Providential Preservation of Amund Eidsmoe Family: Leaving Norway, Surviving a Tragic Steamship Sinking on Lake Erie, and Settling in Wisconsin
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
This shall be written for the generation to come: and the people which shall be created shall praise the Lord.Psalm 102:18
During the AD1800s many Norwegians immigrated to America. Among those emigrants were Amund Eidsmoe and his family, who traveled up the St. Lawrence River from Quebec to Montreal, rode a train from Montreal to Buffalo, and boarded the steamship Atlantic, heading westward across Lake Erie—to disaster. By God’s providential grace—in what was a providential miracle—Amund Eidsmoe, his wife, his son, and his daughter all survived a Titanic-like tragedy on Lake Erie. The Eidsmoe family settled in Wisconsin, increasing there, and now increases beyond.
One of his descendants, Col. John Eidsmoe (of whom more is mentioned hereafter), summarized their fateful trip from Valdres (a/k/a “Valders”) through Quebec (Canada) unto Wisconsin (in America) and its “dominoes” of destiny in an email:
Amund’s first wife died in Norway. … Several years later he married Gertrude, and they came to America with two children. [Amund and the other 3 family members survived the ship sinking on Lake Erie, to be described hereafter.] A family tradition is that he treaded water in Lake Erie for 3-4 hours awaiting rescue and during that time he kept his wife and children afloat with a wooden chair he found floating.
Amund and Gertrude settled near Mt Horeb, Wisconsin, and had 8 more children, one of whom was my grandfather Christopher Eidsmoe. Christopher married Lena Nessa. They had one child in Wisconsin, Alvin, who died about a week after birth. … I have searched but have never been able to find a birth certificate, death certificate, or grave for little Alvin. Most likely they buried him on the farm.
Chris and Lena then homesteaded near Beresford, South Dakota, and had six more children: Spencer, Marble, Ella, Lester, Clark, and Russell (my Dad). Russell married Beulah Hoffert, and they had two children, Robert and me [John Eidsmoe]. Dad died in 1996 at age 91 and Mom in 1998 at age 92. Dad’s passing was three weeks short of their 70th wedding anniversary.
I married Marlene Van Dyke 52 years ago. We have three children, David Christopher, Kirsten Heather, and Justin Luther. David married Donna Sanford: three children: Elizabeth (Skylar), Erik Christopher, and Amelia. Elizabeth began classes this week at Cedarville University. David just retired as an Air Force pilot and now flies for American Eagle. Kirsten married Chris Tidwell, no children yet but a Norwegian Fjord Horse named Droi. Kirsten is Managing Editor for the American Cancer Society. Justin is not married yet; he is a physical therapist in Huntsville (Alabama).
[Quoting John Eidsmoe, Norwegian-American historian, email to JJSJ, September 1st AD2022.]
Of the various migration routes, taken by many immigrants, one route was dominated by water travel—specifically, the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway. Immigrants came by ship across the Atlantic Ocean, traveling westward up the St. Lawrence River, to the port of Quebec (Canada). From Quebec ships went further inland, on the St. Lawrence River, to Montreal, and beyond to the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway is a deep draft waterway extending 3,700 km (2,340 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean to the head of the Great Lakes, in the heart of North America. The St. Lawrence Seaway portion of the System extends from Montreal to mid-Lake Erie. Ranked as one of the outstanding engineering feats of the twentieth century, the St. Lawrence Seaway includes 13 Canadian and 2 U.S. locks.
The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River have been major North American trade arteries since long before the U.S. or Canada achieved nationhood. Today, this integrated navigation system serves mariners, farmers, factory workers, and commercial interests from the western prairies to the eastern seaboard.
[Quoting U.S. Dep’t of Transportation, “Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation”, posted at www.seaway.dot.gov/about/great-lakes-st-lawrence-seaway-system . Notice that the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River “have been major North American trade arteries since long before the U.S. or Canada achieved nationhood”—thus those navigable waterways (linked by canals) were available for westward migration during the AD1800s, when Norwegian immigrants were traveling from North America’s eastern seacoast to the states where many settled, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa.
One such Norwegian immigrant was Amund O. Eidsmoe, born February 13th of AD1814 in Southern Aurdal (Valders, Norway), as one of 6 children. Confirmed as a Lutheran at age 16, Amund worked with his brothers, using various tools, and excelled at making spinning wheels. At age 20 (in AD1834) Amund pursued and acquired a 2-year-program education, as a teacher, at the Aker’s Parish Normal and Teachers’ Seminary, and after graduating was appointed itinerant teaching responsibilities, using his teaching income to repay the Parish School Treasury his student debt, being obligated to serve 7 years at $12/year. After fulfilling his 7 years, Amund’s salary was increased; he continued to teach for 9 more years. During that time Amund married and became the father of 3 children, one son and 1 daughter. Amund’s daughter died at age 2. Soon afterwards—after 4½ years of marriage—Amund’s wife died. In AD1849 Amund remarried, to Gertrude, by whom he fathered another daughter, Gunil. Considering that a teacher’s income was too restrictive, Amund and Gertrude decided to migrate to America, then known as the land of opportunity. So Amund prepared to emigrate from Norway, with Gertrude (his second wife), Ole (his son from his first marriage), and Gunil (his daughter from his second marriage).
So, on April 5th of AD1852 Amund and his family left Valders (Norway) for North America. Amund Eidsmoe came to North America with his family. Amund later recalled that momentous undertaking:
It was fortunate for us that we had no knowledge of the danger and adversity that were to meet us on our way, otherwise we should hardly have started on the trip. Already on the second day we were met by an omen of ill-indication for a safe journey; namely, the ship that was to carry us had already gone. Before another ship came, nine weeks had passed. This made deep inroads into our stock of provisions so we had to make more purchases. It was not then as now. We went on a sail boat and had to furnish our own provisions.
[Quoting Amund O. Eidsmoe, “Amund O. Eidsmoe’s Story of His Own Life, including an Account of His Voyage and His History of the Disaster on Lake Erie”, reported by Robert R. Eidsmoe, posted on www.NorwayHeritage.com .] Much of what we know about Amund Eidsmoe’s life comes from this personal account, written when he was 88 years old.
On the ship we were always in danger of falling from the heaving and plunging of the waves and in our rooms we were thrown from one wall to the other, now up and now down. It continued in this manner for eight weeks and four days until we arrived at Quebec. Here we bade farewell to the ship and its company and were loaded with our goods onto a steamboat. Up to this time we had been only Norwegians in our “traveling” company but now we had traveling comrades also of other nationalities. The boat carried us up the St. Lawrence to Montreal. As our goods were loaded onto the wharf, one of our company, Tostein Fulhja from Slindre, was drowned. From Montreal we were to travel by rail and together with Tostein’s widow and little child, we were marched into the train. She was nearly overcome with grief. It was a pitiful sight to see and think about.
From our [train] car we could see in the distance the Niagara Falls, where grandeur is beyond my power of description. So we came one evening to Buffalo. Finally, we had arrived at the land of promise — The United States….quoting Amund Eidsmoe
After describing yet another negative experience in coming to America – being shamefully pick-pocketed by a Norwegian-American in Buffalo!—Amund Eidsmoe reported his unforgettable experience aboard the fateful steamship Atlantic (which departed from Buffalo, with intentions of crossing Lake Erie to Detroit), which tragically sank into Lake Erie during the night of August 19th —20th, AD1852.
A large number of people and goods of every description were now crowded together onto a large boat called the “Atlantic” and at eleven o’clock it moved off on Lake Erie. There were many people and all wanted to find a place to sleep. As many as found room went down into the cabins, but many had to prepare their beds upon the deck. I and my family were among the latter. The deck was crowded with every conceivable thing: baggage, new wagons, and much other stuff. So we lay down to rest but sleep was not of long duration. When it was near midnight we were awakened by a loud crash and saw a large beam fall down upon a Norwegian woman of our company. It crushed several bones and completely tore the head off a little baby that lay at her side. Another ship had collided with ours and knocked a large hole in the side of the “Atlantic” so that a flood of water rushed into the cabins and people came up as thick and fast as they could crowd themselves. It seemed as if even the wrath of the Almighty had a hand in the destruction. The sailors became absolutely raving and tried to get as many killed as possible. When they saw that people crowded up they struck them on the heads and shoulders to drive them down again. When this did not help, they took and raised the stairway up on end so the people fell down backwards again. Then they jerked the ladder up on the deck. All hopes were gone for those that were underneath. Water filled the rooms and life was no more.
People rushed frantically from one end of the boat to the other. The trap doors were torn open and goods and people were swept into the water. Then was the life of a person of little value. My wife and children and I were miraculously saved; although swept into the water as the ship sank, with much swimming around with my wife and children on my back, we were picked up by the other ship. When I discovered that all of my family were alive, I was full of joy, as if I had become the richest man in the world, despite the fact that we had lost all of our goods. We had lost all but our lives, but they were precious, we now realized. An account of the catastrophe’s cause I have from one of our newspapers and is as follows:
“Atlantic sailed out from Buffalo in the evening at eleven o’clock and to sight the Propeller Ogdensburg that belonged to a competitive company. Between these there was a bitter enmity and the captain of the Atlantic became desirous of running over the Ogdensburg and sinking it. All the lights were turned out so that the act of running down the rival company’s boat would be unnoticed. At the last moment the Ogdensburg had time to turn hastily aside to escape the Atlantic and advanced a short distance, but in anger at this attack, the Ogdensburg turned and with a mighty spring, pushed a big hole in the Atlantic’s side so that the water soon caused the boat to sink. The loss of life is estimated at about 300, of whom 60 were Norwegians. A trial of the officers of each ship was held with the result that the Atlantic was blamed for the misfortune.[”]
Mr. Petty, the captain of the Atlantic, was arrested and taken to Milwaukee, but what happened to him later on, I do not know.
From Detroit we came by rail to Chicago, where we received lodging and food. We went from Chicago to Milwaukee by boat. We had with us people of different nationalities -Germans -Irish – I do not know what they were all called, but all had the same distinguishing marks: half naked and without baggage or effects.
When we arrived at Milwaukee, the Germans were very kind to us and had taken up contributions so we were all supplied with money and clothes. A merchant, named Carlsen, was very kind to us and gave me a suit of clothes and $30.00 in cash. There were probably those who received more, but I was glad that they had helped us this much.
We now got a man to take us over land to Springdale, Dane County, Wisconsin, with oxen. We knew there were acquaintances there from our neighborhood back home who had settled there several years before. As any one may know, it was up to us to search for work so as to get a little to live on.
There was still both State and Government land not yet taken up and I thought I would settle down here. I staked out a claim and built a rude cabin for ourselves and a stable for two cows I had bought, so we could have gotten along fairly well after a time. But after two years had passed a land speculator came along from Madison and informed me that had bought the land. I left the whole thing without as much as a cent for all my hard labor, and moved to York, Green County, where my brothers had located. They had come to America about the same time as myself and family, but on different boats. I had nothing to buy with, the price of Government land at that time was $50.00 for 40 acres. I got the banker at Monroe, Mr. Ludlow, to buy two “forties” for me and gave him 34% interest. Money was not to be considered at that time. I gave him bonds for the time being and finally got it all paid. Afterwards I bought more land and had at last five “forties”. The last two I had to pay $110.00 for one and $116.00 for the other. It was Mostly wild land and had to be grubbed before it could be broken. But after a while I became fairly prosperous.
In the English school district that was organized after a time, I was the first teacher and taught for four years. After I had been in America six years I was elected Justice of the Peace and held this office for 28 years. I was also in this time Town Treasurer for two years, Town Clerk for three years and “Norsk-lokker” for eight years, together with many other small offices, so I have had plenty of business. But farming has been my mainstay and for my living, it paid best.
On the first of January, 1900, our children had a postponed Golden Wedding for us (November Thanksgiving, 1899). Two weeks later my wife died quietly and peacefully, after an illness of but tree days with lung fever. I thank God earnestly for his care over me so far. If he has laid a burden on me he has also, fatherly, helped me to carry it. If I could prepare myself for a blessed departure from this world and my passing away be as my dear wife’s, my wish would be fulfilled. God help me I Amen.
Of my children, seven are now living. I have forty grandchildren and thirteen great grandchildren. I, myself, am eighty-seven and a half years old.”
Signed: A. O. Eidsmoe
[(The translation has been followed almost literally, except where a literal translation would leave the meaning obscure. S.B.E.) — Translated by Sever Barnhard Eidsmoe, Tostan’s oldest son, and Amund Eidsmoe’s grandson.]
So the Amund Eidsmoe family came from Quebec to Buffalo, providentially survived the Lake Erie disaster, and continued on to Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and finally into rural Wisconsin where the Eidsmoes blossomed, moving therefrom into other parts, such as South Dakota and Alabama. Amund’s trip to North America is further recounted (and explained), along with the report of another Norwegian immigrant (Erik Thorstad), in Justin Wargo’s article “ ‘Awful Calamity!’ The Steamship Atlantic Disaster of 1852”, published in the winter 2014-2015 issue of Wisconsin Magazine of History, pages 16-27, q.v.
The world would not be the same if Amund Eidsmoe and his family had perished at sea on Lake Erie during the night of August 19th—20th AD1852
This shall be written for the generation to come: and the people which shall be created shall praise the Lord.Psalm 102:18
In fact, the world would be much worse if we had missed the Christ-honoring life and valuable deeds of Colonel John Eidsmoe (whose family history email was quoted above), the Foundation for Moral Law’s Senior Counsel and Resident Scholar
[ see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Eidsmoe ],
who has blessed many lives by his godly scholarship, teaching (Bible, law, legal history, Norwegian/Viking history, military history, etc.), pastoring Lutheran churches, and legal advocacy—just to name a few of his accomplishment arenas. For example, Dr. Eidsmoe authored the authoritative CHRISTIANITY AND THE CONSTITUTION: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers (Baker Books, 1987), as well as THE CHRISTIAN LEGAL ADVISOR (Baker Books / Mott Media, 1987 3rd printing with revisions).
Words cannot aptly say how much I (and many others) have been blessed by Dr. John Eidsmoe. ><> JJSJ email@example.com