History of Norwegians in America

Cleng Peerson

For a story of Cleng Peerson and his travels ...

Cleng Peerson -- Norwegian American Moses (Microsoft Powerpoint Presentation; 4.75MB)

You may want to follow along in the presentation link as I tell this story. The story of Cleng Peerson continues to intrigue me. I have two sketches of what we think he looks like.

I cannot think of someone as free-spirited and ambitious in his continual travels as Cleng, being such a persuasive leader but yet alone most of his life. He clearly blazed trails for the early Norwegians venturing to the New World. He certainly wasn't out for wealth or fame. He didn't seem to like crowds that much, but he loved to be around other Norwegians and help them in whatever way -- either financially or finding a place to live. And yet he is very Norwegian, isn't he? In another sense, he isn't very Norwegian by walking instead of taking the boat via the Great Lakes to the midwest -- which I'll get to in a moment.

His life starts in Norway just north of Stavanger He was born on the farm Hesthammer, in Trysvaer parish, on May 17, 1782. His given name was Cleng Pedersen Hesthammer. I won't go into some of the other details of his youth, such as marrying a rich widow supposedly, but I will talk about his travels.

Norlie's biography of Cleng Peerson is sufficient to roughly sketch the travels of Cleng Peerson -- in near totality.
Here's what we know of where he went:

Stavanger area Scandinavia, Germany, France, England Norway [1])
(not especially in that order)

[1] we assume that he returned to Stavanger.

In 1821, at the age of 39, Cleng was sent by Quakers interested in emigrating to America. They provided the funds for him and a companion, Knud Olsen Eide

Norway United States (NYC?) "The West" NYC?

He remained in the US for 3 yrs, during which time his companion Knud died from a sickness. Cleng returned to Norway in 1824 to report on the conditions in America, urging the Quakers who sent him to emigrate. They began to make arrangements.

Cleng wasted no time to return to America, so he could begin making preparations for the arrival of his Friends. It is interesting he did this not out of conviction to help fellow believers, since we have no evidence that he ever became a Quaker. It was because of his desire to help other Norwegians better their lives, like himself, and be free to live their lives away from the constraining religious conditions they were experiencing in Norway at that time.

Cleng returned to the region he likely explored earlier, although I don't have clear evidence of that. In any event, we know he went as far as Farmington, NY -- not far from Rochester. Then he returned to New York City.

In a letter written at New York on December 22, 1824, he wrote:

"Dear father, brother, sister, brother-in-law, and friends: This is to inform you that I have arrived in America, happy and well. After a voyage of six weeks, we reached New York where we found all my friends in good health." Talking about his trip to Farmington via the Erie Canal, he wrote: " ... I then went overland to Geneva, where the land commissioner lives, in order to purchase land, both of myself and you. ... The land commissioner is very friendly and has promised to aid us as much as he can. We reached an agreement in regard to six pieces of land which I have selected, and this agreement will be in force until next fall. I already have a house in process of construction, 24 ft long by 20 ft wide, which I hope to complete by New Year's Day. ... When I was in Rochester I bought a stove for $20.00. It is fully equipped, with such things as pans, pots for meat, a baking oven, etc. ...." He further writes, "I am very much concerned in my mind about your coming to America ... How happy I should be to receive word that you were coming to New York and I might meet you there. ... I must entrust everything to Providence. You also would do the same. You must not allow yourselves to be frightened away by talk. I have experienced the help of Providence as long as I remain steadfast in my faith. More than that we can not do. I have told you everything orally and I will stand by my promises. Do not fail to write me in good season and I shall do my best. ...." He goes on advising them to invest in some Swedish iron to bring over to help defray the costs, and signed: "You friend and servant unto death, Kleng Pederson."

Upon arrival of the Restauration on October 9, Cleng was there waiting for them. They soon proceeded to travel to their new settlement prepared by Peerson.
We know they passed through Albany on October 22nd, so they couldn't have stayed long in NYC.

The leader of the immigrants, Lars Larsen, had the unlucky task of selling the Restauration , which became tied up in a controversy as to whether the ship entered illegally with it's too-heavy load of passengers. To make a long story short, it took the intervention of President John Quincy Adams to finally release the sloop to its owners, upon which Lars Larsen sold it for a measly $400.00. Lars finally rejoined his fellow travelers, part of which he ice-skated from Albany to Rochester -- in typical Norwegian fashion -- a total of 240 miles I estimated.

In case you're wondering where the Kendall settlement is located, I show it here on a modern map. It is located about 35 miles NW of Rochester. Why Cleng chose this for the settlement, I'm not sure. This however is the beginning of a pattern he seemed to have kept with throughout his trailblazing. He certainly had no tolerance to be within a major city or town, but preferred to be away from civilization -- so to speak. It is interesting to note that two of the crew of the Restauration, the captain Lars Olson Helland and a mate, Nate Erikson, stayed in NYC, and Lars Larson the Quaker leader settled down in Rochester as a builder of canal boats. The rest of the Quaker pioneers went to a desolate area of Orleans County -- if I can call it that -- which we know as the Kendall Norwegian Settlement. This is a pattern followed by many Norwegians coming to America for the first time, relying on "scouts" to provide guidance as to where to settle. We see that with the first settlements in Muskego, Wisconsin, and with one of the most famous of disastrous settlements, the Beaver Creek settlement in Illinois. Both of these by the way were in the middle of swampy land, which many other settlers avoided.

It wasn't long that the settlers were ready for re-settling to another location. It was likely due to the harsh conditions that overwhelmed them those first years at the Kendall settlement. In any event, they found the ever-ready explorer Cleng to find some other place to settle.

Ii now want to continue with the travels of Cleng Peerson, but first I want to provide some basis for my research as to what routes he may have taken.

I found the routes that hugged the coast of Lake Erie, which we're pretty sure he traveled.

There's an interesting tidbit in Alfred Hauge's novel, Cleng Peerson*, Vol. II, where the story goes that Gudmund Haugas accompanied Cleng on the 1833 trip to the midwest. Gudmund ended up stopping at Kirtland, OH, to join the Mormon settlement. Gudmund would later re-join The Sloopers on their trip to the Fox River in 1834, "to build a new Zion, on the pattern of what I have seen here at Kirtland."

[2] Alfred Hauge, Cleng Peerson, Vol. II, pp. 107-112

(maybe some of you can confirm that story for me. It certainly sounded intriguing, whether it's true or not.)

Around Toledo Cleng proceeded towards Michigan, into Monroe County. I am currently researching another of Peerson's companions, Ingrbret Narvig, on that trip.

Ingrbret Narvig joined Cleng in 1833 in Cleng's first trip to explore the Midwest. Mr. Narvig became tired of the long walk & settled near Erie, MI, in Monroe County, working for a farmer. Ingrebret remained there until 1856, at which time he moved to Green Lake Co., WI, then to Tyler, MN, where he died. Ingrebret is considered the 1st Norwegian to settle in Michigan.

[3] Norlie, p. 136-137

If you can see it. Cleng most likely proceeded along the route that goes through south Michigan, northern Indiana, and into Chicago. It was in Chicago that he turned down an offer to exchange some land -- where the present day Loop is located -- for some clothing and a pipe. Well, as I mentioned earlier -- Cleng didn't have any use for city property, even though he didn't know that it would become a major metropolis.

Let's trace Cleng's trip so far. He did explore Wisconsin -- up to around Milwaukee -- and return to Chicago. It is likely that it was too out-of-the-way, considering that the roads were more primitive in 1833 compared to the ones he traveled thus far. He apparently was not impressed with the marshes he encountered. Did that influence his decision to return south? I don't know. I simply found that interesting geographically, which did not deter the later Norwegians who settled in Wisconsin just a few years later, beginning in 1838.

So why did he go southwest from Chicago then? I don't know. He may have heard about some other new settlements moving towards that direction, and possibly regarding some fertile farmland along the rivers. In any event, in a common retelling of the dream he had at the spot not far from where we are today, he ended up deciding on the Fox River valley as the place for his fellow Norwegian pioneers to re-settle.

He then returned to the Kendall settlement that same year. The following year, 1934, six families came with him to settle in Illinois. Did they follow the same route that Cleng took, by land, as I show here, or ..

Did they travel by water via the Great Lakes? It is not certain if the route taken by The Sloopers from Kendall to Fox River was via boat/ship on the Great Lakes to Chicago, or followed the route Cleng used in 1833. J. Hart Rosdail found two references to the Great Lakes route; another account (Qualey, in the handout) presumed they followed Cleng's route. Travel from Buffalo to Chicago via the Great Lakes wasn't that easy, and probably not common in 1834.

My guess is that Cleng took them the way he knew -- by foot.

By 1837 there were only two or three families left in the Kendall settlement. Speaking of 1837, we return to Cleng "hitting the trail" again -- this time to found a new settlement: Shelby County in Missouri. It was a different situation however, because the new settlers who joined him were quickly dissatisfied. It was apparently too much in the wilderness and too far from market. It didn't last more than 3 years.

Here is the same route superimposed on a modern map. The route I chose for the journey to Missouri followed common routes that passed through Springfield and possibly Hannibal. As I alluded earlier, I'm still in the process of confirming this.

I will quickly go through the continuing saga of Cleng Peerson's journeys. Starting in 1838, he returned to Norway not once, ut twice, for a total of four trips across the Atlantic. During the period between 1838 and 1845, he managed to explore another future settlement in the very southeastern part of Iowa -- Sugar Creek.

I'm now jumping ahead to the last years of Cleng Peerson's adventures on the trail, and his life. His next destination: the Lone Star state of Texas.

I won't go into why he was attracted to the deep central-southern state, which was unusual for Norwegian immigrants who gravitated to the northern Midwestern states. Let me address his likely path. What route did Cleng take to Texas -- both in 1849 & 1850?

According to Bosque County: Land and People (Bosque Co. Hist. Commission, 1985), it was popular to travel by steamship from Illinois to New Orleans, by ship to Galveston, and then by oxcart to the Dallas area, and to Bosque County where most of the Norwegians did go eventually. Knowing Cleng's predisposition to walk, did he walk there? Not likely. According to Quayle, he proceeded via New Orleans and up the Red River -- quite contrary to his normal mode of travel on foot. Being 67 years old, walking must have become weary for him by then. A road did exist -- a straight shot from southern Illinois to Dallas through Little Rock, Arkansas, but it appears he went by boat this time.

We know that Cleng spent his last years in Bosque County, Texas. It was here he remained for the rest his life -- fifteen years, the longest he ever stayed put in one place. He died on December 16, 1865. It is ironic,, that he ended up in a state, Texas, that chose to secede with the other southern states over state rights over the issue of slavery, considering that he thoroughly despised the slavery economy of the South.

Now that we've completed the saga of Cleng Peerson, let's summarize his accomplishments -- both over land and sea. If I show roughly his travels, as we know, over his lifetime, we come up with a estimated total of 48,000 miles that he traveled. I am including his travels in Europe during his younger years. What I find most interesting however is that of those approximately 48,000 miles, about 14,000 miles was done totally on foot.

To give you a perspective of that, if I stretch those miles between NYC and SF, it being equivalent of walking five times across the US. I thought you might find that interesting.

During the course of his life in America, he founded not only the Fox River settlement, but also three others:

So Cleng Peerson is recognized as the one pioneer whose tracks can be found throughout the Norwegian settlements in the United States. If he were able to do so in the mid-1800s, he may have well chosen to join many of the migrators moving west to Oregon and California in search of their dream. I quote from one of the reports of the Cleng Peerson Memorial Institute in Stavanger, Norway:

"At times of his life, Peerson had been characterized as a visionary; at other times, a glib salesman looking out for his own benefit. If the latter were true, he did not succeed very well in the attempt, for he seldom seemed concerned about his own material circumstances, and was even quite willing to give up what little he had accumulated during his Bishop Hill experience. Of one thing we are certain. Had not Cleng Peerson appeared on the scene, the exploits and accomplishments of all those who listened to this magnetic personality and joined him in pursuit of his dream would likely have not happened to be recounted here.[1]"

[1] "Cleng Peerson", Cleng Peerson Memorial Institute Reports, 1970-1982, page 15.

Would the Sloopers have dared their journey if Cleng didn't help them in their pursuit of settling in the new land, where they could practice their Quaker faith without state intervention? Maybe. But the story may not have been as exciting. And we most likely would not have a Kendall or a Fox River Settlement, or a Norway, IL.