Norwegian Settlement History of Dodge and Olmsted Counties


by Nils Kolkin

Translated by Julie Dragvold.

Note: The author of this unpublished history emigrated with his parents and siblings from Gjerpen, Telemark in 1866. In the late 1860s and early 1870s he attended the University of Minnesota and was a resident of Minneapolis and Dakota County. Kolkin had wide-ranging interests. He published an “Indian saga” in poetry called Wenona and a book about electricity. After travel and interviews of pioneers in Goodhue County, Minnesota and Winneshiek County in Iowa, he produced local histories of those places, and also published an article about Nordland, Kingsbury County, Dakota Territory in the newspaper Skandinaven in 1881.

The following history by Kolkin apparently was produced after 1890, as it refers to events of that year. A copy of the original manuscript, in Norwegian, is in the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, in Northfield, Minnesota.

On this web site is also included the related “Kolkin List” which lists the individuals Kolkin refers to and links them to the genealogy database (family tree):

The Kolkin List


Settlement History: Part One (pages 1-12 of the original manuscript)

The first settlers in Olmsted County were Americans. One by the name of Goss is presumed to have settled down by Pleasant Grove already by 1852 and the first settler after him was Hiram Thompson in Dover, who arrived in 1853.

The first Norwegian settlers in the county settled themselves down in the spring of 1854, in the township that later got the name of Rock Dell and these were Ole Tollefson Guldberg with his family and his son Tollef Guldberg with his family, Nils Giere (Jere) with his family, Haavel Brokke with his wife. They came from Painted Creek in Alamakee County, Iowa, together as a family, and they were originally from Gol in Hallingdal, except for Nils Giere and his sister, Tollef Guldberg’s wife, who were from Nes.

They set out from Painted Creek at the end of April and traveled by Decorah. From there they went northeast 15 miles, where Nils Giere lived. Here they waited a week’s time so that he could get ready. The group then went through Fillmore County to Olmsted, and here they set themselves down in that township, that later was called Marion.

They decided to settle down at this place, and while they lived in their wagons, they began to stake out claims and help each other with building their houses and breaking sod. Tollef Guldberg’s house was built first, and a piece of ground was broken on his land. They had been there for three weeks, and Tollef Guldberg had moved into his house, while the others still slept in their canvas-covered wagons. Then there came an evening when 15 wagons of Irishmen came and camped in a circle around the house. Many of them came in during the evening and said that they had been here the fall before and staked out land.

There were three men that went hunting in the surrounding area, and they were with them that night, so they were not as afraid of the large group, that encircled them, than they otherwise would have been. In the morning one of the group together with some others came over to the door and had a gun in his hand. He then said that he would have that land, that they sat on, and if they didn’t leave they were going to tear the house down over them. Those three men, who had stopped at Tollef Guldberg’s at night, sided with him, and then he demanded payment for his work on the land; it being the case that they should value the work. Subsequently, the Irish paid 35 dollars, whereof Tollef Guldberg got 15 and his comrades got the rest.

When there wasn’t a chance that there would be any Norwegian settlement on this place, the Norwegians left and traveled 5 or 6 miles westward. They stayed with an American by the name of Buckley, who had settled down there the fall before. Here they left their families and the rest of their possessions, and took 3 oxen teams, the wagon and a sod-buster plow and set out to look for some land. They traveled west and looked around along the county line partly in Olmsted and partly in Dodge and finally came south to the south branch of the Zumbro River in what was later known as Rock Dell Township in Olmsted County, where they decided to take land. Ole and Tollef Guldberg took land in section 10 and Nils Giere in Section 11. They then made some markers on their claims and Tollef Guldberg stayed behind to watch the claims, while the others went back to get their families and possessions that they had parted with at the Buckleys, which was 9 or 10 miles northeast. They came up again to their new home the first day of June 1854. Immediately when they had come down, they became overrun by many Indians, which however didn’t do them any harm.

The next Norwegians that settled in this vicinity came immediately after them. They settled in the township north of them, which later got the name of Salem. They were Christopher Twait with his family and his brother Torbjørn Twait, originally from Gjerstad parish in Christiansand’s diocese, Ole Vegger, who was not married and was originally from Annebo parish near Tønsberg, Ole Hellekson with his family and Jacob Dalen with his family. These came from Koshkonong and were followed by many others, who came to Goodhue County, among which were Anders Bonhus, Gunder Hestemyr and others. The stage road from Decorah past Rochester to St. Paul, that later was very well known, was still not widely used and first began to be driven on after this time, so that group, that traveled to Goodhue, first split off from the others in the western part of Olmsted County.

Ole Vegger and Christopher Twait took land in Section 7 in what was later called Salem Township, and the rest of their group took land close to the aforementioned Torbjørn Twait who was quite young. He stopped here a short time and then went down to Winneshiek County, where he stayed for a few years, before he came back up again.

The colony was a little north of a tributary to the South Zumbro and the place was called Vegger Prairie for a long time. Between this colony and the one in the township to the south, it was about 8 miles.

A week after Christopher Twait and his group had come, another group arrived from Dane County, Wisconsin and settled down in the same township a little farther southeast and south of the aforementioned tributary to the South Zumbro. These were Even Holtan with his family and his father-in-law Knut Holtan with his family, both originally from Sannikedal in Bamble district, Hans Holtan with his family, Aron Anderson and Syver Nilson with his wife. Syver Nilson was from Lands parish in Norway.

July or the last of June, there came another group from Koshkonong and settled down at the east edge of the township to the south and southeast of Ole Guldberg and his party. These were Thrond Sæthre, Ole Amundson, both with families, Gutorm Olson with his mother and sister and Ole Flaget. The last person was from Hallingdal, and the others were probably all from Nummedal.

Near the end of July, John Eidal came here with his family from Goodhue, where he had been searching for land.

Here we have the foundation of the settlement in Olmsted. Not many Norwegians came in this year with the exception of Leiel Folkestad, from Sun Prairie in Wisconsin, where he came for a while before Christmas and stayed with Ole Vegger that winter. He took land over in Dodge County and went down in the spring to Wisconsin.

Tollef Guldberg continued to hold Sunday School for the children and held prayer meetings already in 1854. They met in his house in section 10.

Ragnhild, daughter of Even Holtan, was the first child born in the Town of Salem and Ole, son of Tollef Guldberg was the first one born in the Town of Rock Dell.

Of those who settled over in Dodge County in 1854, in what was later the Town of Canisteo, Dodge County’s history names Andreas Christopherson, who is said to be originally from Christiania in Norway and came here from Wisconsin. Other Norwegian immigrants to the township were not named for that year. It is not out of the way here also to make a remark about the county histories which are not very detailed for several of the townships concerned, and are often unreliable.

The first ones to come in the spring of 1855 were Botolf Eithorn with his family and Ole Benson and his wife. They came from Winneshiek County, where they had land that they sold, and settled down here in section 25 in Canisteo in Dodge County the 18th of May. This was 5 miles northwest from Tollef Guldberg. Before they got a yoke of oxen, there were Indians living all around them, and they were the only people to be found for a quite a distance in that area. Botolf Eithorn was from Sogn and Ole Benson from Aurdal in Valders. The first man had 7 children, the oldest was a young man 20 years old, and the other man (Benson) was just married.

A while after they came Bernt Barstad, originally from Sokkendal in Christiansand’s district, and Jens Levang, originally from Sannikedal, came from Blue Mount, Wisconsin. Likewise, Leiel Folkestad, who had been down and gotten married.

The 18th of June, 1855, the following people came to Rock Dell with their families, the first two from Rock Prairie in Illinois: Halvor Stensrud, who settled in Section 9, Endre Aslebraaten and Ole Kaasind. The last ones were originally from Saude in Lower Telemark.

Settlement History: Part Two (pages 13-24 of the original manuscript)

Giere was about to set stakes down in the ground in different places. The aforementioned person came over to him and began to pull up a stake, that was set down. It appeared, then, that there might be a stake dispute. Amund Giere took hold of him and asked what he started. “You must not be unfriendly,” said Tollef Guldberg, who was present. That argumentative fellow wore some loose blue linen pants held up with poor suspenders, and when Amund Giere took hold of him, the suspenders broke and his pants fell to the ground. Then he had to stop the argument; he gathered up his pants and left. So the fight ended.

Of others, who came to the settlement this summer, can be named Thorbjørn Levang, Gunder Pederson Lanvaasen, both with families, and Erik Levang, who was married to the sister of Anders Furuland; Anders Furuland, who was with his father, and who went under the name of Peter “The Californian”. Anders Furuland and Peter had a wagon together, but each of them had their own team. The aforementioned Peter didn’t stop here, but traveled northward to Goodhue. Erik Levang took land over in Canisteo township. These people came in July.

In the township south of Canisteo was an Irishman by the name of Armstrong who came in 1855 and he was the first in the township. In the summer of 1856 the next settlers came that were Norwegian. They were John Kittilson in Section 15, Ole Flaaren in 11, Andrew Heddal in 12, Jacob Tho in 26, Ole Lea in 13, Hellek Vaatveit in 10, Erik Bakke in 12 and Halvor Knutson Haal in 8.

In the fall of 1856 Tharald Lensgrav came with his family and John Arntson, who was not married. They settled in the southwest part of Salem. Endre Skogsmark came some time later.

In the fall of 1856 most of the land was taken in the township of Salem and Rock Dell in Olmsted and likewise in Canisteo in Dodge County.

Naturally we have not named here all those who immigrated, partly because some were not well-known and partly because the time they arrived was not known. It can be remarked here, that sometime before Christmas 1856 Thorbjørn Twait came up again and bought 80 acres of land on Vegger Prairie in Section 19. He, like many of the others, came from time to time to take possession of more land.

Settlement’s Procurement

As already mentioned before, Tollef Guldberg started a religious school in his house in 1854 on Sundays and held prayer meetings. He continued with it the following year, and up to the spring of 1856; it is not known if there were any others who held prayer meetings or church services in the settlement.

The first summer, the people were naturally busy building their log houses, breaking ground and cutting hay. That progress, which later on appears everywhere in the settlement, was found then only in the form of small brush piles, which were burnt down each year, except for those that protected the places.

In the fall of that second year, those earliest settlers had their first crop. The seed was trampled on by the oxen or horses and winnowed by tossing with a winnowing shovel. This threshing method was not widely used except in the fall of 1855. The next fall some Americans came from Pine Island with a threshing machine and threshed at the settlement.

In the last days of May 1856 Pastor C. L. Clausen from St. Ansgar in Iowa, was in the settlement for a week’s time. Tollef Guldberg rode down to St. Ansgar after him, and Clausen stayed with him and took Tollef Tollefsen along with him as precentor. He held services and confirmation and dedicated the churchyard in Section 4 in Rock Dell. The confirmands were instructed by Tollef Guldberg for the next two years. Thereafter Clausen assisted with the establishment of the congregation. They obtained the name of St. Olaf’s Congregation. The settlement was not visited by any other ministers this year.

In the spring of 1856 there came an unmarried man by the name of Guldbrand Throneson Dokken originally from Nummedal, up from Koshkonong. After having taken different claims and selling them again, he ended up with a quarter in 32 in Salem. He provided some entertainment in the settlement, when he brought in the necessary whiskey.

In the summer of 1857 he hauled up barrels of whiskey from Winona and sold them.

In the fall of 1856 there was a huge prairie fire in the settlement, that laid waste much hay and other unprotected property. It came from the southwest and reached the Zumbro River in Rock Dell around 2:00 in the afternoon. It was first seen at 10:00 in the forenoon in the region of Austin in Mower County. Sjur Sættre and Amund Giere were among those who witnessed it themselves.

In the winter of 1856-57 there was an Indian camp with 100 Indians, in the area of Even Holtan in Salem. Since that winter they started to become more rare.

The first part of the summer of 1857 no ministers came to the settlement. But some lay preachers came there this year. In the summer a group came up, namely Eielson’s friends with their families from Spring Prairie in Wisconsin, and settled themselves principally in the school section 16 in Salem. These consisted of Knut Boyum, Samson Langeteig, Christen Pederson, and an old lay preacher, Lasse Aase, who was married to the mother-in-law of John Sørum, who came up from Blue Mount in Wisconsin the year before to look for land and later settled himself here. From that time on, these families came to the settlement, brought Eielson and other preachers to visit them; but Eielson should have visited them before next summer.

This summer there was also a Swede Bible salesman by the name of Carlson in the area.

St. Olaf’s congregation had a meeting in Ole Sættre’s house once this summer to see what could be done to gather money to buy a piece of land for the church in section 5 in Rock Dell, right by the cemetery that had been dedicated. The quarter which they had wished to come into possession of was taken by an American, and he was willing to sell 60 acres for 200 dollars to get the necessary money to buy a quarter of government land. The result was that the 200 dollars was subscribed and Ole Sættre was chosen to cash them in and buy the land from the American.

It can be mentioned here, that when the meeting broke up, almost all of them went over to Syver Nilson, who lived near by. Guldbrand Dokken stopped here with his entertainment material. They became a bit drunk and then Guldbrand Dokken decided to beat up Ole Lier, who had assaulted him once in Wisconsin and given him a scar, which was visible on his face. They were both great fighters, and the conflict was regarded with wide interest. The outcome was that Ole Lier got a thrashing.

In September of this year, Pastor Munch, from Wiota, Lafayette County, Wisconsin, preached in the settlement. He was on a mission tour through the western Norwegian settlements and had with him a man by the name of Peder Fenne, originally from Vos, that was a precentor. Previously Munch had been in Fillmore County. While he was there, he met Christopher Twait who happened to be down in Rushford, and when he heard that there were going to be church services at Erik Lie’s, 2 or 3 miles northwest of the town, he went over there. Munch then said that he was going to go to Goodhue County first and would go on the boat from Winona to Red Wing. Since he would take the stagecoach over to Olmsted from there, Christopher Twait advised him to go over to Olmsted first and from there to Goodhue. Pastor Munch agreed with this and it was done, that Erik Lie should drive them over to High Forest by way of the southeastern corner of Rock Dell. For this service Christopher Twait, Pastor Munch and sexton Fenne each paid a dollar. The stagecoach, considering the circumstances of the times, was good, when the mode of transportation was usually a light two-seater springboard wagon. Munch and Fenne stopped in High Forest and Twait went over to the Norwegian settlement to get someone to fetch them and to announce church services. Confirmation was assigned to Nils Giere’s house, and at Ole Sættre’s house baptisms and communion. Pastor Munch and his precentor were brought by Tollef Guldberg.

At Ole Sættre’s place 22 children were baptized on the appointed day. Among them were two from Christopher Twait, Thomas and Ingeborg. The first was 2 ½ years old. He didn’t like being among the baptized participants and said that he wanted to go to Ole Vegger. The day after that, one child was baptized, so there were altogether 23 baptized.

Pastor Munch and his comrade were driven by Andres Sættre over to Goodhue. They arrived at Kenyon in the evening and stayed overnight in the town’s log hotel, and in the morning they drove to Ole’s house where they arrived about 10 o’clock.

Pastor Munch is referred to as a scolding speaker.

It can be mentioned here that in the winter 1857-58 there were many dance groups on Vegger Prairie. Jacob Lekve, father of Thorsten Lekve, who is among the older settlers who weren’t named, served as a fiddler. They settled east of Christopher Twait and Ole Vegger.

They were originally from Hardanger.

In the spring of 1858 the Township Organization was formed, and the townships most likely first got the names under which we have previously learned to know them. In Rock Dell, two Norwegian township officers were chosen. These were Nils Giere as one of the supervisors and R. S. Larson as assessor.

This spring the water in the South Zumbro rose very high and Amund Giere, who by that time lived in an earth shelter (dugout) on the north side of the river just south from St. Olaf’s church, was driven out by the water, which came up into his dwelling.

The mark left by the dugout is now visible as a depression in the ground on the east side of the road right north of the Rock Dell post office and businesses.

This spring a Pastor Fredrikson came to the settlement; he came here from the Norwegian settlement northwest of Austin, and was said to have come from Texas.

He decided to have church services at Sjur Sættre’s house, where he stopped. That was a poor and miserable person, from what was subsequently related. He had bought a pair of leather pants from a Halling somewhere on his trip. These he was going to have on when he came to Sjur Sættre; but they were missing a few buttons, and so the wife had to sew them on. He then dressed himself in them before the services were going to begin. But he didn’t think he could stand on the floor and talk, so they had to build up a platform for him. He then put on his minister’s robe over his leather pants and the church services began. When he was going to talk, he stood up on the platform; but the whole time he seemed to be dissatisfied with it and was, apparently, worried that it would collapse. His thoughts while preaching were therefore divided, and his speech was not good. His purpose was to find a congregation, which would call him to be a minister; but all knew, that it could not take place, to call such a poor and clumsy man to the care of the soul.

Settlement History: Part Three (pages 25-35 of the original manuscript)

At the beginning of July 1858, Pastor A. C. Preus was here. He came from the Norwegian settlement northwest of Austin, and held church services under an oak tree at Ole Guldberg’s in section 10 in Rock Dell. There, an agreement was made with him, that he should serve the congregation and have a fair wage for each time he visited them.

This summer Elling Eielsen was here and came over from Goodhue County in the company of a son-in-law of John Wing. The laymen from Fillmore County, that from time to time came here, were Sven Husetoft, Nils Gullikson and Tobias Olson.

This summer Ole Sættre and Even Holtan bought the first reapers in the settlement. They were of the hand-drawn type that were called “John P. Manning [Manny] Reaper” and were manufactured in Rockford, Illinois. These two reapers were used by many farmers in the area.

In the autumn, Ole Sættre and Knut Rokne, who had horse teams, drove the first wheat to Winona and everyone brought their wheat to that market for many years. The way used went by Rochester, St. Charles, Lewiston and Stockton in the vicinity of Winona.

In the summer of 1859, A. C. Preus visited St. Olaf’s congregation four times.

Before the year 1860, they made an arrangement with Pastor Jensen of Highland Prairie in Fillmore County, whose congregation he served, and he was here many times. They then called Lars Steen to be a minister and he stepped up to the call in 1861. Pastor Steen was the congregation’s minister until 1869.

Eielson’s friends started a congregation in 1860, which was called “South Zumbro Congregation.” They were served by Pastor Boyum from Fillmore and Pastor Hanson from Goodhue until 1868.

During the war many of the farm folk hired out to go to war for private service and later they got the townships to pay these bounties. This was the case in all of these Norwegian townships as well as in others. Many, who were too old to be conscripted, protested against it loudly, but there were too few to hinder it. Many Norwegians from here went in the war, but so far as is known they all came back again.

After the war a new development began, as in nearly all the settlements in the west. The simpler houses or dugouts began to give way for better log houses or frame houses. Since there weren’t a large amount of towns here, frame houses were probably built as early as at other settlements, for example, in Goodhue.

Thorsten Lekve and Andres Sættre were the first ones who built frame houses in the settlement, so far as is known, and this was before or at the beginning of the war. When people built frame houses here earlier than at many other places, they didn’t build them very large, but on the other hand, perhaps more permanent. Before and after the war many Danish came in directly from Denmark and they, in part, became residents here, so there are quite a few Danish spread among the Norwegians.

In 1867 St. Olaf’s congregation began construction of a stone church in Section 4 in Rock Dell .

In 1867 Ole Berg, from Kenyon township in Goodhue, began to preach as a layman in the settlement and in 1868 he was called to the ministry of “South Zumbro Congregation” and was ordained as a minister in the congregation’s church, which had just been built in the southwest part of Salem. He served this congregation from Goodhue that year and moved down and settled in Canisteo Township in 1869.

Pastor J. A. Thorson became a minister at St. Olaf’s congregation beginning in 1869. This congregation has since been split into East and West St. Olaf with each its own church. The dividing line between the two congregations was formed by the county line between Olmsted and Dodge.

In March of 1868, Leonard & Booth, owners of “Rochester Post” began publication of a Norwegian paper in Rochester. This was called “Nordisk Folkeblad” and had a Danish man Sneedorf Christensen as editor. After nine months the paper was bought by Christensen and its publication was transferred to Minneapolis.

In 1875, one of the oldest Norwegian settlers died, namely Nils Giere. It was also that year that East St. Olaf’s church was completed.

On August 25th 1883, one of the most frightening cyclones or tornadoes went through the townships of Canisteo, Salem and the town of Rochester. It moved from west to east with a steady bending toward the north following the secondary streams to the South Zumbro, where it ran through the two aforementioned townships.

The funnel cloud began a little bit west of the Norwegian settlement and could clearly be seen in its beginning way over east. There it took a woman in the air and among other damage, it tore down the houses at a Van Frank place.

Ole Molde in Canisteo was the first of the Norwegians, who was struck. Here, it took the houses and spread their pieces over the prairie. Here and there, folks ran into their shelters, and a barrel was thrown down and hit an old woman in the head with the result that she died a short time later. It then took Jacob Daten’s house and destroyed the crops. The people here had lain themselves down in a corn field.

Next, the houses of Christen Olson, a Dane, were taken, and it killed his wife. At Conrad Boyson’s, another Dane, it tore down most of a stone house. The next one was Thomas Evjen’s house.

It then took a little house on Pastor Ole Berg’s land, where his son, Edvard Berg, lived.

Fire came from that house which went onto Ole Berg’s barn, and it burned up. Berg’s farmhouse was a massive stone house, and this was torn down almost to the ground on the one side and separated on the other. Many things, among them a copper kettle, were sucked up in the tornado, and the remains of the kettle were found in the form of small pieces, as if it had been torn or ground up.

Thomas Lien’s house was the next one that was taken; then Ole Vegger’s in Section 18 in Salem, where all was whirled into the air. Then all the buildings of Christian Lillo in Section 17 were taken, and his father was killed.

In Section 16 the farm house of Bernt Osve was taken and all the buildings of Nils Lekve.

It then left the Norwegian settlement, and the next place it did damage was at the place of Beck Little, where all the buildings were taken. It seemed to lose strength over east and for a long way into the township of Rochester it did very little damage. But as it neared the town of Rochester, in the northeast corner of the township, it gathered strength again, and in the town it caused terrible destruction.

It was an awful force of nature, which was set in motion. The tornado, which was dark like a dense cloud, pointed downwards, and in this point it seemed to have a magnetic power to a great degree over everything, which could slowly move to destroy anything in the way, whether it was a boulder or a house. Birds and small objects were swallowed up to be churned into little pieces, while a large building like a frame house was taken up in the whirlwind, smashed and thrown into the outskirts of the region, where it had a horrible flinging force. No planks or boards were found whole, after it had been in the area. In some places, boards were rammed far down into the ground. Board splinters were found there, which were driven through the trunks of very large trees and through animals. In many places horses and cows were destroyed, which also happened in the Norwegian settlement, but information has not been found on the extent of this devastation.

As a curiosity, it was related that a thin Norwegian working man in Rochester had saved up 400 dollars that he had put in a bank. He lost his certificate in the cyclone and ended up as poor as when he began to save. A while later, a letter came there from Wisconsin that a certificate like that was found there. It had lain in a tin box, and the tornado had most likely worn itself out until it had lost its strength and left the contents undamaged.

Now we shall turn back to the people’s doings in the Norwegian settlement; it must be said that there was not much to relate. In 1884 Pastor Thorson proposed a plan for a central school house in the settlement, which should replace the common school. This plan found some support, but most of them were against it. The school was going to be a boarding school, where the children were brought in on Monday and were under a male or female superintendent’s supervision until the following Saturday. In the school, they would have instruction in Norwegian, Religion and English. The plan was discussed now and then, and in the 90’s the plan was modified there, that each township should have such a school.

In 1890, many members withdrew from the East St. Olaf’s congregation because of the teaching about grace election and with the assistance of Pastor Bjørn formed “Zion’s Congregation”, where they joined to the United Church. After a while, they built a church a little distance south of St. Olaf’s and the congregation has since been served by Pastor Rasmus Anderson in Rochester.

In West St. Olaf, the following men, with their families, withdrew: Ole Vaatveit, Guldbrand Vaatveit, Ole Fredrickson and Ole Osve.

The following Norwegians have been in the Legislature from Olmsted and Dodge Counties:

• Brynjulf Larson Brataker from Byron in the House in 1869 and ’70.

• John. N. Hanson from Dodge County in the House in 1873 and 1874.

• L. G. Nilson from Dodge County in the House in 1877.

• Erik C. Himle from Dodge County in the House in 1879.

• Ole Juelson from Rock Dell in the House in 1881.

• John Peterson from Dodge Center in House in 1883.

• Ole Sættre from Salem in the House in 1885.

• Fremont Jackson Tho from Vernon in Dodge County in the House in 1889.