Who was Cleng Peerson?

Countdown to 2025

Cleng Peerson

Image courtesy of the Cleng Peerson Center
Cleng Peerson from Tysvær in Rogaland County, not far from Stavanger, Norway, has come to be known as the “Father of Norwegian Emigration.” In 2025, it will be 200 years since a group of 52 religious dissidents and an infant arrived in New York Harbor after sailing the Atlantic in a small sloop.

Lori Ann Reinhall
Editor-in-chief
The Norwegian American

Now it is 2024, and the official countdown to the commemoration of 200 years of Norwegian emigration to North America in 2025 has begun. Here at The Norwegian American, we are counting the days until the replica of the sloop Restauration once again sails into New York Harbor on Oct. 9, 2025, exactly as it did two centuries earlier.

But how did this story start? The answer lies with one man, Cleng Peerson, who came to be known as the “Father of the Norwegian Emigration.”

He was born Kleng Pederson Hesthammer on May 17, 1782, in Tysvaer in Rogaland County, not far from Stavanger on Norway’s southwest coast.

Rogaland was a part of Norway from where many Viking expeditions of the past were launched, and perhaps Kleng had this Viking pathfinder spirit in his blood. But it would take many years before it would manifest itself. For the first 40 years of his life, he stayed close to the place where he was born. It was a simple life, with meals of flatbread, herring, and sour milk.

Legend has it that when Kleng was 12 years old, the pastor’s clerk came to the vicarage farm where his parents were tenants. The rent was due, and when the family was unable to pay it, they were ordered to deliver their flatbread to the vicar. But rather than give up his food, the headstrong Kleng instead threw the flatbread he was carrying into a river as they crossed a bridge. The penalty was an extra year of confirmation instruction for him.

Even at that young age, he began to question formal religion in Norway. Later, he would become a “dissenter.” During the Napoleonic Wars, he was imprisoned by the British on board a ship. During that time, he came in contact with Quaker missionaries. He never joined them, but this encounter helped motivate him to leave Norway in hopes of finding religious freedom in the New World.

Back in Norway, Kleng Pedersen moved to a small farm in Kindingstad  in 1807, when he married the owner of the house, the widow Anne Catherine Sælinger, who had come to Norway from Sweden. Their little white house still stands today. He stayed there until he finally emigrated to North America in 1824.

His wife was very literate and a clever tailor and cook. But she was 30 years older than he was, and it has been speculated that the marriage was not a happy one. His biographer Alfred Hauge has portrayed Cleng Peerson—as he came to be known in America—as an irresponsible and restless adventurer, who ran away from his older wife.

But the current owner of the Cleng Peerson house in Norway, Olav Egil Larsen, does not share this opinion. He prefers to see Cleng Peerson as a man committed to his beliefs, a man who left Norway to pave the way for others. Larsen believes Peerson would have liked to have had his wife along with him, but she didn’t want to leave Norway. Larsen’s family has owned the house since 1870, and he has devoted much of his life to restoring it and learning about Peerson’s life and the first wave of the Norwegian emigration.

When Peerson returned to Norway in 1824, it was decided that a group should emigrate. On July 4, 1825, 52 passengers set sail from Stavanger on the sloop Restauration. They came to be called the “sloopers.” Peerson had returned to America ahead of them to prepare for their arrival and met them when they landed in New York City on Oct. 9, 1825.

The sloopers’ path led to northern New York state, to the town of Kendall, northwest of Rochester near Lake Ontario in Orleans County. The road that ran through this settlement is today known as Norway Road.

But the restless Peerson felt a drive to go west. He led a group of Norwegian immigrants to a settlement on the Illinois River in the Fox River Valley. The community of Norway was established in LaSalle County, Ill. Today, it is home to the Slooper Society of America, which maintains a registry of the descendants of the first Norwegian slooper immigrants in North America.

Starting in 1838, Peerson returned to his home country of Norway several times, but by 1840, he had settled in Iowa, in Sugar Creek in Montrose Township. He stayed in the region for several years, but in 1847, he joined the Swedish immigrant society at Bishop Hill Colony in Henry County, Ill. This colony of religious dissidents  had  been founded by sect leader Erik Jansson. There was no personal private property in his utopian colony, with everything held in communal ownership.

In Bishop Hill, Peerson married for the second time. (His wife in Norway had been dead since 1831.) His new wife, Maria Charlotta Dahlgren, had emigrated from Sweden in 1846. Peerson’s new spouse was 26 years younger than he was. Their marriage does not appear to have been based on love but was arranged by Jansson. Maria died about a year later, most likely from the cholera epidemic. In the meantime, Cleng had already decided to leave Bishop Hill.

Texas would be the Norwegian’s final destination. In 1854, the Texas State Legislature granted him 320 acres of land west of Clifton in Bosque County. He liked the climate there and found the conditions to be good for both crops and livestock. The landscape with its hills and forests reminded him of Norway. He thought that the many thousands of Norwegian immigrants in Wisconsin, Minnesota,  and Iowa could find much better land and a friendlier climate where he was in Texas.

Peerson lived in Bosque County until his death in 1865. He was buried in the cemetery by Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Cranfills Gap.

Today, the Cleng Peerson Farmstead is on the National Registry of Historic Places. Extensive excavations have taken place there to uncover the history of the past.

There is also an active official cooperation between Clifton, Texas, and Tysvær, Norway, which helps keep the memory of Cleng Peerson, the “Father of the Norwegian Emigration,” alive on both sides of the Atlantic.

To learn more about the 2025 bicentennial commemoration of Norwegian immigration to North America, visit crossings.norwegianamerican.com.

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.