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The complicated legacy of Knute Nelson, Minnesota’s first foreign-born governor

The image of himself that Nelson cultivated — both fully Norwegian and fully American, a promoter of Norewegians as a desirable immigrant population — is reflected in the history of the Knute Nelson Memorial.

photo of knute nelson memorial
The Knute Nelson Memorial outside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul.
In December of 1928, the Knute Nelson Memorial was unveiled on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol. The memorial celebrates the impact of Norwegian immigration in Minnesota by portraying Nelson as a Norwegian American hero.

Knute Nelson was born in Norway in 1843, immigrated to the United States as a small child, and moved to Minnesota as a young lawyer. He served as Minnesota’s first foreign-born governor (1893–1895) and as a United States congressman (1883–1889) and a senator (1895–1923). He is well known for the Nelson Act of 1889, which forcibly relocated Ojibwe people in Minnesota to the White Earth Reservation. At the time of his death in 1923, Nelson was an important figure for Norwegian immigrant communities in Minnesota.

Upon his death, Nelson’s colleagues in the US Senate and the Minnesota government worked to establish and preserve his legacy as an example of the ideal immigrant story. Their remembrances described Nelson as both quintessentially Norwegian and quintessentially American. The rags-to-riches narrative that emerged emphasized his military service for the Union in the Civil War and his subsequent public service career, while preserving his identity as Norwegian.

Nelson became a symbol of Norwegian Americans in Minnesota in part because of his awareness of his ethnic identity. The height of Nelson’s political career occurred at a time when the formation of a unique Norwegian American ethnic identity clashed with a widespread belief that immigrants must assimilate or “Americanize.” Nelson was skilled at navigating this landscape, and could foreground either his ethnic or his American identity depending on what was politically expedient. He worked to establish Norwegians and other Northern European immigrants as productive contributors to American society and culture. Like other Nordic Americans at that time, however, Nelson believed that Eastern Europeans should be subject to immigration restrictions.

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The image of himself that Nelson cultivated — both fully Norwegian and fully American, a promoter of Norewegians as a desirable immigrant population — is reflected in the history of the Knute Nelson Memorial. The governor of Minnesota at the time of Nelson’s death was personally invested in preserving this legacy. That governor, J. A. O. Preus, was a Norwegian American who served as a clerk for Senator Nelson, and in 1924 he appointed a committee to raise funds for the commission of a Knute Nelson Memorial to be erected on the Capitol grounds. The committee worked with local organizations and advertised in newspapers throughout Minnesota to solicit donations. Their goal was to raise $50,000 through small donations that came from every part of the state in order to establish Nelson as widely respected.

Indeed, Nelson’s ethnic identity was central to the project. In 1927, the committee commissioned the sculptor John Karl Daniels, another Norwegian American, to construct the memorial. Daniels’s design features Nelson standing on a plinth that is flanked by representations of his dual identities. One side portrays Nelson as an immigrant child standing with his Norwegian mother, and the other side portrays Nelson as a Civil War soldier.

The Knute Nelson Memorial was unveiled in December of 1928—just over four and a half years after his death. A modest ceremony in the chambers of the Minnesota House of Representatives marked the memorial’s dedication.

The Knute Nelson Memorial emphasizes his immigrant story and does not address the controversial aspects of his legacy. This includes the Nelson Act of 1889 and his support of allotment policies that dispossessed Ojibwe people in Minnesota of their homelands. In a meeting of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board on November 18, 2019, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Ojibwe) argued that the presence of the Nelson Memorial interferes with the experience of the capitol, due to the harm he caused to Native Americans in Minnesota. On March 13, 2020, prominent environmental activist Winona LaDuke (also White Earth Ojibwe) said the Nelson Memorial is “reminding us of an era of exploitation of Native people,” and suggested the construction of a memorial for an Indigenous leader of Minnesota.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.