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

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

by Kerry Scott on 3 December 2013

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

Me too. 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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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Melanie Frick December 3, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Loved this! What a compelling story about Sigrid, and a great way to honor her memory. Some of my ancestors lived just thirty miles west of Albert Lea at that time – who knows, maybe they wound up with some of her wool products! :)


Kerry Scott December 3, 2013 at 8:21 pm

Were your people in Blue Earth?


Melanie Frick December 3, 2013 at 10:57 pm

They were in Minnesota Lake – so, northwest of Albert Lea, actually.


Kerry Scott December 4, 2013 at 12:05 pm

I know right where that is! I had one branch of the Albert Lea folks who settled in Wells, which is halfway between Minnesota Lake and Albert Lea. Small world!


Cheri Hudson Passey December 3, 2013 at 8:03 pm

I did this a couple of years ago for my parent’s Christmas present. They loved knowing that somewhere a family received a much needed animal.
Thanks for sharing this with everyone!


Judy Webster December 4, 2013 at 1:55 am

My friends and I do something similar yet different: we give Kiva Cards valued at $25. The recipient of the card gets to choose a borrower, because the $25 is for a loan (eg, to buy sheep, or wool for knitting, or fabric for dressmaking). When the money is repaid it can be loaned to someone else, over and over again.


Debi Austen December 4, 2013 at 10:10 am

I love this, Kerry – the perfect gift! And I love that your sheep will be named Sigrid.


Caron Brennan December 4, 2013 at 10:16 am

Even before reading your blog, I had decided this was the year for Heifer International for my grown up siblings and mother! It is a wonderful idea! I have Missouri farmers in my line and some from Kentucky as well, so I will let the farm schedules guide me (if I can find them).


Niki December 4, 2013 at 11:21 am

What an awesome idea! Thank you :)


Donna Brown December 4, 2013 at 11:30 am

Excellent combination of a family history story and a take-away response for the reader.


Deb C December 4, 2013 at 11:55 am

OK… so you’ve just totally weirded me out with the knitting thing!
About 4 hours ago I was just randomly checking out info online about a museum (the “I wish I could go on a holiday there” search). One of their exhibitions happened to be about 2 ladies who survived by sewing & knitting by the light of a kerosene lamp after their father died.
So I fall asleep on the lounge, wake up, & think I’ll just check my emails before I crash into bed…. and there is your email. My grandmother whom I miss so much was a talented knitter. Think God’s sending me a message but what is it? Learn to knit or buy a sheep for someone. Hmm think I’ll buy a sheep. Sorry Nanna.
And Kerry… just where do you find the time & patience to knit when there are ancestors out there to find?!


Kerry Scott December 4, 2013 at 12:01 pm

That’s a really cool exhibit!

I have young kids, so I knit during their swim lessons, guitar lessons, etc. If I could take a microfilm reader with me to those places, I probably wouldn’t knit.


Dianne Ekberg Arnold December 4, 2013 at 1:28 pm

I have given my grandchildren “money” to spend on Heifer International gifts instead of giving them multiple Christmas gifts. They get something from their list from me and they really enjoy going through the Heifer Intl catalog deciding how to allocate their gift – a cow, a pig, ducks, chickens, etc. The conversation gives me the opportunity to talk with them about sharing and the impact that a gift like this can have on the quality of life for a family.


Lisa / Smallest Leaf December 6, 2013 at 1:20 am

I love this article, Kerry, and I love your idea for giving “money” for your grandchildren to spend like this, Dianne. What a super way to celebrate Christmas while not emphasizing the less important material gifts that so often become the focus for young children!


Barbara Schmidt December 4, 2013 at 1:57 pm

This is a wonderful idea! And I think that Sigrid is a very beautiful fitting name for a sheep. I love the idea.


Claudia A. December 4, 2013 at 5:56 pm

Love the idea. Although, I just wish I knew what my Great Grandmother’s name was…It is written on a Great Uncle’s death certificate. Can’t find it anywhere else. Sad to know that my Dad didn’t even know his Grandmother’s name.


Margaret E December 4, 2013 at 8:28 pm

Love Heifer. I gave my brother and his girlfriend bees. I like the idea of using the Agricultural Index as a way to give a message from the ancestors.


Colleen December 5, 2013 at 4:58 am

Sigrid must have been a strong, independent woman; a good example for later generations. You found a great way to honor her.


Susan Partlan December 6, 2013 at 11:35 am

A woman who knits her way to financial independence is my kind of heroine :).


Jana Last December 6, 2013 at 11:48 am


I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at

Have a great weekend!


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