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Arland O. Fiske: Cleng Peerson’s adventures in America

What made people so restless that they set out to discover new worlds? Sometimes they just didn’t fit into the world where they were born. This seems to have been the case with Cleng Peerson when he went to America.

Cleng had been married twice, but neither wife was a partner in his pioneering work. A much older woman of unscrupulous morals and wealth tricked him into his first marriage in Norway. As soon as the vows were pronounced, he fled from the scene and received no financial benefit from it. His second marriage to a girl much younger than himself took place in the Bishop Hill Colony in Illinois. It was a mass ceremony performed by Erik Janson from Sweden, a self-proclaimed prophet, priest and king. Like Jim Jones, he came to a bad end, shot by a posse while celebrating the Eucharist. The marriage ended tragically in a cholera epidemic.

Peerson’s adventures in America covered three states: New York, Illinois and Texas. The first settlement was in Kendall County, New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario. It did not turn out to be the “Promised Land” as they had hoped.  In 1833, Cleng led an expedition to the Fox River Valley near LaSalle, Ill. This grew into a permanent colony of Norwegians that still exists. He is remembered as the founder of the settlement.

Of all the places in which Peerson settled, he liked Texas the best. At age 74, Cleng sold his farm in the Fox River Valley and moved to Bosque County west of Clifton in 1856. There Norwegians founded Clifton College that is now merged with Texas Lutheran College in Seguin. He loved the warmer climate of the Lone Star State. The Texas Legislature awarded him 320 acres for bringing new settlers. The community is still known as Norway and was visited by King Olav V in 1981.

The war between the states was a strain on Norwegian immigrants, especially those who lived in the South. Texas had been admitted into the United States as a slave-holding state. Under Mexican rule slavery was forbidden. The Norsemen were violently opposed to slavery, though it is known that a few joined this practice. Peerson’s countrymen fought on both sides of the war and some of them ended up in Andersonville, a notorious prison camp in Georgia, a place of almost certain death. That’s where the expression “deadline” was first used. It meant that if prisoners crossed the line of imprisonment, they were shot. Peerson came to know the Indians well, especially Chief Shabonna who was known as a medicine man.

In his last years, Peerson lived in a small house on the farm that he sold to a nephew. He used to go visiting a lot. When he arrived at a farm, people stopped working to hear him tell stories, just as if it were a Sunday afternoon. His favorite food on these visits was flatbread and sour milk.

He died on Dec.16, 1865, at age 83. The inscription on his tombstone reads “Cleng Peerson, the first Norwegian immigrant to America.” That, of course, was an exaggeration. Many had arrived before him, but he was the first to organize a group of immigrants. It concludes, “Grateful countrymen in Texas erected this monument to his memory.” They are not the only ones who are grateful. I join the children of the 800,000 more immigrants who say “thanks” to Cleng Peerson, the “Father of Norwegian Immigration” to America. Norwegian royalty have visited his grave site

I visited his burial site in 2006 and have made many friends from that community since I moved to Texas in 2011

Next Week:  The Great Church in Helsinki.

ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.