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An Autobiography of an Early Settler - (voyage on the Sjofna 1853)

2000 - N/A

The story of a Norwegian family traveling on the Sjofna in 1853. The contributor of this autobiography has asked to stay anonymous.

Our parents were poor and we had to go out to work at and early age. Food and wages were not then what they are now. I remember at one place where my daily menu was gruel, and spoiled fish. For supper, pudding made of flour and water and a little sour milk. That time I could not stand the work and the diet. I became very ill, was taken home and was ill for a long time.

When I was nineteen, I went to Lier and hired out to Torjus Otrevold for one and a half years. For one year's work I received as my wages, a suit of clothes and seven dollars. From that place I was apprenticed to Sjaasta Baken, a blacksmith, for one and a half years. For this service I received only my board.

When I was 22, my brother Nils and I decided that we would go to America. Father paid our fare. May 17th, 1853, we embarked on the old boat Sjofna. This was to be our home for eight weeks and five days.

On this voyage, we passed through two experiences that might have ended our earthly existence. While we were on the North Sea, such a heavy fog descended upon us that we could hardly see from one end of the boat to the other. The captain feared that we would encounter land. He went back and forth with his telescope but could see nothing. By and by the fog lifted a little and lo, we were steering directly toward land. He at once shouted to the mate who turned the boat again into the sea and we were saved.

The other time we were out on the Atlantic. It was a pitch dark night. We were sailing with a very heavy wind. That time, the Lord saved us by a flash of lightning. Two men were on the lookout. Through a flash of lightning they thought they saw something and when it lightened again, they saw a large ship bearing down upon us. Immediately our boat was turned to the right and we passed each other safely by. Thanks be to God we were again saved from a wet grave.

Now, we went forward day by day, sometimes there was too little wind and then again too much. For more than a week, I was so seasick and miserable that I wished I was in Norway-no matter where, if it only was somewhere in Norway. There I lay rolling from one side to the other, for the boat was first on the crest of a high wave and then in a deep trough. There was no rest. But everything has an end and finally we reached land at Quebec after a journey that lasted eight weeks and five days.

Yes, at last we were in America. Our aim was to reach Chicago and then Muskegon. A company transported the passengers on our boat and another. In our boat there were about 350 people and I suppose about the same number in the other boat. It went well for a short time but the steamboat we were on brought us to a miserable warehouse; much the same as though we were cattle. There we all stayed for a day without food or drink or any bed to sleep on. Then on again by boat through a canal. I do not remember much about this voyage, only that we entered large boxes as it was deep, deep down and then we were raised up when we reached the terminal where we went on board a train that brought us to Chicago. This train was a combination immigrant and freight train.

On the way, something happened that might have ended my earthly life. At the station nearest to Chicago, the train was to stop for a time. We, of course had a desire to make use of the time by running around on mother earth for now it was ten weeks since we had had that privilege. But that joy soon turned to sorrow for, before we knew it, the train moved on. I was so far away that I could not reach the cars used by the immigrants, but as the last freight cars passed by, I jumped on and managed to get a seat on the coupling pins that held the cars together. This place did not prove to be a spring seated rocking chair. I was in constant danger of being pinched and squeezed. I hung there in a very unpleasant position indeed, for there was no place to rest my feet on and I could so easily have gotten under the wheels of the train.

We arrived in Chicago eight days after we had left Quebec. How we lived during that time I do not know. We had no food with us, we did not stop to eat anywhere, and no one gave us anything. The food we had when we left the boat we had given to the boatswain.

Not yet are we through with our difficulties-now begins the picnic. Come with us and you shall have a taste. You need neither knife nor fork-we get along nicely with out these… As soon as our train stopped in Chicago, a man came who wanted as many as possible to work on a railroad that was being built. We were glad to get a job. Thirty men and some women and children were to go on with this man farther south into Illinois. No food was given us. The train took us to the end of the line which was one hundred miles to the south and then we had to get out into the wilderness. Wagons hauled by horses came up and onto these wagons our Norwegian chests and other property were piled. The women and children were placed on top of these boxes and the men walked behind. Hour by hour, mile after mile, we trudged on like a herd of cattle. We knew no English, no one spoke a word - we were silent and miserable, indeed for we were like slaves driven, we knew not whither.

We had at last came to America. We waited and waited for orders to halt but it took a long time. At last at midnight, we stopped to rest and feed the horses. If we were hungry when we reached Chicago, we surely felt no better now, but there was no help for that. After the horses had been fed and hitched up again they started on again in the dark night and we had to follow on as best we could over the plains of Illinois that, at the time, were uncultivated and wild and snakes everywhere one went. It is now an exceedingly rich country, where land sells now for from $100 to $200 an acre. Had I had as much knowledge then as I have now I would have had other thoughts as I went over its prairies. I might now have been a rich man of Illinois, but I suppose it is best as it is.

To come back to my story - the sun was up and the day promised to be very hot. We walked and we walked. I need not say that we were tired and hungry. On and on we went, the wagons ahead and we after. No one spoke to us and we spoke to no one. Then it was noon. Would we not get something to eat? No, ever onward we go. About four o'clock we saw in the distance two small houses and at last we were there, and the order came for us to halt. Would we get something to eat now? There was no food in sight. We stretched out on the ground to rest awhile, but Oh, how hot it was. The sun's heat was beating down upon us and there was no shade. What would the end be?

The boss appeared again and we were told to move. On we went. No one said a word for we were slaves. Over yonder stood something that looked like a house for pigs. We had only Norwegian eyes to see with, but when we got nearer, we saw something that looked like a big box twelve or fourteen feet square. It had no roof and no floor and the wind had torn off a board here and there from the wall. This box was to be our home. It was terrible to think of the wretchedness within. Snakes were crawling everywhere. The women wept and children cried as loud as they could from fear and hunger and the men stood with bowed heads and worried over what the outcome would be.

Then came the boss with a sack of flour on his back. This he threw on the ground and walked away. What should we do with the flour? If we only had a "brodtakke" or bread board, then we could make flat bread. One woman shouted, "I have one." Then we got busy. Some found water, some found wood, and others a stone on which to lay the board. This takke or board--is a steel plate about an inch thick and eighteen inches across. I went with those who looked for water. We found a hole that had a little water, it was not inviting for it was muddy and snakes lay in it-snakes were everywhere. We filled our pails with the dirty water that wasn't so thick but that it would make the flour wet. Soon one flat bread was ready and then another. As soon as one was baked it was torn in pieces and eaten-we needed neither cheese nor butter to make it go down. Just bread tasted good that time. We kept on until late at night. No one thought of sleeping for there was nothing to lie down on. Morning came at last and the boss came with a large piece of meat and many shovels and spades.

We did not help to build the first Pacific railroad, and alas, had others done no better than we, I am sure I should never have cared to go to California. Another boy and I cared neither for the boss nor his spade. We said, "Go as it may, we will never stay here and starve." When we went we promised the others that we would try to get a team of horses and take them back again. By night, because of the swift running, we were at the place from which we had stated. We got two teams of horses and my partner started back with me. I slept on a pile of boards. We had no breakfast, dinner or supper and no breakfast until the following day.

Then we went to see about those we left over by the hut. There they were. They too, had thrown down their shovels and spades and each one had filled a four-bushel sack with the best of his property. I don't know whether it would be proper to laugh or cry when I think of how those people looked. They came walking along, the men carrying the sacks so large that they reached from their shoulders to the ground and the women carrying one child in their arms and one or two others hanging on to their skirts. The burdens are so heavy that they were no longer able to carry them any farther. But help was near. Our wagons had come and they laid their burdens on them and the women and children could ride. Off we went to the railroad where we were to work. We put together box-like houses where we were to live for the present. There, Nils had taken sick. Eight of our people were already dead and buried.

After working there for a time we decided to go to Chicago and then on to Milwaukee and Muskegon. We went down to the steamboat wharf and had to lie there all night. I should not have done that for I was taken sick with the ague. I, however, reached Muskegon and lay there sick in a loft where the wind whistled through. I was there until November. Then I had to go to bed with a very high fever. When I was able to be up again Nils had lost his job and we had to move on. We started out for Janesville on foot. It was a cold day and then it began to rain and snow. The ague came again and I shook and shook. I shudder now when I think of how I suffered.

After this shaking with the cold the terrible fever came but I had to go on and on. Towards evening I lay down on the ground and told Nils and the other boy who was with us to go on - I could go no farther. While I was lying there the boys tried to get me into a house but did not succeed. I tried again and by and by the fever lessened and I felt a little better. At midnight we reached Janesville and I sat on a chair in a boarding house and shook the rest of the night.

The next day we looked for work but in vain so we started out of the city again. Out on the prairie we met a Yankee who hired us to husk corn for ten dollars a month. It was terribly cold and we had no mittens and only a thin suit of clothes that we had worn for seven weeks. Our other clothes had been left in Muskegon. We became exceedingly lousy. Finally we could stand that no longer. Christmas Eve we went back to Dalavan, but before going into any house we bought a comb and went out to a sink hole where we got rid of myriad's of the unpleasant guests.

We went back to our former boarding house in Muskegon for three days and then past Milwaukee to the large woods at Fort Washington. That was a hard march. I got into a house late one evening, wet and miserable. My boots were very wet and in order to get them dry before morning, I put them under the stove. Alas, when I was to put them on the next morning, I found them brown and so small that I couldn't get them on.

A Norwegian hired us to cut 100 cords of wood for 37 cents a cord. We should pay 9 shillings or $1.13 for board. We chopped one cord a day. I had to stay in about one day a week because of the ague or malarial fever that had not left me. We stayed there about two months and during that time had nothing but black coffee, dark bread and pork, but we lived well, for when one works in deep snow from morning until night, day after day one works up a good appetite. We cut several cords of wood for another man also but March had now come and we must go on.

We therefore left Fort Washington and went to Racine, Wisconsin. With several others I loafed around on the streets. Sometimes I got work for a few hours. At last I went to work on the railroad again at $1.13 a day and when that job was at an end I went to work in Keasen's Blacksmith shop at a salary of 88 cents a day. I worked there one and a half years. I paid two dollars a day for my board. I had a good time at that place.

While I was at this place something happened to me, whether it was fortunate or unfortunate, I don't know, but it was while I was here that a young maid came into the house. I liked her very much and I like her yet although she is now seventy-five years and not young anymore. I decided that I wanted to get married and it did not take long for that to come to pass. I now became a man with a wife and then I woke up as from a dream. Eighty-five cents a day and a wife! Keasen would give me a dollar a day but that would not due either. I heard that I could get three dollars a day by working on the barges going down the Mississippi. Off we went to Chicago, Galena, and Lansing and when we got there we were told that there was no work to be had.

Now it was worse than ever before. Before I could strap my pack on my back and go where I pleased, but now I was tied hand and foot. I felt so poor and forsaken that anyone could have bought me for two cents. That was a dark night for me. They had taken my wife away from me too, and sent her with two girls to sleep in the loft under the rafters, and they lay there kicking up in the ceiling, laughing and having a good time. I was so angry and heart sick. But that night passed too and in the morning I met a man who lived near Decorah. He had a team and I hired him to take us up to a Norwegian settlement. We came to some kind folks who let us stay for a time. Their home consisted of one room. They cleaned up the loft and up a bed for us.

Now the bird had found a cage and I had to go out and find food for we had no more money. I went to Decorah and found work in a blacksmith shop at a dollar a day and board. After I had been there three weeks, I met an old man who had come from the west where one could obtain land for nothing. We decided to go west. We hired someone to haul our box and bed and all we owned. The oxen went ahead and we trudged on behind until we finally reached the place where Ole Halling had put up a house 11 by 12 feet. He and his wife were one of the four families that had come the year before.

It was difficult to get a piece of land from the government at that time. We had seen only two huts the last thirty miles. I decided to take a piece of school land on which there was a forest, also water and prairie land. The first thing we had to do was to cut down trees in order to get logs for our house.

We had no horse or ox to draw the logs to the proper place so we tied a rope around them and my wife and I pulled them over one by one until we had a large pile. (My wife was twenty-one then and I was twenty-four.) After getting the logs out for the house it became my job to build the house. I knew very little about that kind of work but soon one log lay upon another and within three weeks our house was ready and finished and furnished. The roof was made of chips and earth, the floor of split logs, the table of the same, the stool had three legs. The windows and doors were also in. Everything was ready and we moved in. Just think, Garina, you and I have a house of our own. We must cook our food, but alas, we have no kettles to cook our food in, and no food to cook even though we had the kettles. There is a way out of this difficulty also for old Sissel has a kettle that we can borrow and Asling Halling and Anne Hellickson will lend us a little flour and milk. When we have gotten these things we cook our food over a fire outside the home. It is good to have it all ready for tomorrow I must go to Iowa to find work. We have only fifty cents left and that we buy a tin pail with it.

When the morrow came, I strapped my pack on my back, said good-by to my wife and home and went away. It was not with a happy heart that I started out on my sixty- mile journey. I had to leave the dearest, yes, all that I owned in the world. My advice to young men is that they get a home before they marry. I know from experience what it means to have ours. I had gone through so much before, but never had I cried since I came to America, but the second day as I was walking along the road the tears began to fall. It seemed so terrible to think of her all alone in the woods and I wonder if we should ever meet again. It, however, was no use to fret and worry.

I found work seven miles from Decorah. I worked the harvest fields for twenty-five dollars a month. When that was over, I went out to cut hay. One day as I went across the field I saw a woman come towards me. Poor thing, she must have a wooden leg from the way she was limping. I was so sorry for her. That woman proved to be my dear wife Garina. She just couldn't bear to stay in the woods any longer. She had to go out and hunt up her Andreas. It was not strange that she should do so for a whole month had passed and she had heard nothing from me. There was no post office near other than Decorah and consequently no letter could reach her. How happy we both were! She had, of course, no wooden leg but she became so stiff from walking the sixty miles in two days.

She had spent the night in a home where she had been before and here she now stayed a month doing different kinds of work. She spun much yarn for a rich Irishman. We also husked corn until the latter days in October and then decided to go back home to our palace in the woods. By this time we had learned that it was necessary to have food in order to live. We bought a two-year-old calf for twenty dollars, a second handed stove--number seven--for twenty, two little pigs, corn and some provisions. We felt rich for we were now owners of a cow, pigs and stove, but when winter came there was nothing left but a little corn and flour. No butter nor meat nor anything else.

I had always thought that when the time comes when there was no more, there would always be a way out of the difficulty and in a strange manner it did come to pass. One morning, I put on my skis and went out without any idea of where I was going, but when I got on the Prairie, I decided to go over and see a German living about a mile and a half away. Then when I arrived I found them burying a lot of meat in the snow. I asked them what they were doing that for and they said one of their oxen had fallen down through the roof of the stable and had broken one of his legs. It has snowed so much that the barn was completely snowed under. It was lucky for me for I got a quarter of the ox.

Winter passed and spring came and with it very busy days. We found that our house was too small so we had to go again to the woods and cut down more trees. We built one now that was 17 by 18 feet. It was very difficult to build for we had no lathes, ladders, flooring, nor shingles. The shingles I made this way: I cut down the best oak trees that I could find, sawed them into two foot lengths and split each length into four pieces. Then, with a sharp knife I cut these pieces into thinner slabs and then made them as smooth as possible with another knife. These shingles made such a good roof that it was no longer necessary to shove the bed from place to place to keep it from getting wet.

When the summer had gone I had plowed one and a half acres. We had an acre of corn on shares. Matthias Helleckson had raised some wheat and I got the job of threshing it that winter. For that work I received six bushels of wheat. Before I could begin the threshing, I had to shovel away the snow so I could put the bundles of wheat on the ground. My threshing machine consisted of two sticks held together by a piece of rawhide. It took me ten days to thresh fifty bushels. I am sure no grain was ever threshed better than mine was.

We, for our use, had three sacks of wheat but the snow was so deep that we could not get to a mill to have it ground. We had to grind it in the coffee mill. Our coffee was made from small potatoes and wheat. Later in the spring I hired a yoke of oxen, Herbjon Olan and I set out for a mill to get the rest of it ground. We succeeded in getting it ground, and early in the morning we started for home. We were so happy because we had such fine weather but all of a sudden it began to snow and such a snowstorm I have never seen. We had not traveled very far before the tracks were entirely filled. The oxen lost their way. I said we better unhitch the oxen. Perhaps they would get into the right track again and we would follow them. We did so and the oxen found the right way and got home but I was unable to reach home that night. When my wife saw the oxen she became so frightened that she tried to reach the neighbors to get help to find me but she was buried in the snow. Fortunately a neighbor saw her and dug her out.

Our load lay buried for eight days. When spring came there were many things to do. I got some raw skins to make bellows for a blacksmith shop. It was hard to get the other necessary things but I accomplished it after a fashion.

The second summer had come. There was plenty of work, but no money. What should we do without money? My shoes were worn out and my trousers too. After counseling with my good wife it came to pass that she made me a pair of trousers from her green woolen petticoat. It wasn't made according to the latest style. It was too narrow and reached slightly below the knees. My neighbor gave me a piece of raw hide and from that I made me a pair of shoes.

In the fall we had a few eggs and a little butter to sell and felt that we were quite well to do. We still had to make our coffee from wheat and tobacco from tree bark.

Winter had come and there was much to do. Rails must be cut and hauled, sleigh and wagon must be manufactured. It was good to have and ax and trees and courage when we had nothing else. Before long, a large oak lay on the ground. From this, two wheels must be made. See, there they are. Then an axle and a short sled were made. The wheels were behind and the box was in front. This is now ready for next summer. A rake that had wooden tines was also made.

That spring we sowed wheat on two and a half acres of ground. This grew rank and beautiful and we thought that when fall came our troubles would be at an end, but it wasn't to be. Miller who was married to my sister and his family came to live with us. This tripled the number in our family. Our food was consumed and we had to go to the neighbors to borrow 300 pounds of flour but thought we could easily pay that back when we had harvested our grain. Rust settled in our wheat and ruined it so completely that we had nothing for ourselves or our neighbors.

Early one morning Mathius Helleckson came and asked if I would swim across the river and drive the oxen out of his wheat field. There were ten of them and I went. The wind was cold and the river was swollen and overflowed its bank extending way over into the field. Ole Halling had just cut his wheat and many of the bundles were in the river. I was big and strong and was soon over and ran after the oxen that were running hither and thither. At last I succeeded in chasing them about a mile off.

Blown by the cold wind, my shirt was blown about like a sail on my chest and back. I had to pay dearly for that swim. That same day rheumatism took possession of me and I went to bed so stiff that I could hardly turn. Prospects were pretty dark. Those who had loaned us flour said they had to get it back for they needed it. What should we now do? My wife suggested that she take the oxen and go down to some folks we knew in Iowa. Perhaps they would let us borrow some wheat. She acted on the suggestions. The oxen were hitched up; she shouldered the long ship and off she went. She had a little boy with her that might be of a little help. She reached her destination and succeeded in getting eleven bushels of wheat. Kind folds, they did us a greater service than they realized. I shall never forget what they did for us.

My wife took the wheat to the mill at Freeport and had it ground into flour. On her way she passed trough Decorah. There on the ground she saw many old shoes thrown out. Many of these she threw up into the wagon because she thought her Andreas could patch them. In eight days she was home again. During that time she had driven a pair of three-year-old half broken steers 120 miles. We paid back the 300 pounds of flour and had quite a bit left. I also managed to patch the old shoes that she brought home. That fall I went out to find work for the winter. I went to my brother Nils but their wheat too was very poor. At another place I sold my wife's engagement ring for two bushels of wheat. We had eaten up her earrings long ago.

The third summer and the third winter passed by and the fourth began. That fall we harvested 100 bushels of wheat. Ten bushels we gave to the preacher, ten for threshing and twenty-five I took to Brownsville to exchange for iron that I needed for a new wagon. I had made the wagon except the wheels. That same wagon was used for twenty years. Then in a run away, when Julius was driving, it was smashed to pieces.

Now, you understand we were in better circumstances. We built a new house from boards made at the sawmill. Our wheat fields became larger from year to year and the crops were good. For two two-year colts, three three-year-old steers and $12, I bought 80 acres of land and was now quite a farmer for besides the 80 acres of school land I had another 80.

Other Related Articles :
  • From Drammen to Quebec on the Sjofna in 1852. (Compiled by Albert G. Anderson, Jr., 1949)
    This is an excerpt from "The ANDERSON FAMILY HISTORY" Written and Compiled by Albert G. Anderson, Jr., 1949 and privately published. Submitted and prepared by Eleanor H. Erdevig
  • Ole Løkensgård's account of the crossing on the Sjofna in 1857 (Ole Løkensgard)
    Ole Lokensgard, "Pioneer Stories," The Lokensgard Family, a Collection of Reminiscences, St. Paul Minnesota, 1994. (2d Printing). Originally published under the title "Nybygger Historier," in Hallingen, a Norwegian language monthly publication by and for immigrants from Hallingdal, Norway.

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