"To Find A Better Destiny"
by Gene Estensen
This article was originally prepared by me for publication in Telesoga, and for use by the organization engaged in the project to erect a "Monumental Tribute to Snowshoe Thompson" at Genoa, Nevada.
What follows is the story of a family, and a people. It is dedicated in the memory of my two sets of great-great-grandparents, and their brothers and sisters, who also emigrated from Tinn, Telemark, Norway and became pioneers in Iowa, Minnesota Territory, and Dakota Territory.
I have just returned from a visit to my ancestral farms in Tinn, Telemark where I took the pictures enclosed with this article. It was my good fortune to be guided to the Lurås-Rue farms by Tor Dale Svendsen, a descendent of Snowshoe's brother Ole. Tor is the owner of Austbygde Gjestgiveri and is an authority on the family of Snowshoe Thompson.
I am indebted to my friends from
Telemark, who also accompanied me on the visit to the childhood farms of
Snowshoe and his mother Gro. They include Halvor Haugan of farm Gullsmedhaugan,
Tom Nilsen of Miland, Anne Wagn of Hjartdal and author of several books on
emigration from Telemark. These three members of Telemark Historielag have done
so much to help me find my ancestral farms, learn more about my ancestral
culture, and have opened their homes for me as a visitor to Telemark.
Gausta Peak (Gaustatoppen), the highest mountain in Bratsberg Amt (now Telemark) towered over the travelers. The year was 1836 and they were entering a remote valley in Tinn. A number of farms lined the shores of Lake Tinnjø and extended up through Vestfjorddalen to the mighty waterfall at what is now Rjukan. The travelers, on skiis, were Ole and Anstein Nattestad, brothers from Veggli, Numedal, and Knut Halversen, Fløsathey. They were returning from a business venture to Rogaland. It was at Rogaland that they learned about emigration, and America. One of the sloop passengers of 1825, the very first group of emigrants from Norway, was Knud Anderson Slovig and he had returned to Norway after ten years in America. The people of his home district, Skjold, traveled for hundreds of miles to hear him speak about this place they called "America". For the first time, before them, "was a man who had twice braved all the terrors of thousands of miles of sea and hundreds of miles of far-distant land, who had come strait and safe from that fabulous vast country, with its broad valleys and prairies, with its strange white men, and stranger red men." As they passed through Tinn, in the fall, the travelers put up for the night at the Lurås-Rue farm. We can now look back and say that this was a monumental day in the history of Tinn, Telemark. The word "Amerika" was introduced into the vocabulary.
As they settled in for the evening, the travelers told of this distant place that they called "Amerika". This was a place with a liberal government where a man could own his own land and rise above his class. The "America Fever" began to set in as word traveled throughout the valley about this land to the far west. Several months later, on April 8, 1837 the Nattestad brothers passed through Tinn once again, heading west toward Stavanger and America. Again they stayed at the Lurås-Rue farm. Local historians have told this author that they probably stayed at the main house in a series of farm houses.
The Lurås and Rue farms extend along the heights of a long valley (Lurås-grende), formed by glaciers in ancient times, that tapers down into Lake Tinn (Tinnsjø). At one of the Rue farms, landowner Torstein Olsen Rue had died in 1829 at the age of 70 leaving a wife, aged 48, in a difficult financial position. The widow Gro Johnsdatter Rue, had five children to support. After the death of Torstein, the widow had been relegated to a small set of buildings on the hillside by the name of Jordeskås. She began to think about a better life for her children in America. The youngest, Jon Torsteinsen Rue, was just two years old when his father died, and was ten years old as the Nattestad brothers returned to Tinn.
Those at farm Lurås-Rue discussed emigration to America and spoke enthusiastically about it to the other people of Tinn. By April, 1837, as the Nattestad brothers visited the Lurås-Rue farm again on their way to America, widow Gro Rue was among those set on emigrating to America. We can only imagine that her son, Jon Torsteinsen, age 10, would love the excitement of such a journey. The "Amerika Fever" swept the valley and lead to the first emigration from Eastern Norway.
Farmer, and leader of the emigrants of 1837 was Jon Nilsen Rue. He, at age 25, married Ingeborg Knudsdatter Traen on March 25, 1836 and they had a baby daughter, Anne, to care for. In the search for a better destiny, they would set sail for America, and in the process lead the way to America for many from Tinn. The Rue party gathered at Sandven on the shores of Lake Tinnsjø on May 17, 1837. A large crowd gathered to see the fifty-nine from Tinn and Hovin leave. The emigrants wore old costumes, had trunks and supplies with them, and rowed down the river as family. It has been written that the minister and sheriff made speeches. As they rowed away from family, those left behind waved. Today, we can only imagine how hard it must have been for those in their youth to say goodbye, forever. Widow Gro Rue and her son Jon took their last look at the snow-capped peaks towering over Lake Tinn. Left behind were the widows other children. They had to believe that they would be together in America one day, but at this time it was an unknown.
At the south end of Tinnsjø the emigrants had to take to shore and walk through Gransherad and Heddal down to Lake Heddalsvatn. Traveling by boats along Lake Heddalsvatn, and thereafter Lake Norsjø, they almost reached Skien. This last distance was made by foot. Five days after departure from Tinn the group embarked. They went onboard the sailing vessel Paketten in Skien on May 22. The ship arrived at Gøteborg, Sweden a few days later. The emigrants changed ships and left for New York about May 31 aboard one of the three ships that left for America in 1837, the Enigheden, the Ægir, and the Niord. One of the ships arrived August 15 in New York after over 10 weeks at sea. Two children from the Rue party died at sea. From New York it was to Chicago and the Fox River Settlement southwest of the City. Most of the travelers settled there.
What happened on the shore at Sandven was really the beginning of a wave of emigration from Norway. Newspapers and magazines wrote articles. The authorities didn't say much, and they did not discourage emigration at this early date. That would change soon. The local newspaper Ukeblad for Skien og Omegn dated May 23, 1837 wrote the following: "Yesterday 56 people from Tinn departed for North-America in order to find a better destiny. Some of them are said to be supplied with more than 800 Speciedaler, and they have agreed among themselves that they will support each other with money and labour. They had also seen to it that in the party there were carpenters, blacksmiths, etc. Two of these people intended to go back then next year together with two men from Numedal in order to tell their neighbors and family back home of their destiny and prospects for the future. If the prospects were favorable, one third of the people of Tinn and Numedal wished to emigrate the next year".
Of the three ships that sailed for America in the year 1837, the Enigheden, the Æir, and separately the Niord, three families from Tinn and a couple of single men were on the Niord. Those on the Enigheden joined the Sloopers at the Fox River Settlement, then two years later moved to Muskego in Wisconsin. Many of those on the Æir reached Chicago where they were warned by Bjørn Anderson from the Fox River Settlement that they would be ravaged by malaria if they went to Fox River. Their leader, Ole Rynning, was on the latter ship, arriving in June, and he took the bulk of the passengers to the ill-fated Beaver Creek Settlement in Iroquois County, Illinois. Ole died there a year later, apparently of dysentery, along with many others. Unmindful of his own suffering, he is said to have provided aid and comfort to the other settlers. On his sickbed in the winter of 1837-38 he wrote a truthful and optimistic account of America. This account is said to have done more than anything else to stimulate the early immigration from Norway to America.
By 1838, Upper Telemark was suffering from hungersnød, or famine, and the people were forced to share their food with their cattle. There was much talk of this place called America. That year Ansten Knutson Nattestad returned to Norway, from the Rue party, causing a great sensation. He brought back the manuscript of Ole Rynning and had it published. It became the first of what became known as the "America Books". It was titled "Sandfædig beretning om Amerika til oplysning og nytte for bonde og menigmand", i.e., "True Account of America for the Enlightenment and Benefit of the Peasant and the Common Man." Ansten Nattestad encouraged a shipload of immigrants to sail to America the following year. From Tinn, it would be John Nilsen Lurås who led a great expedition to "Amerika".
Meanwhile, in America, widow Gro Rue and her son Jon Torsteinsen Rue, began to adapt to life in the early Norwegian settlements. Her son Torstein and daughter Kari joined them in America in 1839. They came over in the Lurås party. Then, widow Rue virtually disappears from the printed record. The author reviewed over twenty texts on Norwegian immigration to America and found only one reference. The widow Rue moved from settlement to settlement in America. She made a home in La Salle County, Illinois, and then moved to Shelby County, Missouri in 1838. In 1840 she departed for Lee County, Iowa, and in 1846 she became part of the Blue Mounds settlement in Dane County, Wisconsin. Her son Torstein settled at Blue Mounds and the author believes widow Rue was with him. Her youngest son Jon probably remained with her until 1851, and then headed west for the gold rush in California at the age of 24. He drove a herd of milk cows to California and settled in Placerville. For a short while he mined in Kelsey Diggins, Coon Hollow and Georgetown. With the small amount he saved, he bought a small ranch at Putah Creek, in the Sacramento Valley. All attempts by postmen to cross the Sierra on woven Canadian and Native American snowshoes had failed until one day in late 1855, Thompson saw an ad in the Sacramento Union : "People Lost to the World; Uncle Sam Needs a Mail Carrier." He had had personal experience with mail deprivation, having once received long delayed news of a flu epidemic which claimed his mother's life, and quickly applied for the job. By now, his name was "Americanized" from Torsteinsen to Thompson. In the Sierra Mountains of Nevada and California he would become an American legend of the old West as "Snowshoe" Thompson.
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