He is remembered as Cleng Peerson, the man who played an important part in the migration of 800,000 Norwegians to America. His real name was Kleng Pedersen Hesthammer, born May 17, 1782 in Tysvaer, not far from Stavanger on Norway’s southwest coast.
I always like to learn what went into the child that became a famous person. Cleng came from Rogaland, the part of Norway where Viking expeditions were launched. These were the men who discovered Greenland and Vinland. They were born to be pathfinders.
Cleng’s first 40 years were spent close to his home. Daily meals usually consisted of flatbread, herring and a bowl of sour milk. I remember that this was standard fare for many Norwegian immigrants when I was a child. My father found this to be a delicacy.
Cleng displayed Viking courage and stubbornness while still a child. One day his father ordered him to go out into the woods to fetch his lamb so it could be butchered. Instead, Cleng went into the woodshed and placed his hand on the chopping block and cut off the little finger of his left hand. Then he carried it to his father and placing it on a piece of flatbread, said, “here is a piece of meat for you, Father.” The lamb was spared.
The Hesthammer farm was a part of the “prestegaard” (“priest’s farm”). In Norway pastors are called “priests”. When Cleng was 12, the pastor’s farmhand came to claim the rent that was due. Since the year had seen a poor harvest, it meant that nearly all the food stored in their attic would have to be surrendered. His father burned with anger as he cursed both the bread and the pastor. Cleng was ordered to hold the flatbread as it was delivered to the parsonage. As they crossed a bridge, Cleng hurled it into the river below. The penalty was an extra year of confirmation instruction.
Cleng’s mother was the daughter of a former pastor in the parish and she had married his father against the will of her family. His father became melancholy and spent the last years of his life in mental depression. She bore her burden with stately dignity.
Some of the religious practices of the Middle Ages remained in the valleys of Norway in those days despite the reforms of the 16th century Reformation. There was an old legend that a blind man had been healed by touching a crucifix in one of the country churches. Cleng brought a young girl who was mute to the church so she could regain her speech. It was to no avail.
Cleng had a questioning mind, especially about religion. He found the restrictions of the state church to be painful and later became a “dissenter.” During the Napoleonic wars, he was imprisoned on board a ship by the British and came in contact with Quaker missionaries. He never became one of them, but this contact provided the background for his decision to leave Norway for the freedom of the New World. Before leaving home, his mother cautioned: “There are two things that I must ask of you. Now that you are going away - that you guard against excessive drinking and that you shun frivolous women.” She was not the only mother to give that advice.
Next Week: Cleng Peerson and the “Restauration”
ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.