Pioneers of Old Muskego

Part 1: Norway to America

Knute Johnson Luraas and Gyri Nilsdatter Rue ca 1870

The earliest immigrants on my side of the family tree came from Norway. My 4th great grandparents on my father’s side came to Wisconsin in 1839 and formed a new Norwegian settlement called Muskego.

Knute Johnson Luraas was born in Atra Parish, Tinn, Telemark, Norway on 3 September 1818. He was the son of Jon Nilson Luraas and his second wife Lisbet Gunnulsdatter Hegaard. On 25 March 1839 Knute married Gyri Nilsdatter Rue, daughter of Niels Jonsen Jelljord Rue and Birgit Jonsdatter Haakaland, in Atra. Gyri was born on 2 October 1816 in Tinn. She was the 3rd of her parents 11 children.

On 17 May 1839, Knute and Gyri left Norway for America with a party of about 40 other families from Tinn.   They  first stopped at Gottenberg, Sweden and then boarded the ship Venice to Boston.  The leader of this group was John Nelson Luraas, nephew of Knute.  This group would come to be known as the Luraas Party and they would be the founders of the Old Muskego settlement in Racine County, Wisconsin.

As to why the party decided to leave Norway, John Nelson Luraas told his story in “The Saga of Old Muskego” by N.N. Rønning, 1943. John states, “I was my father’s oldest son, and consequently heir to the Luraas farm. It was regarded as one of the best in the neighborhood, but there was a $14oo mortgage on it. I had worked for my father until I was 25 years old, and had no opportunity of getting money. It was plain to me that I would have a hard time of it, if I shouls take the farm with the debt resting on it, pay a reasonable amount to my brothers and sisters and assume care of my aged father. I saw to my horror how one farm after the other fell into the hands of the lendsman and other money-lenders, and this increased my dread of attempting farming. But I got married and had to do something. Then it occurred to me that the best thing might be to emigrate to America. I was encouraged in this purpose by letters from Norwegian settlers in Illinois, written by a Norwegian emigrant who had lived two years in America. Such were the causes that led me to emigrate, and I presume the rest of our company were actuated by similar motives.”

John Nelson Luraas said this about the voyage to America, “On May 17, Norway’s day of liberty, in the year 1839, the ship left Skien and glided before a stiff breeze out of the Langesund fjord, and soon the great sea was in sight. We soon got out of sight of land, and when the last mountain tops disappeared from above the horizon, some of the passengers doubtless felt sad heart while thinking of their uncertain future and of the probability that they would never see that home from which they had taken with them so many dear memories. But the decisive step had been taken, and doubt and hesitation would now be out of place. We continued to make progress, and after a few days of fine sailing, the Norwegian captain landed the passengers in Gothenborg, Sweden, which was his destination. Here we met a few families from Stavanger, about twenty persons in all, who were also bound for America. Both parties united, and an American captain, whose vessel was lying in the harbor and loaded with iron, agreed to carry the emigrants across the sea to Boston for a fare of forty-two dollars Norwegian money for each person. There was no accident on the way, the health of the passengers was good, and after nine weeks we saw land on the other side of the ocean.”

They landed in Boston on 31 July and then made their way across to Buffalo, New York. In Buffalo, the party met with a captain who agreed to carry them on to Milwaukee. The trip down the Great Lakes was not as smooth as the voyage across the Atlantic. John wrote that the vessel was in very poor shape, leaky and barely seaworthy. The ship had 2 near accidents on the way and a woman was washed overboard at one point. It took 3 weeks to get to Milwaukee and upon arrival, the captain was censured for taking on so many passengers on a ship that was loaded with gun powder.

In all, it took the party 17 weeks to arrive in Milwaukee from Norway. It was August, and very hot when the passengers finally unloaded. Upon arrival, they were met by some men from Milwaukee who inquired as to the destination of the party. Up to that point, the intention had been to join the Fox River settlement in Illinois. These Milwaukee men advised the party that should they like to go south, they would likely shrivel and die from heat and disease. Should they go north and buy land in Wisconsin, gesturing to a robust man nearby, they would find great health and an abundance of food. Being a hot day and the passengers sweating through their wool traveling clothes, they were persuaded to buy land for $1.25 and acre on the shores of Lake Muskego in Waukesha County.–7t0X1tTqpGGrIibZIQF5Dp0g&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwivmJT64dLhAhWoHzQIHW33D38Q6AEwDnoECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=jon%20nilson%20luraas&f=false

Most of the families settled on the north end of the lake. The land was a marsh for most of the year, but the summer being hot and dry, the immigrants mistook the marshland for prairie. They soon relocated to the south end of nearby Wind Lake in Racine county where the Old Muskego settlement was founded. This tiny settlement would soon become a very important part of Norwegian American History.

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