We are a family from Iowa. On both sides. Sure, our grandfather talked about his ancestors being from Illinois, but since he himself grew up in Iowa and his parents are laid to rest there — right in the middle of the state — well … our family … simply put … they’re Iowa people.
So it was a bit of an adventure to start climbing a little further into the family tree to explore the Illinois branches. I first researched where our great-grandfather was born — in Nettle Creek, Illinois, it turns out, not far from where the picture above was taken. I also found out more about his parents, who immigrated from Norway and settled there among a community of other Norwegian immigrants.
My research culminated in a recent trip to the western part of Illinois that is a couple of hours across the Iowa border, yet still not far from Chicago, where I discovered the existence of Illinois towns like “Norway” and “Stavanger” (named for the Norwegian city). I stopped on my way through Norway to view the modest monuments to the Norwegian immigrants who helped settle the area. Pictured at right, above, are a state memorial and one dedicated by King Olav V of Norway in 1975, honoring Cleng Peerson, “the father of Norwegian immigration.” I tried on two separate days to look inside the town’s church-turned-museum, but it was locked both times. A sign identifies the little white church as the Norsk Museum, and a metal sculpture of a Viking ship stands outside.
In a Lutheran cemetery in the adjacent town of Lisbon, within sight of a large-ish Lutheran church surrounded by farmland, I found our great-great-grandfather’s gravestone. It is mostly Norwegian immigrants who are laid to rest here, and this includes a great-great aunt and uncle, Serena and Lars, among other relatives. The area was exceedingly peaceful. I drove up to the church and learned that it had been rebuilt in 1926, about 12 years after our great-great-grandfather’s death. I was delighted to find a street sign for Nettle Creek Rd., though, sadly, it had somehow become broken.
My brief time in Illinois was marked by cloudy, cold, late-October days with a wind that persisted to the point of discomfort sometimes, mainly because I had not planned ahead and so was not dressed properly for it. It was also a unique chance for a brief visit with my sweet cousin’s family. Most of my photos, however, had already been taken by the time sunny blue skies arrived.
Upon my return to Texas, I did further research and learned that there was considerable migration of Norwegian immigrants from the part of Illinois I’d just visited into Central Iowa, where our own ancestors finally settled and our grandfather grew up. It helps explain the strong Norwegian presence in that part of Iowa. I’ve learned from the Central Iowa Norwegian Project that the Norwegian community in Illinois sent a “scouting” group into Iowa in search of farmland. As I drove between Illinois and Iowa by car on the interstate, crossing the Mississippi River, I thought about what that travel must have involved for them in the 19th century.
It’s been an education for me, discovering the close communities in which my ancestors lived before more recent generations scattered more broadly across the country. I’ve also enjoyed learning about how their travels were part of broader migration patterns … and look forward to learning more about what their lives may have been like. It’s always interesting to me to visit the places they lived and try to imagine their lives in their time. Understanding more about how my ancestors came to settle in Iowa gives me a greater appreciation for their journey.
I’ve been interested to see that many Americans who migrated west did so as communities — and not just the Norwegians. I love that I’m learning so much about American and Midwestern history.