Thora Moves West

The family of Harry Grover Olson, Landon and Harry’s grandfather, has a history of Scandinavian forebears some of whom made their living from the sea. Could this partially account for Landon’s love of the seashore? More likely carefree summers spent with their grandfather, Harry Olsen, in Newport on the Oregon coast are the cause – although genetics might play a role?

There are quite a few Scandinavians in this branch of the family. In the Norwegian batch of immigrants, Harry Olson’s grandmother, Thora Sophia Olsdatter, was born and married in Christiansand, Vest-Agder. Her first husband, Thorkild Thomassen, seems to have already been committed to emigrating to America, as they married in 1871 and left Norway within months.

Prior to the emigration of this couple, Norway had suffered from serious food shortages, and it was clear that the land available to farm was limited. These years saw Norway lose many of their population, especially the younger generation, to the United States. For example, the 1850 Federal Population Census records about 1,800 persons in the USA of Scandinavian birth – in 1880 there were over 440,000, nearly 250 times larger.

We’re not sure if the Thomassen couple (later Thompson), came through Canada to the US, but the first indication that they had arrived is the birth of their older daughter, Mathilda, in Connecticut in November of 1872. As the family then moved from place to place, Mathilda was baptized in New York City at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in March of 1874. Their second daughter, Sophia, Grandpa Harry’s mother, was born in November 1876 in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where the family settled to farm.

The last we know of the family as a unit is in the 1880 Federal Census where they are enumerated near Warrensville, now a suburb of Cleveland, in Cuyahoga County. The name used there is Thomasen and they were born in “Prussia”, likely due to an enumerator’s error. The various spellings and common name complicate finding any other record of the family – or at least finding Thorkild. He disappears from Thora’s life and she and the girls are next found in Astoria Oregon, living with George Pearson, a light (buoy) tender. Although no marriage record has been found yet, George and Thora report in the 1900 census that they have been married for 16 years – since 1884. What happened in the four years between the farm in Ohio and the home in Astoria is still a mystery!

In about 1875, as the Thompsons were on the East Coast, Astoria fisherman discovered that the royal chinook salmon, which frequented the fresh waters of the Columbia River, was one of the best food fishes in the world. This fish was especially adapted to canning, a critical factor in its popularity in the age of little refrigeration. Canning quickly became a major industry, and the population grew from just a few hundred souls to a “metropolitan” city of 6,000.

By the mid-1880s, people were already calling Astoria the fishing capital of the world because of the huge catches of salmon being hauled from the river. In 1874, the first fish cannery opened in town; six years later, there were fourteen canneries; and by 1883, thirty-nine canneries operated along the lower Columbia River. More than 630,000 cases of salmon were packed in 1883, the equivalent of 43 million pounds. History Link.org file 7189

It’s during this expansive time around 1884 that Thora and second husband George Pearson, the Thompson daughters, and Hans Peter Olsen, arrive in Astoria. George is listed in the Morning Oregonian in August of 1882 at a hotel. His residence is listed as Astoria. He may have arrived in the city prior to the rest of his family. Hans Peter is a fisherman and joins the substantial percentage of the population that makes their living from the Columbia. More about Hans Peter later.

George himself is still a bit of a mystery. He was born in Norway in 1850 and reported that he immigrated to the US in 1870. A person by that name appears in an immigration list from Ontario, Canada in 1871. Where he ends up after that and how he met Thora remains unknown. It appears that they came to Astoria in about 1884 together, but that is not verified. As mentioned before, no marriage record has been found in Oregon or Ohio for them which leads one to believe they may have been married in another state.

George and Thora settle in Astoria and two additional children are born to Thora: Maybelle in 1887 and Robert George in 1891. In 1900 they are enumerated in the census in Alderbrook, a part of Astoria which included a large population of Scandinavians who were involved in the sea trades: fishing, canning, and packing. They likely built, or had built, their house on Cedar Street. The neighborhood was a bit out of the main part of Astoria, in fact was a separate voting precinct, and was filled with folks who were primarily Scandinavian and involved with the sea in one way or another.

George Pearson worked as a seaman on the tender Manzanita from August 1887 to February 1889. He was then transferred to the Tongue Point Lighthouse Depot as a laborer. Eventually he became the “laborer-in-charge” of several post lights where maintaining buoy lights and cleaning, repairing and replacing equipment were his primary duties. He was on call and maintained a launch to assure that the lights were working at all times. The Depot was near their neighborhood so supported his home location and long service. He served in that capacity for nearly 30 years.

Later photo of a buoy tender

Thora’s oldest daughter, Mathilda, married Bernard Benson in 1890 at 16 with her mother’s permission and gives birth to Edith Victoria in June of 1891. Thora has given birth to Robert George, her first child with Pearson, the January before. Imagine both mother and daughter being pregnant at the same time, even if the overlap was just a couple of months. For various reasons, likely that being one of them, Thora and Mathilda remained close during Thora’s lifetime. Mathilda and Bernard have another daughter in 1892 who died at 3 weeks of age. They subsequently separated and divorced. Mathilda describes herself as “widowed” in the 1900 census, a common fabrication in those days, and her daughter is enumerated with her Pearson grandparents. Mathilda married Charles Oscar Johnson in 1906 and they had a daughter, Myrtle, in 1907. We are pleased to be in touch with some descendants of Myrtle.

The younger Thompson daughter Sophie soon follows with a marriage of her own to Hans Peter Olson who is 16 years older than her. She is just 15, but permission is given by her stepfather, George, who claims she’s older. Hans Peter is a Dane, and a fisherman, who immigrated in 1880. Denmark had avoided much of the land loss and famine that plagued their Scandinavian neighbors, and never lost as great a percentage of its population to emigration. Danes remained a minority in the fishing community, which was dominated by Finns in Astoria. Hans and Sophie’s son Harry is born several months later in 1893. Hans Peter, or H.P., as he is known, buys and sells property in Astoria and eventually arranges for a home for his family in the Alderbrook neighborhood next door to Thora and George.

Thora dies at Mathilda’s home in 1903 of apoplexy – paralysis due to stroke. She dies intestate, or without a will, and George petitions the court in 1906 to administer her estate. He subsequently names pieces of property that appear to belong solely to her. An ongoing question is how she purchased property, or rather with what, unless she had funds from her previous marriage? George and the four children: Mathilda, Sophie, Mabel (or Maybelle) and George inherit from her estate.

George marries a neighboring widow, Bertha Anderson, in 1905. His new wife has two nearly grown daughters to add to the household. Bertha and George have a daughter together, Bonnie, in 1908.

Mathilda’s older daughter, Edith Victoria, marries the rising star in the Astoria Police Department, Edward “Leb” Carlson in a well-attended wedding – likely one of the events of the 1909 season.

Just a year shy of retirement at age 70 George received a commendation for saving a man from drowning. He was named as “Captain” Pearson in his obituary, which appeared on the front page of the Morning Astorian. He lived for several years after his retirement on a generous pension of $652.95 per year and died in 1927 in Astoria at the age of 77. Bertha survived him until 1931.

Photo of the Pearson House in Alderbrook – 2014

In September 1908, Sophie, mother to Harry (now 15) and two additional children born in Astoria, Violet (11) and Thomas (13), moves with her husband and family to Washington State. Her husband, Hans Peter, had been a successful fisherman in Astoria for quite a few years and wished to devote his time to his “oyster interests” on Shoalwater Bay. The family makes their new home in Tokeland where they continue to prosper and become well known in Pacific County into the late 1920s. More on them next.

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