Wednesday, September 5, 2012

52 Weeks of Abundant Genealogy, Week 31, Cousins

"Ekstrom, party of three."

My uncle and his party arrived at the hostess station only to find another group of the same number and uncommon name. The hostess clarified by adding a first name. But both men were named the same. They laughed and chatted a moment. Not only were their last names spelled the same, but they used the same nickname for their first name. Both had grown up in the Swedish-American community in the Chicago area and had migrated west as adults. My uncle lived in the Phoenix area, but was visiting San Diego that day. The other man lived in the San Diego area, while his father lived in the Phoenix area. They negotiated the table and went their separate ways with a cute story to tell about their unusual encounter. That might have been the end of the story.

But one day in 2003 an email arrived from Sweden. Benny Ekström lives in Östergötland, the same province where my Ekstrom roots originate. Four of his great-uncles had emigrated from Östergötland to America in the early 1900s and he wanted to find his American cousins. He had found my website which showed my Östergötland roots and he had noticed the similarity of names and parishes. Was my family related to his?

We emailed back and forth and decided to join forces and help each other. He sent me the names, birthdates and emigration dates of his relatives and I started digging on my American-focused subscription sites. I knew very little about my Swedish roots. I had gleaned only a few tidbits from Illinois vital records and ship lists and had no idea how to begin to research in Swedish records.

Benny was a godsend! 

He had printed out dozens of pages of Östergötland church record indexes that were available only through a local university. He paged through his file and emailed me birth dates for my great-grandfather and his siblings, along with parents names, marriage dates, birth dates and death dates. He also told me about the Swedish Genline website that provided images of the church records. I subscribed and begin my own journey through the wonderful records kept by the Lutheran church (that company has been acquired by Ancestry and is now included in their site). Benny later copied all the index pages and mailed them to me at no small expense to himself.

Benny knew about one branch of his American family. John had gone to Chicago and Benny was in contact with his descendants. I was looking for three more branches for him.

Karl Ekstrom had gone first to Chicago and died in Minnesota, but Benny knew nothing else. I soon found a candidate in prison in North Dakota in the 1930 census. Yes, Benny recalled that he had heard something about Karl being in prison. Through an archivist I learned that Karl had been sent to prison for abusing family members. We decided to do no further research on that branch.

David and Ernst were challenges. I finally found their immigration records. They had gone to Canada about 1928. There was no census and no Social Security death index to use for locating them. Using search engines, I found that a man matching David's birth date was buried on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The online phone listings turned up 13 listings for the Ekstrom surname on Vancouver Island. It could not have been coincidence, so we took a risk.

I acquired Canadian stamps and sent a letter, a response form and a Canadian-stamped SASE to all 13 addresses. I received back a couple of nice letters and a couple of emails. We learned that David had died without issue. All the Ekstroms on Vancouver Island were descended from Ernst. One of the emails came from a sweet lady named Lynda. She and Benny began to use to web chats to get to know each other. Benny now had several Canadian cousins.

Benny and I think our families connect, but we have never found the link. The switch from patronymics to permanent surnames in Sweden means that unrelated families often share a surname.

We choose to call ourselves cousins, regardless.

My "cousin" Benny helped me overcome my apprehension about the Swedish records. He helped me with translation and comprehension and even engaged a seminarian friend for one very old record that he could not interpret. He opened up a whole new world for me. Today I have 118 Ekstroms plus many other Swedish relatives in my family tree, a gift from a wonderful cousin in the "old country".

Benny and his niece came to America to visit and we got together. Where were we? Of course we went to San Diego. They came to visit the Chicago-born cousin that he had known for years, the very same man that my uncle had encountered a couple of years earlier.

Ekstrom branches on ClubScrap Generations digital kit

Finding an overseas cousin is a blessing we don't all receive, but it's well worth the time to try.

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