Ole Larson's Folks

Smith Larson, WWI Vet

Seeking Private Larson – Part 1

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Smith Larson was born 22 April 1877, the second (surviving) child of Ole Larson and Anne Samuelsdatter. His elder sister Louise (Aunt Lucy) was very fond of him throughout his life.

1898 Larson bros

He was an amateur photographer, taking up the hobby in the early days of the Brownie camera (190-something). He claimed a North Dakota homestead in 1909, along with the three other brothers pictured above. The “famous” photo below, of the first homestead shack, *may* have been taken by Smith.

The Shack, c. 1910, clarified

It is not clear how much time, if any, Smith spent on the homestead after “proving up.” According to cousin Larry Larson, Isaac’s home, where he raised his five sons including my father, was located on Smith’s original claim. Smith never married, had no children, and died on 22 January, 1922, age 45. Cousin Aline published this portrait of Smith in her book, “Larsons and Slettens 1985.” Please pardon the poor reproduction.

1917 Smith

As a caption, there is only his name, birth and death dates, and “Merchant Marines.” But look closely at the insignia on his uniform cap. Next, we analyze the few tantalizing facts I learned on my Wisconsin trip in June, 2009.

Seeking Private Larson – Part 2

Saturday, August 1st, 2009

The inscription on Smith Larson’s gravestone at Brush Creek Cemetery reads: “Pvt. Smith Larson, 18th Co. 5th Reg., U.S.M.C. 1877-1922. The only artwork on the stone is a copper relief of the U.S. Marine Corps insignia, the same as seen on Smith’s uniform cap. At the base of the stone is a metal receptacle that holds a small U.S. flag on a wooden pole (about which more in a moment).

Smith's stone

So far, I have uncovered no details of Smith’s military service, and precious little else about his life. He was about 21 years old (prime military age) at the beginning of the Spanish-American war, making it seem likely that he served in that conflict, in which the Marines played key roles.

However, I learned that the 5th division was only first formed in 1917, as the US prepared to enter World War I. In fact, the “Fighting 5th,” as they were nicknamed, earned great fame and many awards on the battlefields of France. The interesting thing about that is, Smith Larson was over 40 years old by then. Indeed, there is an error on his gravestone; he was born not in 1877, but 14 April 1876. Could it be that he was eager to enlist (or re-enlist), but there was an age limit of 40, making it necessary to fib?

Still Seeking Private Larson

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

A “bolt from the blue” came from cousin Carmen Stifstad. She has about a dozen picture postcards from Smith Larson to her mother, Mabel Johnson. Mabel was in turn the granddaughter of Kari Larsdatter Nesseth (who was sister to Ole Larson, but whom Aline and the rest of us had not known about until the 1980′s).

This was my first inkling of any contact between Ole Larson’s family and that of Kari Larsdatter. Also the first I knew about Smith writing to anyone. Smith and Mabel were first cousins, once removed (Mabel’s mother, Randine Nesseth Johnson, was his first cousin). The cards were sent between 1906 and 1910, when Smith was 30-34 years old. Here are some observations:

She would have been a young girl of 10-12 years of age and must have been thrilled to get mail from such far away places.  They don’t reveal much, but do give us an idea of where he was from 1906 to 1908.

March, 1906   Nevada
July 1906 – Mare Island, CA
March, 1907   Mare Island and Riverside, CA;
April, 1907     Santa Barbara    May, 1907 will be leaving Santa
Barbara soon
August 1907    Punta Arenal (not sure of spelling on that one)
April, May 1908  Bremerton, WA
July 1908      Honolulu  – leaving for Panama
Sept 1908     due to arrive in ‘Frisco’ (card mailed there)
1910 ( not sure of location in Washington)  18 days before leaving
for home
There isn’t much room for personal notes, so he doesn’t give a lot
of info about what he’s doing, etc.

After comparing Smith’s uniform in the previous post with other pictures on the Internet, I am sure it is from WWI, not earlier. Another detail I picked up early on was, that he lost a leg with gangrene (or “blood poisoning”) at some point before his death. I am extremely curious whether that had something to do with the “Great War.”

Smith Larson first hits

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

I found Smith Larson in the 1910 and 1920 US censuses, both times in rather surprising circumstances. Wish I’d have thought of those censuses earlier.  I also found a fragmentary outline of his military career in over 50 monthly “muster rosters” of the US Marine Corps. There are some extensive details on combat action, medical issues, etc. in these rosters, but they are severely abbreviated, and need more study. There are also some crucial missing months.

Finally, but  far from least, I found a concise “digest” of his Marine service, in a surprising place:

North Dakota Military Men, 1917-1918

Roster of the Men and Women who served in the Army or Naval Service (including the Marine Corps) of the United States or its Allies from the State of North Dakota in the World War, 1917-1918 Volume 3 Larkee to Rice

Name: Smith Larson
Army #: 154,280
Registrant: no, over age
Birth Place: Ontario, Wis.
Birth Date: 22 Apr 1877
Parent’s Origin: of Norwegian parents
Occupation: farmer
Comment: enlisted in the Marine Corps at St. Paul, Minn., on April 23, 1918; sent to Parris Island, S. C.; served in Company A, 3rd Casual Battalion, to June 30, 1918; arrived in France, July 8, 1918; served in Replacement Battalion, to July 21, 1919; returned to Quantico, Va., Aug. 1, 1919, and served there to discharge. Grade: Private 1st Class, April 1, 1919. Engagements: Marbache Sector; St. Mihiel Offensive. Discharged at Quantico, Va., on Aug. 21, 1919, as a Private 1st Class. Previous military record: U. S. Marine Corps from March 27, 1906, to March 26, 1910. Died at LaCrosse, Wis., on Jan. 21, 1922; burial, Ontario, Wis.

I say “surprising,” because even though Smith was one of the four Larson homesteaders in ND c. 1909, It would appear that he was not as firmly rooted there as his brothers Axel, Isaac, and Oscar. You will also note that there is no mention of North Dakota in the above article. However, there is a tantalizing clue in the 1920 census.

Smith Larson in 1910 and 1920

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

Let us examine Smith’s whereabouts at the US censuses of 1910 and 1920. You may recall from the previous post that Smith was discharged from his first (4-year) tour with the Marines in May of 1910. And from the post before that, that he wrote to Mabel Johnson in that year from somewhere in Washington state that he was “leaving for home” in 18 days. But where would that home be? Well, the census of 1910 finds him in Alden Township, Polk County, Wisconsin, at the home of his cousin Louis Nesseth and family! The second indication, now of a stronger connection between the families of Ole Larson and Kari Nesseth.


You will note that the very next household (probably on the same or adjacent farm) is that of Ole Johnson and Randine Nesseth Johnson, including their daughter Mabel, the addressee of all those postcards from Smith, and another cousin, Andrew Nordgaard. His exact relationship is unknown. I’m guessing he was a relative of Ole Johnson. And look who else is there: Kari (Larsdatter) Nesseth herself, age 79.

This domicile raises another interesting question: Upon his discharge, why did Smith not go to the North Dakota homestead he had claimed the year before, along with his brothers Axel, Isaac, and Oscar?

Enough about 1910 for now. Fast-forward to 1920, after Smith’s second tour, which included combat at the “Battle of Saint Mihiel,” in the late months of World War One. This time, the census *does* find Smith in North Dakota, at the home of Axel and “Minnie” Larson.


On the same page, we find many other familiar names, including Isaac-Anna and family, several Samuelson relatives, the Mann’s, the Amundsons, and Atley Peterson.

Private Larson, preview

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

Earlier, I posted a one-paragraph “digest” of Smith Larson’s career as a US Marine, as assembled by North Dakota Military Men, 1917-1918 . The same day that I found that information, I also found several dozen “muster rolls” containing Smith’s name. These rosters were apparently produced each month by each unit. Most months the report is quite routine, and contains little or no specific information about Smith. Occasionally, though, there is considerable detail, abbreviated in ways not always easy to decipher.

Smith first enlisted on March 27, 1906. Until December 1906, he was stationed at the Navy yard at Mare Island, California. From January 1907 until April 1909, he served aboard the cruiser USS Milwaukee. Except for a couple of cruises in 1907 and 1908, partially documented in Smith’s postcards to Mabel Johnson, the Milwaukee was harbored in reserve status at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. From June 1909 until March 1910, Smith’s station was shown as the Puget Sound shipyard itself. He was discharged March 26, 1910.

Of more interest is Smith’s second enlistment, beginning April 23, 1918. World War One had been ravaging Europe for four years. A bloody trench-war stalemate had dragged on for most of that time along the Western Front, especially in France. Most of the sixteen million total war dead (military and civilian) had already been killed.

The US was only now entering the war, after pursuing a policy of isolation since the beginning. Hundreds of thousands of US Army troops, and a smaller number of Marines, were pouring into France to join an enormous offensive against the Germans’ Hindenburg Line.

In the summer of 1918, Private Larson sailed to Europe as part of the 55th Company, 2nd Batallion, 5th Regiment, to join the American Expeditionary Force. The muster roll for September 1918 is the most detailed of all. It is the “Supplemental Roll, Company ‘G,’ 5th Regiment.”

Sept. 1918

The Battle of Saint Mihiel was the first major operation of the war in which US forces took the lead. It lasted only four days, was partially successful, but the Americans suffered over 7,000 casualties (dead and wounded).  It appears that Private Larson was not wounded, but spent two days “sick in hospital” at the end of this battle, then transferred back to the “Replacement Battalion” (Repl Bn) on September 18.

According to the Ancestry.com index, Smith’s name does not appear on any rolls for the next three months. I think it is likely he returned to combat action in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, the last, longest, and bloodiest engagement for American forces in WW1. The battle lasted from September 26 until the armistice was signed on November 11. US forces lost 15,000 dead and 100,000 wounded. No doubt record-keeping was difficult or impossible in the midst of such chaos, hence the missing reports.

Another interesting and detailed roster is dated July 1919, the month Smith sailed for home. This roster is titled “Addenda Roll, AEF” (American Expeditionary Force).

July 1919

I’m guessing about a lot of these abbreviations, but it appears that the dates have to do with time Smith spent in hospital, and being transferred from one hospital to another. Note that from Sept. 17 to Sept. 24 1918, he had diagnoses of enteritis and bronchitis. Then on the 24th, “tr(ansfer?) to HT.” I don’t know what HT stands for, but let’s assume for a moment that it is at least out of hospital, and possibly back to a combat unit.

The next date, November 5, is near the end of the Argonne Forest offensive, and the diagnosis is “Exhaustion.” Another hint suggesting further combat after Smith’s first period in hospital.

Another roll from the same month (July 1919), shows Smith as part of Marine Guard Company #70. His rank is now Private First Class, and is shown “Trans(ferred?) to Camp Hosp(ital?) #85″ on July 17 (two days before sailing). No diagnosis or other information is given. He was discharged at Quantico, Virginia on August 21, 1919.

That’s all for now. Hopefully, the official military record, when it arrives, will fill in some of the blanks.

Nesseth Connections

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

A few months ago, we established that there were close connections between Smith Larson and his cousins in the Nesseth family. (So far, I have not found word of contact between any of Smith’s siblings and this branch). Smith was even listed as a member of Louis Nesseth’s household in the 1910 census. He must have taken the picture, now in Carmen Stifstad’s collection, of Kari Larsdatter (sister of Ole Larson) and her kin, also around 1910. For a larger view, click on the picture.

1910c Kari large fam (2)

In case you missed it earlier, Kari  immigrated with her husband a few years after Ole came with his mother and two other sisters. It seems that Ole’s descendants pretty much lost track of the Nesseths between Smith’s death in 1922 and the late 1980′s, when cousin Carmen and cousin Aline met.

Note the two girls standing dead-center, Grace and Ina Nesseth, daughters of Louis. Turning to the “Louise Larson” albums,

1910c Grace - Ina

The above must also be from around 1910, which would put their ages at 8 (Grace), and 10 (Ina). And those postcards they are admiring must have been sent to them from Smith on his travels as a US Marine in 1906-1910. Smith also sent cards to another young cousin, Mabel Johnson (mother of cousin Carmen). In fact, Smith was fond enough of Grace and Ina to name them as beneficiaries should he have died in the line of duty.

1908 Smith beneficiaryAnd below is another picture of Grace and Ina, looking a few years older, also from the “Louise albums.”

1916c Grace - Ina

Smith’s Obituary

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

Here’s another big piece. Huge thanks again to cousin Carmen, who located Smith Larson’s obituary from January, 1922.

1922 Smith obit

To be sure, there are some misconceptions in it, as well as some new information. “Earl, ND” is not recognized by Google maps. But we know where Smith’s ND connections are, near the hamlet of Skaar. Smith had three brothers living in that area, but no sisters there.

The new information I refer to is the timing of losing his leg: only two months before his death. Still unclear is the underlying cause of  his frequent hospitalization both in the military and later. This article speaks of “chronic heart trouble and a rare blood disease” (Leukemia? Diabetes? Some effect of poison gas?). Let’s hope the forthcoming military records have more clues. So far, from the muster records, we have mention of enteritis, bronchitis, and exhaustion. Also, Smith was older than 42 at his death, either 44 or 45, depending on which birth date is correct. One also wonders who the “several visitors” were: Larsons? Nesseths? or Marine buddies?

Here is the probate notice for Smith, which Carmen found in the archives of the same newspaper.1922 Smith probateCarmen also sent copies of three of the postcards mentioned earlier. The story is becoming clearer, but more details still promise to emerge.

Finding Private Larson

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

Perhaps I was a bit hasty to pooh-pooh the value of the packet I received from the National Archives. For one thing, it puts an end to my speculation that Smith lied about his age to enlist for WW one. It wouldn’t have worked in his case, since there was record of his first enlistment in 1906.

Enlistment document, 1906

And when “The World War” came around, it turns out that Smith was first denied reenlistment.

Appeal Telegram 1918

The appeal succeeded, as we know. With apologies to cousin Aline, who I’m sure used the best available sources, I am leaning toward this birth date of 22 April 1877, rather than the one in “Larsons and Slettens” (14 April 1876).

It also provides at least a piece of evidence (not too reliable) that Smith was actually living and farming in North Dakota prior to the war. Couple that with the statement in his obituary (even less reliable), that Smith “disposed of his farm” to reenlist, and one might look to the year 1918 for the transfer of that land to Isaac.

But that brings into question just where Isaac, Anna, and their first three sons lived until then? In some other, long-gone, house? In “Uncle Smith’s” house (why?)

Smith’s health

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

It seems that in the course of one four-day battle (perhaps more), Smith Larson went from a healthy, able-bodied Marine private, to a terminally ill veteran with an uncertain diagnosis, bouncing from one hospital to another for the 2-1/2 years until his death. Not “wounded,” though, and board-certified as “not disabled.” Hmmm. The unwritten thread running through all this is a piece of family lore asserting that Smith was a victim of poison gas. Could this be true, and suppressed in the military record? Could it even be that he was exposed to gas released by his own forces?? Just the thought of it compounds the irony of his failure to qualify for disability benefits.

Let’s put together what we’ve found so far about Smith’s medical history. From his birth on 22 April 1877, until 17 Sept. 1918 (following the WW1 Battle of St. Mihiel), no health information whatever has surfaced as of yet. That only proves how little we know. In his Marine records from 1906-1910, the full 4-year hitch, I found no medical notes other than a couple of “no sick days” at various posts. However, for the eleven months following Sept. 1918, we have a flurry of clues. First, revisiting a couple of the “muster rolls” posted earlier.

Sept. 1918

Sept. 1918

The one above shows that Smith was in combat for all four days of the St. Mihiel offensive, then on the next day “sick in hospital” for two days before transferring to Replacement Battalion on 18 Sept.

The entry below is different from most of the muster rolls, in that it details a period of several months, and seems to concentrate on medical events.

July 1919

I’ll try to translate the abbreviations; accuracy not guaranteed: 16th Company: Field Hospital #16 jd (joined?) 9/17/18 from Command, Enteritis, transferred 9/19/18 to Base Hospital #45, Base Hospital #56 jd? 9/19/18 Bronchitis, Base Hospital #45 jd? 9/19/18 Enteritis acute, transferred 9/24/18 to HT? I was thinking HT might stand for something meaning an active unit, but “Abbreviations.com” lists “Hospital Treatment” and that also makes a lot of sense.  But if that is so, it seems there would be more abbreviations about what hospital and where.

After a gap of about six weeks, we pick up the thread: Field Hospital #1 jd? 11/5/18 from Command, Exhaustion, transferred 11/5/18 to Field Hospital #16, Field Hospital #41 jd? 11/10/18 from Field Hospital #1, transferred 11/11/18, Base Hospital #59 transferred 12/14/18, sailed 7/19/19 on Kroonland, arrived 7/30/19.

If all, or even some, of those entries are hospitalization records, Smith apparently spent at least Nov. 5 to Dec. 14 staying or being transferred from hospital to hospital, and also the period of Sept. 17 to Sept. 24. The period from Sept. 24-Nov. 5, ominously, is unaccounted for. Still unknown whether Smith was hunkered down sick somewhere, or in the thick of combat  so intense that record-keeping may have broken down, in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne (the “Argonne Forest”).

There is one more hospitalization record, coming two days before Smith sailed for home. It appears on one of the muster rolls, and also on this little card.

1919 hospital order

The other document confirms that the “CH” stands for “Camp Hospital.”

Finally (well, actually dated five days earlier than above, but still the final insult), there is this finding of the disability board.

Disability board

How ironic is that? All it mentions is hemerhoids (sic), -preexisting(!) Disability denied.

On a much lower standard of reliability, we have his obituary from the LaCrosse newspaper. It states that Smith suffered from “chronic heart trouble” and “a rare blood disease.” Not very informative. Also that his leg was amputated two weeks before his death. An interesting clue, however tragic.

Perhaps more important, the obit also says Smith was “in the hospital practically all the time since his discharge.”

Smith’s Good Conduct

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

Here is a little positive note to end on. It may well be considered “too little, too late,” after he was unjustly denied disability. Several months after he was discharged (for the second time), Smith received a Good Conduct medal.

1919 Smith Good Conduct

Judging from this and other documents, the award seems to be pretty much automatic for any serviceman who served a full tour, then reenlisted at some point, as long as he committed no “offenses.” Just the same, it’s nice to find something other than sickness and hospitals in his record. I wonder if some cousin of ours still has the medal?

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