Peter Jorgenson: "Prairie Pioneer”


***Editor’s Note***

This special feature was submitted from a local community member about one of his family members to share some interesting history about the community and its ancestry. This article was written by Steven Paulson in 1973, and submitted by RL Johnson of Devils Lake. Pictures related to this article can be found at the Historic Society of North Dakota. 

To many young Norwegians of the nineteenth century, the United States of America was indeed a land overflowing with milk and honey. Tales of great expanses of inexpensive, fertile land in the American West enthralled a rural people whose livelihood had to be wrenched from the bleak Scandinavian environment. "It is by dogged, persistent, indomitable toil and endurance, backed up in some cases by irrepressible daring, that the Norwegian peasant and fisher-folk-three-fourths of the population carry on with any show of success their struggle against iron nature." Not more than from three to four per cent of all Norway's 124,495 square miles of land is tillable, the remainder largely being composed of bare mountains, woodlands, lakes, bogs and ice-fields. Even though the agricultural use of Norwegian land is severely restricted to this day, the majority of the population persisted in working the soil until the 1890's, after which time the urban, industrial worker finally became more numerous. Yet the products of the farms still equaled the combined revenues of the shipping, fishing and lumber industries well into the first decade of the twentieth century.

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It is clear, however, that the Norwegians did not choose to emigrate to America because they were especially poverty-stricken, oppressed, or persecuted. Even though a great many of the peasants were forced by their environment to live hand to mouth, they realized that their ancestors had survived under similar circumstances and had humbly accepted it as the will of God. It is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of the Norwegian immigrants who came to America in the nineteenth century were of a rural, agrarian background. When these immigrants arrived on the eastern seaboard the great bulk of them continued on west into Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Dakota where they could once again work the land. In fact, in the mid 1880's less than ten per cent of the total Norwegian immigrant population reside in America's urban areas.

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By 1930, the total number of Norwegian immigrants who had entered the United States was estimated at 750,000, a figure by no means as great as the contributions of many other European nations. Even at its height in the 1880's, the Norwegian migration to America made up only slightly more than three per cent of the total European immigrant flow. It is important to note, however, that no European nation other than Ireland had a higher per capita rate of emigration-out of every thousand Norwegians, eleven left their homeland during the peak years of 1881-1885. It was just after this time that a young man named Peter Jorgenson made the decision to forsake Norway in favor of the inviting nation across the sea.

Peter Jorgenson was born 21 October 1866 on a farm near the small Norwegian hamlet of Nesbyen, the son of Jorgen and Guri Nesmoen. Nesbyen is located in the fertile Hallingdalselv River Valley approximately seventy-five miles northwest of Oslo (Christiania) in the county of Buskerud. Peter was the fourth child of nine, six of whom reached maturity, one boy dying in infancy and two other boys succumbing to scarlet fever. Although very little is known about Peter's early life at Nesbyen, it can be safely assumed that he toiled alongside his father and brothers in wringing a livelihood from the Norwegian soil. Cereal grains such as oats, barley and rye were important to the Norwegian farmer, but he devoted most of his time and energy toward hay-making. Everyone, including women and children, would work in the hay fields, mowing, raking, and drying the grass which would later serve as feed for the livestock. The cow was the farm's single most important animal as it provided the family with milk, butter and cheese, the stapes of the Norwegian diet. Besides these dairy products, the Norwegian peasant subsisted on dried or fresh fish, porridge, potatoes, fladbrod and an occasional piece of reindeer meat. This rather meager fare was often supplemented with quantities of special local foods.

While in Norway, Peter proved to be a very good pupil in both elementary and secondary schools and consequently was placed in the highest academic track. In school Peter undoubtedly studied such subjects as the Bible, the catechism of the Lutheran Church, the Norwegian language, mathematics, the natural and applied sciences, drawing, woodcarving and other practical skills. He realized the value of a good education and, even after immigrating to America, never lost the urge to learn. The first job that Peter had after leaving school was that of a deputy sheriff in Buskerud County. On one occasion, a man accused of burglary was placed in Peter's custody to be taken to Christiania for arraignment. Since there were no railroads or other means of rapid transportation in Norway in the 1880's, Peter and the burglar were forced to walk the 75 miles to the capital. At one point during the journey the accused man attempted to escape but Peter soon found him crouching under a culvert. Upon arrival in Christiania, Peter delivered him to the proper authorities, to whom the prisoner promptly confessed.

In the spring of 1888, Peter made the decision to emigrate to the United States as had his two older brothers, Thorkel and Fengar, ten years before. He sailed from either Bergen or Christiania across the North Sea to the British Isles where he then took a train north through England and into Scotland. It was from some port on the Scottish coast, probably Glasgow, where Peter embarked on the ship that would take him to America. The very first day at sea the steam ship sheared a propeller and Peter retired for the night believing that the ship would be forced to return to port. The following morning, however, he awoke to discover that his disabled ship had been chained to a vessel bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia and was going to be towed the rest of the way across the Atlantic. Although the chain snapped once during the slow voyage, the rest of the crossing was without incident. The ship never landed in Halifax but continued on to New York City under power from its auxiliary sails.

As would be the case for immigrants for decades to come, one of Peter's first sights of America was undoubtedly the Statue of Liberty which was dedicated in October of 1886. He could not have, however, landed at the traditional depot on Ellis Island as it was not operational until 1892. Instead, he entered at Castle Garden near the Battery, where all immigrants arriving at New York had been processed by the immigration authorities since 1855. Here Peter was able to exchange his Norwegian money for American currency, seek advice about possible employment, buy a railroad ticked, and most importantly, discover the whereabouts of his two brothers and how to contact them.

Peter's first job in the United States was as a hired hand on a large farm near Kasson, Minnesota, where his brother Thorkel lived. Besides his regular duties, the farmer had him split wood for six weeks straight under the hot summer sun. It was such physically exhausting work that Peter's weight dropped twenty-five pounds and he began to wish that he was back in Norway.

He did remain on the far through the winter, however, but decided in the spring of 1889 to travel to Grand Forks in the Dakota Territory where his other brother, Fengar, a Lutheran minister, resided. While in Grand Forks Peter worked at a number of occupations including stacking out lumber in a saw mill for two dollars a day, but he always found time to attend school, most likely to become proficient in the English language. It was sometime during his stay in Grand Forks that he became a United States citizen. In 1892, after moving from job to job without ever really enjoying his work, Peter's fiercely independent nature dictated that he strike out on his own and homestead on the open land to the West.

If there was the slightest doubt in Peter's mind as to exactly where to homestead, it was promptly laid to rest by the financial maneuvering of entrepreneur James J. Hill. In 1879 Hill founded the Great Northern Railroad with the express purpose of exploiting the land to the north of the already existent Northern Pacific tracks. But because the Great Northern had no federal land grant and consequently had to depend upon rail traffic for revenue, Hill made a great effort to develop the country as the construction progressed: ".....feeder lines were built, immigrants brought from Europe, model farms laid out, blooded cattle imported, money loaned to farmers and free transportation offered to homeseekers. Thousands of pioneers who broke the plains of northern Dakota were brought west by the road's colonization program." With these enticements to lure the prospective pioneer, it is obvious to see why the Dakota Territory boomed in the 1880's. In fact, in less than a decade, the population of Dakota increased almost 400 per cent, enough for the territory to be divided into two separate sections and individually admitted to theUnion as North and South Dakota on 2 November 1889.

Thousands of pioneers who broke the plains of northern Dakota were brought west by the road's colonization program." With these enticements to lure the prospective pioneer, it is obvious to see why the Dakota Territory boomed in the 1880's. In fact, in less than a decade, the population of Dakota increased almost 400 per cent, enough for the territory to be divided into two separate sections and individually admitted to theUnion as North and South Dakota on 2 November 1889.

It is little wonder, then, that Peter chose to homestead on one quarter (160 acres) of choice, flat land close to the Great Northern Railroad mainline, just six miles north of the small town ofLeeds, North Dakota. On the site, in what is now Springfield Township in Towner County, he constructed a sturdy sod house and a low bam and then began to turn the prairie with his newly acquired plow and ox team. It was not until the second year on the homestead, however, that he broke the entire quarter as he had considerable trouble with large rocks damaging his plow. The two-room house was constructed of wood, the outside walls covered with pieces of sod for insulation and the inside walls papers with old newspapers. During these first few crucial years Peter received help from and, in turn, gave help to many of the other pioneers in the area, most of them also being immigrants from Norway. It was during this time that the land values in the north-central region of North Dakota were beginning to skyrocket. For his initial 160 acres of land Peter paid six hundred dollars; three years later, when he purchased an additional 160 acres, the price had risen to sixteen hundred dollars.

In 1894, after becoming relatively well established on his homestead, Peter decided to marryBetsy Sjong, a boyhood acquaintance from Nesbyen who had arrived in the United States in 1893. Peter traveled all the way to Grand Forks to meet his future wife before he discovered that a typhoid epidemic was ravaging the town. Both Peter and Betsy were taken ill with typhus, but recovered to be united in marriage by Peter's own brother, Rev. Fengar Jorgenson. They left Grand Forks for Leeds in a prairie schooner drawn by Peter's team of oxen.

During these early years Peter busied himself cutting and drying hay which would serve as feed for the few cows and pigs he owned and seeded primarily wheat and a small amount of oats. He supplemented his income by helping his neighbors during harvest time thresh the grain. On one occasion he was paid six hundred dollars for his labors and hid the money in the lining of his cap, afraid that he may be robbed. When he arrived home, he scattered the money on the floor of the sod house as neither he nor Betsy had ever seen so much cash at one time before.

Although very little is known about Peter's early life at Nesbyen, it can be safely assumed that he toiled alongside his father and brothers in wringing a livelihood from the Norwegian soil. Cereal grains such as oats, barley and rye were important to the Norwegian farmer, but he devoted most of his time and energy toward hay-making. Everyone, including women and children, would work in the hay fields, mowing, raking, and drying the grass which would later serve as feed for the livestock.

Five of Peter's seven children were born during these years in the sod house: Gunda November 27, 1894), Laura (April 18, 1896), George (May 10, 1898), Emma (January 15, 1900), and Oscar (August 10, 1901). Sometime between 1895 and 1900 Peter and his two older brothers gathered enough money to be able to send for their parents and younger siblings from Norway. Jorgen and Guri homestead near Peter for three years but sold their land and later settled near Rochester, Minnesota, close to their son Thorkel.

The first decade of the twentieth century was one of prosperity and expansion for the Jorgensons. Early in 1900 Peter sold his homestead in Springfield Township to Knute Sexhus and bought a farm in Leeds Township two miles closer to town. It was on this land, in the latter part of 1901, that Peter had the large, two-story frame house built which still stands today. His last two children, Carl (January 5, 1903), and Palmer (April 6, 1908), were born in this house. When Peter replaced his rather unwieldy oxen with a team of horses and bought a two-gang plow around the turn of the century, he was able to cultivate his land far more efficiently and rapidly. In 1907 a large barn was built which would provide shelter for his horses and cows and was able to hold eighty tons of hay in the loft. A seventy foot well was drilled near the barn to provide the water which was so vital to farming in the semi-arid climate of central North Dakota.

From his arrival at Leeds in 1892, Peter had always been active in local community affairs. While still a resident of Springfield Township he helped to organize its first public school district and served on its board for a number of years. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the North Prairie Lutheran Church and served as its secretary for over four decades. In 1904 he was elected the supervisor of Leeds Township, an office which he would hold until 1940 when he resigned due to poor health. One of Peter's more unique ventures took place in 1906 when he and a few neighbors decided to form the North Prairie Mutual Telephone Company to provide a rapid means of communication between approximately twenty families in the area. Peter served as president of the little company for some time, a position which "entitled him to go out in all sorts of weather and repair the lines if anything went wrong." The system was built entirely by the men who used it, and is to this day one of the last privately owned and operated telephone companies in the nation.

The years immediately preceding the First World War were generally good ones for the North Dakota farmer. Both the prices and the demand for his products were on the rise, and advancements in technology made life on the farm easier. Peter seeded mainly durum, hard wheat and barley as cash crops, with limited amounts of oats and corn to serve as feed for the horses and cattle. Although the entire household worked year-round, by far the busiest time came in the late summer when the grain had to be harvested. Every year Peter would employ approximately ten men to aid him in this rather long and complicated process. One man would operate the binder which would cut the grain and it into large bundles so that another man could stack them into shocks with a pitchfork. After the grain was sufficiently dry, the shocks would be loaded onto a horse-drawn wagon by the field-pitcher and then taken to the threshing machine by the bundle-hauler. The bundle-hauler, with the aid of the spike-pitcher, would feed the shocks into the thresher which would separate the chaff from the grain. The grain-hauler would then take the grain in another wagon to the granary where he would unload it by hand. As this entire process was occurring at different times in different fields, Peter and his hired men were always kept more than busy.

During the cold winter months Peter and his sons spent many long hours cleaning next spring's seed in a hand-operated fanning mill. Sometimes the grain had to be run through the mill four or more times before the bulk of the unwanted wild oats was eliminated. To make the job seem to go faster, Peter would often balance a book such as Charles Dickens' "David Copperfield" on the mill to read.

Despite the widespread agricultural depression following the end of the First World War, Peter continued to expand his land holdings until, by the early 1920's, he was farming a total of seven quarters (820 acres). It was also during the 1920's that he owned as many as twenty horses, twelve head of cattle including five to six milk cows and around one hundred chickens. The farm was so self-supporting at this time that the only foodstuffs which had to be purchased were flour, coffee and sugar. In fact, Betsy would often sell the excess butter and eggs to the creamery in town.

As might be expected, the Great Depression had a cataclysmic effect on Peter's livelihood. In the late 1920's agricultural production had already begun to outdistance effective demand, resulting in a sharp decline in prices. The prices were still on their way down when the stock market crashed in October of 1929 and the nation as a whole was plunged into the depths of depression. Continued overprotection caused prices to plummet as low as eighteen cents a bushel for durum and seven cents a bushel for oats. By 1932 Peter was forced to mortgage the entire farm, right down to the cattle, but refused to tell Betsy. To combat this chronic overprotection, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 which, among its other goals, sought to raise farm prices. The most revolutionary aspect of the AAA was that it offered subsidies to those farmers who agreed to decrease production. Peter, however, was openly hostile toward any form of governmental interference in his private affairs: "He didn't want any sort of aid from the government and he didn't want the government telling him what he could and could not raise." He believed that it was his personal business whether or not he went broke. But most of all, he just couldn't imagine getting paid for not working." To make matters only worse for the farmer, his land was stricken by the worst drought in the nation's history in 1934.

Surprisingly enough, however, Peter and all his neighbors managed to stay on their land, although for some the temptation to quit and move to the city must have been great. Total recovery did not come for the farmer until the late 1930's when the nation began to move toward a full-employment, war-time economy. During the Second World War farm production again rose, so much so that all agricultural records were broken in North Dakota. By the end of World War II Peter was nearing eighty years of age and, since he could no longer take as active role in working his land as he would have liked, he allowed his sons to take over operation of the farm. In 1948 the home that he had caused to be built almost a half-century before was modernized with the addition of indoor plumbing and electricity. Peter spent the rest of his days in peace on the land that he had grown to love, surrounded by his wife and their seven children. On November 4, 1951 he succumbed to a heart ailment.

Peter Jorgenson was typical of the hearty pioneer who settled the prairie in the nineteenth century in that he was a firm believer in the rugged individualism which often characterized the American frontier. He was convinced of man's innate goodness and of his ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles by sheer perseverance. Here, then, was an individual who truly personified that indomitable "frontier spirit" which Frederick Jackson Turner claimed was so vital in the history of the American people.

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

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