Thursday, February 20, 2014

Step Relations - Discovering Danish Family History

My grandmother, Eliza Jane Coquigne Gillespie, died in 1941 from a mysterious illness and too young by all accounts. In 1944, my grandfather, Howard Gillespie, remarried to Hilda Nielsen, herself a widow whose husband had also been a Coquigne. For the next 30+ years before her death in 1977, Hilda Gillespie became a quiet yet ever-present part of our family, and the only person I ever knew as Grandma.

And yet when when the family trunk got passed my way, and I ran into several boxes stuffed with things that had belonged to Hilda, I immediately put them aside. Well, I did thumb through the many many many snapshots long enough to see that not a single one was labeled. Knowing that Hilda had no other relations who might want these things, I made a mental note to either toss her stuff or find a historical society who might have some interest.  Hilda was, after all, not my blood relation.

I feel ashamed now to admit that I thought anything like that about Hilda because at that point in my family history research I thought genealogy was all that really matters. And yet as time has gone by and I have discovered and pieced together one family story after another, I was often reminded of Hilda either in family photos or in letters that she wrote to my mother signed "Love, Mom", or in just recognizing her handwriting on various items found in the trunks. She may not have been my Grandmother, but she was my Grandma, and I recently found a surge of resolve to discover more about her family.

Well, I've learned so much in the last month about Danish family history starting with the obvious challenge of patronymics. But thanks to Google Translate and many genealogical records being available online through the Danish Archives, I have slowly been able to piece together much of the story. Hilda's father, Jacob Nielsen, was the youngest child of Niels Hansen and Ane Rasmusdatter. Jacob and a sister and half-sister all emigrated to the Greenville area of Michigan in the late 1800s. There Jacob Nielsen married Hilda's mother, Dorthea Sophie Pedersen, who was the youngest child of Peder Jensen and Johanne Kirstine Jorgensdatter. At least two of Dorthea's brothers also emigrated to the same area of Michigan. So on both sides of Hilda's Danish family, there was no shortage of aunts and uncles and cousins nearby!

Slowly and with clues supplied by Hilda's now-83-year-old son, I have been piecing together the Michigan Dane families of Nielsen, Petersen, Jensen, Hansen, and Christensen, just to name the names associated with the first-generation immigrants. Just when I think I have surmised who is in one of Hilda's unlabeled photos, I make contact with somebody related to these families and find their snapshots don't always match mine. But we're all sharing what we have and looking together for the right faces to insert by the names and dates. I am not the only one with Danish roots.

So this part of my research journey was inspired by somebody who was not a blood relation but whose memories and stories are most definitely part of my family history. Hilda didn't just fill an empty hole in my mother's family, she couldn't. But she was nevertheless loving and energetic and involved in our family in every way even though she also had a remarkable family history of her own that none of us younger generations ever thought to ask about. Until now. I like to think it's not too late to include Hilda's story with that of the Gillespie's and Coquigne's in Genesee County, Michigan. Maybe the Danish influence to my Scot-Irish & French family was subtle, but it was there all the same, and I shall love telling the stories I learn as much as I am loving learning them for myself.

The Nielsen-Pedersen family tree I have pieced together so far is available on rootsweb.