A Rognlie's Tale - Red River Valley Settlers

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A Rognlie Tale - by Ron Madson

This story is dedicated to Correll Rognlie Madson, my father, pioneer farm boy.
Peter Rognlie's Immediate Family, Photos Between 1890-1910

Peter Gunerius (Zachariasen) Rognlie (1835-1908)

Ingebor (Isabella) Pedersdattter Viken (1846-1907)

The Rognlie farm house Caledonia, North Dakota

The Peter Rognlie Family 1900
seated: Peter Rognlie, Ingebor (Isabella) Pedersdattter Viken, Wilhelm "William" Peterson
standing: Juliana Bendeke (Benna), Josephine Sevine, Sophia Peroline, Inga Bathseba, Gerhard Paul

The Rognlie family reunion about 1905
At the Peter Rognlie farm

Inga, Sophia, and Benna Rognlie

The Peter Rognlie family 1889

Inga, Gerhard, and Sophia Rognlie

Wilhelm and Emma Rognlie

The Rognlie children and Edvard Braseth

Edvard Braseth and Sophia Rognlie

James E Mathis, Benna Rognlie's husband

Gerhard and Hilda Rognlie

Martin Madson

Martin and Inga Madson

Norma A Rognlie, Wilhelm's daughter

Wilhelm and Emma Rognlie

James E Mathis, Benna Rognlie's husband

Inga, Correll, and Martin Madson

Wlhelm Rognlie and Edvard Braseth

In one hand Tordis Markhus is holding a set of papers protected by a clear plastic cover and with the other hand she is gesturing toward three Viking burial mounds.  She is a proper church-going Norwegian woman—short and stocky with a round face and head that appears just a little too large for her frame. Her short curly sandy-red hair frames her countenance, further defined by prescription sunglasses and wearing a casual brown pant suit.  The Markhus name and the nearby Markhus farm have been here in this thirty farm hamlet of Værran, Norway, as long as recorded history. 

As a child I had heard romantic tales of sea burials for fallen Vikings.  A true Viking hero, likely slain gloriously in battle would have been set to rest in his warship and pushed out to sea on the outgoing tide into the setting sun—to Valhalla.  I was sure the war battered vessel would have been dramatically set a-fire as it delivered its cargo into Odin’s hands.  Odin being the chief Norse god, Valhalla was his baby—pretty cool. 

But, here we have Viking burial mounds on the highest point of dry land anywhere around.  Alas, another childhood fairy tale busted.  Part of that legend was correct, though. When an important Viking died that person’s body was placed on the deck of his or her ship.  

The items that would be needed in the next world—including provisions, weapons, sacrificed animals, and personal possessions were placed there with the remains.  A wooden structure was erected on the ship deck over it all. The ship and its cargo were placed on land in a spiritually auspicious location.  The ship was usually ringed by large stones and covered with a great mound of dirt to stay there forever, or until grave-robbers had their way with the site.  In Norse mythology, the greatest of these fallen Viking warriors were escorted to Valhalla by Odin’s cadre of Valkyries.  The Valkyries, female warriors themselves, though they were frequently depicted as beautiful young women in ethereal dress, did the selecting of the fiercest warriors to join Odin’s army. Those Vikings who didn’t “make the cut” went to the home of the dead (Hel), a place beneath the underworld (Niflheim).  This Norse mythology was quite elaborate.


We are collected on the Rognlie farm.   My wife and I are standing here with Tordis Markhus and with our hosts for this trip to Norway, Lars and Liv Braseth, a rugged handsome couple each blessed with a ready laugh. They live five miles down the road with their family on the Braseth farm as their forefathers had for at least five hundred years.  Our Rognlie family is linked to the Braseths by a marriage a hundred years ago.   We stand here, near the Viking burial mounds, where my ancestors have lived for centuries.  I had not imagined this.  If only my sons were standing here.

The Braseths arranged for Tordus, the Værran historian who is writing a history of this village, to hand me the chapter of her book containing the complete account of this farm and my family in Norway.  The chapter has been thoroughly researched, replete with comprehensive provenance.

Why am I here in Norway?  What am I looking for here?  It started with an old photograph, a picture taken in 1889, on my great grandfather’s homestead near Caledonia, North Dakota, in Amerika (as the Norwegians spelled the name of this wonderful new land).  Great grandfather, Peter Rognlie had been raised on the Viking burial mound farm in Norway, and immigrated to the new world in 1870.  The photo was a typical family portrait.  The man of the house, Peter, was seated and posed to appear distinguished.  But he clearly looked uncomfortable in his “Sunday best” in this studio setting. This man had rough hands and broad powerful shoulders.  His weathered face evidenced the work necessary to carve a successful farm out of the raw unforgiving North Dakota prairie.  Seated next to him in the photograph was Ingebor, my great grandmother, a product of strong Norwegian stock who was poised in any situation. She lovingly cradled her youngest, baby Josephine. Ingebor was the moral fiber and spiritual base for this solid farming family of eight.  Forming the back row was handsome Wilhelm and the two solemn but attractive older sisters, Sophia and Benna. Down in front between the two stern parents were a young girl and boy.  This young girl, seated on a low bench was adorable four year old Inga, my grandmother.  Beside her was older brother, five year old Gerhard—his arm around his little sister’s shoulder and his head tipped slightly to touch hers.  They appeared sweet and endearing.   His buttoned-to-the-neck church jacket portrayed Gerhard as a confident young prince.   His left arm was gently but assertively placed on his mother’s right leg.    Framing our settlers was a painted Parisian hotel lobby canvas backdrop.   But there was something odd about was the studio floor. The “floor” was sod—grass. This shot was not being done in a studio at all, but in the yard of the North Dakota Rognlie farm. The photo was produced by enterprising Harry Fallon a travelling “parlor photographer” from Eureka, South Dakota.

When my father died ten years ago this family treasure with about 30 other photos of similar vintage passed to my brother, Gary.  He gave them to me two years ago. Of all the family memorabilia it was this parlor photo on the grass that I found spellbinding

Part of the photograph—the two young children, handsome Wilhelm, and the studio backdrop seemed to symbolize or have a leg in the modern world, the world I live in.   In contrast, the world of hard times before modern safety and convenience was represented by this robust farmer, his stern wife, and the sod floor.   This picture—these people—bridged the gap:  old world-to-new.  I know this is an over-simplification, but that is not the point. Great grandfather had been born in 1835 in Norway.  He and his family had to continually worry about survival on many fronts in the old country as well as on his new young homestead.  The great Indian wars of the American west occurred primarily in the 1870s. Custer’s last stand happened on June 25, 1876, just a few hundred miles from the Rognlie homestead, in the same timeframe as the children in that picture, including my grandmother.

The photo was not just some abstract representation of this evolution from olden-times-to-modern, this was a bond of my blood to that transition.  It tied my blood to history and to the people, my people in history.  It tied me to the dreams and drama of the pioneers who founded the Red River Valley, who founded this country.  It is my connection to the march of man from harsh Viking times to our current security and the comforts of home and hearth.  I needed to document my blood for myself and our greater family.

A passion developed to uncover the identity of my direct ancestors and all those connected to us.  I wish to become a resource for all of our relatives — family history central, ancestor photos-are-us. 

My interest with family-past has blossomed into a fully evolved obsession.   I have searched the Internet extensively, including sites in English language, as well as Danish and Norwegian.  I’ve become chummy with county clerks and historians.  As I write this my genealogy software, Family Tree Maker, tells me it is the custodian of the names of 21,000 of my relatives, past and present.  However, a genealogy tree lacks a human face.  Family history not only includes the ever widening list of names and “begats,” family history also embodies real stories.  I wanted to find those stories.  

In the summer of 2006, four short months after I fell victim to the genealogy charm, I set off to Norway and Denmark to walk on the soil among the spirits of my ancient past.  I wanted to walk the land, talk to people in Værran —meet distant relatives and hear family stories.  And finally, I wanted to spend whatever time I could with the church records.  These records represent the “chest-of-gold” to genealogists where “official” births, deaths, marriages, christenings are recorded.  Norway did not have county court houses for recording and storing such official material, as we do in the US.   Lars Braseth told me “if it happened it is in the church records, and if it is in the church records, then it happened.”  Apparently the holiness of the Værran church records was second only to the Holy Bible.  Even after the research I had done from home, there were questions and contradictions seeking resolution here at the source.  For example, the actual birth/christening name of my great grandfather was in dispute.  I managed to wangle twelve uninterrupted hour with the Værran church records. Great grandfather was born on June 23, 1835 and christened June 25, 1835, as Peter Gunerus  Zachariasen.  The farm name, Rognlie, was attached later as the family name, but is not recorded as such. 

I discovered what I had set out to find:  stories about people from this village in Norway—including the exciting story of two friends who went to America together to search for their fortune—and  the family that followed, seeking their destiny farming on the plains of North Dakota.

 “Ron, the tea is ready,” Patricia hollered down to my study.

“I’ll be up in a minute”, I replied, “I just got some good stuff.” Though I could not see my wife upstairs, I knew she was rolling her eyes.  “The cucumber sandwiches are made and the tea is hot.”

“Ok, one quick minute.  I just received a two page article from a man, Peter in Detroit who is now the American blood elder in the Rognlie line. The article is authored by Sivert Rognlie’s son documenting Sivert and Lorens’ journey to America and what they did there. 

Wiping her hands Patricia came downstairs to read my first paragraph:

--Hide Parent Post--

Think about someone from your genealogical history that you would like to write about. Collect whatever photos, diaries, anecdotes, historical documents that you can about this person. Now write a short sketch (200 words) of this person you intend to write about.

Sivert Rognlie, my great-granduncle and Lorens Vennes had been close childhood friends growing up on farms just two and a half kilometers apart. They walked to the same school as children, to the same church every Sunday, and shared many crop plantings and harvests as they grew up.  The age of “manhood” in Norway in those times was fourteen years old.  At fourteen a young man was expected to work in the fields, acquire a paying job, or join the crew of a sailing ship.  Sometimes there was an option to continue education, but even that was available only if it did not cause a strain on the work needs of the family farm.  Sivert and Lorens apparently shipped out at the age of attainment.  After leaving their village, in central Norway, they had sailed the North Sea, exploring the remote chain of Norwegian Lofoten Islands and much of the Arctic Ocean together. 

“Whoa, hang on!” said Patricia. “You lost me already, fella.  I thought you were researching and writing about your grandfather, Peter Something.”

Yeah, but these two guys have stolen the show completely! You’ll never believe what they did.”

“I bet I can guess what your relatives did”, she chuckled.

“He was a gold hunter.” I countered. “Can you imagine skiing for a hundred miles— leading a wagon train—single-handedly building a log cabin in the snow? This guy is just bigger than life. I’ll work Sivert’s brother Peter, my great grandfather in later. And, oh, I haven’t even told you about Sivert’s inventions or US patents .  .  .  ”

“You got my attention,” Patricia interrupted.

It was summer, 1867. Now twenty eight years old, our seagoing adventurers were saying goodbye to their family and friends once again.  They were setting off on their grandest adventure yet.  They were on their way to the rich gold fields in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory of America. This departure was different.  It cradled a mixture of excitement and overriding sadness.  Many an émigré to America had taken off in a thrill of anticipation, never to be seen again. America was a long way from Værran. This realization underscored tearful Norwegian goodbyes. These two had to make the move now.   They had to get to America before the winter snows made passage to the Black Hills impossible. The voyage to Quebec, Canada would consume fourteen weeks. Quebec was not the first choice of most émigrés.  It had become the primary port of entry for Norwegian ship-owners however, who were assured of having a cargo of lumber on the return trip from Quebec to Norway.  This extra income enabled the ship owners to reduce the emigrant fare from $30 to $15 and under. The annual number of Norwegian vessels to port in Quebec increased from 77 in1859 to 130 by 1870.  The number of American ports declined in that same time period from 59 to 30.  It is likely then, that the Quebec lumber business was the reason so many Scandinavians settled in the Minnesota and the Dakota Territory.  And I thought they liked the brutal harsh winters.

Our two gold-hunters followed a well travelled immigrant water-land route to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Though it was a “standard” route I have no idea how they made the intricate connections.  Leaving Quebec, a river steamer carried them to Montreal.  Then off by railway to La Chine, Canada where they transferred to a lake steamer which shuttled them to western Lake Ontario and then on to Lewiston.  The next leg featured a stagecoach to Niagara Falls and into America, then by train to Buffalo. Nearing the end, they found themselves aboard a lake steamer to Milwaukee.  And finally on a train out of Milwaukee we find them destined for Spring Grove, Minnesota, where they will stay briefly with friends who had previously immigrated.   Both adventurers are single minded—gold.  That’s why they had come to America. 

But it was not to be. Sivert’s destiny was soon to be altered.

“That’s a good beginning.  The tea is getting cold”, Patricia said, going back up stairs.

“Okay, I’m coming.” I said, setting the computer aside.  “I think this works. The beginning is the hardest part.” Patricia is a good writer, well published and respected in her field. I value her opinion.

But, before I head upstairs for tea, I should let you know how to pronounce our unusual family name—Rognlie.  It goes something like this:

If you think of the words—“right” and “wrong,” the name is phonetically equal to "wrong-lee." Thus you pronounce it "correctly," if you say it "wrongly.”  The name is derived first from the Norwegian word ‘Li’ which means hillside.  And according to philologist and archeologist Oluf Rygh, cited by Tordis Markhus, “LI” was actually the name of the farm since before Viking times, maybe 800 AD or earlier. The farm had been unoccupied for a few years in the mid-1500s.  When it was reoccupied the owners found a predominance of a certain species of Norwegian tree called the Rogn tree.  This tree is similar to the Mountain Ash in America and produces clusters of reddish-orange berries, bitter but eatable.  This must have made an impression on the new owners who combined the tree name ROGN with older name LI to produce the word Rognli (later spelled Rognlie) which became the farm name. It was common for Norwegian folk to take on the farm name as their family name.

As a side note, a number of Viking era artifacts from the Rognlie farm are on display in the Viyenskapsselskapets Museum in Trondheim. Some time ago a large stone was removed from one of the Viking burial mounds to help make a bridge for the road between the Rognlie farm and the Markhus farm.

I sat down to write after tea, cucumber sandwiches, and hearing a chapter of Harry Potter which Patricia read aloud; we took turns.  I could hear Sivert’s friend, Lorens’ voice as the train rumbled toward their final stop:


“What will you do with all the money you get?” 

“I do’know,” said Sivert.  “Buy a big farm. Bring the rest of the family to America.”

I’ll dig gold for maybe a year—then, no more work,” said Lorens boastfully. “Not bad, 20 years old and I’ll be living the easy life.”

Sivert reminded his good friend that it probably wasn’t going to be that simple.  It would be hard work –and most of all they had to be exceedingly lucky.  While the gold fields of the Dakota Territory Black Hills were supposed to be rich, there were certainly no promises.  They were going to have to work smart and work hard, but without luck none of that would matter.

Through the train car window they could see the lush green flatland of southern Wisconsin in early summer. This was a far cry from the hilly, rock-infested Norwegian farmland that for hundreds of years both of their families had struggled to farm.  The farm on which Sivert had been raised was ‘Rognlie gaard’.  Located inland, this thousand year old farm was draped over the highest point in Værran, drooping its rocky fields down over its sagging shoulders, like a fried egg crowning a steaming mound of home-fries.   Lorens had been raised on his family farm, the Vennes gaard.  Also rocky, it was located at water’s edge on the Skarnsundet Fjord. Our two adventurers debarked at La Crosse, Wisconsin and began the thirty three mile walk to Spring Grove.

How long did this take them, I wondered?  MapQuest tells us that today the driving time for this leg is forty five minutes.  I’m guessing that these Norwegian lads took a minimum of two days to cover the distance on foot.  I would love to have been a ‘fly-on-their-travelling-bag’ as they entered this southern Minnesota village. 

In 1867 the tiny town of Spring Grove was crowded to overflowing with Norwegians. And not just any Norwegians (even though they were 7,000 kilometers from Værran) these were people the boys knew or at least knew their farm names from back home.   In Spring Grove they found a place to stay with Jacob Hovd. They also saw the Nilsens, Alexander and Tale and 19 year old Ole Ojen who was destined to play a helpful role three years later in Sivert’s life.

 Most significant among the Norwegian folks that our young Sivert Rognlie encountered in Spring Grove, was the Solum family. They had emigrated from Eggedal Norway, outside Oslo, and established successful homesteads in 1863, just a year after Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862. The Solums had owned two farms in Norway.  They had brought two sons and two daughters to America with them. Their youngest daughter was Marie. All had taken out homesteads except Miss Marie who was too young to apply when the family first arrived. By 1867 she had turned twenty three years old and had become quite a beauty.  At five feet six inches tall she had long dark hair, strong well defined eyebrows and high slender cheek bones.  Most stunning were her large brown eyes that had an almost mystical quality.  Likely this is what Sivert first saw.  There was no question.  Sivert Bertinus Rognlie had met the love of his life and had succumbed to Marie Solum.   

Much to the dismay of Lorens, the adventuresome partnership with his boyhood friend was at an end.  Sivert, leader of this gang-of-two was going no further in the quest for gold.  Sivert and Marie were married within months.

So what happened to Lorens, I wondered? The two page article that I reported receiving a bit ago, was authored by Sivert’s son, Paul Christopher Rognlie. In it he reports that Lorens Vennes marched off to the gold fields alone in 1867. He found the richest gold mind ever discovered in the Black Hills. I have tried to research this, but have not been able to substantiate Paul Rognlie’s claim. Whatever his fortune, Lorens was ahead of the 1876 Bad Lands gold rush. Publicity surrounding the “discovery” of gold by General George Custer’s men in 1874, ignited the 1876 stampede of fortune hunters.  Lorens was in the Bad Lands at the height of Indian hostilities there.  So I’m sure Lorens’ prospecting would make a great story in itself. I intend to keep looking. Meanwhile, Sivert seeks his gold in domestic farming life—

The young pioneers, Mr. and Mrs. Sivert Bertinius Rognlie were married in Spring Grove in 1867, and claimed a homestead outside of town. But stories of the lure of the Great Red River Country were constantly coming in. Each tale sounded better than the previous. As the stories “grew”, the promises became grander.  That country was described as the “land of supreme opportunity for homesteaders.”  This was far too enticing for Sivert who still had an adventurer’s spirit flowing through his veins. Surely he could not lay idle and let opportunities such as these go by?

Sivert must have written home communicated his optimism to his mother, a widow of fourteen years. She was a strong woman, seasoned by the severity of a hard life.  With the help of her five adult children, Johanna Rognlie struggled to run the farm in Norway.  Sivert told her about homesteading in the lust green of southeast Minnesota and of the promise of a better land, richer—untouched land of the Red River valley where he wanted to take the family—the whole family, all-together.

“Free land.  Free level farmable land,” he likely said. “We can each have 160 acres of prairie and all we have to do is build a house and farm our claim.”

She considered her son’s case—Rognlie gaard was so hill and rock infested that of the 250 acres less than five percent was farmable. It had always been difficult to sustain a family on this land. The “official” tax records, as far back as 1590 recorded Rognlie Gaard as being a difficult farm.  A number of the Rognlies in the 1700s and early 1800s had continual run-ins with the king’s tax collectors—couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the bill. Sivert’s words fell on receptive ears.


So, mama Johanna Rognlie made the decision to sell their Norwegian farm. She sold it in 1870 for six hundred and fifty Norwegian dollars to a family that had been living on a nearby farm.  I think there was more in the deal than just the farm sale. The new owner was a friend who had been the foreman on the Viken Farm five kilometers away at fjord’s edge.  This was a prosperous farm about twice the size of the Rognlie gaard. More particularly to this discussion, the daughter of the owner of the Viken farm became engaged to Sivert’s brother, Peter Rognlie, my great grandfather.  Mama Johanna paid for the passage to Amerika of her soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Ingbor Viken and Ingebor’s brother, Peter Viken. The money from the sale of the land was more than enough to provide passage for her, all five of her remaining children, two grandchildren, and for Ingebor and Peter Viken. These eight Rognlies and two Vikens became house guests of Sivert and Marie’s in the summer of 1870.

The extended Rognlie family arrived safely in America; they had survived the trip and the dreaded typhoid that struck so many new immigrants.  Sivert set about organizing a wagon train destined for the promise land.  His infectious enthusiasm convinced many of his friends and neighbors to join him in this venture to the Red River Country. Grain—the fruits of the harvests from rich farms to come was the gold Sivert was now chasing.  Over the winter and spring of 1871 they worked to outfit sixty covered wagons and as many ox teams.  Another source has put the number of covered wagons at one hundred.  These pioneers loaded everything they owned into the wagons and prepared to set out with all family members who were healthy. These were true settlers, men, women and children with no intention of returning, who set out to find homesteads to live on forever. The Rognlies had three of these covered wagons.  Mama Johanna Rognlie had all her worldly possessions, as well as those of Sivert and Marie. Bringing up the rear of the Rognlie entourage was mama’s milk cow “Litage” tethered to the last wagon. 

Both of the young Rognlie wives, Sivert’s wife Marie and his brother Peter‘s wife Ingebor were pregnant as the journey was to begin in the spring of 1871.  Ingebor was not showing yet and it was assumed that it would be safe for her to travel.  However, Marie was too far along to undertake such a perilous expedition; she stayed behind in Spring Grove.   She would follow later once her child was safely born and they had both regained their strength; for this was to be a trek that would test the mettle of the healthiest and strongest of these Norske hardies.

The wagon train set off, each rig trailing behind its lumbering oxen.  Sixty covered wagons, often breaking new ground.  The progress was slow and tedious—each day few miles.   

It must have been difficult for Sivert to set out on this arduous trip without his wife who was about to have his second childThough I have no account of such a letter, I have constructed the following which reflects accurate facts. Here is what Sivert may have felt, imagined as a letter:


My dearest wife, Marie,

It has been almost two months since we parted.  I know you are hungry for news of the journey. Your spirit and the promise of our life ahead sustain me.  If our new baby is a boy please name him Paul.  Next spring, when you should be healthy enough for the trip, I will arrange to get you safely here; you, our new baby and my #2 gal little Jennie.   Ingebor is doing well.  I’m sure she and Peter will make Audubon just fine and their first baby will come safe and sound as we winter-over there—good Lord willing.

I am saddened that the number of wagons has dwindled from sixty to just ten since our departure from Spring Grove. I believe Audubon to be just ahead .This uncharted trip has been quite arduous. I feared it would be. There have been unsettling rumors of the threat of locust and the poor quality of the land we now head for.  I am not worried, though. Many of our friends have stopped along the way and will start their farms where they broke off from the wagon train. Others have turned back, deciding to begin their new lives elsewhere in Minnesota rather than to endure more hardships and travel with me to the Great Red River Country. I thought they were all going to follow me to the Dakota Territory. 

I promise you, that that fertile land will be the place we can start our new home and life together—the place to raise our family.  All of my brothers are still with me.  Mama Johanna’s cow has been a God-send.

 Three years ago it was that I watched Lorens go on to the gold fields.  My heart was heavy.  God bless him, I hope he completed our grand adventure in high style!  I don’t regret for a minute my decision to stay with you. I have never been as happy as I have been these last years married to my sweet, sweet Marie Solum.

Your loving faithful husband,   Sivert


The diminished party made Audubon in early fall without further incident. Peter Rognlie found places for the family to winter-over and made sure that everyone was settled in.  While the others rested, Sivert was off again.

It was early fall and a hundred miles remaining to the Red River Country—the land he wanted to call home.  He needed to scout out suitable farm land and a route to get there. The rich farming land along the river stretched nearly a thousand miles south from Fargo in the Dakota Territory to the most northerly reaches in Canada, or so Sivert had heard.  Where should this extended Norwegian clan start their new life?  He wanted a long stretch where all the family farms-to-be could be adjacent.   It appeared that the far side of the river, that is the west side in the Dakota Territory, might be his best bet. While explorers had passed through there, he had heard there were no settlers on that side yet.  He could have his pick of any claims that were to his liking.  After some searching he found a perfect seven mile stretch just south of what is today Caledonia, North Dakota.  This section of the river winds gently, in wide swaths like a sleeping serpent.  He was sure that the spring thaws would swell and wake this restless giant.  The land in this area looked as if it had benefitted from past flooding—times when the agitated river had vaulted its banks depositing fertile soil on land Sivert would turn fruitful with golden grain crops.  The homesteading “quarters” he would claim for the family, were sectioned off into rectangular shaped parcels parallel to one-another springing  back west from the banks of the lazy twisting river.

The basic homesteading allotment as defined in 1862 was a square section of land containing one hundred sixty acres called a “quarter”.  In contrast to this, each Rognlie homesteading “quarter” was not a true square, but had its east boundary defined by the flowing Red River and was therefore not a straight line. Many regions of the US were apportioned for homesteading. These regions were first divvied up into larger 2,560 acre areas called townships. The townships were divided into fourths called “sections” and finally the sections were sub-divided into the basic hundred and sixty acre “quarters” for homesteading.  I think it was this early homesteading grid work that created the regular patchwork pattern that predominates much of the Midwest today.

Triumphant that he had found ‘his promised land’ he returned to Audubon to wait out the harsh winter, warming his hands and heart.

The adventurer in Sivert would not let him rest, however.  When early spring arrived in 1872, he skied northwest a hundred miles beginning in this far western fringe of civilization, Audubon, Minnesota.  Over the winter he had crafted a pair of skies. That was the best way to get back to the land he had scouted last fall.  He was intent on building a home on his claim over the spring and summer.   He wanted it to be ready when the family arrived there at summer’s end.  He had told his brother Peter how to get to the new land.   Winter was beginning to release its icy grip.  Snow and ice cloaks were still worn by the river, drooping trees, and the flat earth as far as the eye could see. 

While no account of his overland journey has been found to date, one can be sure that his hundred mile cross country trek was a story unto itself.  At the end of this ski trip, restless Sivert found himself in the log cabin of the second settler in the Red River Valley, Ole P. Ojen. Ole was his friend from 500 miles ago and a year earlier in Spring Grove.


“Is the coffee hot enough?” asked Ole. “That is a long cold trip this time of year.”

Sivert sipped gratefully at the steaming mug grasped snugly in his hands, now beginning to thaw.  Looking up with a faint smile, “Yea thanks, I hoped you would be easy to find. I wanted to get here early in the spring without big problem from late winter blizzard.”

“This winter has not been so bad. You’ve been lucky.” Ole remarked.

“Mama and the family are waiting back in Audubon.  By summer the snow will clear. Brother Peter will lead our three wagons here.”

“That’s good.”

“He is also waiting for my wife to get there before they begin. Marie is still in Spring Grove. She just had a baby.” Big gulp of warm coffee.

“Congratulations!”  exclaimed Ole, whirling around from stoking the fire, smile from ear to ear, extending his hand to his friend. “Number two for you, yes? Jennie will have a little - brother, maybe?”

“Yea, we got good news, it is a boy. I named him Paul Christopher Rognlie.” Sivert beamed.

“So, where will you be settling?” inquired Ole.

“Just across the river from you, neighbor.” Sivert looked pleased with himself.

“That’s great! I do hope the Indian problem will not be bad.”

“Yea, me too. Hadn’t heard of any problem around here.” Sivert said. 

“Before I came here I had stayed with the Andersons, a Swede family up in northern Clay County.  After I left they were ambushed by Indians.” Ole said. 

“That will not change my plan. Tomorrow I will pick a house site.”  Sivert said.  "Can I stay with you while I build it?” 

Yea, course, I’ll help.” Ole said. “We’ll start in the morning after breakfast.”

There is no evidence that Sivert and Ole met the previous fall during his exploration trip.  I have three sources documenting Sivert’s trip, three others discussing Ole’s travels and their meeting.  None have any mention of them seeing one-another during Sivert’s early fall of 1871 scouting adventure.  I think this may be because Ole, an interesting character in his own right,  first build a house in early June 1871 and began homesteading a quarter in “sections 24” a couple miles north and a couple miles east of where Sivert explored on the west side of the Red River. Ole being further north and inland (east, on the wrong side) from the Red River, Sivert probably didn’t meet up with him.   Then sometime in early Oct 1871, Ole was told that he was on land owned by the railroad and it was not available for “free homesteading”. He could have bought the land from the railroad.  But he chose not to since he could move a couple of miles or so and have a different 160 acre homestead for free. Besides, he had no money for that size a purchase.  So he built a house on a new claim in “section 25”, south by the river. He lived the rest of the winter 1871-1872 in the new location where our intrepid Sivert found him that spring 1872.  What I can’t imagine is building a log cabin in Minnesota in Oct-Nov.  He did what needed doing. There were none of the comforts we might think of and no accommodations of any sort—no shelter, no Home Depot, no Starbucks. I guess these were real men— not us wimps who populate America today.


After a night’s rest, Sivert and Ole set out the next morning across the frozen river to the land destined to become the Sivert Rognlie claim.  Sivert chose a site for the house and the duo set about constructing a fine log cabin.  They cleared the snow and felled the trees to erect a twenty six foot by eighteen and a half foot single room dwelling. Sivert’s biggest obstacle became the river—getting back and forth from Ole’s cabin to the land.  When he began, the ice on the river was still frozen and passable on foot.  As the mild days of spring swept aside the snow and dissolved the ice, crossing the river became problematic.  Sivert’s first solution was to hollow out a log to be used as a boat to cross the rising river.  As the snow thawed, the thrashing of the restless serpent spelled trouble for the small watercraft.  Sivert next fashioned a fine little raft and rowed across.  As the spring thaws climaxed, the full fury of the river dragged Sivert further and further down the river with each days crossing.  However, in true pioneer spirit he persevered, trying various solutions, i.e. using rope to pull across from one side to another and so on.  Somehow he succeeded and the house progressed.

His house was of rough hewn logs with mud-plaster in the cracks between to keep the weather outside. It was one story high with an earthy bark roof. There was but one entrance, a door on the front flanked to the right by the cabin’s only window with sturdy shutters, which at some point acquired actual glass.  In 1881 when Sivert “proved-up” on his claim, he had added a stable twenty four feet by sixty feet, a mile of breaking rail fence and twenty five acres under cultivation.  Its stated value was $700.

By midsummer the cabin was ready. Peter Rognlie arrived leading three wagons, the family, sixty eight year old mama Johanna, and of course, Litage the milk cow.  The whole family settled along the river. The farms were laid out side-by-side from north to south in this order:  Farthest north was Sivert’s sister Christine who had married Ole Bjøre.  The second claim was given to Sivert’s youngest brother Zephanius, the third to Mama Johanna Rognlie.  In the center was Sivert and Marie’s homestead.  Next to the south lay Peter and Ingebor’s spread. South of him was Peter Viken, brother of Peter Rognlie’s wife Ingebor. Furthest south was the last of this Rognlie clan, brother Ole.  Each set out to build their home and establish their farm as a piece of this Rognlie community and a piece of the beautiful Red River Valley.

Sections to be added later:

1.     An Indian encounter …

2.     Farming the hard sod was tough going …

3.     Then, Grandma Inga cooking here. …

4.     My father’s roll and his tales about old Indians and the Indian trails …

The photograph discussed in the early part of the piece can be seen at: http://rognlie.net/Genealogy.html  It is at the top of the page, the fourth thumbnail view from the right.


Last updated: June 9, 2012
Copyright © 2012 Ron Madson
El Granada, California
email: Ron Madson