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What Does it Mean to be “Tjernagel”?
Phil Rhodes

In the summer of 1899, Lewis Tjernagel planned a family reunion. He was called Lewis by most of his immediate family but often went by “L J.” These initials came from his christened names Lars Johan.

Lewis had grown up in Scott Township, Hamilton County, Iowa on a farm called Follinglo, established by his parents. Within walking distance of his home farm were the farms of many cousins – first cousins of his father and his own second cousins. This collection of Norwegian immigrants were a close-knit group bound by tradition, hardship and religion as well as blood. They had survived many tough times, not only when they broke the Iowa prairie in the 1850’s and 1860’s, but during the financial meltdown of the early 1890’s. Thinking of these bonds, Lewis was brought to tears.

A Tjernagel family reunion was held at Follinglo Farm on September 6,1899. It was the 50th anniversary of the first Tjernagel immigration from Norway. Over 100 people attended. Lewis interviewed many of them, getting all the information he could on births, marriages and deaths. From this Lewis put together a huge family tree chart. With this chart, Lewis defined the Tjernagel family as we present it on this website.

Lewis went back through the generations of his father’s ancestry to where all the Tjernagel cousins joined in common parentage. This he found in Peder Anderson Tjernagel and his wife Helga Christensdatter. Peder was born at Tjernagel South Farm in 1768 and died by drowning after falling through thin ice on Christmas Eve 1814. Helga was born in in 1763 at Sele (Sille) Farm on Bømlo Island across the fjord from Tjernagel.

Three of Peder and Helga’s children had descendants who made up the Tjernagel family as he defined it in 1899. Christen, born in 1792, established the Christianson branch of our family. Kirsti (also known as Kristi or Cherstine), born in 1797, married Philippus Knudsen and established the Phillops branch. Helga, born in 1803, married Lars Johannesson and established the Larson branch.

The Tjernagel family came from three farms along the rocky, windswept coast of Bømlo Fjord on the northern reach of the Sveio district of Hordaland County. These are known as Tjernagel Nordre (north), Tjernagel Søndre or Søre (south), and Lien (Lio). These farms were and are within a mile or two of each other, much like the Scott Township farms where Lewis grew up.

All of us Tjernagels owe much to the Larson branch, specifically the offspring of Ole Andreas Larson Tjernagel and his wife Martha Karina Anderson Follinglo. Ole and Martha did not leave us much of a written record. Instead they worked very hard to educate their children to love God, history, music and all things important to appreciating life and family. One can look far and wide and not find anywhere else a collection of siblings who achieved so much. Without the Tjernagel family history recorded in the writings of sons Lewis, Nehemias, Peter and Henry, there would be little to offer at this website. We also owe much to the writings of Neelak S. Tjernagel, Peter Tjernagel Harstad and other Tjernagels of more recent vintage.

What is even more amazing is that Ole Andreas was something of a “Johnny-come-lately.” He was a later-born sibling and came to the USA in 1856, years after other Tjernagels crossed the Atlantic. He was dependent on relatives in Illinois and Iowa for many years before he established Follinglo Farm. But Ole had a spark that once lit brought a light of knowledge to our family that continues today.

By the time they reached adulthood in the 1880’s, Ole’s sons had grown tired of the Larson name, a name all too common in the Scandinavian Midwest. Back in Norway, tradition gave everyone two surnames, The first from the father and the second from where one lived. Ole Andreas got his Larson surname from his father, Lars Johannesson, but Ole also had in Norway the name Tjernagel, the name of his last home before he boarded the ship in 1856. Tjernagel was a unique name in the USA, so Ole’s boys took it and his descendants have borne the name to this day.

What led Ole Andreas to leave Tjernagel? We can mention the obvious reason: Too little productive land to feed a rapidly growing population. But Ole appeared to need the example of his older siblings and cousins before he could take that big step onto the vessel carrying him away from the land of his birth.

The first Tjernagel connected to the Larson branch to come to the USA was Ole’s cousin Berthe Marie Haldorsdatter in 1849. She was the daughter of Ole’s uncle Haldor Johannesson. Berthe had married Peter Christianson a few years earlier and now had two sons, one a toddler, the other an infant. Peter’s father, Christen Pederson had died a few years earlier. Peter was renting a small plot of land at Tjernagel South and likely not doing well at all. Like most wives, Berthe must have henpecked her husband to do something about their dismal prospects. Peter was illiterate but he probably heard the stories about America that were being told on the wharves at Tjernagel, Bergen, and even at church on Sunday.

Peter, Berthe and the boys Ole and Christian took the good ship “Favoriten” to New York. They enjoyed a fast voyage and kind captain, but when they arrived in the Fox River Valley of Illinois in July of 1849, found themselves in the midst of a cholera epidemic. Berthe was the first of our family to die in the USA.

Had Peter Christianson been able to write, he might have warned his family back in Tjernagel of the cholera and in so doing discouraged them from following him to the USA. But follow him they did, regardless of any warning that might have reached Tjernagel. Philippus Knudson with wife Kirsti Pedersdatter and their four children came in 1850. Their oldest, Anna Marie, was already married with one daughter in 1850. Anna Marie died, too, of cholera in 1852, leaving two daughters, the second born after the 1850 party had arrived in Wisconsin.

Kirsti Pedersdatter deserves special mention because she literally touched more of our direct ancestors than anyone else. Kirsti was the Tjernagel family midwife for several decades, beginning in the 1820s in Norway and continuing until at least the 1860s in Iowa. When a baby was due, Kirsti would drop whatever she was doing and rush to the home of the expectant mother. Sometimes, perhaps if the birth was expected to be sudden or difficult, the expectant mother would go and stay in Kirsti’s home, sometimes for weeks. Kirsti delivered multiple generations of our ancestors. She delivered Ole Andreas Larson at Lien in 1836 and Ole’s son Peder Gustave (Peter) Larson Tjernagel at Follinglo Farm in Iowa in 1865. Kirsti, born in 1797, was the oldest of our family to come to the USA, and she lived longer than almost anyone, her soul finally giving up the body when she was ninety-one years old.

Ole Andreas’ older brother Peder “Store Per” Larson crossed the Atlantic on the schooner “Rogaland” in 1852 with his new wife, Malena, sister of Peter Christianson. With them came Jokum Christianson, another sibling of Peter, along with Endre Christianson, a younger half-sibling. Jokum had with him his wife and young son. Also in the 1852 party was Ole Andreas’ cousin Gunhilde Haldorsdatter, sister of Berthe Marie, who had just married a Swede named Carl.

Peter’s half-brother Anders Christianson followed in 1854 with his wife Helga, another sibling of Ole Andreas. Ole Andreas’ sister Larsine arrived in Iowa in the summer of 1863 with her new husband Nils Peterson. In 1913 Nils and Helga would celebrate their golden anniversary with a return to Norway. Nils’ soul departed while they were in Norway. Larsine returned to Iowa alone.

Others of our Tjernagel family would continue to make the Atlantic journey until around the turn of the twentieth century. These included Ole Andreas’s sister Barbru and her immediate family.

Peter and Canute Phillops, the two sons of Philippus Knudson and Kirsti Pedersdatter, began a tradition of military service in their branch of the family by serving in the Union Army in the Civil War. The war took Peter, while Canute suffered the physical and emotional scars of battle and imprisonment. Canute’s son, Peter Martin Phillops, married the daughter of another Civil War Veteran, Erick J. Peterson.

Ole Andreas’ son Helge Mathias Tjernagel, known as Henry to his family and friends, elected to honor the faith in God encouraged by his parents by becoming a minister of the Gospel. His example began a tradition of pastoral and missionary preaching of the Word of God by members of the Larson Tjernagel family. Much of this tradition was bolstered by the marriage of Tjernagel daughters to pastors with the names of Harstad and Teigen among others.

Ole Andreas Larson Tjernagel established the farm named after his wife’s ancestral home in Valdres, but Follinglo Farm flourished most under the ownership of his sons, Peter, Nehemias and Martin. The period of their greatest success was around the turn of the twentieth century and it continued through the first fifteen years or so after 1900, when farming in Iowa prospered prior to the farm depression of the 1920’s. Canute Phillops also had a model farm and his good management was continued by his son Peter Martin Phillops. Others amongst the Christianson and Larson Tjernagels also successfully farmed for many years in Scott Township and neighboring townships in Hamilton and Story Counties.

Peter Christianson was also a farmer. At the time of his death in 1896, he owned several farms in Illinois and Iowa. His brother, Jokum, who had settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1850’s, eschewed farming, instead becoming a lake schooner captain and then the owner of a succession of schooners. Later he operated a wood and coal wholesale and retail business in Milwaukee. Jokum began a ground swell of movement away from farming that took hold early amongst the Christiansons. Most of Jokum and Peter Christianson’s descendants became business people although a few went into or married those with an academic, legal, or clerical occupation.

A love of music and a talent to create it has long been a Tjernagel hallmark. Nehemias Tjernagel was a composer of note in Iowa 100 years or more ago. As a young man he not only composed but participated in a band with family and friends from the Scott Township area. Later he wrote about this talented group of Iowa farm boys turned musicians in his essay “The Riverside Band.” Nehemias’ second cousin Noah (Noel) Logan, PhD, was a professor of music associated with a succession of colleges in Iowa and Nebraska and even operated his own school of music for a time. Rose Christianson, a granddaughter of Peter Christianson, graduated from Cornell College (Iowa) Conservatory of Music in 1894. She was possibly the first Tjernagel female to obtain a college degree.

Succeeding generations have filled just about every niche in American society – farming, labor, science, business and commerce, government and social work, teachers, from elementary to university education, clergy, and many other areas, far beyond any dreams of the generation of the immigrants.

In a 1932 letter to Rose Christianson Enwall, Lewis Tjernagel noted that “At present there (are) about 700 Tjernagels in this country. That includes those married into the family.” Over the intervening 76 years, three or four generations have been added to the family, mushrooming it beyond counting. Likely the number of Tjernagel descendants of Peder and Helga are now several thousand, especially if we include those who never left Norway. Even so, we are still a relatively small clan and one that continues to exhibit many of the distinctive characteristics of our long ago ancestors.

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