A Slooper Christmas

Photo courtesy of Ivitek Publishing Current site of the Cleng Peerson house in Kendall, N.Y.

Photo courtesy of Ivitek Publishing
Current site of the Cleng Peerson house in Kendall, N.Y.

Bill Injerd
Ivitek Publishing

“In this manner the first Norwegian settlement in modern times came to be established in America. It was a tiny island of people in a forest—an island in a but newly settled area where the people spoke a different language. Yet it was a magnet which was to start drawing more Norwegians from across the sea, until these, ever increasing, had swelled by the year 1915 to a number equal to nearly one third the entire population of Norway.”

So wrote J. Hart Rosdail, in his classic book The Sloopers: Their Ancestry and Posterity in 1961. The year was 1825, and winter in the new world was about to be upon them in upstate New York.

Winter was just indeed beginning for these early Norwegian immigrants. These are the pioneers who traveled to America in a 54-foot sloop, the Restauration, beginning their voyage on July 4, 1825, from Stavanger, Norway, and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of hurricane season to the harbor of New York City, arriving on October 9. Starting in Norway with 52 people aboard, they landed in America with one more: a baby girl born in the middle of the Atlantic to Lars and Martha Larsen. Because they arrived in a small sloop, considered much too small to travel across a major ocean, these immigrants called themselves “Sloopers.”

According to Rosdail, housing was tight that first winter resulting in 24 living under one roof—one room for that matter. It was said that the house was “twelve by twelve feet, with a garret giving them just a square foot apiece on each floor.” It was probably the house that Cleng Peerson put up earlier in the Murray (or Kendall) settlement of Orleans County, although he thought of building another house before the winter set in. That likely didn’t happen.

Cleng is considered the “Norwegian Moses” to these pioneers, and will continue to lead them further west in the future. Since he was the only one who could speak English, the Norwegian settlers relied on him heavily to help them adjust in the new land.

With the help of American neighbors, the Sloopers survived the winter of 1825. Although the Norwegians families were not as well off as many of the neighbors, they were well respected. Someone once asked a little Norwegian boy whose father happened to be too poor to own land, where his father lived. The youngster answered, “O we don’t live nowhere, we hain’t got no land.”

So, how did the Sloopers celebrate their first Christmas in the New World? Would the American neighbors have their own special way of celebrating the Yuletide season? We really don’t know for sure, but it is likely they were trying to work out how they will make it through the cold season of upstate New York.

It wasn’t long into December 1825 that tragedy nearly struck. The Cornelius and Kari Nilson (Nelson) family lived in a house where “a large portion of their gifts unfortunately went up in flames” while Cornelius was away at work. When he arrived home, he saw his family outside standing while others looked upon what was left. A total loss. When Cornelius connected with Kari, he asked her “Are all the children safe?” “Yes,” she answered. He immediately knelt down and thanked God for his kindness in preserving his wife and children.

The lost Christmas gifts, if there were ever many, were not on the minds of the Nilsons. What a wonderful gift each of the first Norwegian-Americans indeed had for their first Christmas: the precious gift of LIFE!

The Nelson family went on to settle, as did other “Sloopers,” in the Fox River settlement in Illinois. Kari, also known as Carrie, was Cleng’s niece.

Each year, the modern-day descendants of the Sloopers meet together in Norway, Illinois, around the date closest to that October 9th arrival date to share a meal and reminisce about the stories of these early Norwegian pioneers. The Slooper Society recently released the newest “Collector’s Edition” of J. Hart Rosdail’s The Sloopers—a beautiful reproduction of the original 1961 book. Many within the Society purchased several copies as Christmas gifts, to remind themselves of the sacrifices their ancestors made for the future generations. What a story to pass on!

Copies of “The Sloopers: Their Ancestry and Posterity” can be purchased from The Slooper Society by sending a check or money order for $87.00 ($78.00 + 9.00 shipping & handling) to: The Sloopers Book, c/o The Slooper Society, 1821 15th St., Peru, IL 61354. For those ordering from Canada, send a check or money order for the amount of CAN$106.00 ($94.00 + 12.00 shipping & handling). It is also available online through their website (www.SlooperSociety.org) or through Amazon.com

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.