The Olsens in Bella Coola

I’m happy to be writing a series of blog posts about my great-grandparents, Ole Olsen and Konstanse Fyhn. This third installment is the story of the Olsens’ time in the Bella Coola Valley after their marriage in December of 1914 until they left the valley in early 1935.

While many of the original Norwegian settlers in the Bella Coola Valley had dreams of making a living off the land and selling produce to support themselves, this proved to be challenging. Diana French, an author based in the Cariboo Chilcotin region, reflects on how the original colonists must have wondered at their choice: “The valley was dreary. The mountains loomed over the newcomers, critical of every move. There were no open meadows in the valley. Every inch of land was buried under thick tangles of brambles and bush, windfalls and enormous trees.”1

While the land they had heard promising tales of did prove to have rich alluvial soil, great for growing potatoes and fruit trees, massive trees covered everything in sight. The river, with its frequently shifting flood plain, was also a challenge to farmers living on its banks. But probably the biggest impediment to the colonists making a living from the fruits of their labour was the lack of access to the Bella Coola Valley, and “by 1915 everyone realized that the valley’s remote location made full-scale farming a chancy business.”2

To earn a living, many of the men of the Norwegian community, my great-grandfather Ole included, worked as commercial fishermen, spending long periods of time away from home. Ole fished salmon in Rivers Inlet from spring to autumn, and sometimes went out again in November, when he headed to the west coast of Vancouver Island to fish the runs there. With a can of salmon considered the ideal army ration, B.C. salmon was in demand during World War I.3 Fishermen like Ole would have likely found plenty of demand for their catch. But other times were tougher. “In the very early twenties the fishing was not rewarding,”4 local historian Cliff Kopas records in his history of Bella Coola. Families likely had to subsist on what their garden could provide them. “In a poor fishing year, the women probably made more of what they realized in the garden than the men did.”5

bella colla, mom,arnold , einar,dad, johnnyThe Olsens circa 1923 – Konstanse, Arnold, Einar, Ole, and Johnny

With the men away for long periods of time fishing, the women were frequently left to take on most of the responsiblities at home, including raising the children and tending the farm. With young ones to care for, animals to mind, household tasks to be done, bread to bake, and gardens to plant, weed, and harvest, women like my great-grandmother Konstanse would have had more than enough chores to keep themselves busy. Perhaps this helped to distract Konstanse from her loneliness, for “the lot of a fisherman’s wife was a solitary one in rural British Columbia.”6

Ole was joined fishing by his sons as they aged, with his oldest son Johnny eventually running a boat of his own. In what seems to be a very popular generic “Norwegian fisherman in Bella Coola” image, a young Johnny Olsen is captured in a photo taken by Cliff Kopas, who in addition to being a local historian was also an avid photographer. The image turned up in multiple books that I read during my research. My grandmother always claimed that her brother was in a “famous” photo, but the young fisherman I encountered again and again was always unidentified. Finally, in a book edited by Kopas’ son Leslie, I found a proper caption for the photo. It was Johnny afterall, my grandmother’s eldest brother. What a nice surprise!

Johnny also makes an appearance as an eager but green cowboy in Isabel Edwards’ book Ruffles on My Longjohns, which chronicles the Edwards family’s experiences homesteading in the Bella Coola Valley. “The saddle was for a young Hagensborg chap named Johnnie Olson [sic] whom Earle had met out on the fishing grounds. Johnnie longed to be a cowboy. His only dream was to ‘ride the hurricane deck of a cayuse,’ but he had no saddle, nor a horse to put one on.”7 After his pack horses desert him and he has to spend a night out alone in the cold with no axe or matches, Edwards says Johnny changed his mind about his dream and “with an air of finality the words burst from him, ‘But to hell with horses!'”8 So it was back to fishing for Johnny Olsen, and in a cruel twist of fate, Bella Coola’s iconic fisherman died doing what he knew best. Having never learned to swim, Johnny presumably drowned in 1969 while fishing off the coast of Prince Rupert. His body was never recovered.

bella colla, dad, mom, eva, johnny,arnold,olive,henry,herb,eThe Olsens circa 1930 – Back row: Ole, Konstanse, Eva, Johnny, and Arnold;
Front row: Olive, Henry, Herb, and Einar

In October of 1934, after a heavy snowfall followed by an unusual warm spell and multiple days of rain, the Bella Coola River rose swiftly and flooded the Olsens’ property near Hagensborg. Ole and Johnny were away fishing at the time, so Konstanse was the only parent at home with the eight younger children as the river rose closer and closer to the house. Baby Robert was just a few weeks old at the time. The family sheltered in the house, feeling especially terrified after “away out in the night there came the most awful shock. As though the house itself were falling to pieces. … Arnold instantly interpreted: ‘The Branch bridge.'”9 The Olsens’ farm was located on an island which was connected to surrounding land by two bridges. The children were upset; they were out of drinking water, and the river continued to rise. A second roar indicated the main bridge also being washed away.

Great tree trunks from a dislodged log jam struck “the house so hard the whole place shook and faltered as though the boards were being warped crazily and all the nails pulled out at once. It struck them dumb.”10 With trees racing through the flood waters like battering rams, the river was no place for the family’s small rowboat, and they were trapped on their island. The Olsens prayed.

And their prayers were answered. Together with a crew of Nuxalk paddlers, the local doctor from the Mission Hospital, Dr. Herman McLean, and the provincial police constable, whom I believe was Jack Condon, rescued the Olsens in two great spoon canoes. My grandmother’s brother Einar remembered one of the Nuxalk rescuers as being Clayton Mack, later known as “The Bella Coola Man.” While I didn’t find any reference to Mack rescuing a flooded-out white family in 1934 in either of his biographies, it’s the kind of tale that would fit right in with Mack’s other adventures. Mack would have been approximately 24 years old at the time of the flood. A canoe rescue might have been not only enticing for its sense of adventure, but also quite doable given his familiarity with the area and in handling canoes. He certainly rescued his fair share of others from all sorts of wilderness scrapes during his many years as a grizzly bear guide in the Chilcotin. So, while I may never confirm that Clayton Mack was among the Olsens’ rescuers, it sure makes a good Bella Coola tale.

“I remember being in that flood, raging water everywhere, tree trunks, chickens, and planks swirling past us,” my grandmother Eva recalled.11 The family was loaded into the two great canoes, and the children were told to “Sit still!” with “enough authority in it to silence nearly forever all the rambunctious, disorderly kids in the whole world.”12 Einar remembered being scared and excited, and when interviewed about the flood he confided: “I almost wet my pants!”13

But the Olsens weren’t in the clear yet. When the canoes were beached on a sandbar, the family had to unload. The shifting sands caused Einar to lose his footing and he disappeared into the river with his baby sister Eleanor in his arms. A Nuxalk paddler grabbed Einar by the hair and pulled and the two Olsens were rescued a second time, “the infant still clasped in [Einar’s] unyielding grasp.”14 What a terrifying ordeal. It’s no wonder that, as my father’s cousin aptly wrote in a newspaper article about the Olsen family, “this harrowing story continues to be one that is retold in our family and handed down through the generations.”15

The 1934 flood was the largest in the valley in 60 years.16 With 11 acres of their land swept away, and a house that would never be the same, the Olsens’ farm was a grim picture. My grandmother’s brother Einar reflected in a 1998 interview: “We didn’t recognize the place. … There had been two benches of land and now it was all changed. There was six feet of river silt where there had been green grass and water had ruined everything in the house. All the years of hard work were destroyed.”17

It was time for the Olsens to leave the Bella Coola Valley.


Notes

  1. Hank Olsen, Bella Coola Lady and That’s No Maybe (Victoria, BC: Trafford Publishing, 2003), 28.
  2. Paula Wild, One River, Two Cultures: A History of the Bella Coola Valley (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2004), 125.
  3. Mark Forsythe & Greg Dickson, “The Gift of Salmon,” in From the West Coast to the Western Front: British Columbians and the Great War (Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2014), 68.
  4. Cliff Kopas, Bella Coola (Vancouver: Mitchell Press, 1970), 266.
  5. Gordon Fish, Dreams of Freedom: Bella Coola, Cape Scott, Sointula (Victoria: Provincial Archives of British Columbia, 1982), 42.
  6. Olsen, Bella Coola Lady and That’s No Maybe, 33.
  7. Isabel Edwards, Ruffles on my Longjohns (North Vancouver: Hancock House, 1980), 241.
  8. Edwards, Ruffles on my Longjohns, 242.
  9. Olsen, Bella Coola Lady and That’s No Maybe, 128.
  10. Olsen, Bella Coola Lady and That’s No Maybe, 130.
  11. Eva Johnson, diary entry.
  12. Olsen, Bella Coola Lady and That’s No Maybe, 132.
  13. Wild, One River, Two Cultures, 164.
  14. Olsen, Bella Coola Lady and That’s No Maybe, 132.
  15. Marcy (Olsen) Green, “An Immigrant’s Journey: The Olsen Family,” The Vancouver Sun, April 29, 2008, B3.<
  16. D. Septer, Flooding and Landslide Events in Northern British Columbia, 1820-2006, ([Victoria, BC:] Ministry of Environment, [2007]), 28, http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wsd/public_safety/flood/pdfs_word/floods_landslides_north.pdf.
  17. Wild, One River, Two Cultures, 164.

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.

Obituary: Eva Joy (Olsen) Johnson & Erling Isador Johnson

2002-06-21 50th ann

Eva Joy Johnson
December 30, 1929 – May 2, 2019

Erling Isador Johnson
December 10, 1925 – May 3, 2019

Together Forever

It is with heavy hearts we say goodbye to our loving parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, Erling and Eva Johnson, who passed away within hours of each other in Williams Lake on May 2nd and 3rd, 2019.

They leave behind many memories for their ten children: Chris (Tina), Ingrid (Jerry), Darrell (Maechlin), Paul (Pauline), Bruce (Jackie), Byron (Laurie), Stephen (Rubina), Garth (Coleen), Ben (Tanya), and James (Kim), as well as their 22 grandchildren and a growing number of great-grandchildren.

Eva was predeceased by her parents, Ole and Constance Olsen, as well as her brothers John, Arnold, Einar, Hank, and Robert, and her sister Olive Broomfield. She is survived by her brother Herbert and her sister Eleanor Rodgers.

Erling was predeceased by his parents, Ted and Elfreda Johnson, as well as his sister Irene Fulla. He is survived by his younger sister Ivy Stubbs. Eva and Erling are also survived by numerous nieces, nephews, cousins, and extended family members in Canada, Sweden, and Norway.

Remembered for their devotion to both their family and their Christian faith, Eva and Erling were married for almost 67 years. They shared a wonderful life together that was a model for all our family, and they will be greatly missed. During this difficult time, the family takes comfort in knowing that Eva and Erling’s walk throughout their married lives was always in step with one another, and with the Lord.

The eldest child of Swedish immigrants, Ted and Elfreda (Stenvall) Johnson, Erling Isador Johnson was born in Sylvan Lake, Alberta on December 10th, 1925. After a difficult time spent attempting to farm, Erling’s parents moved the family to Smithers in the late 1920s. In 1938, the family moved again, this time to Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, where Erling attended John Shaw High School.

After graduating, Erling attended Grade 13 in Vancouver, in preparation for university. But instead of heading off to UBC as planned, he enlisted in the Canadian Army on August 3rd, 1944, at age 18. He was trained in Vancouver and England and was sent to Holland in 1945. Discharged on December 4th, 1945, Erling enrolled in the Forestry program at UBC, and as an Armed Forces veteran, his tuition was paid.

Erling is remembered for his great patience and kindness. He was so proud of all his children, and he loved to tell stories of their many accomplishments.

Eva Joy Olsen was born in Hagensborg, outside Bella Coola, on December 30th, 1929, to Norwegian immigrant parents Ole and Constance (Fyhn) Olsen.

The Olsens moved away from the Bella Coola Valley in early 1935, after their home was destroyed by a great flood from which the family had to be rescued. The family moved to Sidney on Vancouver Island, and although her older siblings felt the strain of the move, Eva loved growing up there, and living near Roberts Bay. She remembered the family growing strong ties within their church community, and she had fond memories of days spent on the beach.

In 1942, the Olsens moved to Nanaimo, where Eva attended John Shaw High School. She got her first job in an accountant’s office when she was 17, and she also worked for a few years in the office at Northwest Bay Logging Company.

Eva is remembered for her lovely singing voice, which graced not only family events and church functions, but also could be heard during quiet moments at home.

Eva and Erling first met in 1947. Thinking back on the day they met, Eva wrote in her journal: “He walked into our church, and I promptly fell in love.” The couple were married in Nanaimo, on June 21st, 1952, after Erling received his degree and was working in the forest industry.

Living in Nanaimo on St. Andrews Street, the Johnsons started a family of their own. Christopher, Ingrid, Darrell, and Paul were born in Nanaimo. Sons Bruce, Byron, Stephen, Garth, Benjamin, and James followed after the family moved to the Cowichan Valley.

In the late 1950s, the family moved to Nitinat, a logging camp at Kissinger Lake. By 1962, they had moved to Lake Cowichan, and four years later, they moved to Herd Road, outside of Maple Bay. They lived at the Herd Road house for about eight years before moving to a rented home in Duncan, and then to their own home in Crofton.

In 1976, the family moved to property outside of 100 Mile House. Over the next 30 years, Eva and Erling, with the help of their sons, developed a ranch at Upper Lake, and enjoyed a rural lifestyle.

With their children grown up with families of their own, Erling and Eva fulfilled their long-time dream of moving back to Vancouver Island in 2006. They settled in French Creek, enjoying a life of retirement by the ocean’s shore.

In 2015, Erling and Eva returned to the Cariboo. They were happy to have loving family members visit them at the Williams Lake Seniors Village, offering comfort and support during their final years.

The family would like to thank the staff at the Williams Lake Seniors Village, and a special thank you to Dr. Schreve. A memorial service for the Johnsons was held on Saturday, May 11th at the Cariboo Christian Life Fellowship Church at the 108 Mile Ranch. In remembrance of Erling and Eva, donations can be made to Cal Bombay Ministries, a charity which the Johnsons supported for many years.

Norway to Bella Coola: Ole Olsen

I’m happy to be writing a series of blog posts about my great-grandparents, Ole Olsen and Konstanse Fyhn. This first part of the story is a look at my great-grandfather, Ole Kristian Kaspersen Olsen, including his emigration from Norway, his eventual settlement in the Bella Coola Valley with his two brothers Ingvald and Paul, and his marriage to my great-grandmother, Konstanse Fyhn, in 1914.

By October of 1912, my great-grandfather, Ole Kristian Kaspersen Olsen, was living in the Bella Coola Valley. He and his younger brother, Ingvald, had settled in Hagensborg, the Norwegian community that had been established approximately 20 kilometres east of the Bella Coola townsite. Ole and Ingvald’s younger sibling, Paul, had joined his brothers by 1913. Prior to his arrival in Hagensborg, Ole had left Norway, landed in New York, and lived in Minnesota for about a year. In the early 1900s, Ole’s two elder sisters, Konstanse and Eleonora, had immigrated separately from the family’s home in Helgeland, a district in the Nordland County in northern Norway, to Minnesota, where large numbers of Norwegians had been settling since the 1860s.1

The 1910 US Census indicates that Ole’s eldest sister, Konstanse, was the first of the family to leave, emigrating from Norway in 1901. She married Iver Bottolfson in 1905, and settled in Freeborn County, Minnesota. The 1920 US Census shows that Nora immigrated next in 1906, likely to join her sister. In 1908, Nora married Mandius Monson in Freeborn, and remained there until her death in 1948. Both Bottolfson and Monson were American born sons of Norwegian immigrants. It’s likely that Ole joined his sisters and their families with thoughts of starting a farm of his own in Minnesota.

Ole was the second son in the large Kaspersen family. It would have been expected that his elder brother, Arthur, would inherit the entirety of the family’s farm. Many parts of Norway are dominated by mountains, with only a small portion of the country suitable for farming. At the start of the 20th century, Norway was one of the poorest countries in Europe.2 Poverty and a lack of land opportunities, combined with the odel system of land tenure in Norway, which dictated that only the oldest son – the “odelsgutt” – inherited the farm, saw many younger sons immigrating to ‘Amerika’.3

Picture of nine men, five standing, with four seated in front.
Ole Kristian Kaspersen Olsen is seated on the far left; his older brother, Arthur Rosenius, is seated beside him; a man who is possibly his brother-in-law, Iver Bottolfson (husband of his eldest sister Konstanse), is seated next to Arthur; and his father Ole Jorgen Kaspersen is seated on the far right. Younger brothers Paul Waldemar and Ingvald Hagen are standing, with Paul in the middle and Ingvald on the far right. Circa 1910.

A relative in Norway tells me that even two generations earlier, Ole’s own maternal grandfather had wanted to emigrate from Norway:

“Erik Pedersen was born in Lom in 1824 and died in 1887. His family tried to move to Amerika but could not afford it. He and his brother Johannes walked then to Helgeland [a journey of hundreds of kilometres]. Erik settled down on a small island and built a small farm. Living off fishing and the small farm. Lom is a mountain village. The change was enormous.”4

Hundreds of thousands had left Norway for North America by 1920.5 This mass migration brought many Norwegian immigrants to the American mid-west where land was readily available, especially after 1862, when the United States Homestead Act allowed newly arrived immigrants to become land owners. Applicants could become owners of 160 acres for just an $18 filing fee if they moved onto the land, built a home there, and farmed the property for five years.6

Despite the availability of land and the relatively low cost of becoming a land owner, some immigrant settlers, including a group of Norwegians in the mid-west, were not content in the United States. “Some had lost their farms, others were tired of the frigid prairie winters and the blazing hot summers.”7 A severe economic depression coupled with challenges to religious freedoms, led the group of Norwegians to select their pastor, Rev. Christian Saugstad, to look for a new place to start a settlement. Ideally, the group wanted the geography of the new settlement to be more like their homeland, as “they missed the comforting backdrop of enclosing mountains and the moderating presence of the ocean.”8

Articles written by Bernard Fillip Jacobsen initially led Saugstad to the Bella Coola Valley.9 Jacobsen was one of the first white settlers in the area. Seeing beauty and potential in the land, Jacobsen not only encouraged the B.C. government to settle the Bella Coola Valley, but he also submitted articles praising the valley to Norwegian language newspapers in the United States. It was these articles, in which Jacobsen compared the coast of British Columbia to that of Norway, and indicated that “the climate, soil, and lifestyle [of the Bella Coola Valley] would be ideal for Norwegians”10 that drew the attention of Saugstad.

After visiting the valley, liking what he saw, and then making arrangements with the provincial government to reserve land for the formation of a colony, Saugstad led the first group of about 85 Norwegians to the Bella Coola Valley in 1894. Under the terms negotiated with Colonel James Baker, the Provincial Secretary and Minster of Education, Immigration and Mines, each man was to receive 160 acres of free land after five years of occupancy, if he could prove $5 per acre in improvements.11

Before arriving, the group members created and signed a charter which stated their intent to form a utopian community: “The purpose of this colony shall be to induce moral, industrious and loyal Norwegian farmers, mechanics and business men to come to Bella Coola and make their homes there under the laws of British Columbia.”12

By the time my great-grandfather and his brothers arrived in Hagensborg, Saugstad was dead and the colony charter had dissolved. However, the community remained primarily made up of Norwegian immigrants, with over 200 settlers living in the area, and farming, fishing, and family were the fundamental aspects of community life. Combined with the fjord-like coastal landscape of the Bella Coola Valley, it must have seemed like a comforting and familiar place, a place to call home.

Picture of three men, two standing and one seated in the middle.
Brothers Ingvald, Ole, and Paul

Somewhere in the process of immigrating to North America, the three brothers, Ole, Ingvald, and Paul, became Olsens rather than Kaspersens. Family lore points to either an immigration official changing the family name because he couldn’t pronounce Kaspersen, or another immigrant at Ellis Island choosing Olsen as his new surname, and then the Kaspersen brother behind him in line following suit. I’m not sure either of these theories is the whole story.

It wasn’t until 1923 that it became law in Norway for families to use a single, hereditary surname.13 While Ole and his brothers may have used the hereditary surname Kaspersen like their father, they might also have used it together with Olsen, a patronymic surname (their father’s first name plus a suffix denoting relationship). The Norwegian-American Historical Association explains that “on the whole, the immigrants were not very particular about which surnames they adopted. The most important factor was apparently whether the name could be written and pronounced in English.”14 The brothers may have felt that Olsen was a choice better suited for life in North America than Kaspersen. Or perhaps the choice really was made for them when an immigration officer filling in their paperwork couldn’t pronounce or spell Kaspersen.

As an aside, while I can’t be 100% sure that I’ve found that right passenger list, I did find a Konstanse Olsen immigrating in 1901 from the family’s region of Norway to the US. If this was in fact Ole’s older sister, it could indicate that the family was comfortable using Olsen as a surname long before having its name changed suddenly in an immigration line.

Most likely arriving at different times, the three Olsen brothers made the Bella Coola Valley their home. They lived together in a house on the Salloompt side of the river’s banks. In 1914, my great-grandfather Ole’s life changed forever. Springtime brought nineteen-year-old Konstanse Fyhn to the Bella Coola Valley, an event which surely caught the attention of all three of the bachelor brothers. A family story spins the tale that each of the three men brought the newly arrived Konstanse a different gift to win her favour. Ingvald brought her a fresh caught salmon, Paul brought her a box of chocolates and made her laugh, and Ole brought her a bouquet of wild flowers. A granddaughter of Konstanse reflects: “It was all prescient as Ingvald would go on to become the most successful fisherman, Paul remained a good friend, and Ole was somewhat of a romantic at heart.”15 Ole, “the most sought after bachelor in the Bella Coola,”16 won Konstanse’s heart and the couple was married on December 23, 1914.

Ingvald and Paul served overseas in World War I as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, while Ole stayed at home and started a family with Konstanse. After the war, Ingvald and Paul returned, married, and started raising families of their own. The three branches of the Olsen family remained close, all moving to Sidney on Vancouver Island after a heavy flood in 1934.


Notes

  1. Carlton C. Qualey, “Pioneer Norwegian Settlement in Minnesota,” Minnesota History 12, no. 3 (September 1931): 247-280, http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/12/v12i03p247-280.pdf/.
  2. Larsen, Erling Roed, “The Norwegian Economy 1900-2000: From Rags to Riches, A Brief History of Economic Policymaking in Norway,” Economic Survey 4 (2001): 25, https://www.uio.no/studier/emner/hf/iln/NORINT0500/h08/undervisningsmateriale/The_Norwegian_Economy_1900-2000.pdf.
  3. According to some of my family documents, “Amerika” is what Norwegians of Ole’s generation called both the United States and Canada.
  4. Hans Egil Hansen, email message to author, February 3, 2019.
  5. Eric Faa, Norwegians in the Northwest: Settlement in British Columbia, 1858-1918 (Victoria: Runestad, 1995), 2.
  6. “About the Homestead Act,” National Park Service, last modified October 24, 2018, https://www.nps.gov/home/learn/historyculture/abouthomesteadactlaw.htm/.
  7. Gordon Fish, Dreams of Freedom: Bella Coola, Cape Scott, Sointula (Victoria: Provincial Archives of British Columbia, 1982), 5.
  8. Hans Granander and Michael Wigle, Bella Coola: Life in the Heart of the Coast Mountains (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2004), 114.
  9. Cliff Kopas, Bella Coola (Vancouver: Mitchell Press, 1970), 245.
  10. Faa, Norwegians in the Northwest, 83.
  11. Faa, Norwegians in the Northwest, 116.
  12. Kopas, Bella Coola, 246.
  13. Judy Jacobsen, Norwegian Connections: From Arctic Fjord to American Prairie (Baltimore, MD: Clearfield Publishing, 2002), xi.
  14. “Norwegian Names,” Norwegian-American Historical Association, accessed March 11, 2019, https://www.naha.stolaf.edu/genealogy/naming.htm/.
  15. Marcy Green, Facebook message to author, February 21, 2019.
  16. Hank Olsen, Bella Coola Lady and That’s No Maybe (Victoria, BC: Trafford Publishing, 2003), 14.

Telling My Norwegian Story

The theme for this year’s BC Heritage week was “The Tie That Binds.” In celebration, I attended the City of Nanaimo’s 2019 Heritage Summit at the Nanaimo Museum which included a presentation by Christine Muetzner, manager of the Nanaimo Community Archives. In her talk, Muetzner spoke of how stories told over the years bind together the past, present, and future. She reminded the audience that each and every one of us has a story to tell, and we should think about sharing it. This thought inspired me to continue to explore my family’s history, and to write about my discoveries. While I didn’t find answers to all my questions, I did learn a lot. And one thing that became clear: family is another tie that binds.

Through researching and writing the story of my Norwegian great-grandparents, Ole Olsen and Konstanse Fyhn, I reached out to several relatives whom I had never met before. Not only were they happy to help me with my questions, but they were also curious about both the information I’d pulled together, and about my own little family. I was touched. Even though we shared a common ancestor (sometimes rather distant), these were basically strangers. Why would they care about me? But they did. And I cared about them too.

So after asking a lot of questions, and reading many books about the Bella Coola Valley, Sidney, and Norwegian immigrants, I’m happy to share a series of blog posts about my great-grandparents, Ole and Konstanse. It is the story of their individual emigrations from Norway; the life they built together in Hagensborg in the Bella Coola Valley, and their eventual move to Vancouver Island, which three generations later, I call my home. I never met Ole and Konstanse, but I feel a connection now, not only with them, but also with some of their other descendants whom I’ve met through my research.

As I finish writing parts of my Norwegian family’s story, I will link them to this post. The first part, Norway to Bella Coola: Ole Olsen, is a look at my great-grandfather’s emigration from Norway, his eventual settlement in the Bella Coola Valley with his two brothers Ingvald and Paul, and his marriage to my great-grandmother in 1914. The second part, Norway to Bella Coola: Konstanse Fyhn, is the story of my great-grandmother’s journey from Norway to Hagensborg in the spring of 1914, including thoughts about some possible reasons for her emigration as a young, single woman. The third part, The Olsens in Bella Coola, covers the years 1915 to 1935, after Ole and Konstanse’s marriage, when they started a family which eventually grew to nine children including my paternal grandmother. This part of the story also includes the harrowing tale of how the Olsens escaped from a destructive flood in October of 1934. The final part of the story, Bella Coola to Vancouver Island, chronicles the Olsens’ move away from the Bella Coola Valley to Sidney on Vancouver Island.

Learning about my heritage has been both enlightening (my dad likes butter on everything because that’s a Norwegian thing!) and frustrating (why can’t I figure out where my great-grandfather was in 1911?!). As I mentioned before, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but learning about my roots has been interesting. If you have ever thought about doing your own genealogical research, I encourage you to start. Ask questions, read books, listen, and learn. More and more records are accessible online, and family history groups are becoming more common. We all have stories to tell, and people want to hear them. No one’s story is perfect, but that shouldn’t stop us from sharing. Family and stories are both ties that bind, and by researching and telling my family’s story, I learned more about not only who my ancestors were, but also about myself.

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

George Bernard Shaw

Remembering Ingvald Olsen

I’m researching my family’s history, and recently I was able to connect with one of my dad’s first cousins who also lives on Vancouver Island. After seeing a newspaper article about the Canadian Letters & Images project at Vancouver Island University, she revealed that she had a letter I might be interested in. It was written to my great-grandfather, Ole Olsen, by his younger brother, Ingvald, who was serving overseas in the First World War. The letter had been tucked away in a family Bible, and because I work at VIU, the cousin was hoping I could facilitate the letter being added to the project.
 
IngvaldLetter
 
Originally written in Norwegian, I was grateful that at some time over the last 100 years, the letter has also been translated into English. I read the letter for the first time on Remembrance Day, and the lines: “I’m sure you have heard the good news that the war is over. It is almost too good to believe for many of us who have witnessed hell on earth,” were incredibly moving for me.
 
Belonging to a generation that has thankfully only known times of peace, one that is frequently criticized for glossing over the importance and significance of Remembrance Day, I suddenly had a better sense of what it really meant. It’s like Ingvald was writing directly to me. Maybe it takes having a personal connection to a serviceman or servicewoman to really wake up to the importance of why we remember. This shouldn’t be the case. As Canadians, we should honour and respect the service and sacrifice of all of the men and women who have served this country, regardless of having a personal connection or not. But that’s easier said than done. We can willingly take the day off work or school, even observe a moment of silence, or attend a commemorative service, but it can be a little more difficult to really feel thankful.
 
I’m happy to share that the letter from Ingvald Olsen is now part of the WWI collection of the project, and that both the scanned original and the translated text are openly accessible. Initially, I had wondered if the project team may not be interested in digitizing a single letter, especially one written in Norwegian! I’m a big believer in the value of open access, so I’m not exactly sure what made me doubt. I think it’s because while Ingvald and Ole were definitely important individuals within my own family’s story, neither of them made headline news before, during, or after the war. They were just regular guys, who went on to live regular lives after the war was over.
 
Ole and Ingvald Casperson, together with a third brother, Paul, immigrated to “Amerika”1 from Norway in the early 1900s. Somewhere along the line in the immigration process they collectively changed their surname to Olsen. The brothers settled in Hagensborg, a Norwegian community in the Bella Coola Valley. Ole married my great-grandmother Konstanse Fyhn at the end of 1914, and started raising a family there.
 
PaulOlsen
Paul Olsen
While the youngest brother Paul volunteered for service in December 1916, it’s likely that Ingvald was conscripted. He was enlisted in November 1917, after the Military Service Act became law in Canada earlier that year. His personnel record includes attestation paperwork clearly stamped “Military Services Act,” and seems to have an exemption claim number – one that must have been unsuccessful.
 
Both Paul and Ingvald were sent overseas, fighting in France, and both were wounded several times. Paul suffered a gun shot wound to the head in October 1917, rejoining his unit in January 1918 after spending time recovering at field hospitals. In October of 1918, he was wounded again at the Battle of Cambrai, this time suffering a gun shot wound to his right arm. Paul did not return to battle after this second injury. He recuperated at several military hospitals, including Frodsham and Epsom, until he was discharged in February 1919.
 
Ingvald was wounded at the Arras Front in June 1918. He received multiple shrapnel wounds as the result of a hand grenade explosion during a raid. He spent several months in the Taplow and Bexhill hospitals, healing from wounds in both his legs and his back. His personnel record includes an x-ray of his left shoulder clearing showing three fragments embedded under his arm. I wonder if he ended up going home with those. Ingvald was discharged back to active duty on September 13, 1918. After the Armistice, he was discharged in February of 1919.
 
Of the 58 Bella Coola men who took part in the First World War, Paul and Ingvald were among those who came home again.2 Paul married Ruth Nordschow in November 1919, and Ingvald married Ida Engebretson in October 1924. Both couples went on to start families in Bella Coola. The bond between the three Olsen brothers seems to have remained strong. After my great-grandparents’ home was destroyed in the flood of 1934, all three Olsen families moved to Vancouver Island, settled together in Sidney.
 
ingvald.olsen
Ingvald Olsen
Ingvald’s letter to his brother Ole was written just after the Armistice. He doesn’t speak to dramatic battles or heroic rescues, but of looking forward to going home. While the letter was certainly interesting to me, I wasn’t sure it would have value for anyone else outside my family.
 
Before making any assumptions, I should have reviewed the website of the Canadian Letters & Images Project a little more thoroughly. Having first been a history student at VIU, and now an employee, I was already aware of the project, but what I didn’t know much about was its dedication to its objectives.
 
“Too often the story told of Canada at war has been one of great battles and great individuals, an approach that unfortunately misses the ‘ordinary’ Canadian and the richness of their wartime experience. This project attempts to make visible again those who have made contributions and sacrifices for Canada, but who now have become largely invisible.”3
 
If I had read this statement from the project’s website earlier, I could have put any unsureness about the letter’s value to the project aside. It’s like this statement was written with my exact doubts at mind. This made me think that there must be a great number of people who share the same reservations that I experienced. If you’ve hesitated about contributing your family’s photos or letters to the Canadian Letters and Images Project – please reconsider.
 
“Every item that comes to us in the collections has merit and so all collections will appear in their entirety. … Our place is not to judge the historic merit of one person’s experiences over those of another, nor is it to judge the appropriateness of language or content from the perspective of the present.”4
 
Dr. Stephen Davies and his project team were happy to add my family’s letter to the collection, and even returned it in an archival document sleeve to help preserve it for future readers. I was able to easily deliver the letter to the university, but if you aren’t able to do so, “The Canadian Letters and Images Project will make arrangements at our expense to have any materials picked up and returned by courier to ensure the safety of those materials.”5
 
If you have any war letters or photos in a family album or keepsake box in the attic, please think about sharing them. We must remember, and contributing to a collaborative project like The Canadian Letters & Images Project can help us to do so. Through this type of project, we can share with one another the wartime experience of “regular” Canadians like Ingvald Olsen, and we can continue to honour their service and sacrifice for years to come. Lest we forget.

Notes
 
1. According to some of my family documents, “Amerika” is what Norwegians of Ole & Ingvald’s generation called both the United States and Canada.
 
2. Leslie Kopas, Bella Coola Country (Vancouver: Illahee Publishing, 2003), 63.
 
3. “About Us,” The Canadian Letters and Images Project, Vancouver Island University, accessed December 1, 2018, https://www.canadianletters.ca/content/about-us.
 
4. “About Us.”
 
5. “About Us.”

Reading Bella Coola

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

Although my interests typically are centred on Vancouver Island, lately I’ve also been exploring my family’s history. Before my great-grandparents moved to Vancouver Island in the mid-1930s, they lived in Bella Coola. After immigrating separately from Norway in the early 1900s, they both eventually settled at Hagensborg, a Norwegian community about 20 kilometres east of Bella Coola.

Hagensborg, originally known as Kristiania, was the 1894 stopping point for a group of Norwegian settlers coming up from the United States. The group was led by Rev. Christian Saugstad whom hoped to establish a utopian Norwegian colony there. While not part of the original group of approximately 80 colonists, my great-grandparents joined their fellow Norwegians once the community had been established. They married there in 1914, and had a family of nine children.

In order to gain insight on what their lives might have been like, and to know more about the Norwegian immigrant experience in British Columbia, I began searching around for some books. Luckily, between the titles I had already had at home, my dad’s collection, and university and public libraries, I’ve been able to put together an impressive reading list that should keep me busy for quite a while.

Here’s an overview of what I’ve found so far:

Olsen, Hank. Bella Coola Lady and That’s No Maybe. Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2003.

OlsenBook

This is a self-published book written by my great-uncle about the family’s time in Bella Coola. Apparently it was received with mixed feelings within the family itself – a sure hint that it will be an interesting read. I can’t wait! This is probably going to be my best opportunity to get a sense of what my relatives’ experience was actually like. Even if the story has been romanticized or embellished some what, it’s likely my best source for describing the specific time period, people, and events I am most interested in.

Green, Marcy (Olsen). “An immigrant’s journey: The Olsen family”. Vancouver Sun. 29 April 2008. pg. B3. Online at: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/bc-150/featured-articles/norway+bella+coola+1909/897449/story.html

This article based on family stories and legends gives the account of my great-grandparents’ experiences of immigrating to Canada from Norway. In 2008, to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the colony of British Columbia, the Vancouver Sun invited readers to send in written submissions which shared their families’ histories as a way to reflect on and celebrate the experience of ordinary British Columbians. My dad’s first cousin, another grandchild of the couple featured, submitted this article.

Wild, Paula. One River, Two Cultures: A History of the Bella Coola Valley. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2004.

So far I’ve only just glanced at this book, but I was excited to see it includes information from an interview with one of my great-uncles (not the one that wrote the book) about the 1934 flood which was the impetus for the family to move away from Bella Coola.

My great-grandmother and seven of her nine children, including my grandmother whom was just five years old at the time, were stranded on the island they lived on after the two nearby bridges were washed away in the flood waters. Luckily, the family was rescued by members of the local First Nation in canoes, but their home was severely damaged. Shortly after, they left Bella Coola, moving to Sidney on Vancouver Island.

Fish, Gordon. Dreams of Freedom: Bella Coola, Cape Scott, Sointula. Sound Heritage Series 36. Victoria, BC: Provincial Archives of British Columbia, 1982.

This book gathers together oral interviews concerning three of the province’s ethnic communities: Bella Coola (Norwegian), Cape Scott (Danish), and Sointula (Finnish). A bulk of the Bella Coola sections are based on oral interviews CBC radio producer Imbert Orchard conducted with Milo Fougner and siblings Ted and Anne Levelton, whose fathers had arrived with the original group of Norwegian settlers. These are supplemented with additional interviews done for the BC Archives by the author Gordon Fish.

Made up of excerpts from these interviews, this book doesn’t read like a stuffy scholar writing about a far-flung community. The stories and memories are captured in the speakers’ own voices. It’s like the interviewees are sitting in the room with you, telling you their story in their way. This text serves as a valuable record of the people and families who were actually in Bella Coola at the time it was growing as a Norwegian community.

Johnny
This photo is found in the Dreams of Freedom book and is captioned as “Bella Coola fisherman hauling in salmon gillnet”. A Clifford R. Kopas photo, my grandmother thinks that this is a picture of her eldest brother, Johnny.

Kopas, Cliff. Bella Coola. Vancouver, BC: Mitchell Press, 1970.

Faa, Eric. Norwegians in the Northwest: Settlement in British Columbia, 1858-1918. Victoria, BC: Runestad, 1995.

These books include lots of great information about the Norwegian settlement in Bella Coola. Unfortunately, the time period discussed for the most part pre-dates my great-grandparents’ arrivals in 1909 and 1914. Understandably, a lot of research focuses on the original group of Norwegian colonists, but as my relatives were not part of this first group, I think it’s going to be tougher to find information about Bella Coola when they were living there. However, I’m sure these books will still be interesting and useful for understanding how the community came to be, and what it was like to live there.

And one that I haven’t put my hands on yet, but will be looking into:

Solhjell, Peter. Spuds Among the Stumps: Norwegian Immigrant Settlement Photos, Bella Coola, 1896-1897. Hagensborg, BC: Solly’s Pub, 2008.

The pictures in this book also pre-date my great-grandparents’ arrival in Bella Coola by over 10 years, but I still think it will be an excellent resource, especially for getting a visual sense of what the community might have looked like when they arrived.

While I’ve certainly got a lot of reading ahead of me, it’s easy to be motivated when you feel like you’re discovering a part of your own history. I look forward to learning more about an area of BC that I’ve never visited (I predict I’ll be planning a trip after this research is through), and to becoming more familiar with the great-grandparents that I never got to meet.