Lake Ozette, Wash.

The Scandinavian immigrants’ last frontier in the West

mandel

Photos courtesy of the Bert Kellogg Collection of the North Olympic Library System
People gathered at the shore of Lake Ozette around the turn of the 20th century

TERJE BIRKEDAL
Laguna Woods, Calif.
PAUL GLEESON
Port Angeles, Wash.

The Scandinavian settlement of America began around 1000 A.D. at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, and it can be said to have ended, at least as far as the lower 48 states are concerned, in the last decade of the 19th century at Lake Ozette in the state of Washington. 

Lake Ozette is the largest unaltered natural lake in Washington that occupies the extreme northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula. In 1889, the federal government opened the heavily forested lands around this lake to homesteading. Many first-generation Scandinavians made a beeline to Lake Ozette to stake their claims. These eager settlers became not only the westernmost Scandinavians in the contiguous United States, but also the westernmost homesteaders in the entire lower 48.

Originally, the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula, including the Lake Ozette area, had been the homeland of the Makah. Smallpox and other diseases introduced by Europeans had decreased their numbers from thousands in the early 19th century to only a few hundred by the time the first Scandinavian immigrants began to arrive. 

Lake ozette

Photo courtesy of the Bert Kellogg Collection of the North Olympic Library System
In 1887, the Makah Native American village occupied the beach less than a mile from some of the Scandinavian settlers that began to homestead the Lake Ozette area in 1889. For the most part, the relations between the Makah and the homesteaders were friendly and there was much trading between the two groups.

The Indigenous population’s reduced numbers and presence in the Lake Ozette area by the end of the 19th century had led to their traditional lands becoming vulnerable to federal giveaway under the Homestead Act of 1862. However, the Makah left the legacy of fire-managed, open wetland “prairies” to the incoming Scandinavians who may have favored these lightly forested areas for their homesteads.

Almost all of the settlers around Lake Ozette and the nearby area of Royal to the east of the lake were first-generation Scandinavians. There were Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Finns. Their last names betrayed their old country origins: Birkestols, Boes, Børseths, Christensens, Ericksons, Klaboes, Nylunds, Palmquists, Pedersens, and many more, all with Scandinavian names. 

Some were already in Seattle when they got word of the homestead opening; others were in Minneapolis or St. Paul, Minn., and some were still back in their respective home countries. Many took the newly opened Northern Pacific Railroad from the Midwest to its final terminus in Tacoma, Wash. 

From there the homesteaders made their way to the Olympic Peninsula and then hiked in on the Hoko Trail or paid the neighboring Makah Indians to bring them to the beaches near Lake Ozette by means of large whaling canoes.

Most of the Scandinavian settlers were hardy young farmers who knew how to clear the land and erect tightly built log cabins. Though the formidable cedar trees of the peninsular rainforests were new to them, they quickly learned how to fell the trees and build split-cedar shake barns and outbuildings on their claims. Soon they were raising potatoes and other root crops, as well as cows, pigs, and sheep. 

Lake ozette

Photos courtesy of the Bert Kellogg Collection of the North Olympic Library System
“Pete” Roose (1881-1943), the iconic “Swedish bachelor farmer” (born Arvid Hammarlund), stands, pitchfork in hand, in front of his neatly tended fruit orchard.

As in the old country, the Finnish-Swedish Nylunds had their daughters take the cows and sheep to different distant pastures. Quite a number also built small clinker-built Scandinavian-style sailboats and rowboats to use on the lake. Others, ready to embrace New World traditions, bought cedar dugout canoes from their Native American neighbors.

Soon the some-300 settlers had established their own post offices and postal routes. They founded schools for the children and built an Evangelical Lutheran Church at Preacher’s Point on the lake to provide for the spiritual needs of the community. They called a Norwegian Lutheran pastor and his family to serve the congregation. 

Though the new settlers thrived as isolated subsistence farmers, they hoped to one day be connected by road and rail to the wider world. Those hopes were dashed in 1897, when the Lake Ozette homestead lands were enclosed in the newly created Olympic Forest Reserve. 

Disappointed, most of the farmers and their families left the area for Alaska and elsewhere for better opportunities. Some, like the Nylunds, Palmquists, Boes, and Birkestols, stayed on and made a go of it with subsistence farming supplemented by temporary jobs in mining or lumbering.

In 1901, the government adjusted the Forest Reserve boundaries and reopened the Lake Ozette area for homesteading. As before, many Scandinavians came with the new wave of homesteaders, but there were fewer settlers in this second wave. Among them were two Swedish brothers named Peter and Nels Roose and a possible cousin of the two named Lars Ahlström. 

All “proved up” homesteads adjacent to each other in the wet, open “prairie” areas of the Lake Ozette area. Nels, who was older and had a family, eventually gave up, but his little brother Peter who was younger than 21 when he first made his claim, liked the subsistence farmer lifestyle, as did his neighbors Ahlström.

Both Ahlström and Peter first built log cabins and eventually constructed fine frame houses using both milled and hand-sawed cedar boards and cedar-split shakes. Peter’s house was small, but he built it in accordance with the Scandinavian style called “fäbodarkitektur” (chalet architecture).

He also populated his property with a horse barn and a combined sheep barn-milkhouse complex, a woodshed, a root cellar, and finally a small sawmill. Roose loved fences, and he built cedar post and rail fences, as well as elegant spindle picket fences painted red, on his land. Like most of the settlers in the Lake Ozette area, he cultivated a large vegetable garden and maintained a fruit orchard of up to 35 trees. Period photos of his homestead show a neat and tidy farm with well-kept buildings and fences.

Some of the old-time homesteaders like Anders Nylund and Ole Boe also built beautiful frame houses at the turn of the 20th century to replace their original rough-hewn dwellings. These new houses were exquisitely constructed, and their designs were influenced by the architecture of rural Scandinavia. Boe erected a traditional V-shaped “cross gable” over his centrally placed main entrance and even added decorative wooden triangular pediments over his windows. The Nylund house was noteworthy in the community because it reached two stories in height and had nine separate rooms. It also had a handsome front porch that sported hand-carved Scandinavian-style decorative trim.

Lake Ozette

Photo courtesy of the Bert Kellogg Collection of the North Olympic Library System
Pictured is the handsome split-cedar home of the Norwegian immigrant Henry Borseth and his family in 1899.

By the 1940s, only a few of the original Scandinavian pioneers around Lake Ozette remained on their homesteads. The majority had moved or passed away over the years. Soon all were gone and, in 1953, the former area of the Lake Ozette homesteads was incorporated into the coastal portion of Olympic National Park. By then, most all of the houses and other structures that had been built by the Scandinavian settlers had fallen prey to decay and the encroachment of the temperate rain forest.

Today, if you wish to visit the Lake Ozette area, take State Highway 112 to the Hoko-Ozette Road, and follow it to the Ozette National Park Service Ranger Station. From the ranger station, take the Alava Trail for about 2 miles to an unmarked one-half mile spur trail leading north, which will bring you to what remains of the Peter Roose homestead. 

Here, you can still see his house, his root cellar, and his sheep barn. These structures have been given preservation treatment by National Park Service to help tell the story of the historic Lake Ozette settlement, once the westernmost homestead community, as well as the westernmost Scandinavian community in the coterminous United States. (Note: Ask the rangers at the Ozette Ranger Station for any hints on how to find the spur trail to the Roose Homestead site and if any off-trail restrictions apply at the time of your visit.)

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 4, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.

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