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Berdahl Family History and Rølvaag ‘s Immigrant Trilogy
    by Kristoffer F. Paulson (Volume 27: Page 55)

Ole Edvart Rølvaag migrated to America in 1896. In 1908 he married Jennie Berdahl, whose grandfather, Johannes E. Berdahl, had come to America in 1856. The Berdahls joined with other Norwegian families in 1873 to form a caravan of eleven covered wagons that moved from Fillmore County in Minnesota to Dakota Territory. In June of that year, they arrived at a location near what is now Garretson, South Dakota, in Minnehaha County. Their four-week trek across southern Minnesota followed approximately the route that Per Hansa’s family takes in Giants in the Earth. {1} Jennie Berdahl’s father, Andrew J., and her uncle, Erick J., who made the trip with the family, homesteaded their own quarter sections in the Dakota settlement and were invaluable sources of first-hand knowledge for Rølvaag’s pioneer novels.

In an article for The Editor, Rølvaag discussed the genesis of Giants in the Earth, the first novel in his celebrated immigrant trilogy: “I had not worked very far into the material which I had assembled before I felt compelled to make a trip to South Dakota in order to get more of the air of the place. And so, late in the fall of 1923 I visited the great prairies out there, got hold of a few of the old timers and had session after session with them. At certain points I lingered longer than at others, as for example: the trekking westward; the interminably long journey to town in those early days when the railroad came no further west than Worthington, Minnesota; the impression of the virgin prairies upon the different temperaments among the immigrant pioneers; the locust plague; that terrible winter of 1880-1881.” {2}

In the same article, Rølvaag states that “some of the incidents - many of them, in fact - have actually happened; they are taken from stories told me.” {3} Some idea of the wealth of information the author was able to gather for his novels is now available with the discovery of the autobiographies of Andrew and Erick Berdahl and from Andrew’s letters to Rølvaag preserved in the Rølvaag Papers in the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. {4}

The incident that started the search into the historical background of Rølvaag’s Giants took place at the Eleven Covered Wagon Centennial in Sioux Falls in August of 1973, a gathering that celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the land-taking in Minnehaha County. A monument to the original pioneer families was dedicated on August 4 in the rural churchyard of Norway Lutheran Church, situated near Garretson. {5} Following the ceremony, I happened across the following inscription on one of the headstones in the churchyard: Josephena A. Grinde, Born 1878, Died 1888, Perished in a Storm.” During the centennial weekend, I interviewed James O. Berdahl, Jennie Rølvaag’s brother, who at the age of ninety-two presided over the celebration, and asked him about the Grinde girl and the storm of 1888. His account follows:

“I remember the storm very well. It was what we always called the January 12th storm. I wasn’t very old, but at the time my father was operating a mercantile establishment in what is now the town of Baltic, South Dakota. And that storm came, oh, around three o’clock in the afternoon in our territory. Of course I was a boy, not quite seven years old, but I remember it very well because I happened to be standing in the front of my father’s store, and the storm came just like a black cloud following close to the ground. Then, of course, when it struck the store the boxes and barrels that were out on the porch began to blow away.

“The reason for the cloud being so black is that at that time nearly always there was a prairie fire during the fall after the grass dried up and the storm picked up the soot of the burned grass besides the snow that came in it.

“In our district the schoolhouse at that time was about a mile south of town. About a half mile from the school was the John Langness home. Next to his own home he had built a smaller house for hired help. Anyway, the Grinde family lived there. Andrew Grinde was a grain buyer in Baltic. The story that we got was that that day there was only this Grinde girl and one other girl in the school. The teacher, Miss Jacobson, probably saw the storm coming and dismissed the school. The other girl who lived in the opposite direction said the next day that she had run just as fast as she could and got home just before the storm struck. The teacher and the Grinde girl had started out and got caught in the storm. They were found the next day frozen together in death in a field not far from the Grinde home. They were brought into our home in Baltic to be laid out for the funeral, I remember that.

“There were so many people frozen to death in that storm, and one reason for that probably was this. For several days it had been cold and disagreeable and people hadn’t had their cattle out to water. That forenoon was a rather pleasant forenoon and it lasted until the storm struck in the middle of the afternoon. And the men were out watering their stock when it struck. Several of them in this territory were frozen to death.” {6}

James Berdahl’s account of the January 12, 1888, storm is strikingly similar to Rølvaag’s description in Giants in the Earth of the blizzard that overtakes Per Hansa, Hans Olsa, and Sam Solum on their way to get wood from the bottom land on the Sioux River:

“Some time after midday the breeze settled down into a mild south wind; the snow was growing more and more soggy under the runners; the air seemed as soft as a May day. . . .

“This lasted without change until after three o’clock. . . . But just then, chancing to glance back toward the western horizon, he caught sight of a black, billowy outline above the prairie, looming ominously against the sky. . . .

“The apparition was moving out there - came rushing forward and upward with uncanny speed. The outline had now become a dark, opaque mass. . . it writhed and swelled with life . . . it seemed to be belching up over all the sky, like sooty smoke out of a furnace.”

Earlier, Rølvaag’s description of a winter storm with sooty black clouds had always puzzled me; I had never witnessed anything like it even after many years as a resident of the Midwest, but after James Berdahl’s description of the storm of 1888, everything fell into place. Rølvaag probably received an expanded description of this storm from his father-in-law, Andrew Berdahl, and could well have used the details of the stories of the men frozen to death for his concluding chapter in Giants, in which the deaths of both Hans Olsa and Per Hansa are caused by the winter storms of 1881.

I interviewed James Berdahl again in the spring of 1975 at his home in Sioux Falls, and during the course of our conversation discovered that not only his father Andrew but also his uncle Erick had written autobiographies. Both are in English and were specifically prepared for their descendants. The manuscripts were copied by James Berdahl “without change or correction.” {7} A third manuscript, “The Beginnings of the ‘Slip Up Creek’ Settlement,” prepared for distribution at the Eleven Covered Wagon Centennial, deals exclusively with the Slip Up Creek community of original homesteaders. {8}

Giants in the Earth is not a history of the Berdahl family, but many of the actions and descriptions in the novel originated in the Berdahls’ recounting of their personal experiences on the Dakota prairies. Rølvaag’s creative imagination transformed these experiences into the powerful dramatic art of Giants that Henry Steele Cornmager has called “the most penetrating and mature depictment [sic] of the westward movement in our literature.” {9}

The autobiographies of Andrew and Erick Berdahl trace their family back to the 1750s and to the farm Berdal in Feios on the Sognefjord. Johannes Berdahl was born October 22, 1822, and married Kirsti Andersdatter Henjum in 1847. Andrew, born December 10, 1848, and Erick, August 8, 1850, were the two oldest sons. When the Johannes Berdahl family emigrated in 1856, several families hired a freight schooner to take them to Bergen from their homes on the Sognefjord. Andrew Berdahl in his autobiography recalls the first of many perils on the way to the New World: “The custom was that those leaving must be treated with farewell drams of liquor. As there were many flasks all must be tasted, and some had taken more than they should and among those was the Skipper. Out on the main Sognefjord a storm blew up towards evening, the Skipper was drunk, and no one on deck to manage the sails, father was asleep, but in the excitement and the cries that the Ship was tipping over Father awoke. Saw what was to be done, took command of the vessel and thereby saved us all from a watery grave in the fjord. Father was a man of action and had been out with fishing schooners many winters.”

After spending a few days in Bergen, the Berdahl family was assigned places on a rather old and slow sailing vessel, the Columbus. Andrew reports that neither he nor Erick was seasick, but that “Aunt Thrina was seasick on the whole voyage and mother a part of the time.” The voyage from Bergen to Quebec took eight weeks and two days. An outbreak of measles on board ran its course during the voyage, but no one was held in quarantine in Quebec. The boat proceeded to Montreal, and from there the immigrants transferred to other boats going up the Welland Canal and through the Great Lakes to Chicago. “I can remember the landing in Chicago,” Andrew continues, “the immense lot of baggage of all sorts piled up on the wharf and the commotion and anxiety of each family finding their belongings.” An interpreter was assigned to the group in Montreal, and he helped set each family on the right course when they arrived in Chicago. The Berdahls were “sent on the Illinois Central, now just finished to Galena, Ill, and then by river boat to Lansing [Iowa].”

Andrew’s autobiography describes the rest of the trip: “The accommodations for immigrants were very primitive. We were all crowded into a cattle car with our baggage with rough board benches set up along the sides of the car to sit on.

“The boatride up the Mississippi to Lansing during one night was even worse, quartered among a lot of very rough deckhands. . . . We arrived at Lansing early in the morning after about 3 months strenuous journey since leaving our old home. While I know our people those of the mature age breathed a sigh of relief and thankfulness we still had a distance of about 30 miles to go to reach the Big Canoe settlement in Winneshiek County Iowa, where father had a distant relative.”

The route and the various means of travel were typical for many immigrants and very similar to the trip Beret describes in Giants. In the novel, the author creates both the sense of the seemingly interminable passage of time and distance and the mental effects of exhaustion and anxiety. These feelings are poignantly expressed in Beret’s repeated phrases: “I will go no farther! . . . But they had kept on, just the same . . . . This wasn’t the place, either, it seemed . . . . Move on!”

The Berdahl family remained in the Big Canoe Settlement for four years; in 1860 they moved to “Norwegian Ridge” in Houston County, which was later to become Spring Grove, Minnesota. They moved again in 1866, this time to Amherst Township in Fillmore County, where Johannes bought an improved farm of 160 acres. The family remained there until 1873. A trip to survey and acquire claims had been made prior to the move to Dakota Territory in 1873.

In his account of the early Dakota settlement, Andrew gives additional details:

“After seeding was done in the spring of 1872, a party of 5 men started out to look for government land for themselves and for a number of relatives and neighbors who were without land and who wanted to move west if a satisfactory location was found.

They had two teams and carried their food and utensils and two breaking plows. Arriving in Sioux Falls, which at that time consisted of a couple of stores and a few houses, they employed Cyrus Waits, “Surveyor and Locating Agent.” He drove them to a point about ten miles northeast of Sioux Falls, where they “found a government stake near a creek which our guide said was named Slip Up.” The men in the party liked the lay of the land and decided to search no further. “Looking north from this stake we could see quite a bit of this Slip Up Creek valley, and it looked good to us for here was water in the creek and meadow land on the creek bottom and apparently fairly good soil on both sides.” The men spent two days seeking locations for individual homesteads and then drove to the land office in Vermillion to file their claims. The Slip Up Creek Settlement was to become the geographical and historical basis for the Spring Creek settlement in Giants, although Rølvaag placed the community some miles farther away from Sioux Falls.

One interesting sidelight that certainly suggests the opening chapters of Giants is in Andrew Berdahl’s account of the small group of neighbors from Fillmore County, who followed the route of the scouting party to Sioux Falls: “While we were on our way home another company of homeseekers from our neighborhood in Fillmore Co. had followed our trail to Sioux Falls and there found where we had located our claims. This company had all their belongings with them and were prepared to settle down for good on locations they might find to suit them.” This company of homesteaders consisted of the following: [the Johan J. Stokke family, the Ove Erickson family, the Andreas Pederson Nyenget family] Anton Hegge, a single man, and Lars Olson Griner or Bonrud, a young widower. These people found our claims and decided to pick their future homes next to ours. . . . While we were the first to file and do breaking in this northeastern part of Minnehaha Co. . . . the last named company became the first real settlers of this territory.”

The makeup of this first group of settlers in the Slip Up Creek Settlement is almost identical to the original community in Rølvaag’s Giants: the Per Hansa family, the Hans Olsa family, the Tonseten family, and the two bachelor Solum brothers. {10}

About the middle of May the following spring, eight covered wagons left Fillmore County in Minnesota steering for the sunset land of Dakota. Three other families joined the wagon train on the way west. The entire party consisted of 11 wagons with six pairs of horses and five ox teams, 85 head of cattle, 8 colts, 30 sheep, and many boxes of chickens tied to the wagons. The spring of 1873 was wet, and it was necessary frequently to detour around swollen swamps. The wagons often mired down, and Erick Berdahl reports that one of the teams even got stuck on the main street of Wells, Minnesota. The entire trip of approximately 250 miles took about four weeks.

Of this family experience, Erick writes in his autobiography: “There were days when we would not be able to make more than 6 or 8 miles on account of getting mired and stuck. At such places the Horses were no good. But the faithful Oxen would have to be hitched on and doubled up with as meny pairs as the occasion would need to get each load across those marshy places and they were meny and not far between.

“When we got to what was called the Little Sioux the water was over the banks covering the whole Valley and no hope of crossing with our loads as the water was to deep. So a boat was procured near by and all our stuff had to be unloaded and placed in the Boat and with about 3 of us youngsters on each side of the boat holding it from tipping as we had it heavily loaded in order not to have to make to meny trips. Most of the way we could reach bottum but the center would be over our heads where our knowledge of Swimming came in Very handy. After tying down our wagon boxes they were Freighted across as were also the cattle who all got a thorough wash.”

Perhaps the most revealing example of Rølvaag’s ability to transform the Berdahls’ matter-of-fact history into literary art is his use of the two brothers’ accounts of the women’s initial reaction to the place where they would live for the rest of their lives: “From Luverne we struck across the prairie about due west and crossed the Split Rock just below the Palisades, and arrived at Slip Up creek in the afternoon of June 18, 1873, having been about 4 weeks on the way. We made our camp just east of the creek on the land now owned by Ole J. Berdahl. . . . It was here for the first time I saw any of the mothers dispondent. Mrs. Margaret Power actually broke down and cried.” {11}

Erick Berdahl states in his autobiography: “Father had gone west ahead of us and had a Dugout Built by the time we got there, and I can well remember how sad and downhearted old Mrs. Power got when she realized that we had a place to crawl into and they had nothing but the covered wagon and did not know where they would find a place yet to start their home.”

Rølvaag took this incident of the women’s instinctive reaction to the place of settlement and created the dramatic action and realism of Beret’s first thoughts about her new home on the desolate prairie. In these passages, he interpreted the conflict, the fear, and the depression in Beret that come back to reverberate throughout the subsequent action of Giants in the Earth: “Was this the place?. . . Here! . . . Could it be possible?. . . She stole a glance at the others, at the half completed hut, then turned to look more closely at the group standing around her; and suddenly it struck her that here something was about to go wrong.”

Her thoughts dwell on the interminable emptiness of the prairie: “How will human beings be able to endure this place? she thought. Why, there isn’t even a thing that one can hide behind!” Beret’s character and Rølvaag’s theme of the cost of immigration - not just in lives but in souls - are established right at the beginning and make up the core of the novel’s psychological truth, its dramatic action, and its social and cultural themes. In the character of Beret, Rølvaag has attained to the dramatic power that he so admired in Ibsen: “The power of impregnating thought with emotions, and making psychological analysis palpitate with dramatic interest . . . the psychology and the action are inextricably interfused; the psychology is the action.” {12} In an essay for The Editor, Rølvaag states that “all the characters in my novels are of my own making; yet - not entirely, I spun their psychology, then wove it into human forms after patterns that I knew well.” {13} One of the patterns that he wove into the character of Beret was the fear of Andrew Berdahl’s wife, Karen, who continued to be “afraid to be alone and it took her a long time to be consoled and satisfied with these primitive conditions” in a sod house. {14}

Climaxing the “Land-Taking,” the first book of Giants in the Earth, is the birth of Peder Victorious on Christmas Eve. At least two children were born in the Slip Up Creek Settlement in the winter of 1873-1874, the second to Erick and Hannah Berdahl. Of this coming event, Erick writes in his autobiography: “The anticipation of my wife to become a Mother in the winter in this wilderness caused all but a pleasant feeling, but. . . all went well and a well matured and healthy baby Girl was born to us on the 13th of Dec 1873.” Erick and Hannah Berdahl had nine children in all, five of whom died in childhood.

Another aspect of immigrant life that Rølvaag certainly took from the Berdahl family history was the organization of a school and its social importance during the first winter on the prairie. In Giants, the settlers didn’t know “what might have happened to them that winter if they had not had their school to fall back on.” The Slip Up Creek settlers organized their makeshift school, both for education and as a force to combat the tedium and desolation of winter.

Erick adds this description of it: “We had also quite a few children in our Settlement that were of School age So. . . some one got the idea started that we ought to try to have a couple months school during the winter . . . .

“We had no teachers among the crowd and it was suggested that I should make the attempt and it was two months of the most interesting time I have spent in my life. . . . My wages amounted to 2.00 per week so it was not the salary that was the drawing card but we all felt better to get together in the same way that we had done in the old Stringtown School House down in Fillmore County.”

The first Norwegian pastor reached the Slip Up Creek Settlement at some time during the late summer of 1873. Neither Andrew nor Erick Berdahl recorded this event in his autobiography, but in the history of the Norway Lutheran congregation prepared for its seventy-fifth anniversary in 1949, we find this account: “Notice reached them that a pastor had arrived in the settlement and would conduct divine services. This pastor was the Rev. O. O. Sando of the Norwegian Synod who had been called to serve the Nidaros Congregation, a congregation of pioneers along the Big Sioux river which had been organized in 1868, and had been served temporarily by Rev. [Emil] Christensen of Vermillion [Yankton] until Rev. Sando, on October 22, 1873, was installed as its pastor. Although the services were held on a week day and a severe windstorm raged, every one who had received notice was present. The information is that this was Rev. Sando’s first service in Dakota Territory as it was held prior to his installation in Nidaros Congregation.” Norway Lutheran Congregation, Norsk ev. luth Norway menighed i Minnehaha Co., as it appears in the original constitution, was organized on March 23, 1874. Both Johannes and Erick Berdahl were at this meeting, and Andrew and his wife were the first additions to the new congregation. {15}

The Indian trail that runs through Per Hansa’s property plays an important part in Giants in the Earth. The main route between Pipestone and Sioux Falls followed the high ground along the Slip Up Valley, and James Berdahl recalls seeing groups of Indians, usually in wagons but sometimes on horseback, moving quietly past their farm. Rølvaag incorporated this Indian trail into Giants, inventing the camping spot on Indian Hill and the drama of Per Hansa’s courage, humanity, and knowledge of Lofoten folk-medicine which he used to cure the old chief of blood poisoning.

The grasshopper plagues between 1874 and 1878 are well known and well recorded in the histories of the Middle West, but Rølvaag seems to have taken his information and details from the Berdahls. In his autobiography, Andrew tells of his initial experiences with the locusts in the Slip Up Creek Settlement: “In July 1874 a republican territorial convention was held in Elk Point . . . . Going home from this convention on Howards 4 horse stage coach we had our first experience with a swarm of grasshoppers. We had stopped for dinner at Canton, and shortly after starting from there we met a great swarm dropping down on us just like a snow or hailstorm. As there was a little wind against us on which the hoppers were sailing to earth, the driver had his hands full to control and guide his 4 horses against the swarm. This was the first, or the vanguard of the hoppers - Colorado locusts we called them - that pestered us more or less the next four years.”

Rølvaag in Giants converted this experience with grasshoppers to the harvest of the first crop of wheat in the new settlement, but his description is similar in action and imagery:

“Just then Ole and Store-Hans came running wildly up, shouting breathlessly, ‘A Snowstorm is coming! . . . See!’

“The next moment the first wave of the weird cloud engulfed them, spewing over them its hideous, unearthly contents. The horses became uncontrollable.”

In the novel, the locusts destroy the crops in the new settlement except on Per Hansa’s higher ground, where the wheat ripens earlier. But his neighbors suffer only the physical and economic hardship of pioneering. Devastating as that is, Per Hansa’s loss is far greater, for the locusts are the final blow that destroys Beret’s mind, demolishing the dreams of the paradise he had planned to build for them in the New World.

The final chapter of Giants in the Earth, “The Great Plain Drinks the Blood of Christian Men and Is Satisfied,” takes place during the historic winter of 1880-1881. The storms of the season which cause the deaths of both Hans Olsa and Per Hansa are well recorded in the autobiographies of both Andrew and Erick Berdahl. But in this particular instance, Andrew’s letters to Rølvaag replying to the author’s questions about that winter of storms have been preserved. Rølvaag must have been revising the manuscript of Riget grundlægges during the Christmas vacation of 1924-1925. {16} In a letter to Rølvaag in December, 1924, Andrew writes that during the second week of October, 1880, he had been threshing at the farm of “Per Nordlending (Not Per Hansa, but a relative of his).” {17} On October 14, it began to rain and the threshers quit work and waited for it to stop, but instead the rain increased. By evening, it began to snow and Andrew drove home, a distance of four miles, amid the biggest flakes he had ever seen. The wagon box was more than half full by the time he reached home. Because it was the middle of October, no one thought the snow would last, and the family went to bed. At some time during the night the storm became a blizzard.

Andrew’s letter continues: “We always had some twisted hay inside. . . that we burned up during a storm and there sure was a draft in the stove the next morning. After a little breakfast I piled on my winter clothes and planned to go out to find my young stock. But it was another matter to get out of the door. The snow came so hard that I lost my breath and began to gasp for air. I didn’t dare let go of the house wall and I couldn’t see a foot in front of me. Had to come back in again. An hour or so later I tried again with the same result, but the third time I was free of the house and after many cold baths in the snow drifts I came down to Father’s where we found our young animals safe but jammed together against his barn door a little to the lee of the wind. But the smallest animals were so snowed under that they had to be dug up with a spade and a shovel. It was terribly cold and the wet mass of snow was now like the finest flour. . . . From that time on I always kept a shovel inside the house, and it often happened that winter that I had to dig myself out by taking in snow in order to force an opening to the outside. . . . Most of our potatoes were still in the ground

The beginning of May the next spring we found our potatoes in good shape, because the ground hadn’t frozen under the snowdrifts.”

Andrew goes on to say that some snow fell during the remainder of the year and in January of 1881, “but not bad enough to close the roads or the one railroad that came into Sioux Falls until the 7th of February. But then it came to a serious halt, because it snowed and blew from the east one day, and then came back from the west on the next from then on until the 4th of April. That’s when we had the last serious snowfall of the winter.”

Rølvaag included this information in the final chapter of Giants. The novel here reads like a dramatic transcription of Andrew Berdahl’s letter: “But during the winter of 1880-81 it snowed twice forty days; that was more terrible . . . . Day and night the snow fell. From the 15th of October, when it began, until after the middle of April, it seldom ceased. From the four corners of the earth it flew.”

At some time during the Christmas holidays of 1924, Rølvaag wrote for more information, and Andrew sent another long letter on January 1, 1925: “We came nowhere in February except to the neighbors and the school house . . . . As March wore on the merchants [in Sioux Falls] did not have what folks needed most, namely flour. Those who hadn’t enough flour had to grind their wheat in a coffee mill . . . . In town where people used coal for fuel, the supply ended early in the spring and they had to go to the lumberyard and when spring came all rough materials were used up and the lumber that was left sailed away during the flood. . . . We had the last and worst snowstorm on April 4. It was like a blizzard, otherwise we had no great windstorm that winter. I remember that it was Easter Week [middle of April] before the snow began to loosen and melt. Four to six feet on the level and up to 20 feet over the gulleys and hillsides. So you’d better believe there was water when it turned warm during the Easter weekend. The whole Sioux Bottom was an Ocean from Bluff to Bluff. One could see haystacks, small houses, and now and then an animal go sailing away. We didn’t get out into the fields to work until well into May.”

All of the events and information in these two letters from Andrew Berdahl correspond to descriptions and actions in Giants: the continuing snow storm that began on February 7 and went on to the culminating storm of April 4, 1881; the description of repeatedly trying to get free of the house; the increasing levels of the snowdrifts; the use of twisted hay for fuel; the varying snow conditions from huge wet grey discs to the specks that were flour-barrel fine; the account of buried potatoes recovered the next spring; and finally the description of the flood on the Sioux River. All have obviously been taken from Andrew Berdahl’s letters to form the historical basis for the action in Rølvaag’s final chapter.

Rølvaag expanded Andrew Berdahl’s mention of the necessity to grind wheat in coffee mills to include the story of the Tallaksen family who borrowed several coffee mills and ground wheat steadily for two days only to precipitate a genuine crisis in the community when their son loses one of the mills in a snowdrift on his way to return it to Tonseten. Hans Olsa goes to his death in the February 7 storm. Per Hansa tells Hans Olsa that the snow “doesn’t lie less than four feet anywhere. . . . Down near the creek, by Tonseten’s, it must be as much as twenty feet deep!” Per Hansa skis off to fetch the minister in one of the storms that continue through April 4, and his body will not be found until the snow disappears in May. Andrew could well claim with characteristic matter-of-factness that “my answers [to Rølvaag] and much that we talked about is incorporated in his “Giants in the Earth.” {18}

Andrew Berdahl was also helpful in his answers to Rølvaag during the composition of Peder Victorious and Their Fathers’ God, although that subject lies beyond the limitations of this paper. {19} Because of its emphasis on politics, Their Fathers’ God owes more perhaps to the Berdahl family history than does Peder Victorious. Both Andrew and Erick Berdahl were early active members of the Populist party, and Erick was elected to the state legislature on the Populist ticket in 1892. In his autobiography, he writes: “I was the lone Populist among 6 Republicans in our county to go to Pierre but when we got there 14 more on our side had been elected as House members.”

One major example of how Andrew Berdahl’s information influenced Rølvaag’s Their Fathers’ God is also of interest. On January 30, 1929, Andrew sent another list of replies to Rølvaag answering as many questions as he could about the years 1893 to 1895. In this letter, Andrew recalls his experiences during the dry years of the early 1890s which culminated in the drought of 1894. This misfortune is central to the plot and theme of Their Fathers’ God. The drought precipitates the action during the early chapters of the novel, but even more importantly it becomes the major symbol for the character and marriage of Peder Victorious. In fact it becomes the symbol for the empty wasteland of the soul of the immigrant who rejects his racial, cultural, and spiritual heritage. {20}

Andrew Berdahl’s answer to Rølvaag’s final question is the most startling because of its obvious influence on Their Fathers’ God. The novelist had asked whether anything unusual had happened in the years 1893, 1894, and 1895.

To this query, Andrew replied: “In June [1894] when the drought began to be serious the people read in the papers about a man somewhere in Iowa who could make it rain. They could tell of many places where he had brought a whole downpour. Requests began to come to the County Commissioners that they must hire this man. We refused to have anything to do with it. I was one of the three Commissioners.

“But a few days after our June meeting a mob of farmers from various valleys of the county met in Sioux Falls and to appease them, the Sheriff and a few businessmen guaranteed this rainmaker $200.00 to come. A message was sent to the Co. Comm. that they had to have an extra meeting to meet the guarantee. Two of us protested against this, but the 3rd voted in favor. A contract with this Swindler was written guaranteeing him $200.00 for beginning the project. And if he got a fair amount of rain within a week he’d get $400.00 more. But it didn’t work here. He couldn’t make it rain, so he only got his $200.00.

“The Commissioners from McCook and Hanson Counties came while he was doing his rainmaking and bought the rights from him for $700.00 so he had good business anyway. People can get so corrupted and foolish when they don’t believe in Almighty God.

“When I came home from the rainmaking session to Garretson there was a farmer who wanted to beat me black and blue for voting against and writing something against the rainmaking.”

The hiring of the rainmaker, an event that Rølvaag apparently knew nothing about prior to Andrew’s letter, is incorporated in the plot of the first chapter in Their Fathers’ God, “A Cloud Like a Man’s Hand.” Against the background of the drought’s devastation, the individualized discussions opposing or promoting the rainmaker reveal the personality and psychology of the characters and establish the conflicts between characters and ideas that will be developed throughout the novel. The climactic public meeting at which the rainmaker is hired provides a setting to demonstrate the will of the mob to present Peder’s potential, but as yet very immature, leadership. {21} The foundations of many conflicts are laid here in the first chapter: Norwegians versus Irish; Lutherans versus Catholics; old-world language, culture, and religion versus new-world necessity, conformity, and vision; the individual versus his several societies; and Peder versus Father Williams. The various conflicts spiral in ever-narrowing concentric circles to the tension between Peder and his wife Susie, which culminates in their violent separation. The broad outlines for the first chapter and for the foundation of the novel as a whole are all there in Andrew’s answer to Rølvaag.

It should be remembered that Jennie Berdahl became Rølvaag’s wife. Through his close relationship with her family, the novelist drew directly from the life stories of her father and her uncle. From what they told him, he wove together the threads of the whole saga of the land taking by Norwegian immigrants in the West. In so doing, he universalized the experience of many “Berdahls” who played a major part in the unfolding of Norwegian-American history and literature.

Rølvaag paid tribute to the “old-timers” from whom he drew his inspiration. Referring to his talks with these pioneers, he wrote: “At times, a feeling of awe would possess me. In a sense, I was drawing a picture of America.” {22}


<1> See Theodore Jorgenson and Nora Solum, Ole Edvart Rölvaag: A Biography, 326 (New York, 1939).

<2> O. Rølvaag, “The Genesis of the Giants,” in The Editor, August 5, 1927.

<3> Rølvaag in The Editor, August 5, 1927.

<4> I interviewed James O. Berdahl, Mrs. Rølvaag’s brother, at his home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in April, 1975. During our conversation, I discovered that his father Andrew and his uncle Erick had written autobiographies. Erick’s account of 46 pages was written in 1925 or 1926 and seems to have served as something of a model for Andrew’s later autobiography. The latter record of 29 pages was begun at least as early as 1929 and was probably completed in 1940. Andrew Berdahl also wrote a separate manuscript, “Beginnings of the ‘Slip Up Creek’ Settlement,” 14 pages in length, which deals exclusively with the Slip Up Creek community. The manuscripts, written in English, were copied by James O. Berdahl and mimeographed for distribution to family descendants. The “Beginnings of the ‘Slip Up Creek’ Settlement” was retyped, mimeographed, and distributed at the Eleven Covered Wagon Centennial in Sioux Falls, August 3-5, 1973. This pamphlet is inaccurately labeled as coming “From the Diary Account of Andrew J. Berdahl Who Came in the Caravan”; it is actually a separate section added to Andrew Berdahl’s autobiography, completed in 1940. Copies of these three typescripts have now been deposited with the Rølvaag Papers in the Norwegian-American Historical Association archives.

<5> The monument contains the following inscription:

Within Short Distance Of This Hill of Peace
Eleven Original Pioneer Families Came In 1873
To Claim The Land And To Give Us Birth

Johannes E. Berdahl Johannes Loftesness

Mrs. Lars Brandvold Mrs. Margaret Powers

C. O. Henjum Allen Powers

Synneve Henjum John Powers

Thor Hermanson Herman Wangsness

Olaus Jenson William Tobin

Placed By Their Descendants August 4, 1973
To The Glory of God And Thanks For Their Lives

Norway Lutheran Church was organized in 1874. The final frame building was completed in 1890. The church burned to the ground on May 5, 1970, and has not been rebuilt.

<6> Transcribed from my taped interview with James O. Berdahl, August 4, 1973.

<7> Quoted from James O. Berdahl’s head note on page 1 of Eirck Berdah’s autobiography. This head note records that Erick’s account was written in 1928, but James corrects this to 1925 or 1926 in the notes added at the end of Erick’s autobiography. The quotations from the manuscripts are reproduced here exactly as they appear in the typescripts.

<8> See footnote 4.

<9> Henry Steele Commoner, “The Literature of the Pioneer West,” in Minnesota History, 8:319 (March, 1942).

<10> Andrew Berdahl, “The Beginnings of the ‘Slip Up Creek’ Settlement.”

<11> Andrew Berdahl, “The Beginnings of the ‘Slip Up Creek’ Settlement.”

<12> This quotation is taken from one of Rø lvaag’s lectures on Ibsen, titled “Ibsen as the Great Dramatic Artist,” in the Rølvaag Papers. The context of the quotation is his discussion of A Doll’s House and specifically the last half of the third act: “The point was reached where Nora and Helper sat down, one on each side of the table, with the lamp between them; now they were to make up the account of their matrimonial bankruptcy. And from that point on, the drama seized and held me as in a vise, and every phrase of Norm’s speech over her dead dreams, her lost illusions, thrilled me with an emotion such as I had never before experienced in the theater.”

<13> Rølvaag, in The Editor, August 5, 1927.

<14> James O. Berdahl confirmed the fact that his mother was never really reconciled to pioneer life, and he, too, thought that Karen Olin Berdahl was one of the “patterns” that Rølvaag wove into the character of Beret. Interview with James O. Berdahl, April, 1975.

<15> Norway Lutheran Congregation: 1874 -1949, published for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the congregation. A copy of this publication has been deposited in the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

<16> I de age was published in 1924 and Riget grundlægges in 1925. Jorgenson and Solum state that Rølvaag checked the entire manuscript, presumably of both volumes, as it came from the typist, while he was in Oslo in July, 1924. See Jorgenson and Solum, Ole Edvart Rølvaag, 343. But Rølvaag must have made substantial revisions or additions to the manuscript of Riget grundlægges during the winter of 1924-1925, for Andrew Berdahl’s answers to him in December, 1924, and January, 1925, have obviously been incorporated into the last chapter of Riget grundlægges.

<17> Andrew Berdahl to Rølvaag, December 3, 1924. All quotations from Andrew’s letters were translated from the Norwegian by Vibeke Arntzen and Kristoffer Paulson.

<18> Andrew Berdahl to Mrs. O. E. Rølvaag, January 15, 1936, five years after the author’s death. In this letter, written in English, Andrew stated that he was enclosing all the Rølvaag letters he could find: “Had many letters with questions about pioneer times. . . . I am jotting down a sort of Biography of myself and family at intervals when I feel like it.”

<19> See particularly the letters from Andrew Berdahl to Rølvaag dated January 11, 22, 1927; May 21, 1928; January 30, September 25, 1929.

<20> See my article “Rølvaag as Prophet: The Tragedy of Americanization,” in Ole Rølvaag: Artist and Cultural Leader edited by Gerald Thorson, 57-64 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1975). See also Harold P. Simonson, The Closed Frontier: Studies in American Literary Tragedy, 92 (New York, 1970).

<21> See Jorgenson and Solum, Ole Edvart Rølvaag, 417.

<22> In The Editor, August 5, 1927.

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