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A Letter of 1852 from Eldorado
    by translated and edited by J. R. Christianson (Volume 32: Page 149)

Two Norwegians traveling on skis arrived at Fort Atkinson, Winnebago territory, in the dead of winter in 1843. They had come skiing from the Rock Prairie settlement in Wisconsin, had crossed the Mississippi near the old fur-trading center of Prairie du Chien, and had skied along the military road through the wooded hills and across the natural prairies of the Winnebago lands for sixty miles until they came to the fort, a few miles from the Winnebago agency. Northeastern Iowa was still Indian territory, occupied by the Winnebagos; hostile Sac and Fox roamed to the south, and the warlike Dakotas to the north. The area was not officially open to white settlement and would not be until the year 1848, so these first two Norwegians in northeastern Iowa found employment by teaching agriculture to the Winnebagos who farmed near the fort.

Two years later, however, in 1845, one of these two Norwegians claimed land along the military road south of the Indian reservation, in Clayton county, Iowa. The other man went back to the Rock Prairie settlement, west of Beloit, where he told still others about the varied lands in the hills to the west of the Mississippi. In 1848, he returned to settle near his companion.

By that time, Norwegian settlers had begun to trickle into the area formerly reserved for the Winnebagos, which was now officially open to settlement. In 1849, several Norwegian families from Rock Prairie arrived and settled in the Clayton county area, along the military road which ran to the north of the Turkey River. Others settled at Glenwood and Washington Prairie in Winneshiek county, and along Paint Creek in Allamakee county. This was the beginning of the first Norwegian settlements in Iowa. {1}

A Norwegian named Bertel Osuldsen (or Bartel Ossuldson), author of the letter that follows, was among these arrivals of the year 1849. Like many of the Norwegian pioneers of northeastern Iowa, he came from the Rock Prairie settlement. Holand said that he was originally from Amli, north of Arendal. {2} He may have had ties to a group of emigrants who left that part of Norway in 1846 and settled in widely scattered areas including Texas and Missouri. {3} When Osuldsen wrote to his relatives in Norway in 1852, he addressed the letter to his brother Jacob who lived at Søvik, near Grimstad, not far from Arendal. {4}

Religion was a matter of primary importance to this God-fearing emigrant from the southern coast of Norway, as it was to many of the Norwegian pioneers in Iowa. Establishment of regular patterns of worship was one of their first concerns, and the primary permanent structure of community in their settlements became the Lutheran congregation. In northeastern Iowa, religious life among the Norwegian settlers took shape through a three-stage process. Lay preachers were active from the very beginning: this was the first stage. The second stage came with the visits of itinerant Lutheran clergymen from Wisconsin, who preached, baptized, and helped to organize formal congregations. The third stage was when these newly organized congregations were able to call a resident pastor. Bertel Osuldsen, an active Christian layman, wrote his letter at a time that allowed him to offer a glimpse into all three of these stages.

Pastor C. L. Clausen of Rock Prairie had been the first itinerant Lutheran minister to visit the Iowa settlements. During the summer of 1851, he had ministered at the Paint Creek settlement and at two places along the Turkey River. {5} Bertel Osuldsen was almost certainly one of his former parishioners from Rock Prairie whom Clausen saw in Iowa.

In that same summer of 1851, Pastor Nils Brandt emigrated to Wisconsin from Norway. One of his sisters had emigrated earlier with her husband and family. By 1851, they had settled near the upper reaches of the Turkey River, northeast of Fort Atkinson, in what became Winneshiek county. Brandt wanted to visit these relatives, and at the same time he planned to minister to the scattered Norwegian settlers in Iowa. He went first to Rock Prairie, in order to visit Pastor Clausen and get the names of some of these people. One of the names was very likely that of Bertel Osuldsen, who would have been an excellent contact for Brandt. Armed with this list of names, Brandt crossed the Mississippi in the autumn of 1851 and visited the chain of new Norwegian settlements. Upon his return to Wisconsin, he received his first regular call in America, to the Rock River pastorate, not far from Beloit.

Brandt made a second mission journey into northeastern Iowa in the summer of 1852. He organized three congregations - Turkey River, Little Iowa, and Paint Creek - and he helped these congregations to draft a joint letter of call for a resident minister from Norway. {6} Family tradition has it that Bertel Osuldsen was the one who wrote that letter of call.

It was about this time that Bertel Osuldsen sat down to write a letter to his brother Jacob and other relatives in Norway. He had come to Iowa three years earlier from Wisconsin. Since then, he had claimed and cleared a piece of land near Gunder in Clayton county, then sold it and moved farther west along the Turkey River. He was now living near Eldorado, some six or eight miles southeast of Fort Atkinson, in a valley as picturesque as its name. The Winnebagos were gone now, and the area was acquiring a scattering of ethnic settlements, including a fair number of Norwegian ones.

Bertel Osuldsen wrote in a regular hand and a polished, precisely grammatical Norwegian which reveal him as a man of good education. Perhaps he had attended school in Grimstad or served an apprenticeship as clerk to a merchant in that little coastal town. In any case, he did later serve as a pastor’s assistant and teacher among his countrymen in America. His letter also reveals that he was a man of sincere piety.

The purpose of his letter was to inform the family at home concerning conditions in America, and to induce some of them to emigrate. It was not really written from one individual to another, as a modern letter would be, but from one community to another: from an immigrant settlement on the frontier of the New World to the home community in Norway. In the Eldorado settlement there were several families who had come from the same part of Norway and were known to the people back home. The letter contains greetings to a number of specific individuals, special greetings from Marte to Aunt Helga, and even a paragraph dictated by one Ole Torjusen, who seems to have been a neighbor in the Old World as in the New.

This letter gives a factual account of pioneer life, with details concerning dwellings, livestock, crop yields, prices, and land values, as well as religious conditions. It tells a good deal about pioneer days in northeastern Iowa, and it must have been well received by its original audience. The recipient, Jacob Osuldsen, later emigrated to America and brought the letter with him. He gave it to his niece, Berthe Ossuldson. Her heirs have owned it until the present, displaying it in a frame with double glass so both sides could be seen. {7}

Eldorado Settlement in Iowa
the 8th August 1852

Dear Relatives and Friends,

Our correspondence goes very slowly and, I fear, also uncertainly. I have sent three letters to you but have received only one reply. This is a bit sad - that we cannot be informed more frequently about each other. I answered the letter of April 14, 1851, which I received from you, father-in-law. I replied some eight weeks after that date, and I asked you to reply but have received no answer. I now intend to tell all of you something about our situation here, and I hope that you will send us a letter as quickly as possible, so that we can hear about you.

Last autumn, I sold my klem [claim] or land to an Irishman, and this past spring I claimed land again, ten English miles west of where I lived before. On this land I have now cleared ten acres, six of which are fenced and sown with maize and potatoes, together with some vegetables. About twenty Norwegian families have settled here where I live, and I believe that more will come here in time. Some have come here directly from Norway this summer, and they say that grain prices are high and day wages low in Norway. It is a pity that more of you cannot come over here, where day wages are at least half a dollar and up to $1.25 for common laborers, and the highest price of wheat is fifty cents a bushel.

We live two English miles from the town of Eldorado, where there is a sawmill and a grain mill. The house we now live in was built by me this past spring of basswood, and I bought boards in town for the floor and the roof. I have now hewn new house timbers, mostly of oak, and intend to erect a new dwelling in the autumn and use the old one for a cow stall. It is true that the newcomers, here in America, live in utterly simple dwellings, but when they are finished and well covered with whitewash they are quite warm and could compare favorably with ordinary farmhouses in Norway, at least internally if not externally. As a whole, however, our good Norwegian people cannot compare to Americans with respect to cleanliness.

I do not have any other news to tell you except that we now have our third child, a girl named Berthe. She was born on the 12th of July last, and we are all healthy and living well. We can satisfy our material needs in abundant measure here, and I believe that the religious life is more active than in Norway. We gather regularly each Sunday for meetings in homes, taking turns around the settlement or parish. There are some pious Haugeans, in particular, who preside at these meetings, speak, and recite prayers.

Nor do we lack clergymen, but they are somewhat at variance with our ancient Lutheran teachings, and consequently, we have cooperated with several nearby settlements this summer in seeking a pastor from Norway. Our temporary Lutheran pastor is a Pastor Brandt from Wisconsin, who came over here last summer, a young man, but to the best of my knowledge pious, capable, and good.

The harmful potato rot is found here as in Norway, and I believe I lost 200 bushels last harvest. This spring I bought two bushels for seed for two dollars, and they are still good. We have eleven cattle (six steers and five cows), fifteen pigs, some chickens, and all the necessary equipment. The land I now have is especially suitable, with woods, arable land, pasture, and good spring water right by the house. I have claimed 160 acres but have not paid for it yet. Most of the settlers usually occupy the land for two or three years or more without purchasing it. The American government is presently working on a law which would allow anybody to acquire title to 160 acres of land for nothing - without paying.

Marte sends greetings to her Aunt Helga and would like her to come over here and bring one or two of the Homstøl children if they can get permission to do so.

I, Ole, send greetings to your father and mother, as well as your brothers and sisters. Do what you can in order to get help to come here, and I promise to pay your transportation when you arrive. If you come next summer, you can let me know and I will meet you in Milwaukee in Wisconsin and help you get here. I am now working at a sawmill and have been getting $16 per month, but I think that I shall soon get more. I have now begun to cut with the aforenamed saw. Since last we corresponded, I have been quite well and comfortable.

Live well, all of you,
Ole Torjusen

In conclusion, we send most hearty greetings to all relatives and friends. May the Lord’s blessing be upon you in bodily and especially in spiritual matters.

Jacob my brother! I cannot imagine that you will decide not to come over here when you learn that the difference between Norway and America is so great. Come, all who can pay the transportation, and you will not find such distinction between persons as in Norway. I do not want to expand on this matter, but everyone who comes here will discover the difference for himself, although there are without doubt . . . [The script is illegible here where the paper is torn on a fold.] the world over.

Father! I have frequently wished that you were with us, but above all else, I should wish that you were with our common Father, or that you were prepared for Him by faith in the Savior.

Let sinners confess to one another and pray for one another. Pray without ceasing. Yes! Let us all pray! Live well. My address is Mr. B. Osuldsen, Eldorado P.O., Iowa, North America.

Please be satisfied with our incomplete correspondence and greetings, with the most hearty regards from all of us,

B. Osuldsen.

At Christmas time in the year 1853, the first resident pastor to the Norwegian Lutheran congregations of northeastern Iowa finally arrived from Norway. This was U. V. Koren, and the arrival was well documented in the diary of his wife Elisabeth. {8} Bertel Osuldsen was mentioned on January 12, 1854, in the minutes of the first congregational meeting held after the arrival of Pastor Koren. {9} A committee met on February 22, 1854, to divide the pastorate into districts, and six districts were established. At the second congregational meeting on March 10, 1854, pastors’ assistants were elected in each of the six districts. Bertel Osuldsen was chosen in the Sixth District, which lay farthest south, in the area that later became Stavanger congregation. This meant, among other things, that on Sundays when Pastor Koren was not able to hold divine services in that district, Bertel Osuldsen was responsible for holding a devotional meeting with prayer, singing of hymns, and reading of the text for the day and of a sermon from a good Lutheran book of homilies. {10} Presumably he continued to get on well with the “pious Haugeans” who had formerly assumed similar duties. He also served as the congregational schoolmaster for the district, and as host to Pastor Koren when he came there on his pastoral circuit. The letter of 1852 indicates that Bertel Osuldsen was an excellent choice for these responsibilities.

Notes

<1> Carlton C. Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States (Northfield, Minnesota, 1938), 83-86. George T. Flom, Chapters on Scandinavian Immigration to Iowa (Iowa City, Iowa, 1906), 65. Robert C. Wideraenders, “Lutheranism in Iowa,” in Michael Sherer, ed., Iowa District ALC 1976 Congregations Directory (n.p., 1976), 11.

<2> Hjalmar Rued Holand, De norske settlementers historie (4th ed., Chicago, 1912), 332.

<3> Frank G. Nelson, trans. and ed., Pathfinder for Norwegian Emigrants by Johan Reinert Reiersen (Northfield, Minnesota, 1981). In a private letter of April 23, 1981, Frank G. Nelson informed me that he knew of no connection between Bertel Osuldsen and Osuld Nielsen Enge, a leader of the 1846 emigrants, though the documentation is somewhat incomplete.

<4> Rygh, Nedenes amt, vol. 8 of Norske gaardnavne (Kristiania, 1905), lists no place named Søvigen or Søvik. Fortegnelse over matrikulerede eiendomme og deres skyld i Nedenes amt, affattet i henhold til kgl. Resolution af 29de mai og 6te december 1886 (np., n.d.), lists a place named Søvig, apparently a cottage belonging to the farm of Vestre Augland in Fjære parish, Nedenes amt.

<5> Qualey, trans. and ed., “Claus L. Clausen, Pioneer Pastor and Settlement Promoter: Illustrative Documents,” in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 6 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1931), 12-29.

<6> Wiederaenders, “Lutheranism in Iowa,” 12. Adolf Bredesen, ed., “Pastor Nils Brandts erindringer fra aarene 1851 og 1855,” in Symra (Decorah, Iowa, 1907), 97-122. Erling Ylvisaker, Eminent Pioneers (Minneapolis, 1934), 56-62.

<7> Information kindly supplied in 1975 by his descendant, Mrs. Elton Bradley of Decorah, Iowa. The letter has been donated to Vesterheim, the Norwegian-American Museum.

<8> David T. Nelson, trans. and ed., The Diary of Elisabeth Koren 1853-1855 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1955; reprinted Decorah, Iowa, 1978). See also U. V. Koren, “Nogle erindringer fra min ungdom og fra min første tid i Amerika,” in Symra, 1905, 11-37.

<9> Charlotte Jacobson, trans., “Minutes of the Congregational Proceedings in Little Iowa Norwegian-Evangelical Lutheran Congregation Begun January 12, 1854.” Typescript in photocopy (Decorah, Iowa, 1981), 1.

<10> Jacobson “Minutes of the Congregational Proceedings,” 5, 10, also 11-12 and 14-15.

 

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