Chris Knutsen: Coming to America  

By Jean Cammon Findlay, as part of The Knutsen Archives

At first the winter of 1865 was like any other, day only distinguished from night by a brief lessening in the intensity of darkness.  To be sure, there was snow on top of the cliffs surrounding the Sognefjord, but at sea level, in a region[1] of Norway which shares its latitude with Anchorage , Alaska , and southern Greenland , the climate is mild and supports the cultivation of berries and fruit.  If the Kammen family only knew it, their accustomed weather was nothing like the rigors they would face in Minnesota and North Dakota.  At age three, Chris–Johan Christian (C)ammon, later Knutsen – would never fully appreciate this contrast.

It was the intensity of activity that was different.  Preparations for emigration to America began months before the departure date of April 20, 1866,  from Bergen and, because almost all the 366 passengers on the ship “Monsoon”[2] were from Leikanger or communities in the vicinity, it must have seemed like everyone was doing the same thing–and perhaps it muted the pain of leaving to be relocating with so many familiar faces.

The Monsoon

The date for departure chose itself according to Norway ’s annual traditions.  Contracts, especially for servants and tenant farmers, ran half a year, ending on October 14 and April 14.  After the end of a contract, those who wanted to move were free to leave.[3]  And what better time to emigrate than in the spring when there were favorable sailing conditions on the North Atlantic and there was still good weather after arrival to find housing and perhaps prepare land for crops?

In the space of a decade all the Kammens left Leikanger.  In the 1850's, Chris’s aunts, Marta Oline, Turine, and Birgitte, and one uncle, Christian, left to make their homes in other Norwegian parishes.  His bachelor uncles, Hans and Nils,[4] went to America in 1860 and 1861 respectively, followed by Uncle Anton and his family in 1862.  Chris’s family - parents Ole Ferdinand, age 32, and Bergitte, 33; Ferdinand (Fred), 7; Antone Elisabet (Lizzie), 5; Chris, 3; and Hansine (Winnie), 1¾ – was the last of the Kammens to go to America .  As the grandparents had died, there were now no strong emotional ties to keep them in Leikanger.

There were economic considerations as well.  The population of Norway doubled between 1700 and 1800, and by 1900 it would double again to 2,218,000.[5]  “Less than one-fourth of the country is capable of cultivation and eighty per cent of this is forest land.  This leaves less than five percent under cultivation.”[6]  With so little arable land, it was hard to produce enough food to support the growing population, especially if there were crop failures.  Chris’s grandfather, Ole Knutsen Kammen (1788-1858), was not a farmer, but in Leikanger he lived on the farm called Henjum where he probably had his own garden, and he owned a mill that dyed fabric.  At some point the family lost the right to live on the farm, possibly when Ole Knutsen Kammen died, and Chris’s family then rented a house[7] on the shore of the Sognefjord.  Living on another farm or buying a home do not seem to have been an options.

It is said that those who went first to America wrote home in glowing terms, praising the land and the opportunities for economic advancement.  The U.S. Homestead Act of 1862, which promised 160 acres free to those who settled and developed it for five years, must have beckoned irresistibly to people who rented and had little hope of owning a house let alone the land it sat on in Norway.  Both Ole Ferdinand Kammen and Anton Kammen are listed in the Leikanger bygdebok (community history) as “snikkars,” carpenters–very skilled ones, more on the order of cabinet makers.  In 1858 it fell to Ole Ferdinand to operate his father’s dyeing business, but in the mid-1860's, for whatever reason–lack of interest, lack of opportunities, economic hardship, a desire for adventure–he sold it and took his family to America.  In America , Hans, Anton, and Ole Ferdinand eventually settled on homesteads which they farmed, but these were quickly sold for a profit and all settled in small communities in carpentry-related professions.

How did the Kammens choose their destination in the New World ?  They went to family.  When Hans emigrated, he went to Springdale township near Madison in Dane County , Wisconsin , where he lived with his father’s sister, his Aunt Anne Cammon Dølve Lien and her family who had emigrated from the Valders region in central Norway in 1850, and his brother Nils joined him there.    Probably this was the first stop for Anton and Ole Ferdinand as well before they settled in Northfield , MN , and then points west.

In The Lien Family by Ruth Louise Lien, 1973, she wrote, “A Cammon nephew, first name unknown, had the following children...” and lists some of Chris’s younger brothers and sisters.  The nephew is Ole Ferdinand Cammon, and though more than a century had passed when Ms. Lien wrote her book, this mention of collateral relatives speaks to the close ties the family originally shared.  When the Cammons were living near Northfield, MN, the first of Chris’s siblings to be born in America (Christine in October 1867) was born in Wisconsin because Bergitte went to stay with relatives who could take care of her; I have no doubt this relative was Aunt Anne.

So the months before April 1866, possibly as much as a whole year prior, were spent getting ready to emigrate.  A cruise on a luxury liner it was not.  Passengers were told to prepare for a voyage that could last from six to sixteen weeks, depending on the route and the weather, and each family needed to bring their own bedding and food.  Even if Chris’s family only ate twice a day, that was 504 individual meals for a six-week trip.  Additionally, more food was necessary for the 1000-mile journey from Quebec to Wisconsin .  In those days before freeze-drying and refrigeration, I don’t even want to ask what that diet consisted of.  Certainly very little of it was fresh.  There were most likely a lot of fermented, smoked, salted, or dried foods (probably fish–and I base this on my Cammon family’s inexplicable devotion to that questionable treat called lutefisk), mush, and flatbread “which was hard and dry, and it would keep for several years.”[8]

While Bergitte prepared the food, Ole Ferdinand built the containers to store and transport it, plus the clothes, goods, and whatever small treasures they could take.  Everything else was sold or given away.  I wonder what they took beyond the obvious clothes, bedding, and kitchen utensils.  A spinning wheel for Bergitte?  Ole Ferdinand’s tools perhaps?  A Bible.  A daybook that had been a wedding gift from their best man for sure.  Not furniture, but pictures?  Did they carry any musical instruments?  Did the children take any toys?

For their $80 fare[9] Chris’s family traveled in steerage as did all but 14[10] of the passengers on this trip.  This was a temporary deck between the main deck and the hold, from six to eight feet high and lined with two tiers of bunks, and possibly a tier of bunks down the middle.  There would be only enough space for the family to prepare meals.  There were no dividers between bunks,  no privacy at all.  Even toilet facilities would be in the open on the main deck.  The “Monsoon” sailed in ballast (with no cargo–in fact, the passengers were the cargo), so except for food, the passengers’ goods were stowed in the hold.  There would be a hatchway into the hold from between decks and other hatches to the main deck, but during a storm these would need to be covered and there would be no ventilation.  It is amazing that when the “Monsoon” reached Quebec on May 25, 1866, there had been only one death, one infant born (who died shortly after), and three people sick with “cold and debility.”[11]  Mercifully, it was a fast voyage: five weeks to the day.

Thirty-five days at sea.  If you are three years old, almost four, how do you amuse yourself?  The manifest says there were 46 boys aged 13 and younger, and two of these are recorded as age four while six others were three and four were aged five.  If the boys and girls played together, there were also 49 girls of whom eight were aged three, four, and five.  On good days the children were probably allowed on deck to run and play games–adults too, I hope–and there were indeed enough other children for Chris to make friends with.[12]

And the good times just kept on coming.  Flom[13] says the shortest route from Quebec to Milwaukee was by rail to Detroit (these were the days before the St. Lawrence Seaway), then by rail across Michigan to Grand Haven where a steamboat crossed Lake Michigan to Milwaukee .  From there they could take a train to Madison , WI , where at last family might meet them and take them the last few miles to their home in Springdale township, just southwest of Madison .  Altogether, the journey from Quebec to Springdale township, WI, was almost 1200 miles.  If there was no waiting, this might take a week, maybe more, and of course cost more in fares.

I imagine the joy of arrival.  Anton and his family might even have come from Northfield , 265 miles farther west, to greet them.  (Anna, their daughter, age nine, would become Chris’s wife 22 years later. But for now, was she too much older to pay attention to him?) Uncle Hans and his first wife Ingeborg lived nearby and perhaps shared hosting duties.  (Ingeborg was Aunt Anne’s daughter, Hans’s first cousin–here was a marriage precedent Chris would later follow.)  And many, many Valders friends and relations would welcome them, among them a noted woodcarver named Aslak Lie about whom I will write more in “Mason to Manufacturer.”

I ask myself at what point did Chris’s family decide their long journey was worth it.  When they left deprivation and hardship in Leikanger?  When at last, thank God, they reached Quebec safely and could get off the ship?  Or much later, when they all had homes and careers and education and many adventures?  No, I think it was when the journey to America concluded in Wisconsin in the same month as Chris’s fourth birthday--his birthday is June 24 (I hope he thought the hoopla was all for him), and they were welcomed by so many loving relatives.

[1] Chris Knutsen’s family lived in Hermansverk, a village in the Leikanger parish along the north shore of the Sognefjord, about 50 miles northwest of the Norwegian seaport of Bergen .

[2] Built in 1851 in Maine , the ship “Monsoon” was square-rigged on three masts with a gaff sail on the mizzen mast.  She was 158 feet long, had a 32.7 foot beam, and drew 21 feet.  She was reputed to be a “fast sailer.”  To see a picture of the ship and find other information about the 1866 voyage, go to this website:

[3] Gesme, Ann Urness, Between Rocks and Hard Places, Grand Rapids , IA , 1993, p. 138.

[4] In January 1862 both men joined Company D of the 14th Wisconsin, Union Army, and were sent to Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River near Madrid, MO.  Both men became extremely ill due to bad food and water.  Nils was discharged in July 1862 and nothing further is known of him, the assumption being he died before he could get home.  Hans was also discharged because of illness a year later, in July 1863, and received a disability pension until his death in 1908.

[5] Gesme, p. 20.

[6] Flom, George T., A History of Immigration to the United States, Bowie, MD, 1992 (originally published in 1909), p. 20.
Not that Norwegians couldn’t do a lot with very little.  On one trip to Norway I visited an abandoned farm high above the Begna River in Valders.  The terrain was so steep the children and goats had to be roped to trees to prevent them falling down the hillside.

[7] In the mid-19th century, a typical house was one large room and two small rooms which were the entry and a storeroom.  In comparison, Ole Ferdinand and Bergitte’s two story brick home in Northfield , MN , or their Milnor, ND, cottage with its gingerbread details were positively palatial.

[8] Gesme, p. 59.

[9] At this time, the price for sailing from Norway to Quebec was about 15 speciedalers for adults, 8 spd for children 8-14, and 5 spd for children 1-8.  In 1866, 10 spd equaled $16 US dollars.  On the ship’s manifest (available on microfilm at the Vesterheim Genealogical Center, Madison, WI, but not yet transcribed to the norwayheritage website), Fred, Elisa, Chris, and Hansine’s ages are listed as 8, 6, 5 (Chris would not even be 4 until June), and 1½ , respectively, so they probably cost 5 spd apiece.

[10] Those 14 were first class or cabin passengers.


[12] The manifest also records 18 infants not yet a year old.  Imagine a transatlantic flight today with just one unhappy baby.  Now imagine 35 days at sea in an airless hold with no disposable diapers and no laundry facilities.  Hansine, at 18 months could not have been toilet trained, either.  Poor Bergitte!

[13] Flom, p. 226.

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