How I Solved a Century-Old Family Mystery
Updated: Sep 2, 2019
My last name has always fascinated me. For one thing, it’s Swedish. I’ve always been intrigued by things that are different, and Sundberg generally isn’t a name one hears very often in the U.S. It literally translates to “strait mountain” (sund = strait or sound, as in a body of water, berg = mountain or hill). Basically, it refers to a mountain by a bay. In Arkansas, where I currently reside, the name is virtually non-existent. Even while growing up in Iowa, which had higher numbers of Swedish immigrants, it was relatively uncommon. To this day the name is most prevalent in Europe, with over 50% of it’s bearers living in Sweden. I was always proud of its uniqueness, but also wondered if it really belonged to me. The thing is, that name only went back four generations, then stopped without a trace. My father, David Sundberg, grew up on a farm near Linn Grove Iowa, as did my grandfather, Quenten Sundberg, and his father, Nels Sundberg. Nels’ father, Alfred Sundberg, was an immigrant from Sweden whom we knew little about. According to a story passed down through my family he was an orphan who was adopted by the parents of his future wife, Nellie Nelson. They allegedly gave him the name Sundberg because there was no record of his parentage. “If Sundberg was not his name, then what was?”, I often wondered. What would my last name have been if his parents had not been lost? And whatever happened to them? Did they die or give him up? Driven by curiosity, I began to find myself actively searching for answers.
Several years ago I bought an Ancestry.com account and built a family tree. The Sundberg line went back four generations to Alfred, then stopped. I didn’t have any information to add to help their system detect more clues, so he remained a blank slate for the time being. It’s important to remember that your own family can be a good source of information when the internet fails to provide answers. Over the Christmas 2017 holiday I was visiting a great-uncle who was Alfred’s grandson. My great-uncle was born after Alfred died, but he had a biography written by Alfred’s youngest son Carlton shortly before his own death in 1989. According to Carlton, his father Alfred was a Swedish orphan who immigrated to Michigan to work in the mines, then later moved to Linn Grove, Iowa to become a farmer. He stated that he did not know how his parents met, which seemed to contradict the story that they were raised together. Also of note was the account of Alfred’s tragic death – at the age of 70 he was struck by a train while walking down the railroad tracks. This information was interesting, but I was still no closer to learning about his parentage.
In August 2018 I found myself in Kristinehamn, Sweden attempting to collect information on the Nelson side of the family. While there I stopped at the library to see if they had anything useful. The librarian didn’t speak much English, but I was able to confer to her what I was trying to do. She logged me on to dödsboken, or “the deathbook”, an online Swedish genealogical database. After looking up several Nelson names, I typed in Alfred Sundberg. One record came up, referring to a person named “Johan Alfred Sundberg”. The record was from the Bergstena parish and stated that Johan Alfred Sundberg was born November 6, 1850 in Stockholm. Never having heard the name Johan associated with him, I figured this was probably referring to someone else. But just in case, I took a screenshot of the information.
Fast forward a couple months to Thanksgiving 2018. Alone with nothing to do in the morning, I plugged the date November 6, 1850 into the birthday slot for Alfred on my Ancestry family tree. A clue popped up, the first one in quite a while. I clicked on the link, and soon realized that it had led me to a scan of his death certificate. Immediately it was obvious that the file was referring to the correct person. The informant was Nels Sundberg, the place of death was Linn Grove, and the cause of death was “fracture of skull”, which would be consistent with being hit by a train. What stood out to me was that his full name was written as “John Alfred Sundberg”. The date and place of birth were listed as November 6, 1850, in Stockholm Sweden. Sound familiar? I thought so. Looking back at the record from Sweden, the data matched perfectly, other than the alternative spelling of John vs. Johan. From this I concluded that the record from Sweden was referring to the correct person. Bergstena suddenly became a location of interest. Could this have been where his mother was registered?
Over Christmas that year I was home in Iowa again, browsing through some files in my mom’s closet. Reading over an old and faded document attributed to someone named Selma Nelson Sandberg from 1945-1950, I found the following quote: “Daniel Frodelius was a minister in the State Church of Sweden at Storra Melloy in the province of Västergötland and was a descendant of a long line of clergymen. His son, Magnus Danielsson did not want to become a minister. He married Anna Svensdotter and chose to become a farmer in the parish of Lena. Brita ‘our grandmother’ was born to them on February 28, 1820. A son was also born to them named Lars Magnusson. Lars married and he and his wife became the foster parents of Alfred Sundberg.” That was a bombshell. The story that Alfred was adopted by his future in-laws was apparently incorrect. I guess the details must have gotten muddied over the generations. According to this first hand-record, he was indeed adopted, but by a man named Lars Magnusson from the Frodelius family. This also further verified the record found in Sweden, as Bergstena is located just 3.2 miles from Lena. That record, then, must have been taken when he was living with his adopted parents.
At this point I had learned that Alfred Sundberg was born November 6, 1850, in Stockholm, and was adopted by Lars Magnusson, the grandson of Daniel Frodelius, in the parish of Lena in the province of Västergötland. His biological family still remained hidden though. One day I decided to enter Lars Magnusson in my Ancestry tree as Alfred’s father, just to see what would happen. Lo and behold, his supposed mother, Hedvig Sundberg, appeared on the tree. Her parents Hedvig and Carl Sundberg also appeared above her. Not wanting to accept this at face value, I clicked on her name to see what records identified her with Alfred. The only piece of evidence was a link to someone else’s tree, so I messaged her to see if she had any more information. In her reply she stated that according to records from the Stockholm Orphanage, his mother died in 1854, after which he and his brother were placed into foster care with his grandmother Hedvig Carlsdotter and her second husband. A few years later around 1857, he was transferred to a farmer and his wife in the province of Västergötland. That matched with what I already knew, especially the part about him being transferred to a farmer and his wife in Västergötland. From this I also learned that his mother had died when he was just four years old, and that he apparently had a brother. I looked into her profile a little more, and was able to find the link to the orphanage she referred to. After searching for Johan Alfred Sundberg in their database, I was able to find three relevant records. The first two showed Alfred and his brother Carl being transferred to the care of their grandmother and step-grandfather in 1854, and stated that the mother was named Hedvig Sundberg. The third record was from 1857 and showed Alfred being transferred from their care to the care of Lars Frodelius in Lena. That matched the name and location I had dug out the closet the previous year, bringing my research full circle.
In summary, I have learned that Johan Alfred Sundberg was born November 6, 1850 in Stockholm, Sweden to Hedvig Sundberg, daughter of Carl and Hedvig Sundberg. He also had a younger brother named Carl. His mother died when he was four and she was 24, after which he was transferred to the care of his grandparents before being adopted by a farmer named Lars (Magnusson) Frodelius and his wife in the parish of Lena in Västergötland. They raised him until he immigrated to the U.S. around 1880. He first moved to Michigan to work in the mines, then moved to Iowa where he met and married Nellie Nelson and became a farmer. They had nine children, including my great-grandfather Nels Sundberg, before he was killed by a train on February 16, 1921. The Sundberg name was indeed his own, but it came from his mother, not his father. I still have no idea who his father was, but who knows? I’m willing to bet there’s a record out there somewhere. And if there is, I’ll find it.