Campaigning in Iowa a few weeks back, presidential candidate Michele Bachmann made reference to the “Muskego Manifesto” and its impact on her ancestors’ decision to migrate to the United States. Be that as it may, since it was a “manifesto” the Muskego document must be a weighty declaration on some matter of great import, right?
It certainly was important to the eighty men who signed it. They were Norwegian immigrants, among the first Norse to settle in Wisconsin. They had followed the age old immigrant pattern of following those who had come before and settled in the vicinity of what became the Waukesha county village of Muskego.
The first Norse settled at Muskego in 1839. Many others followed, and Muskego became a sort of Plymouth Colony for Wisconsin Norwegians. If you could say you stopped in Muskego before moving on to found or join one of the many other Norwegian communities in southern Wisconsin, you could say “I was among the first.”
There were plenty of reasons for immigrants not to stay in 1840’s Muskego. The name derives from the Potawatomi term for—pick one—swamp, bog or mosquito. The cold, the damp, the insects, and the fact that it was a transit stop with a steady tide of migrants bearing who knows what fevers, agues and ills, Muskego experienced more than one “season of sorrow.” .
Letters went home to Norway, “filled with foreboding and discouragement,” along with “thoughtless rumors, accompanied in cases by curses and expressions of contempt for America…”
By the autumn of 1844, the Norwegian residents who planned to stay in Muskego and had been graciously hosting the transients, decided to tell the homefolks their version of the story. They mailed the “manifesto” as an “open letter” to newspapers in Norway and it was first published in Oslo in April, 1845.
Yes, it said, they had had a hard winter or two in Wisconsin, and yes they had had to beg family and friends back home to send kroner so they could build the first Norwegian Lutheran church in the United States, but “we have no reason to regret the decision that brought us to this country.”
“We have no expectation of gaining riches; but we live under a liberal government in a fruitful land, where freedom and equality are the rule in religious as in civil matters, and where each one of us it at liberty to earn his living practically as he chooses.”
It was a classic statement of the immigrant’s idyllic vision of America. For the majority of Norwegians, and other newcomers from Europe, it became real.
One of them was Hans Christian Heg. Born in Norway in 1829, he came to Muskego with his parents in 1840. He grew up to be an abolitionist who helped organize the Republican Party in Wisconsin and, when the Civil War began, Heg was commissioned Colonel of the 15th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment.
He made it the “Scandinavian Regiment,” by touring the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish settlements throughout the state and declaring:
“Scandinavians! Let us understand the situation, our duty and our responsibility. Shall the future ask, where were the Scandinavians when the Fatherland was saved?”
The Fatherland to be saved was not across the Atlantic. It was the United States. The people Heg called to save it were not Scandinavians. They were Americans.
The 15th Wisconsin saw plenty of gun fire and bloodshed, chiefly in Tennessee and Georgia. Promoted to brigadier general, Heg led his troops into battle at Chickamauga in September, 1863. He was shot in the abdomen and died one day later in an army field hospital.
A statue was erected in his honor on the Capitol Square in Madison. His body was buried in the cemetery of the Lutheran Church in the Town of Norway, near Muskego.
He believed in the high ideals of the Manifesto, lived and died to extend its vision to all Americans.