Family Background


I'd like to get something about your family background and yourself. You don't give yourself proper credit!


Well, it isn't too much.


I'd like to ask you a little bit about your family, that is your family `way back, coming to this country. Can we go into where your family came from, and where they settled in America and where you grew up?


My father and mother are Norwegians. They were born in the old country, and I've had the pleasure of going back to their birthplaces. I have a lot of relatives back there and I've had the opportunity of viewing their homes, and where they were raised.

My father was the oldest of a large family. His father was a Swede, and his mother was a Norwegian. His father was a very worldly sort of a man. My father went to sea in his early life, a boy about eleven years old. It made it very hard on my grandmother, my father's mother, because the family was in need. My father had to go to work early and help support the family.

He went to sea on sailing ships, and finally he came over to this country. He was one of the first captains on this coast at twenty years of age.

In those days they didn't have what is known as a master license or what one would call a sea captain's license. They had what was known as a Marine Insurance License. If the marine insurance companies found a man qualified, then they would issue a Marine Insurance License and insure the vessel, the crew and cargo. I still have this license.

Then my father brought over his two brothers and a sister.

My mother was raised in Norway, not too far from where my father was raised. She came from a very fine family, and was considered as well educated as far as the educational standards went at that time. I would say that she had what compared to high school education. It would be more or less like a year or so of college.


The old country custom was in those days that the girls would get married and have their own families, settle their own homes, and the boys would become heirs to the property, or the farms. There were two farms. My mother's brothers received these farms.

She came from a place called Tufta. They took the name of the place as the family name. In other words, if you wanted to locate the family and the place you would have to look for the farm name of Tufta. This was the name of the place and the name of the family.

My father came from a place called Hurum, near Drammen. It's hard to trace his family background.

My grandfather's name was Jahn Erickson, that is my father's father. My father being the oldest, his name was Edward or Edward John's son, or Edward Jahnsen. In Norway they use sen for son, and it would be J-a-h-n-s-e-n. So he was John's son Edward. So it would be Edward Johnson or Jahnsen.

He was confirmed as Edward Jahnsen in the Lutheran Church in Hurum and was naturalized as a U.S. citizen as Jahnsen. However, one of his brothers came over here and was naturalized as Jahnsen, but their children took the name of Johnson. The name Jahnsen was called Johnson, so they just took the name of Johnson. Those that went by the name of Johnson made people wonder why this first cousin of mine would be a Johnson and I would be a Jahnsen. The name means the same. There's been confusion in the family over this spelling of the name.


Did your mother meet your father in this country?


Yes. She never knew him over there. My mother wasn't a very robust type of a person. She was small and thin, but was very wiry. I don't think she weighed over ninety-eight pounds. And she was about 5' 2" or 3", but a very strong-minded person of very strong will. She was very affectionate and very lovable. I couldn't have asked for a better father or a better mother.

When she wanted to leave the old country, her brothers didn't want her to go, because she was working for them for room and board. She did not receive much in the way of money. She had to be up in the mountains to milk the cows, make the

cheese, bring it down to the lower part of the farm, and take care of the cattle. Over there it's a chore, because the cows and the cattle have to be washed and scrubbed. It had to be very well done and it was a lot of work.

The brothers said that she was sick and had TB, and couldn't come to this country. They made up all kinds of excuses to discourage her.

She made several unsuccessful attempts to leave Norway. At the time she left, she was living with an aunt on a farm called Hofsrud. This was a big farm and her auntie wasn't too well. She was staying there with her to help out on the farm. While she was there she heard that there were two girls, the Gowsen girls, who lived across the lake, and were going to America. There was another girl that was going to go with them, but she couldn't go because something developed to prevent her leaving although they had the tickets for her passage.

My mother, about eleven o'clock at night when she got the word that the other girl could not leave, she rowed a boat across the lake to the Gowsen farm. She rowed in the wintertime, in the snow and ice. She rowed over there to talk to the Gowsen girls about getting the extra ticket. She was not too well acquainted with them, but only knew who they were. She arranged to obtain this girl's ticket.

She had to borrow the money from this aunt. This meant that she had to do everything in a hurry as the ship was going to leave in a few days.

So, she had a trunk. It was a heavy thing, and how she got it loaded into this little boat and rowed back over in the ice and the snow and got over there, I'll never know. Then she had to walk up to the farm, so they came down with a wagon and took the trunk and her other belongings to the Gowsen place. The next morning they drove in to the depot and left by train, for the ship. Well, she didn't have any ticket for a berth, so she had to sleep on the deck of the vessel as an immigrant, until she arrived in New York.


She was a determined young woman.


Yes. When she came to New York the other two Gowsen girls went to Boston, and there wasn't any too much communication after that.


The Gowsen sisters later married two sea captains and finally settled back in Norway, in the same community. When I was there in '57 I visited this place and saw the pictures of these women and their husbands--they are now all dead. I talked to some of the family who verified some of this story, which was interesting to me, of course.

Following that, my mother went on from New York to Duluth, Minnesota, where she had the name and address of some Norwegian people that she could stay with. When she arrived there, she only had twenty cents, in American, in her pocketbook, and no more money. She lived with these people and worked as a housegirl.

Following this--it's rather coincidental--she met another family there in Duluth, a judge by the name of Lydell. Judge Lydell had, I think, three boys and a wife who wasn't very well, so my mother tended to her and helped her. They wanted to come out to the west coast, but she didn't. When she did come out, she located near the Lydells in Hayward.

It is a peculiar coincidence, as I say--one day when we were out driving my mother pointed out the Lydell place to me. It was on the road that runs from East 14th Street, up through Castro Valley on the old highway. This house later became a bootlegging establishment and a house of prostitution. While in the employ of the district attorney's office, I had raided that house many times and arrested the occupants for violations of the liquor and vice laws. Sixty years before, my mother used to be around there, when she was again in the employ of the Lydell family.

George Helms, who was captain of inspectors in the district attorney's office, lived a few miles from the Lydell place. The Helms' boys played with the Lydell's boys. Many years later George Helms became my immediate superior in the district attorney's office under Earl Warren. Of course he knew the Lydell family, having gone to school with the Lydell boys, and he and I had discussed this--what a small world it is.

When my mother showed me the house I said, "Well, that's nothing but a bootlegging establishment and a house of prostitution.' " Then I explained it to her and it was hard for her to believe this.

She also knew the old Soares family, whose son Joe later was chief criminal deputy in the Alameda County sheriff's office.

They lived across the road from the Lydell place. I knew Joe very well.

Later she went to San Francisco and she became associated with a lot of the Norwegian people. The old country people would get together and through these meetings she met my father. My father had been married before, and he had two children, a son and a daughter. His first wife died and he married my mother.

My mother had two sons. My full brother died just four months after my father. In August 1916 my father died, and my brother the following December.


Was that the flu epidemic?


No, it wasn't. He was a sea captain, in those days, and he was also a ship builder. Have you visited the Marines Memorial in San Francisco?


Oh, sure.


Have you ever seen the Wapama down there, that steam schooner? It is one of the vessels that he designed and supervised its construction, and several others. They are lumber carriers. The Kalamath, the Multnomah, the Cililo, the Shoshone, the Yosemite, the Cascade, the Yellowstone, the S.A. Allard, the City of Portland, and others. He was the captain of the Samoa; he took that ship to Alaska in 1898 and 1899. One of those trips they towed a large flat barge, with a river steamer on the flat barge. This was the first river boat in the Yukon. He took it up there during the mining days, during the gold rush.

Of course, as I was saying, in those days there wasn't much pleasure for these fellows, only hard work--you might say there were wooden ships and iron men. [Laughter] My father came up the hard way. Most of the men were heavy drinkers. A lot of them sailed the good ship "Rock and Rye."

My father died while he was supervising the building of two vessels in Wilson Brothers Shipyard in Astoria. While he was in the pilot's office he had a stroke and died five days later. He had his first stroke in 1914, and a second in 1915 while taking out the first ship load of piling for the Pearl Harbor dry dock in Hawaii.