Silencing or Saving Stories? Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America
Do you have a forgotten story in your family history? One that might seem unbelievable until some fact checking proves it to be true? We all have ancestors whose story might be begging to be told. Could a family story been silenced due to shame, misunderstanding, negligence? If so we have a challenging task ahead of us to uncover more information and provide the perspective that comes with time.
In Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt, we have an example of uncovering the story of an incredible feat that was initially silenced by family members. Bold Spirit can inspire us in our own quest to discover and preserve our family stories.
The idea for Bold Spirit began when the author read an essay written by a young man about his Norwegian ancestor’s walk across America in 1896. Captivated by the story, Linda embarked on a journey to gather sources from family letters and interviews, newspaper accounts, and historical records. She visited libraries, museums, and historical societies across America and even traveled to Norway to learn about Helga’s childhood. Linda wove these tidbits into a fascinating narrative, accompanied by photos of Helga Estby and her family. Endnotes accompany each chapter, verifying the details and provide an excellent prototype for creating our own family history books.
We are reading Bold Spirit for our fall book club selection. If you enjoy books that serve as models for your own family history writing, consider joining the Family Locket Book Club over on Goodreads. For a preview of the book, watch author Linda Lawrence Hunt tell of Helga’s adventure in this video. Linda describes how Helga and her daughter, Clara, discovered America in their trek. They met with governors in the various states they passed through, became interested in the presidential election being held that year, and were inspired by the women’s suffrage movement. Their experiences greatly expanded their world view.
Helga’s story begins with her arrival in the United States in 1871. Traveling from Norway to the United States with her mother as an eleven-year-old, the two joined Helga’s step-father in Minnesota. She quickly learned English at school and entered an arranged marriage with Ole Estby when 16. The Estby family eventually made their way to Spokane, Washington, a boom town in the 1880s. By this time the family consisted of several children and through sheer hard work Helga and Ole had been able to purchase a farm in the country. When several factors combined to threaten the loss of the Estby homestead, Helga was desperate for a way out of the situation.
In an effort to save her family’s home, Helga answered a wager advertised in the newspaper that would pay $10,000 to any woman who could walk across the United States in six months. Together with her daughter, Clara, the women literally walked from Spokane, Washington, to New York City. Mainly following the railroad tracks they encountered every obstacle possible from wild animals to wild men. Helga carried a revolver but generally found people to be kind, helpful, and supportive.
Bold Spirit tells the story of triumph and tragedy. Triumph in that Clara and Helga made it to New York, tragedy that the wager was never paid and while Helga was away from home two of her children died from diphtheria. Helga kept copious notes of her journey, but the family never forgave her for not being present when the illness took the children and never spoke of Helga’s achievement. After her death, her daughters discovered her manuscript and burned it, destroying what was surely an amazing look at the America of 1896.
What survived? As the manuscript burned, Helga’s daughter-in-law secretly saved a scrapbook that contained news clippings of Helga’s trek across America. Many years later, this provided the basis for uncovering the story. With the passing of the last of Helga’s children, the scrapbook was passed on to Helga’s granddaughter, Thelma. As a young girl, Thelma, had lived
with Helga and grandmother and granddaughter had forged a strong bond. Thelma noticed the respect people in the community had for her grandmother but was puzzled by undercurrents in the family. Whenever Helga would broach the subject of politics or women’s suffrage, the family would immediately silence her. Once, Thelma saw her grandmother thumbing through the manuscript and Helga asked the young girl to be sure and take care of “the story.” Because the story had been silenced by Helga’s children, Thelma had no idea what was being referenced until she explored the scrapbook.
The author discusses this silencing of Helga’s story at the end of the book and it broaches several intriguing ideas for us to consider as family historians. Some of our family stories might have been silenced for similar reasons – going against the social norm, shame, anger, blame, or embarrassment. Viewing the past with a different lens we can tell family stories with the perspective of time and perhaps bring healing. Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America not only provides us with a stirring historical account but also an example of how we can write our own family stories.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors.
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