Weaving Threads of History into Story

In February 1847, while the Donner party struggled to survive in the snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and Elizabeth Dixon Smith and her family prepared to leave Indiana for Oregon, a baby was born in Denmark – my paternal great-great-grandfather Charles N. Claudson. (I’m told his last name in Denmark was Clausen; it was anglicized when he moved to the U.S.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI know little about Charles Claudson, other than a couple of family stories, and a few dates from the Internet. He was born on February 24, 1847, in Denmark, and died on December 5, 1928, in Arnold, Nebraska. He married Saphronia Elvira Vaught (or Elvira Saphronia, according to her tombstone).

Charles’ and Elvira’s four sons were born in Iowa. Their third son, my great-grandfather, Luther Monroe Claudson, was born on July 27, 1879. Luther moved to Nebraska at some point, but our family doesn’t know how Luther got to Nebraska from Iowa. (He was the only son to end up in Nebraska. One of his brothers was buried in Iowa, and the others in Oregon and Montana.)

Luther’s wife Lille Evalina Smith, was born in Iowa on January 22, 1884. According to our family stories, Lillie went by covered wagon with her family from Iowa to homestead on the Garfield Table in Nebraska when she was just two months old. She married Luther in 1900, when she was sixteen. Luther and Lillie then moved into a sod hut on his homestead on the Garfield Table. Their first two children were born in the soddy. They built a frame house on the homestead, where their later children were born. Ultimately they came to live in the town of Arnold, Nebraska.

Charles Claudson died in Arnold in 1928, and he is buried there with his wife Elvira. But we don’t know how Charles and Elvira, nor Luther, got to Nebraska from Iowa. Supposedly, six other families accompanied Lillie and her family from Iowa to Nebraska, but we don’t know if the Claudsons were one of those families. Charles ultimately ran a café in Arnold before his death, but that’s all we know about his later life.

The more interesting family stories about Charles involve his immigration to the United States. I don’t know the date he came to the U.S., nor why he wanted to leave Denmark. I have always thought it was because of Prussian conscription of Danes after Prussia won the Second War of Schleswig in 1864. Charles would have been in his late teens and early twenties at that time – the prime age for conscription. His oldest child was born in 1872 in Iowa, so he was living in the U.S. by the time he was 25.

According to family myth, Charles stowed away on a ship from Denmark to the U.S.  Charles’ voyage as a stowaway remains in family lore because his adventures were worthy of Robert Lewis Stevenson or Herman Melville. Charles was discovered somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, and the crew threw him overboard. He was told, “If you come back up, we’ll haul you out. If you sink, so be it.”

Thankfully for my family’s future, Charles did not drown. He was pulled out of the sea, and put to work in the ship’s galley.

When the ship arrived in the U.S., so the family story goes, Charles found a room in a boardinghouse, left his meager belongings there, and went out to find a job. He got lost, and never found his way back to the boardinghouse, losing all his worldly possessions.

I picture Charles as a young Danish farm boy, risking everything to escape a foreign army, only to find himself lost in a foreign city. But somehow he prevailed. Soon he got work on the railroads, and we think that’s how Charles got to Iowa. From there, the family story is more definite, but less adventurous.

What I love about writing historical fiction is discovering how the threads of history link. We writers spin our tales by weaving the threads of history and fiction together. Our tales are based on reality, but with only the drama and none of the drudgery. We discern how our small stories fit in the vast scope of history.

My novel about travel along the Oregon Trail makes use of some of the events that Elizabeth Dixon Smith Geer described in her diary. Some of my maternal ancestors traveled to Oregon in 1948, so the fictional story I am writing could be theirs as well.

nasa-topographic-map-oregontrailIn the same years that some of my ancestors were part of our nation’s migration west, the boy Charles was growing up half a world away. He ultimately lived near the Great Platte River Road – the route along which the emigrants to Oregon and California traveled. Charles and his descendants also became part of our nation’s history, when they helped to settle the Great American Desert of Nebraska and Kansas in the early part of the last century.

Even a century ago, the world could be a small place, if only we weave the threads together.

NOTE: This post has been corrected and updated as of April 4, 2013, with information from my father.

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