Happy Syttende Mai

Two hundred years ago today, on May 17, 1814 (Syttende Mai in the Norwegian language), a young couple, Mons Olson Fuglen, and his wife, Ragnhild Knudsdatter, likely sat across the table from each other and toasted the newfound freedom and independence of their country. They may have toasted with a glass of aquavit, a traditional Scandinavian liquor (aqua vitae—the water of life).

Their table was on a small farm near the town of Ron, in Valdres, southern Norway. Their celebration was of a casting off of a longtime, unholy alliance with Denmark, as a result of the defeat of Napoleon, and entering into a new alliance with Sweden, which had been smart enough to ally itself with the English during the Napoleonic Wars. The Danes had chosen Napoleon. The Norwegians, ever a peace-loving people, had kind of shimmied along for the ride, since they were subject to the Danish king.

But as a result of the Treaty of Kiel, Sweden got Norway from Denmark. Until they asked the Norwegians if that was what they wanted. They said, well, yeah, kind of, we’ll maintain an informal union with you, but we’re going to elect our own king and write our own constitution. That happened two hundred years ago today, and that is what those of us of Norwegian descent celebrate on Syttende Mai. Norway never really did get around to electing its own king, and remained allied with Sweden, subject to the Swedish king, until 1905, when they finally dissolved their relationship.  Having no royalty of their own, they then borrowed a prince from Denmark, elected him king, who became King Haakon VII, a revered ruler who led Norway through two world wars and served 52 years,until he died in 1957.  That’s my fractured history lesson for the day. I’m a blogger, not a historian or a geographer. I think my version is pretty close to being right. It’s the way I remember my Norwegian grandfather telling it.

(Note, perhaps if you are not named Fuglie, or surely if you are not at least of Norwegian ancestry, you might want to quit reading now, because the rest of this is pretty much family and Norwegian history.)

My grandfather’s name was Ole Dekko Fuglie. He was the great grandson of Mons Olson Fuglen and Ragnhild Knudsdatter, mentioned above. He was a first-generation American. His grandmother, Ambjor Monsdotter Fuglei, was the daughter of Mons and Ragnhild. She emigrated to America in 1870 and changed the spelling of the name from Fuglen to Fuglei. There are still Fugleis in the Midwest, but my branch of the family changed it to Fuglie. I like it better that way (I before E, except after C, you know).

Ambjor came with her husband, Ole Arneson, and four children, to America in the spring of 1870. Ambor was 45 years old. Ole was 35 years old. Their three children were aged 10, 8 and 6. And there was also Knut, an older son of Ambjor’s, from some kind of mysterious previous relationship. Knut was 20 at the time they came here. Knut married and fathered my Grandpa Ole. More about him in a minute.

The family left Oslo on a steamship on April 23, 1870. The disembarked in Quebec City, and rode in a cattle car on a train to Wisconsin, headed for Minnesota, where Ambjor’s brother, who had emigrated earlier, lived. In Wisconsin just a few days, Ole and Knut took jobs cutting hay to get some money for the final leg of the trip to Minnesota. Ole died of sunstroke in a hayfield on June 30, 1870, just a few days after arriving in the U.S.

Ambjor was a strong woman, and had the help of 20-year-old Knut, and they made their way to Minnesota, where most of the family has lived since.

I know all this because our family has a resident genealogist, Winton Fuglie, a second or third cousin of mine. He’s been to Norway, knows the Fuglies who still live there, and searched church and courthouse records to trace the family back to—get this—740 AD. Really. He published the family history in a 200-page book. He shared it with us back in the late 1990’s at a family reunion. My copy is well-worn. It shows that I am the 43rd generation of the family he was able to trace, and he shows a direct link from generation 1 to generation 43, although there’s some question about a little gap in the 15th century I haven’t been able to figure out.

Here’s what he says about Generation 1: “Halvdan Olavson “Hvitbein” (Whiteleg) – King of Toten, Romerike, Hadaland, Vestfold and Soler. He died of old age in 740 and was buried in a mound at Skiringssal in Vestfold. He married Aasa’, the daughter of Oystein “The Severe,” the king of Hedemark and Opplandene, Norway.”

Yes, I am descended from royalty.

I don’t let it go to my head, though. I’m not a student of Norwegian history (although I should be) but I think Norway had a lot of little kings (my family’s branch was called the Yingling kings and they go on as royalty until well into the 13th century—I have not figured out when we drifted away from royalty—records are incomplete and my guess is that some naughty daughter married a commoner, and the rest of the family is descended from her). My guess is that they were a little more like county commissioners, and that they simply were the owners of large tracts of land which they called kingdoms.

Anyway, the book quits using the word kings in about the 21st generation in the 13th century, but the family is traced right up until Ragnhild, born October 10, 1793. She’s the direct link to royalty. Then she married a Fuglie (Mons)and that shit came to an end for sure.

But back to Knut. Mons and Ragnhild had Ambjor, and she had a child, named him Knut, in 1850, at age 25. Winton’s book is silent on the father, although the book refers to him as Knut Knutson at one point, offering a hint of parentage—he assumed the Fuglei (Fuglie) family name when he came to America. At a family reunion some years back, a group of us were sitting around a picnic table at a park in Minnesota, discussing which of Ambjor’s four sons we were descended from. Knut, of course, was my great grandfather, and I was the only one at the reunion descended from him. So I asked Winton what he thought about Knut’s parentage. There had been some speculation that Ambjor may have been a sort of concubine in her younger years, and had perhaps borne a child out of wedlock. As I recall the conversation, Winton said he didn’t know, but he thought he would go back to Norway and do a little more investigating. At which point one of my elderly great-aunts, sitting beside the table in a wheelchair, said “Winton, I think that is a bad idea. I think you have dug a little bit too deep already.”

There are some things you just don’t want to know, I guess. I don’t know if Winton ever went back. I have not seen him in many years. I wouldn’t mind knowing who my great-great-grandfather was, though. I mean, I know my royal ancestors, so it would be good, I suppose, to know the rogue who knocked up my great-great-grandmother Ambjor.

Well, anyway, that’s the brief Norwegian Fuglen-Fuglei-Fuglie family history. Fuglen, I am told is a Norwegian word for “The place where birds live, or bird-home.” I like that. The Fuglen farm still exists. I have distant relatives there. No kings or queens though. And if they knew I was descended from Knut, they might not claim me.

As for the rest of my lineage, well, I am at least half Norwegian. Grandpa Ole married a lady named Sadie Wurm. She’s of Bohemian (that could explain some of my less desirable traits) and Dutch-German ancestry. But she threw four kids with blonde hair and blue eyes so Grandpa Ole apparently had strong genes. My maternal grandmother was Sophia Aaberg, as Norwegian as you can get, but she married a German, Peter Boehmer. My mother always said she was half Norwegian (the best half, I thought) and so did my dad, so I guess I am too.

Which gives me enough reason to celebrate Syttende Mai. I’m going to a party tonight hosted by a fellow named Rolf. There ought to be plenty of good karma at that party. And maybe even a little aquavit.

Happy Syttende Mai to all my Norwegian friends, and those who wish they were.

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5 Responses to Happy Syttende Mai

  1. Lee Kaldor says:

    Wonderful history Jim. I’m 100% Norwegian, but my ancestry covers a fairly wide area in Norway. My Maternal grandfather Hagbert Anderson came from Skundenes Havn, near Stavanger. My maternal grandmother, Andrea Bjorndahlen Olsen came from Telemark, near Drangedal. I’ve been to her birth place, a home built in the mid 1700′s. I learned a couple of years ago that Andrea was also the product of an illicit affair between my great-great grandfather and his sister-in-law, the house maid. My grandmother couldn’t wait to get out of Norway and left at age 16. She lied about her age to get on the ship. Her passage was paid for by a farmer from someplace near the twin cities. She came by train from New York to Minneapolis and was to be picked up at a downtown hotel by the farmer, but he didn’t show. She was penniless and needed to act quickly. The hotel manager, seeing an opportunity, hired her to work in the kitchen. My grandmother was an amazing cook. She worked that first day from the time of her arrival until the supper had been served and the dining room cleaned. The manager came into the kitchen and gave her a room key and told her that she needed to go this room and do what the male resident told her to do. One of the kitchen help pulled her aside and told her to run because what awaited her. She ran back to the train station crying in despare at her situation. Another Norwegian immigrant waiting at the train station came to her rescue and asked where she was supposed to be going. She told him the farmer’s name and this man happened to be heading to the same place. Andrea remained somewhat suspicious until the farmer and his wife arrived at the station. The farmer’s wife was very comforting and kind, but also very angry with her husband for trouble he had caused. Andrea worked for this farmer until her passage had been paid for and headed west to North Dakota where she worked on another farm and met her future husband Hagbert. They had eight children and Andrea lived to be 96 years old. She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known. She was a passionate Democrat and never missed the evening news. She could hold her own in any political argument. In fact, I think she and Hagbert had a significant influence on their Republican son-in-law, my father. Andrea had a picture of King Haaken VII in her house in a prominent location on the living room wall. She returned to Norway in 1957 and reunited with her elder sisters for the last time. My father’s grandfather came to America in 1866 from Oyer Norway in the Gulbrandsdalen valley. He with two brothers and family came to ND 1871. I have distant relatives who live on the Kaldor farm near Oyer and I’ve visited them twice. Happy Syttende Mai.

  2. Mary Splichal says:

    My parents first date was on Syttende Mai!

  3. D'Arcy Hande says:

    It was fun to serendipitously come across your Syttende Mai story, particularly since my Hande ancestors also lived (and a few still do live) in the Røn subparish of Vestre Slidre, Valdres. My great-great-great grandparents Peder and Guri Tørstad moved to Hande-myren farm from neighboring Vang parish when her unmarried brother Torstein på Hande needed help with operations there. I see by my family records that Peder and Guri’s infant son Ole lay in his coffin on 17 May 1814, the 200th anniversary we are celebrating today. He would be buried the next day, so no doubt the parents knew little, and cared less, about the Norwegian constitutional convention making history that first notable May 17th. History is a fascinating subject, and certainly helps to remind us that context and perspective are everything when looking at the past.

  4. Barry Nelson says:

    What a great triggering of memories you did here, Jim! I am 100% Norwegian. My maternal grandmother and grandfather married in Norway in May, 1912. My grandfather had come over to the U.S. a couple years earlier on his way to Seattle. He stopped to visit a distant relative in Fort Ransom, ND and never got any further. He returned to Norway to marry Petra, who was 12 years younger; and they grew up either side of a glacial river that separated Lillevand (little water) from Granlund (spruce thicket), near the Arctic Circle in Nordland. They settled on the banks of the Sheyenne River and raised three daughters. Two farms over lived my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother. The story about my paternal ancestors are less clear, but everyone clearly identified the dialect my father spoke as from the Lillehammer area. The Nelson’s (probably three generations back) settled in Fillmore County, Minnesota, where my grandfather, Nicoli, was born. The Evenstad’s settled in Barnes County, North Dakota. Skal!

  5. Kayla Sievers says:

    Hi Jim. Came across your blog quite by accident. It seems as though we may be related? My grandmother was Nora Fuglei. Her father was Ole Knutson (changed to Fuglei after immigrating to the U.S.) went to university at St Olaf in Minnesota. His wife was Gudney (sp?) Bye. Does this seem like a possibility. I had the book by Winton but can’t find it now. My sister has a different book and I think it is the Fuglie relatives in Minnesota. Would like to touch base with you if possible. Thanks. Kayla Sievers

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