August 8 1866, Hans Petter Olsen, his wife Margrete Nilsdatter and children entered American ground in Quebec, Canada. During the voyage they were caught in a violent storm in which the steering mechanism was wrecked, leaving them victims to the elements. Hans and other passengers who had been seamen were called upon to help try save the ship during the storm that lasted several days. They were on the sea for nine weeks and the ship was towed into the port of Quebec, Canada, by a passing British vessel.
Water and food had to be carefully rationed. Much of the food had been water-soaked during the storm and was pretty well ruined; but it had to be eaten as a four or five-week supply had to be stretched into more than two months.
At the start of their trip, Margrethe had sewn their extra money into the inside of one of Hans’ shirts, believing that this would make it safe from pickpockets. Hans had been wearing this shirt but replaced it with an older one during the storm while helping the crew with the ship. After the storm was over he found someone had found the shirt and cut the pocket, money and all out of the shirt. They now were in mid-ocean heading for a strange land with only a few silver coins left.
The ship on which they were passengers was of the prevailing type of that time, a combination steam and sailing vessel without the provisions for sanitation which we now have. Some of the children were victims of cholera which broke out on the ship during the voyage to their new homeland. It is said that their 7 years old son, Nels, during his entire life had no desire for a trip on the ocean or any large body of water again.
This history is according to the History of the Minnesota Valley by Rev. Edward D. Neill and Charles S. Bryant, published in 1882, and according to Martin Steidl’s memories of his grandmother Margrete’s narratives.
Their destination after the arrival at the harbour of Quebeck was Rushford Minnesota. They chose this particular village as some of the people from Hans’ childhood valley had preceded them there. According to Martin Steidl New York was the destination of the voyage. He doesn’t mention Quebeck at all, and we don’t know how they travelled from Quebec to New York. But we probably know that the family changed their surname from Olsen to Lillejord.
Steidl writes that they arrived in New York at last; thin, emaciated, starved, and sick. The children had been running a temperature for days. Lack of food had caused Margrete’s milk supply to run low so that her nursing baby had not been getting enough to eat. And now Margrete, too, was sick and unable to nurse at all.
– Just how the immigration authorities let this boatload of sick folk into the country, Martin Steidl writes, I do not know; but they did, and Hans and Margrethe continued their journey westward.
They had their tickets but no money for food from New York to Rushford, and trains weren’t very fast in those days. A friend from his same valley agreed to see that they had bread at least during their train trip; although this friend had scarcely enough for his own family.
The following story is from Martin Steidl’s transcription of his grandmother’s oral narrative. We have made some corrections where we positively know about errors. For instance, it says that there were 11 children. From the passanger list we know the amount was 9, which corresponds to Norwegian sources.
Martin Steidl writes:
– They arrived in Chicago where they had to change railway station. This was the day of horse-drawn hacks, and Hans and Margrethe and their nine children filled one to overflowing. The family that had agreed to give grandfather a little financial aid took another hack. When they compared notes later, they found that their friend’s hack made the trip between the stations in twenty minutes while the hack Hans and family were in took nearly two hours. The driver realizing that they were green immigrants evidently took them on a joy ride around the Chicago loop in expectation of getting a much larger fee than he was entitled to.
He got them to the other depot just in time for their train. The difficulty arose when the cabby tried to collect his fare. Hans was broke. The hack driver demanded his fare in English. Hans couldn’t understand English! He explained in Norwegian that he had a ticket that was to take him to Rushford, Minnesota. The driver couldn’t understand Norwegian! He demanded the fare in English. Hans showed him his ticket. The cabbie shook his head and demanded money. While they argued, the driver in English, Hans in Norwegian, the train for Rushford pulled out and with it Hans’ last source of supply of money.
A crowd gathered while they argued. Finally someone came who understood Norwegian. Hans emptied his pockets of his last silver coin, much less than the cabby demanded and the disgruntled cabby went on his way.
Now Hans, Maragrethe, and nine sick children were left in a strange city in a strange land without a cent between them and a long wait before the next train to Winona and Rushford.
They arrived in Winona late the next afternoon where they changed trains for Rushford that was twenty-two miles to the southwest. They must have been a bedraggled group after months at sea on short rations of both food and water. The children were all sick with what was diagnosed at Rushford as cholera, and it was now twenty-four hours without any food at at all.
The depot agent at Winona understood some Norwegian, and Hans told him their predicament. He gave Hans a dollar with which to buy food. Hans asked him to write down his name and address so he could send it back. He told Hans it was a gift. Hans insisted it would be a loan; so the agent wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to Hans. Hans was now able to buy a little food for the sick and hungry family.
They arrived in Rushford late that night in the midst of the winter’s first blizzard. The depot was closed with the exception of the waiting room that had a pot-bellied stove in the middle and a scuttle of coal beside it. They had no money for rooms in a hotel; so they added a little coal to the fire and left the children in the waiting room while they went to seek shelter for Margrete and the baby.
The baby was very sick and running a high temperature. The other immigrant family had arrived the day before and the doctor had diagnosed their children’s sickness as cholera and had quarantined them in the office of an abandoned brewery as there was no hospital, and cholera was considered contagious.
The people of Rushford had heard of this and fearing that their own families would contact the cholera, they refused Maragrete and the baby shelter at place after place.
Finally they came to a home where the parents were out for the evening and only a teenage daughter was at home. She felt compassion for the sick baby and let Margrethe come in. Hans went back to the depot to look after the rest of the children.
About an hour later the girl’s parents came home. They were very angry with their daughter for taking Margrete and the sick baby in and very angry with Margrete for exposing their daughter to cholera. They drove her out into the blizzard with her sick child. She made her way back to the depot through the storm. That night Abara Lincora died in Margrete’s arms.
The coal didn’t last until morning, and by the time the depot agent came the fire was out and the waiting room cold. The blizzaard still raged as the family huddled together, the children racked with fever, while Margrete bathed the face of her dead baby with tears.
The doctor said all the children had cholera and they were isolated with the other immigrant children in the office of the abandoned brewery. Everyone was afraid of the cholera and they were unable to get anyone to care for them. Margrete and Hans wished to care for them but for some reason which Margrethe failed to explain to me, they were no allowed to.
The only people the local authorities were able to interest in taking care of the sick children were a couple of alcoholics whose craving for alcohol overcame their fear of cholera, so they took the job. However they drew their pay each day and with the first pay went out and got drunk; leaving no one with the children.
The fire went out in the office where they were quartered and the children chilled and came down with pneumonia beside the cholera. Before the week was out, three more of the children died of pneumonia. (Probably Ole Heitman (19), Martin Angel (9) og Rakel (3), editors comment)
The city of Rushford provided the family with a small two-room shack that was all that was available for living quarters.
Before the balance of the children recovered from the cholera and pneumonia, Hans was sick with typhoid fever. For many days he hovered between life and death and it was six weeks before he was able to be up and around. During this time the county provided them with the bare necessities.
While Hans was very sick, one of the previous immigrants from their native valley stopped and brought them a sack of potatoes, a gallon of milk, and a good-sized piece of beef from a steer he had butchered. How they enjoyed this good food!
Such kindness must be repaid. Hans Jr. (17), the oldest boy, was well by now, though far from strong. He walked to this farm even though the farmer insisted he did not have more work than he could do himself. Hans Jr. pitched in and helped him clean out the barn, got a load of hay etc. In the evening he helped with the milking. He now felt that he had discharged their debt and was about to start for home.
The farmer however insisted after his afternoon’s work, he stay for supper. Hans Jr. then sat down to sumptuous meal with white bread and butter and meat and lots of potatoes; but Hans Jr. didn’t eat. He just sat looking at the food. When the farmer urged him to eat, Hans Jr. said, “Please, Mister, would it be all right if you just put what I would eat into a bag so I could take it home and we could all share in it?” The farmer assured him he could eat and he would send more home for the rest of the family.
Hans Jr. carried home some extra food that night. The next day the farmer came to town and left more fresh food – milk, more meat, and some flour ground from his own wheat. “And don’t send the boy out again”, he said, “he’s already earned all of this”.
Margrethe and Hans didn’t feel that way about it. They were in debt again and it had to be paid up. Hans Jr. went back to the farm and found the farmer in the house. The farmer insisted he was all caught up on his work and that Hans Jr. didn’t owe him a thing, but he invited Hans Jr. in to visit.
Hans Jr. didn’t have time to visit. He had noticed that in the yard was a big pile of wood, cut but not split. There was an ax there and he went to work. The farmer came out after while and tried to get him to stop – telling him he had done enough. But Hans Jr. wasn’t to be stopped. He had to repay this kind man; so he split wood all afternoon.
This put the farmer in his debt again so he brought in more food, which called for Hans Jr. to do more work, which called for the farmer to bring in more food, and so it went on the balance of the winter.
There was something appealing to me in this story of a boy and man of goodwill refusing to be outdone by the other. And this boy anxious to be debtor to no man kept the family in food for the winter even while his father hovered between life and death. In the spring when fieldwork started, the farmer hired Hans Jr. for the summer.
When spring came, Hans, Hans Jr., and Peter all got jobs on farms. Out of one of his first pay checks he wrote the name and address of the depot agent at Winona on an envelope as the depot agent had given it to him, put a dollar bill in it, and a note of thanks for the dollar he had loaned him. The next day the postmaster returned it to him. Margrete was puzzled by it. The depot agent had written a name on the piece of paper that wasn’t anybody’s name and a town that wasn’t any town at all. What he had done was evidently an indication that he didn’t want the money returned and he wrote something like Santa Claus, North Pole.
Hans was not to be so easily thwarted however. He had been loaned a dollar when he was in great need and that dollar must be paid back.
Hans worked in the field all week and usually helped with the chores on Sunday. On his first free Sunday, he got up early in the morning and walked the twenty-two miles to Winona where he located the depot agent, paid him his dollar back and walked the twenty-two miles back to Rushford. The passenger trains did not run on the branch line through Rushford on Sundays but even if they had, Hans would probably still have walked. He hadn’t paid the county back for the aid he received through the winter yet and while Hans owed money he didn’t spend an unnecessary cent until it was paid.
It took two years for Hans to pay back the aid he had received during the first winter and accumulate enough to get a team of horses, a covered wagon, a plow, a cow and few other tools and implements.
All the land had been homesteaded in the Rushford area upon his arrival and during the two years he worked there, settlers had constantly moved westward. He learned that the nearest homestead land was now in the vicinity of Appleton, Minnesota, about two hundred fifty miles to the northwest.
Early in the spring after their third winter they set out with their covered wagon and six children for Appleton. Yes, there were six now as Olea Martine had been born since their arrival in Rushford. (She didn’t grow up)
They tied the plow beneath the wagon, the cow behind it, and loaded food, supplies, tools, bedding what household goods they had into it and started for Appleton.
It was early March with snow still on the ground and the night cold. Most of the homesteaders along their route had been there but a short time and their houses consisted mostly of one and two-room shanties and sod houses.
At evening they would stop at one of these homesteaders and while none of them had an extra room in their homes, they would all give them shelter in their barns even if they had to turn some of the stock out. The family would place their bedding on hay or straw and sleep there. Nearly all of these hospitable people would let them use the stoves in their crowded homes to prepare their meals.
They had been on the journey for about a week. Their progress had been slow, as the road had been wet and muddy from the thawing snow. The weather had been warm for March and the winter accumulation of snow was about gone.
On this particular morning they awakened to find snow falling steadily, but the weather was mild and there was no wind. The homesteader where they had spent the night urged them to stay for another day. “These snowfalls can turn into a raging blizzard might quick in the country”, he explained. “And if a bizzard hits with you on the open prairie you could all get lost and freeze to death”.
Hans wasn’t impressed. He knew there was some danger but as there was not a trace of wind, he felt that they were safe enough. He was anxious to get to Appleton in time to get a crop planted early for early planting always seemed to produce the bet.
They started out. The big lazy snowflakes drifting slowly and softly to earth seemed so beautiful and harmless. They hadn’t been on the road more than an hour when suddenly they heard a roar. In seconds they were engulfed in a mass of swirling snow. It was so dense that you could see the horses’ tails from the wagon seat but you couldn’t see their manes.
There weren’t many fences in the country in those days but fortunately the road led along a fence. They had noticed before the blizzard hit that there were homestead buildings about a half mile ahead and that the fence led up to them. They couldn’t see the fence from the wagon seat so Hans had to get out of the wagon and walk along the fence, leading the horses by the bit of one of them. They made their way along slowly until they came to the end of the fence. Though the buildings were right there they had a hard time finding them.
The blizzard lasted for two days. By the time it let up, the temperature had dropped to well below zero. A homesteader, his wife, and three children had only a one-room shanty but he invited them all to spend the days in the shanty even though they filled it to overflowing. At night the homesteader joined Hans and the children in the barn, giving up his own sleeping space to grandmother and her baby.
When the blizzard ended the snow lay too deep to make travel by wagon possible. They had to spend a week with his hospitable stranger before enough of the snow had melted to make travel possible again.
Now, however, the water from the melting snow that had piled up during the blizzard made the whole countryside a quagmire. In that day in this virgin country the roads were only upgraded trails and in every low place the road was covered with water. In some places the water was up to the horses’ bellies. Pulling the heavy wagon through the water and muck made the horses tire quickly so progress was slow. In one place they had to wait for ten days for a river to recede enough so they could ford it, for in that day there were very few bridges.
At the end of six weeks they finally arrived in Renville County where Hans selected a hundred sixty acres of land on the Minnesota River for his homestead.
First he plowed up ground and built a sod house. A sod house is built by laying one row of sod turned up by the plow on top of the other. The roots of the native grass hold the sod together so it can be carried in strips. The whole family helped with the building as well as with a sod barn for the horses and the cow.
With their crude shelter finished, Hans began to break ground for seeding to grain. It irked him that the horses couldn’t work as long a day as he could. The first year he plowed about forty acres and seeded it mostly to wheat but he also put in a few acres of oats. All planting was done by hand. They also bought two setting hens and two setting of eggs that hatched well, so they had a few chickens.
Besides being a farmer and fisherman in Norway, Hans had been a stone mason. The homesteaders were all too poor to hire help, and there was little to do but wait for harvest so Hans broke up some additional land during the summer.
While that first summer was a little on the dry side, the wheat grew and it looked like it would make a wonderful crop. Hans hoped that it would bring in enough money to build a small frame house before winter. He looked at the field daily and reveled in the prospect of an abundant harvest. It headed out and the heads were long and soon began to fill out with large plump kernals. This was before the binder had come into common use and the grain was cut with a reaper and the bundles were bound by hand with the grain itself. Hans arranged with a neighbor who had a reaper to cut the wheat for him.
The last part of the wheat to stay green when it is ripening is just below the head and when the grain was ripe except for this little spot, deep tragedy struck. Hordes of a variety of grasshoppers called Rocky Mountain locusts descended on the whole area. They came by the millions, some of the old timers claimed they darkened the sun. In a couple of hours they ruined Hans’ crop. They would light on the wheat stem and attack that last green spot under the head and bit the head off the wheat. There wasn’t a stalk of wheat with the head on it in the entire field. The disappointment and the heartache experience by Hans and all the other homesteaders in the area can hardly be imagined. There would be no frame house to spend the winter in, just the sod shanty with a dirt floor.
Some of the homesteaders gave up and left, but Hans was made of sterner stuff. He found out that the wheat was ripe when the locusts had hit. He got his family together and they crawled on their hands and knees over the field picking up the fallen heads of wheat. In this way they got enough wheat to grind into flour for the year and also enough seed to plant the following spring.
Norwegians have a method of drying fish so it will keep. I do not know the method except that lye is somehow used in the process. When you want to eat it you reconstitute it by soaking it in water. The resulting fish are called lutefisk. Hans had known this method in Norway, and now they caught large quantities of fish that they prepared for lutefisk.*
Near Hans’ homestead the Minnesota River widened out into what might have been considered a small shallow lake. Reeds and rushes covered much of the shallow water. Hundreds of thousands of ducks stopped here as they migrated south. Hans did not own a gun but he devised some method by which he trapped ducks and this added to their food supply.
This same marshy area of the river was the habitat of thousands of muskrats. Hans and his sons trapped them during the winter. They only brought 3 cents to 5 cents each, but they trapped more than a thousand that winter which gave them a modest amount of cash.
The next spring Hans planted wheat with some misgivings. The locusts the previous year had invaded the area, ruined the crops, then moved on. Again the crop propects were good, but again the locusts came. This time they came earlier than the year before so the kernals were only in the milk stage and not mature enough for either flour or seed. The crop was a total loss.
Hans had about decided that you couldn’t raise grain in that country but decided to try one more year. From this time on, Hans prospered. The two older boys homesteaded and had land of their own. The younger boys took care of the farm and as the country was developing rapidly, Hans had more work than he could do as a stone mason.
Melia and her younger sister, Marthine (Martina) were born on the homestead. By the time they had finished grade school their father sent them to Willmar which in those days was called a seminary, but I understand it was the equivalent of high school today.
I never knew my grandfather Hans but my grandmother lived with us after his passing. She and my mother gave me vivid descriptions of him. In spite of all the hardship of their early days he never gave up. He was an eternal optimist and always felt assured that the future would be better. He was a man of exceptional energy and had the ability and determination to keep going when lesser men gave up. The homestead in LacQue Parle County was three miles from Appleton and shortly before his death at 77 years, Hans walked the three miles in an hour. He was still vigorous when he took a bad cold that turned into pneumonia and caused his death.
Margrete was much younger than Hans and she lived with us after his passing for about fifteen years.
Margrethe was one of the most serene persons I have even known. To look at her you would have surmised that she had a calm and peaceful life without real problems or difficulties.
She had been sustained through all her heartaches and difficulties by a supreme faith in God and Christ as her Savior and Lord. She had an old Norwegian Bible that she read every day. After each reading she would lay it aside, open to where she had left, so when she picked it up again she never had to search for the place.
So far Martin Steidl.
The first known trace of the family in historical sources after 1866 is from the Minnesota Territorial and State Censuses, 1875. The family then lived in Sacred Heart, Renville, and as we have heard above there are two new members of the family, born in Minnesota, the daughters Olea Melia and Marthine. On the other hand, some of the children are missing. We now know that four of the children born in Norway died from cholera and pneumonia, and that Melia Martine b: 1868 also died very young. The eldest of the children, Marit and Hans Martinus had established their own household. We have earlier referred to the book Across The Years −History of Sisseton, SD that apparently says that five of the children died from the illness of typhoid fever. We are now pretty sure that the cause of death was cholera and pneumonia.
The next source is the 1880 United States Federal Census . The family now lived in Hantho, Lac Qui Parle in Minnesota, and we believe that Hans Petter and Margrete lived here until Hans died in 1887. According to Neill & Bryant they moved to Hantho in 1878. Here Hans Petter ran a farm and went on as a stone mason and was engaged in the manufacture of lime from the limestone rocks which were numerous on this piece of land.
Margrete was much younger than Hans and she lived on for many years. According to the genealogist Fay Bitter (who is a great great granddaughter of Hans & Margrete), she died in 1911.
Searching for digitised archive material can be difficult, because the transcribers often misread foreign names, like Norwegian names. In the census from 1875 Lillejord has become Lilleford, and the census of 1880 spells their names Lellehford. Later we find names like Sillejord and Silyjord.
We now know quite a bit of the Lillejord history. The sum of our present knowledge and all new contributions will be a booklet to the reunion and continous information from this web site.
Please leave your contribution in the message box or e-mail it to the Organizing committee.
* Lutfisk is mentioned by Martin Steidl. I know it is a well known meal both in the US and Canada. From this text we might be confused as the stockfish is mixed up with lutfisk. The Norwegian stockfish is most often dried cod. The production of stockfish is located to Lofoten Island, where the climate is perfect for drying fish. The temperature must not be below 0° C during the drying period, and it must not be to high temperature so the flies may lay their eggs in the fish.
Lutfisk is soaked stockfish which is prepared with lye, see Wikipedia.
May be we should have a real lutfisk party during the reunion? Please tell us if you are interested.