Like The Wonderful Adventure of Nils, the Swedish children's book that everybody in Rock Island had to read? Was my biological great-grandfather Swedish?
I always felt left out with a generic American heritage, among the Belgians, Greeks, Swedes, Germans, Jews, and Estonians in my class. Maybe I had a heritage after all!
A few more, conflicting details from my father's older sisters, and from a elderly woman at Christmas dinner one year who said she was Aunt Nora's aunt.
2. Or his name was Stephens, he was 27, and Ida was 23 years old, a "spinster." When she became pregnant in 1897, he ran away, but sent her money from Manitoba. Ida returned to the reservation to raise her daughter.
3. Or his name was Nels. When Ida became pregnant, her father thought that she had been dishonored, and paid some thugs to get revenge. Nels was never seen again. Maybe he left town. Maybe he was murdered: every year on March 3rd, the day Nel disappeared, Ida took a bouquet of flowers out into the woods.
Whatever his name was, everyone agreed that he was as as beautiful as the day, with dark wavy hair like Valentino, a voice like Caruso, and the physique of a Charles Atlas. Most of the girls in town were in love with him, and he was in love with most of them.
I didn't see much of a gay connection in this story, but the "forbidden romance" angle is always queer -- white-Indian relations were a criminal offense in some states in the 1890s. And I was interested in the "beautiful as the day" Nilson/Stephen.
Besides, he was my biological great-grandfather.
But when I started researching family genealogy, I came to a dead end.
First, there is no Potawatomie reservation near Howe, Indiana (it turns out that my Indian "grandmother" was one of Aunt Nora's relatives by marriage.)
Second, I found great-grandmother Ida and her parents on census rolls and gedcoms, but no combination of Nils, Nilson, Nelson, Neal, or Stephen first and last names.
Which makes sense, I suppose. If he was a student at the military academy, his home would have been somewhere else, maybe out of state.
And I couldn't search his final destination, the entire province of Manitoba. Dead end.
A few days ago, I decided to try again, and keyed in various combinations of Nilson, Nelson, Stephenson, and so on into Google Books, along with Manitoba.
I found someone named Nels Stephenson building an opera house in Manitiwoc, Wisconsin in 1899, two years after my great-grandfather left town or was murdered. The right time period, and the names are close enough to match. His business partner was William Brandt.
Could that be a gay connection?
William Brandt doesn't appear in Manitiwoc census records, or in the newspaper before 1899. Not a Wisconsin native.
But when I checked the records of Howe, Indiana, there he was! William Brandt, born in Lagrange County, about ten miles away, in 1870.
William Brandt and great-grandfather Nels left town together. Nels may not even have known that Ida was pregnant.
"Why, Billy, what do you mean?"
"Ida's father found out about your romance, and he paid some thugs to kill you. I have a carriage waiting-- we have to run away, tonight."
"Well, of course. You don't think I'd let you go out to the Wild West by yourself? And miss out on all that fun?"
"But your job at the opera house?"
"There will be other opera houses. Now get packed -- we have to go!"
A version of this story with nude photos is on Tales of West Hollywood.