Johannes Larson Hjørnevik, seated left, the author’s great-great-grandfather. He is shown with his wife, Ingeborg, and two children, Great-grandmother Clara (middle) and Louis (standing right).
Johannes Larson Hjørnevik, seated left, the author’s great-great-grandfather. He is shown with his wife, Ingeborg, and two children, Great-grandmother Clara (middle) and Louis (standing right).
If old log cabins, antique trunks, or tombstones could talk, just imagine the stories that they could tell. The stories that are "locked" away, perhaps forever, could tell us about life as it once was. If this were true, it would make Deb Nelson Gourley’s passion much easier!

Nelson Gourley has been avidly researching her family history since 1976 when she made her first trip to Norway. Her interest in genealogy was first sparked even earlier than this when she discovered an old trunk.

"The wagon was fully loaded for the burn pile when I spotted amongst the scrap lumber the old painted trunk. I was an 8-year-old at the time and yelled above the tractor noise, ‘Where did it come from? Why does it have 1812 on it? Can I keep it?’"

"Little did I know that finding this trunk would lead to studying Norwegian, traveling throughout Norway, and researching archives to discover the identity of Astri Herbrandsdatter (the name inscribed on the trunk)," Nelson Gourley states in her recently published bilingual book, "Astri, My Astri: Norwegian Heritage Stories."

Nelson Gourley has been gathering information about her heritage for years. She had compiled a genealogy database of 10,000 or more names and was so excited that she told her sons, Alex and Ben, about it and what a great thing it was that they would be inheriting.

She said that they looked at her with unenthused expressions and basically said, "Get real, Mom, we’re not going to look through all of these names. Put it in a book so that we can read about it." And that became the impetus to compile her information into a book.

Nelson Gourley published her book this past fall. When asked what was the hardest part of writing this book, she responded, "Having to quit. I was still doing research on information that is contained in chapter two, but I had a deadline and had to get the book to the printer, so I had to stop searching and writing."

One reason for making her deadline was so that she had her books available for a book signing in Minot, N.D. She was one of the authors invited from across the United States to Høstfest — North America’s largest Scandinavian-American festival.

"It [the book signing] was 12 hours a day for four days. It was grueling, but also a lot of fun," Nelson Gourley commented.

The research of the events described in chapter two of her book stopped only temporarily. She has continued to do research into the Belmont Massacre of 1862. Her great-great-grandfather, Johannes Larson Hjørnevik, was a 2-year-old who was orphaned due to this massacre.

He was brought back to Black Hammer Township where he was raised by Lars Nilsson Ekse and his wife, Anne Eriksdatter Berdal. In 1882, Johannes married Ingeborg Nielsdatter Ekse. Both he and his wife are buried in the Black Hammer cemetery.

Nelson Gourley has also been researching other residents who lived in the Jackson Country area along the Des Moines River. She has been contacted by a Norwegian television station that is interested in possibly doing a documentary on the immigrants who lived in the area.

"I’ve been reaching out to other genealogists since these immigrants are not related to me. Everyone has been awesome to help out," Nelson Gourley explained. "This is information that is not published anywhere," she added.

In Jackson, Minn., a monument has been erected in memory of the people who were massacred by the Sioux Indians in 1857 and 1862.

On this monument are listed the names of Nelson Gourley’s great-great-grandparents, "Lars Gjornevik (Hjørnevik) and wife."

She had visited Jackson several times doing research, but it wasn’t until she came across an article published in the Worthington Daily Globe in 1979 that another very exciting piece of the puzzle was discovered.

The article told who owned the land that the cabin sat on and how it had been donated to the Jackson County Historical Society. The article went on to say "No one really knows who that settler was [who built the cabin]. Early Jackson County land records were lost in the Indian massacre that swirled around the then-new cabin. The best guess is the builder was a Norwegian immigrant named Lars. G. Jornevik.

"His was one of 23 poverty stricken Norwegian families, which came to the Des Moines River valley in 1861 seeking new homes."

What a grand discovery to find that the log cabin still stands that was more than likely built by Nelson Gourley’s great-great-great grandfather.

Even though the last name was spelled differently, it didn’t surprise Nelson Gourley because this happened because early records were lost or destroyed or given a more "American" spelling.

Nelson Gourley is very excited that the Minnesota Historical Society is interested in nominating this cabin for the National Historic Register.

Nelson Gourley’s book contains 16 stories that are written in English and then Norwegian. "To have a true heritage book, it needed to be bilingual," Nelson Gourley said.

"I used a lot of Norwegian words in the English text so that the book would have a heritage flavor," she added.

Two of the stories were written in Norwegian and had to be translated to English. The other 14 stories, Nelson Gourley wrote and they had to be translated into Norwegian.

The translations were done by Vigdis Sundsvold and James Skurdall. The translation was a vital part of the book and very important. Some universities and colleges are using the book as a language textbook.

The book also contains 24 full color pages plus over 350 pictures, charts, and maps through out the text.

Nelson Gourley continues to research her family’s history. "My mother, Char Nelson, has been my sidekick all these years. She has always been so helpful and supportive," Nelson Gourley remarked.

Nelson Gourley grew up on the 150-year-old family farm in Amherst, Minn. She currently resides in Waukon with her two sons.

Her book can be purchased at the Spring Grove Public Library for $21.35. A portion of the proceeds from books purchased at the library will go to the library.

Information about her latest research, how to begin researching your own family history, and much more can be found on her website:

Nelson Gourley also would like to help others who have boxes of information of their ancestors by helping them organize it, begin research and start a pedigree chart.