Harmony in the Family 

by Jean Cammon Findlay,
as part of The Knutsen Archives

My Grandma Cammon knew so little about our Norwegian Kammens in America that whenever she found an individual with that name, regardless of the spelling, she would write to the person and ask if they were related. My Uncle Bob, who traveled widely in his career as a turbine engineer with General Electric, would browse the telephone directories in any city he visited, searching for a Kammen. But nothing ever came of Grandma’s or Uncle Bob’s searches.

I vowed one day to trace my ancestral and collateral Kammen lines in America. I started with Betsey Johnson Cammon’s history of Anderson Island, Washington, entitled Island Memoir. The book takes my breath away for its detail, scope, and accuracy. In it, she devoted three pages to my great-grandfather Hans Kammen, but the history she knew, except for his birth date and place, began in 1871, a decade after he immigrated.

Armed only with the date, 2 February 1839, when my great-grandfather Hans Kammen was born at Sogna Fjord, Norway, I first turned to the Vesterheim Genealogical Center in Madison, Wisconsin for help. Researchers there located the right parish, Leikanger, Sogn og Fjordane, and the marriage record of two who best fit the few facts and seem to be my great-great-grandparents—Ole Knutsen Kammen and Elisabet Arnesdatter. They also found the names and birth dates of their ten children. Further, they told me which children immigrated and when.

I then purchased the Leikanger Bygdebok (community history) because its sources, too, were the parish records. Here I put my finger on the brief biographical entries of several ancestors and saw for myself the dates of immigration for my great-grandfather Hans Kammen (1860); Hans’ only younger brother, Nils Fredrick Severin Kammen (1861); his oldest brother, Anton Kammen, a carpenter, wife Edvardine Rodin, and two children, Ole and Anna (1862); and another older brother, Ole Ferdinand Kammen, a carpenter, wife Birgitte Skancke, and four children, Ole Ferdinand, Elisa Antonie, Johan Christian, and Hansine (1866).

Of the hundreds of names and thousands of facts I’ve collected, the first two people with emerging histories are a cousin, Anna Kammen, and her husband, Chris Knutsen. I began to search their histories even more diligently.

Anna Kammen was Anton’s only daughter, and her paper trail was slight indeed. Born 14 April 1857, she was listed with her family in the Bygdebok, then in the 1870 U.S. Census at the family homestead in Tumuli Township, Otter Tail County, Minnesota. In the 1875 Minnesota State Census, she was still with the family when they were living temporarily in Willmar, Kandiyohi County. It came as no surprise, however, to find that in 1880, when she would have been twenty-three, she was no longer in the household. I determined with a line-by-line search of this and nearby townships that Anna was not living in any household in the vicinity.

I assumed that she either took a job, died, or was married, and given the time period, I knew I would only be able to locate her death or marriage in church records. To find where to search for this, I got the land records of Anna’s father, Anton, from Otter Tail County and confirmed that his next address was Chippewa County after he sold the Tumuli homestead. From the Chippewa county recorder’s office, I acquired copies of both Anton's and his son Ole's land descriptions and patent receipt numbers, which I used to request copies of files at the National Archives. From these files I learned that both Anton and Ole settled on their lands in Chippewa County in May of 1876, so I checked the county’s records for Anna Kammen. No luck. I also searched county records in Otter Tail and Kandiyohi for Anna’s marriage and/or death records, to no avail.

My next step was to write to the Chippewa County Historical Society, which supplied me with a list of Lutheran churches organized between 1870 and 1928. I wrote to the fourteen most likely churches, but each responded similarly: "No Kammens."

Amazingly, though, one sympathetic and enterprising respondent continued, "I went to our library, and they found this little write-up. Hope it will help you some. It is very interesting to check into family history. Good luck." That was the understatement of the decade.

There were actually two write-ups in the envelope. The first, from the Montevideo Leader dated 29 April 1892, reported, "Antoine Cameren of Port Townsend, Wash. Ter., returns with his family. He says Minnesota is good enough for him—is willing to live and die here." The second, also from the Leader and dated 5 July 1895, was Anton Cammen’s obituary. The listed survivors were his wife and a daughter, Mrs. Knutson, of Dawson [Lac Qui Parle County], Minnesota.

Subsequently, I located Anton and Edvardine in an 1889 census for Port Townsend, Jefferson County, Washington Territory, but no Knutsen family was listed. In the 1895 Minnesota State Census for Dawson, I found Anton, a furniture dealer, and Edvardine in one household, and in another, Chris Knutsen, age thirty-three, a mason, with wife Anna, age thirty-eight, and two daughters, Bertha, age seven, and Evalda, age six.

A quick computation verified that this Anna was born in 1857, as was Anton’s Anna, and that Chris was born in 1862. The name of the second daughter suggested that the couple followed the traditional Norwegian practice of naming the second daughter after the wife’s mother, Edvardine. If that were true, the first child would be named after the paternal grandmother, whose name would be Bertha or a variant. Although there was a gap between 1875 and 1895, I was certain I had found Anna Kammen and a record of her marriage. When I ordered microfilm of the June 1895 Dawson Sentinel through interlibrary loan, I spotted a report that "Mr. C. Knutson announces . . . that he is prepared to do plastering and chimney work . . . Orders left at the furniture store will receive prompt attention."

Shortly thereafter, I attended a family picnic at my uncle Bob’s home. He handed me a flimsy piece of paper, about four inches square, that he had found tucked in a box of snapshots. It looked like a business card; later I learned it was perhaps an old business label. 

It showed a full-length picture of a tall man playing an odd musical instrument that looked like a guitar, but had a long arching arm that extended above the regular guitar neck. Under the picture were the words "Sole Patentee," and centered opposite was, "C. Knutsen, maker of all kinds of musical instruments." A Los Angeles address was listed in the lower right corner.

I could not imagine what the instrument was. On the bottom, Grandma had written, "Cousin of Oscar and Martin Cammon [my grandfather and his brother] related on the Kammen side." Because I knew Anna was a cousin married to a C. Knutsen, I assumed my grandmother meant this was a cousin by marriage. (See Historical Photographs to view this item)

It was a tremendous clue, but for some time my searches were halted while I puzzled over how to proceed. At last I went to the reference desk of my local public library and asked the attendant to help me find an organization that could identify Knutsen’s instrument. The reference librarian immediately put her hand on the Encyclopedia of Associations, which I used to find both postal and e-mail addresses for the secretary of the American Musical Instrument Society, Al Rice. I sent an e-mail to Mr. Rice with a copy of the business card.

He responded, "Your cousin was a very well-known, skilled maker of the harp guitar." Then he proceeded to list names of people to write and books to study for more information. Among his suggestions was a book entitled The Larsons’ Creations: Guitars and Mandolins by Robert Carl Hartman. In it, Hartman reproduced the patent for Chris Knutsen’s design of a harp guitar frame, dated 15 February 1898. Also listed was his Port Townsend, Washington address.

The next time I visited my uncle, I recounted the tale engendered by his gift of Chris Knutsen’s business card and my search for the instrument. I expected amazement, excitement, praise—anything but the response I got.

"Have you ever heard of an instrument like this?" I asked.

"We have one."

"What?" I gasped. "A harp guitar?"

"Sure. In the west bedroom. Lying on the library table where it’s been for the past twenty-five years."

After Grandma died, some twenty-five years ago, it became a standing joke that Uncle Bob, who inherited the family home, would periodically offer me the opportunity to clean the west bedroom closet. Grandma Cammon had saved everything, and I quailed at the prospect of rummaging through this walk-in space crammed floor to ceiling, front to back, with nearly a century of aggregate. I always declined. This time I didn’t waste a moment running up to the west bedroom.

There it was, dusty to be sure, but the same instrument that was pictured in the patent. (See this instrument here) Grandma had even left a note on an envelope tucked under the strings stating that her parents had purchased this instrument in about 1900. Inside the envelope was an advertising flyer for "The Celebrated One-Arm Harp Guitar by Chris Knutsen, Manufacturer, Port Townsend, Washington." (See Historical Photographs to view this item)

After that it was easy to make a trip to Port Townsend, where my visit to the Jefferson County Historical Museum netted a brief file on Chris Knutsen, including a family portrait and Chris and Anna’s death certificates. I also learned that the museum was planning an exhibit about Chris and his instruments. Equally exciting was learning about the book, From Harp Guitars to the New Hawaiian Family: Chris J. Knutsen, published in 1999 by two Washington authors and collectors of Knutsen instruments, George T. Noe and Daniel L. Most.

But there were still puzzles to be solved. It was as if Chris Knutsen had emerged to adulthood without a childhood. I had searched Minnesota fruitlessly for him and his family. My earliest reference to him was in the Port Townsend City Directory for 1890, where he was listed as a plasterer. Even Noe and Most had no earlier information than this, although they had deduced from the 1900 census information that he and Anna probably married in 1887 if their oldest child, Bertha, was born in August 1888, as the census stated.

According to the 1900 census, Chris was born in Norway to Norwegian parents in June 1862, had immigrated in 1865, and had been in the United States for thirty-five years. His occupation was listed in the census as guitar maker—the first public acknowledgment of his true vocation. Until he received his first patent in 1896, he was listed as a mason or plasterer.

I examined the death certificates. Anna Knutsen had died 8 November 1930 at Los Angeles County Hospital. Chris J. Knutsen had died two days earlier (6 November 1930) in the same hospital of portal cirrhosis—a disease I have since learned results from breathing shellac fumes over a long period of time. His occupation was simply listed as manufacturer. Birthplace: Norway. Father: Olaf Knutsen—Norway. Mother: Baragetta Scunka—Norway. Date of Birth: 24 June 1864. Lived in U.S.: Sixty-five years. The parents’ names were suggestive of Anton’s brother, Ole Ferdinand Kammen, and his family, but how could I prove it?

In desperation and in the hope of finding a clue for another avenue to pursue, I did what any genealogist must do periodically. I sat down and read my copious files.

And there it was in the family group sheet notebook. While reading the names and birth dates on the family group sheet for Ole Ferdinand Kammen and Birgitte Skancke, I suddenly realized the third child, Johan Christian Kammen, was born 24 June 1862. I looked back at the 1900 census for Chris Knutsen. Also born June 1862. I compared it to the 1895 Minnesota Census, where he said he was thirty-three years old. 1862 again. I looked at the names. Ole Ferdinand Kammen’s father was Ole Knutsen Kammen. That accounted for Knutsen. Baragetta Scunka was obviously a phonetic iteration of Birgitte Skancke, written by a hospital employee.

Further, Chris’s father and uncles were both carpenters, and Chris probably learned woodworking from them. Traditionally, the Kammen men often called themselves by their middle names rather than their first names, and looking back at earlier censuses for this family, I found Johan Christian consistently listed as Chris, Christ, or Christian. Anna and Chris’s oldest child was Bertha, which is a modernization of Birgitte. In the Norwegian naming custom, their first child was indeed named after the husband’s mother. The evidence was overwhelming, but not conclusive.

It was almost anticlimactic when I finally found "the smoking gun." I continued perusing my files. I had once written to the Sargent County, North Dakota court clerk for marriage records of Ole Ferdinand Kammen’s children after the family homesteaded there in the 1880s. In another one of those serendipitous events, the clerk had written back, "I could not find any record of marriages, . . . [but] I did find a probate for Ole F. Kammen, who I believe is the father, so I am sending a copy of the petition for your information."

In the petition, dated 1902, Ole’s children were listed in their birth order: Fred Kammen, Lizzie Espeland (nee Cammon), Christ Knutsen Kammen. That was it! Chris J. Knutsen and Johan Christian Kammen were the same man. What I had not realized earlier was that Chris Knutsen and Anna Kammen were not only husband and wife, but also first cousins.

Jean Cammon Findlay is an elementary school teacher. She has pursued genealogy for ten years, traveling three times to Norway to visit various regions of her ancestral homeland. Here's Jean with Uncle Bob and his guitar.

Copyright 2002, MyFamily.com, Inc. Reprinted from Ancestry Magazine, 11/1/2000.
Used by permission, all rights reserved. For further family history resources, visit www.ancestry.com.

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