Eric’s Genealogy – Who am I to Native America?


The following piece, titled Finding Some Roots, was written in 2012 as a result of a genealogy project for my work in Native American Studies. The intention of this intimate look into my family’s past was to situate myself with Native America. One’s family past directly influences one’s place in the present moment, one’s standpoint in the world.

I do not know many details about my family’s historical relationship to Native America, but I do know that we were necessarily a part of the forced displacement of different Tribal groups in Minnesota and southern Oregon; my family’s wealth and privilege cannot be separated from the poverty and oppression of Native America. This realization is not meant to be taken in a manner that sees all of “Native America” as being poor and oppressed, but I cannot separate my family’s wealth, and how it has benefited my life through different means of family financial aid, from the historical systematic oppression of Native America.

For example, my mother’s family were financially successful farmers in the Red River Valley of Minnesota, and it is safe to say that our family’s valuable farmland was once the homeland of Native Peoples like the Dakota Sioux and the Ojibwe. When my mother and father moved my family out West in the early 70’s, we did so with the financial aid of my mother’s father, the successful Minnesota farmer. My mother and father bought a small farm property in the Central Point-Jackssonville area, which was home to the Takelma People. The Takelma People were one of multiple bands of Native Americans who were removed by force from their ancestral home, from what we now call the Rogue River Valley.

I was raised on my family’s small farmland in southwestern Oregon, but was not taught about the bloody ethnic cleansing that “cleared” the land for white settlers and gold miners. There was a “convenient absence” in the local education system with respect to any local Native Peoples. I learned of the history of the relationship between Native America and the Colonies, and learned this through a self-serving Western paradigm, but I learned nothing about how our government institutionally worked to destroy Native Peoples across this entire continent. I had to learn about this particular shady area of American history the hard way. Waiting until adulthood to learn the painful truth about the America’s past atrocities, the institutionalized system of death and destruction against the Native Peoples of this land, which make the present reality possible, brings a deep sense of shame and guilt about living an American lie, about pretending we don’t know what really happened on this land, about pretending not to see the blood soaked dirt our modern homes are built upon, about pretending that Christopher Columbus really did “discover America.”

I still have a lot to learn about who I am to Native America, and how this fundamental relationship affects my own unique standpoint. I’m not sure how I feel about inheriting wealth that is tainted with the crimes of the past (I’m actually deeply conflicted about this reality of my life), but I do know that having the courage to look into the past is helping me to better understand how I fit into the present, and how I am influencing the co-creation of the emerging future. This digging into the past to find some family roots is helping me to also find my place within Native America.


Finding Some Roots

This genealogy project has brought me to something that I have wanted to do for many years. I come from a family that moved far away from most of its relatives; this move happened when I was three years old. Only one of my grandparents (my mother’s father) were alive when I was born and he died two days after my fourth birthday. I remember feeling a great loss when I was very young with respect to not having a connection to my grandparents. I have wondered what my ancestors were like for many years and now I am finding out.

My parents are both still alive and live here in southern Oregon. My mother was born on April 2nd 1936 in Hendrum, Minnesota to Frank and Alice Scherfenberg. They were farmers that worked the rich soil of the Red River Valley. My father was born on May 6th 1937 in Minot, North Dakota to Myron and Clarice Peterson. They were also farmers, but worked land that was tough and not as fertile as the Red River Valley.

My grandfather Frank Scherfenberg was born on January 10th 1907 in Haven Township, Minnesota to William Frank and Martha Scherfenberg. The Scherfenbergs were farmers and Frank and his three younger brothers started to take care of the family farm when they were teenagers because their father was ill. Frank joined 4H when he was twelve. In 1926 he was awarded a trip from Sherburne County to the Minnesota State Fair where he met Alice Landro who had also won a trip to the State Fair from Norman County. After corresponding for sometime they were married in 1929. My grandmother Alice was born on November 11th 1906 in Hendrum Minnesota to Jens and Mary Landro.

Frank and Alice started farming in Haven in 1929 and then moved to Hendrum, Minnesota in 1931 where they bought Jens Landro’s farm, which was Alice’s father. At the peak of their farming they owned 1,200 acres and raised feeder cattle and grew several different types of crops. They were both active in their community and supported a missionary in Africa. Alice became ill with cancer in 1949 and passed away on October 14, 1950. Frank remarried to Marie Berg and went onto becoming very active with mission work. He served on several boards of the Bethel Indian Mission that worked on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota. He was also active with the Latin American Mission and ironically died in a motor vehicle accident while doing missionary work in Mexico on December 6th 1974.

William Frank Scherfenberg was born on March 3rd 1879 in Haven Township, Minnesota to William Conrad and Anna Scherfenberg. William Conrad Scherfenberg purchased land and was a “pioneer farmer” in the Haven Township. William Frank grew up a farmer working the land with his father and brother until he married Martha Louisa Cater. Martha was born on April 10th 1878 in Haven Township to Levi Woodbury and Kate Cater. Martha Cater grew up on a farm as well but pursued a career as a schoolteacher, and ended up teaching at several of the local schools.

William Frank and Martha were married in February 24th 1903 and bought a farm in Haven Township, Minnesota. They farmed there for many years and worked with the local Extension Service out of the St. Paul University to raise experimental crops. They were the first to grow a couple different varieties of oats and barley that were new to the area. William Frank and Martha won an award for having a “Beautiful Farm” that was given by the St. Cloud Times. William Frank also invented a free-swinging farm gate that was called “The Farmer” and appeared in a farm magazine. They were both very active in their community and were well respected by their peers. Martha passed away in October of 1957 and William passed on in July of 1970.

William Conrad Scherfenberg was born on September 30th 1845 in Germany. At the age of 13 he migrated to the U.S.A. and was an orphan at the time. He had older brothers in the States and was scheduled to meet one in a train depot in Chicago. There was a mix-up and the two brothers did not connect as they had planned in Chicago, so young William made his way to Sauk Rapids, Minnesota. Fighting off the fear and anger he managed to land a job working in a flourmill and ate his meals at an adjoining bakery. One day while little Willie was eating in the bakery, a young man asked to share his table with him. It turned out to be his older brother Fred that had been looking for him for the last three months. Fred did not know that this young boy was his little brother, for it had been some time since they had last seen each other.

When William was 17 he enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight Indians in the 1862 Minnesota “uprising and massacres.” (This information was taken from a book titled Sherburne County Heritage written by their Historical Society 1986, and obviously is from the Eurocentric perspective on American history.) There is very little information (within this historical book) about battle details with respect to William’s experience in the Army but it does mention that, “He and the older soldiers rode in lumber wagons as they drove the Indians into the western part of the territory.” Through ancestory.com I found William’s name connected with a battle at Big Mound, Dakota Territory on July 24th 1863. This was a battle between Sioux Indians and 1st Minnesota Cavalry, 3rd Minnesota Battery, and 6th, 7th, and 10th Minnesota Infantry that were all under the command of General H. H. Sibley. His name was not mentioned with any details with respect to this battle at Big Mound.

Anna Herterich was born on May 17th 1853 in Munich, Germany. She emigrated to the U.S. when she was 16 years old and had older brothers that were already living in here. She lived with on of her brothers in New York and taught French classes for a living. In 1875 while traveling back to Germany to visit her parents, she met William who was also returning to Germany to visit relatives. They were engaged by the time that they reached Germany and were married shortly after returning to the States.

William and Anna were well respected within their community and know to be loyal to their country. Anna apparently knitted more sweaters, socks, and scars for U.S. soldiers during World War I than any other person in the community. She was able to read and knit at the same time so this allowed her to read three or four books a week as she produced articles for the soldiers. William died in February of 1912 and Anna died in May of 1932.

Levi Woodbury Cater was born on September 5th 1847 in Barrington, New Hampshire to Joshua Otis and Louisa Cater. Levi “Wood” moved with his family to Princeton, Minnesota in 1859 and then in 1860 to the area that would be later called Haven. Wood’s parents bought a farm in Haven and worked it with very few tools and without any machinery. When Wood was only 16 years old he took over the family farm operations and continued to buy up as much land as he could. Wood met Kate Flavilla Snow and they were married on June 16th 1877. Kate was born on April 14th 1854 in Brownville, Maine to Benjamin Flavel and Ruth Snow. When Wood and his wife Kate took over ownership of the family farm they owned over 1,000 acres of farmland.

Wood and Kate Cater were known to be generous people and often had many of the community’s children playing at their home. They were both active within their community and had a large circle of friends. Wood was partly responsible for Sherburne County being a part of the “County Option” that made his county free of alcohol, even before the times of prohibition. Kate passed away on February 20th 1933 and Wood followed her only 10 months later on December 23rd 1933.

Joshua Otis Cater was born on June 25th 1822 in Barrington, New Hampshire to Ephraim and Charlotte Cater. Joshua married Louisa Woodes (orphaned Quaker) in 1846. Joshua and three of his brothers came to Minnesota in 1856 for the summer. His brother Joe took a land claim in Princeton before they all returned to New Hampshire in the fall. In 1859 Joshua, Louisa, and their children moved to Minnesota. The traveled by train, boat, and then wagon to get to Joshua’s brothers, Joe and Martin’s farm in Princeton, Minnesota. The following year Joshua and his family moved to what is now called Haven, Minnesota and began farming for themselves. Joshua helped to organize the Township of Haven and was its first chairman. When the railroad wanted to cross his family’s land he objected and stopped the railroad’s construction for two months. After negotiating free transportation for any of the Cater family he allowed the construction to continue.

Louisa Cater passed away on June 2nd 1883 and Joshua continued to live on the farm with the help of family members until he passed on December 26th 1903. Joshua and Louisa Cater were instrumental in the forming of their community and caring for the members within their community.

In 1623 two brothers came to Plymouth from England, John and Nicholas Snow. John went to Hew Hampshire and Benjamin Flavel Snow is his descendent. Benjamin was born on October 5th 1826 in Atkinson, Maine to Tilston and Nancy Snow. Tilston was a successful farmer in Brownville, Maine and one year was the only farmer to harvest a crop and he offered to supply the rest of the community with seeds for the next season, at no charge. When Benjamin was 18 years old he purchased a farm from his father for $1,000. He worked the farm in the summer and taught school during the winter season. At the age of 24, Benjamin married Ruth Harris who was born on March 3rd 1831 to William and Mary Harris. In 1864 Benjamin joined the 7th Maine Battery and was relocated to Petersburg, Virginia. During his tour of duty during the Civil War, Ruth stayed at home and minded the farm and their six children. Benjamin was discharged from service at the end of the war in 1865. In 1868 they sold their Maine farm and moved out west to Minnesota and bought a farm in Big Lake. Benjamin taught school from 1868 through 1871 and then became the surveyor of Sherburne County, which he did for 12 years. Benjamin was also an accomplished carpenter and built a barn in 1880, which is on the Joshua Cater farm that had dove tailed beams and wooden pegs holding it together. He also built a granary and horse barn with hand-hew beams on the Levi “Wood” Cater farm. At the age of 80 he was known to be able to hold a broom handle in front of himself and be able to jump over it forwards and backwards! Ruth passed away on September 23rd 1903 and Benjamin lived on until he passed due to a sudden heart attack on December 1st 1912.

The majority of what I have written here is from my mother’s side of the family. I know very little about my father’s side and this is partly because he like me did not have the luxury of knowing three out of his four grandparents before they passed away. My father was a young man when his mother passed away after suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. He was not even sure of the date that she died, and I wonder if this is because he has blocked out this very painful part of his life. Both my father and his deceased brother became physicians and this was partly because of how their mother had suffered from an incurable disease. I have made many family contacts through this genealogy process and plan on helping my father learn about his ancestors and maybe even healing some of the painful past.

I now have a different perspective on my family. I understand my parents a little more from this process and look forward to being able to help them learn more about “who they are” and where they came from. There are some close encounters with my family’s past and Native Americans; from William Conrad Scherfenberg enlisting to fight the “Indian uprising and massacre” to Frank William Scherfenberg being a part of the conversion of Native Americans into Christians. Most of my family had been farmers for many generations some of them farmed in Norway and Germany before coming to this Land. Some of them were probably indirectly responsible for the displacement of Native Americans off their ancestral land; maybe some of them were even directly responsible for this displacement. I have many more questions about the history of my family than I did when I started this process. I am not ashamed of my ancestors for what they did, for I want to believe that they were kind-hearted people that were trying to do what they believed to be right. I am sure that many of them made mistakes along their path, just as we all have. I cannot change the past but I certainly can influence the future! Thank you for this opportunity to explore my roots through my family’s history. This experience does make me think of the “American” cultural phenomenon that could be summed up as – a convenience of not knowing where you came from. This country has a lot of skeletons in the closet and I think a lot of people would rather leave them there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *