Norway to Bella Coola: Konstanse Fyhn

I’m happy to be writing a series of blog posts about my great-grandparents, Ole Olsen and Konstanse Fyhn. This second installment is the story of my great-grandmother’s journey from Norway to Hagensborg, British Columbia in the spring of 1914, including thoughts about some possible reasons for her emigration as a young, single woman. Konstanse settled in the Bella Coola Valley, joining an aunt and uncle whom had emigrated earlier. Before the year was out, she found herself a bride, marrying my great-grandfather, Ole Olsen, in December of 1914.

Konstanse Wilhelmine Aminda Fyhn left Norway for Bella Coola, British Columbia in the spring of 1914, when she was just 19 years old. Several generations and over 100 years later, it’s difficult to determine Konstanse’s motivations for leaving Norway, but one can speculate. Family legend points to a problematic relationship with a Norwegian man (the brother of the wife of one of Konstanse’s half-brothers) as the likely reason for her emigration.

constance and anders fyhn(wife) and brother, lars martinson
Konstanse seated at left with Lars Martinsen standing behind her. The other couple pictured is Konstanse’s eldest half-brother, Anders Fyhn, and his wife Alette, who was Lars’ sister.

Apparently, both the boyfriend’s family and Konstanse’s own mother were not supportive of the match. Lars Martinsen “had been her boyfriend for a while, at least two years.”1 The relationship was serious enough that Konstanse and Lars had their photo taken together with another couple – Konstanse’s half-brother Anders and his wife, Alette, who was Lars’ sister. Was the photo a promise or a dream of a life together for Lars and Konstanse?

A letter my grandmother, one of Konstanse’s daughters, received from her Norwegian cousin reflects on Konstanse’s emigration and Konstanse’s mother’s views about the young couple:

“Maybe the main reason why grandmother wanted [Konstanse] to go was that she didn’t like aunt’s boyfriend Lars. Aunt was rather young. Maybe grandmother was afraid that the same thing should happen to aunt as to herself. She had three children before she was married. Two of them died early. The third, Johan, lived until he was five years old. Grandma was put in prison for a little while for this. It was like that at the time in Norway, that the girl was punished. The boys were innocent.”2

Was Konstanse sent away by her family to prevent a deepening relationship with her boyfriend? It’s entirely possible. However, it’s also possible that a determined young woman just wanted to create her own adventure in the new world. Immigration historian Theodore C. Blegen reminds us that: “Since the days of Puritan and Cavalier, children of the Old World have thronged to the shores of the New seeking well-being and happiness.”3 After years of being raised as the only daughter among sons, perhaps Konstanse wanted to escape a life of doing unpaid chores for her parents and six brothers. Or perhaps she just didn’t see any favourable social or economic opportunities for herself if she stayed in Norway.

“Women, like men, responded to economic opportunities abroad. As the Norwegian Bureau of the Census concludes, ‘From the earliest beginnings the main reason for emigration from Norway seems to have been young people’s desire to improve their economic circumstances.’ Nineteenth-century Norway, the bureau explains, was not considered well developed economically, and opportunities for advancement or a living wage were grossly inferior.”4

Norwegian historian Ingrid Semmingson writes that “to 1914 America became the prime goal of the wanderlust of impecunious Norwegian young people.”5 Konstanse was young, she was unmarried, she was from a small fishing village in rural, northern Norway, and she was the only daughter of a large family. Perhaps she didn’t see her life playing out the way she dreamed. During the period from 1866 to 1940, women accounted for 41% of Norwegian immigration to overseas countries, and “most women, like men, were not married and immigration might represent a liberating aspect of their lives.”6

So when an opportunity to travel to the New World came up, perhaps she was ready and willing to go – to break free and take charge of her own life, and to assert her independence. And what was that opportunity? Companions to travel with.

Konstanse’s niece thought that Konstanse travelled as part of a group: “I’ve heard that a member of a family, that was from this area, that had emigrated to Amerika was here [back in Norway] visiting. It was said that if they brought with them another person from Norway to Amerika, then they wouldn’t be charged anything for the return ticket.”7

Konstanse did travel as part of a group. Her aunt, her father’s sister Nille, was married to a man named Eilert Knudsen. Nille and Eilert had immigrated to Canada in 1907, settling in Hagensborg, a Norwegian community in the Bella Coola Valley. Eilert’s brother Kasper Knudsen, Kasper’s wife Hanna, and Kasper and Hanna’s two youngest sons must have decided to join not only Nille and Eilert, but also the two eldest Knudsen children, who were already in the Bella Coola Valley. Konstanse travelled with the Knudsens on their journey to Canada. Her name can be found together with theirs on the manifest of the Allan Line’s Victorian.

So, although Kasper and Hanna Knudsen were not emigrants back in Norway visiting, they were headed to Amerika – the land of new chances – and Konstanse took the opportunity to join them on their journey. While not closely related, Konstanse likely would have known her uncle’s family, as they also were from the same Norwegian county, and she and her parents all must have felt more comfortable about the long journey ahead knowing she was travelling with trusted companions.

The mention of the Knudsen party’s arrival in the March 28, 1914 issue of the Bella Coola Courier gets almost as many details wrong as it gets right, but I’m quite confident it is Konstanse’s travel group being described and she is the “daughter” mentioned:

“S.S. Camosun arrived in port on Sunday last with the usual large number of passengers. Mr. and Mrs. Kasperson, three sons and a daughter, arrived by last Sunday’s steamer and intend to settle in the valley. They came from Norway by the Allan Line of steamers, purchasing their tickets through the steamship company’s local agent at Bella Coola. Mr. and Mrs. Kasperson have relatives and friends in the valley.”8

Along with Konstanse, Kasper and Hanna Knudsen travelled with their two sons, 15-year-old Morten Kasperson, and 11-year-old Jorgen Kasperson. The ship’s manifest from the Victorian, shows another young man grouped together with the Knudsen family and Konstanse, 24-year-old Johan Fredricksen, who declared himself a farm labourer. Perhaps he was coming to help the Knudsen family make their new start in the Bella Coola Valley.

FyhnHouse4
Fyhn family home in Lattervik, Norway – Photo by Marcy Green

The Fyhn family house in Lattervik in the Troms County of northern Norway is still home to Fyhns today. A granddaughter of Konstanse’s brother Anfinn Fyhn lives there now, and recently welcomed two of my father’s brothers to Norway for a visit. My relatives there have the sense that Konstanse left in sadness, which agrees with the letter my grandmother received from her Norwegian cousin: “The day aunt [Konstanse] left, my mother walked with her to Jægervatnet [a village about 10 kilometres away from Lattervik]. Aunt wasn’t happy the day she had to leave everything she cared about in Norway.”9

While I love the idea of my great-grandmother being an adventurous woman of action, if Konstanse left Norway in great sadness, she doesn’t sound very much like a young adventurer, eager to make a new start in an exciting new land. While it’s impossible to know the actual motivations for her emigration from Norway, I do know the spring of 1914 found Konstanse sailing from Liverpool with the Knudsens and landing at St. John, New Brunswick. She travelled seven days by train across Canada, arriving in Vancouver for the final leg of her journey by steamship to Bella Coola. Once there, she joined her aunt Nille and uncle Eilert.

After arriving in Bella Coola, Konstanse may have worked as a mother’s helper for early colonists Mattie and Barney Brynildsen (whom a Norwegian relative tells me may also have been relatives of Konstanse’s), helping with their two young boys, Robert and Alger. A family story spins the romantic yarn that each of Hagensborg’s three Olsen brothers, Ole, Ingvald, and Paul, initially attempted to woo the newly arrived Konstanse, but she picked Ole as her match.

Olsens
My great-grandparents, Konstanse Fyhn & Ole Olsen on their wedding day in 1914.

Konstanse’s memory of the first time she met her husband-to-be was shared with a granddaughter: “It was on a Sunday in church that I first saw him. I was wearing my new green coat and hat and looked my best. Your grandfather was a fine figure of a man, and I decided that I would marry him.”10 The couple was married on December 23, 1914, in the home of Ole T. and Mina Ovesen in Hagensborg.

Ole and Konstanse lived in a frame house built by Ole on a 22-acre property bounded by the river. When the river’s path changed, their farm became an island, accessed either from the Salloompt Valley by the main Salloompt bridge, or from Hagensborg by the smaller Branch bridge. The Olsens’ first son, John, was born in 1915, with Arnold (1919), Einar (1922), Olive (1925), twins Herbert and Henry (1927), my grandmother Eva (1929), Eleanor (1930), and Robert (1934) following after.

The Olsens stayed in the Bella Coola Valley until their home was damaged by a great flood in October 1934, after which, together with Ole’s brothers’ families, they moved to Sidney on Vancouver Island.


Notes

  1. Aagoth Fyhn, “Why Konstanse Fyhn Emigrated to Canada,” interview by Per-Kristian Fyhn, July 25, 2010.
  2. Aagoth Fyhn, letter to Eva Johnson, December 13, 1995.
  3. Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America 1825-1860 (Northfield, MN: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1931), v, HathiTrust Digital Library, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000622642.
  4. Betty A. Bergland, and Lori Ann Lahlum, Norwegian American Women: Migration, Communities, and Identities (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011), 62, muse.jhu.edu/book/2013.
  5. Ingrid Semmingsen, Norway To America: A History of the Migration (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1980), 119, ProQuest Ebook Central.
  6. Bergland, 54.
  7. Fyhn, letter.
  8. “Jottings of Bella Coola and District,” Bella Coola Courier, March 28, 1914. BC Historical Newspapers, UBC Open Collection, http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0170090.
  9. Fyhn, interview.
  10. Marcy (Olsen) Green, “An Immigrant’s Journey: The Olsen Family,” The Vancouver Sun, April 29, 2008, B3.

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