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Histories and Studies of the Central Iowa Norwegians

Volume 1 Contents (tentative)

The Coming of the Norwegians to Central Iowa: 1855-1880 by ARLEN TWEDT. This study discusses the following topics:

Background: 1825-1854
Moving to Central Iowa
Life on the Frontier
The Early Central Iowa Norwegians
Volunteering for War
The Settlements Grow
Organizing Church Congregations
The Skunk River Valley
The Prairie is Settled

A Brief History of the First Norwegian Settlement of Story and Polk Counties, Ia. 1855-1905, 1905 by OLEY NELSON

Biography of Peder Christian Heggem and wife Anna Serina, 1926 and A Little History of the Heggem Family for the Relatives, circa 1930, by MALINDA ANN THOMPSON

A History of the Palestine Congregation 1855-1940, 1940 by ANDREW MALAND

Osmund Sheldahl, Pioneer Pastor by ARLEN TWEDT

A Little About the First Norwegian Settlers in Story County, 1888 by ERIK ARNESEN TRAVASS

The Early History of the Norwegian Settlement in Howard Township, 1902 & 1903 by JOHN M. MASON

MINDEBLAD: History of the St. Petri Congregation from its foundation June 1857 to its 50th Jubilee, June 1907, 1907 by IVAR HAVNEROS

Little Stories of Pioneer Days in The Story City Herald, 1922-1923 by NEHEMIAS TJERNAGEL

Reports from Central Iowa in the Skandinaven [Chicago], 1893-1906 by KNUT TAKLA

The Stavanger and Hordaland Colony in Central Iowa, 1908 by HJALMAR RUED HOLAND

The Emigration from Skånevik: A 150-year Anniversary, 1986 by INGVALD SKÅLNES

The Early Emigration from Skånevik, 1988 by ANDERS HAUGLAND

Fifty Years in Central Iowa: The Celebrations in Cambridge and Story City, 1905, NEWSPAPER ACCOUNTS

Preserving Central Iowa's Norwegian Heritage by ARLEN TWEDT

Volume 2 Contents (tentative)

The Coming of the Norwegians to Central Iowa: 1880-1905 by ARLEN TWEDT (In progress) This study will discuss the following topics:

Building Towns
Educating Children
Mills and Markets
Communication and Travel
Political Involvement
Farms and Agriculture
Businesses on Main Street
Amusement and Culture
The Turn of the Century

Rasmus Jonsen and Anne Margrethe Berentsen: My Norwegian Grandparents, n.d. by GLEN SEVERSON

“The Land” and “Those Who Came, 1875-1925,” 1955 by JACOB HODNEFIELD

Introduction to the History of The Lande Clan, 1932 by BERTHA BARNES PETERSON

Introduction to the History of Farmers Mutual Insurance Association of Central Iowa, 1960 by SAM J. and KATHERINE C. NELSON

Glimpses from Life in the Norwegian-American Community in the Minneapolis Tidende, 1932-33 by CARL G. O. HANSEN

Emigration from Helvik: Descendants of Anders Axelson (Mowat) Helvik Who Emigrated to Iowa 1852-1892, 1993 by ARLEN TWEDT

Rasmus Sheldall's Pioneer Story, 1999 by ARLEN TWEDT

Emigration from Kvinnherad, Norway, to Central Iowa, 2000 by ARLEN TWEDT

Nils Bauge's Pioneer Story, 2003 by ARLEN TWEDT

The Honorable Ole. O. Roe, Orator Extraordinaire by ARLEN TWEDT (In Progress)

Haugeanism in Central Iowa by ARLEN TWEDT (In progress)

General Historical Information Published in the Roland Record, 1895-1975, compiled by ARLEN TWEDT (In progress)

News About the Central Iowa Norwegians Published in the Nevada, Iowa, Newspapers, 1863-1905 compiled by ARLEN TWEDT (In progress)

A Guide to Central Iowa's Norwegian Historical Attractions by ARLEN TWEDT (In progress)

Listing of the Norwegian-Americans Who Lived in Central Iowa during 1855 through 1860 by ARLEN TWEDT (In progress, See The Early Settlers)

Resources for Further Reading and Research by ARLEN TWEDT (In progress, See Selected Bibliography)


Central Iowa is the home of the third largest concentration of Norwegian-Americans in Iowa and an important settlement area in the history of Norwegian immigration to the United States. In Norwegian Settlement in the United States (1938) Qualey states, “When the settlers arrived in their new lands on June 7, 1855, they found themselves in central Iowa, in Story County, where they launched one of the largest Norwegian settlements in Iowa and one of the more famous in America.”

Two of the reasons Qualey believes Story County was one of the more famous Norwegian settlements in America may be that it is one of only two known groups to organize themselves into a church congregation, the Palestine congregation, before moving to a new settlement area, and that it was one of the largest groups to move from one area to another (Holand, 1908). Another reason may by inferred by O. E. Rolvaag's reference to the Palestine congregation in a 1929 article, “The Vikings of the Middle West,” to illustrate the romantic spirit of the immigrants that “threw themselves blindly into the Impossible and accomplished the Unbelievable.”

In 1856 and 1857, two more groups arrived in central Iowa and established what became known as the Northern Settlement in northern Story County and southern Hamilton County. By the turn of the century there were an estimated 3,000 Norwegians living in the Southern Settlement (southern Story County and northern Polk County) and 9,000 Norwegians living in the Northern Settlement (Holand, 1908).

Background: 1825-1854

Organized emigration from Norway began in 1825 when a group of Quakers from Stavanger established a settlement, the Kendall Settlement, near Rochester, New York, under the leadership of Cleng Peerson. In 1833, Cleng Peerson found a new location for Norwegian settlement in La Salle County, Illinois, southwest of Chicago near the Fox River, and in 1834, some of the Kendall settlers moved to what become known as the Fox River Norwegian Settlement.

In the late 1830s, Norwegian emigration began to reach into the Hardanger Fjord and the communities of Skånevik, Etne, and Fjelberg. The first families emigrated in 1837, and in the mid-1840s many other families began to emigrate. Among them were the Rasmus Larson Tungesvik and Osmund Sheldahl families in 1845, ten more families in 1846, and a boatload of 165 people in 1847 on the "Kong Sverre" under the leadership of Torkel Henryson Kaldestadbakken.

During this time, the land in central Iowa that was purchased from the French in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 became the Iowa Territory in 1838. It was purchased from the Sauk and Fox Indians in 1842 and opened for settlement in 1846, the same year Iowa become a state.

Moving to Central Iowa

In the 1850s, land around Lisbon, Illinois, where many of the Skånevik, Etne, and Fjelberg emigrants settled became scarce and too expensive for new immigrants. On September 24, 1854, Osmund Sheldahl, Oley Apland, Ole Fatland, and Osmund Johnson left Lisbon to investigate land possibilities west of the Mississippi for themselves and others. They found what they were looking for near Cambridge, Iowa.

On May 17, 1855, 106 people left Holdeman's Prairie west of Lisbon in 24 covered wagons to establish a new Norwegian settlement on the open prairies of southern Story County. They headed for Ottawa, Illinois, and then took a trail west that generally followed the present-day U.S. Highway #6.

Two weeks later, another scouting party left Lisbon for Iowa, and the following year another. The first group purchased land in northern Story County and the second in southern Hamilton County. In the spring of 1856, a group of over 60 people left to begin the settlement in northern Story County followed by an even larger group in 1857 that began the settlement in southern Hamilton County.

Life on the Frontier

The settlers began breaking sod and making shelters for their families and their animals in prairie grass that could be as tall as someone sitting on a horse. The elements made living conditions difficult the first years. The winter of 1856-57 was extremely severe, and in 1858 it was so wet that many farmers' crops failed. Additionally, there was always the threat of prairie fires in the fall.

Peder and Anna Heggem, who settled west of Cambridge in 1855, found life on the prairie so difficult they moved to the village of Des Moines in 1857 where Peder hauled produce to the steamers that came up the Des Moines River. Three years later, they moved back and began farming around ponds that ranged from a few acres to as many as forty acres in size.

John and Betsey Michaelson, who came to Howard Township in 1857 with two young children, lived with friends the first year. That summer, John broke prairie on their 80 acres, and in the fall he husked corn for a Yankee farmer. The next year, they bought a log house from another Yankee farmer, moved it to their land, and returned the hospitality they received by providing a home for other families moving to central Iowa.

At first, the nearest trading points for these early central Iowa Norwegians were in Iowa City, Marengo, Marshalltown, Des Moines, Boone, and Alden. During the wet seasons, their wagons would get stuck in sloughs or "frog ponds," as they called them, 15-20 times just driving across Story County.

The Early Central Iowa Norwegians

In spite of the hardships of frontier life, more immigrants arrived from Lisbon. The 1860 Census counted 524 Norwegians in central Iowa (388 in Story, 95 in Hamilton, and 41 in adjoining counties), but research for the Central Iowa Norwegian Project reveals that at least 632 Norwegians lived in central Iowa through the end of 1860.

Four hundred and one of the early central Iowa Norwegians were born in Norway. Most of them emigrated from the fylker [counties] of Hordaland and Rogaland, fylker that border the Hardanger Fjord in southwest Norway. Fifty percent emigrated from the Skånevik, Etne, and Ølen kommuner [districts] in Hordaland. Other kommuner that sent many emigrants to central Iowa were Rennesøy, Årdal, and Hjelmeland in Rogaland, near the coastal city of Stavanger.

Over one-third (261) of the early central Iowa Norwegians were born from 1850 through 1860, reflecting the large number of young families who moved to central Iowa. Thirty-five of the immigrants were born before 1810, including seven born before 1800.

Volunteering for War

In October 1861, six months after the beginning of the Civil War, the first nine central Iowa Norwegians answered Governor Kirkwood's call for volunteers. They rendezvoused in Iowa City and saw their first action on January 6, 1862, in Charleston, Missouri, in the far southeastern part of the state.

In August of 1862, 26 more Norwegians enlisted from central Iowa. Twenty-two of them joined two different Iowa infantry units and four went back to Lisbon, Illinois, to join a unit along with friends from the Lisbon area. On September 12, 1862, Henry Egland was the first casualty of the war. He died of disease and was buried at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri.

There were 41 Norwegians who volunteered for the war from Story, Polk, and Hamilton counties. Twelve of them died in the war; three of them dying shortly after battles and the others from disease. Eighteen of the volunteers were married men who left their wives and children to take care of things back home.

John Ritland, whose Civil War experiences were chronicled by Nehemias Tjernagel, the foremost historian of the central Iowa Norwegians, had this reflection about the end of the war, “It was the happiest moment of my life! The cruel war was over, and those who were left of us were safe and had the best prospects of getting back to our dear ones again.”

The Settlements Grow

After the war, there was a large increase in emigration from Norway resulting in an increase in the central Iowa Norwegian settlements to almost 3,000 people by 1870 (1,882 in Story, 531 in Polk, 447 in Hamilton, and 62 in Hardin counties).

One large group of immigrants that settled in southern Story County and northern Polk County in 1866 was the Lande clan who emigrated from the Landa farm in Fjelberg. Thirty-four Landes arrived in Nevada, Iowa, by train, but they came a day early and had to spend the night in the basement of a new hotel under construction. The next day they were greeted by other members of the Lande family who had emigrated to Lisbon, Illinois before the Civil War and who had moved to central Iowa earlier the same year.

Another farm that sent many emigrants to central Iowa was the Helvik farm in Kvinnherad, Norway, directly north of Fjelberg. Between 1852 and 1892, 60 descendants of Anders Axelson Helvik emigrated from the Helvik farm. They helped found the Iowa towns of Calamus, Roland, Thor, and Ruthven as well as towns in Minnesota and South Dakota. Twenty-four of the Helviks settled near Roland. Some kept the Helvik name, but spelled it Helvig. Others dropped Helvik and used their Christian names-Olson, Sampson, and Iverson.

Organizing Church Congregations

A second central Iowa Norwegian Lutheran congregation, the St. Petri Lutheran congregation in Story City, was organized in the Northern Settlement in 1857 when their pastor from Lisbon visited them for the first time. Church services were conducted in homes, schoolhouses, and even a new barn until both the Palestine and St. Petri congregations were able to complete church buildings after the Civil War.

The only ordained Norwegian pastors in central Iowa until 1869 were Osmund Sheldahl, pastor in the Southern Settlement, and Nils Amlund, pastor in the Northern Settlement. During this time, both helped organize a congregation in each other's settlement. In 1865, Pastor Amlund helped organize the Fjeldberg congregation in the Southern Settlement, and in 1868, Pastor Sheldahl helped organize the Evangelical Lutheran Congregation of Story and Hamilton Counties in the Northern Settlement, the forerunner to the present day Salem congregation in Roland and the Elim congregation in Randall.

By 1880, there were five Norwegian Lutheran congregations in the Southern Settlement and six in the Northern Settlement. An important aspect of the Norwegian religious impulse in central Iowa, especially in the Northern Settlement, was the influence of the Norwegian evangelist, Hans Nielsen Hauge [1771-1824], whose followers, called Haugeans, preferred simple forms of worship and more lay involvement than was customary in the state church of Norway.

The Skunk River Valley

When the scouting parties of 1854, 1855, and 1856 decided to begin new settlements in central Iowa, Story County was a young county. The first white settlers arrived in 1848, and in 1854 the population was only 836. Settlement had been slow because of the poor drainage of the Skunk River watershed.

The first settlers, many of whom were Hoosiers from Indiana, chose land near the Skunk River and smaller creeks that flowed into it. Some of them thought the wet prairie would never be settled. This did not deter the scouting parties who already had experience farming wet prairie near Lisbon and were attracted by the $1.25 per acre government land.

During the early years, the wet bottomlands made travel difficult between southern and northern Story County and often prevented those living in the Southern Settlement from traveling to Nevada to purchase supplies. Until 1866, when a bridge was built near Cambridge, the only dependable place to cross the Skunk River was north of Ames, near Hannum's mill in Franklin Township.

The Prairie is Settled

On July 4, 1864, the first train arrived in Nevada bringing supplies within a day's drive by oxen to most central Iowa Norwegians and providing a nearby market for their grain and livestock. Central Iowa began to take on the appearance of a more settled area.

From 1870 to 1875, 175 families moved into the Northern Settlement. In 1873, a Grange store was opened near what later became Roland, and in 1874, a railroad depot was opened at Sheldahl, other signs that the country was becoming more settled. By 1879, the Norwegian farmers in southern Scott Township had started using barbed wire fences because they could no longer let their cattle roam free in the summer.

In a letter written to Kvinnherad from Howard Township in January of 1876, Paul Haugland reported that the Norwegian farmers were doing well, but stated, "the land is quite bought up around here." Now the generation that grew up in central Iowa began experiencing the same thing that happened in Illinois. They had to look elsewhere for affordable land. They began establishing new Norwegian settlements farther north and west of central Iowa and into southwest Minnesota and southeastern South Dakota.

By 1880, there were 6,500 Norwegians-Americans living in central Iowa (3,555 in Story, 816 in Polk, 2,109 in Hamilton counties, and 146 in Concord Township, Hardin County).

Building Towns

Until the mid-1870s, the only rail services for central Iowa Norwegians were the Chicago Northwestern that arrived in Nevada in 1864, the Rock Island that arrived in Des Moines in 1866, and the Illinois Central that arrived in Webster City in 1869. In 1874, a narrow-gauge rail line was built from Des Moines to Ames, with a depot in Sheldahl. This line was extended to Story City in 1878.

By the late 1870s, more rail lines were being extended into central Iowa, setting the stage for new towns to be founded in the early 1880s. In some cases, post offices had already been established or towns platted, but the clearest indication that dreams for towns would not have to be abandoned, as was the case with Rosendale when a the rail line was not extended west of Story City, occurred when the first businesses were established close to rail lines.

In southern Story County, the arrival of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad would lead to the founding of Huxley in 1882 and Sheldahl Crossing [later changed to Slater] in 1885. In northern Story County, the Story City branch of the Iowa Central railroad originating in Marshalltown would lead to the founding of McCallsburg in 1881 and the further development of Roland and Story City. In southwest Hardin County and southeast Hamilton County, the arrival of the Toledo & Northwestern railroad originating in Tama also led to the founding of Radcliffe, Ellsworth, and Jewell Junction [later changed to Jewell] in 1881. Stanhope was started in 1882, and Randall was started in 1883, both towns being established after the Chicago and Northwestern railroad company built depots at each location.

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