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The Sugar Creek Settlement in Iowa
By H. F. Swansen (Volume IX: Page 38)

The Sugar Creek settlement in Iowa is a fascinating subject for study, not only because it is the first enterprise of its kind among the Norwegians in that state, but also because some phases of its history are shrouded in mystery. Many of the documents that relate to the early history of the colony have been lost or destroyed, with the result that the student is continually on the alert for new materials that may shed additional light on the subject. In this study it is the aim of the writer to consider several pieces of available source matter in an attempt to establish the identity of the founders of the settlement and likewise to ascertain the date for the founding.

Before turning to a consideration of this aim it may interest the reader to know that the Iowa manuscript census of 1856 lists Alexander Cruikshank, a native of Norway, as a settler of Lee County in 1834. {1} This fact may be verified in family records now in the possession of Alexander's son. An examination of these records reveals that Cruikshank was born in Christiansand, Norway, in 1805, of a Norwegian mother and a Scotch father. {2} There is no evidence, however, to indicate that this settler had any direct connection with the main colony of Norwegians in Lee County.

One of the most important source selections dealing with the Norwegian settlement of Lee County is J. R. Reiersen's Veiviser for Norske emigranter til de forenede nordamerikanske stater og Texas (Pathfinder for Norwegian Emigrants to the United North American States and Texas), which was published in Christiania, Norway, in 1844 and which has this to say about Sugar Creek, "The place was presumably chosen by the well known Hans Barlien, who died there last year at an advanced age, and a Norwegian by the name of Tesman, both of whom emigrated on account of political difficulties." {3} The Norwegian editor and traveler Reiersen, who had journeyed through the Upper Mississippi Valley, including Iowa, in 1843, is recognized as a careful observer of American conditions; therefore his statement in regard to Barlien and Tesman is of more than passing interest. That these two men were residents of the settlement in 1840 is attested to by the United States manuscript census records for that year, which indicate that ten Norwegians lived in Lee County, among them "Hants Palleen" (Hans Barlien) and "Wm Testman" (Tesman). {4}

Additional information on the role assumed by Barlien in the Sugar Creek project is available in a letter written by him to the Reverend Jens Rynning of Snaasen, Norway, from "St Fransville [St. Francisville] in Missouri by de Moyen [Des Moines] River" under date of April 23, 1839. {5} Barlien, it is significant to note, had come to the United States in 1837 as an exile from Norway for the purpose of founding a colony for Norwegians who, like himself, were dissatisfied with conditions in the home country. {6} In this letter, a translation of which is appended, he wrote of his attempt to find a suitable site for a settlement and also of his contacts with United States government officials in his effort to secure full title for the land. The tract to which Barlien referred specifically was located on the northeast side of the Des Moines River, just west of the Mississippi, and coincided with the location of the Sugar Creek district. The wording of the sentence in question is such as to tempt the reader to conclude that the site was actually chosen at the time of the writing of the letter. St. Francisville, moreover, the place at which Barlien wrote the document, was located on the west side of the Des Moines River about twelve miles due west of the Sugar Creek settlement.

Evidence pertaining to the case of William Tesman appears in the Iowa manuscript census record for 1856. In this the enumerator was required to designate in a certain column the number of years that each settler had resided in Iowa. Needless to say this information is often of considerable importance to the student. The Lee County census list for 1856 represents "William Testman" as a resident of Iowa for seventeen years, and this would signify that he settled in the county in 1839. Since Barlien died on October 31, 1842, this census record is of no practical value in regard to his case.

On the basis of the documents cited above it appears that the statement in Reiersen's Veiviser that Barlien and Tesman chose the Sugar Creek site is correct. While the records in no case indicate the exact date of settlement, they do give some warrant for the conclusion that William Tesman went to Lee County in 1839. The evidence in regard to Barlien, though less conclusive, suggests the probability that he, too, went in 1839. These deductions make no mention of Cleng Peerson, who is known to have assumed a role in the early history of the Sugar Creek project and who, according to the United States manuscript census records, was an actual settler in 1840. {7} While we must recognize the significance of these facts concerning this colorful Norse pioneer, no conclusive evidence has been discovered by the writer to indicate the place of Peerson in the establishment of this colony. {8} What new facts the future may reveal it is difficult to say. Quite possibly new material will be uncovered that will contribute to the closing of several gaps in the broken narrative and also indicate the precise part assumed by Cleng Peerson in early Iowa history.

[Morgenbladet (Christiania, Norway), October 10, 1839]
April 23, 1839. NORTH AMERICA.


As I suppose that no one who knows the circumstances will undertake to inform you regarding the fate of your son, which presumably it will be necessary for you to know, I shall hereby try to furnish you with this information as far as circumstances permit.

He has, presumably, himself informed you that he had bought land and lived not far from the town of Ottawa at Fox River in the state of Illinois, 11 1/2 west from Washington and 41 1/2 north latitude, a low and unwholesome tract of land which last fall caused him and most of the Norwegians who had settled there to lose their lives. The latest arrivals, some twenty in number, whom a Swede lured thither, also went, together with the same Swede, the way of all flesh.

This information was brought thither by a Norwegian who had been there this last winter, but neither he nor anyone else knew anything about Rynning's parents or place of birth.

For sixteen months I stayed at St. Louis in order to find out where the Norwegians lived, as well as to ascertain where suitable land was available to those who might wish to come to America. I have also found that all have been the victims of speculators (who for the sake of gain have bought up the land) and have permitted themselves to be scattered throughout nearly all the states. I have, however, found a superabundance of land, both fertile and wholesome and in every way desirable, and as upon my arrival I first petitioned Congress and the Senate, with recommendation from the American Minister of Copenhagen, I hope to obtain warranty for as much land as may be needed, and that no land swindlers shall be able to operate among the Norwegians who may desire to settle here.

This land lies on the northeast side of de Moyen River and on the west side of the Mississippi River, i. e. at 41 north and 16 west from Washington. A person may take the land he needs without buying it, and when in ten, twenty, or thirty years it is put on the market, he may retain the homesteaded land at $1.25 per acre, a matter which he will then be able to handle easily without much exertion, even though he has had to begin with empty hands.

The most convenient way of reaching here is to start from Bergen when there is a sufficient number of those who wish to come across to make it possible to either lease or buy a ship, pass to the north of Scotland and directly to New Orleans and from there on one of the large steamboats up the Mississippi 1,400 miles (234 Norwegian miles), where one will then disembark at Churchville, straight across from Warsaw at the mouth of de Moyen River, a distance of 10 (12 2/3 Norwegian) miles from here. The man who is then able to buy a cow and a few tools may at once take up his homestead and start in for himself; but the man without means may obtain work at good wages, so that he will soon be able to start independently.

The free land of which I have spoken is a part of Wisconsin Territory and in a sense belongs to no one, consequently it is the most free, and particularly convenient for the founding of a colony.

Our former correspondence was interrupted due to intervening circumstances, and this and the rest of my papers and books are at my son's place in Christiania, consequently that matter does not reach across to another hemisphere. {10}

All kinds of people from all nations of the world dwell here together as brothers and sisters, and although one hears or sees nothing of garrison, police forces, etc., yet one does not hear of thefts, begging, or any special feud between neighbors. Towards me they are all well disposed, helpful, and kind. No one can here deprive us of anything by force, but they can by cunning, financial power, and pre-emptions, which last mentioned practice I hope, with the aid of Congress, to be able to forestall in regard to the land we plan to occupy. Thus I believe I may in time be able to reassemble the still surviving Norwegian immigrants.

Speculators who have purchased large tracts of land have in such deals commonly acquired portions which are far too low and unwholesome; but as such portions usually are very fertile, it is much easier to lure unsuspecting people thither --- who will thereby shorten by so much their course to the grave.

Missouri being a slave state, there are here a great many colored people; these are kept in ignorance and superstition, in accordance with which they have their own clergy.

If thefts occur, it is taken for granted that a colored man is the guilty one, and just as though the thefts were perpetrated by monkeys, it is not a very difficult matter to retrieve the stolen goods, and the thief is then given a certain number of lashes on his bare back, according to circumstances.

St. Louis has about twenty thousand inhabitants, and although I had my smithy in a cellar facing the street, without a door, yet I never missed anything, either of tools, materials, or anything else I might have under my roof, in spite of the fact that the same house was inhabited by eight male and female slaves, who also frequently received visits from other colored people, and that the passageway of them all led directly by my cellar door; but they never had any evil intentions toward me, as I was just as kindly disposed and helpful towards them as towards other people.

As I am now living 1,500 miles (about 250 Norwegian miles) from the seaboard, I do not know of any better way of getting this to its destination than to send it to New York, to one Miss Lauman from Christians Amt, with the request that she forward it to Norway under sealed envelope.

Greet all those who may desire to know that I am in every way as well satisfied as any human being can be, and that anyone who may wish to come here can with little exertion be able to live just as happily. The least expensive way of reaching here is to pass from Europe directly to New Orleans, and then by steamboat up the Mississippi to Warsaw and disembark on the left side at Churchville, whence there is a distance of 10 miles (about 1 1/2 Norwegian miles) to this place.

Permit me in the meanwhile to ask that Your Worthiness will kindly entrust me to your gracious remembrance.


<1> The manuscript records of the Iowa Census for 1856 are available in the Division of Public Archives of the Historical, Memorial, and Art Department of Iowa at Des Moines.

<2> The facts presented in regard to the life of Alexander Cruikshank were taken from an autobiography now in possession of his son, J. P. Cruikshank, of Fort Madison, Iowa.

<3> J. R. Reiersen, Veiviser for Norske emigranter til de forenede nordamerikanske stater og Texas, 156 (Christiania, Norway, 1844). A copy of this book is in the Luther College Library, Decorah, Iowa.

<4> This information was taken from manuscript schedules in the Old Records Division, Bureau of the Census, Department of Commerce, Washington, D. C., and was furnished to the writer through the courtesy of Mr. Carlton C. Qualey of Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

<5> This letter was published in Morgenbladet (Christiania), October 10, 1839. Typewritten copies are in the possession of the Luther College Library, Decorah, Iowa, and the Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul. For the circumstances of the publication of the letter by the Reverend Jens Rynning, see Theodore C. Blegen, ed., Ole Rynning's True Account of America, 18-20 (Minneapolis, 1926).

<6> D. G. Ristad, "A Doctrinaire Idealist: Hans Barlien," in Studies and Records, 3:17.

<7> This information was secured through the courtesy of Mr. C. C. Qualey.

<8> The writer has spent several days in the Sugar Creek settlement and the surrounding country in an effort to make contacts and inquiries in regard to pioneer history.

<9> This translation was made by Professor I. Dørrum, head of the Norwegian department at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa.

<10> The text of this paragraph, according to the translator, is very doubtful.

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