Fort Thompson in the Eighties
A Communication (Volume VIII: Page 162)
In volume 6 of NORWEGIAN-AMERICAN STUDIES AND RECORDS I read an interesting article by Einar Haugen entitled, "Norwegians at the Indian Forts on the Missouri River during the Seventies." In this article my name was mentioned.
I wish to tell about a Lutheran church service that I held at Fort Thompson, and more especially of my conversation with the Reverend Mr. Gassman, which I remember very distinctly, and for which I have notes, written in my daybook at the time, to enable me to be historically correct.
I had been at Fort Thompson at times. Once I had the Reverend D. A. Skare, at that time a theological student, with me. We had devotion at the houses where lived Mr. Stengrim Detli and other friends who worked for the government at the fort. I am sorry that I did not write in my daybook the names of the others and that for that reason I cannot give their names. Stengrim Detli's name I have written; besides that, I became well acquainted with him and his family when they moved to Sioux Falls and lived there.
But I had not conducted any services that might be called public church services at the fort. In fact, I had to have permission of Major Gassman, commanding officer of the fort, to do so. I came there in the latter part of March, 1885, to hold such service. So I had an audience with Major Gassman, as he was called at that time. Whether he held a regular commission as major I cannot say, but he was always spoken of as Major Gassman at the time. I was admitted to his office and found him to be a very pleasant, dignified-looking man, white-haired, tall, well built, and courteous. If I understood him correctly, he was an ordained clergyman in the Episcopal church.
He was a Norwegian. We spoke much of old Norway, and he told me that it had always been his desire to visit the land of his fathers and that he yet had the hope that he might be permitted to see old Norway before he died. From these
expressions I came to the conclusion that he was born in this country, but as to that I may be mistaken, for I did not ask him outright about this. He told me of his life and of his work for the government; of how, in earlier days, he had never believed that white people could make the land along the Missouri from Omaha a fit place to live in, as that country was in those days believed to be a semi-desert, but that he had come to believe the saying of the Indians that white people brought rain. Many things were spoken of, as our conversation lasted for hours, and it was of great interest to me, as can be readily understood, a young missionary having the opportunity to listen to one of the very first men who had worked in that country, holding responsible government positions, and, moreover, a Norwegian.
He was glad to give me permission to conduct divine service on Sunday. So on Sunday morning I held the service, and all the Norwegians working at the fort attended. As to whether Major Gassman himself was present, I cannot say, for I have nothing written in my daybook about that, only that a "contribution of $7.50 for missionary work" was given.
In the afternoon I attended the Sunday school held in the Indian (Sioux) language and then the regular service (Episcopal) held in the English language, a welcome occasion to me, as I very seldom had the chance to attend any kind of divine services. My nearest neighbor pastor at that time was the Reverend Mr. Walker at the Lower Brule agency. He was a full-blood Indian and was an Episcopal clergyman.
After service Major Gassman asked me what I thought of these meetings, and if I had noticed that some of the Indians slept during the service held in the English language. One of us made the remark that we had seen white people sleep during service also and that it was almost to be expected of the Indians listening to a sermon of which they evidently understood but very little. But they did not sleep in Sunday school, for that was conducted in the Sioux language, which they understood.
Reverend Mr. Gassman was a fine, Christian gentleman and if all Indian agents at the forts and agencies had been like him, there would have been few troubles with the Indians.
P. J. REINERTSEN