They arrived as impoverished farmers, searching for new opportunities and a new place to call home. Now, almost 200 years later, they have made an indelible mark in the Fox Valley and central Wisconsin.
On Oct. 9, 1825, a small, single-masted cargo ship, a sloop called Resturasjönen (the Restoration), arrived in New York Harbor after 98 days at sea. Aboard the overcrowded vessel were 46 passengers, including a newborn baby and seven crewmen – all Norwegians.
The passengers had left their homes and families in Stavanger, a small village of about 3,000 on Norway’s rugged southwest coast, to seek a new life of freedom and opportunity in America. Eventually calling themselves “the Sloopers,” they became the nucleus of the first permanent Norwegian settlement in this country, in the Fox River Valley in Illinois near present-day Ottawa and a town called Norway.
They were met that fall day by Cleng Peersen (Kleng Pedersen), a 42-year-old pioneer who had previously explored this new country, encouraged the arrivals to make such a journey and was about to help them settle on land he had secured for them in upstate New York.
The Sloopers’ motives for uprooting their families and undertaking such an arduous and dangerous journey were rooted in religion and economics. Less than 3% of Norway’s area was suitable for farming and nearly all the male Sloopers were farmers. After several generations of subdividing family farms to provide inheritance to male offspring, the remaining parcels were barely large enough to support a family. By 1907, the typical Norwegian farm was less than 20 acres.
Also, most of the Sloopers were Quakers, or members of an evangelical sect called Haugeans, which set them apart from the Lutheran state religion and made them targets of institutional persecution. The pacifism of the Quakers angered Norway’s military authorities.
The Restoration was a converted cargo ship, 54 feet long and 16 feet wide, with a draft of 7.5 feet. It rode low in the water like the Viking-era longships. After loading water tanks and enough food for two months, plus sailing gear and fuel for stoves, the passengers – 30 adults and 15 children – had less than 9 square feet per person for personal belongings and sleeping bunks. The ship also carried almost 6,400 pounds of Swedish iron ore intended to be sold in America for cash.
Begun on July 4, 1825, the first leg of the journey took the sloop to Cornwall, England, where the group picked up fresh water. The second leg took it southward toward the central Atlantic, presumably to find trade winds to propel the ship westward.
On July 31, the crew spotted a barnacle-encrusted cask floating in the ocean and retrieved it with some difficulty near a shark.
“The cask was found to contain a very delicious Madeira wine,” says David Johnson, board president of the Norsk Museum in Norway, Ill., and official historian for the Slooper Society. “Later, when the ship drifted into the harbor of Funchal [capitol of Madeira, Portuguese islands off the coast of northern Africa], she was without colors and apparently without command or crew, [they] being drunk and sleeping on the deck.”
Thinking the vessel was an abandoned plague ship about to infest the city, the nearby fortress prepared to blast it out of the water. When a hurried search for the Norwegian flag failed to turn up the item, “A young wife stood up on the prow and waved her bright calico underskirt to prevent the cannon from being fired,” says Johnson.
Even after being unloaded in New York, the crowded condition of the sloop created another problem. A few weeks after the immigrants’ arrival, U.S. Customs seized the ship, threw the captain and owner in jail and imposed a fine of $13,150 for having three times the number of passengers permitted on a vessel of that size.
The problem was soon settled, however, after American Quaker friends pleaded the Sloopers’ case in court and petitioned President John Quincy Adams for relief.
“Adams declared that they were all respectable people who had no idea they had broken the law and who intended to settle in uncultivated areas of the state,” says Johnson.
With further help from the Quakers, Peersen chose an area for settlement called Kendall, about 35 miles from Rochester, N.Y., near Lake Ontario and the newly opened Erie Canal. Because of the dense forests, the area was often referred to as the Black North.
The Sloopers struggled to survive in their new home, but by 1826, they had cleared only 2 acres per family to farm. Their log cabins appeared as tiny islands of people in a forest.
After years of illness, crippling debt, poor land and too many trees, the settlers dispatched Peersen to search for better land in the Midwest, the western frontier of the country at the time. In 1833, he traveled mostly by foot to the Milwaukee and Chicago regions. This was one year after the Black Hawk War in which the Sauk and Fox tribes were driven from the state of Illinois and Wisconsin territory.
Peersen followed the Fox River southwest from Chicago (then just a swampy little village) until he came to the confluence of the Fox and Illinois rivers. About 12 miles from that spot he rested under the shade of a tree and fell asleep.
During his nap, as the story goes, Peersen dreamed of a fertile landscape of thriving farms, verdant crops and abundant livestock. Taking this as a sign from God, Peersen quickly returned on foot to the Slooper settlement to report his observations. By 1834, six families had moved from Kendall to the Fox River Valley area then known as Mission. With the exception of two or three families, the rest of the Sloopers followed in the next two years.
In 1835, a Slooper named Knut Slogvik returned to Stavanger to get married. While there, he shared his firsthand experiences in the new land, which created great excitement among the Norwegians and fed their “American fever.” During the next two years, about 400 people from the Stavanger area left Norway, their general destination the Slooper settlement in Illinois. The “Great Migration” had begun!
Norwegian immigration was also encouraged by a small book published in 1837 by Ole Rennig, titled “A True Account of America for the Information and Help of Peasant and Commoner.” Filled with practical advice for the would-be immigrant, the book was dubbed the “America Book.”
“Within the next 80 years, over 800,000 Norwegians would relocate to America,” says Johnson. “That’s almost 25% of their population, a number second only to the Irish.”
While many of the original Sloopers came to America to avoid religious persecution, they didn’t abandon their need for religion. One of them, Ole Olson Hetleviet, settled in the Fox Valley in 1839. Well-educated “Bible Ole” started a parochial school and became the first Norwegian lay preacher in America. He also offered his home as a station on the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War.
Elling Eielsen was the first ordained Norwegian Lutheran minister to serve the immigrants in the Fox River Valley, initially as a circuit preacher. In 1841 he constructed the first building for Norwegian religious services in America. A log cabin, it burned down several years later. It was replaced in 1852 by the building currently housing the Norsk Museum in Norway, Ill.
The Slooper Society
The Sloopers have been honored by several commemorative events. The most important to date was the Norse-American Centennial of 1925. Held in Minneapolis, it was the largest gathering of Norwegian-Americans ever assembled. More than 84,000 people attended on one day alone. President Calvin Coolidge came from Washington on a special train and descendants of the original Sloopers were celebrated guests.
A commemorative stamp was issued by the U. S. Post Office, and a full-scale replica of the sloop Restoration was on display. The Slooper Society of America was formed as a result of the celebration. Modeled after the Mayflower Society, the organization consists of descendants of the original Sloopers and their spouses.
Their annual meetings are held on the Sunday nearest Oct. 9, the date of their arrival in 1825. Since 1964, that same date has been celebrated by presidential proclamation as Leif Erikson Day to commemorate the landings of the first Europeans on this continent in ca. 900 A.D., although the October date has nothing to do with the Viking explorer.
The annual meetings are open to the public for anyone interested in Norwegian history and culture, and are held in the Norway Community Building in Norway, Ill. The first edition of “The Sloopers: Their Ancestry and Posterity,” was published in 1961, all 668 pages of it. The book was produced by J. Hart Rosdail, the great-great-great grandson of Daniel and Bertha Rossedal, who were among the original Sloopers. After 16 years of research, the book listed the lineage of 2,050 Slooper families, 25% living within 70 miles of Norway, Ill.
“An updated edition was published in 2014,” says Johnson. “It identifies more than 15,000 descendants, living in all 50 states and abroad. Illinois still has the largest percentage of Slooper families in the U.S.”
In 1975, the 150th anniversary of the Sloopers’ arrival was celebrated in Norway, Ill., with a visit from King Olaf V of Norway. At that time he dedicated the Cleng Peersen monument to Norwegian heritage, which still stands in the cemetery south of the town.
The Sons of Norway is a fraternal organization of Norwegian Americans and has more than 400 lodges in the U.S., Canada and Norway. The Cleng Peersen lodge was formed in Ottawa in 1973. With 1,100 charter members, it became the largest lodge in the country.
“In 1977, members of the lodge purchased the former Hauge Norwegian Lutheran Church building in Norway, Ill.,” says Johnson. “Dedicated in 1852, material for the building was hauled 70 miles from Chicago by wagon and oxen. It’s an excellent example of carpentry by pioneer Norwegian craftsmen.”
After extensive renovation, the building reopened as the Norsk Museum in 1980. It includes a large collection of donated artifacts and displays which document the lives and legacy of Norwegian immigrants in the Fox Valley region. It’s open year-round by appointment to visiting groups of students, teachers and international visitors, and is open to the general public on weekends from June through September, 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.
A Slooper Descendant
Wesley Hougsted is a retired Methodist minister and resident of Rockford. He’s also a fourth-generation descendant of an original Slooper family, the Rossedals, the same family that includes the author of the “Slooper Bible,” J. Hart Rosdail.
“He’s my second cousin,” says Hougsted. “I grew up near my grandparents’ farm [John and Nellie (Rosdail) Risk] in Norway, Ill. My father, Eric Hougsted, was born in Norway. His father came to the U.S. for 6 months at a time to work as a carpenter. Then he would go back to Norway with enough money to support his family. He worked on buildings in New York City.”
Since they all came from the Stavanger area, the Hougsteds apparently knew the Rossedal family in Norway. In fact, Hougsted suspects that his mom, Florence Risk, and his dad might have been distant cousins.
Hougsted’s father came to America in 1910 when he was 19 years old and worked on Wesley’s maternal grandfather’s farm. He eventually married the eldest daughter, Florence Risk. Both his parents and grandparents are buried in the Norway cemetery where the Norwegian-American monument is.
“My grandparents belonged to a generation that didn’t talk much about their Norwegian heritage,” says Hougsted. “They were too busy becoming Americans. My parents joined the Slooper Society, but I didn’t become active in it until the 1960s.”
Through the Society’s annual meetings, Hougsted has met some cousins in Iowa he didn’t know he had. His father, Eric, visited Norway once, when he was 68 years old. Wesley visited Norway in 2000 and was able to see where his paternal grandparents were buried in Stavanger.
After high school, Hougsted graduated from college and seminary, became a Methodist minister and served congregations in the northern Illinois conference. His mother was an organist in the Methodist church in Norway, Ill., when Dick Wang’s grandfather served as minister there (see sidebar at left).
“My mom’s family was very close and all lived near one another when I was growing up,” he recalls. “One of my fondest childhood memories is Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ farm, with all the cousins. It was like a weekly family reunion.”
Another center of Norwegian immigration began to develop about the same time as the Fox River Valley settlement. This one was in southeastern Dane County in Wisconsin (then a territory), called the Koshkonong Prairie (Kaskeland to the Norwegians). The area of about 144 acres eventually was surrounded by the towns of Cottage Grove, Deerfield, Cambridge, Albion, Stoughton and McFarland. (See map below).
The earliest settlers were a group of nine emigrants from Voss and Stavanger, which included one of the original Sloopers, Thorstein Olsen Bjaaland. They staked their claims in 1839 and 1840. Without roads, farms or railroads, just like the Fox Valley folks, they had to be nearly self-sufficient, providing their own shelter, water and food.
In the fall of 1839, three men quit the Fox Valley settlement and filed claims in Milwaukee for land in Kaskeland. A second group from Stavanger arrived in 1840 and settled on land near present-day Albion.
Johannes W. C. Dietrichson, an ordained Lutheran minister, was sent from Norway in 1844 to the area to serve the spiritual needs of the emerging communities. He helped establish the East and West Koshkonong parishes in the Pleasant Springs township. Both churches were originally log cabins, plainly furnished. The West church, completed on Dec. 19, 1844, claims to be the “first Norwegian American Lutheran church to stand complete in North America.”
Both East and West Koshkonong parishes eventually replaced their log structures with brick buildings. The West parish wanted to occupy its original site, so it built an octagonal brick building around the original log cabin in 1852, then later removed the log cabin piece by piece through the windows and doors of the new building. The oldest Scandinavian Methodist church in the world is the all-stone church in Cambridge, built in 1851.
Due to its rich soil, abundant wood and water – and the industriousness of Norwegian farmers – the Koshkonong Prairie became one of the wealthiest Scandinavian communities in America. Based on crop yields, farmland holdings, cattle and equipment, the settlers were very prosperous.
Between 1840 and 1850, an estimated 7,500 Norwegians came to live in Wisconsin and 40% of them settled in Kaskeland. Their early homes were also stopping places for thousands of new Norwegian immigrants who settled in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas.
The Koshkonong Prairie eventually earned the nickname “Queen of the Norwegian American settlements.”
The Livsreise Heritage Center
The Livsreise (life’s journey) Heritage Center in Stoughton is a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to the history of Norwegian immigration in the southeastern Wisconsin area known as the Koshkonong Prairie. Financed by the Bryant Foundation, it features several multi-media interactive displays produced by Zebradog, a Madison media design firm.
“We wanted our facility to be more than a collection of artifacts,” says Jerry Gryttenholm, from the Bryant Foundation. “We’ve created interactive programs that focus on the ordinary families that came here for a better life and settled near Stoughton between 1825 and 1910.”
One “reader-rail” display tells the sequential story of trans-Atlantic crossings and subsequent overland travels in America. Another interactive program allows the viewer to choose options of occupation, recreation and transportation to create a typical immigration story. Another digital storybook chronicles the trials and tribulations of 34 immigrant families.
Marg Listug, manager of Livsreise, supervises three part-time employees and a host of volunteers.
“We receive lots of tour groups,” says Listug. “Schools, seniors, Sons of Norway chapters, even antique collectors. Some bus tours sponsor ‘surprise’ trips where the participants don’t know their destination until they get off the bus.”
In the past two years, COVID restrictions curtailed many visitors, but Listug is hopeful the trips will increase this summer. Especially interesting are the groups from Norway seeking information about their ancestors who emigrated to America.
“In our genealogy library, we have six computer stations where visitors are free to explore their own individual family histories through several online databases,” she says.
A 68-seat auditorium features videos about Norwegian culture, history, folk art and other related topics. In addition, guest lecturers and other presentations are periodically featured. Livsreise is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free to the general public.
Kirk Mies, a descendant of the Sloopers, has often been asked why it’s important to learn about one’s ancestors. Here’s his reply:
“Within each of us resides precious gifts from our ancestors that are at best taken for granted or at worst ignored entirely. Until we seek to truly understand and know those who preceded us, the decisions they made and the lives they lived, those gifts will remain unopened and we will never truly know ourselves.”
Truer words were never spoken.
Linda Petersen has been a member of Valhall Lodge, the Rockford chapter of the Sons of Norway, for about 20 years. Her mother, Judith Bjerkhol, emigrated by herself to the U.S. in 1947, when she was 21 years old.
“She was the youngest of six sisters and her father didn’t want her to go,” says Petersen. “It was kind of an adventure for her, but I don’t think she knew what she was getting into. Another woman was going to the U.S., but ‘chickened out,’ so my mother took her ticket.”
Upon her arrival in New York City in January 1948, she went to a train station, where a station master wrote her a “letter of introduction” to help her on her way. It read:
“To station master at Eau Claire, Wisconsin: The bearer of this note, Miss Judith Bjerkhol, is going to Bloomer, Wis. to Mrs. Ella Iverson. As the girl can’t speak English, will you kindly help her with transportation to Bloomer – bus or train? Or please call Mrs. Ella Iverson on the phone and inform her. Thank you.”
After moving in with the Iversons, Bjerkhol became disappointed with the situation, possibly because they expected her to marry their son. Through contact with a member of the local church, Our Savior’s Lutheran, Bjerkhol obtained a position as a domestic in a home in Woodmohr, Wis.
“The church had a party in her honor,” recalls Petersen. “They gave her gifts and money to help her ‘learn English language and American ways.’”
Later, the church contact also helped Bjerkhol move to Rockford and get a job in a factory, where she met and married Jesse Cherry, Petersen’s father. Petersen has visited Norway four times, the first in 1955 when she met her grandparents.
“I was only 5, so I don’t remember them,” she says. “When I was 21 and visited, I spent the night in my mother’s childhood home in Tingvall. The last time I was there, in 2000, we had a big family reunion up in the mountains.”
Both of Petersen’s children have visited their relatives in Norway and she hopes the grandchildren will do the same someday.
“When my mother visited Norway she was treated like a celebrity among my relatives,” says Petersen. “Going to America was a big thing when they were young. Everybody wanted to go.”
When her Norwegian relatives visited the U.S., Petersen’s mother took them to Wisconsin because it reminded them of Norway.
“Several years ago, I visited Our Savior’s Church in Bloomer,” says Petersen. “I thanked them for helping my mom when she was young and donated some money to the church. I also gave them newspaper clippings about our family.”
Richard Wang is a retired Methodist minister and member of the executive committee for Rockford Urban Ministries. His grandfather, the Rev. John J. Wang, was also a minister and served the congregation in Norway, Ill., for part of his tenure. Richard has been interested in his Norwegian heritage and has been a member of the Valhall Lodge of the Sons of Norway since 1990. He also regularly attends the Slooper annual meetings. This article was his idea, and his contacts within the Norwegian American community made it possible. Thanks, Dick.