. It was seen as critically important to preserve the many idiosyncrasies of the originals, including oddities of spelling, grammar, and turns of phrase, and even attempt to recreate some of these in the English translation. In addition, she carefully researched information about the stamps on the letters, and added many marginal notes to the letters with explanations of cultural practices, local knowledge she could supply from her childhood in Hegra, and further notes on the individuals who wrote or who were mentioned in the text. By the end of 2000 she had sent back the letters, along with several binders containing all of the fruits of her labor.
Creating the Online Archive
For almost 10 years these letters have thus remained: a copy of the resulting binders in the hands of Terry Wilson, and Siri's own copies sitting unappreciated in her kitchen closet and buried as files on her hard drive. In 2010, Siri and her son Konrad decided to explore the idea of an online archive of the letters and secured the support of Terry Wilson, who still held the originals. Though many decades have passed, these are still private family letters, so the project remains under limited access while surviving descendents of the letter authors are consulted in Stjørdal and elsewhere.
Konrad's Notes for the Historian
These letters belonged to a Norwegian-American family, with John Holm and his step-daughter Alma C. Wilson the primary recipients. Except for a few copies of letters sent from the United States, the vast majority of the letters are sent from Norway and thus offer us one example of the close connections between Norwegians and relatives who emigrated to the United States from the Norwegian community's perspective. Since they mostly come from the relatives in Norway, rather than depict the experiences of immigrants such as John Holm within the United States, the collection may be of most interest to historians of Norway itself. However, letters from the Norwegian side are also important mirror component to research on Norwegian-American history that already benefits from a number of published collections of letters sent from the United States to Norway. This is an argument well made in an article by Øyvind T. Gulliksen.
I believe the most clear picture to emerge from these letters, though it will surely come as no surprise to scholars of immigration or immigrant history, is the degree to which small communities facing economic hardship come to depend on the generosity of family members who have emigrated and achieved economic prosperity relative to those who stayed behind. The letters in this collection are filled with details on the endless flow of packages, especially from the United States to Norway, with highly specific requests for things to be sent, and statements of regret or guilt at not being able to repay the kindness. Indeed, when the package recipients show their gratitude beyond words, it is often in the currency of news, which was clearly of high value to a homesick relative in the US. This was provided through the recording of details of events in the community or family, and by sending local newspapers, seasonal magazines, and photographs of home.
For the patient reader, these letters hold many surprises. Whether it is a sudden reference to an unidentified flying object in 1934, or fears expressed that Norway might be next after Finland to suffer from Soviet aggression when only days later and entirely different invader would conquer Norway from the south, there are many gems to find.
The collection has some limits, however, that are not immediately apparent. While the letters go back to 1911, a large majority of them are from the 1940s, but almost none from the German occupation period. Most concentrate on the early postwar years, and especially the months after John Holm's death in 1948. Secondly, this online archive does not contain images of the original documents, which would be valuable to compare carefully with the transcriptions by Siri for accuracy. While photocopies of each letter were made in 2000, no archive quality photos of the originals were taken at that time before they were returned to the owner as there was no plan to create an archive of this kind.
About the Website
This website was built in a single intensive burst of activity over a ten day vacation period from December 21-31, 2010 by Konrad using the digital files provided by Siri, a dedicated amateur historian. Siri's work creating these transcriptions and translations took months, but hopefully this website offers some hints of what can be done with her files in a relatively short period of time by an amateur coder. We will ensure that this site is safely hosted, backed up, and its archive software updated going forward. We are open to expanding the site to include other collections, creating clones of the site and its customized scripts for use with other collections, or transferring control of this site to more professional archival institutions if there is a worthy proposal for its further development and maintenance.
Data mining - Some of the value of these letters gets an important boost in the process of transcription and inclusion in an online database such as this website: by tagging these letters, and by offering advanced search abilities, a student or researcher can quickly and easily focus in upon a whole host of specific themes that are brought up in the letters. While any individual letter rarely offers more than a fragment, when examined in bulk, we can begin to see patterns from the letters in matters ranging from sickness and death, religious practices and associations, seasonal rituals, or about the various objects that play an important part in the daily lives of the authors.
The Value of translation - The fact that Siri has translated almost all of these letters, makes them immediately accessible to students and researchers who may not be able to read Norwegian, let alone the Dano-Norwegian writing style of the earliest letters, or the snippets of dialect found throughout.
Omeka and Word - using the powerful and open source software Omeka. The original files containing the letters were Microsoft Word files and the text was copied and pasted into the administrative panels of the software. Then, some of the resulting HTML code that Word created was removed to prevent distortion in its appearance on the site. However, an inspection of the source code will reveal annoying relics of the original Word documents, and not all italics were smoothly transferred.
Tagging - All the documents were tagged with as many items mentioned in the letter as possible, but this process was done while I was reading through the letters for the first time. A rereading of the letters would surely yield more items worth tagging, and we welcome suggestions for additional tags.
Geocoding - There are a number of places that make several appearances in the letters. Using a customized script, I have geocoded many of these places and on a special Places page, shown a KML file with these locations, linked to items tagged with them, on an embedded Google Map. A list of these locations below the map also contain links that allow you to focus in on that single location on the map.
Index - There is an index page with a sortable table of all the letters in the collection, allowing a visitor to quickly view at a glance all the letters sorted by author, date, or title.
There are some defects of the online archive which time constraints did not allow us to address.
-The introductory paragraphs Siri added to her transcriptions and translations were written in all capitals. These were not re-typed before moving them into the database and thus retain their capitals in an environment where they no longer serve any purpose.
-Siri added her marginal notes in italics both within the text of her transcriptions and translations as well as at the end of letters. These have not been moved from their original location to footnotes. Also, it is possible that some italics did not transfer properly from the original Word documents they were composed in but as they usually were written within parentheses, they are usually easy to identify.
-The Norwegian transcription is usually followed directly by the English translation. While it would have been ideal to seperate these completely, it would have taken a great deal extra time.
-Not all persons mentioned in the letters have been tagged when they are mentioned only by first name. Konrad could not confidently identify family members mentioned in letters until more than half the letters had been added and tagged and thus many people tags still need to be added.
About Konrad and Siri
Siri Lawson (Åse Siri Holm) - from Hegra, Norway, now a resident of Sackets Harbor, NY. Siri created and maintains a large website dedicated to information about the World War II Norwegian Merchant Marine (warsailors.com), their ships, and sailors.
Konrad M. Lawson - Norwegian-American dual national born in Stavanger, Norway. Now a PhD Candidate in the history department of Harvard University. Writing dissertation on treason and political retribution against Japanese collaborators in China and Korea in the 1940s. Homepage at muninn.net. Active in the development of online resources dedicated to East Asian history. Manages froginawell.net and chinajapan.org. Contact Konrad directly here.
One of the inspirations for this online archive, which shows the enormous value in gathering and sharing family letters is the following published collection of letters by immigrants themselves:
Solveig Zempel. In Their Own Words: Letters from Norwegian Immigrants. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
Below are some other sources that may be of interest to visitors of our collection, most of them also found in Zempel's own excellent bibliography:
Barton, H. Arnold, ed. Letters from the Promised Land: Swedes in America 1840-1914. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975.
Bjørn Gunnar Østgård. America-America Letters: A Norwegian-American Family Correspondence. Northfield, Minn.: NAHA, 2001.
Blegen, Theodore C., ed. Frontier Parsonage: The Letters of Olaus Fredrik Duus. Norwegian Pastor in Wisconsin, 1855-1858. Northfield, Minn.: NAHA, 1947.
Blegen, Theodore C., ed. Land of Their Choice: The Immigrants Write Home. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955. (Also in Norwegian: Amerikabrev. Oslo, 1959.)
Farseth, Pauline, and Theodore C. Blegen, trans. and ed. Frontier Mother: The Letters of Gro Svendsen. Northfield, Minn.: NAHA, 1950.
Hale, Frederick, ed. Danes in North America. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984.
Hale, Frederick, ed. Their Own Saga: Letters from the Norwegian Global Migration. Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1986.
Haugen, Eva Lund, and Einar Haugen, trans. and ed. Land of the Free: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson's America Letters, 1880-1881. Northfield, Minn.: NAHA, 1978.
Jevne, per, ed. Brevet hjem: En samling brev fra norske utvandrere. Trondheim: Adresseavisen, 1975.
Malmin, Gunnar J., ed. America in the Forties: The Letters of Ole Munch Ræder. Northfield, Minn.: NAHA, 1929.
Munch, Helene, and Peter A. Munch. The Strange American Way: Letters of Caja Munch from Wiota, Wisconsin, 1855-1859. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970.
Zempel, Solveig. In Their Own Words: Letters from Norwegian Immigrants. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
Other Works on Norwegian and Norwegian-American History:
Anderson, Arlow W. The Norwegian-Americans. Boston: Twayne, 1975.
Blegen, Theodore C. Norwegian Migration to America 1825-1860. Northfield, Minn.: NAHA, 1931.
Lovoll, Odd S. The Promise of America: A History of the Norwegian-American People. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1984.
Lovoll, Odd S. Norwegians on the Prairie: Ethnicity and the Development of the Country Town. Northfield, Minn.: NAHA, 2006.
Norman, Hand, and Harald Runblom. Transatlantic Connections: Nordic Migration to the New World after 1800. Oslo: Norwegian University Press, .
Qualey, Carlton C. Norwegian Settlement in the United States. Northfield, Minn.: NAHA, 1938.
Semmingsen, Ingrid. Norway to America: A History of the Migration. Trans. Einar Haugen, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1978.
Note: For a truly extensive list of publications related to Norwegian-American history, see the "Recent Publications" section found in most of the issues of Norwegian-American Studies journal which may all be viewed online.
The Norwegian-American Historical Association - Association dedicated to the collection and preservation of historical materials related to the Norwegian-American experience.
Norwegian-American Studies - NAHA journal dedicated to the study of the Norwegian-American experience.
NAHA Link Page - Probably the best stop for a larger collection of links related to Norwegian-American history.
The Promise of America - Collection of materials on Norwegian emigration and Norwegian-American history 1825-2000
Nasjonalbiblioteket - Norwegian national library.
Riksarkivet og Statsarkivene - The Norwegian national archives.
Stjørdal historielag - The Stjørdal historical association.
Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum
Norwegian-American Genealogical Center & Naeseth Library
Norway-Heritage Hands Across the Sea - Database of passenger lists and emigrant ships from Norway.
Arkivverket Digitalarkivet - Norwegian national digital archive.
Det norske utvandrersenteret - Institute dedicated to the study of Norwegian emigration and immigration.
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