Homesteading in
Bentru Township

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When the Norwegian pioneers came from Norway they "homesteaded" farms for themselves and their families. This term refers to the Homestead Act of 1862 during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. If you settled on the land and improved it the government would give 160 acres of land to you free. More on the Homestead Act will be discussed below.

The map to the right is Bentru Township in 1905 in Grand Forks County, North Dakota, about 20 miles south of Grand Forks. Notice the Red River along the eastern boundary. Across the river to the east is Minnesota.

My maternal great-grandparents both staked Homestead claims in Bentru Towship.

Sven O. Quammen with his wife, Ingeborg Larsgaard, came from Norway in 1872. Look on the map under the number "27" and you will see the name "S. O. Quammen" near the river. That's where the Rosendal Church and cemetery is located, for which Sven and his wife donated the land.

If you look just above the number "21" you will see the name "Hegland". This is the farm of Knut K. Hegland and his wife, Signe Austad, who also came from Norway in 1872. During the Rumble on the Red, the family reunion in 2000, that farm was visited. And my wife and I visited that farm not long after we were married in 1968, a story about which I will write below.

I hope you enjoy learning about the land to which our forebears came from Norway.

Ed Knudson - 2/26/2013

The Lars and Margit Quammen Farm

My mother, Ina E. Quammen, born 1911, was raised on her parent's farm which is one mile west of the Hegland farm. When this map was produced, in 1905, Lars and Margit had not yet bought that farm. The name "Ole Gulson" is at the time associated with the land that the Quammen's later bought, maybe from Gulson. A school was located on the northwest corner of that land.

Just south of the Quammen farm the name "Hans Alson" appears. This is the land my father, Clarence Knudson, bought when I was a child. I remember being in the fields as the potatoes were picked. Grandpa Lars farmed this land for my father. It included "Halvor's Woods" which plays a role in our family history (see below).

Halvor's Woods

Before my father died July 14, 1992, he was concerned about how to divide up the farm land he owned just south of Lars and Margit's farm. So he talked to his four adult children one day when we were all gathered at the cabin in Bemidji. We decided to simply draw straws to determine which of us would inherit which one-quarter plot of land. My brother, Curt, drew the land which included the Quammen farm buildings. My two sisters drew open farm land.

And I drew the land that included Halvor's Woods. I was happy because even though the woods were less valuable than open land (since the land can be rented for farming), Halvor's Woods had always held a place of mystery in my soul.

First was the fact that whoever had owned the land early had platted it as a little settlement. There was a road down the middle of the woods and then openings along each side for houses to be built someday. That someday never came, but it was interesting to imagine the hopes of that early pioneer for his own town in the woods. My brother and I spent hours walking and playing around those woods.

Then there is the fact that Halvor lived in a small home in those woods. I remember visiting him, and my mother and father talking about him. I just don't remember whether he was a relative or not, I think he was. He was one of those "Norwegian bachelors" who never married and lived alone. So he is sort of a mysterious figure to me.

And then also there is the fact that after my father bought the land from Halvor and Halvor had moved out, my father got a truck, came to the farm, hired people to take apart Halvor's house, and trucked the lumber to Bemidji. It is that lumber which was used to add two bedrooms on to the Bemidji cabin. And that was an exciting moment, watching Uncle Andrew, who was a carpenter, build up the cabin with the wood from Halvor's woods.

Since my wife and I had moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1983, we were a long ways away from Halvor's Woods and decided it would be best for us not to be absentee landlords of this prime North Dakota farmland. So we sold the property. But it was hard to let go of Halvor's Woods.

Building Community through the Homestead Act

In the book Pioneers published by The Old Settler's Memorial Monument Association (I obtained this book in 1965) the entry about Sven and Ingebord Quammen has a sentance which reads as follows: "In 1877 they came to Grand Forks County and homesteaded in Section 28 in Bentru Township." You can see that the name Quammen appears on the Bentru Township map above in the southern part of Section 28 as well as land to the east near the river.

Notice the word "homesteaded" in this sentance. This is the way our pioneer forbears obtained their land. When they arrived in America they did not have the money to buy land. They obtained their farms from the federal government through a process established in the Homestead Act of 1862. North Dakota did not become a state until 1889, federal law determined the process of land settlement and the Homestead Act was crucial in this regard. The early pioneers were able to build their communities in townships in North Dakota (and across the country) because of the Homestead Act.

If you read about the Homestead Act at the National Archives you will learn the following:

With the secession of Southern states from the Union and therefore removal of the slavery issue, finally, in 1862, the Homestead Act was passed and signed into law. The new law established a three-fold homestead acquisition process: filing an application, improving the land, and filing for deed of title. Any U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. Government could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed Government land. For the next 5 years, the homesteader had to live on the land and improve it by building a 12-by-14 dwelling and growing crops. After 5 years, the homesteader could file for his patent (or deed of title) by submitting proof of residency and the required improvements to a local land office.
So, a farmer had to work the land and improve it and after five years received the land free from the government. That's how our forebears obtained their land. They came with little or nothing but worked hard to become a land owner.

Notice in the quotation above that it was resistance from Southern states, slave-holding states, that kept the Homestead Act from becoming law. They did not want small farmers obtaining land so easily in western states because they might then not support the slavery system in the South, which worried that "free states" would multiply and be able to outvote them in Congress. By 1862 eleven southern states had left the union and that is when the Homestead Act could be passed by the remaining northern states. This fear, that some people would get something for nothing, especially originates in the South which did not want black people to be considered worthy of any rights or privileges, and certainly not to be allowed to become land owners. We as a country in many ways have still not moved past this attitude.

The National Archives article also says something important to understand about our forbears:

Homesteaders who persevered were rewarded with opportunities as rapid changes in transportation eased some of the hardships. Six months after the Homestead Act was passed, the Railroad Act was signed, and by May 1869, a transcontinental railroad stretched across the frontier. The new railroads provided easy transportation for homesteaders, and new immigrants were lured westward by railroad companies eager to sell off excess land at inflated prices. The new rail lines provided ready access to manufactured goods and catalog houses like Montgomery Ward offered farm tools, barbed wire, linens, weapons, and even houses delivered via the rails.
The year 1869 is important for us. In May of that year "a transcontinental railroad stretched across the frontier." So by that time Knut and Signe, Sven and Ingebord, could have ridden the train to get to North Dakota. It was the train that really opened up the possibilities for building communities across the west. It was railroads also that gave the North a big advantage over the South, a major factor in the North's victory.

At least one of our forebears fought in the Civil War, my father's grandfather, or my great-grandfather, Knut Knutson Kvasaker V, b. 2-19-1846, d. 2-24-1878. It would be interesting if someone would take up the project of tracking his involvement in that war.

But the important thing to realize from all this is that life was made possible for our early family members because of a federal law, the Homestead Act of 1862. Without that law they would have had an even more difficult time surviving, providing for their families, and building their communities with their schools and churches.

Norwegians Read Uncle Tom's Cabin

Not many years after my wife and I were married in 1968 we went back to visit my parents in Grand Forks, North Dakota. We made a pilgrimage to the old farm places in Bentru Township, the Quammen farm and the Hegland farm. At the latter we walked down a pathway toward the river and found an old, abandoned, two-story house which I had never known was there. It was near the river bank.

I went into the house and found there a table lying upside down with two table legs gone. I removed one of the table legs, brought it home and made a candle holder from it which still stands next to our fireplace as a reminder of those early days.

There was also a large wooden box in the house. I opened the top and found one item inside. It was a copy of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin in Norwegian. I thought that was extraordinary. Those Norwegians who came to this country did so because there wasn't enough land in Norway for them to make a living. They were peasant farmers. They were not rich, they were not of high status, they were new immigrants in a strange country. I wondered whether they would have identified with black slaves as portrayed in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The sub-title of the novel is "Life Among the Lowly" and those Norwegians characteristically felt among the "lowly" in the United States. For most immigrants it takes several generations before they begin to feel as if they "belong" in this country. The novels of O. E. Rolvaag about Norwegian immigrants make this clear.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is an anti- slavery novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in 1852, twenty years before Knut and Signe Hegland came to this country and after the Civil War had ended. The Civil War was a war over slavery, over whether it was right that one group of people (white people) should be able to "own" another group of people (black African slaves). The North won that war (though it was another 100 years before black people were allowed to vote and participate in society as a result of the civil rights movement of the 1960s).

The widely-read novel played a role in raising the consciousness and awareness of the people of the United States to the plight of black slaves in the South. And there on a farm of Norwegian immigrants I found a copy of that novel in the Norwegian language. The title, as you can see in the image above, is Uncle Tom's "Hytte" the Norwegian word for cabin.

Since I, in my own life, had worked on behalf of the civil rights movement, had travelled to the state of Mississippi to help register black voters, had worked for the "End Slums" movement of Martin Luther King in Chicago in 1965-67, it was extremely interesting to me that my Norwegian forebears had themselves read this novel about tragic human suffering due to racial prejudice.

Halvor Bentru

Bentru Township is named after Halvor and Anna Bentru who homesteaded land just south of Sven and Ingebord Quammen. Here is the entry for them in the Pioneers book:
Halvor Bentru was born January 29, 1842, in Norway. Anna Maria Bentru, also of Norway, was born June 14, 1849. The couple were married at Osage, Iowa, August 22, 1870. Mr. and Mrs. Bentru located on a farm on the SE quarter of Section 24 in Bentru Township. Four children were born to this marriage" Andrew, Rachel, Hans and Severin. Mr. Bentru passed away at 45 years of age September 20, 1877 and Mrs. Bentru died at the age of 78 years; January 15, 1927. Burial took place in the family lot in the Rosendahl cemetery.
Reading through the Pioneers book it is evident that many people in Bentru Township came from Hol, Hallingdal and Satesdal in Norway. Families and neighbors talked to one another about where to go in North Dakota and often settled together.

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