© 2022
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Nelson County


In 1907, Norwegian author Martin Ulvestad wrote: “The first Norwegian who settled in the State of North Dakota was N. E. Nelson, the father-in-law of the well-known politician Jud LaMoure. Nelson was appointed as Customs Collector in Pembina in 1869 and has lived there ever since. He was also the first homesteader in the state. Thus we have the pleasure of knowing that the first claim in North Dakota was made by a Norwegian, and at the same time know that North Dakota (with respect to its size) now is the most Norwegian Sate in the Union, since at least a third of its total population is of Norwegian origin.”

Nelson E. Nelson later became the namesake of Nelson County, which was organized 122 years ago this week. Prior to 1883, this area was part of Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Dakota Territories. During the later parts of this transformation, the area was known as Poplar Grove.

The Territorial Legislature approved the establishment of Nelson County at a meeting in Grand Forks, during which they formed it from portions of Ramsey, Foster and Grand Forks Counties. The person who decided the new county’s name was the Honorable Judson LaMoure, who named it after his father-in-law.

Lakota was elected county seat by formal ballot on this day in 1883. Territorial Governor Nehemiah Ordway appointed three commissioners, David Dodds, Francis Kane, and George Martin, who held their first meeting in a rickety building on the site of the present county courthouse; James Howard, Lakota’s first Justice of the Peace, donated the plot.

Nelson County covers approximately 1000 square miles, with 11 towns and 27 congressional townships. It’s often said the soil of Nelson County is its most valuable resource. Located in the Red River watershed, the soil is a rich and productive black loam that supports the county’s largest industry, grain farming.

Nelson County has a pleasing landscape of plains rolling toward Stump Lake in the southwest. On the south and west sides of the lake rise sharp bluffs called the Blue Mountains, which project over 500 feet above the surrounding prairie. Johnson Lake National Wildlife Refuge lies in the extreme SW tip of the county.

Back to the early years – here’s an item published in the Lakota Herald in June 1903: “One of Lakota’s young men drove to the lake last Sunday with his best girl to spend the day. Upon arrival he unhitched the horses, took off the harnesses, pushed the buggy into a shady nook and staked the horses where they could feed upon the succulent grass. A thoroughly enjoyable day was spent and when Old Sol sank nearly to the western horizon, they were warned that it was time to depart for home, but the man was in despair when he could not find the locomotive power that brought them to the lake. The buggy and harnesses were there, but the horses had broken loose and were contentedly munching their evening feed in one of the local livery barns. This young man ‘said a few things,’ but we have been unable to find out how he squared it with the girl after the three mile walk to a farmers house, where he procured another team.

In 1985, Nelson County citizens looked back on 100 years of progress, describing the problems they’d had along the way: “Too dry, wet, hot, cool, grasshoppers, army worms, bugs, diseases, rust, hail, wind erosion, rodents, gully washing rains, frost, and birds.” And of present day? “No change.” But, they wrote, “For those of us who live in this part of North Dakota, it is truly God’s country.”

Sources: Nelson County History, 1985, Wold Printing Co., Inc., Larimore, ND; Lakota Herald, June 12, 1903; Martin Ulvestad, NordmFndene i Amerika, 1907, (translation: Olaf Kringhaug, Vernon, British Columbia, copyright 2004-05), http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~maggiebakke/ulvestad.html

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm