NAHA Header

NAHA Logo

Still More Light on the Kendall Colony: A Unique Slooper Letter
    by Mario S. De Pillis (Volume 20: Page 24)

The discovery of any new material concerning the “sloop folk” or “sloopers” will always be a matter of joy and excitement to Norwegian Americans and to historians of American migration. For these sloopers, the vanguard of Norwegian immigration, belong to the heroic age of that great movement to this country and have an importance almost as great, in their own way, as the Pilgrim Fathers of 1620. Their cultural and ethnic impact on wide areas of the United States and even their effect on American religious history approach that of the English Puritans.

The story of the sloopers is known by more than specialists and is easily retold. In July, 1825, fifty-two Norwegians under the leadership of a Quaker by the name of Lars Larsen sailed from Stavanger, Norway, for New York City. Their tiny vessel, the “Restoration,” was even smaller than the “Mayflower”; so small, indeed, that it was confiscated by the Federal government for breaking safety regulations, and released only after a pardon had been granted by President John Quincy Adams. But the sloop carried more than human freight; it was heavily laden with the same religious and social aspirations that have drawn people to America from the beginning: to obtain freedom of worship and economic opportunity.

Religiously, the sloopers were mostly of the Haugean Lutheran persuasion-the Norwegian form of Lutheran pietism-with a handful of Quakers among the leaders. Neither denomination enjoyed complete freedom of worship. And while they sought economic opportunity, the immigrants did not come from the lowest classes of Norwegian society. Most of them had been free farmers and artisans sadly oppressed by social conditions in early nineteenth-century Norway. [25]

Upon their arrival the sloopers were met by their advance agent, the famous Cleng Peerson (1788-1865). A half-legendary figure, Peerson was an adventurous and somewhat eccentric dreamer who nevertheless accomplished a great practical feat: the successful colonization of the first Norwegian groups in the United States. From him, and from the movement of sloopers, stems the great nineteenth-century flood of Norwegian immigration. In proportion to Norway’s population, this flood was exceeded at its peak, among all the European countries, only by Ireland. Among Peerson’s just titles are the Father of Norwegian Immigration and the Norwegian Pathfinder.

The main purpose of the letter that follows was to request a loan from the Harmony Society of Economy (now Ambridge), Pennsylvania. This German communistic society was, with the Shakers, the most successful of all those religious communitarian ventures in which the nineteenth century abounded. The Harmonists were also known as Rappites, after the name of their founder, “Vater” George Rapp, a Pietist who had brought the group from southern Germany in 1804. By the 1820’s they were rather affluent. And in 1825, just before the letter was written, they had sold their colony of Harmony, Indiana, to the famous Robert Owen.

The longer statement on the first page of the letter describes to the wealthy Rappites the piteous conditions of the Norwegian settlers and is signed by seven of them - all sloopers. They are writing from Murray (Kendall) Township, Orleans County, New York, then a wilderness area which later became known in Norwegian-American history as the “Kendall colony” - the first Norwegian colony in America. The signers wanted to borrow $1,600 to purchase land. Apparently their capital had all been tied up in the sloop, which they had hoped to sell for about this amount in the port of New York. After their legal troubles had ended, they were able to get only $400 for the ship.

Of the seven persons who signed the letter with Cleng [26] Peerson, one, “Andrew Knudson,” has not been positively identified. This may have been the slooper Andrew Dahl (Endre Knudson). Or it may have been Andrew Stangeland (Andrias Stangelan, Knudson), who arrived before the sloop and had been a comrade of Peerson. The other six had been passengers on the sloop. The usual spellings and complete forms of their names follow: Thormod Madland, Daniel Stenson Rossadal, Gudmund Danielson Haugaas, Cornelius Nelson Hersdal, Nels Nelson Hersdal, and Henry Christopherson Hervig.

At first glance the whole document seems to be in one hand - that of an American who has come to the aid of his Norwegian friends. This is probably the case. It is, however, quite possible that two Americans wrote out the document; for the handwriting of the shorter note signed by Peerson is in a slightly different American hand.

But while some American may have transcribed the thoughts of the sloopers, the seven signatures to the longer note were obviously written by the Norwegians themselves. The “x” of the illiterate appears before the name of Daniel Rossadal, but he seems to have been the only signer who could not write.

Originally the present writer thought the shorter note to be in the handwriting of Peerson. The writing differs slightly from that of the longer one. And the shorter note seems to be signed by Peerson in the same American hand that wrote it. Thirty years ago the explanation would have been simple: Peerson did not sign the letter because he could not write. But this myth has long since been refuted. {1} Moreover, during the preparation of this introductory statement Dean Theodore C. Blegen discovered two indubitably authentic Peerson signatures in Texas, signatures which are very different from the one in our letter but which nevertheless constitute further proof that he could write. In general, the evidence is against his having signed the short note. [27]

There is of course no doubt that Peerson is responsible for the shorter note and, indeed, for the whole project. It is known that Peerson never held a pen to paper when he could avoid it.

The interesting question still remains: why, in so weighty a matter as that projected by the whole document, did he neglect even to sign his name - especially when his seven companions carefully did so? My guess is that after overseeing the first draft he moved on to the kind of direct actions that he so much preferred. Peerson’s note, in its peculiar position and in its content, constitutes another affirmation of Dean Blegen’s judgment that Peerson was the most important leader among the early Norwegian immigrants. His note is separated from the longer statement and in it he states that he would act officially for the others.

The fact that Peerson was a communitarian by conviction; that at least one of his cosigners became a prominent Mormon; that the Norwegian Quakers and Haugeans were not unfamiliar with the communal way of life; that all eight were closely tied either by bonds of marriage or by home parish (Tysvæt, near Stavanger) - all these facts have very important implications that will be explored in the future by the present writer. But the mere fact that any such personal slooper document has survived from this period is almost as important as what lies between the lines. That the first Norwegians suffered great privation is a well-authenticated fact of Norwegian-American tradition. But of slooper activities between 1825 and 1833 very little is known. Of Peerson him self still less has been discovered. One of the first historians of the Norwegian Americans, Rasmus B. Anderson, was a diligent collector of documents and of oral tradition. Yet for all his zealous interviewing and busy investigations, he admitted he could learn nothing of Peerson’s activities or whereabouts in the years between 1825 and 1883. {2} In the fifty years since he wrote, nothing of importance has been discovered for the period mentioned. In 1954, after some painstaking work [28]

[29]

[30] among the land records of the Kendall area, Professor Richard Canuteson reported in these pages the discovery of a map of 1832 showing the names and farms of several sloopers, including Peerson, but little else. {3} The letter now presented is the first document of the sloopers that describes their activities in the years 1825-33. Of the signers little more need be said beyond the observations already made. But a final remark might be made concerning the addressee and the physical aspects of the document. The letter is written on a large single sheet of paper folded in half. On the first page appears the body of the letter, and the second page contains Peerson’s separate note. Both pages are here reproduced in facsimile. The two remaining pages contain very little writing. One has this short Rappite endorsement at the bottom left: “Gentlemen & Co.” The other page contains the address, another Rappite endorsement, and a postmark. The addressee, Frederick (Reichert) Rapp, who died in 1834, was the adopted son of “Vater” Rapp, and was the trustee and general factotum of the society. The sloopers had headed their letter “Murray,” which became Kendall in 1837. The letter is post marked Clarkson, which had been part of Murray Township until 1819. {4}

The present writer discovered the letter in the fall of 1957 in the archives of the Harmony Society in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. There was no definite record of further correspondence with the sloopers. {5} [31]

CLENG PEERSON AND SEVEN SLOOPERS TO THE HARMONY SOCIETY
[Archives, Harmony Society, Ambridge, Pennsylvania - A.L.S.]

FREDERICK RAPP Esqr.
Sir.
On behalf of our present sufferings we make bold to address you - We are in a country new to us & the forest is almost an insurmountable barrier to us - We are not expeditious in clearing it We are destitute of provisions-We cannot procure necessaries from the surrounding people for the country is new and they are mostly poor though good & Charitable - We wish you if it be consistent for you to grant us our request to advance money enough to pay for about 400 acres of land on or before the beginning of 1828-It will require sixteen hundred dollars - We also have an excellent site for a saw mill and are anxious to have one erected soon - To accomplish these objects we are willing to have the Whole put in mortgage for security of the repayment of the money advanced Should you be able to grant our request you will add one more bright gem to the catalogue of your charities and bring joy ease and felicity to a number of People who are now poor & pennyless & in a foreign land-Please write us an answer Signed by the Norwegian Settlers in the Town of Murray County of Orleans -
State of Newyork
Murray June 27. 1826

ANDREW KNUDSON
TORMOD MADLAND.
x DANIL ROSADHAL.
GUDMUND DANIELSEN
C. NELSON
N. NELSON
H. HARVIG

FREDERICK RAPP Esq.
DrSir.
If you can grant us any assistanc I wish you to write and let us know as soon as possible in order that I may come and make some arrangements We stand in need of clothing and necessaries for building a sawmill
CLENG PEERSON

Notes

<1> See Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America: 1825-1860, chapter and Appendix I (Northfield, 1931).
<2> Rasmus B. Anderson, First Chapter of Norwegian Immigration, 1821-1840: Its Causes and Results, 179 (Madison, Wisconsin, 1906).
<3> This is not to belittle Mr. Canuteson’s extremely useful findings - which I hope to discuss and utilize in a future study. For his article see “A Little More Light on the Kendall Colony,” in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 18:82-101 (Northfield, 1954).
<4> Clarkson was probably named by local Quaker friends of the sloopers for Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) of Wisbeach, England, a great ally of the English Quakers, especially during the antislavery agitation. Clarkson was a close friend of Joseph Allen Gurney (1788-1847) who had visited the area and was a hero to Mrs. Lars Larsen. On Clarkson and Gurney, see Dictionary of National Biography; Mrs. Larsen is mentioned in Rasmus B. Anderson, “The Norse Mayflower,” in American-Scandinavian Review, 13:364 (1925).
<5> I wish to thank the curator of Old Economy, Mr. Lawrence Thurman, for his permission to publish this letter and for his patience in all the delays en countered.

<<   Previous Page   |   Next Page   >>


 
To the Home Page