Emil Norton’s father, Johan Norgård, was born in 1870 to Swedish parents in Vasa, Finland. Their family was poor, so Johan left home when he was 16 and went to sea. He arrived in the USA later the same year, 1886, and tried to join the navy. The recruiter asked him how old he was.
“I’m 18,” replied Johan.
“Good,” said the recruiter, “what year were you born?”
“Then you’re only 16! Go home son.”
But Johan didn’t go home, he signed on to another ship for a couple of years and eventually ended up in Alaska. He was working on one of the mail boats when the captain told him that his last name, Norgård, was too hard to spell. Johan changed his name to John Norton.
In 1893, John came to Woody Island, a small island not far from the city of Kodiak, where he was offered a job as store manager/fur trapper with a salary of $15 a month. He married a Russian-Sugpiaq woman and, since he dealt primarily with native people, learned to speak fluent Alutiiq.
John and his wife had six children. When Emil, the youngest, was one year old, his mother died. The oldest girls helped raise their younger siblings.
Emil described his father as a big, strong man. One day an unusual cargo arrived at Kodiak’s harbor, large crates of gold that weighed 250-300 pounds each. John lifted a crate to his shoulder and carried it to land. Everyone watching was astounded by his strength. “The Scandinavian men came from good, hardy stock,” Emil declared.
Most of the Scandinavians that came to Kodiak were successful. They married native women and had large families, but they rarely spoke of their homeland or taught their children their own language. “The few words we did learn were swear words we picked up by eavesdropping,” says Frieda, shaking her head.
John Norton lived to be 88 years old. Emil remembers how, in his old age, his father talked in his sleep, in a language they couldn’t understand.
Emil began working when he was 14 years old. His first job was stamping fish crates for 15¢ an hour. He worked in the fishing industry for 61 years before he retired.
“Of course, you have to deduct a few years for the war,” interjects Emil. After boot camp he was sent to Italy. “We chased Germans and Italians in Northern Italy. We saw some hard battles and lost a lot of men in our battalion.”
“One day,” he continued, “I turned a corner and came eye to eye with three German soldiers. I lifted my gun and was just about to shoot, when the Germans suddenly threw down their weapons and raised their hands in surrender. I was shaking from fear and adrenalin but was so grateful that I didn’t have to shoot. I was the first in my company to take prisoners, but I didn’t get a medal.”
Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” which can be ordered from Camera Q.
At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest I will be premiering a new films about the Scandinavian-Sugpiaqs of Kodiak. See festival site for more information.