A Norwegian-American Family History


The emigration of my paternal grandfather, Anton Skurdall, from Sør-Fron, Gudbrandsdalen, to Dakota Territory.


Writing the book became a quest to discover the origins of Anton's father, Ole Pedersen Skurdalsbrænden, my great-grandfather. I discovered, that Ole had been born out of wedlock in 1817 on the shore of Sunndal Fjord, as seen in the book's cover photo by Gjermund Svinsås of Sunndalsøra. In 1847 Ole made the long journey on foot from Sunndalen to the remote valley of Espedalen to find work in the nickel mines, and it was in this Klondike-style mining community that he met and married my great-grandmother, Kari Paulsdatter Brandstadhaugen. Eventually he managed to buy a small farmstead in Sør-Fron, where he and Kari raised a family. Ole lived most of the remainder of his life as a crofter, and he died a pauper in 1878, before any of his children had emigrated to America. Besides providing detailed descriptions of day-to-day life in 19th-century Norway and of leaving one's homeland and establishing a new life on the Dakota prairie, this book also pulls together Ole's more than 400 descendants born in the USA.





Hjartdal and Ringebu to Winneshiek County, Iowa


The emigration history of the family of my maternal grandfather, Morton Anderson (1875-1966)

(From my preface to the book)

I was a teenager living in the Pacific Northwest when I first read about Ola and Helga Aakre. The year was perhaps 1956. It was not easy to relate such strange ancestors to my own life. Jefferson Prairie and Decorah were exotic-sounding names of faraway places, and Norway was more remote still from the world I knew. I had not traveled far beyond the bays and inlets of Puget Sound. My family heritage was deeply embedded in day-to-day life through our membership in a Norwegian pioneer church congregation and in our celebration of Christmas, but I could not yet imagine the experiences of immigrant forebears who had brought deep-rooted traditions to a new land. First in the course of my own wanderings did I begin to piece together the journeys described in this book.









I have written three books for Norm Jones of Fargo, North Dakota, Norm is married to my second cousin, Eunice Skurdell Jones. The books tell of the emigration of Norm's Norwegian ancestors.



Immigrants from Sogn

(My introduction to the book)

Before coming to America, Henry Jones answered to the name of Hendrik Johannesson, and Mary Ann, christened Anne Marie, was known in Norway as Maria Christensdotter. They lived in the beautiful fjord district of Sogn, on inland arms of Sogne fjord. Henry grew up on the Rå farm in Lærdal, while Mary Ann spent her childhood on Øvrebø in Gaupne, twenty miles to the north as the crow flies. Henry and Mary Ann were children of cotters, and they knew the rigors of life on those tiny farmsteads. Both families left Norway in the spring of 1857. Henry, then eighteen years old, may have traveled alone. Mary Ann, who had just turned nine, emigrated with her father, stepmother, and an older brother. For her, the road led directly to West Prairie, a Norwegian settlement in western Wisconsin, where her father, Christen Simonson, purchased government land. Henry remained on the move, looking for jobs where he could find them. In October, 1861, while working in Lansing, Iowa, a Mississippi River town, he enlisted as a private in Company “B” of the Twelfth Regiment of Iowa Volunteers. Wounded six months later at the Battle of Shiloh, he was discharged from his unit and sent to Wisconsin to convalesce. Stories of how Henry and Mary Ann first met, and where and when, have not survived. They were married at West Prairie on July 13, 1863, but life together began three years later. Henry had reenlisted in his old unit, and for the duration of the war -- apart from a furlough granted all reenlistees in the spring of 1864 -- he and the rest of his company were engaged in light skirmishes and fierce battles all the way from Kansas and Missouri to Tennessee and Alabama, where he remained on guard and garrison duty for several months after the war had ended. Henry was mustered out in Memphis, Tennessee, on July 20, 1866. A second child had been born and died in his absence; and his daughter, born the day after he remustered into veteran service, was two when he returned home. For many years Henry tried to make a go of it on a sixty-acre farm. Then in the fall of 1880 he sold the land and moved his family to a homestead in Dakota Territory. There he acquired an entire quarter section, and for a short time he even owned two, but the soil was sandy, and life was not easier. Henry’s health was poor, and he died in 1897 at the age of fifty-eight. Mary Ann, with the help of her son, Gilbert, continued farming for several years, before moving to the town of Wyndmere, where she died in 1923. Henry was the first of his family to leave. He came to America as part of a mass movement, but he acted alone; and once here, he fully embraced the new life he found. Mary Ann’s own life is the stuff of legend – a wife at fifteen, mother to sixteen children, six of whom died in infancy, and, after Henry’s death, a new homesteader with four children still dependent on her for support. And through the hardships she remained, in the words of family friend O. A. Olson, “kindness personified.” In Henry and Mary Ann, immigrants and pioneers in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, we see reflected the lives of tens of thousands of their compatriots, whose experiences paralleled their own – as poor farmers in Norway, as emigrants to America, as settlers in the Midwest, as homesteaders on the Dakota prairie, and as progenitors of new generations born in America. This then is the story of Henry and Mary Ann Jones.






Gol, Hallingdal, to Richland County, North Dakota


(From my preface to the book)

Halgrim (H. H.) Berg, Birgit Berg Jones, William (Halvor H.) Berg, and Nils (Nels) Berg left the Berg farm in Gol for southeastern North Dakota at the end of the second and beginning of the third great wave of emigration from Norway to America. By then, a journey from the mountains of Hallingdal to the American Midwest could be made in three weeks or less barring unforeseen circumstances. It was also easier to return to Norway, and the decision to go to America didn’t perhaps seem as irreversible as it had for earlier emigrants. In fact, another of the Berg siblings, Kari Berg Golberg, did return to Gol after spending three years in North Dakota. And a brother, Ola Berg, came over to have a look. But in spite of the greater ease with which one could move between the two worlds, these later arrivals on the American continent shared experiences and feelings common to all who left to begin a new life far from the familiar surroundings of their childhood homes— apprehensiveness and uncertainty about what might lie ahead; feelings of gratitude for having a relative or friend with whom one could stay and find work in the beginning; and longing for people and places left behind. Through regular correspondence and occasional visits the Berg families in North America and Norway remained in close contact, and three generations of their descendants have continued to maintain close ties with one another.






The Dustruds and the Bensons/Bensens


(From my preface to the book)

The ancestors described in opening chapters of this history may seem far removed in time. In the case of a reader over sixty years old, the immigrant was a great-great-grandparent and the head of the family. Among the children arriving with that family was the same reader’s great-grandparent, who was a teenager. The families that are the subjects of this history—the Dustruds, the Glasruds, the Benson/Bensens, and the Winjums/Lees—came to America between 1839 and 1854, at the forefront of the great migration from Norway to the New World. And they were among the earliest pioneers in the Norwegian settlements of southern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, and the Red River Valley. Names and spellings of names can be confusing. The name Dusterud was the name of a croft in Veggli, Numedal. It was the home of Peder Sebjørnsen Dusterud, the highly esteemed cabinetmaker, and the progenitor of the Dustrud family written about in this book. In America he used Dusterud as his surname, but also Sebjørnsen, the patronymic. His sons, Sebjørn, Lars, and Herman, used two surnames interchangably—Dustrud and Peterson. The Benson family emigrated from the Vik farm in Nedstrand parish in the district of Tysvær near Stavanger. Danish officials spelled the name Vig. In America, Anders Bjørnsen Vik changed Bjørnsen to Benson and Anders to Andrew. His son, Knud Andersen Vik, became Knut Benson. Knut’s sons, Andrew, Ben, and Carl—known in North Dakota as the ABC Boys—changed the spelling of their surname in the late 1800s to Bensen, the spelling still used today by their descendants. Knut Benson’s wife, Marta Marie, was born on the Vinjum farm overlooking Aurland fjord in Sogn. Her father died when she was two years old, and her mother married a man from the Ytre Li farm in the same parish. In Black Hammer, Minnesota, the Vinjum name became Winjum, and the name Ytre Li was changed to Lee. The goal in the telling of this story was to leave from four widely separated regions of Norway and ultimately reach the Red River Valley—stopping on the way at the earliest Norwegian settlements in Wisconsin and Minnesota. An epic journey indeed! There are four families in the story, but two names in the title—Dustrud and Benson/Bensen. Some readers will have a connection to the one or the other, some to both.