August 1862

     Galloping horses and a man’s shout startled Inga and Sophia Johansson as they strolled toward home. Inga turned around. “Papa is coming.” She grabbed her sister’s hand, pulled her to the middle of the rutted road and waved.
     Driving his horses faster than usual, Olaf Johansson jounced himself and the buckboard’s contents. “Whoa, Bella. Whoa, Jingo,” he bellowed. Harnesses rattling and clanking, the horses halted beside his daughters. Dust swirling behind the wagon caught up with it, settling on everything. He swished at the cloud with his hat. “Where have you been? Do you want a ride?”
     “Yes.” Inga grasped her father’s outstretched hand, climbed up and sat beside him. “We have been helping Ingmar and Elsa pack. They are leaving for America in early September—about three weeks.”
     “Yes, I know. I am very happy for them. America is a wonderful place to live. Hurry up, Sophia. I have a surprise for everyone.” He held his hand out to her.
     Sophia clambered up, and stood behind the seat. She leaned over his shoulder. “Tell us, Papa.”
     “Not until we get home.” A mischievous grin spread across Olaf’s ruddy face.
     “Are you getting another horse?” Inga had asked him for one.
     Olaf shook his head. “You will never guess. But I promise it is exciting. Hang on, Sophia.” He slapped the reins on the horses’ backs. “Giddap, hyaahh!” The team trotted ahead. Olaf turned them into their farmstead and reined the horses near the barn and corral. He tied the reins to the brake handle, jumped down and helped his daughters alight.
     “Come on, girls, hurry up.” He sprinted toward a red-roofed, white-clapboard house.
     They picked up their skirts and darted after him.
     Olaf burst through the door. “Helga—Helga, a letter from Otto—in America.” He removed his hat and flung it at a wooden peg. The hat tumbled to the floor and rolled on its brim, coming to rest against a broom.
     Kneading bread dough on the table, Helga paused with her hands buried in the misshapen mound. She said in a loud whisper, “Shhh. You will wake Karl. Olaf, your hat fell down. Inga, how is Elsa?”
     Olaf picked up his hat, brushed the brim, and snagged it on a peg.
     Inga untied her bonnet and removed it. “She is feeling well, but tires easily with all the excitement of moving. We packed most of their things today. I think she is afraid to go.”
     “I am sure the trip worries her, because of the baby.” Helga punched and rolled the dough. “It will be born in a few months—probably at sea. It will be sad to lose such good neighbors. I will miss visiting with her.” She looked up, smiling. “Goodness, Olaf, I have not seen you this excited since Karl’s birth. Girls, do you remember how Papa praised God and shouted Hallelujahs when Karl was born?”
     The girls laughed. Inga clapped her hands. “Poor Eleanora. I think she almost fainted when Papa picked her up and hugged her.”
     Helga laughed, and tears dribbled down her cheeks. She wiped them away with her sleeves. “My, oh my, what a day that was! Now, tell us, Olaf, what does Otto write?”
     “Having a son is wonderful news.” Olaf put his arms around his daughters, drew them close and kissed their cheeks. “We had hoped for a son for almost ten years. A farmer needs sons.” He released the girls, pulled a square, brown-paper envelope from inside his shirt, held it high and waggled it. “This letter has wonderful and exciting news worth shouting Hallelujahs about.”
     “Letters from America are always exciting. Read it to us.” Helga sprinkled flour on the dough.
     Grinning, he pulled it from the envelope. “Otto writes: June 20, 1862. Dear Olaf and family. We are all well. Julia is expecting again in October. This will be number four.” Olaf looked up at Helga and chuckled. “That brother of mine—he will soon have a houseful of children—probably all boys. That is very good.”
     Helga looked askance at him. “I think we will only have three—that is good.”
     Inga and Sophia exchanged frowns.
     “Papa, do you not like girls?” Sophia sounded hurt.
     He peered at her as though he had not heard right. “What? Not like girls? Yes, I like girls, especially my daughters. I would not trade either of you for a son.” He squeezed her hand.
     “Your papa is just as proud of you as he is Karl.” Helga worked the dough and sprinkled more flour on it.
     “I am very proud of our three beautiful children. But if God blesses us again….” He winked at Helga and continued reading. “We hope it will be a girl so we can name her Anna Emilie after our Mamas. There are many Norwegians in the community, with more arriving every week. Our store does very good business. All of this is good for us. Danville is a busy place. The great news I write to tell you about is the Homestead Act the government just passed. It gives 160 acres to anyone who wants to farm. All you have to pay is a filing fee of eighteen dollars, build a house, improve the land and live there for five years, and then you own it. You are a good farmer, Olaf. The land here is rich, and the crops bountiful. You could grow enough to feed your family and have some to sell. I hope you and Helga will come to America. Iver and Sverre filed for their land in Dakota Territory. Please write soon. Your brother, Otto.”
     Olaf folded the letter and tucked it back into the envelope. A grin spread across his face. He approached Helga from behind and hugged her. “We will go. Yes?” He kissed her neck.
     “What? To America? Are you serious?” She stared at him, her mouth agape.
     “You do not want to go?” His voice reflected surprise and disbelief. Grasping her shoulders, he turned her slightly toward him.
     Wide-eyed, she stared at him. “I…I, yes, I guess so. Olaf, it is such a big decision….” She bit her lip. “I…I have to think about it.” She smiled wanly. “Otto’s letters always make you excited to join your family. Sailing across the Atlantic makes my heart thump and my stomach knot up.”
     Inga and Sophia glanced from one parent to the other, their faces masks of confusion, disbelief, and surprise. Eyes wide, Sophia clasped her hand over her mouth.
     Inga wondered if she had heard right. Leave Norway? Go to America? Leave Erik? No—no, they could not. Alarm gushed onto her face. She blurted, “Papa—”
     He interrupted, “Helga, just think, one hundred sixty acres of our very own.” He gazed at her. “It is like a miracle. We will be rich. I will write to Otto and tell him we are coming.”
     Sophia shook her father’s arm. “Are we really going to America? When are we going? When?”
     Olaf chuckled at his daughter’s enthusiasm. “Very soon I hope, before winter arrives. I would like to have our homestead established in time to sow crops next spring.”
     Concern furrowed Helga’s brow and tainted her voice. “How will we afford to pay for passage?” With the back of her hand, she brushed a wisp of hair from her forehead leaving a smudge of flour above her right eye.
     Gesturing, he replied with conviction, “We will sell our farm and all we have stored for winter. It is a good time right now after the harvest. It will bring plenty, I promise.” He paced around the table. “I have talked to several men in church and other places. Someone is always looking for a farm.” Tomorrow we will start planning.” He extended his arms and closed his eyes. “Tonight we will dream. America! I can hardly believe it.” He strode to Helga, grabbed around the waist, spun her around, and gently wiped flour from her face.
     She cried out, “Olaf, look at the mess.” Flour and small dough gobs littered the floor.
     He laughed, pulled her close and kissed her cheek. “Soon you will have a new house to make a mess in.”
     “You are just like a little boy with a new toy, Olaf. Right now this house has a mess to clean up. Uffda. Will one of you girls sweep the floor, please?”
     Sophia hurried to the broom, swept the floor, and took the droppings outside.
     Two-year-old, tow-headed Karl, named after Olaf’s father, awoke from his nap. He toddled from the bedroom to Olaf, raising his arms. “Papa.”
     Olaf picked up the rosy-cheeked child and jostled him. “Karl Ener Johansson, we are going to America.” Olaf danced around the room, singing, “America, America,” in a lilting tune of his own making.
     “Merca, Merca,” Karl repeated, giggling.
     “Olaf, you are so silly.” Helga watched the antics, smiling. “You had better take him out to the toilet.”
     “Oh my, yes. I am so excited I cannot think.” With that, he danced across the floor and outside, still singing his tune and Karl mimicking it.
     Concern furrowed Inga’s brow. “Mama, how can Papa think of leaving this farm? It has been in his family a long time. I think it is a terrible idea.”
     Helga continued working the dough while offering reasoning. “America is a wonderful place. I have often wished to go, especially after receiving letters from Emma. She always tells how happy she is. I miss her so. Your papa is a good farmer. We cannot pass up affordable, good farmland.”
     Inga wrung her hands. “But this is our home. We will have to leave our friends.”
     “We will have a nice home in America, too.” She glanced at her daughter. “Home is where you and your family are. We will make new friends there.”
     Inga’s anxiety mushroomed at the thought of leaving Erik. She felt a desperate need to convince her parents not to leave. “We are happy here. We should stay in this home. Elsa told us about dangers they will face sailing to America. Being aboard a crowded ship for months is…is horrible.” Her throat tightened. “The ship might sink.” Her voice took on a hysterical tone. “We could all die! It is too dangerous!” She turned away to hide her tears.
     The emotional plea prompted Helga to peer at her daughter. “We are aware of those dangers and conditions aboard ship. You have to realize how great an opportunity this is for our family. One hundred sixty acres is more than we could ever hope to own here. Your papa is responsible for feeding us. If we have a poor crop or none at all, we will go hungry. If that should happen, he would never forgive himself for not going to America. With more land we will be well fed and have a better life. You must understand what that means.”
     “I do understand, but I do not want to go.” There just had to be a way to convince them. She would talk to Erik. Maybe he could help. The thought of leaving him caused a heartache unlike she’d ever experienced.
&     Olaf returned, sat down at the table with Karl on his lap and smoothed the boy’s tousled hair.
     Karl slapped the tabletop, sending up a puff of flour. He did it again, laughing at the result.
     “No, no, Karl.” Olaf grabbed his hands.
     Standing beside her father, heart breaking, Inga hoped he would listen to reason. “Papa, I do not want to leave our home and go to America.” Her voice took on a desperate tone. “Sailing the ocean is too dangerous. What if the ship sinks? What if we get sick and die? Please do not go.”
     Concern furrowed his brow. “Danger is everywhere, not just in sailing. America offers us a great opportunity. Yes, leaving our home here will be difficult, but we will have a better one there.” He bounced Karl on his knee. “We have decided. We are a family and we will go to America as one.” He patted her arm.
     A feeling of hopelessness engulfed Inga. Elsa had told of the horrible health conditions aboard ship. Tomorrow she would visit Erik. Maybe he, with his medical knowledge, could convince Mama and Papa not to go.
     Helga finished kneading the bread into a mound and covered it with a cloth. “Emma, I must write to Emma.” She threw up her hands. “No…no, there is not enough time. Olaf, this is a wonderful thing for us.”
     “Yes, I am anxious to see our families again. How I miss them. Maybe we can find your brothers, too.”
     “How will we find Lars and Peter? Where would we look? America is very large.” Helga spread her arms wide.
     “I do not know.” Olaf’s expression saddened. “I am sorry; I should not have mentioned them. I know how much you worry about them. Maybe Otto will have some ideas.”
     Inga listened. She shook her head. It seemed as though Mama and Papa had not heard a word concerning her fears.
     Karl rubbed his eyes, yawned, and held his arms out to Helga. “Mama, num…num.”
     “Mama must wash her hands.” She held them up to show him. After cleaning them, she took him and sat, unbuttoned her dress and bared a breast. Karl snuggled, closed his eyes and began nursing. He toyed with the buttons. She brushed his blond, curly hair back, smiling at him. “The ocean trip will be hard for him. It is a good thing he still nurses.”
     Olaf leaned on the table. “Yes it is. The voyage will not be easy for any one of us.”
     Noting the concern, Inga stated, “Danger to Karl is a good reason to stay here.”
     Olaf rose and put his hands on her shoulders. “We know the difficulties and dangers of sailing.” He gathered her to him and hugged her.
     Inga choked back the urge to shout out in protest.
     “We will all survive,” Olaf reassured her. He picked up Otto’s letter and read it again, held it up and gave it a little shake. “I am sure going to America is the right thing for us to do.” He counted the points on his fingers and spoke with certainty. “We must work hard, stay together, and above all else pray together. Many others have gone before us. I do not know of any who have returned. Have Emma or Otto ever written that they would like to return? No. This opportunity is like—like a dream come true.” Wandering around the kitchen, he swept his arms in a circle. “We must remember everything about this house.” He stopped beside Helga. “Would you want a house just like this one in America?”
     She looked up at him and smiled. “Maybe just a little larger.”
     He nodded. A dreamy look crossed his face. “Yes, yes, a little larger so we would have room for more sons.”
     Helga patted Karl. “I am happy with only one. Anyway, that is up to God.”
     “Yes, up to God. Maybe He will bless us again.” He winked at her and laughed at her expression.
     Disheartened, Inga turned away. She knew Papa’s brothers and sister, Otto, Sverre, Iver, and Ingrid had all immigrated to America in the 1850’s. Papa’s sister had died on the voyage. There—that was a danger worth reminding them of. Mama’s sister and brothers, Emma, Lars, and Peter went at the same time. Inga barely remembered them. Last spring Mama had received word from Emma that her husband had died of pneumonia during the winter. It seemed to Inga that America only begat miseries. She was determined not to go.
     At the supper table, Olaf grasped the hands of his daughters. “Thank you Lord for all of Your blessings. Bless this food for our bodies and help us to do Your will. Please guide and protect us as we prepare to travel to America. And thank you for our letter from Otto. Amen.”
     “When are we going, Papa?” Sophia gushed. “Maybe we will sail with Elsa and Ingmar.”
     His face lit with joy, Olaf replied, “Tomorrow I will find out.”
     “Papa, I would like to have a diary to write about our journey. Some day, when I have children, I would like them to read about it.”
     “That is a good idea, Sophia. Would you like to have one too, Inga?”
     Unable to control her emotions, Inga shoved her chair away from the table and dashed into the bedroom she shared with Sophia. Sobbing, she threw herself down on the patchwork quilt covering the bed.
     Helga hurried after her daughter and sat down beside her. “What is the matter?”
     Voice quavering, Inga babbled, “I do—not—want—to—go—to America.”
     “Calm yourself.” Helga stroked her daughter’s blond braids and rubbed her back. “This is a wonderful thing for us.”
     Rising up on one elbow, Inga shook her head. “It is not wonderful for me. Erik and I have been talking about marrying. Mama, if we go I will never see him again.” She felt stricken. “I love him. I want to stay in Norway.”
     “I know how you feel, but we cannot leave you here.” Helga pulled Inga up and hugged her. “Think about it, you would have no family to comfort you. We might never see one another again.
     “I remember when your papa and I courted. We met when I was fifteen—almost sixteen. We courted for two years before Olaf asked my parents for permission to marry. Mama said a very determined ‘no—you are too young.’ Papa said nothing. He just looked stern. The next day Papa gave us his blessing. Mama stood by his side looking dour. I knew she still did not approve. Emma told me later she had overheard them talking. Papa convinced Mama to let us marry because then Olaf could support me. With one less mouth to feed the family would fare better.” She brushed a tear from Inga’s cheek. “My pretty little flower, you have grown into a beautiful young woman. You have grown-up feelings, but you are still too young to marry. In America, I am sure there are many young men to choose a husband from.”
     Distraught, Inga cried out, “Mama, I do not want anyone else for my husband.” She flung herself down and sobbed. Early last spring, during their church’s construction, she had met Erik. Everyone in the community volunteered to work on it, and those who did not build brought food and ran errands for workers. One day, when Inga went to summon the builders to come and eat, Karl followed unknown to her. She watched the men bustling about before calling out that the meal was ready. Horrified, she spotted Karl who had wandered into an area where men were lifting a wall they had framed on the ground. Fearing for his life, she darted toward him shouting his name. A worker swooped Karl up and carried him to safety with the terrified boy crying, “Mama, Mama.”
     Inga rushed to rescue him. “I am sorry. I did not know he followed me. Thank you.”
     The young man handed Karl to her. “You are safe now little one, with your mama.”
     Wailing, Karl wrapped his arms around Inga’s neck and buried his face against her shoulder.
     She blushed and shook her head. “No, no, he is my brother. I am Inga Johansson. I came to tell everyone the meal is ready.”
     A broad smile dimpled his cheeks. “I am glad he is your brother. Erik Norskaag—I have been wanting to meet you.” He called out to the workmen with the meal announcement and then accompanied Inga back to the waiting spread of food.
     Since meeting, they had continued seeing each other. On several occasions, he had invited her to his home for supper. Although he was six years older, the couple soon fell in love. Several months later, following the church’s construction, parishioners celebrated with a picnic and dance. She and Erik danced every one. After the last dance, they talked a while. He mentioned marrying when he finished his medical studies. Surprised, all she could say was, “Yes, I hope to marry someday, too.” And now she was going to be torn from him. It felt like her heart was being ripped from her body. Unbearable! Why didn’t Mama understand? Why?
     Rubbing and patting Inga’s back, her mother tried to comfort her. “Talk to Erik. Maybe he can go to America with us. Papa will need plenty of help on our new farm.” She leaned down and kissed Inga’s cheek. “Come now, dry your tears. We must eat supper before it gets cold.”
     Olaf appeared in the doorway. “I heard. Let me talk to her.”
     Shaking her head, Helga rose and sidled back to the kitchen.
     He sat beside Inga. “I agree with Mama—you are too young to marry.”
     Inga sat up slowly. “But, Papa, Mama was only seventeen when she married you.” She folded and twisted her dress, lifted her skirt and wiped a tear from her cheek.
     “Yes, but she was eighteen a few weeks later. It is almost two years before you are the same age. Tell me, what kind of job does Erik have?”
     “He works for his father and is going to school to become a doctor.” She peered at her father’s austere face and knew it would be difficult to change his mind. She must—she had to.
     “How will he support a wife? And children?”
     Having no answer, Inga shrugged and hung her head. Her mind awhirl, she blurted out what she thought was a convincing argument: “We could live with his father until Erik finishes his studies. I am sure there would be plenty I could do to help. Erik’s mama died several years ago, so there is no one to cook and clean. It must be hard for them.” She looked at her father, hoping—praying that he’d nod acceptance—that her plea would sway him.
     “Yes, I am sure you are right.” Olaf sat quietly, his mouth a thin line. Narrowing his gaze, a crease formed between his eyes. He grasped her hand with both of his. “I understand your feelings. Your life would be difficult without any family close by. We may never see each other again. How sad that would be.” He shook his head. “No, I cannot allow you to stay behind.” His voice took on a sterner tone. “You are only sixteen years old, little more than a child. For now, you will come to America with us. Erik must finish his studies. With no wife to worry about, he will finish them sooner. You can wait for him in America.”
     Her voice filled with desperation, she begged, “Please, Papa, let me stay in Norway.”
     Standing, he pulled his hands away. “You will go to America with your family. Now, come back to the table.” He took a few steps, stopped in the doorway and glanced back at her. “Inga, we will not give you permission to marry. Your mother and I have spoken.”
     His words stabbed her. Why didn’t they understand? She sat on the edge of her bed, numb with pain. She wanted only to run to Erik. Never would she give up trying to convince them to let her stay in Norway. Never!
     After crying most of the night, Inga rose, ate breakfast, and asked permission to visit Erik. She changed into a blue and white-flowered dress, trimmed with a white collar and cuffs. Although the sun shone bright and the air was warm on the hour’s walk to Christiania, anxiety and unhappy thoughts flooded her mind. She rehearsed what she would say to Erik. When she arrived at his house and he opened the door she flung herself into his arms, crying, “Oh Erik, Papa is taking us to America.”
     Stunned, he gaped at her, pulled her inside and shut the door. His face awash with dismay, he grasped her upper arms. “America? Why? When?”
     ears running down her cheeks, the words streamed out like a river. “Papa’s brother sent a letter telling about good farm land to homestead near where he lives. Papa and Mama are going very soon. I begged them to leave me in Norway, but they refused. I tried to explain about us.” She wrung her hands. “They said you could go with us and help Papa farm. Say yes, Erik, please.” She brushed away her tears and peered hopefully at him.
     His deep blue eyes that crinkled at the corners when he laughed now gazed at her with a pained expression that marred his face. He looked away at nothing and back at her. “Inga, Inga, I cannot say yes before I ask my father. With Mama gone, he depends on me to help out here at home because he is away so much.”
     “If we married we could live here and I would do the cooking and cleaning.”
     “I will talk to him tonight.” He gathered her into his arms. “What do your parents think about marrying?”
     Struggling with the lump in her throat, she choked out, “They—they think I am too young.”
     Erik tipped her chin up and kissed her. “Maybe if I talk to them….”

top: the letter.

return to the Seeds of Life page