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ISSUE 116 VOL 9 PUBLISHED 11/15/2002

Uncovering details that reveal the essence of family

By Anonymous
Contributing Writer

Friday, November 15, 2002

Preserving our past is important for preserving our future. In understanding the experiences of our ancestors one can better understand how our culture has helped to shape who we are. As generations come and go, a wealth of information can be documented about a particular family's genealogy, highlighting ege Archivist Jeff Sauve began working at St. Olaf three years ago, he did not imagine that a significant amount of his time would be devoted to researching information about alumni. Now, Sauve commits 10 to 20 percent of his time to answering e-mails from people who want to obtain information about a deceased relative that attended St. Olaf. Sauve receives on average five e-mails per week from people, asking him to provide any information he may have on their ancestors. Sauve typically consults a checklist of ten sources, choosing the ones that are most applicable to the situation. His checklist includes the Manitou Messenger database, which is a link on the St. Olaf website. Sauve believes that St. Olaf is possibly the only college in the United States to have indexed every single newspaper article. A person can type the name of the individual and the database will list each article that the person was mentioned in. These articles are important for determining extracurricular involvement or accomplishments. Sauve can also search the St. Olaf collections database to find further information. Sauve also turns to matriculation records, which are thick cards that provide academic records and other personal information. Records were very important in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The matriculation records provide the date and place of birth along with who they were confirmed by. Although these are seemingly small details, Sauve sees them as a springboard into a new lead. In just knowing who a person was confirmed by, the questioning party can then find the church where they were confirmed and check with the church's archives for more information. Other sources include photographs, alumni magazines, alumni files, and the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA), which is located across from the college archives. The NAHA has different information than the college archives such as obituary documents of deceased alumni, as well as information about accomplishments of prominent Norwegian-Americans. "Between the two archives, we can really zone in on families to help them with research," said Sauve. When Sauve receives e-mails about ancestry research, he tries to find as much information as possible to give families a lead. The college archives has a detailed collection of documents, photographs and artifacts, yet does not have extensive information about student life. In the beginning to middle of the nineteenth century, documenting student life was not as much of a priority. Letters from the college president and the Dean's office were more prevalent at that time. Many people are hesitant to begin their research because tracking ancestors from over one hundred years ago can be a difficult task. Some know so little about who they want to research that the task becomes like searching for a needle in a haystack. In many cases, Sauve has been able to take a name and deliver many promising leads to people. In one case, a man had e-mailed Sauve asking him about his ancestor by the last name of Skaare who may have attended St. Olaf in the late 1800s. Around the same time Sauve received the e-mail, a former St. Olaf history professor, Christopher Grasso, had moved into the old house of former St. Olaf President Mohn. The Mohn family had moved out of the house, yet Grasso discovered that the Mohn family forgot to take a large box of correspondence letters. Grasso gave the box to the college archives. Knowing the letters were written around the time of the late 1800s when the college was forming, Sauve scanned some of the documents, each written in Norwegian, and happened to come across the name Skaar in one of the letters. The letter, dated Nov. 5,1883, was from a pastor in Norway who wrote to recommend Imbart Skaar to St. Olaf. In just one letter, Sauve was able to tell the man where Skaar was from, where he lived and worked. Small details can often unravel the beginnings of a long ancestral history. The St. Olaf archive website links to reputable websites to research on local, state, and national levels. On the local level, the NAHA can be found at and the Goodhue County Historical Society at On the state level, the American Association for state and local history can be found at; the Association of Midwest useums at; the Minnesota Historical Society at; and the University of Minnesota Archives at Finally on the national level, one can research information on vital records in the United States at and also on the website for the Association of Moving Image Archivists at Sauve believes that the popularity of the Internet has helped to increase interest in genealogy. "Some people are savvy about the Internet. People can create connections and do research at home and not have to go to every library to find information. The Internet allows the average genealogist to become quite skilled," said Sauve.

Learning from the information

After researching about one's ancestors and where they came from, an individual can better understand their roots to reveal their origin and more specifically, why they may act the way they do. Certain characteristics are valued in each culture, often being passed through generations. Such characteristics are formed by religion, geography, history and cultural values. Paul Anderson, a Lutheran Pastor in Minneapolis, published an article titled "Breaking the stronghold of the Jante" after reading Aksel Sandemose’s book "The escapes from Jante." In the book, Sandemose depicts the ugly side of Scandinavian small town mentality. The term Janteloven, which means "Jante Law," explains the unspoken rules of Scandinavian communities. Sandemose noticed ten traits after observing them in the Norweigian culture. His observations are as follows: do not think you are anything special, do not think you are as important as we are, do not think you are wiser than we are, do not fool yourself into thinking you are better than we are, do not think you know more than we do, do not think you are more than we are, do not think that you are good at anything, do not laugh at us, do not think anyone cares about you, do not think you can teach us anything. Anderson brought forth his evaluation of Sandemose’s novel to shed light on how some Scandinavian families treat each other. In this specific case, Anderson argues that the Jante Law levels people off so no one feels like rising above anyone else. Although such unwritten rules may characterize individual cultures, researching such "rules" can explain stark characteristics in family members. One may find that certain traits have indeed been passed down from past generations. Such research allows people to better understand themselves by understanding the culture from which their ancestors were influenced. Another important resource is consultation of living relatives. By consulting these relatives before they pass away, one can gain information on what they know about their ancestors. Most grandparents for example would be willing to share their experiences.

How to record the research

Once information is obtained, whether complete in detail or not, some find it important to document their findings. Documenting is important to preserve the information that exists up to the current point in time. Several options exist. For those who are intrigued by family photographs, a scrapbook is a popular way to present a family's history. Making a scrapbook allows a person to combine all of their photographs into one place. It can either be detailed for the very creative person, using heritage color schemes and classic embellishments such as buttons and eyelets, or it can even be as simple as placing the photos in photo corners. Either way, a scrapbook serves the purpose of putting a face to the name. Photographs, personal documents and journaling serve as an intimate link to what our ancestors were experiencing. An alternate option is to conduct an oral interview. If an oral interview is conducted, it may be very important to come up with a set of questions to ask. In order to record the conversation, bring a tape recorder to capture their voice on tape. The tape will become a dear artifact after the relative is deceased. Another option is to purchase a book that allows relatives to journal about certain events. At Archiver's, a local scrapbooking store, one can purchase a book that asks questions and leaves room for a response. The value of having hand written responses from a relative will also become very sacred. In any form, documenting family research is valuable for current and future generations to understand their family history.

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