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Jenny Schlecht's great-grandfather developed a horse breeding program at his farm in northwestern North Dakota. Knutson family photo

The Sorting Pen: Remembering the immigrant farmers who came before us

A few months back, I noticed I had a few messages on Facebook Messenger from people I didn’t know. The first was quickly disposed of as a case of mistaken identity. The second, a long screed from a person with an out-of-the-ordinary name, seemed likely to be the same kind of thing. But I scanned it just long enough to catch the names of my great-grandparents, including the somewhat unusual maiden name of my great-grandmother.

It turns out the message was from a long-unknown relative in Norway who had learned only in recent years that he had a great-grandfather who had left Norway in 1900 and settled in North Dakota. With the help of the Sons of Norway, he had found a few details about the great-grandfather, including the names of his brothers — one of whom was the father of my maternal grandmother.

With all the possible familial connections the gentleman could have made, I’m still not positive how he traced the lineage to me. I am three last names removed from my great-grandparents, and while I live in North Dakota now, my grandmother lived much of her life in Montana, where I grew up. Perhaps it was fate, of sorts, that led him to an extended family member who loves history and mysteries and investigating things.

The days and weeks that followed found my mom and me scrambling to find what we could about our family. Mom located a photo of the great-grandfather of our “new cousin.” We connected him with my great-uncle, who has memories of the great-grandfather whom our Norwegian family member sought. I found an old newspaper clipping that may have been about the man in question.

It was a surreal, unusual experience to get connected to these things that seem so far gone. I’ve always had a pretty good idea that most parts of my family came to this country from Norway or from Germany by way of Russia and lived here as poor farmers. I’ve been to the Palermo, N.D., homestead where my grandma grew up. I know some names and some dates pertaining to my ancestors, but I’m realizing more and more that I don’t know the stories or the motivations of these people who came before me.

Logically, I know they came here and started farms and families. They built houses and raised crops and animals. They kept going through war and the Dust Bowl and Great Depression and more war, through familial hardships and technological advancements. And they started lineages that eventually led to me.

The more I’ve thought on all I’ve learned so far, the more I wish I knew. And in the coming year, I hope to learn more before it’s too late and all that history is even farther gone. Our Norwegian relative plans to visit North Dakota this summer, and I am going to do everything I can to help find out where his great-grandfather’s farm was so that he can see it.

The whole experience has been a good reminder of the origins of my family. We may be generations removed from the immigrants who came here seeking better lives — a little land, freedom, opportunities they couldn’t imagine in their former homes. But we owe so much to them.

It’s also been a good reminder that the people who wish to come to this country today aren’t so different than our families; they want better lives for their children and grandchildren. May we never forget where we came from and the opportunities we’ve been given.

Schlecht lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at or 701-595-0425.