Sunday, November 11, 2018

We Remember

This Veteran’s Day marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the War to End All Wars. It marks the end of a very dark time in global history and celebrates the victory of “good over evil.” As I am reflecting on this, I am reminded that my own story was shaped by this war, well before my birth. My great grandfather, whose was known for his kind and gentle nature, fought in this Great War… on the side of the Germans.

He always said he was conscripted, and his German military documents show that he was enlisted on October 18th, 1914. He served with the German Pioneer Corps, which meant that he helped to engineer the roads, bridges, and transportation of the Central Powers. His “Militarpak” lists out his activity, where he served, when, and in what capacity throughout the war. It is an incredible snapshot of his military career.

Also included in my great grandfather’s papers were a series of war photographs. Most were of the aftermath of battles and the destruction of towns. One photo was exceptionally striking to me though. It is of a damaged church with gravestones barely visible in front of it. The caption on the back reads in part: “Church where 1000 Canadian French and German soldiers buried”. I don’t know if it was a battle he saw personally, but it impacted him enough to carry that photograph for the rest of his life.

One of the stories he shared was of how he received an Iron Cross during battle for shooting down an airplane. That would be an Allied airplane, British, French, Canadian, or American. The downed pilot of that plane may have been an ancestor of someone living today, he could have been a husband, and he certainly was someone’s son. I don’t know if he lived or died, but I do know that my great grandfather’s actions that day deeply affected someone’s life.

Even though my ancestor may have played a part in history that he was not particularly proud of, it was one that shaped the man he became. It helped him leave a legacy that his descendants can be proud of. My great grandfather was a good man, but he fought for the enemy. War is not black and white, but many shades of grey, where good men fall on both sides of the line.

This morning I asked my nearly six-year-old son what it meant to be in the military. His response? “Saving the world!” So today we thank our service men and women, those active, those retired, and those who gave all. Your sacrifice has not been in vain and we remember.

Church where 1000 Canadian French and German soldiers buried

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Angels Danced

In keeping with our storytelling theme, here is another gem written by my father. Enjoy! 

Heinrich Christensen with his grandson, Steven Christensen

The Angels Danced
Steve Christensen

We never knew much about his youth. By the medals he kept with his papers we found that he had been decorated for bravery on more than one occasion during the Great War. And from the yellowed newspaper clippings we saw that he had once been a professional boxer. But even from my earliest memories he had always been a quiet and gentle man, at peace with himself and with God.

He had immigrated to the United States during the depression, worked hard, raised a family, and managed to save enough over the years to ensure that he would never be a “burden” on anyone.

I remember trying to impress him when I was in my late teens. I had been working out with weights and thought that I was fairly strong. Grandpa was over seventy the first (and last) time I tried to “crush his hand” with my powerful grip. He looked surprised, smiled, and squeezed in return.

He brought me to my knees.

Now in his nineties, Grandpa was obviously still in good shape. He and Grandma owed a trailer in a quiet park in Buellton, California; about 200 miles from their nearest children. He kept up their trailer and little yard and walked two to four miles every day.

Grandpa had a lifetime of accumulated wisdom. Though never pushy, he was usually willing to share it; especially if we went with him for one of his “short” walks. “Everything in moderation,” he would counsel his great-granddaughter. “A little wine is OK; a glass or two. But don’t keep drinking until you are senseless, or it will take control of you. Eat until you are no longer hungry; but then stop. And exercise is good. Walking, breathing the fresh air, is good for you: but don’t run too much. It is hard on your body and hurts your joints.”

His children and grandchildren all led busy lives, and over the years none of us really visited as often as we wished. So none of us were there to see how rapidly his health was failing that spring. We were all surprised when we got the phone call. “Your Grandfather is in the hospital,” they said. “He collapsed while mowing his yard. I think he needs you.”

He did. Grandpa had lost 40 pounds in less than six months. He was now a virtual shell of the man who had once fought in Madison Square Garden, and he and Grandma could no longer function by themselves.

I helped my Mom and Dad fixed up their home to accommodate them. We installed hand rails in the bedroom, down the hall, and the bathroom. We moved them in, encouraged them, assured them that everything was fine.

Grandpa just shook his head, smiled and asked what the fuss was about. “I’m just old!” he gently told us. “It’s time for me to go home.”

At first, we didn’t understand. My Mom would explain over and over that this was their home now, that he and Grandma had to stay with her and Dad. Grandpa would listen, smile, and shake his head softly.

Time passed quickly that spring. Grandpa didn’t have any appetite anymore, and gradually we all came to understand what he meant when he said that it was time for him to go home. He was so much at peace about it…

We were not though, so we cajoled, and insisted; and he smiled and ate a little, just to humor us. But he wanted to go home. He wasn’t really with us anymore, not completely.

Grandpa liked the overstuffed armchair beside the window. He spent hours at a time, just sitting there with his eyes closed. We thought that he was sleeping, but he always seemed to be aware of what was happening around him. One day my mother asked him what he was thinking about. He opened his eyes and said, “I’m praying,” then smiled and closed them again.

Soon after that, when sitting next to the window, he called my mom over and pointed at the sky. “Look… angels…” He could see them there, dancing in the clouds, and he let us know that they were waiting for him.

Grandpa still loved to share with us. “God,” he told my daughter, “He knows our real name. And He has a name for you.” Turning to my mother, my wife, and myself he continued, “and a name for you…  and you… and you.” My typically mischievous three-year old son was there. With gentle authority that even captured my son’s attention, Grandpa turned to him and announced, “and He even has a name for you!” Then he closed his eyes and silently returned to prayer.

Spring turned to summer, and Grandpa’s health continued to fail. Even with the handrails he had difficulty getting around, especially at night. Sometimes he would fall down and be unable to get up by himself, so my father installed motion detectors. He pointed them a little high, so that a light would switch on in my parent’s room if my Grandpa or Grandma got up out of bed.

One beautiful, warm summer morning, Grandpa was sitting out on the redwood deck, praying. He was obviously completely at peace. My mother was with him, and after a while asked if he wanted to go rest.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m ready to rest. But you are not ready…” Looking at her, he gently continued, “God will give you strength to let me rest.” 

God did give her strength, for through her tears she was able to reply, “Dad, I think we’re almost strong enough… If you want to go it’s OK.”

A few nights later, as my brother helped him get to bed Grandpa was so excited he couldn’t even speak. With quick motions he pointed to the window.

“You want the curtains open?” my brother asked.

An affirmative nod.

As the curtains opened my grandfather looked intently outside, at the sky.

“What do you see, Grandpa? Do you see angels?”

Another nod.

Somewhat calmed, but still not speaking, Grandpa pointed to himself, then pointed up, out the window.

My brother agreed with a loving laugh. “Yes, Grandpa, someday you will be going to heaven.”

With a sigh, and a contented smile on his face, Grandpa lay back, still gazing out the window.

That night the little light in my parent’s room flickered twice, as if it could almost, but not quite, see something cross, then cross again, the upper part of Grandpa’s room. It wasn’t supposed to do that, so my father went to check on him.

He was still lying in his bed, and his face was a reflection of unspeakable peace. His earthly shell was even still warm. But Grandpa wasn’t there anymore. Someone had come and had taken him home.

And the angels danced.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Boxing Blacksmith of Holm

I was lucky enough to know my great grandfather for the first 10 years of my life. Heinrich "Henry" Chistensen was a quiet man, gentle and strong. Even after he passed at the age of 92, I was still regaled with tales of his fascinating life.

Heinrich "Henry" Christensen

Born in 1895 in “Denmark” to a family of blacksmiths, he came of age with the German invasion and found himself conscripted into the German army in 1914. He saw plenty of battles, was shot in the hand, and received two Iron Crosses for bravery.

Graves of 1000 Canadian, French, and German soldiers

After the war he joined the Canadian Merchant Marines and sailed around the world. It was here that he learned the art of boxing and became a regiment champ. As the story goes though, he grew tired of the Merchant Marines, so when the ship was docked near New Brunswick, he jumped ship, swam to shore, and made his way to the United States.

"Canterbury Straights" 

Family lore dictates that his boxing skills led him to New York City, where he fought in Madison Square Gardens. But as we all know with the perils of family stories, this particular detail adds excitement but has yet to be verified. He quit boxing due to unscrupulous practices by his manager and made his way West, where he found himself working in the oil fields of central California.
He met a feisty little German gal who worked as a cook at one of the many camps, swept her off her feet with his quiet and gentle charm, got married and started a family. The quintessential American dream.
Germany 1964 

The details of his life are enough to start any genealogist salivating, and after the birth of my first child, when I became interested in researching my family for future generations, his story was one of the first I wanted to investigate. His daughter in law, my paternal grandmother, passed on a small treasure trove of information: photos (some labeled, some not), a passport, and a military record book that detailed out most of his accomplishments with the German army. My parents, ever forward thinking, even interviewed him during his later years, asking where he was born, who his parents were, and names of his siblings.

You’re probably asking yourself, “Great story, but where’s the brick wall? Sounds like you have everything you need to research his family.” And you’d probably be right. I had all of the details…

And I still slammed up against a solid wall.

I had the names of his parents and town where he was supposedly born in Denmark… and no records to be found. Holm, Denmark was what he told everyone and was what he wrote on his military documents and Naturalization papers. Do you know how many Holms there are in Denmark?
A LOT. Not to mention there are over 281 towns with a variation of “holm” in the name. And how many Heinrich Christensen’s there are? A LOTTER.

So the paper trail ran cold.

Then I discovered DNA. I had already done autosomal testing on myself, my parents, and my surviving grandparents. I had very clear genetic markers for multiple branches of my tree, but my great grandfather’s line remained dark. Since the line in question was my father’s paternal line, it only made sense to have my dad take a YDNA test. Should clear things up, right?

For anyone who has done Scandinavian research, you understand the pitfalls of patronymics. The surnames changed with every generation up until the mid to late 1800s. The YDNA test, while still potentially useful, did not answer my immediate question surrounding Henry's father.

Not giving up, I decided to ask my dad’s paternal first cousin to take an autosomal test. He graciously agreed and when the results came in I decided to try some more advanced genetic genealogy techniques. Let me just summarize by saying that by comparing shared matches between myself, my dad, and his first cousin, I came across a distant cousin who had very deep Danish roots.

I contacted her, described my dilemma, and asked for any help she could provide. She kindly responded with: Well, I actually did not do any of the research. Let me put you in contact with my cousin in Germany who worked on these lines.

Within a week I was corresponding with a German researcher who had become fascinated with my great grandfather’s tale and was determined to help me break through the wall. And he did.
He found where my great grandfather was born.

You see, the Holm where my great grandfather was born, was not in the traditional Danish borders. It was in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, a parcel of land that transferred between Denmark and Germany many times. Some residents considered themselves German, some Danish. And his particular hamlet was located a scant 7 miles from the current Danish border.

This same incredible researcher then put me in contact with a German Archivist who generously looked up the parish records… and found my family. Over 6 generations of them to be exact. My great grandfather may have been a Christensen, but HIS grandfather was born out of wedlock, and should have been a Sorenson. With the fun of Danish patronymics, Jurgenson, Rassmussen’s and Hansen’s all join in, all the way back to 1685. 

Would this have been possible without DNA? Absolutely. But the incredible tools it provided allowed me to focus my research, contact the right person, who then helped me solve a mystery. I still don’t have a lot of genetic matches along that line, but whenever a new one pops up, I contact them, provide a copy of my tree, and say welcome to the family.

Martha (Klugow) Christensen, Heinrich Christensen, and myself circa 1984

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Warrior

Along with millions of Americans last night, my family and I celebrated the 4th of July. We watched the local parade, waved our flags, barbequed, and enjoyed the day with our family. As my kids were setting off their sparklers, fountains, and pop-its, I turned to my dad and said, “Doesn’t really compare to the real thing, does it?” He had already explained to me that being in combat did not make him fear weapons, it just took the joy out of using them. He paused, introspective, and replied, “No, they don’t. It actually reminds me of the story I wrote while in the desert.”

My father is a retired Marine Corps Lt. Colonel. Over his nearly 30-year career, in which he served as both enlisted and as a commissioned officer, he saw three tours of combat. The first was to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1990, followed by two tours to Iraq after 2004. It was in the desert of Saudi Arabia that he wrote the following first-hand account from the safety of his foxhole. Whether it’s from the viewpoint of a Revolutionary battlefield or from modern-day combat, the “rocket’s red glare” is a solemn reminder of sacrifices made.

Steven Christensen in Iraq circa 2004

Steven Christensen in Saudi Arabia circa 1991

The Warrior

The desert was beautiful.

Spring rains had fallen, and with desperate haste the grasses had come forth to cover the sand.  Within days the first olive hues were dotting the gentle hillsides; another week, and the transformation was complete.  The desert, once a harsh, barren ecru, was verdant, proclaiming life and hope.
The green slopes were marred only by the crossing tracks of war, where the trucks and tanks of the warriors had ripped its fragile cover.

Now, as the light of day faded, the marks of war grew faint and slowly disappeared.  The hills were covered in forgiving velvet; soft and gentle healing for the warrior's soul.  The breeze that touched him held neither the life-sapping heat of summer nor the icy death of winter; it was a caress, almost a lover's touch...
The warrior lingered, feasting upon the desert's gift as the evening deepened into night.  The surrounding hills disappeared, leaving but a distant horizon.  A horizon where, the warrior knew, other warriors waited; men with parents and wives and children, with fears, and with dreams of their own.  Men who had been ordered to another land to serve their country; a country at war with ours.

Stars filled the sky, myriad, brilliant, diverse; displaying the colors of distant suns as never seen from the warrior's home.  Breathtaking beauty filled the heavens, the universe proclaiming God's awesome glory.

Several stars, pulsing, grew closer and revealed themselves to be aircraft navigation beacons.  Almost directly overhead the beacons went out, but the courses of the aircraft could still be charted as they passed between the warrior and the heavens.  Changing course once, they continued toward the horizon and were lost to view; but their destination became clear as the distant sky lit with repeating flashes.  Thousands of pounds of explosives detonate, detonate, detonate...  defending one warrior, killing another...

The distant explosions could not even be heard as the warrior wept. 

---Written by Steven Christensen, circa 1991. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Who Was William's Father?

One of my toughest research projects has been my 3rd great grandfather, William Henry Harrison Edmondson (1818-1891). The sheer number of Edmondson's located in the south and mid-west is staggering, so tracing the right person has been like untangling those dreaded Christmas lights. The names of his parents were included in research gifted to me, but having scoured much of the online resources available, as well as combining DNA evidence, I saw nothing to contradict the information I had. For years I worked this line and made great progress. I found land records that revealed William's wife's maiden name and family. I had located William's date of death and grave. I felt confident in how my Edmondson line was supported. Until 2 weeks ago that is.

Edmondson children: Laura Opal (my great grandmother), Loretta Violet, Myrtle holding Edna and Elvis, unknown, Carl, Arthur, and unknown 
A comment was made on an 1856 New Madrid, Missouri deed that I had uploaded for William. It was rather abrupt and just stated that the William Henry Harrison Edmondson, child of John Edmondson and Drelinder Norris, actually lived most of his life in Indiana and went by Henry H Edmondson. Huh? Who was this person and what information did they have? I immediately sent a reply politely stating that obviously we had a conflict in information, but I would love to collaborate and figure things out. Nothing. No response. I dug around and found this user's tree, wasn't initially impressed with the information, so went about re-looking at my own sources to confirm their solidity.

And in looking at my file with slightly more jaded, experienced eyes, I began to realize that my own claim was at best very circumstantial. Then I looked at the 1870 Federal Census tied to this “impostor”. There he was, living with his family in Indiana… including his sister, Nancy Edmondson Nunnamaker… who I had independently confirmed in my own tree as being a valid child of John and Drelinder Edmondson. Ruh-Roh Shaggy. I had a problem. It appeared that my 3rd great grandfather may be the “impostor”.  I had to delete the connection between my William Henry Harrison Edmondson and the parents I had recorded in my tree until further information could be found. It was time to rework this file.

In my early days as a genealogist, I made a multitude of beginner mistakes: too trusting of other's online trees, not citing my sources, not keeping a research log. I've spent a lot of time combing through my original work trying to fix poorly supported research, come to appreciate the value of sound research methods, and ultimately how to be a better genealogist. Reminders of my "enthusiastic" beginnings still come up from time to time, but I also must remember that even when practicing sound research techniques, mistakes can still happen.

The hardest part of this whole experience? I really dislike being wrong. Especially when I work so hard to be accurate. And since I have a public tree, how many people trusted my information to be accurate? Yes, every tree needs to be treated with a grain of salt and independently researched, but with the saturation of copy and paste trees out there, how many times had MY potentially inaccurate information been spread around? I hang my head in shame and finally understand the impulse to make all of my research private so I don’t perpetuate, even inadvertently, the spread of inaccurate information.

So now what? I take a deep breath, accept that mistakes happen, and correct what I can. For those that I know might have this information in their tree, I make personal contact and advise them of the issue. I continue to research and hope that I will eventually break through this new brick wall. Based on the dna evidence, I suspect I will return to this line, just by a different route. And finally, I take a bite of my humble pie, and send a thank you note to the user who brought this whole issue to light.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Fact Checking Family Folklore

My mom loves to tell a story of when I was two years old. I was an enthusiastic but unskilled butterfly wrangler. When I tried to catch the delicate wings with grubby fingers, she would caution me, “Be careful. Don’t hurt them.” My tot mind interpreted her warning much differently than was intended. Instead of me not hurting the butterflies, I thought she meant for me to be careful, the butterflies might hurt me. Apparently, it took quite some time before I wouldn’t run screaming whenever I spied one flitting past.

My childhood mishap can be applied to family lore that gets passed down through generations of storytelling. Most families have some version of one: Native American princesses, seven brothers travelling to America, or a member of Billy the Kid’s gang of outlaws. Facts and details can easily get distorted and stories can get embellished to make events more interesting to the listener. One thing we forget as we build our ancestors tales is that they were human too. They didn’t always tell the truth and sometimes the truth was deliberately buried beneath convenient fabrications. It then becomes our job as genealogists to sort out fact from fiction.

Take my 3rd great grandmother for instance. Sarah Jane Johnson was born in Ohio in 1830 to a Charles Johnson and Anna Scott. In 1847, a man by the name of Reese Davis purchased a plot of land next to her family home, they were married in February 1848, and September of that year saw them welcoming their first child. Now Sarah Jane was a strong woman, but she led a tumultuous and adventurous life. Before her death in 1903, she had buried 6 of her children, her husband had declared bankruptcy, their marriage fell apart and they had started divorce proceedings. Sarah eventually left and moved with her two youngest daughters to Texas, where she founded a pioneering legacy. 

While her life on the Texas frontier was well documented, a lot of questions remained about her husband and the father of her children, Reese Davis. Where did he come from and what became of him? Family lore contended that Reese Davis was born on a ship coming from Wales, he eventually settled in Cincinnati, OH, and that he died around 1876 during a trapping expedition, leaving Sarah a widow. But what was truth, what was embellishment, and what was merely a tall tale of Texas?

I started by evaluating and investigating each part of the story in question. Then, working with my mom, we gathered both positive and negative evidence. We dug through census, divorce, land, cemetery, and probate records and were finally able to make some surprising conclusions.

Reese Davis (1823-after 1880)
Photo displayed at 1984 Davis Family Reunion

Reese may have been of Welsh descent, but he was born in New Jersey. His family eventually settled in Warren County, OH, where he met and married Sarah Jane Johnson. After the divorce in 1873, Reese and two of his daughters ended up in Missouri, where he was found alive purchasing land in 1880. There is speculation about his actual death date, but due to a courthouse fire, it is currently unclear when his estate was probated. Obviously the bulk of our family stories, as interesting as they may have been, weren't exactly total truth.

My mom and I compiled our newfound evidence and began to rewrite the family story. Our research paper goes into further detail of why we came to our conclusions and provides the sources we used to support our thesis. But while we have publicly released our findings, we acknowledge there is still more work to be done on this line and plan on supplemental research documents. I’m hoping that DNA evidence will help clarify Reese’s family in New Jersey, and that land records will help show when his property was sold after his death. Continuing to search family, associates, and neighbors might reveal additional details. Piece by piece, a new tale is emerging, one that encompasses and explains the old, but embraces the truth. A tale I can hopefully pass on a bit more accurately to my children and one that will give them a better appreciation for family lore and the truths it can reveal.  And ultimately, one that won't send them screaming in fear every time they hear, "Did I ever tell you the story about...?"  

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Intoduction by Denise Christensen (the mother of the mother-daughter duo)

I grew up on Story.

My siblings and I loved to get our mother going, telling stories of her early life and those of her parents and grandparents, when we were supposed to be doing chores.

Those stories formed the homestead of my life and made me see that I am part of a bigger, grander Story.

The characters in those stories are very real to me, even now that I am in my sixties. For example, I feel that I know my grandmother, down to her low chuckle, though she died before I was born.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of those people form me. The strengths, such as faith, courage, and loyalty, give me values to reach for, continually. And the weaknesses give me understanding, compassion,and yes, hope, as I look to the bigger Story.

           I was inspired to create this drawing and poem after a visit to my mother's birthplace in Aurora, Nebraska in 1984.