Getting to Know Samuel Sande
The first time I “met” Samuel, he was 19 years old and living in Bergen, Norway. He was away from his family farm in Sande, in the Sunnfjord municipality of western Norway, for what was likely the first time. Boarding with people his family seems to have known, he explored the city, marking his way as he went so he wouldn’t get lost. His plan was to enter the Military School there but first he had to qualify. He was fit and strong and an excellent shot but he had to pass some written exams as well and, as he explained to his parents, many of the other candidates had a lot more education than he did. The year was 1908. I “met” and got to know Samuel through the letters he wrote regularly to his family back home from that year to 1941.
Samuel’s grandson, Jim Marshall, approached the Canadian Nordic Society in June, 2018, with a request for assistance in translating a copy of letters he had received from a second cousin on a recent visit to Norway. His Norwegian relatives had carefully stored them away over the years until they were apparently almost forgotten until they turned up in a family cottage they were clearing out. Jim and his family had been unaware of their existence and were excited to receive them. Jim was hoping they would give him some insight to the life and character of the Norwegian grandfather he had never known but always wondered about, but no-one in his family in Canada could read Norwegian. Trygve Ringereide, then CNS Vice-president, co-ordinated the translation project and translated a number of the letters himself. Councillor Kristin Udjus Teitelbaum and I translated the rest. It was a very strange feeling to read Samuel’s first letter. It had such a warm, conversational tone that it seemed to have just been written, though I was reading it 110 years later. Samuel did not of course know what his future would hold but, at least in very general terms, I did. In reading and helping to translate his letters, I learned the details of his life and got to know Samuel better than most people I have met in person. At the same time I gained insight into what life was like for the pioneers who, like Samuel, settled western Alberta. Translating those letters turned out to be a very enjoyable and meaningful experience for me. Samuel did qualify for Military School and stayed there for a little under two years (out of the three and a half he had signed up for). It was certainly not an easy life and I was quite shocked at some of the conditions he described but he seemed to accept them and did not complain. By the end of his second year though, he had become disillusioned and seemed to feel that the students were being taken advantage of and not treated fairly by the administration.
The next thing I knew he was writing a letter from aboard the Adriatic, the largest ship to sail the Atlantic at that time, with about 2,000 passengers from all over Europe all heading to America. It was the spring of 1910 and he was 21 years old. His older brother Sigurd and two other young men from Sande were sharing a small cabin with him. Sigurd had already begun to establish a homestead in Leslieville, Alberta, west of Red Deer, and that was where Sigurd and Samuel were heading.
Due to Canadian government policies of the time, it was easier to get to Alberta via the United States. Sigurd and Samuel worked their way across by labouring on the railroads, earning enough to pay their way and more. When they arrived in Leslieville, Samuel picked out a piece of land near his brother’s and started to clear it. In order to get the title to the land, he needed to clear and plow a set amount, and build a home on it within three years. His brother Sigurd had already built a house and that is where Samuel lived in the beginning. There were other Norwegians living nearby as well, and they all helped each other out. In the winters, Samuel, a skilled woodsman, would head to the lumber camps to make money which he then invested in his farm.
In September, 1916, Samuel enlisted in the Canadian Army to fight in World War I. He was a man of principle who knew his own mind and believed that when one’s country was at war, everyone who could fight should do so. He spent the War in Britain, mostly doing forestry work it seems. When the War was over he wrote that he had spent 30 months among strangers and had not heard a single word of Norwegian the whole time. Christmas time especially had been a lonely time, and had not always been such a merry Christmas, he wrote. It is not clear whether he participated in any battles but many years later, in a letter to his sister he wrote: “I have seen a lot of good and evil in my day and not least when I was in the army. I met up with the greatest opposites, the darkest as well as the brightest, yes some so dark that you wouldn’t think it was human, but the devil in human form.” The War over, he went back to working on his farm, gradually improving and expanding it. In the winters he worked in the woods, where he wrote that at least had some company and did not have to prepare his own meals. As a bachelor, when at home he had to prepare all his own meals, bake his own bread, darn his own socks and generally keep his home and belongings in good repair. He did complain about this now and then in his letters and his family would occasionally mention some Norwegian girl who was unmarried, hinting that perhaps he should consider her for marriage. But Samuel never took the bait. I knew as I read his letters, of course, that Samuel did eventually marry and so I was on the lookout for any mention of a possible candidate. One year, at the end of one of his Christmas letters, he wrote that he had hired a housekeeper. “Aha! I thought. The plot thickens.”
A few Christmas letters later, after describing how the weather had been over the past year, what crops he had harvested and other details about his farming year, he broke the news that he was getting married the following week to an English woman named Ada who had been married before and had two sons. She had been his housekeeper and was 32 years old to his 41. In fairly short order they had a son, and then a little girl, who is Jim Marshall’s mother Irene. It was clear in the letters that followed that Samuel took delight in his children and was very proud of them. Samuel’s farm prospered through his hard work. He gradually built up a supply of livestock and acquired farm machinery and even a car. A community of Norwegians formed in the area over time to the point that they were able to support a Norwegian pastor. Times got tough during the 1930’s and Samuel clearly empathized greatly with those who were worse off than he was. But he wrote to his family that there was no need to worry about him. Between the food he grew on the farm and the hunting he did every Fall, there was always enough to eat.
Isolated as they were in their small community, medical care was scarce. It was a long trip to consult a doctor and there was usually little they could do to help in those days. Samuel often mentioned his neighbours’ and his own health issues in his letters, referring several times to what seems to have been a chronic stomach disorder. His last letter was written in 1941. He died in hospital that year at age 51.
Samuel’s grandson, Jim Marshall, was very appreciative of the translation work we did for him and his family and made a generous donation to the CNS and the translators. He also agreed to speak at our Distinguished Speakers’ Event of September 23. His account of his grandfather Samuel Sande’s life and character as revealed through his letters was interesting and moving. The three translators also spoke about the challenges and rewards of working on the project. CNS member Simon Snow expressed his enjoyment of the presentation and noted that this was true history - the life of an ordinary man who helped create the country we now live in. Several others later expressed their appreciation for the talk by email. I for one will always be grateful for the opportunity to get to “know” Samuel.