Life and Legacy of Otto and Clara Peterson

Sweden, Salemsborg and Sioux Rapids

Written by Donald M. Parrish, Jr.
in 1987, updated in 1997 & 2010


Sven Magnus TreeAs a child during the 1950s, I saw the elaborate hand-drawn family trees that showed my ancestral links to Sweden. I read the story of Halfward Bryngelsson, my great great great great great grandfather, and his service to King Carl XII. These fueled my imagination and curiosity.

In 1977, I visited Sweden for the first time, met distant cousins and saw the foundation of the house where my great grandmother, Clara Christina Svensdotter, was born. In 1987, thanks to the work of these cousins, I discovered my great grandfather, Otto Peterson’s link to Sweden in a 800-page genealogy book written by Jan Vegelius. I began a correspondence with Jan Vegelius, a sixth cousin and Mathematics Professor at Uppsala University, and per his request, traced all the descendants of Otto and Clara – over 120 people and growing in 1997.

In 1990, I summarized all of my genealogical work on Otto & Clara Peterson, prepared the first version of this article, and mailed it to Jan Vegelius. Jan was translating this article for publication in the Håbolssläktens Härold when he went jogging one afternoon and died from a heart attack at age 49. All of my work was in limbo until 1997.

In 1997, I visited Sweden a second time and celebrated reunions on both Otto's and Clara's sides of the family. I did follow-up research in Norway, and I visited the graves of Otto and Clara and where they were married. A version of this article was published in 1997 in the Håbolssläktens Härold Number 13. In September 2010, I did additional research in Kansas, updated this article, added an addendum and published it on the web.

This article is a tribute to my great grandparents, the pioneers, Otto and Clara, who left their native Sweden in 1869 and started life anew in America.

Their Swedish Roots

Otto Peterson was born in Strand, Ed Parish in the region of Dalsland, Sweden on May 4, 1845. Otto’s mother, Ingrid Bågenholm, was a member of the famous Bågenholm family on both branches of her tree. Otto’s descendents are part of the well-known “Håbolssläkten” which has a family reunion each summer in Håbol in Dalsland.

Otto’s birth house was built about 1750. In 1947, it was saved from destruction and moved to Bengtsfors in Dalsland where it is still in use as a “vandrarhem” by the Swedish Tourist Union.

Just 5 kilometers from Otto’s birthplace, Clara Christina Svensdotter was born on July 13, 1849 in the village of Klevmarken. Clara’s ancestor, Halfward Bryngelsson, was rewarded by the warrior King Carl XII with Klevmarken and the surrounding area in 1716 for his services during the war with Norway.

How Otto and Clara could have met each other is easy to visualize because the route from Clara’s village to town passes through the forest to Otto’s house and then along the shores of Stora Lee to Ed, the major town in the region. Recent genealogical research has established that Otto and Clara were 5th cousins.

Immigration to America

Both Otto and Clara were part of the great wave of immigration called “American Fever” which was especially strong in Dalsland. On May 10, 1869, the American transcontinental railroad was completed. It opened America. It was another symbol of progress and hope that further fueled “American Fever”. It was just a coincidence, but only 4 days later Otto registered his departure from his village.

On May 17, 1869 just a week later Clara and her elder brother, Anders Magnus Swenson, registered their departures from Klevmarken. Otto and Clara travelled to Oslo, Norway and boarded the ship Argo on May 21, 1869. What an exciting time it was for the young couple. He had just turned 24 and had been studying to become a schoolteacher. She was almost 20. They told the authorities in Norway they were married, but the actual formalities were performed in the new world.

Marriage and First Children

Marriage LicenseOtto and Clara were married at the residence of pastor Dr. Glover on August 30, 1869 in Jacksonville, Illinois, the county seat of Morgan County. The original ornate Court House finished in 1868 is still in use and is the depository of their marriage license.

Their first son, Gustaf Wilhelm Peterson, was born in Jacksonville and he died there, aged 6 months, of inflammation of the brain, a common childhood killer in those days. He was buried in the East Jacksonville Cemetery on July 14, 1870. Otto and Clara moved to Ackley, Iowa where their second son August Albert Peterson was born on January 20, 1873.

Otto was dissatisfied with life in America and he and Clara returned to Sweden where their daughter Emma Katherine Peterson was born in Dalsland on October 17, 1875. Life in Sweden was even less appealing and Otto and his family returned to America within a year or so possibly in 1876, the centennial year of American Independence.

Life in Salemsborg

Frame ChurchThey settled in Salemsborg, Kansas where Otto ran the Post Office and the grocery store. He also taught Swedish school and religious subjects at the nearby Salemsborg Swedish Lutheran Church where he was also the janitor. In Salemsborg, Selma Christina Peterson was born on May 22, 1878 and her five-year old brother, August Albert Peterson, died 3 months later on August 25 probably during a trip to Ackley, Iowa, where he is buried.

Beda Maria Peterson was born on October 11, 1880. She too would die as a five year old in Salemsborg on November 13, 1885. Salemsborg saw the births of the last two children: Clara Victoria Peterson on February 14, 1883 and Hilma Zenobia Peterson on May 31, 1885.

Farming in Minnesota

Clara's brother Will (Johan Wilhelm Swenson) convinced Otto that farming was the ideal life by painting an unrealistic picture. So in 1888, Otto, Clara and their four daughters: Emma, Selma, Victoria and Hilma went to live on a 40 acre farm four kilometers south of Clarissa, Minnesota and near Will's farm.

Life was full of hardships. Otto was not prepared to be a farmer and much of the land was covered with timber. When the girls walked the 5 or 6 kilometers to the small country schoolhouse through the forest, the howl of wolves would sometimes frighten them, and they would run as fast as they could.

On the farm, the main crop was hay for the cows and a little grain. The exposure to the sun and the cold ruined Otto's health and he was unable to work. The family gradually sold off the cows in order to survive. Otto offered to give the last cow to the church, but Clara wisely cancelled the offer.

Life in Sioux Rapids

The family moved to Sioux Rapids, Iowa in 1896 were they ran a cafe and small boarding house. In that year, they saw an automobile for the first time. Within a few years, Emma went to Minneapolis to work.

Victoria wanted to be a schoolteacher and was offered the job if she would finish high school. Unfortunately, she had to drop out within a year or two of her goal in order to help her parents run the cafe. There she meet and fell in love with Carl Anderson, a Norwegian immigrant who worked as a carpenter. They were married in Eagle Grove, Iowa on February 20, 1901. Otto and Clara operated a hotel at that time in Eagle Grove.

Soon they moved to Marquette, Kansas to operate a hotel there. In Marquette, Selma was married on April 8, 1903. Tragedy struck. Selma caught pneumonia and died on June 23, 1903, less than 3 months after the wedding.

Their Deaths

Otto and Clara returned to Sioux Rapids, Iowa were they lived next door to Victoria and her husband Carl. Otto died there on May 15, 1913. He is buried in Sioux Rapids in a prominently marked grave in the Lone Tree Cemetery.

Later Clara remarried Ole Lium and moved to Washburn, Wisconsin. Victoria and her family visited Clara just a few years before her death. Clara was in good health when she died suddenly on October 1, 1933 at 84.

Her obituary was printed on the front page of the local newspaper. People still remember her marvelous blueberry pie. Clara is buried in the Woodland Cemetery, high above Washburn with a magnificent view of Lake Superior. See headstone photo. This lovely region of Wisconsin is similar to her native Dalsland with forests, lakes and stone outcrops.


Otto and Clara's union produced 7 children; three of which outlived them and had children of their own.

  • Gustaf Wilhelm Peterson (20 Dec 1870-10 Jul 1871).
  • August Albert Peterson (20 Jan 1873-25 Aug 1878).
  • Emma Katherine Peterson (17 Oct 1875-19 Mar 1963). Married Oliver Bernard Knudson. 7 Children.
  • Selma Christina Peterson (22 May 1878-23 Jun 1903). Married in Marquette, KS. Died 3 months later.
  • Beda Maria Peterson (11 Oct 1880-13 Nov 1885)
  • Clara Victoria Peterson (14 Feb 1883-8 Feb 1975). Married Carl Victor Anderson. 6 Children.
  • Hilma Zenobia Peterson (31 May 1885-26 Sep 1982). Married David Jacob Gerard. 2 Children.

In 1997, there were 15 grandchildren (6 still alive), 23 great grandchildren (all still alive), 54 great great grandchildren (52 still alive) and more than (and still growing) 24 great great great grandchildren. The grand total was 123 descendants.

Addendum: Research in 2010

In September of 2010, I visited Lindsborg, Kansas where Linda Hubalek, author of the novel Butter in the Well gave me practical research advice and generously took me on a two-hour orientation tour of the immediate region. Otto and Clara Peterson as well as her parents and several of her brothers and sisters are mentioned in this historical novel. They all lived less than 15 kilometers from Lindsborg, the largest town in the Smoky Valley.

Location of Related Graves

I saw the gravestone of Carl Swenson (18 Jan 1839 - 17 July 1877), the eldest brother of Clara Peterson. He was killed by lightening at age 38 only 10 years after he came to America. This is one of the dramatic scenes in Butter in the Well. Carl’s wife wanted him buried in the churchyard cemetery in Assaria, but the Smoky Hill river and all creeks in the area were flooding making travel impossible. Her brother, Andrew Johnson, gave consent for burial on his farm in Liberty Township, Saline County, Kansas.

I also saw the unmarked graves of Clara’s father and mother. In Sweden, he was born Sven Magnus Andreasson, but he is buried as Swan M. Anderson, next to his wife, Catherine in the churchyard cemetery of the Lutheran church of Assaria, Kansas, in the row in front of the grave of his daughter Sara Lisa’s son and his grandson, E.E. Brentson.

Carl Swenson Assaria Church Brentson Graves 1 Brentson Graves 2 Brentson Graves 3

Sven Magnus TreeSven Magnus Andreasson (1812-1897) is the patriarch of the family. He, his wife, Katarina Andersdotter (1813-1908), their 10 children and their families all immigrated to America.

The first in the above family to come to America was Sven Magnus Andreasson's first-born son, Carl Swenson in 1867 with his wife and daughter. Perhaps Maja Lena and her family came at the same time. In 1869, Anders Magnus Swenson, his sister Clara Svensdotter and her husband Otto Peterson immigrated as described above. Sven Magnus and the rest of the family came in 1870.

When Karl J. Swenson worked on the family tree in 1936, the number of descendants of Sven and Catherine was already 236! Below is a list of the 10 children who came to America, their spouses and number of offspring:

  • Maja Lena Svensdotter (1836-1930). Married Olof Danielsson (1826-1903). 7 children.
  • Carl Johan Swenson (1839-1877). Married Maja Kajsa Johnson (1844-1920). 5 children.
  • Anna Kajsa Svensdotter (1841-1926). Married Edvin Johnson, 6 children & Ola Peterson, 6 children.
  • Sara Lisa Svensdotter (1843-1925). Married Johannes Brentson (1823-1905). 9 children.
  • Anders Magnus Swenson (1846-1870)
  • Clara Christina Svensdotter (1849-1933). Married Otto Peterson (1845-1913). 7 children.
  • Emma Katarina Svensdotter (1852-1904). Married Sven Carlberg (1849-1892). 6 children.
  • Emanuel Edvin Swenson (1854-1931). Married Hannah Hanson (1855-1891). 7 children.
  • Johan Wilhelm Swenson (1856-1922). Married Eva Peterson (1863-1936). 10 children.
  • Elenora Matilda Svensdotter (1859-1924). Married Charley Fairchild (1857-1836). 4 children.

Salemsborg Lutheran Church

Otto & Clara Peterson lived next to the Salemsborg Swedish Lutheran church. The church was the center of the community for Swedish immigrants. Indeed the church brought Swedish immigrants to Kansas both from other parts of the US and from Sweden. Although the details are unknown, it is clear the church was the key factor in the decision of Otto and Clara and her relatives to move to the Smoky Valley of Kansas.

The Salemsborg church has a compelling story. The church started as a sod church in 1869, half buried in the ground, where people had to stand in the mud to worship, and sometime stuck to the floor. In the 1874, a classic frame church was built – this is the one that Otto and Clara knew. It was replace by a magnificent spire church in 1893 that was 46 meters (152 feet) tall. This was one of the tallest Lutheran churches in Kansas.

Spire 1893 Spire Church Burning Interior Altar Painting

In July 25, 1925, the spire was hit by lightening. Frantic efforts to cut the spire loose to save the church were futile given the available tools. People rushed into the burning edifice with a hay wagon and managed to pry the large altar painting off the wall and save it, and the electric motor of the organ. The church burned to ashes in about an hour in a half. In 1926, the church was rebuilt, and it remains in wonderful condition with stunning stained glass windows imported from Germany. The painting, saved from the fire, is still above the altar. There is a well-kept cemetery in front of the church.

Otto and the Salemsborg Church

Rex Tjaden, who works in a variety of roles at the church, graciously showed me the church and its records. Otto was very active in the church and his photo was included in a church history published in Swedish in 1909, the 50th anniversary of the congregation. This was a professionally published book with many photos. Otto was a charter member of the Luther League in 1880. He was one of the eight church guardians, and was on the cemetery committee. I also saw the baptism records of Otto and Clara’s children born in Salemsborg: Selma Christina, Beda Maria, Clara Victoria and Hilma Zenobia.

In 1880, the Salemsborg Swedish Lutheran church created a Lot 1 just south of the church cemetery on what is now West Brodine Road just east of where it intersects with the main road, Burma Road. Just a year or so later they created east of Lot 1, a Lot 2, which Otto Peterson purchased in 1883. Otto bought some adjacent land in 1884 expanding Lot 2. Lot 2 is 2 acres in size and the current owner who bought it in 2008 has the same legal description of Otto’s property in January 3, 1884. Only a handful of lots were ever sold by the church so Otto seemed to be well regarded and was lucky on the timing of his purchase.

Otto bought this Lot 2 for a total of $14.50 and built a home on it. He sold the property in January 1889 for $500. He received $100 at the sale and the balance of $400 was to be paid by April 1, 1890 plus 10% interest. I talked to the current owner, and asked if there was an old foundation on the property. There was just one, and I was allowed to examine it!

Victoria Peterson Anderson

Peterson Home Site1 Peterson Home Site2 Peterson Home Site3 Peterson Home Site4 Peterson Home Site5

Even though the old foundation is being used as a pit for tree and brush cuttings, portions of the native sandstone are clearly visible. The outline of the building can be visualized. The main purpose of my trip to Kansas was to find this spot: it was here that my grandmother, Clara Victoria Peterson was born on St. Valentine’s Day in 1883. She died in a hospital in Spencer, Iowa in 1975 a few days shy of her 92nd birthday.

My grandmother, known by her married name, Victoria Anderson, spoke 4 languages and was exceptionally intelligent & happy. Among other accomplishments, she taught guitar lessons. She was a checkers champion. (I believe she was the county champion.)

She would delight in letting her grandchildren occasionally beat her at checkers although we all eventually figured out that in spite of her protests that she just didn’t see a key move that she really let us - very skillfully - win. Then there was the inverse game of giveaway checkers, where you lose by winning. I still remember the frustration of being forced to jump all of my grandmother’s checkers thus losing giveaway with breathtaking speed. My grandmother was a beloved person of perfect temperament.

My mother, Herdis Anderson Parrish, was the third of Victoria & Carl Anderson’s six children. In 1997, I established a permanent endowment to fund the Anderson Scholarship at the Sioux Central Community School in Sioux Rapids, Iowa to honor my mother. Since my mother was the salutatorian in Class of 1932, the scholarship is awarded to the senior who is second in the graduating class.

Otto Peterson Becomes a Citizen

In Salina, Kansas in 2010, I found the index for Otto Peterson’s naturalization papers in the Kansas room of the local library. However, the records are no longer kept at the Circuit Court in Salina (unlike the other counties in Kansas) so I drove to the National Archives in Kansas City, Missouri. There are the records of Saline County are kept in large, heavy books like those of land records.

Otto NaturalizationI got a copy of the 11 by 17 inch (28 cm x 43 cm) page. This is an impressive form with a half a dozen different fonts in a number of sizes. The information is written in large script. Otto Peterson’s name is mentioned four times on this page. Otto had declared his intention to become an American citizen on August 20, 1884 in the District Court of McPherson County (where Lindsborg is). His final papers for naturalization were recorded on April 18, 1891 in the 30th Judicial District State of Kansas in Saline County (where Salemsborg is).

The key paragraph in the document is actually a long powerful sentence: "Thereupon, the Court being fully satisfied that the said applicant has fulfilled all the requirements of the laws of the United States respecting the naturalization of Foreigners, and the said Otto Peterson having declared on oath, that he will support the Constitution of the United States, and renounce and abjure, forever, all allegiance and fidelity to every Foreign Power, Prince, Potentate, State or Sovereignty whatever, and particularly to the King of Sweden of whom he was heretofore a subject; it is ordered by the Court, he, the said Otto Peterson be, and he is hereby declared a Citizen of the United States of North America, with all the rights and privileges thereto."

When Otto became an American citizen, his wife, Clara automatically became one. In that period, before women had the right to vote, the wife had the nationality of her husband. An ironic example occurred in 1901, when Victoria Peterson, born an American citizen in Kansas, lost her American citizenship when she married Carl Anderson, a Norwegian citizen. Later she became a naturalized American citizen.