Let us praise pioneers. Of all sorts, but today especially the traditional sort. I myself am thinking of Carl and Mathilda, whom I came to know through one of those wholly unexpected spine-tingling unbelievable fantastic experiences.
It’s a bit long, but I’m convinced that everyone has a story like this, and so in a real way it’s everyone’s long story.
I had known since childhood of Carl and Mathilda’s existence, but they became flesh and blood to me only recently.
In May 2004 my family and I made a long trip to visit New York, where my son had recently finished a mission, and we wanted to meet some of his friends. We stayed about five days, and on one of them, a Saturday, my wife suggested we visit the new immigrant museum at Ellis Island. I was less than enthusiastic, because of the crowds that were sure to have the same idea on a weekend.
And I was right: the lines to catch the boats out to the island snaked back and forth for what seemed like miles. But I was also wrong. Because thanks to those crowds I had the fantastic experience.
When we finally got out to the island, the museum was indeed impressive. Even though my legs soon became lethargic in the way legs do while walking slowly through museums, I endured, and thank goodness. At the end of the tour stood a bank of computer terminals, where you could type in the name of an ancestor, to see whether any had come through Ellis Island. But the sight of yet another line at these terminals did me in. I, the historian, gave up, and wearily took a seat near a pillar. My wife and daughter stood gamely in line, however, eager to type away.
Several minutes later, my daughter came running excitedly, to say that they couldn’t help noticing that the woman right in front of them had typed in Harline.
It’s a rare last name, and we have always been related to anyone who has it. And so my wife struck up a conversation, while daughter and I, at last arisen from my fainting couch, rushed over to join in as well.
The woman’s name was Annika. She was from Sweden, just like my ancestors, and was here in New York for three days. She was at the computers looking for a distant uncle, named Carl Harline, who had disappeared from the family in the late 19th century. Perhaps he had gone to America, she thought, and that’s why she typed in his name.
I responded that my great grandfather was also called Carl Harline. He converted to Mormonism in the late 19th century and emigrated from Sweden to Salt Lake City soon after. Maybe it was coincidence: Carl was the most popular name in Sweden, and lots of Swedes were emigrating at that time. I decided to call my parents immediately and find out where our Carl was from: a parish called Simtuna, replied my mother.
I had no idea where this was but repeated it to Annika, who almost fainted. That’s where she was born and still lives today, and where her Carl was from as well.
We were all astonishedthat out of the few days we were both in New York, out of all the sights in New York, out of the eight hours the museum was open, out of all the people packed in that day, out of all the computer terminals, we had converged at the same spot at precisely the same moment. And that my wife and daughter, forgive them, had bothered to look over her shoulder.
We could have missed meeting by five seconds and never known it, especially since I’d been lounging on a bench 50 feet away, not helping.
And now my wife even started saying that Annika resembled my father in her features (I wasn’t sure it was flattering to a fifty-something woman to say that she resembled a 77-something man, dear though he is). It was all very moving.
When we left Ellis Island, Annika and I thought that we were at least second cousins. Our New York friends who had been with us told the story to others. Within days it was repeated on the sacrament meeting circuit as an inspirational genealogical miracle—which really ticked me off, mostly because I’d already lost control of the story.
Even more fundamentally than that, however, it turned out that Annika and I weren’t related at all (no retraction ever followed the miracle talks, I’m sure). After Annika returned to Sweden, her husband Bengt, a museum director, investigated the miracle. He discovered that there were two Carl Harlines from Simtuna. One was Annika’s relative, one was mine. They had, however, lived in the same house, and that was where they got their common name.
Names in Sweden were fluid for centuries, and you could get them any number of ways besides the most famous (Carlsson, Petersson, and so on). One way was through the army. Each village provided a house or two for soldiers. The army then assigned a name to the house, related to the village name, and the soldier took the name as well.
Annika’s great grandfather Ulrik lived in the Harline house, as a soldier, and thus took the name Harline. One of his sons, Carl, was Annika’s great uncle. My great grandfather Carl took Ulrik’s place in the house, and also the name Harline, which he kept when he moved to Utah in 1891.
Thus they weren’t related, but they did know each other. And that, plus the unbelievable meeting at Ellis Island, made Annika feel like family anyway. It was still a fantastic experience.
It became even more fantastic because thanks to Annika and Bengt, Carl and Mathilda became three-dimensional people to me. I never would have gone to Sweden without meeting Annika, as I spend most of my time in Europe in Belgium and France. But Annika and Bengt invited me twice briefly, and then a third time I spent two months of my sabbatical there. In between writing on the subject of religious conversion and families, I learned more about Carl and Mathilda than I had ever known before, including how religion had affected their own family relationships.
Carl Eriksson and Mathilda Petersson were both born in 1859. They were both the children of farmhands and maids, which meant their families owned no property (no nobility for me of course), which meant that when Carl and Mathilda became teenagers they too would be farmhand and maid, working for farmers who actually owned land.
Much of what I learned came through Lutheran church records. There I could see the scores each person in a household was assigned for : religious understanding,” “ability to read,” “catechism,” and so on, by the visiting priest. My relatives all received average to below-average scores in religion. Figures.
I could also see on which farms Carl and Mathilda had gone to work. At her second farm, around age 19, Mathilda heard about a meeting with Mormon missionaries, and, perhaps like many other Swedes with low religious scores, decided to attend (in fact there were a lot of non-Lutheran, evangelical sorts of movements around the countryside at this time). She believed that she heard the truth, and bought the books they had for sale; but when they asked whether she wanted to be baptized, she said “not yet.” She saw no more missionaries for 9 years.
By the third or fourth farm, Carl and Mathilda were working at the same place, starting in November 1880. By June of the next year (maybe it happened on Midsummer Eve, the longest day and party of the year) Mathilda was pregnant, thanks to Carl. This was common all over premodern Europe: a couple became engaged and started determining whether they could have children. When the woman became pregnant, marriage soon followed. A woman who became pregnant without a promise of marriage, however, was blamed for the problem, and sent back home.
Anyway, Carl and Mathilda married later in 1881. Carl decided to give up being only a farmhand and tried to improve his station by becoming a soldier—and this was of course how he became Carl Harline. As a soldier he received a little cash, a house (with a name), an acre for potatoes, training with the army a few weeks a year (no wars for Sweden since the early 19th century), soling some shoes, and working for the farmer on whose land the house stood.
Their first child was born in March 1882…and died in November. Four girls were then born from 1883 to 1889. When Mathilda was pregnant with the third, in 1887, the Mormon missionaries came around again. This time she asked to be baptized, but now the missionaries told her to wait until she was sure. For three months she read and studied after chores, and once fasted three days. Twice a day she went into the forest that bordered their home and prayed for a dream or sign.
Nothing came yet, but she felt she wanted to be baptized, and told Carl so. He said that she was foolish and should stop being so crazy. When Mathilda’s mother heard the news, she ran to her daughter’s home and begged her to be sensible, then cried and told Mathilda it was all of the devil. With such emotional pressure, with her usual extremely physical work (including storing 35 bushels of potatoes on the day before her third daughter was born), with a nursing baby, with her fasting, and with her late-night study, Mathilda was in an ideal state to receive a vision.
She received two, both of which convinced her that she should become Mormon. Thus despite Carl’s opposition she remained firm, and went through with being baptized. The usual crowd of people, mixed with supporters and opponents and the merely curious, came to watch. It’s not clear whether Carl was among them, or Mathilda’s parents.
About two years later, Carl converted too, but no one in the family ever bothered to write about this, and Carl’s religiosity remained an enigma. His joining didn’t solve familial tensions, because now Mathilda wanted to emigrate to Utah. Not all Mormon converts did so: about one-third of the practicing Mormons in Sweden stayed there. But Mathilda wanted to leave. Maybe Carl did as well; maybe there was economic allure for him; maybe his position in the Swedish army was threatened when he became Mormon. Whatever the case, both sets of parents were at wits’ end. His own parents told him, “Let her go if she wants,” but they wanted Carl to stay there. It couldn’t have been easy to be Carl at that point, torn between his two families.
By 1891, however, both Carl and Mathilda decided to leave, with their four daughters. Tens of thousands of Swedes had emigrated to America since the 1850s, most of them due to economic pressures at home and the (usually exaggerated) promise of opportunity abroad. Still, it was surely a sad day for all the families when Carl, Mathilda, and the four girls left for Utah in April 1891. For although some emigrants did move back to Sweden, most expected that they would never see their families again. And Carl and Mathilda never did; in fact they heard rarely from them, as far as I can tell.
The trip to Utah was easier than it had been thirty years before, as it was made now with steamships and railroads rather than sailing vessels and covered wagons or handcarts. But it was difficult enough. Carl became seasick during the Atlantic crossing, and the four girls all caught measles. On May 15, two days after arriving in Salt Lake, the baby girl, Anna Maria, died from her measles. She had been sick the whole way, been cared for the whole way, and just when they reached their destination she died.
I often wonder whether Carl ever recovered from that. Whether he, like many emigrant converts, felt that this was some sort of punishment from God, just as those back home had told him would occur if he became Mormon and moved to Utah. Because although Mathilda left every indication of being zealous in her faith, Carl didn’t. He and Mathilda never married in the temple. Still, everyone seemed to like him, and regard him as a quiet and musical man. He was always whistling while he worked, and no doubt helped inspire the song by that very title, which his youngest son would later write. But I always wondered whether the move to Utah, and the death of baby Anna Maria, wasn’t too much for his soul.
Mathilda was not only zealous but tough. She was thrown by a cow at age 47, when she ran to protect her children from it. She ran a loom and made carpets for sale, and sewed, cooked, washed, bottled, raised crops in the garden, much as she had done in Sweden. She still had a cellar out back, but also now a toilet, chicken coop, stable, barn, and haystacks. One of her children thought she was the real Old Woman in a Shoe. One of her children, my grandfather, was nicknamed “Bulldog,” and I would wager he learned or inherited that trait from her.
She and Carl had a total of 13 children, four of whom died young. At age 47 she had her last and most famous, Leigh, who after Mathilda and Carl both died won two Oscars in Hollywood for his musical scores for Walt Disney, including the song all Swedes still sing on Christmas, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” My grandfather was one of the obscure children.
The family struggled in Utah for a decade, even tried Idaho for about a month, before finally getting their own house, in 1905. Life seemed more settled then. But Mathilda had her first stroke in 1915, her second in 1921, and the third, which killed her, in 1922. Carl remarried soon afterward, and died in 1929. Some of the kids stayed in Utah, some left for California, including Leigh and my grandfather.
But none of them heard much from Sweden again.
Thanks to Annika and Bengt, I found some of Carl and Mathilda’s relatives in Sweden just last year. Most of these were from Mathilda’s family, and all the old resentments about religion had by now disappeared, or perhaps weren’t even known. It was a lot of fun. My daughter organized a game of ultimate frisbee, and soccer, and bicycling, with her fourth cousins, a category that’s all but meaningless I suppose, but she loved calling up and saying, “Hi Toby, it’s your cousin! Wanna play frisbee?” We had a big barbeque together and got brain freezes from trying to figure out who was where on the descendancy chart, and after awhile I just started talking to people and didn’t worry what degree of relation we were. I wasn’t sure how much it mattered really, as the personal relationship seemed the important thing. I saw the stone foundation of the house where Mathilda was born and raised. I saw the stone foundation of the Harline house, where she and Carl lived, near the forest, where her mother begged her not to be Mormon, where Mathilda fasted and slaved, where baby Anna Maria was born, and from where they left to go to Utah. And I saw the farm where Carl and Mathilda worked as teenagers, fell in love, and married. I even met the descendant of the farmer who ran the place when Carl and Mathilda were there, pointing out to him that my ancestors had worked for his ancestors. He invited me to play golf next time I was there, and I assumed he would pay, given the old relationship.
And now I go to Salt Lake occasionally to visit the cemetery where Carl and Mathilda are buried, side by side.
All thanks to meeting Annika on Ellis Island. Ironically, though she’s not my cousin, I actually feel stronger connection to her, thanks to that meeting. But I was unspeakably grateful to have learned about Carl and Mathilda, for real.