A Personal Connection with the History of Northern

On this blog, we often discuss the genealogical resources that we have for researching ancestors who went to Northern. This week, I thought that I would share my own personal connection to Northern’s history.

The same road trip that led to my attending Northern sparked my interest in genealogy. The summer after my junior year of high school, my family took a trip to the Upper Peninsula, including to Marquette, where I visited NMU. We also stopped in Newberry, where my grandmother lived in her early childhood. My dad had visited other relatives and family friends in Newberry as a child, but he had no idea where exactly my grandmother’s family had lived. With foolish, youthful confidence, I told my dad that I could figure it out by simply googling it.

It turned out that I was very, very wrong about that–not everything is on the Internet. However, in the process of failing to find deeds or plat maps online, I discovered census records and other records of my grandmother’s family, and I was hooked. I would eventually find out where my grandmother had lived, but only a year later when I begged my parents to stop at the library in Newberry on the way to Marquette for my orientation at Northern so that I could look at plat maps.

Several months later, after my first semester at Northern, I was at a family Christmas party at my aunt’s house. She told me that she had a photo album of old family photos that I had never seen before. I was shocked to discover a photo of my great-grandmother with the caption “Ellen Erickson with friends at State Normal College, now Northern, in Marquette, MI, Summer 1916-1917.” I had absolutely no idea that my great-grandmother had gone to Northern.

nsns photo

The photo discussed above. My great-grandmother, Ellen Erickson, is the one on the right.

Growing up, I was told stories about how my great-grandmother worked as a schoolteacher in logging camps in the UP. Later, after her husband died in 1947, she went to Eastern Michigan University and proceeded to teach history and English even after she went blind in her nineties! However, everyone in the family who I asked about it believed that when she taught in the logging camps she had no education past high school.

My aunt’s scrapbook contained two other photos of Ellen’s time at Northern:

lake superior

Here we see Ellen Erickson, on the right, in what I think is Lake Superior.

everett visit

Original caption: “Everett Erickson visits his sister Ellen at school.”

The photo album also provided some evidence for the stories that Ellen Erickson had told her grandchildren about teaching in the logging camps. Here we see her “with school class at Camp 7, Newberry, MI, 1916-1917.”

teaching at camp

It just so happened that I had started working at the Central UP and NMU Archives about a month before that fateful family Christmas party. As soon as I returned to Northern, I began looking for any trace of Ellen Erickson in our records…and was surprised to find absolutely nothing. Frustrated but not ready to give up, I contacted the registrar’s office to find out if there was a transcript for an Ellen Erickson…and there it was!


It turned out that the reason why Ellen couldn’t be found in yearbooks, the school newspaper, or Northern directories was that she had only attended Northern for a single summer. She had, in fact, taught for a few years after high school before deciding to seek formal teacher certification by taking classes at Northern during the summers. This was fairly typical for UP schoolteachers at the time. However, by the following summer, she had married Asa Van DeCar, a young man from the Detroit area who had moved north to work in the logging camps in Newberry. As a result, she did not return to Northern the next summer and did not teach for almost the next thirty years until Asa’s death.

Do you have ancestors who attended Northern and/or lived in the Upper Peninsula? Contact us to find out if we have records that could help you in your genealogical endeavors, and be sure to check out the Genealogical Resources page on our website!

Written by Annika Peterson


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