2017-02-09 / News

A Fisherman’s Family Comes to St. Ignace: Project Traces Hagen History

By Ellen Paquin


At left: Sue Thompson opens the genealogy card file at the St. Ignace Public Library compiled by Margaret Smith. Much local family lore is found inside. Behind her is a computer where digitized St. Ignace newspaper archives can be read and searched, and on the table, her notebooks of family history, including an old one compiled by Percy Hagen. This room at the library is dedicated to genealogy resources, and library staff and volunteers can help patrons learn to use them. At left: Sue Thompson opens the genealogy card file at the St. Ignace Public Library compiled by Margaret Smith. Much local family lore is found inside. Behind her is a computer where digitized St. Ignace newspaper archives can be read and searched, and on the table, her notebooks of family history, including an old one compiled by Percy Hagen. This room at the library is dedicated to genealogy resources, and library staff and volunteers can help patrons learn to use them. The Hagen family has widely branching roots in the Brevort and St. Ignace area, with descendants among the McNamee, Gustafson, Davis, Krause, and Shepard families, to name a few, and before that, stretching back to Washington Island in Wisconsin and, even earlier, to Norway. Years of careful genealogy research have produced a thick binder neatly filled with treasured family history and photographs. Sue (Mc- Namee) Thompson of St. Ignace, who is working to continue the project, said much of the most significant information was found in a card index at the St. Ignace Public Library and in excerpts printed in St. Ignace newspapers over the past century. The newspaper archives are now digitized and searchable at the library for the convenience of historians and genealogists.

For Ms. Thompson, it all started with a question from her mother, Carla (Hagen) McNamee, who wanted to learn the identity of her own grandfather.

“What started me on the journey was my mother,” said Ms. Thompson Wednesday, January 25. “Her mother, Isabelle Hagen, was adopted, and my mom wanted to find out who [Isabelle’s] dad was.”

Isabelle was the daughter of Amanda, who married Harry Wood. Mr. Wood adopted the little girl at a young age. But the identity of Amanda’s previous husband is not known to the family. Carla Mc- Namee began looking for that information in 1988, a time when such research was undertaken by contacting county registrars of deeds, before computer searches existed. She learned that there is no record of Isabelle’s adoption in Mackinac County, so it likely took place elsewhere. Later, a brother, Chester Mercure, was born in Traverse City.

The information the family has gleaned so far is plentiful, and fascinating for Ms. Thompson and her siblings, aunts, and cousins, but still missing is the identity of Isabelle’s father. What the family has learned: A great-great-grandfather, Ole Hagen, came to this country with his wife Fanny and young son Carl from Norway, settling on Washington Island, Wisconsin, where in the early 1900s they reared a family of seven more children. The eldest son, Carl or “Charlie” Hagen, who had been born in Norway, grew up with his siblings on Washington Island. By the time he married and he and his wife had children, Washington Island was rapidly filling up with Hagen relatives, most of them supporting their families as fishermen, as they had in Norway. With a daughter soon to come of marriage age, the younger Hagens realized it was time to move on.

They didn’t go that far. Washington Island is a relatively short hop across Lake Michigan from the southern shore of the Upper Peninsula, and Charlie Hagen brought his young family to St. Ignace, as did his brother Jule. In St. Ignace, like in nearby Brevort, they found another fertile Lake Michigan fishing grounds, populated by other fishermen’s families of Scandinavian heritage.

“The reason for leaving the island was because they wanted their children to be able to marry and continue on,” said Ms. Thompson. For her, this was one of the most interesting elements of the story. “They moved from Washington Island when their daughter became old enough to date. There was too much family on the island. Charlie brought his family and children here on a tugboat.”

Soon after, he wrote to the folks at home to report that this was a good place, one where you could pin a dollar bill on the clothesline in the morning, and come home at night to find it still there.

From these roots, the family branched out in this area over the years. As it grew, some kept in touch with the Washington Island relatives. Decades later, that branch of the family has amassed its own binder of genealogy research, with various relatives writing parts of it and supplying old photographs to be copied. Over the years, the two branches of the family have enjoyed periodic – and large – family reunions on Washington Island. Carla McNamee of St. Ignace, Ms. Thompson’s mother, often was among those attending, further fueling her interest in the family’s history and many connections.

Still in search of her grandfather’s identity, Mrs. McNamee tried to work from family memories to learn more.

Ms. Thompson recalls some of the family stories.

“My grandma Isabelle remembered going to Cross Village to visit relatives when she was a child, and visiting a grave there,” Ms. Thompson said. “There are even pictures of it. My mom, Carla, and [cousin] Thora went to Cross Village looking for it, but they could never find it.”

Ms. Thompson has borrowed an early folder of family history, compiled years ago by Percy Hagen, from an aunt, Sally Valentine. Its articles and clippings are yellowing with time, and its cover is labeled in a fine oldfashioned hand: “The Hagen Gundmundsen Story.” Names are listed inside that reflect the families’ Scandinavian heritage: Sorensen, Ellefson, Nelson, Gislasson. A hand drawn map shows where various families settled on Washington Island.

Resources have greatly improved since Ms. Thompson has taken over the project. A genealogy card file in the St. Ignace Public Library, she said, has been invaluable. (See related story on this page.) It was assembled by Margaret Smith, whose husband, Emerson, wrote “Before the Bridge,” and the work was preparatory to the book. It would have taken many hours of painstaking research.

In addition to local family names and relationships, “The library card index gives dates to look at Census records, and addresses,” said Ms. Thompson. It indexes dates in the St. Ignace newspaper where various family names are mentioned. There are some inaccuracies in the Smith file, and some have been corrected by later users. Through it, Ms. Thompson learned of a Hagen family connection to the local Johnson family.

Nearby the card file is a computer monitor where people can access archives of St. Ignace newspapers from 1888 to 2004. In a recent improvement, these files have been digitized and are now searchable by name. Newspaper archives after 2004 are available and searchable free on the newspaper’s Web site, stignacenews.com.

The archives of the newspapers that have been published in St. Ignace for the past 137 years supplied a lot of useful and interesting information about her family, Ms. Thompson said. From the Looking Back column of the newspaper, “I learned that my grandfather, Carl Hagen, ran for mayor. I never knew that. And that my great-grandfather, Carl “Charlie” Hagen, would take the sturgeon they caught in the nets, that no one else would eat, and bring them home to feed his family. Others would throw those big fish aside and they would stack up on the shore like cordwood. He just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, waste them like that.”

Isabelle Hagen worked as one of three registered nurses serving the medical needs of the Mackinac Bridge construction crew, and a St. Ignace News article about her work is also saved in the scrapbook.

The digitized newspaper archive is particularly popular with people seeking to learn about their family history, said Library Director Skip Schmidt, because people can search it for names.

“People come from all over to use these digitized newspapers,” he said, “like Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin.”

And they are useful, particularly for families with long roots here.

“If your family has been here long enough,” Mr. Schmidt said, “what I’ve learned through these newspapers, is that sooner or later, one of them has run for mayor.”

At least one family, he said, has looked up all of the references to their family name in the newspaper archive, and published a compilation of them in book form. It is “Mackinac Langdons Revisited,” by Jim Langdon [see article in The St. Ignace News September 15, 2016.]

For the Hagen family research project, family members loaned old photographs to Ms. Thompson to include in her binder, and she also stores them digitally on a disc that she keeps in a safety deposit box. With old paper photographs, she said, “Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

She traced her ethnicity through Ancestry.com in November, and is pleased that she did. For $100, she received a saliva collection kit, which is then tested in a laboratory and shows the continents where ancestors originated. If multiple family members take the test, it can be helpful in identifying relatives, such as cousins.

Next, still working to solve that remaining question of her great-grandfather’s identity, she plans to seek the adoption records for her grandmother from the courthouse in Traverse City, submitting Isabelle’s death certificate and her own identification. If she doesn’t find the records there that name her mother’s grandfather, she will then look in Lansing. Records might be sealed because it was an adoption, which was common practice, she said, but in light of the fact that Isabelle is deceased and the adoption took place more than 100 years ago, the family may now be able to access them.

With her mother, Carla McNamee now residing in long term care, Ms. Thompson said it feels more important than ever to answer that original question.

“It feels like I have to get that one question she wanted answered, answered,” she said. “I need to finish it for her.”

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