Chapter 54 – The Stavanger And Hordaland Colony In Central Iowa

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Chapter 54

The Stavanger And Hordaland Colony In Central Iowa

Old Fox River in Illinois has always been the great gathering place for emigrants from Stavanger, Hordaland, and Hardanger. In the forties and fifties many hundreds of these came hither every year. But Fox River was only the portal to America. They stopped here for a short time and worked for their acquaintance, whereupon they later journeyed farther west in order to found their own homes.
Among these early immigrants may be mentioned the brothers Sheldahl. Their names are Lars, Rasmus, Erik, Haldor, and Osmund Sheldahl. They were sons of a bailiff (lensmand) in Norway and all were school teachers. They went to America in 1846 and became leading men in Illinois and Iowa among the people from their home districts, and they did much to promote emigration. Another man, also from Etna, who deserves to be mentioned, is Torkel Henryson, who occupies a position of special esteem among his fellow countrymen in the vicinity of Story City, Iowa. In 1847 he, together with Lars Sheldahl, and on the encouragement of the Sheldahl brothers, organized an emigration society of 165 persons, hired a ship, the “Kong Sverre” on his own account in Bergen, and arrived safe and sound in New York.
One of the leading men in the Lisbon and Fox River colony in Illinois in the fifties was Erik Nilson, the first to emigrate from Sigdal. Although he was one of the very few from the east country in Norway, in this large settlement of people from the west country, he was by no means the only one. Old pioneers in various places in Iowa and Illinois remember, with cordial affection, his genial and cheerful character and great helpfulness. He was an enlightened and experienced man, and he was well-to-do and became poor more than once through his willingness to help needy fellow countrymen. But he was none the less cheerful. Nor did his need ever become so great, nor his house so crowded, but that he made room, with board and lodging, for a homesick immigrant. He gave them food and shelter and good advice and shared his work and his shillings with them. He was a good man to discover in a strange land. (Poem omitted)
When one ship load after another of people from Stavanger and Hordaland were dumped down on the prairie at Lisbon, times soon became hard. The prices on land went up, and hundreds of poor and bewildered immigrants went about discouraged and without work. In Norway they had heard that in America, “Where tea and coffee and milk and cream are sufficient to flood the colonists; where pork and wheat are daily bread, there every man is cradled in the lap of luck.”
Now they found out that conditions in America could be fully as strait as in Norway and even more so. They then regretted bitterly that they had permitted Mammon’s empty promise to tempt them to leave the estates of their fathers. There they had the one thing needful in rich measure; what more was lacking?
Then Erik Nilson told them about Iowa’s wide expanses. “There, beyond the Mississippi River, lies a land as rich as Egypt’s flesh pots,” he said. “There are billowing plains with here a river or a grove. The hills are as fertile as the Mount Of Olives, and the lowlands as rich as the meadows of Goshen. And the land is so large than one could place all of Norway, with Buskerud, Hordaland and Finmark both crosswise and lengthwise in it and still have room for mountain pastures on all sides. Go there and obtain land, as there are as yet hardly any settlers.”
This was advice which had pith and substance to it. It was weighed and discussed endlessly, for in the beginning, the idea found little adherence. “Go to Iowa! What an insane idea! Did not the large rainless desert begin on the other side of the Mississippi River, where there are only cactuses, rattlesnakes, and volcanic mountains? That would be only to tempt Providence. Better than that would be to go back to Norway.” Others, on the contrary, were of the opinion that the extent of the desert was not so great after all. It undoubtedly did not begin before one arrived at the other big river, which was called the Missouri River, where the water ran yellow and muddy from all the fine sand, which the hurricanes of the desert blew into it. Moreover, would not Erik Nilson know; for had he not been all the way to California?
This view of the affair received unexpected support by the chance arrival of Nils Olson Naes, a lay preacher, who had been in northeastern Iowa. He related that there was a superabundance of both forest and prairie land, which could be bought from the Government for $1.25 per acre. After weighty and extended discussions, it was agreed to send four men to inspect the land and also to give them power of attorney to buy a tract of land, in case it was suitable for agriculture.
The Haugians ( a low church group, with pietistic tendencies) took no part in this. Elling Eielsen, who did not like to see his large congregation at Fox River weakened by emigration, expressed the opinion that such unsteady desire to wander and desire for worldly gain was only an outcropping of the old heathen Viking blood. He warned against tempting the Lord by resorting to the wilderness, where, far removed from the loving communion with the believers and with those rich in grace, the faith of their childhood might suffer wreckage. Fallen to the lusts of the flesh and to Mammon’s greed, they would be surrendered to the devil, who goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.
The four men, who were sent out, were Osmund Sheldahl, Ole Fatland, Ole Apland, and Osmund Johnson. Osmund Sheldahl later became the new settlement’s minister of many years standing. They started on the 24th of September, 1854. In those days the California trail crossed Iowa from Davenport to Omaha, strewn with thousands of remains from the forced marches of the gold diggers. They followed this trail, on the advice of Erik Nilson. They made rapid progress in a light buggy over this road till they came to Story County. Here they found a superabundance of all sorts of good land. They selected what they wished, and then they went to Des Moines, where papers were issued to them by the Government Land Office. Four weeks after their departure they were back in Lisbon.
Expectation was great when the people heard that the four emissaries had returned. All at once these rose to an eminence a head higher than all other men in the settlement. A meeting was immediately called, and the composed and sensible Osmund Sheldahl acted as chairman.
“We have carried out our mission,” he said, “and found a region which surpasses our greatest expectations in beauty and fertility. There are smooth, sunlit hills, but no stones; and rich, juicy meadows, but no floods. There is good water and sheltering woods along all water courses. It is surely a land which, like Caleb’s Canaan, flows with milk and honey. But, unlike yon lauded land, we have here no enemies to fear. There were dark Jebusites and Amasites and the large sons of Anak, who barred the way for God’s chosen people. There were here indeed at one time perhaps red Indians galloping in the hunt after the big buffaloes, but now they have departed for distant hunting grounds. Now the land lies quiet and inviolate and waiting for us. Brothers, it is a land which the Lord has prepared for us. We came from Norway’s mountain nooks, where we had to break the ground on stony tracts and on steep slopes between floods and slides and where our pastures lay in the shadow of glaciers. Now we can stretch our limbs in an easy walk with plow or scythe, and the rich soil will richly reward our labors. And we have obtained papers from the Government, whereby our right to the land is secured for all time.”
Ole Fatland and Ole Apland fully agreed to this. Osmund Johnson on the other hand was a little doubtful. While he would not deny the correctness of what Sheldahl had said, he would nevertheless doubt that the land ever would be settled that far west. It was after all 300 miles from Lisbon. It would in any case take four or five hundred years. In the meantime there would not be any railroad, and it would be a long time before any kind of Government and civilized manners would find their way that far. He believed, therefore, that he would not go.
The winter passed quickly with all sorts of expectant preparations. Among other things, those who made preparations to go to Iowa organized a congregation. As an expression of its great expectations, it was called the Palestine congregation. Ole Anfinsen was chosen minister, Erik Sheldahl was chosen precenter (klokker), and K. A Bauge was chosen teacher. The following, with their families, joined the congregation and went along on the trip:

Ole Anfinsen, Ole Apland, K. A. Bauge, Knut Ersland, Severt Gravdahl, Ole Fatland, Ole Hauge, Torbjorn Hauge, Ole Heggen, Salve Heggen, Christian Heggen, Engebret Heggen, Barney Hill, Axel Larsen, Torger Olson, Erik Sheldahl, Osmund Sheldahl, John Severson, Lars Tesdahl, Ivar Tvedt, Guro Shaw, and Wier Weeks.

There is only another instance, the Heernhuter congregation at Ephraim, Wisconsin, in the history of the Norwegian people in this county, where an entire congregation, with a minister in the van, has thus migrated. It is also one of the largest groups which as set out to clear new land.
Finally the day dawned, which had been decided upon as the day of departure, the 17th of May, 1855. They were then all gathered on Holderman’s prairie, half way between Lisbon and the Fox River, ready to move. The company consisted of 106 people, 25 teams of oxen and horses, together with a large number of cattle. They broke up with many wishes of good luck and well-being on the part of the large crowd which had gathered to bid them farewell.
Smoothly and quietly they moved on, with their thoughts full of plans for their future homes. The children especially thought it was a glorious trip, as they drove the cattle day after day and saw changing scenes. They rested three Sundays on the trip; and each Sunday they conducted divine services in the open. On the 7th of June they reached their destination.
Many an adventurous train has winged its way over the western plains; zealous and patient Jesuit missionaries proclaiming Virgin Mary’s mother love for the red sons of the prairie; ambitious Spaniards seeking a short passage to India’s pearls; fearless discoverers; intriguing politicians, and fool-hardy adventurers. Only nine years before our immigrants, Brigham Young and his company journeyed the same way, with fanatical dreams about a priestly empire on the other side of the mountains. Only five years before, there stormed over the same path a continuous army of excited men towards California’s distant valleys with the thirst of gold in their hearts, while back of them, like blood-thirsty hawkers, followed sly gamblers and daring criminals. At the very same time armed men rode off to Nebraska and Kansas in order, by murder and lawlessness, to maintain the stand taken by their parties on slavery or not slavery.
How different was not this company of Norwegian pioneers? These did not set out for the purpose of subjecting new kingdoms, dig the alluring gold, nor by force and intrigue to procure political power. Their goal was to open a way and build a settlement, till the soil, and make the wilderness blossom like the rose. The minister rode at the head, who, with a Bible in his hand, pointed from the temporal to the eternal. Their swords were mattocks and their spears were sickles. Their chests admittedly were empty of fine clothes, golden ornaments and weapons. Instead there were to be found only sacks of barley and wheat, oats and corn. But the little seed, which these pioneers brought along, has grown into a large field of grain, which now furnishes sustenance for millions. Each year Iowa’s crops represent more than double the value of all our country’s world-famous gold and silver mines, and the year’s corn crop alone would easily be able to pay off the national debt of half a dozen European countries.
This was the beginning of the so-called Southern Settlement, which is situated in the vicinity of Cambridge and Slater. Here dwell now about 3000 very well-to-do countrymen. The greater number of Norwegians in this part of the State, however, live about 25 miles farther north, in the so-called Northern Settlement, which begins east of Roland and extends far west of Jewell Junction, including large parts of Story, Hamilton, and Hardin Counties. Here dwell now more than 9000 Norwegian people; and the beginning of this settlement is as follows.
When the Haugians at Lisbon heard about the beautiful land in Iowa and how easy it was to get a hold of, they, too, decided to seek their fortune there. But to do all things in proper order and be doubly sure, they chose eight men to go out and investigate conditions. These men were Jonas Duea, Mons Grove, Jacob E. Aske, John N. Tarvestad, Paul Thompson, Lars Sheldahl, Ole Eino, and John Mehuus. These started out in the spring of 1855, soon after the large company under Osmund Sheldahl, and found excellent land on the prairie, where the town of Roland is situated.
Many pioneers out there have wondered why this second group did not go to the southern part of Story County, where their countrymen from Lisbon had settled the same year. The soil is of the same quality, and the vast spaces were as yet unoccupied. There would have then been formed a continuous Norwegian settlement instead of, as now, two. The reason, however, is not difficult to understand. The first group was Synod-Lutheran, while the other was Haugian. Moved by the same kind of cordial love which separated Lot and Abraham, and with thoughts of peace in matters of the church, they put a distance of 25 miles between them.
A large company, of which most were Haugians, now made preparations to go to Roland the next year. However, there were two men who already the same year moved out. These were Lars Sheldahl and Thor Hegland, and to them belongs the honor of being the very first Norwegians in this mighty colony, which now is 25 miles long and 20 miles wide and peopled by only Norwegians.
The large company, which went out the next year, consisted of the following and their families. They had 24 wagons and a couple hundred cattle

Jacob E. Aske, Hans Pederson, Rasmus E. Aske, Erik Sheldahl, Jonas Duea, Torkel Opstveit, A. B. Jacobson, Hans Tveidt, Lars Naess, John N. Tarvestad, Mikkel E. Aske, Ole Rasmussen, Sjur Brictson, Rasmus Sheldahl, Lars Hegland, Erik Sokten, Jacob Meling, Hover Thompson, Bertha Naess, and Rasmus Tungesvig.

But although they now had found excellent land at a low price, their troubles were not on that account over. The first winter out there will not soon be forgotten by the old pioneers. It was one of the worst winters that history knows anything about; and, since most of the new settlers had not procured for themselves comfortable houses, they suffered severely. The enormous masses of snow made roads almost impassable, and many a discouraged poor wretch feared that he had gone entirely astray in an ice desert. During the entire winter they had to melt snow for water for both people and stock; and when all pots and pans were full of half-melted snow, there was little warmth in the house. Once that winter, several of the pioneers set our for Marshalltown, a distance of 45 miles. Wrapped in a bearskin coat with a pair of fast horses, such a drive is not so bad, even if the snow cuts pretty sharply. But at that time there were not many fur coats in the settlement. One had to be content to wrap oneself up in all the old rages and scarfs which could be spared and depend upon body warmth. Unacquainted with the terrain as they were, they lost their way, and when night came they were force to stop on the open prairie. It was piercing cold with a northwest wind, and it was disagreeably dark. Some of them scraped snow from the ground till it was bare, and then they stood and stamped all night to keep awake. For a change they threw the sacks off and on, turned the sleigh around, and carried on other fooleries hour after hour, until the first light of morning appeared. That, however, was a joyless jest.
Later there followed the hard times which preceded the Civil War. Never has our country had such hard times as then. Marengo, a distance of 110 miles, was the nearest railroad station, and thither they often drove live hogs. But the prices were so low that it was clearly something which would cause them to lose courage. Pork was one cent a pound, butter four cents; and one had to give ten dozen eggs for a spool of thread. Calico was 25 cents and sheeting 75 cents a yard.
Another thing that reminded the pioneers that this would is really a vale of tears was the condition of the roads. Iowa’s roads are still mud trenches, on account of which the State ought to hide its face in shame. But at that time, before the land was drained, they were indescribable. About a third of Story County at that time consisted of bog, which now at a great cost have been drained. At that time the low places were most often under water, and the old pioneers relate that they generally got stuck in the mud ten to twenty times if they drove across the county. They had to carry their planks and wheat sacks across the soft marshes and then push and wriggle the wagon, with diverse appeals to various higher powers. Under such conditions it was not strange if the first love some times became a bit lukewarm. Worst were the “Skunk River bottoms” right in the middle of the settlement. Here it became routine to pay certain Hordaland men for piloting one through, the water being two to four feet deep. The passengers had to splash through afterwards. The men often had to go ahead with an axe to break the ice, while the horses struggled and pulled to the utmost.
One thing which will surprise a stranger is that there are no Norwegian place names in these large settlements. No one would know from the names of towns that Norwegians ever lived here. Skonevik, Etne, Fjeldberg, Stavanger, and Bergen are surely as pretty and useful names as Jewell Junction, Story City, McCallsburg, Ellsworth, and Radcliffe. But our Haugian pioneer had no thought for such patriotic vanity. He bustled and struggled with the mortgage, disciplined his children with conscientious zeal, and let the Yankees have their way with such nonsense as the names of towns and local politics. Doubtless he did not keep many newspapers; but then he had so much greater spiritual refreshment in the prayer meetings.