The woman behind Senator Knute Nelson
Norwegian immigrant mother and son immortalized in bronze at Minnesota State Capitol
There is a statue on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds depicting U.S. Senator Knute Nelson. His political power is instantly present, but most curious are two smaller sculptures flanking the prestigious Nelson image. One represents Nelson as a Civil War soldier, and the other is Nelson as a child with his mother. It is a true reminder of the many Norwegian immigrants who came with nothing but went on to achieve much.
As we approach Mother’s Day, it is important to reflect on the power of a mother’s love and her will to overcome all obstacles to provide a better life for her children. One such woman was Ingebjørg Haldorsdatter Kvilekval of Voss. A single mother, she borrowed money to emigrate to the United States in 1849 with her son Knud Evanger. He would become one of the most famous Norwegian-American politicians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
With no prospects in Norway, Ingebjørg and Knud made their way first to New York and finally to Chicago, where she worked as a domestic and paid off her debt in Norway within a year. She then married fellow Vossing Nils Olson Grotland and the family moved to Skoponong, a Norwegian settlement in Palmyra, Wisc. Knud thereafter became known as Knute Nelson (Nilson) by taking his stepfather’s name, thus eliminating the stigma of being fatherless.
Although Knute’s stepfather was not a proponent of higher education, with the support of his mother and his own tenacity, Knute pursued his own ideas. He attended the Albion Academy in Albion, Wisc., a school founded by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which provided education to children who could not afford private school. He worked at the school to earn his keep, and upon graduation he became a teacher near Stoughton, Wisc.
In May 1861, Nelson enlisted in a Wisconsin state militia company to fight with the Union Army in the Civil War and later transferred to the Fourth Wisconsin volunteers. His unit moved from Racine to Camp Dix near Baltimore, Md. From there they moved combat operations to Louisiana, where Nelson was wounded at the Battle of Port Hudson and taken prisoner.
After the war, Nelson returned to Wisconsin and eventually became a lawyer and later served two terms in the Wisconsin State Legislature. In 1871, Knute moved his family to Alexandria, Minn. where he believed he could be of great help to an area that still presented the challenges of a” new frontier.” He continued to practice law, and he farmed. He served on the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents and established the university’s Department of Scandinavian Studies. From his Alexandria home he launched his political career, serving as Douglas County attorney, Minnesota state senator, representative to the U.S. Congress from Minnesota’s newly formed fifth district, governor of Minnesota, and finally as the first Scandinavian-born senator in the U.S. Congress. It is often speculated that he would have become President of the United States had he not been born in Norway.
Knute Nelson was, indeed, a great man, but it’s not unusual that the mothers of great men often are forgotten. Not in Minnesota. Ingebjørg will be immortalized forever along with her son. The monument in St. Paul is a testimonial to how bold she was to emigrate as a single mother and how she helped shape her son Knute into the educated and respected politician he became.
Translated by Leslee Lane Hoyum of Rockford, Minn.
This article originally appeared in the May 2, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.