For retired Longview optometrist Jim Hennig, his family’s Scandinavian heritage had long been a mystery. But an emotional trip to Sweden in June unearthed relatives — and stories — that it now brings him to tears to talk about.
Roughly 1.3 million Swedes immigrated to the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries, eager to start a new life in the land of opportunity. Hennig’s ancestors on his mother’s side were among them.
Hennig, 75, knew much about his father’s German ancestry. And he knew his mother, Vera Johnson, came from Swedish ancestry but little else.
He had been too young to remember meeting his maternal grandparents, and after Vera developed a brain tumor, it wasn’t possible for the two to sit down and talk about their shared genealogy. She died when Hennig was just 19.
It was Hennig’s wife, Sue Hinshaw, who grew interested in uncovering Hennig’s ancestry, and eventually convinced him to submit a saliva swab for an Ancestry.com DNA test. A year and a half ago, an email from Sweden broke through the years of mystery and silence.
Fredrik Lindqvist, a chemical engineer who identified himself as a third cousin once removed, said he found Hennig through the DNA analysis and copies of handwritten birth and church records from the Månsarp parish of Sweden, located about halfway between Stockholm and Copenhagen, Denmark.
“It opened up doors to my past that I knew nothing about,” Hennig said. “There were questions on my mind, but no place to get them (answered). ... Any information I got was building from scratch.”
Two months later came another email from a third cousin, Ann-Mari Josefsson, who turned out to be a expert of the family’s genealogy.
So as Hennig and Hinshaw were planning a June flight this year to the Rotary International Convention in Hamburg, Germany, the couple decided to extend the trip a week to drive up through Sweden and visit the cousins.
Language wasn’t an issue, Hennig said: “Everybody speaks English. They learn it well, and they’re better than us.”
They were impressed by the country’s natural beauty and the Swedes’ hospitality and cleanliness during a couple of visits, tours and lunches with seven of his Swedish cousins. In a day of driving, Hinshaw said the only trash she saw was a whiskey bottle and a piece of paper on the side of the road.
Reached by phone Friday, Lindqvist, who lives in Malmö, Sweden, said he brought another group of American relatives to visit last year, too. He said that getting to meet long-separated family members is “really rewarding.”
“As a hobby, it’s really addictive,” Lindqvist said. “It’s like solving a crossword puzzle. You start pulling one string, and you find more and more information. ... It’s something special when you find people you are actually related to blood-wise.”
A drive through the countryside brought the couple to Bondstorp, a 56-acre town of about 200 people. It’s a small community, Hennig said: “Castle Rock would be a large town in comparison.”
The 200-year-old buildings in Bonstorp are where the roots of Hennig’s Swedish side tie together, and where his impoverished ancestors once carved out a tough, isolated living. Near the church, the group found the gravestone of his great-grandmother Christina Andersdotter.
“One could say it’s just a plot of grass and a big stone,” Hennig said, fighting back tears. “But those represent feelings and lives that are a part of me. ... I lived on that land.”
His ancestors shared joys and tragedies in that town that the cousins related to him, Hennig said. One of his grand-aunts, while walking over a frozen lake to her christening ceremony, fell in the water and drowned, still garbed in her white dress. And in a 1,500 square-foot house at Bäck, the nearby family farm, his great-great-grandmother Ingrid Magnidotter raised 11 children.
Every step he took there was an emotional one, Hennig said.
“The source of my life was planted in that landscape,” Hennig said. “My great-great-grandmother walked through that door and sat on that pew. Cooked dinner here, raised the kids there.”
Hennig said he left the 7-day trip feeling fuller and more empathetic, and holding answers to family questions he’d held for decades. And he gained family he never knew he had.
“They are the product of the same people that lived on that farm. Just because we speak a different language, or eat different foods, or listen to different music, doesn’t matter. We’re the same family.”