If they’ve heard a low rumbling noise around Valhalla cemetery on Staten Island lately, it’s probably my Norwegian grandfather. Debi and I just got an update from the spit tests we did with Ancestry, com, and I’m 9 percent Swedish, according to its latest estimate.
Debi’s came back too, and she’s 8 percent Norwegian. So it evens out.
But I’m not sure Bestefar (it’s the Norwegian word for grandfather, and that’s what the grandkids called him) would have been happy about that Swedish DNA in one of his grandsons. I never knew him — he died before I was born — but it was his generation that broke away from Sweden in 1905, and they could be quite nationalistic.
In fact, my father once told me that Bestefar would correct people when they spelled our last name with -s-o-n instead of -s-e-n like a good Norwegian or Dane. “You’re making a Swede out of me,” he’d say.
But that was a long time ago. Swedes and Norwegians now speak of each other as broderfolk. In both languages (which are mutually intelligible), the word means brother peoples. And the chafing you hear about Norskies and green Swedes — and you hear a lot of it — is mostly friendly sibling stuff.
Besides, I married into a Swedish family.
Sometimes it’s like living in an Ole and Lena joke, but we get along. After 35 years, in fact, it just doesn’t seem like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner to me without pickled herring and potato baloney (more formally known as potatiskorv in the old country). So I don’t mind that 9 percent of Swedish DNA.
And, more or less by accident, I’ve reinvented myself as an amateur historian of Swedish immigration in west central Illinois. Well, at least their music. Debi’s family lives near Bishop Hill, founded by a Swedish religious colony in the 1850s and 60s. And once when we visited there, i saw a musical instrument called a psalmodikon (pronounced sahl-MOWD-ikon) in the museum there. It’s like a one-string dulcimer that Swedish pastors used to teach new hymns in immigrant churches. I was curious (not yellow, just curious).
So I looked into it, had luthier Steve Endsley of Canton, Ill., make one for me, and wound up demonstrating it at Bishop Hill and later a Founders Day celebration at the Swedish Lutheran church in Andover, about 10 miles from the Edmund family farm in the opposite direction from Bishop Hill.
That in turn led to historical research on the old Swedish-American Lutheran synod and Swedish immigration in general. I was already fascinated with the stories Debi’s father told of cholera epidemics, the orphanage at Andover (which later evolved into Lutheran Social Services of Illinois), and of “America letters” in the early days of Swedish immigration.
Come on over, said some of the letters. The topsoil is 125 feet deep. (That’s true in places. It’s glacial loess, and it’s good farmland.) Better wait a while, said other letters. There’s a war going on here. Best wait till it’s over. Most of the family came to America just after, not during, the Civil War. They broke the prairie, planted crops and, in time, they prospered.
I think it’s one of the great American stories, and it’s one that’s been repeated over and over.
By Swedes and Finns, the Germans and Irish. By African Americans who came here involuntarily; contributed so much to our national culture; and just now, belatedly, are beginning to achieve equality. By Italians, by Poles and Russians, by Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, and now by East Asians, new arrivals from Africa and people from the Middle East, India and Pakistan.
And by the Ellertsens who came from Norway to Brooklyn.
Here, for the record, is my official new Ethnicity Estimate from Ancestry.com:
- Norway 51%
- England & Northwestern Europe 26%
- Germanic Europe 10%
- Sweden 9%
- Scotland 2%
- Wales 2%
That checks out about right with my family history. It’s closer, in fact, than earlier estimates we’ve had from Ancestry.com. At least it corresponds more closely with what I’ve picked up from family stories and (incomplete) genealogies.
The orange-to-umber areas on the map show the areas where I have the most genetic matches. The one in New England and Nova Scotia makes sense. My mother’s family was descended from a Captain Chamberlin in the Massachusetts militia during the Indian wars of the 1670s, so they’ve been in the area long enough to have numerous descendants in the area — enough to color that area umber.
I’m also guessing the Chamberlins account for much of that 26% from England and Northwestern Europe in the ethnicity estimate. No surprises there. There were quite a few Englishmen in my mother’s family.
In addition to the Chamberlins, there was a multigenerational string of Thomas Walkers on her mother’s side, both in England and in Kentucky. My great-grandfather, Thomas Walker IX, was the business agent for the Louisville Courier-Journal under Col. Henry Watterson. I may be off by a Thomas Walker or two, but I’ve always thought that business of carrying down the family name to the ninth generation was as English as you can get!
The rest of my mother’s ethnic heritage was, as she liked to put it, “Heinz 57,” a dash of this and a dash of that blended together. She also liked to say we were mutts, and that was something to take pride in. I suspect that’s where the 2% Scottish and 2% Welsh DNA got into the blend.
My father’s side of the family is a little more complicated, because his ancestors moved around in Europe quite a bit. I think that’s accurately reflected in the estimates of my DNA — 51% Norwegian, 10% Germanic Europe and, yes, 9% Swedish (blue on the map).
Along the western coast of Norway the map shows another orange-to-umber swath, between Bergen and Oslo in the Nordfjord, Sunnfjord and Møre og Romsdal districts. That’s not inconsistent with the family stories and what I know about the area’s history.
Bestefar was from Bergen, and the family had roots there going back as far as the 1810s. But we also have quite a few second cousins in Møre og Romsdal (pronounced MUR-rah oh ROMS-dal), especially around Kristiansund N. (The “N” is to distinguish it from Kristiansand south of Oslo, with which it was often confused — a testimony to Norwegian handwriting — and which gets an “S” after its name.) Nordfjord and Sunnfjord are sparsely populated coastal districts between Kristiansund N and Bergen.
The other side of my father’s family, Bestemor’s side, was from Sarpsborg between Oslo and the Swedish border. They probably account for at least some of that 10 percent of my DNA from Germanic Europe — that blue-green area that takes in the Frisian coast and most of Germany. (My grandfather Chamberlin was half German, too. I think his mother’s family, the Hoffmans, was from Ontario.) A genealogy shows Bestemor’s family was clearly part German.
They were descended from a Johan Caspar Walther, who was born in Schleswig-Holstein in 1764 and came (to Norway) to work at the Vallø saltverk (salt works), which processed salt from seawater in Tønsberg on the west side of Oslofjord. His children crossed to the east side of the fjord, living mostly around Sarpsborg.
And the next generation wound up in Sarpsborg, a couple of nearby towns, Oslo, Minneapolis and Brooklyn — where Bestemor and Bestefar were married in 1910.
Bestemor always maintained we were ultimately descended from Johann Walther, a German composer best known for arranging Martin Luther’s first hymnals in the 1520s. One of his tunes, which he probably co-wrote with Luther, is “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” While I can’t verify it any earlier than 1764, I really like the idea of a Norwegian immigrant family in Brooklyn tracing its roots back to Luther’s cantor in Wittenberg.
What inferences do I draw from all of this? One is that Ancestry.com is getting more accurate as more people take the spit test and get their DNA in its data base. The other is that our ancestors moved around in Europe more than sometimes we give them credit for.
Maybe, when you get down to it, we’re all broderfolk.
A couple of jokes that Swedes and Norwegians tell on their siblings follow:
Dad once told me a story about a fine lady who took the train from Stockholm to Oslo in a more formal age than our own. It seems the lady got on the train in Sweden, where a conductor bowed and said, “Vakta footen, min lilla venn” (watch your feet, my little friend).
So the train goes on to Norway, and the lady gets off in Oslo. And the Norwegian conductor barks, “Dra til beine” (pull up your legs), in a tone you’d use for cattle instead of fine Swedish ladies.
(I’m sure I’m misspelling this, by the way because I didn’t know Norwegian at the time, and I’m making a stab at what I remember phonetically.)
As is so often the case with Scandinavian humor, Dad’s joke about the stuffy, citified Swede and the rude, crude Norwegian conductor was so dry I don’t know who’s the butt of the joke. Was it making fun of the Swedish city slicker or the Norwegian country bumpkin? Or both at the same time?
Anyway, I’ve had plenty of occasion to tell that story when we’re together with Debi’s family. Like I said, it’s like living in an Ole and Lena joke sometimes. And I’m one of only two Norskies who married into the family, so we’re outnumbered.
Since I just told a joke on the Swedes, maybe I’d better balance it with a joke on the Norwegians. Or maybe it’s a joke on both at the same time, too.
It’s in an essay by James Leary in a book titled Norwegians and Swedes in the United States: Friends and Neighbors. Yes, there is such a book, and it’s published by — who else? — the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
As Leary tells it, a Swedish farmer comes home drunk one night. He’s too drunk to go inside, so he crawls into a hoghouse to sleep it off. When he wakes up, he’s curled up next to one of the hogs.
“Er du svensk?” he asks (are you Swedish).
And the hog rolls over and says, “Norsk, norsk” (Norwegian, Norwegian).
Leary explains what we probably already knew — “a teller’s successful pronunciation of ‘Norsk’ requires a snorting inhalation onomatopoeically equivalent to a porker’s grunt.” He also observes that a lot of jokes went around in the upper Midwest “invoking such common themes from oral joke telling as the urbane, superior Swede versus the stubborn, rustic Norwegian.”
So that’s where Dad got the story about the fine Swedish lady on the train to Oslo!
James P. Leary, “‘Ar Du Svensk?‘ — ‘Norsk, Norsk!‘: Folk Humor and Cultural Difference in Scandinavian America,” in Norwegians and Swedes in the United States: Friends and Neighbors, ed. Philip J. Anderson and Dag Blanck (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012), 71, 77.
[Revised and published, Feb. 7, 2021]