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North Dakota's first Norwegian immigrant was notable for more than his name

North Dakota history columnist Curt Eriksmoen begins the story of Nelson E. Nelson, who also fought in the Civil War and has a county named in his honor.

SHSND-1989.192.2-Nelson-Edward-Nelson-family.jpg
In 1877, Nelson Edward Nelson (left) was the first person to secure a homestead patent in northern Dakota.
Contributed / State Historical Society of North Dakota
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FARGO — Quiz time: This person is likely the most famous North Dakotan with a reduplicated name (a single name repeated in the full name). He was also North Dakota's first Norwegian immigrant, the first North Dakotan to be awarded a homestead and has a county named in his honor.

Who is he? If your answer is Nelson E. Nelson, you are correct.

Nelson worked in the office of customs collector in Pembina for 33 years, 12 of those as the head collector. He was elected to the Dakota Territorial Legislature and served as Pembina’s mayor. Prior to coming to Pembina, Nelson fought for the Union Army in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.

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Nelson Edward Nelson was born Dec. 25, 1830, though some sources say 1833, on a farm “about 13 miles from Christiana (Oslo), Norway, to John and Anna Knudson. Nelson’s father died before he was born and his mother passed away when he was only seven years old.”

Nelson was raised by his maternal grandparents, Ole and Martha Knuteson, and “attended common schools until age 10.” He then enrolled at a seminary in the municipality of Lier, located just a few miles southwest of Oslo. After graduating, Nelson taught school in the area for a year.

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While Nelson was in Lier, one of the major topics of discussion was about the members of that community who had immigrated to the U.S. and helped found a community known as the Muskego Settlement. This settlement, near Lake Michigan, which was located southwest of Milwaukee, later became the town of Norway, Wis., and “was one of the first Norwegian-American settlements in the U.S.”

In 1849, Nelson immigrated to the U.S. along with his grandparents and, after a short time at the Muskego Settlement, he went to Milwaukee where he worked odd jobs and attended classes to learn the English language. After spending short periods of time in Black River Falls, Wis., and St. Louis, Mo., Nelson moved to La Crosse, Wis., to the clerk at a store owned by Samuel D. Hastings. Hastings had just been elected to the state assembly (legislature) and needed someone responsible to manage his store in his absence.

In 1854, Nelson was hired by Judge Cyrus K. Lord to be his clerk at the U.S. Land Office in La Crosse. While there, Nelson fell in love with Martha Hansen, who had also recently immigrated from Norway. After the two got married, they relocated to Winona, Minn., in 1855, where Nelson was to help open the land office. In 1856, he became the clerk of the Land Office in Red Wing, Minn., and when that office was removed to Henderson, Minn., in Sibley County in 1857, he went with it and continued acting as the clerk until the spring of 1861.

On April 12, 1861, members of the South Carolina militia shelled the Union garrison stationed at Fort Sumter, igniting the start of the American Civil War. Two days later Minnesota’s then-governor, Alexander Ramsey, offered 1,000 men to President Abraham Lincoln, the very first group of volunteers the Union received in response to the South’s assault on Fort Sumter.

On April 29, the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment was formed under the command of Col. Willis A. Gorman. The 1st Minnesota was considered “one of the most influential and brave regiments in the Civil War.”

1st Minnesota Monument
This statue of a 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry soldier charging with a fixed bayonet is at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
Contributed / Kenneth C. Zirkel / CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On May 17, Nelson enlisted in the Minnesota regiment, even though he was married with five young children. He was assigned to Company A, commanded by Capt. Alexander Wilkin, and after intensive training at Fort Snelling, Nelson “boarded a river boat to go South to a rail line so that he could head east.” Nelson’s Minnesota regiment experienced its first action on July 21 in the First Battle of Bull Run, near Manassas, Va. “The 1st Minnesota was one of the last regiments to leave the battlefield and suffered among the highest casualties (20%) of any northern regiment.”

During the next year, the 1st Minnesota saw little action except for the disastrous Battle of Ball’s Bluff on Oct. 21 in Loudoun County, Va. In the summer of 1862, between June 1 and July 1, the 1st Minnesota was involved in four pitched battles in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. On June 1 they fought in the Battle of Seven Pines; on June 29, the Battle of Savage’s Station; on June 30, the Battle of Glendale; and on July 1, the Battle of Malvern Hill.

These clashes set the stage for some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. From Aug. 28-30, the Second Battle of Bull Run was fought, which was on a much larger scale than the First Battle of Bull Run. Then, on Sept. 17, the bloody battle of Antietam took place near Sharpsburg, Md.

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The 1st Minnesota, under the command of Col. Alfred Sully, was thrust into combat alongside the 15th Massachusetts, commanded by Brig. Gen. Willis Gorman. Yes, the same person who had commanded the 1st Minnesota at the First Battle of Bull Run.

During the battle, the Confederate forces made “an unseen and sudden attempt to flank Gorman,” but the Minnesota forces “fired with so much coolness and accuracy” that they pushed the Confederates back, rescuing Gorman’s soldiers. This battle “remains the bloodiest day in American history, with a combined tally of 22,717 dead, wounded, or missing.” The casualty level of the 1st Minnesota was 141 men, 28% of their soldiers, but the battle was considered “a major turning point in the Union’s favor.”

Following the two Battles of Fredericksburg in Virginia, on Dec. 11-15 and n May 3, 1863, both of which the 1st Minnesota participated in, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee made a bold move to attempt to destroy the heart of the Union army at Gettysburg, Pa., in early July. Col. William J. Colvill, who had served in the 1st Minnesota regiment ever since the start of the war, was now the commander.

On July 2, the second day of the battle, the Union army was in retreat from a Confederate attack, and the 1st Minnesota was “the only available organized troops” that could slow down the attackers long enough to allow the Union forces “time to gather and muster themselves into a defensible position.” “All 262 men of the 1st Minnesota charged into the much larger Confederate brigade,’ allowing the fleeing Union soldiers to regroup. Historians have written, “without the 1st Minnesota’s bravery, sacrifice, and quick action, the Union would have lost the entire Battle of Gettysburg.” A memorial to the 1st Minnesota now stands on the battlegrounds in Gettysburg.

Nelson suffered a disability from the battle and was discharged in November. He returned to his home in Henderson and became active in public affairs. He served as deputy county auditor of Sibley County, then county judge of probate for two terms, and county register of deeds for two terms. In 1869, Minnesota legislator John C. Stoever appointed Nelson the deputy collector of customs at Pembina. Why Minnesota still held any governmental authority in 1869, I do not know.

We will conclude the article about Nelson E. Nelson next week.

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com or calling 701-793-8508.
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