By Chris Nelson
I’ve lived a sheltered life, at least when compared to some of my relatives. Both sides of my family — the Nilssons from Sweden and the Thatchers from England — often found themselves mired in conflict. My family, it seems, has been at the center of many wars and all types of hardship.
Some of the Nilsson ancestors suffered hardships early in their lives, according to research compiled for my grandparents, Marshall and Constance Nelson.
One example involved Anders Nilsson and his wife, Maria, who were married in March of 1842, and soon began cultivating their land in Ryssby, Sweden. They led a quaint life, raising two daughters, Stina and Ingrid.
Tragedy struck, however, in November 1847, according to the research document. “Maria went to the cow barn on Hermansmala. While in the barn she saw a wolf that had gotten in, it attacked and rifted a cow.” Maria was apparently so terrified by the sight of the wolf, she died of shock. She was only 25.
Anders raised his two daughters by himself until marrying Cajsa Jonsdotter nearly six years after Maria’s death. Still dismayed by the events, however, and with times growing difficult with his failing farm and the poor pre-industrial state of Sweden at the time, he decided to pursue a better life. In 1855, according to the historical documents, he and his family “boarded the White Star of Iman Steamship which began their 3,000 mile journey across the Atlantic.”
Their hardship continued, however. Anders’ daughter, Stina, who was married and pregnant at the time of the voyage, lost an infant son during the trip.
Onward to Nebraska
The family arrived in New York, then moved to Chicago and eventually settled in Geneva, Illinois. By 1880, they had settled in Bloomington, Nebraska, according to my grandfather, Marshall Nelson
“By that point, they had changed their name from Nilsson to Nelson,” he said. “My grandfather and eventually his son all lived together as they were making a life in Nebraska. Anders, the original man, managed to live until his 90s.”
On the other side of my family are the Thatchers, a family involved in nearly every major conflict – from the American Revolution to the Vietnam War. The family left England for America’s better economic opportunities sometime in the early 1700s and eventually settled somewhere in New Jersey. Amos Thatcher was certainly the most prominent and certainly the one that interested me most.
“While residing Kingwood Township, N.J., he enlisted in the fall of 1775,” according to Daughters of the American Revolution documentation. He served under Gen. Nathanial Greene as a spy during the American Revolution. His service set a precedent for his descendants, most of whom would eventually serve in the military in in some capacity.
Military service continues
His grandson, Allen Sharp Thatcher, joined the 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment to fight for the Union during the Civil War. My parents display in their home a significant memento of his time in war: the framed lyrics from the regiment’s official song. “Shall we shrink from the contest, brave comrades, oh no! Let us fight while the stripes from that banner are waving! Or fall with each face bravely turned to the foe, to the traitors who fight for their country’s enslaving!”
Unfortunately, his son would not be so lucky.
Allen Sharp Thatcher Jr. would serve on the USS Essex during World War I. According to his obituary from the Kokomo, Indiana, newspaper, he died of pneumonia five days before he reached port “while out on a 2,000 mile cruise on the USS Essex as orderly for Senior Admiral Benson.”
My grandfather, Allen Sharp Thatcher Birk, was the nephew of Thatcher Jr. Born July 27, 1925, he would enlist in the Army Air Corp. after lying about his age. He would become a tail gunner on a B-17, appropriately nicknamed “Hitler’s Cyanide.” After surviving the war, he married Katherine Dempsey, and the couple had two children, including Janice, who would become my mother. Birk continued his military service, this time as an intelligence officer, serving in both Korea and Vietnam. He died in 1998, when I was just 5.
Against all odds – wolves, sickness and wars — I ended up here today. Hopefully, I can live up to the remarkable legacies of my ancestors.