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James Denoon Reymert and the Norwegian Press
By Martin L. Reymert  (Volume XII: Page 79)

In the Middle West, where communities were widely scattered and difficult to reach in the pioneer period, there were many other nationalities living side by side with the Norwegians. All possessed characteristics, customs, and cultures which were, at that time, alien to the Scandinavians. It was natural that the Norwegians in these scattered settlements should seek some means of retaining their national unity in these strange surroundings. The search for such a bond gave impetus to the first Norwegian newspaper of the Northwest, Nordlyset (The Northern Light), published in Muskego, Wisconsin, financed by Even Heg and Søren Bache, and edited by James Denoon Reymert, great-granduncle of the present writer.

On July 29, 1847, the first issue of Nordlyset appeared. "The purpose of the venture was to enlighten the Norwegian immigrants, who could not as yet readily read the American newspapers, concerning the history and government of the country; to present general news of social and religious interest; and to purvey information about happenings in the old country." The American character of the paper was demonstrated by a "translation of part of the Declaration of Independence; by the publication of 'a few remarks by Daniel Webster, member of Congress, and one of the most keen-minded American citizens,'" and by a cut of the American flag at the head of the editorial column. At first the paper made a declaration of political neutrality, but in September, 1848, it placed the names of Van Buren and Adams, the candidates of the Free-Soil party, on its masthead. The original motto of Nordlyset was "Freedom and Equality," but it was later changed to "Free Land, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men. " {1}

Ole Munch Ræeder writes:

Not to forget any of the merits of Nordlyset, I shall add that its appearance has caused several American papers to write about Norway and its people. . . . Considerable praise is bestowed on the Norwegian-Americans in general, and Mr. Reymert in particular. The Milwaukee Sentinel reported that his paper had five hundred subscribers shortly after the appearance of the first number. Soon after reading this account, I spoke with one of the publishers of Nordlyset, who told me that as yet they had almost no subscribers but had good hopes of getting some! {2}

The paper did have two hundred subscribers at the end of the first year. Ole J. Carlson, later a pioneer at Colton, South Dakota, contracted to deliver it to settlers in Muskego, and was to get as pay a pair of overalls the first year and thereafter ten dollars a year.

In reference to James Denoon Reymert and Nordlyset, Ræder writes:

The question now will be if there are men who are able and willing to use this means [the press] of instructing and influencing their countrymen. Unfortunately it cannot be denied that such men are few and far between -- if, indeed there are any. The natural result of the fact that so far almost exclusively men of the least educated classes have emigrated from our country will probably make itself felt in the use they make of their press. This tendency will be all the stronger because of the fact that the great majority of people, influenced by the examples all around them, realize the need of progress and of getting away from the sense of inferiority, which they now undoubtedly feel, and rightly enough, towards the Americans in so many respects. I do not know whether the present editor [Reymert] is adequate to his task, or can become so, because the two issues I have seen are scarcely fair samples by which to judge. At least, I should rather not do so because I prefer to give the compositor and the proof-reader the blame for as much as possible and, although there will still be enough blame left for the editor, we must at the same time bear in mind that he has spent the greater part of his life away from Norway (in Scotland, I believe), so that he may well be a cultured man in spite of the peculiarities that appear in his paper. Consequently, with the aid of a little will power, he may be able to remedy these faults; and we must not use too severe standards in judging an undertaking which is in itself most commendable, but which is surrounded by external difficulties. It will be a more serious fault if he lacks the capacity, which, for an editor, is of more importance than personal ability -- the capacity to secure the cošperation of whatever cultural ability is available. If this is the case, as I am inclined to fear, then the undertaking must be regarded as a failure. In that case, its only usefulness lies in the fact that it may stimulate interest in this sort of thing and thus open the way for a more capable person. At any rate, the journal is there now and can do good in a number of other ways. It is hardly to be doubted that it will take up a discussion of the public institutions of the country, make our countrymen familiar with the conditions which exist around about them, and thus put an end to the indifference which most, if not all of them, now show in this respect. {3}

The quality and history of any press are naturally closely identified with the career and personality of its editor. It may be interesting, in discussing the relationship of Reymert to the Norwegian press, to review briefly his life and activities, stressing his public life in the United States, into which his editorship of Nordlyset led him.

The Reymert family dates back to the Gothic invasion of Spain, whence the name originated. They settled first in Holstein, and then in Norway over five hundred years ago (about 1372 A.D.). Father, son, grandson, and great-grandson were in succession the pastors of the same church at Søgue Parish from 1636 to 1738. The mother, Jessie Sinclair Denoon, was a Scotch lady of the Campbell clan, whose family grounds were a part of the present Argyle estate near the Clyde, where the castle of Denoon yet stands. Two uncles fought in the American Revolution; one died in the naval service. An uncle on the mother's side was in disfavor with the British because in his publication he favored the independence of the American colonies. He came to the United States during the Revolution. He preached for fifty years in the "Auld Stane Kirk" at Caledonia, New York. The name of the Reverend Alexander Denoon is yet venerated by the Scotch there.

At fifteen young Reymert left home to complete a course of study at a commercial college at Christiania. He was the youngest student there. Next he went to Scotland, where he entered the commercial house of John Mitchell and Company at Leith, spending four years there. Later he studied law and literature at Edinburgh in the law offices of Murdoek and Spencer. He was under the guardianship of his uncle, the Reverend James Young, a Presbyterian minister.

One day he read a glowing account of America and the West; in September, 1842, he arrived in New York, twenty-one years of age. He sailed in "The Lady of the Lake" from Glasgow. Aboard were a few cabin passengers and about three hundred Scotch and Irish immigrants. They were tossed about on the Atlantic for seventy days -- poverty, sickness, and famine spread among the immigrants. The heartless captain remained at sea solely to dispose of his stores at exorbitant prices, taking the last dollar of those on board for food. Reymert arrived in New York almost without a penny; then someone relieved the "trusting stranger" of his baggage. After ten days' search one trunk was found, but it had been opened and rifled. Reymert wandered around in New York until he met a good old Scotch dame whom he had befriended; she offered him shelter in a cellar room and a bed on the floor.

At the Mercantile Library of New York Reymert met the librarian, a Scandinavian, who advised him to go west. He disposed of his best coat for a canalboat ticket to Buffalo and one dollar in cash. This price was paid by a Norwegian missionary who promised to follow Reymert and become his patron saint in Wisconsin. On the squadron of canalboats, which were towed up the Hudson from New York, there was a promiscuous gathering of Dutch, Swiss, Germans, and French. Because of Reymert's knowledge of languages, he became the interpreter for all of them. With his last cent, he landed in Buffalo and at once went to the steamer "Bunker Hill," which was headed for Chicago, receiving passage for work. Reymert had been born on a rock-bound coast and was familiar with the sea and with navigation. He was valuable on the stormy, ten-day trip to Milwaukee, working partly as sailor and partly as engineer.

At Milwaukee, a dismal village of about a thousand people, where there was no pier or landing place, a tugboat met the vessel to take passengers to shore. Milwaukee was then headquarters for the society of the Northwest, embracing a population of twenty-five thousand, spread over what now constitutes Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. Here was a world open for the immigrant. Reymert soon took an active part in the organization of the society and in developing the immense national resources lying as yet intact. Long exploring trips to regions where no foot had trod, camping, swimming rivers, and living on hunter's fare required strength and courage. He traveled for weeks without seeing a civilized man. "Where now stand cities with their churches and palatial mansions, the wanderer slept without a human being within the range of miles."

Then came his first chance to make money teaching in a Yankee school. The first lesson was quickly taught, by putting out the biggest boy and three more. His salary was sixteen dollars a month and "board around." At the end of the term he received his salary in "scrip," which was practically worthless except in the payment of taxes. The superintendent shaved it kindly, 25 cents per dollar, leaving a sum total of $7.50 for three months of work -- not a great capital, but a great lesson in western municipal finance. In 1843 Reymert undertook his first law proceeding, when he tried to serve a warrant on a person who lived forty miles from the seat of justice. It took him a week to come and go through trackless forests; there were no roads nor bridges, and he had to ford streams.

In 1844 he married Anna Caspara Hensen and settled down on a farm at Norway in Racine County, Wisconsin. Family letters and papers have revealed the unique method by which Reymert (in common with many another early male pioneer) acquired the "lady of his heart." He and three of his associates in pioneering decided that a wife and a home should also be among their blessings in this new world. So, following the accepted custom of those times, they sent letters home to Norway (accompanied, of course, by their credentials), asking that four young ladies be dispatched as soon as possible to be their wives. The four young ladies were duly shipped off, and eventually they arrived to meet their future husbands. Each of the four gentlemen in question was equally charmed with all four of the young ladies. So in order to decide who should court whom, young Reymert proposed that they throw dice about the matter. Anna Caspara Hensen fell to James and was duly courted and won. Some time later he wrote a letter to his nephew, August Reymert in New York, which ran thus: "Caspara is all right, August, if she would only disagree with me once in a while. She sits in her chair and she knits and she knits, and to everything I say she answers 'Yes, James, you are right, James ' -- I tell you I can scarcely stand it!"

It was at this time, 1845, that Reymert, Heg, and Bache, all three prominent men in the Muskego community, considered the establishment of a newspaper. In 1846, when the first constitution for Wisconsin was introduced to the people, Ræder stated in his letters to Norway that "Mr. Reymert is . . . said to have written a circular against the constitution." {4} As is well known, this first constitutional draft met with general disfavor.

The paper, Nordlyset, brought Reymert into public notice. He was elected to the constitutional convention of the state of Wisconsin in 1847. At this convention he was given a commission by the constitutional assembly to print two thousand copies of the proposed constitution to be distributed among the Scandinavians.

He was known as the author of the article on suffrage in the Wisconsin constitution, and he also originated the clause in that instrument that "no distinction shall be made by law between the resident aliens and citizens in reference to the possession, enjoyment, or descent of property." The common schools, the rights of married women, the homestead exemption, and the abolition of imprisonment for debt, of the usury laws, and of capital punishment were objects of his special attention. Reymert was the first Norwegian to hold a state office in this country. He was elected to the first state legislature in 1849. He was elected justice, superintendent of schools, and supervisor, and was returned again and again to the assembly and to the senate. He served as vice-consul for Sweden and Norway to the United States. He was appointed receiver of the United States land office, to the United States subtreasury, and disbursing agent for the northwestern states. He was district attorney, state elector, and he held a variety of other public positions. A friend of Stephen A. Douglas, he became the Democratic nominee for Congress in his district on the Douglas ticket. The Congressional convention was held at Prairie du Chien, and his friend, Mark M. Pomeroy, known to political fame as "Brick," who published a paper in La Crosse, wanted Reymert nominated. Since there was no steamer going down, Pomeroy purchased a birch-bark canoe and, with another friend of Reymert's, paddled one hundred miles down river and made the nomination. Pomeroy and Reymert stumped over two hundred miles from Illinois to Lake Superior, making two or three speeches a day for six weeks, journeying no less than twenty miles on horseback or in a buggy each day. Every schoolhouse heard them proclaim the greatness of their chief, the "Little Giant."

In 1851 Ole Bull, the famous violinist, Reymert's early friend, went with some Milwaukeeans to visit Reymert, only to find that his fine large residence had just burned. The few things which had been salvaged were heaped in the middle of the floor of a log shanty in the neighborhood. The people all assembled there, Ole Bull played the "Carnival of Venice," and everyone gave three cheers for the Stars and Stripes and for old Norway. It was as merry as a Christmas fete -- amid the ruins. Bull later invented a piano, and he commissioned Reymert to secure the patent on it. He also gave Reymert the right to act as his attorney when he was absent.

In 1852, while living on the shores of Silver Lake on his farm of about 3,500 acres, Reymert founded a town. He named the little western village "Denoon," built mills, workshops, a hotel, a printing office, and so on. But emigrants brought ship fever and cholera. A pestilence raged, and Reymert was the only active organizer. His wife was in confinement with his last-born son. Transients fled; death claimed victims every hour. Reymert improvised a hospital and hired a pardoned convict from Norway as chief steward, who said that he "wanted to do as much good in the world as he had done evil." The only physician died and Reymert rode to Milwaukee on horseback and brought another. Family legend tells that James picked up this physician bodily from his office and placed him in front of himself on his horse. He did not intend to run the risk of the worthy doctor's refusal. But he died also, as did the convict steward. In the following week, Reymert buried 110 persons in coffins made at his mill. One night, while his wife and child were asleep, he went to a neighbor's house to look after a family. The mother died; Reymert ran to the mill, shouldered an empty coffin, put it on a spring wagon, drew it by hand to the house, and, with the help of the gravedigger and the old grandmother, buried the body before morning. Then he returned to his own home without Mrs. Reymert's discovering his absence. The town came to nought and Reymert soon left it for other fields. However, his memory remains, for Silver Lake is now known as Lake Denoon.

In 1861 Reymert removed to New York City; his professional connection with Caleb Cushing and other eminent eastern jurists had taken him there often. His career there was marked from the beginning by eminent success in his profession. He was engaged in a large number of interesting cases, including the Peterson abandonment case.

Reymert organized the Hercules Mutual Life Assurance Society of the United States as counsel, and afterwards accepted the presidency of the society. After firmly establishing it, he retired to take up again a large and lucrative legal practice. At the time of the Civil War, Reymert was a very active lawyer in New York. He aided Colonel Hans C. Heg to raise the famous Fifteenth Wisconsin Regiment. On July 30, 1862, Colonel Heg wrote to Reymert: "One more Scandinavian Regiment ought to be raised in Wisconsin and Minnesota. This war is a stern reality and will undoubtedly last a long time. The country will need the services of all good and capable men." Heg at one time was a typesetter for Nordlyset and through Nordlyset he became interested in politics.

In 1871-72, Reymert's health began to fail. His need for a dry climate took him to Peru, where he stayed a short while. When his health had improved he went to Chile. There he bought a farm on the Bio-Bio River near Mulchen, Chile. The farm is described in a letter to Reymert's nephews, Thorwald and August Reymert, dated November 4, 1874: {5}

I am now working on my farm of about 3 square miles and have about 80 acres in crops -- peas, beans, corn, potatoes, linseed, and I am making ready for wheat and will next spring plant a vineyard. I have plenty more land for you both, other enterprizes are open if you see fit and think best. I have possession of about 10,000 acres -- splendid land.

On July 27, 1875, he wrote about an attack of bandits:

I was living so exposed for want of reliable men about me that I could not say for how long I should hold my position. I have the land yet, all of it, but the Indians and vagabonds have stolen all my cattle and horses and burned my house. I held them back until they became too many for me as they counted 86 against myself and 5 of my Indians -- 6. However, that is not so bad as it might be, as we are all sound and safe and the cowardly vagabonds are some of them killed by this time.

After the attack Reymert went to Mulchen, a city of five thousand inhabitants.

Here I have good friends and countrymen. I am busy as I am administrator of this Hazenda, that is, Manager of all and every thing and everybody in it. It is a large estate extending from the River Buna to the River Bio-Bio about 12-16 miles square. There are about 1,000 people on it, sheep I counted 11,500, horses over 800, oxen about 850, cows and young cattle 250, a large vineyard of 100,000 bearing plants, apple trees by many many thousands, wheat sowed now about 6,000 bushels -- all work with steam engines, for thrashing about 6 to 7 Pitts largest thrashing machines. The establishment has also a large flour mill in the city which earns about 800 dollars per day and a saw mill on the Bio-Bio which clears 25,000 Doler annually. The proprietor is Enrique I. Hunster, a native born but son of an Englishman. He is married to an American lady whose brother is at the head of the whole thing and a splendid fellow, from the States, of course a Baltimorian -- Elijah McCrea. . . The Head Bookkeeper at the principal office is a Wm. Blumer from Christiania.

In June, 1876, Reymert received a letter from August Reymert which stated that the family in New York had run into financial difficulties. Reymert immediately decided to return to the United States to help build up the family fortune again. Because of the rate of exchange, he received very little for the money he had acquired in Chile. He arrived in San Francisco on September 29, 1876, and began to practice law shortly afterward. Several months after his arrival he received a letter from Coles Bashford of Arizona Territory which suggested that he go to Arizona, where it would be easier to make money quickly. In Arizona he became a partner of Jesse Hardesty, who was then district attorney for Pinal County. During the latter part of the eighties, Reymert published the weekly Pinal Drill. At the same time he was still practicing law. His son, James Denoon Reymert, Jr., was also in Pinal City as an agent for the Fireman's Fund Insurance.

About 1883 Reymert bought some mines -- the Reymert Silver Mines. The names that he gave to individual mines were often chosen from localities where he had lived at one time, such as the "Milwaukee," the "Bio-Bio," after the river in Chile, the "Wisconsin," and many others.

Reymert was a unique public figure with unusual oratorical ability. He was often invited to speak before clubs, organizations, and churches. From his newspaper work and his travels, he acquired a vast fund of knowledge. In a study of Reymert, published in 1872, his characteristics are described:

The organization of this gentleman shows a good degree of vitality, a tendency to preserve the balance between the brain and body. He does not exhaust his strength, but rather works with his surplus of vital energy. His social nature is strongly marked and it is one of his pleasantest occupations to provide for the happiness of those he loves. He is disposed towards investigation and analysis, he requires proof, hence he is a slow believer. This characteristic affects his religious sentiments so far as to render him free from bigotry or superstition. He has much respect for sacred things, but is not governed by conventional usages in his religious observances. He has a strong practical insight into business affairs, but his large benevolence inclines him to be free in the bestowal of charity and kindnesses. As a worker he is earnest and thorough-going. He is independent, accepts approval, but does not go out of his way to secure applause or to avoid blame. In decisions he is quick, and aims to be prompt in putting his designs into execution. He is quick and positive in answering questions. He has a very warm imagination, and is easily awakened to an appreciation of the poetic and ideal. He should be known for considerable oratorical ability. {6}

James Denoon Reymert died in the spring of 1896 in Alhambra, California.

Notes

<1> Theodore C. Blegen, ed., The Civil War Letters of Colonel Hans Christian Heg, 10 (Northfield, 1936).

<2> Gunnar J. Malmin, ed., America in the Forties: The Letters of Ole Munch Ræder, 45 (Norwegian-American Historical Association, Travel and Description Series, vol. 3 --Minneapolis, 1929).

<3> America in the Forties, 20.

<4> America in the Forties, 25.

<5> This letter, and those cited hereafter, are in the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association at St. Olaf College, Northfield.

<6> Phrenological Journal, vol. 54 (1872).

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