Humans on the barrens: The wandering Arvid Lyons
We know for certain where Arvid Lyons lived out the end of his eventful life. And we know where he lies at rest in the Namekagon Barrens of northwestern Wisconsin.
How and why he got there is a little more of a mystery.
An immigrant from Sweden in his 60s, Lyons arrived with a big family on the sandy barrens of northern Burnett County in the opening years of the 20th Century. He and his wife homesteaded on nearly 160 acres just west of Richart Lake, land that today lies next to St. Croix Trail in east Blaine Township and is the site of the cabin and picnic shelter used by the Friends of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area.
Within 10 years, he had died, his wife had died and his many children had scattered.
A mile away, a rusting metal marker bearing his name is one of only two or three markers still legible in tiny Evergreen Cemetery.
But this was only the last tale of his life. Who was Arvid Lyons?
He was born Arvid Jansson in September 1841 in the farming area of Kopparberg in central Sweden. At 26, according to church records, he moved to the town of Kumla not far away. Then on April 6, 1869, at 28, he left, heading for North America.
Where and how he spent the next two decades, presumably in the United States, is unknown, at least far as I’ve been able to tell. Did he travel? What did he do for a living? Who did he meet? Did he have a family? And finally, why did he go back to Sweden?
In 1890, nearly 50 years old, he returned to his homeland, according to church records in Norrbarke, Kopparberg. A main order of business, it seems, was to produce the large family that would eventually accompany him back across the Atlantic to America.
He married 31-year-old Erika Augusta Andersdotter on Oct. 24, 1891. By then they already had a daughter, Anna Axelina Jansson, born Feb. 18, 1891. A church record confirms that Anna was born out of wedlock but also notes that the parents willingly claimed her as belonging to them.
Then, almost as fast as is humanly possible, they produced nine more children.
Carl Oskar Jansson was born March 28, 1892.
Axel Teodor Jansson was born Sept. 29, 1893.
Carl Edwin Jansson was born Dec. 28, 1894.
Anna Linnea Jansson was born April 14, 1896.
Einar Jansson was born Nov. 16, 1897.
Agnes Elizabeth Jansson was born Dec. 17, 1898.
Ernst Albert Jansson was born Feb. 20, 1900.
Twins Knut Emil Jansson and Ruth Emilia Jansson, were born June 17, 1901.
In a little more than 10 years, Erika Augusta Jansson had borne 10 children. She was 40; her husband was almost 60.
What did they do next? They moved to America. Various church, ship and census records introduce a few clues and another mystery or two.
In August 1903, the couple and their 10 kids boarded the Volo in Gothenburg, Sweden, and then the SS Cymric in Liverpool, England. They landed in New York on Aug. 24, 1903. Both ships’ manifests and a church departure record list all the family members and indicate their planned ultimate destination was Portales, New Mexico.
The Cymric manifest shows that passengers were asked whether they had been to America previously and if so when and where. The entry for Arvid: “Yes 1890 Seattle, Wash.”
It’s the only clue as to the whereabouts of his first stay in the United States. The manifest notes that Erika Augusta, and of course the children, had not been to America.
Why Portales, New Mexico?
It’s hard to know. But the ship’s manifest for the Cymric also shows that when asked if they were going to the United States to join a relative or friend, Arvid said, “Friend Mr. Lendsey, Portales, New Mexico.”
As it happens, Portales at the time was a nascent farm community near Clovis in eastern New Mexico territory, not far from Texas. A 1908 article in the Albuquerque Journal bragged about the prospects for the new but fast-growing little town and mentioned the desire for newcomers to come to the surrounding agricultural valley.
The federal land commissioner in Portales was a lawyer named Washington Ellsworth Lindsey, who had grown up in the Midwest and was soon to become Portales’ first mayor and, later, third governor of the state of New Mexico.
The temptation is strong to conclude that Washington Lindsey was Arvid Jansson’s “friend Mr. Lendsey.”
With hindsight, I find myself wishing he had gotten there and connected with a powerful and politically connected official. Might life have turned out differently for the family? But no record suggests Arvid and Erika Augusta ever made it to New Mexico. Perhaps they were on their way when they saw enticements published by promoters in Burnett County to come north.
At any rate, they instead ended up 1,000 miles away in the Town of Blaine in Burnett County, according to the 1905 Wisconsin census. They now went by the last name “Lyon,” but it was clearly the same family because all the children were named and the ages in the census matched all the birth dates in Swedish records. There was also now an 11th child, Leslie. The census lists her age as 4 months in 1905 and also says she was born in Sweden, apparently a mistake by the census enumerator. Federal land records confirm that “Arvid Lyon” was homesteading in Section 24 in the Town of Blaine.
1) The Lyons homestead next to the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area. 2) Evergreen Cemetery, where Arvid Lyons and possibly Erika Augusta Lyons are buried.
(A Swedish genealogy expert speculated to me that “Lyon” could have been a version of a Swedish “soldier name.” Apparently the Swedish army gave soldiers new names to differentiate among all the Janssons and other similarly named men. “Leijon” was a common soldier name, meaning “lion.” Subsequent land records, Arvid’s grave marker and his children all used the name “Lyons.” But even if Arvid had been a Swedish soldier in his teens or 20s, the question remains tantalizing: Why change the name on arrival in the United States years later? Had he even changed it earlier during his first U.S. stay and then changed it back on his return to Sweden?)
In any case, his robust life then took a turn.
His wife, Erika Augusta, died, apparently in 1905 at age 45. Records are scant and ambiguous, but she may be the “Lyon” mentioned in an addendum to information about the Evergreen Cemetery a mile southwest of the homestead.
Then in 1906 one of the twins, Ruth Emelia, died. Even more puzzling is that the cemetery records list the cause of death as “burned in a bonfire.”
By 1910, when the federal census enumerator came to the homestead (then described as being on Minong Road), only two people remained. Arvid was listed as the widowed head of household, and Anna, the oldest daughter, lived with him. (This census confirms that Arvid first immigrated to America in 1869.)
In that census, the three oldest boys, Oskar, Axel and Edwin, who would have been in their late teens, were absent. But five younger children were living with families nearby and described as “foundlings,” clearly adopted or farmed out to neighbors. The youngest, baby Leslie, vanished from the records and it’s possible she, too, lies in Evergreen Cemetery.
We don’t know how Arvid Lyons had tried to farm, whether he raised hay and animals like some neighbors. But on May 11, 1914, Arvid sold his land to his daughter, Anna, according to Burnett County land records. Then two weeks later, he died of stomach cancer and became the last person buried in Evergreen Cemetery. You can see his metal grave marker by walking a couple hundred feet south from the cemetery flag and monument on Five Mile Road.
By the summer of 1916, Burnett County had taken the land for delinquent taxes. It was bought and sold after that several times but ultimately went for taxes again and was declared county forest land, which it remains today, adjacent to the state-owned Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area.
Meanwhile, apparently the same year as her father’s death, Anna married a man named Robert Sadenwasser and wound up living in West Allis, Wis., near Milwaukee, for many years. She died at age 99 on July 4, 1990, apparently without any children.
Other descendants wound up around the upper Midwest and beyond – Axel raised a family in Waterville, Minn., and died in 1984; Ernst, one of the “foundlings,” wound up in Stevens Point, Wis., and died in 1993. Knut (who went by Emil) moved to Dubuque, Iowa, and died in 1977. A grandson, also named Arvid, moved to Chula Vista, Cal., and died in 2011.
One granddaughter, still living in a nursing facility in Dubuque, told me her father Emil, the surviving twin, never talked about his parents or any siblings. She knew her father had been born in Sweden, but she had no knowledge of the barrens of Wisconsin or of the name Arvid. She did say the name Augusta, her grandmother, sounded familiar.
Two great grandchildren I found likewise said they had no knowledge of Arvid and Erika Augusta. They said their grandfathers never talked of the time growing up on the barrens.
Perhaps that lack of memories being passed down is a comment on life on the barrens, perhaps not.
One final quirk: A few years after Arvid Lyons died, barrens neighbors Benjamin and Ruby Hillock pulled up stakes in Blaine Township and headed south. The family bounced around a little but by 1930 had arrived in a new place to farm and raise their children – St. Vrain, New Mexico, about 25 miles north of Portales.
Did Arvid paint a portrait for his Wisconsin neighbors of the land of milk and honey in the Southwest? The land he aimed for but missed?
Like other questions about the wandering Swedish immigrant, we likely won’t get an answer, but it’s hard to avoid conjuring up the possibilities. There’s more to be said, by the way, about the Hillocks of the barrens in some future blog post.
Thanks for help from Vern Drake regarding Evergreen Cemetery records and the Swedish genealogy folks at the Minnesota Genealogical Society.
Wow, nicely done fellas. That was a lot of work but we have it and very interesting.