A Norwegian immigrant goes to Washington
There is a statue on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol that depicts U.S. senator Knute Nelson. The very embodiment of political power and prestige, the image of Nelson is flanked by two smaller sculptures: one depicting Nelson as a child with his mother and the other as a Civil War soldier. Nelson's life story is depicted through these sculptures as a reminder of the many European immigrants who arrived with little and went on to achieve much in Minnesota.
Born in Norway, Nelson was six years old when he and his widowed mother came to the United States. They eventually settled in Wisconsin; at age eighteen, Nelson enlisted in the Fourth Wisconsin Cavalry Regiment, serving from 1861 to 1865. He returned to Wisconsin and studied law in Madison, where he met his future wife, Nicolina.
The Nelson family moved to Alexandria, Minnesota, in 1871, where Knute practiced law and farmed. From there, he launched his political career, serving as Douglas County attorney, as Minnesota state senator from 1875 to 1878, and, from 1883 to 1889, as representative to the U.S. Congress from Minnesota's newly formed fifth district. It was during his time as a congressman that Nelson made one of the most significant moves of his political career. In 1889, as a member of the Committee on Indian Affairs, he drafted an act, "Relief and Civilization of the Chippewa Indians in Minnesota," commonly known as the Nelson Act, which stipulated that Ojibwe families receive "allotments" of land on the White Earth reservation. This attempt to consolidate all of Minnesota's Ojibwe people on a small land base resulted in the loss of Indian lands beyond what had already been ceded to the United States through treaties.
Nelson was elected governor of Minnesota in 1892 and 1894; he resigned to make a successful run for the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death in 1923. While in the Senate, he was involved in the creation of the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1902, as well as in the passage of the Nelson Bankruptcy Act in 1898, the first act of Congress that gave companies the option of protection from creditors. In 1908, in the midst of his senatorial career, biographer J. H. Baker summed up Nelson's career as follows: "That this plain and unassuming but earnest man, in the multitude of things which have pressed upon him in his busy life, has made some mistakes, is not to be denied. That his vigorous and decided manner has made him some enemies, is to be admitted. But take him for all in all, as a public man, for the immense practical and valuable service he has rendered to the state and nation."
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