A Rough Beginning

Page 1

Jonas Ostrem at the plow, Vernon County, Wisconsin in the late 1800s. Photo courtesy of the author.

A Rough Beginning The Struggles of Norwegian Immigrant Families by Howard Sherpe


t had been a long, rough trip from their home near Biri, Norway, and Anne Larsdatter Korsveien was tired, homesick, and wishing they were back on their farm near Lake Mjøsa. Instead they were finally nearing their destination of Coon Prairie, in Bad Axe County, Wisconsin, in America. (Bad Axe County was the original name for Vernon County in western Wisconsin. The name was changed to Vernon County in 1862.) Anne, 51, was accompanied by her son Peder, 25, and daughter, Agnethe, 27, along with Agnethe’s husband, Kristian Goldseth and their two-year-old daughter, Anna. Several other families from the Biri area were also in the group. They were all looking for a better life and the chance to own their own farm in this wonderful land that earlier immigrants from Biri had written home about. Anne’s husband, Anders Pederson Fremstad, had left Norway two years earlier in 1852, along with other men from Biri, who went to stake out claims to land and start their farms before their families arrived. Anne was looking forward to seeing Anders again. As the group was nearing Coon Prairie, they met some people on the trail. Anne asked if they knew where Anders Fremstad lived. They had sad news for Anne and her family. Vol. 11, No. 1 2013

Anders had been struck and killed by lightning a month earlier. They had buried him on the land he had begun to clear and farm. The news hit Anne like a kick in the stomach. Here they were in a strange land and her whole world was crumbling around her. Her husband was dead. What was she to do now? That same summer of 1854, another family left Fåberg, Norway, to seek a new life in America. Hans Olson Rustad, 33, his wife, Martha Knutsdatter Ensrud, 35, and their sevenyear-old son, Ole Hanson, also headed for Coon Prairie, Wisconsin, where they had friends who had already staked claims to land. They had written back to Norway and given glowing reports about the paradise they had found. There were wide-open prairies, where they could own many acres of rich farmland, not the small areas of rocky soil they had been farming in Norway. In America you could own your own farm, not just be a husmann, a hired hand, with no hope of owning your own land in the future. During the long voyage to America, cholera broke out on the ship. Martha came down with the disease and died two days after arriving in America. Because fellow travelers feared contracting cholera, she and other victims were hastily buried in unmarked potter’s graves. Hans and Ole were now alone in 17

a strange country, where they had no family and couldn’t speak the language. The only thing they could do was keep going and try to find their friends at Coon Prairie. They traveled as far as Koshkonong, a Norwegian settlement in southern Wisconsin, when their money ran out. Hans found work on the railroad that was being built near Madison. He needed to earn money so they could get to Coon Prairie. Ole stayed with a family in Koshkonong. In the fall of that year, Hans took what little money they had and he and Ole continued on to Coon Prairie, where he hoped to find his friends from Norway. When they finally arrived in the fall of 1854, many of the men were preparing to leave the area and head north to pineries at Black River Falls, where they would work during the winter months. Hans left Ole in the care of some friends near a place called Bloomingdale. He then joined the other men to work as a lumberjack in order to earn some money. This was not the life Hans had expected when he left Norway. Instead of a paradise, he found himself in his worst nightmare and he wished they had never left Norway. Martha would still be alive if he hadn’t insisted on seeking a better life for them in America. What was to become of them? Two families, who had begun their journey that summer with great hopes and dreams of a better life in America, now found those dreams shattered. They each had lost a family member, were starting over with little money, and had no idea what to do next. It wouldn’t be easy, but they had nothing to go back to in Norway either. They had all been living as husmenn, cotter farmers, and didn’t own the land they worked on. In order to afford the trip to America, they had sold everything they owned, except what

Anne Larsdatter Korsveien. Photo courtesy of the author.


they could pack into trunks and carry on their voyage. Their new life would have to begin in this foreign environment they found themselves in. Anne was now the head of her family in this strange land, and felt responsible for their survival. Anne’s husband, Anders, had been one of the early immigrant settlers on Coon Prairie, and had chosen a nice piece of land high on the prairie, where the land was open and easy to work. At least they would have a place to stay. Anders had managed to build a small, basic log house on their property, but it would be very crowded for all of them to live there. He hadn’t planned on Agnethe and her family living with them. Anders had acquired two horses, a cow, several sheep, one pig, and a flock of chickens before he had been killed. The animals were kept in a simple log barn that he had built. The chickens were in a small enclosure attached to the barn. The only other structure was an outhouse. There was a wooded area nearby, where deer and other wild animals could be hunted for food, and timber could be cut for heating and cooking. Unfortunately, the farm was far from a water source, and too high on the prairie to dig a well and hit a water table. At first Anders and a couple of his neighbors had built a dam across a small ravine where water ran during heavy rains and during the spring thaw. Once backed-up, the stagnant water was all right for the cattle, but was not fit for people to drink. It also tended to dry up during the summer if there wasn’t any rain for many weeks. Drinking water and water to cook with had to be collected in rain barrels or carried from the nearest creek. To reach the creek they had to make their way down a steep, wooded hill into the coulee, where a creek ran that emptied into the meandering Kickapoo River. That journey to get water was a two-mile round trip. Anne quickly realized that the lack of a convenient water supply was going to be a problem. Anne and Agnethe even had to wash their clothes in the creek. Clean clothes became a luxury, not a necessity. At least there was food available. The cow produced enough milk to drink and make butter. The chickens provided eggs and an occasional meal when they butchered one of them. The sheep provided wool that Anne could spin on her spinning wheel to make yarn for clothes. Anders had planted wheat, corn, and a vegetable garden. Neighbors showed them how to harvest the crops. They would butcher the pig and have meat for the winter. Agnethe’s husband, Kristian, would have to learn to use Ander’s gun and hunt for deer and other wild animals for food. He had a lot to learn. He’d been a cobbler in Norway. He could make shoes, but knew nothing about farming and hunting. Another problem was getting necessary supplies that couldn’t be grown on the farm. The closest general store was in Prairie du Chien, 50-60 miles south of Coon Prairie, situated along the Mississippi River. It was a long trip over rough country, with many large hills and valleys, and numerous streams and waterways to cross. Roads were nothing but converted Indian trails and there were no bridges. The journey took several days for most of the early settlers who didn’t have access to a horse and buggy, or a wagon. Many people walked to Prairie du Chien and back, carrying their supplies, like coffee, sugar, salt, syrup, flour, and other items on their backs Vesterheim

Coon Prairie store at the crossroads, one mile west of Westby, Wisconsin, showing the road south up the hill to Viroqua.

Even Westby store, Bloomingdale.

Photo courtesy of Vernon County Museum.

Photo courtesy of Vernon County Museum.

during the return journey. It would be several years before a store opened in La Crosse, cutting the trip in half. That first winter was a tough one for Anne and her family. Her son, Peder, left in the fall with a group of men from the area to walk to Black River Falls, where they would be lumberjacks in the pineries during the winter months. Many men headed north in the winter in order to make money working in the woods when they couldn’t do any farming. The women and children were left at home to take care of the farm and animals. Hans Olson and Peder Anderson spent that winter working near Black River Falls. Life in the lumber camp was hard work, with long hours working in the freezing cold. They headed into the woods before sunrise and didn’t return until it was dark. Those were depressing days for both of them. Back on Coon Prairie, the freezing, cold weather arrived, along with snow and howling winds. Deep snowdrifts hindered their trips for water. They resorted to melting snow in a large kettle in the fireplace. They had to provide water for the cattle the same way. When the wind blew, snow came right through cracks between the logs, where Anders hadn’t done a very good job of filling in the gaps. They were cold, miserable, and felt trapped and isolated, far from other humanity. It was a horrible, long winter. To add to their troubles, the wolves were having problems finding food too. They resorted to raiding the chickenhouse and left with many of the chickens before Kristian could get his gun and scare them off. Other nights they killed sheep. It seemed like things were going from bad to worse. They were even running out of firewood and Kristian had to go into the woods and cut up downed trees to get through the winter. Anne was happy when spring finally arrived and they had managed to survive their first winter in Wisconsin. When Peder arrived home from the lumber camp, he and Kristian had to learn how to plant the crops. They were able to replace the chickens and sheep that had been killed with money Peder had earned that winter. Vol. 11, No. 1 2013

One day while Peder and Kristian were working in the fields, a group of dark strangers approached the house. Anne had heard about the Indians who lived in the area, but had never seen one before. Anne told Agnethe to overturn the large cooking pot and hide Anna under it. They had heard people say that Indians and gypsies would try to steal their chickens and children. Agnethe kept the gun handy while Anne went outside to see what they wanted. She couldn’t understand their language and they couldn’t understand her Norwegian. Anne kept an eye on them as they left and headed in the direction of Bloomingdale. When she was sure they were safe, they lifted the pot off a bewildered and frightened Anna, who was now four years old. It was the first of many friendly encounters with Indians passing through the area. They learned over time not to fear them. Life that summer was hard as they struggled with the crops and animals. The water supply was a constant problem. Anne decided she would sell the farm and buy one closer to water. However, they would need more money to do that. Peder told her that the lumber camp he had worked in hired women to do the cooking. That winter she traveled with Peder to the lumber camp to be a cook, leaving Kristian and Agnethe to take care of the farm while they were gone. Hans Olson also spent that winter back in the camp. While talking to a cook who worked at the lumber camp, Hans found out she was Anne Korsveien, Peder’s mother, and that her husband had been killed just before she and her family arrived at Coon Prairie. She learned that he had lost his wife on the voyage and still had no permanent place to go back to in the spring when the other men returned to their farms. He had been working as a hired man for a family the past summer. He told her his young son was living with friends until he could get established and provide a home for him. Anne said she had taken the cooking job to earn some money during the winter. In the spring, she wanted to sell Anders’s claim and buy a piece of property closer to a 19

Bloomingdale, Wisconsin, 1874. Photo courtesy of Vernon County Museum.

water supply near the small, but growing, community of Bloomingdale. She was almost 53 and said she was getting too old to be carrying water up the steep hills every day. She had been a weaver in Norway and felt she’d have a better chance to earn a living doing what she knew how to do. Anders had done the farming and she did her weaving when they were in Norway. She didn’t know how to run a farm. Peder wouldn’t be there to help. He’d been talking to other young, single men who were going to head west in the spring and seek their fortune. He planned to go with them. Her cobbler son-in-law didn’t know anything about farming either, but he and his family would have to live with her until they could afford their own place. She felt they’d have a better chance of finding weaving and cobbler work if they were close to a community instead of out in the sticks where Anders had settled, and mostly she was sick and tired of carrying water up those steep hills. Anne had decided to buy enough land so they could also farm and grow their own food, but she needed a hired man who knew how to do farm work. She asked Hans if he would like to be her hired man when he was done lumberjacking in the spring. He had no other options at the moment, and no place to live, so he accepted her offer. Thus began an alliance between the two families to try to salvage something out of the horrible journey they found themselves on. Anne found a piece of land near Bloomingdale. A creek ran right through the property and would be a convenient water supply for them and the cattle. There was even a house and barn on the property. The owner was selling the property and heading west with Peder and the others to a place called Dakota, where there was an abundance of land for farming and no steep hills and valleys to deal with. Hans began working as a hired man for Anne and did all the farming. That first year, he built a small shack on the property to live in. He ate his meals with Anne and her family. 20

Ole, Hans’s son, continued to live with their friends and help them on their farm. They said they’d take care of him until he was confirmed at age 16. Hans worked hard, clearing the land to make more room for crops. Much of the land had steep hills, but he was able to grub out areas for crops. It was similar to what he was used to doing in Norway. He still headed north to the pineries in the winter months, while Anne and Agnethe took care of the cattle. The years passed, Ole was confirmed and came to live with his father. Hans was able to put in more crops with Ole helping him. Anne taught Agnethe how to weave and they were able to keep busy and make a living. Kristian left for La Crosse one day to get some supplies and never returned. They Original Coon Prairie Church, built in 1858, in the background as a foundation for a new church is laid, 1875. Photo courtesy of the author.


was owned and farmed by descendants of Hans Olson Rustad and Anne Larsdatter Korsveien for many years. Hans Olson Rustad was my great-great-grandfather. Anne Larsdatter Korsveien was my great-great-great-grandmother. Ole Hanson and Anna Goldseth had a son, Oscar Hanson, who was my maternal grandfather. This is their story: Two pioneer immigrant families from Norway who had a rough beginning in America, but thanks to their perseverance and persistence, never giving up, they paved the way for their descendants and provided us a great path to follow.

Ole & Anna Hanson family. Oscar is seated front, second from left, next to his father Ole. Photo courtesy of the author.

knew he had been unhappy living in the wilderness and having to help with the farming, but they didn’t know if he had been killed or just kept going. Ole and Anna grew up together on the Korsveien farm. Their friendship blossomed into romance. In 1871, when Ole Hanson was 24 and Anna Goldseth was 19, they were married in the Coon Prairie Church. By that time, Hans and Ole had purchased a small farm in nearby Knapp Valley. They continued to farm together and buy more land until their farm extended onto the ridge above the valley. The log house that Ole built in the valley still stands today, but the roof of the log barn he built collapsed a couple of years ago. The land Ole and his father cleared and farmed during those early years from 1870 through the early 1900s

Lumber camp. Oscar Hanson seated center front. Photo courtesy of the author.

Anna Goldseth Hanson and son Henry in later years. Photo courtesy of the author.

About the Author Howard Sherpe lives on part of the farm he grew up on in Coon Prairie near Westby, Wisconsin. He is Member Relations Manager of Vernon Communications, writes “Across the Fence,” a weekly newspaper column that appears in papers in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, does Norwegian folk-art woodcarving, and is proud of his Norwegian heritage. Vol. 11, No. 1 2013