Remembering their namesThe plea came in a letter addressed to a rural North Dakota postmaster: a woman in Wisconsin seeking word of her great-grandfather’s brother, who was born in Norway in 1844, came to America and farmed in eastern North Dakota from the late 1880s into the 1920s.
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
The plea came in a letter addressed to a rural North Dakota postmaster: a woman in Wisconsin seeking word of her great-grandfather’s brother, who was born in Norway in 1844, came to America and farmed in eastern North Dakota from the late 1880s into the 1920s.
His name was Charley Bergeson, or maybe Burgeson, and he left five children and countless grandchildren and other descendants, lost now to the larger family history.
“I am hoping with all hope you can help me, or you know someone in your area who can,” Tammy Morked wrote from Bay City, Wis.
Who you gonna call?
The postmaster passed the letter to Ginny Tupa, director of instructional services for the Grand Forks School District — and an amateur genealogical sleuth who has helped hundreds of roots-seekers find names, kin and graves of distant relatives.
Her volunteer work began about 10 years ago, when her children were old enough to fend for themselves and she wanted a hobby. But her interest was piqued years earlier, in a conversation with her parents.
“I was asking about my family,” she said. “They knew a lot about my grandparents, but they had little information about my great grandmother.
“I wanted to know more.”
Her research has brought some personal rewards, allowing her to claim links to eight ancestors who were in the Revolutionary War and the families of two presidents (Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Van Buren).
But she also has contributed information on many thousands of graves in eastern North Dakota to the genealogy website findagrave.com, which lists 61 million. She also has posted more than 12,000 gravesite photos, including 1,625 specifically requested by people around the country and overseas who thus are able to “visit” where a family ancestor was buried.
“There are so many people looking for their relatives,” she said. “Sometimes they ask me if I can see whether there’s a wife buried nearby, or they ask me if I could find an obituary.”
If it’s a simple task, she takes no compensation. “But if they don’t know a year, a town name, anything to go on, it’s hard,” she said. “Or they say, ‘Send me everything you can find on my relative.’ Well, I can’t do that, and I’m not going to spend a lot of time if they don’t have something concrete to go on.”
Can’t walk by
A sister, Eileen Wegge, of Oakdale, Minn., helps with the research.
“Ginny is kind of notorious in our part of the country,” Wegge said, but she meant that in a good way: Few genealogy volunteers take on so many assignments to find graves, she said.
“We are librarians, and we both know that not everything you want to learn is in books,” Wegge said. But her sister is particularly sensitive to the importance some place on memorials.
“We’d go out to a cemetery in a small town, and she’d have me cleaning moss and fungus off the stones,” she said. “I could walk by a grave that had fallen down a little and it didn’t matter too much, but Ginny couldn’t walk by. She likes to clean and tidy and leave flowers.”
Those rural cemeteries often are monitored by a protective neighbor, and at least one summoned police to see what Tupa was up to, wandering the plots and taking pictures. “And sometimes cows and bulls aren’t happy she’s out in their field,” Wegge said.
Many rural churches have burned or been torn down or moved, leaving the cemeteries isolated. If no church members remain, the site can become overgrown, the stone markers crumbling, their inscribed names and dates weathering into illegibility.
Tupa uses old county maps, the memories of local elders and global positioning technology to find some cemeteries.
“You learn so much about North Dakota, about the people who were here and what their lives must have been like,” she said. “Often you’ll find a picture on a grave — a John Deere tractor, a piano, a horse, something that was dear to them.
“You see so many children buried in the old cemeteries, and I always wonder about the mothers who lost so many children. How did they keep going?”
She usually has the small cemeteries to herself, but on one visit she noticed another woman crouched at a grave. “She had her arms around the stone, hugging it,” she said.
Tupa left that woman to herself and her grief, but at another cemetery she was approached by a man who asked if he could help her find someone.
She asked whether he was visiting someone.
“My wife,” he said. “I’ve come out here every day for a year. I miss her so much.”
Tupa and her sister also scour antique shops throughout the region for old family photographs and try to trace the family line to living relatives.
One she’s working on now was taken around 1900 at a Park River, N.D., studio, showing (according to a penciled note on back) “grandmother Grieve” as a young woman, sitting and surrounded by three boys —Thom, Ole and Edward — seemingly awestruck by the camera.
Wegge once found — in a St. Paul shop — a picture of a woman named Mabel Lovejoy. The sisters’ research showed that Lovejoy had lived in Grand Forks, worked for the Red Cross and died in 1918 during the influenza pandemic that followed World War I. She is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Grand Forks.
They traced her son to California, and through him a grandson, and finally a great-grandson living in New York.
They sent him the photo, and he wrote back: “How did you get this!!?”
Tupa has not yet found information about Charley Bergeson, or Burgeson, but she is looking.
And she’s had many successes, including Helene Jerremias Fauske, another Norwegian immigrant whose fate and gravesite were sought two years ago by a relative in Norway.
Helene’s story is posted now on the findagrave.com website, with a picture of her gravestone and another of the entrance to Aurdal Cemetery in Portland, N.D.
The brief account of her life is one of those that make people yearn to know more.
Born in 1888, she left the Valdres region of Norway as a child or young woman. She attended business college in Grand Forks and worked as a stenographer in Hillsboro and as a secretary in Bismarck.
And then, according to her passport, she went to China in 1918, returning to the United States in 1939.
She died in Colorado in 1965 but was brought back to North Dakota to be buried next to a brother, John.
The Norwegian relative wrote to Tupa to ask about something he saw on John’s grave. “What does PFC mean?”
It means that Helene’s brother was a soldier, a private first class.
“It’s always a big puzzle,” Tupa said, “but I like to help people as much as I can. It’s all a part of our past, a part of who we are.”
Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.