How My Great-Great-Great Grandma Chose My Christmas Gift This Year

SheepYou know that thing you go through every year, where someone asks you what you want for Christmas?

I hate that. I don’t really need anything. I mean, I need a bunch of things…but it’s weird to say, “Okay, here’s a list of birth, marriage and death certificates I need. Be sure to enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.” I’m a genealogist. I don’t need jewelry or sweaters. I need vital records. It’s a problem.

This year, I found a solution.

A month or so ago, I was working on my third great-grandma, Sigrid Nilson (or Nelson. Sometimes Nilsson. You know how Scandinavians are.) Sigrid and her husband came from Norway in 1857. They settled near Albert Lea, Minnesota. Four years later, the Civil War began, and Sigrid’s husband immediately joined the Union Army. He never came home; he’s buried in an unmarked grave in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Sigrid was left in a strange country with three children under the age of six.

So that sucked.

I’ve never found another marriage record for Sigrid, and my research that day confirmed that she never remarried. She lived for 20 years after her husband died, alone on the farm with those three little kids. That’s pretty impressive. I wondered how she managed it. I took a look at the Agriculture Schedule for 1870 for her farm (Ancestry has these for some states, and luckily Minnesota is one of them). If you haven’t used these, you’re missing out, because they tell you what sort of animals your ancestors had, what crops they grew, etc.

It turns out that my Grandma Sigrid had sheep. Lots of sheep. More than her neighbors. I’ve been reading an excellent book about the history of knitting (because I’m supercool, obviously). Many women of this era spun wool and knitted for money. Sigrid was from Norway, which is known for its awesome knitting. I took up knitting a couple of years ago, so I’m thrilled to speculate that my grandma knitted her way to financial independence. Who needs another husband when you can rock the needles?

Anyway, the same day I learned all of this, I got a catalog in the mail from Heifer International. This is an organization that buys animals for people in developing countries, so that they can support themselves. For example, giving a family a cow can allow then to have milk for their children, and have more milk to sell to other people. If you buy them a bull, you can make more cows. That’s more milk and more money for that family. It’s a good thing.

The catalog has prices laid out for various kinds of animals, and you donate an amount that equates to that animal. You can “buy” a family a cow, a goat, a pig…even a whole ark.

Then it dawned on me: Instead of asking for more crap for Christmas, I could ask for a sheep. Somewhere in the world, a mom like my grandma Sigrid is trying to feed her family. The wool from that sheep could help her do it, just like it did for my grandma in 1870.

So this year, that’s what I’m doing. I’m getting a sheep for Christmas. In my head, the sheep is totally named Sigrid.

If you don’t need more crap for Christmas either, consider looking your ancestors up on the Agriculture Schedule. See what animals helped them feed their families, and then give someone else the same opportunity. Ancestry has Agricultural Schedules for 21 states, and the National Archives has them as well. 

DISCLAIMER: I have no connection to Heifer International, other than as a first-time donor.

Photo by James Bowe

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