Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Betsy Swanson - A Little Story Behind a Small Gravestone

Her name was Betsy and a gravestone in the Saronville Lutheran Cemetery tells us she died in 1944 at the age of 90. Odds are that few people today know anything of this woman. Oh, there may be a relative or two who lists her in their family tree, or maybe her name would trigger a long lost memory for someone. But for the most part, Betsy, like so many others left few tracks as clues to lives lived, either well or ill.

For many of us History is the story of people and a small item stumbled upon, a little perseverance and some luck just might uncover a story worth telling.

A photo of Betsy and her spinning wheel appeared in the Hastings Tribune and Sutton Register in 1935 with an article about her demonstration of spinning skills at a Hastings College craft exhibit. Fortunately for us, the author saw fit to tell some of Betsy’s story.

Many of the immigrants to Sutton came as groups who shared a common story. Others arrived as the main character in their own little story. Betsy was in the second category. She remembered her childhood home in Sweden and leaving with her parents and others to seek the land of Zion described by an agent of Brigham Young.

They crossed the Atlantic and a third of the continent to St. Louis. A riverboat took them up the Missouri River to the village of Florence just north of Omaha. They left Florence by ox cart in June, 1863 concluding this long trek in the desert village of Salt Lake City in October. But life in Zion did not match the promises made in Sweden.

Betsy began as a “nurse girl” and at age 13 was earning $1.50 a week carding wool and spinning from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. Four years of autocratic life wore thin on the Hakanson family. They joined a wagon train bound east to Julesburg, Colorado at the west end of the Union Pacific railroad. This wagon train was attacked by Indians with one man in their party killed and another injured. A much safer train ride brought Betsy and her parents to Council Bluffs, Iowa where her father became a railroad section foreman and Betsy a domestic servant in a private home.

Betsy married Oscar Swanson in 1870 and the newly-weds moved to their eighty acre homestead on School Creek. The 17-year-old bride found herself the Lady of the House in the first lumber dwelling built in the Sutton precinct. There were few settlers in the area and the town at the time featured three saloons but no stores.

This young lady had packed a lot of living into her first 17 years. The very next year she became a small footnote to our local history when she boarded the Burlington train in Lincoln at 6 a.m. one October morning in 1871 and became the first woman to ride the train from Lincoln to Sutton – a ten-hour trip.

Oscar and Betsy lived on the homestead until 1900 when they moved to Sutton for four years before building a new home in Saronville. They raised two sons, Charles and John who farmed in the Sutton area. A short biography of Oscar appeared in the History of Hamilton and Clay Counties published in 1921.

Betsy’s spinning wheel traveled with her on this adventure that was her life. She resurrected it out of her attic after Oscar died as she became active in reviving interest in handcraft work. That interest led to the small item in the paper preserving her story for us.

Betsy Hakanson Swanson is only one of the thousands of pioneers and settlers whose stories are steadily dimming as time goes by. Is it critically important that we save each and every one of these stories? Probably not critically important, but our lives seem much richer if we include them in our collective memory. And Betsy, like so many others, deserves no less.

This article appeared in the January, 2010 Sutton Life Magazine. Information about the magazine is available at or Mustang, Inc., 510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979.

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