Tall tale or real family history?

Old photo album with pictures of men and women

Every family has stories of their past. Some are claims to fame. Others not so much.

In the 1800s many Swedes left the old country to seek fortune or just a new, hopefully better, life in the big land across the ocean.

As the story goes, one of my forefathers caught the bug and emigrated. Doing so, he left behind a wife and a number of children, maybe 10. In the new land he became a Mormon. Or maybe he became a Mormon before leaving Sweden. Either way, once he left for America, nothing further was heard of him. The wife and children in Sweden had to make do as best they could.

As Anne Shirley of Green Gables would rightly note, that was a tragic story indeed.

I heard the story from my dad. Unfortunately, he passed away almost 40 years ago, so there’s no way to go back and ask for more details, like names and years and so on. His siblings are long dead as well.

Some years ago, I found a name of an ancestor who could be “the one” and did some sleuthing in passenger manifests of ships bringing people to Ellis Island in the late 1800s. I was curious if there was anyone with that name who came from southern Sweden. However, before I could follow that trail all the way to its conclusion, other things came along. The research was set aside and subsequently misplaced.

More recently, I scoured a website a relative from another branch of my family has put together. Through lots of research, he’s built a family tree (or more like a small forest). Around 7,000 people are contained in his research. I went down the branches for my ancestors, looking at births and deaths, as well as locations of death. As Captain Renault in Casablanca would say, I rounded up all the usual suspects. Checked dates and locations. In those listings, everyone is accounted for with dates of death in places in Sweden.

If a forefather emigrated to the US, he would have died in the US. He might not be listed with a date of death in this family tree. Or the location of death might show up as “unknown” or in the US. Nothing. Everyone is neatly accounted for.

Now I was confused.

Could the whole story of an forefather who left his wife and 10 children behind to emigrate to America be a tall tale? Something someone made up and passed on? Maybe. Maybe not.

My dad wouldn’t have made that up out of thin air. He did spin tales from time to time, but not that involved ones. He was more in the area of exaggeration or adding a more colorful touch here and there.

I decided to email one of my cousins in Sweden. He’s older than I am, from the right branch of the family. I wrote the email and sent it off.

Got a reply a few days later. My cousin isn’t much for long emails, but this one was shorter than I’d expected.

“I haven’t heard anything like that.”

Not exactly what I expected.

At this point I figure that there are 3 scenarios:

Scenario 1: Dad repeated a story he’d heard from someone older than him. Maybe he embellished it a bit. But it turns out it was all fiction to start with.

Scenario 2: The story is true, with a twist. The forefather who left for America, came back to Sweden later in life and so is listed as having died in Sweden. That might seem odd, but was not unheard of.

To be sure, the majority of emigrants from Sweden settled into life in the US and never went back.

But some, after years in the new country, later chose to return to their old home country. I’ve met folks who did that over in Sweden.

To find out if that’s what happened in this story, would require researching a good number of possible people to learn where they lived throughout their lifetimes. Not just where they were born and died. That could easily become a large undertaking. But could be very interesting, because I’d learn so much about my family history.

Scenario 3: The story might be true or mostly true, but be about another family that was known to my forefathers. As in not my relatives, but somebody from the area. That of course makes it almost impossible to track down, since it now could be almost anybody.

At this point, I was ready to chalk this one off and settle for never knowing exactly what the real deal was. It’s an interesting story and something like it happened more than once over the span of Swedish emigration to America. Around 1.3 million people left Sweden for the US in the 1800s and early 1900s.

There were men who left their family behind in Sweden, planning to send for them once settled in the New Country. But instead they were never heard from again. Because things happen and communications weren’t that good back then.

And I’m sure there were also scoundrels who saw emigration as a chance to skip out on family responsibilities back home and start fresh in a new place where nobody knew them.

Photo from circa 1900 of a man, with studio imprint "Moline, Illinois"Some time later, I happened to pick up an old photo album with lots of pictures from around 1900. I got it from my dad and the people in it are relatives — long gone. I recognized a few. Since no names are listed, I had no idea who most are. But there are photographer’s imprints. So I know where the pictures were taken. All locations in southern Sweden.

Then I got to the last page. A photograph of a man. Maybe in his 30s or 40s. Again no name. But a photographer’s imprint: Moline, Illinois.

I did a double take. Photo album from Sweden. With all Swedes.

Plus one photo of a mystery man, taken by C.W. Sandstrom in Moline, Illinois. Certainly a photographer of Swedish origin. How did that photo end up in Sweden, in a photo album of my relatives from around 1900?

Could this be a photo of that mysterious disappearing ancestor?

So here I am. Still with a mystery. A story of a forefather who emigrated, but I can’t verify it.

And staring me right in the face, a photograph of a man, taken in Moline, Illinois, that found its way to Sweden and my old family album.

I don’t know if I will ever uncover the full truth behind the story of the mysterious emigrant or find the identity of the man in the photograph from Moline. Or if the two are connected.

However, the writer in me is starting to spin a story. Maybe some day I will turn all this into a novel. “The emigrant who disappeared”, inspired by a (possibly true, but maybe not) family story.

Or one day I may find records that have more information, allowing me to verify once and for all if the story is real. As well as identify who the man in the photograph was. Until then, I have a mystery. One that inspires imagination.

Because the story could be true. Things like this happened. So the real question is: Did it happen in my family?

Another thought: I used to page through that photo album when I was a kid. Did I notice the location on the mystery picture, “Moline, Illinois”? What if that was the subconscious trigger for me starting to dream of some day going to America myself? Eventually I lived for years just an hour’s drive away from Moline.

Do you have family stories that have been passed down from older generations? Have you explored them to see what can be verified or not?
How do those stories inspire you today?