And as she grew, Rachel learned a lot about her family’s past. She learned about her father’s family and their roots in Scotland. But finding the details about her mother’s family eluded her. She knew her great grandmother had come from Norway, but little else.
“For the last ten years I’ve been trying to track my family back to Norway,” Rachel said.
She’d looked at records online, quizzed family members and used genealogical services, but had little luck. “I thought the best I could hope for was finding some old Census record,” she said. Then she tried with 23andMe, and connected with a distant cousin who helped her find a living breathing connection to her past.
But before explaining how that all happened, Rachel said she has to go back to just before she tested. She and her boyfriend had planned a vacation in Europe, and Rachel, frustrated because she’d had so little to show for her ancestral search, tagged on a final stop on her trip. She made Oslo, the couple’s last stop in Europe. Maybe, Rachel thought, she couldn’t find out more about her ancestors directly, but at least could see the country.
While her trip was still a few months off, Rachel had tested with 23andMe. When she got her results, all but one of her DNA Relative matches clustered in different areas of the United States. The one that wasn’t was in Norway.
“So I sent him a message right away,” Rachel said.
Although he was a very distant cousin, he was her only direct living connection to Norway. His name is Henning and although it took some time for him to respond, when he did only two weeks before she was schedule to head to Europe, things happened fast, Rachel said.
“Henning is really into genealogy and had traced his family back to the 1600s so he knew a lot,” Rachel said. The two exchanged messages. Rachel shared the little information she knew about her family’s roots in Norway and her great grandmother. It was enough for her distant Norwegian cousin to work with. He began tapping his Norwegian genealogical sources.
Within 48 hours the two – with the help of some complete strangers – were able to find the home of her great great grandfather built more than 150 years ago. They found her relatives’ gravesites and she learned that her great grandmother, who had immigrated to the United States so long ago had had seven siblings and not two as she’d always been told. Her Norwegian cousin also helped translate an old document in which her great grandmother had stated why she came to America. She said she left the bleak prospects in her homeland for the states saying: “I deserve more.” All of that was amazing to Rachel but what was most thrilling was what her cousin had found out about her living relatives.
In tracking down family grave sites, the two discovered where her great uncle had been buried, and then in a brilliant sleuthing move they found out who had paid for the burial. The answer led Rachel to Eddy, a second cousin once removed. “He was still living in the home that had been in the family for 150 years,” Rachel said. She learned all this on the eve of her trip to Europe and made arrangements to visit with him. When she arrived in Oslo, her new found cousins met her. Eddy and Henning took her to the family home in Drabak on the shores of the Oslofjord.
Her cousin showed her the pencil drawings her great Aunt Ruth had made in 1910, and Rachel thought of how that connected to her own brother who is an artist. Together she and her cousins stood in the home and looked out at the fjord, the same view her ancestors had. And she walked through the small home – smaller than her one-bedroom apartment – where her great grandmother lived with her seven siblings and parents. This was all more than she thought she’d ever find.
“I had chills,” she said. “I thought the best thing I would find would be some old Census record but I was talking to a living relative who lives in the very house that was in my family for 150 years.”