Pioneers of Old Muskego

Part 2: Muskego to Winnebago County

The Muskego settlement in Racine County, Wisconsin was only the fifth Norwegian settlement in all of the United States. By most accounts, there were fewer than 1000 Norwegians in all of America in 1839 when Muskego was founded. Once the immigrants settled on the lands at the south end of Wind Lake, they got to work making themselves at home.

Some settlers dug into the earthen burial mounds of the Native Americans to create homes. Many built barns first and shared them with their livestock while proper homes were being built. Land was being cleared for farming and lumber was plentiful. The 1840s brought many more settlers to Muskego. Some used it’s convenient location as a stop over before moving on to farther territories, and some stayed in the settlement.

Old Muskego Church 2008

In 1844 the first Norwegian Church was built in America. The log structure was in use for 25 years and then replaced with a new building. The church was used as a barn for a few years and then sold to the United Norwegian Lutheran Church in 1904. The little log church was carefully dismantled and moved piece by piece to the campus of St Paul’s Luther Seminary in Minnesota. The church was reconstructed and restored and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The building was constructed with huge oak logs and carved walnut furniture. The inside has been restored to original condition and the tool marks are still visible along with the numbers written on the logs when the church was being moved.

Interior of Old Muskego Church 2008

It was also in Old Muskego that the first Norwegian language newspaper would be published in the US. In answer to the anti-American propaganda being spread by the government in Norway to discourage those who wished to leave, one of the settles of Muskego decided to draft an open letter to the people of Norway. This letter defended the freedoms that America offered to new comers and explained that in spite of the hardships faced, their new home offered hope for freedom and prosperity that was more than worth the sacrifices they had made. 80 members of the settlement signed the Muskego Manifesto, as it would come to be called, and Knute Johnson Lurass is among the signers. The letter was sent to be published in largest newspaper in Christiana, Norway. The manifesto was largely responsible for a huge wave of Norwegian immigration in the 1850s.

The settlers, although free, had to deal with rampant disease. Malaria was constantly a threat and in 1849 a cholera outbreak hit the settlement. Knute and Gyri had at least 3 of their children, including my 3x great grandmother Betsy, in Muskego before relocating to land further north in Winnebago County in about 1849. We can’t know for sure, but disease probably played a role in their decision to move.

Gyri Johnson in her later years

By all accounts, Knute and Gyri were very hard working people and quite prosperous. Knute served as constable for 2 years, was on the school board, and was also on the town board for several years. He was a talented carpenter and helped to build a schoolhouse in Winchester and more than likely helped in the construction of the Old Muskego Church. The Luraas family as a whole was well known for fiddle playing and a type of Norwegian folk art called rosemalling. Gyri’s cousin was Snowshoe Thompson who is considered the father of California skiing, and who delivered mail over the Sierra Nevada mountains on his skis for 20 years with no payment.

Knute Johnson Land Patent 1849 Winnebago County

The Johnson farm in Larsen, Wisconsin would be up to 500 acres of land at one point. Five more children were born to Knute and Gyri after the move north. Knute passed away on 21 October 1871 and Gyri moved to live with her youngest son Knute II until her death on 5 September 1896. Both Knute and Gyri are buried at Grace Norwegian Lutheran Church in Larsen, Wisconsin.–7t0X1tTqpGGrIibZIQF5Dp0g&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwivmJT64dLhAhWoHzQIHW33D38Q6AEwDnoECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=jon%20nilson%20luraas&f=false

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