A Norwegian Settlement in Missouri
By A. N. Rygg (Volume XIII: Page 108)
In 1941 Frank Nelson, an American professor of Norwegian descent, returned from Norway.
He had gone there in 1939, chiefly to take a look at a place outside of Grimstad, the town
from which his forefathers had emigrated nearly a hundred years before. While in Norway
Nelson was appointed instructor in English and American literature at the university at
Oslo, and he was serving in that capacity when the Germans invaded the country. He was
later arrested on suspicion of possessing valuable information and held imprisoned for
half a year, until he finally was released. He then returned to America, where he has been
lecturing against the Nazis.
When Professor Nelson arrived in New York, he was interviewed by Mr. Niels Tjelmeland
of Nordisk tidende (November, 1941), and at that time he told about the immigration
of his family to New Orleans and Missouri.
My father's grandfather, Georg, wanted to go to sea as a boy, but the father, Peder
Nielsen, would not give his consent. They did, however, reach a compromise to the effect
that the whole family, father, mother and six children, should immigrate to America, the
land of possibilities. And so in 1846, they went with a party of seventy-four Norwegians
to Havre, France, and from there to New Orleans. Here many of them died from yellow fever.
The rest of the party, including the Nielsen family, decided to travel north to St.
Joseph, Missouri, where they settled and raised hemp.
Nelson said that his great-grandfather kept sixteen black slaves on the farm. They were
not slaves in the ordinary sense, being paid wages, so that they could have bought
themselves free. They were so well treated that they did not care
to do that, but
when the Civil War broke out they listened to the talk about the blessings of freedom and
fled, taking with them the horses on the farm. When they returned, disillusioned, three
weeks afterward, old man Nelson chased them away.
Nelson, the pioneer, saw to it that the colony built a church surrounded by a cemetery,
but now only the cemetery is in use. It lies in a lonely place enclosed by a fence, and
occasionally a member of the family is buried there.
The Norwegian language died out in the family about sixty years ago, and Nelson, the
professor, had to learn it afresh. He was born in St. Joseph and he received his M.A.
degree from Haverford, Philadelphia, in 1931. In 1937 he was awarded the doctor's degree
at the University of California and from 1937 to 1939 he taught at the Municipal
University in Wichita, Kansas. "In 1946," said Professor Nelson, "it is our
intention to have a family reunion in St. Joseph, Missouri, and we expect about a thousand
persons. They will be asked to communicate with Miss Nora Catherine Nelson, Route 1,
Leonard Road, St. Joseph."
The group of immigrants mentioned by Professor Nelson is the one of which Johan R.
Reiersen, editor of Christianssandsposten, was the chief promoter. Reiersen came to
America in 1843 to look for good and cheap land for a number of interested persons, who
helped to defray the cost of the trip. He visited Norwegian settlements in Illinois,
Wisconsin, and Iowa, and he also was at St. Joseph, Missouri; but on his return to Norway
he seemed to favor Texas and advised the New Orleans route as the best for all emigrants
to America. In January, 1845, Reiersen, Peder Nielsen, Osuld Enge, and Anders N. Holte
placed an announcement in Christianssandsposten, with an invitation to those
interested to join a party going to America. Reiersen and some others left Norway in the
spring to act as an advance guard, while the large group, of which Peder Nielsen was a
not leave until September of the next year. Most of those who went to
New Orleans decided to ascend the Mississippi to the Missouri country.
Being unable to find any account of the settlement around St. Joseph, Missouri, in the
books available to me, I wrote to Miss Nora Catherine Nelson, who has been mentioned
earlier, and asked her for some detailed information. She kindly sent me a reprint of an
article which had appeared in the Weekly Kansas Chief of September 20, 1906. This
article contained an excellent account of a reunion held by the Norwegian pioneers and
their descendants on the sixtieth anniversary of the departure from Norway. This reunion
took place on the farm of Mrs. Gurine Nelson five miles west of Troy, Kansas, where a
similar reunion had been held ten years earlier, on the fiftieth anniversary. Troy is on
the west side of the Missouri River. Of the seventy-four emigrants who had left Norway
sixty years before, only fourteen were still living, and the following eleven of them were
present at the gathering: Tyra Nelson, Nels G. Nelson, Tomene Nelson, Christine Weddel,
Laura Stinson, Getta Hansen, Christine Albertson, Elise Del, Gurine Nelson, Grater
(Grete?) Spencer, and N. O. Nelson. The absent survivors were: Simon Simonson, Nels
Anderson, and Elise Hartman.
N. O. Nelson (Nelson Olson Nelson) from St. Louis was chairman and the central figure
at this reunion and he also is credited with being one of the originators of these
gatherings. In Norge in Amerika, page 517, there is a sketch of this remarkable man
by J. J. Skordalsvold. Nelson was two years old when he came over with his parents from
Lillesand. His father's name was Anders Nelson. He grew up on the farm of his parents,
near St. Joseph, received a fair education, and went to St. Louis when he was old enough
to shift for himself. Here he became bookkeeper for a firm in plumbing fixtures, but in
1877 he struck out for himself and started the N. O.
Nelson Manufacturing Company,
which made him well-to-do. Nelson also attracted much attention on account of his advanced
humanitarian theories and practices. He provided for vacations for poor mothers and
children of the slums; built bathhouses on the Mississippi; and gave his workingmen part
of the earnings of his factories, which were situated at Edwardsville, Illinois, a short
distance east of St. Louis. Near these factories Nelson built an ideal town for his
workingmen. He also had a factory at Bessemer, Alabama.
Nelson, who was the main speaker at the gathering, took occasion to say: "In that
early colony there was industry, helpfulness, and a full cup of innocent enjoyment. In all
the years that I lived among them, I remember but one quarrel and a single lawsuit. In
after years the merchants who gave them all the credit they wanted, said that they had
never lost a dollar. In these sixty years, if there had been among them or their children,
an arrest, or a conviction for crime, or a divorce, or a pauper, I have never heard
of it. We came from farms. Nearly all of us settled on the land, and a large majority have
remained on the land."
The following account, apparently prepared with care, of the voyage of the pioneers is
found in the reprint mentioned:
The colony set sail on the 17th of September, 1846, from Grimstad, on the extreme
southern coast of Norway, on the Louise Caroline, a 400-ton ship, and changed at Havre,
France, to the Isette, of about 500 tons. The following are the names of the adult persons
of the colony: Men--Peter Nelson, Osul Nelson, Anders Nelson, Knud Hoverson, Bernt Hanson,
Ole Halverson, Ole Bjelland, Halvor Bjelland, Osul Anderson, Osul Kittelson, Lars
Hoverson, Knud Iveland, Aanaan Iveland, Simon Simonson, Louis Nelson, Nils Knutson, Hans
Omondson, Hans Enge, Christian Halvorson, Ole Skomager, Torjes Harrabor, Gunnar Kjeland,
Jon Kjeland, Gjerold Olson. Women--Else Osterhuus, Karen Nelson, Gunhild Nelson, Gertrude
Nelson, Astrid Hoverson, Trone Hanson, Karen Halvorson, Mrs. Ole Bjelland, Maren Anderson,
Christine Hoverson, Mrs. Osul Kittelson. Children- Nels P. Nelson, George Nelson, Sarah
Nelson, Mary Christine Nelson, Laura Nelson, Elise Nelson, Gurine Nelson, Aase Nelson,
Tyra Nelson, Mary Nelson, Trine Nelson, Nels G.
Nelson, Grater [Grete?] Maria
Nelson, Nels O. Nelson, Christian Hanson, Elise Hansen, Bergetta Hanson, Aletta Halvorson,
Orilla Bergetta Nelson, Aletta Omondson, Hans Omondson, Helmar Hoversen, Edward Hoverson,
Eli Hoverson, Anne Hoverson, Christian Hoverson, Kittle Hoverson, Hover Hoverson, John
Hoverson, Andrew Hoverson, Tomine Hoverson, Anders Anderson, Gunnar Anderson, Nels
Anderson, Osul Anderson, Peter Anderson and a son and daughter of the Kittelsons, whose
names are forgotten. Some of the children were infants, and others ranged in age up to
young men and women.
The voyage lasted from September 17, 1846, to January 6, 1847, much time having been
lost in the English Channel, in making attempts to land at Havre, ten days being spent in
Ramsgate, England, and two weeks in France; but they had a smooth passage from Havre to
New Orleans. There were no deaths or sickness during the voyage. The colony was bound for
either Texas or Missouri, an agent [Reiersen] having been sent on the year
before, to select a place; and when the landing was made at New Orleans, it had not yet
been decided which state they would settle in. They arrived when the Mexican war was at
its height, the battle of Monterrey having been fought a few days before they sailed and
the battle of Buena Vista occurring a few weeks after they landed. New Orleans was the
great depot for the shipment of troops and supplies, and all was bustle and excitement.
This possibly decided them not to go to Texas. They remained in New Orleans until April 1,
and then took a steamboat for Western Missouri. On arrival, they stopped one night in
Weston, and then pushed on for St. Joseph, arriving April 14, 1847. Nine years later, in
1856, they began moving across the Missouri River into Doniphan County, Kansas, settling
on Brush creek and vicinity, in Wayne township; and in 1857 some settled at East Norway,
in Wolf River township. At this time Kansas was only a territory and had no population. It
became a state in 1861.
Not all the members of the party which had left Grimstad did reach St. Joseph, as the
following died from yellow fever during the stay in New Orleans: Osul Kittelson, wife and
boy, Knud Hoverson, Else Osterhuus, Gjerold Olson, Mrs. Ole Bjelland and son, Mrs. Trone
Hanson, Gertrude Nelson, Isette Nelson and Hans Osmondson. With respect to the Norwegian
settlers in Doniphan County the Weekly Kansas Chief had this to say:
There never was a more industrious or better class of citizens anywhere. They came here
at a time when it took courage, perseverance and hard work to make a living. They settled
on their claims and proved in a short time that they possessed all the qualities so
necessary to the pioneer. They endured the hardships without a murmur, and proved
themselves to be good, loyal, law-abiding and God-fearing people. Their sons and daughters
have followed in the footsteps of their parents and the colony is considered among the
best people in our county.
It appears from Professor O. M. Norlie's catalogue of Norwegian Lutheran congregations
that there have been some small Norwegian congregations in or near St. Joseph, Missouri.
The first was organized in 1860 and had 25 members in 1873. The last one was disbanded in
1904. Across the Missouri River, in Moray, Kansas, there were in the seventies and
eighties two Norwegian churches. The one belonging to the Conference had 117 members in
1873. In East Norway, also in Doniphan County, there was a congregation between 1871 and
1881, and in Lancaster, Atchison County, there were three congregations during the
seventies and eighties. One was called the Flekkefjord congregation, which seems to
indicate that some of the members were from that part of Norway. All these congregations
disappeared long ago, and, as Professor Nelson says, the Norwegian language vanished about
1880. In four years--on September 17, 1946--the descendants of the pioneers who left
Grimstad one hundred years before will foregather in St. Joseph, Missouri, to celebrate
<1> Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1:177 ff.