Friday, 9 February 2018

Life stories: Karen Olsdotter Preststulen (1845-1924)

Karen Olsdotter Preststulen was my great-great-great-grandmother. And she is very special to me, because she was known to me since childhood. My grandfather Frode used to tell the story of how Karen walked across the mountains from the Gudbrandsdalen valley and settled in a village by the Trondheim Fjord.

It was a tale of mental and emotional strength and bravery, as well as a symbol of the physical strength and stamina found in our bloodline. Both my father and my grandfather are exceptionally strong men. My grandfather's uncle, Johan Fredrik Dahle, worked as a circus strongman in his youth and was regarded as the strongest man in the Nordic countries. He could lift 1200 kgs on his back.

The parish of Vågå

Everyone in my family always knew that Karen came from the parish of Vågå, in the upper part of Gudbrandsdalen in Oppland county. The name Gudbrandsdalen means "Gudbrand's Valley", and is connected to a 11th century chieftain, Gudbrand of the Valley, who was converted to Christianity by king Olaf II (St Olaf) in the year 1021. The valley is actually a huge landlocked region comprised of one main valley and several side valleys, and vast mountain areas including Norway's (and Northern Europe's) highest peak, Galdhøpiggen, at 2469 meters above sea level. The region is home to a population of wild reindeer, which are the last of the original mountain reindeer of Europe.

Gudbrandsdalen consists of many municipalities and villages, but is usually divided into three main subregions: The southern valley (Sørdalen), the middle valley (Midtdalen), and the northern valley (Norddalen). The northern valley is the uppermost subregion, and also the geographically largest and most mountainous; it is physically divided between the main valley of Gudbrandsdalen in the east, and the large side valley of Ottadalen in the west.

Vågå, Karen's home parish, is located right in the middle of Ottadalen, where the river Otta widens out to form the large and beautiful Lake Vågå (Vågåvatnet). The main village of Vågå is high up, remote, and traditionally hard to access, yet the landscape is fertile and welcoming. Vågå is known for being a conservative society in the sense that certain ancient traditions and historical memories have been preserved longer there than in other areas; it is also known for being socially stratified, and has (in)famously been dubbed "the most aristocratic village in Gudbrandsdalen".

Ottadalen between the villages of Vågå and Lom, looking west towards Lom. Photo by me, 2017.

Karen's background

Karen was born on December 18, 1845, at the farm Preststulen, which is located in a small side valley seven kilometers northwest of the main village of Vågå, at a high altitude of about 820 meters above sea level, almost exactly on the tree line. In very old times, the farm used to belong to the church and must have been used as a summer pasture for the vicarage's livestock. This history is remembered in the very name Preststulen, which means "The priest's summer pasture". The first known mention of the farm in historical sources is from the year 1668, but our family was not yet living there at that time. Today there are several very old timber buildings still standing on the farm; the old main house from the 18th century, as well as a small building for drying crops, which is the oldest building on the farm (but its exact age is unknown). These are all listed structures, maintained by our distant cousins living at Preststulen today.

Karen's parents were Ola Nilsson Øyen (1800-1882) and Toline Jonsdotter Preststulen (1810-1880). Toline was born at Preststulen, while Ola originally came from a croft called Bersveinstugu south of Vågå village. The name Bersveinstugu, meaning "Bersvein's cottage", refers to Bersvein Hansson, Ola's maternal great-great-grandfather, who cleared the land and built the house in the late 1600s.

Ola's father, Nils Hansson Slåen (c. 1761-1842), was a crofter's son from Sjoa village, further south, and arrived in Vågå as a wandering peddler selling herring and salt. Nils was famous and feared as a fighter, and Ola followed in his father's footsteps, travelling all over Gudbrandsdalen to fight. On one occasion, Ola took part in a huge brawl at Skarsmoen in Øyer in the southernmost part of the valley, where he witnessed one of his friends beat a young man so badly that the man later died from his injuries. This experience affected Ola deeply. Whenever he talked about it afterwards, he would start crying, saying "I've been rough, but I've never been that rough".

I guess it must be from Ola that we get our physical strength! He inherited it from both his parents. One of his first cousins on his mother's side is said to have carried a barrel of grain on his back all the way from Ringerike to Vågå, a distance of almost 300 kilometers.

Ola and Toline got married in Vågå church on January 13, 1835, and after moving in with her at Preststulen, Ola seems to have led a peaceful life as a farmer. He was known by the nickname "Stor-Preststulin ("Big Man Preststulen") and later "Gammel-Preststulin" ("Old Man Preststulen").

Ola and Toline had eight children:

Nils, who was born on March 3, 1833 and died on April 27 the same year;
Hans, who was born on June 8, 1834;
Peder (Per), who was born on February 24, 1837;
Kari, who was born on November 29, 1840 and died on November 8, 1847;
A stillborn daughter, born on February 22, 1844;
Karen, who was born on December 18, 1845;
Kari, who was born on January 21, 1849 and named after her deceased older sister;
Johan Frederik, who was born on May 10, 1858 and died January 20, 1862.

The child mortality was high. Only four of the eight siblings survived to adulthood. As you can see, Ola and Toline's two oldest children were actually born before the parents were married; I wonder what was the reason for that.

Growing up on a Norwegian mountain farm in the mid-1800s was tough. Conditions were harsh, and everyone, young and old, women and men, had to work hard in order for their families to survive. What they produced, they produced for their own use, and not for sale. People got most of their daily necessities directly from nature. The family at Preststulen would have had easy access to the forest, where they could get timber and edible plants, and to the mountains, where they could hunt game and dig turf for fuel.

The Preststulen children all got confirmed in church, since this was compulsory at the time. However, the farm does not seem to have been a very religiously devout household. When Hans was confirmed in 1849, he got the grade "Hardly good". Per got the same grade in 1853, and Karen in 1862, while Kari was graded "Mediocre" in 1864.

Hard times and exodus

Already around 1855, Vågå and the neighboring parishes had become overpopulated. There was too little food and too little land, and people were beginning to consider leaving their homes to look for better opportunities elsewhere. It was around this time that the large-scale emigration to America began to gain momentum, and many people from Gudbrandsdalen also moved to Northern Norway. Eldri Preststulen (1897-2002), the wife of Karen's nephew, described the 1860s and 1870s in Vågå as "a terrible time". The emigrations led to a drastic population decline which affected the area well into the 20th century.

At the same time as times were becoming hard in Vågå, there was a huge development going on in transportation in Eastern Norway. Roads were being built and expanded, and steamship traffic had started on Lake Mjøsa. The emigrants, of course, took advantage of these developments which made travel much easier than before.

Sometime in the first half of the 1860s, Karen, who must have been between 15 and 19 years old, and her sister Kari, who must have been between 11 and 15 years old, decided to leave their home parish. Wearing homemade leather coats, the two girls started their journey northwards on foot, first across the hills to Lesja, then on to the dramatically situated village of Dombås, on the edge of the Dovre mountains. From Dombås, Karen and Kari continued on, walking north across the Dovre plateau, one of the largest and highest mountain plateaus in all of Norway. It was a brave journey and a dangerous one. After crossing the mountains, the girls would walked the steep road down to the village of Oppdal. They had crossed the province border, and they had crossed the regional border. They were now in Trøndelag, where people spoke a different dialect and had different customs and traditions.

The girls continued walking until they reached the Trondheim Fjord, one of the main natural features of the Trøndelag region. And by the shores of the fjord, the sisters parted ways. Karen went on westwards to the village of Ingdalen. Kari, in fact, went back home to Vågå, but then returned to Trøndelag and settled in Stadsbygd parish, just across the fjord from Ingdalen, and married a local man.

Karen and Anders Sjøa

We don't know much about Karen's early days in Ingdalen, but we know that after a couple of years, she had found herself a man. On January 21, 1867, Karen married Anders Persson Ingdal (born 1842). Anders was the son of crofters, and he was also a crofter himself, but in addition to that, he was also a fisherman and the local post opener and steamship operator. In fact, Anders seems to have been a bit of an entrepreneur, and he must have had a lot of energy. In our family, he is remembered fondly as a kind man. Because Anders lived at a croft called Sjøa, he was known locally as Anders Sjøa. The house still stands to this day, and I have seen it.

Interestingly, Anders' grandfather, Ola Pedersson Saudalen (born 1778), was in fact from Gudbrandsdalen; more specifically, the mountain village of Dombås. The name of his home croft Saudalen means "Sheep Valley". Ola and his parents probably moved away from Dombås in the aftermath of the severe frost of 1801, which destroyed crops across much of the upper parts of Gudbrandsdalen.

Karen and Anders had five children: Oline (1867-1939), Ane (born 1871), Peder (1873-1892), Karen Anna (1877-1959), and Gurine (1882-1948). They all survived to adulthood, although Peder died at a rather young age on board a ship en route to America. It was Gurine, then, a woman, who took over the croft Sjøa after her father, and she seemes to have managed just fine.

Oline, the oldest sister, is my great-great-grandmother. In the local dialect, her name was pronounced Ollina, with the stress on the first syllable. She was first married to Fredrik Johansen Dahle, who was born in 1869 and died in 1895. They had one son together, Johan Fredrik Dahle (born 1894), the one who would later become a famous strongman. In 1898, Oline married my great-great-grandfather Martin Pedersen Grostadgjerdet (1876-1910), nine years her junior, and the couple moved to the city of Trondheim where their four children (one of whom died in infancy) were born. My great-grandfather Fredrik was born in 1904. In 1910, Martin died tragically at the age of 34 from pneumonia which he had contracted on a skiing trip. After her husband's death, Oline started a small shop and made money from renting out rooms in her house; just like her mother and sister, she was a very strong and independent woman for her time. Her last child, a daughter, was born in 1911, and her father was one of Oline's tenants. Oline lived until 1939, and we have an amazing picture of her holding her grandson Frode, my grandfather, as a small baby.

Karen and Anders Sjøa continued to live on their little croft in Ingdalen on the shore of the Trondheim Fjord. As far as I know, the couple was very well liked by everyone, and formed a central part of the community. Then, on January 15, 1924, Karen passed away at the age of 78. It broke her husband's heart. Anders died just a few weeks later, on February 6, and his obituary in the local newspaper said that he probably died from grief.

By the time Karen died, my great-grandfather Fredrik was 19 years old. He would have heard her stories directly from her mouth, stories that impressed him so much that he decided to pass them on to his children, including my grandfather. And my grandfather has passed them on to his children, and to my cousins and myself.

Karen is an important ancestor to me. I am proud to descend from such a strong woman. I am also proud to be part of the family that has remembered her story of struggle, success and love for more than 150 years.

Anders and Karen outside their house at Sjøa.
This is the only known photograph of Karen.

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