In 1843, Ingebjørg's brother Jon sold the farm where she and Knute lived to emigrate to Chicago. Ingebjørg and Knute then moved to Bergen, where she took work as a domestic servant. Having borrowed money for the passage, she and Knute emigrated to the United States, arriving in Castle Garden on July 4, 1849, where the fireworks made a lasting impression on seven-year old Knute, who immigrated under the name Knud Helgeson Kvilekval. Passing herself off as a widow a myth that stuck until 1923 - she made her way, probably over water to Albany, New York, and then via Buffalo to Chicago, where Jon, who worked as a carpenter, took them in. Knut and his mother stayed there for some time, then took other work as a domestic servant in Chicago, paying off her debt in less than a year.
Knute also worked, first as a servant, then as a paper boy for the Chicago Free Press. This job provided him with this first education, both because he read the paper and because he learned street profanity.
In the fall of 1850, Nils Olson Grotland, also from Voss, married Ingebjørg, and the family of three moved to Skoponong, a Norwegian settlement in Palmyra, Wisconsin. Knute took the name "Nelson" at this point, having eliminated the stigma of fatherlessness.
Knute arrived in Skoponong a street-smart, rebellious boy with a proclivity toward profanity. He was accepted to the school held by Mary Blackwell Dillon, an Irish immigrant with linguistic talents. Knute proved himself an apt student with lax discipline, and he later recalled he was whipped as many as three times a day.
Knute joined the Democratic party in his teens out of admiration for Stephen A. Douglas. The family moved to the famed Koshkonong settlement, where Knute's stepfather had bad luck with land purchases and became sickly. Knute picked up most of the work of the farm, but maintained his commitment to education. His stepfather was unsupportive, and Knute often had to scrounge to find money for schoolbooks.
Knute's academic interests led him to enroll in Albion Academy in Albion in Dane County, Wisconsin, in the fall of 1858. The school was founded by the Seventh-day Adventist Church on the premise that poverty should not prevent anyone from getting a good education, and Knute was deemed "very deserving." Nevertheless, Knute sought to earn his keep by doing various odd, but hard, jobs around the school.
He returned to Albion in the spring of 1861. By then, he had developed his position as a "low-tariff, anti-slavery, pro-Union Democrat," but finding himself in a minority against the popularity of Abraham Lincoln in the region. In May of 1861, he and other eighteen Albion students enlisted in a state militia company, known as the Black Hawk Rifles of Racine to fight with the Federal Army in the American Civil War. Appalled by the debauchery of this company, they refused to be sworn into the United States Army with this militia, and eventually succeeded in being transferred to the Fourth Wisconsin Volunteers. (This was an "all-American" regiment, unlike the "all-Scandinavian" 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, where he most likely would have ended up if he hadn't volunteered through Albion).
Nelson's parents were opposed to his volunteering to military service, but he himself saw it as a patriotic duty. He sent half his soldier's pay to his parents to help retire the debt on the farm. He seems to have enjoyed army life, noting that the food was better than at home. He shared the frustration of his fellow soldiers over not being put into battle soon enough. His unit moved from Racine, Wisconsin to Camp Dix near Baltimore, Maryland. From there they moved to combat operations in Louisiana.
On May 27, 1863, after the 4th Wisconsin had become a cavalry unit, Nelson was wounded in the Battle of Port Hudson, captured and made a prisoner of war, and then released when the siege ended. He served as an adjutant, was promoted to corporal, and briefly considered applying for a lieutenant's commission.
The most important effect of Nelson's military service was to more sharply his sense of identity and patriotism. He was deeply concerned about what he considered an ambivalent attitude among Norwegian-American Lutheran clergy toward slavery, and thought that too few of his fellow Norwegian-Americans in Koshkonong had volunteered. He read the Norwegian translation of Esaias Tegnér's Friðþjófs saga ins frœkna and found it enthralling, apparently finding it a synthesis of his Norwegian heritage and American home through its unsentimental depiction of character and virtue.
Within two years after he mustered out, he acquired his American citizenship. His naked disdain for the Copperheads also contributed to his becoming a Republican after the war.
He opened his own law practice in Madison, targeting the Norwegian immigrant community, advertising in the Norwegian language newspaper Emigranten. He also became the unofficial representative of the Norwegian community in the Madison legislature. With the help of Eli A. Spencer, he successfully ran for Dane County's seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly, starting its session on January 8, 1868. During his tenure in the assembly, he married Nicholina Jacobsen, originally from Toten in Norway - she was already five months' pregnant when they married, and because Nelson had poor relations with the local Lutheran clergy they were married by the Justice of the Peace Lars Erdall in a private home.
A recession limited the couple's financial success, and while Nelson slept in his office in Madison for his legislative and professional career, Nicholina and the newborn Ida stayed in Koshkonong. He was reelected for the Wisconsin Assembly, having learned quickly how to get things done in politics. He got involved in a divisive debate about public and parochial schools in Norwegian communities, taking the "liberal" side that promoted public, non-sectarian schools. After his second term in the Wisconsin assembly, he decided not to run for reelection.
Nelson had for some time been interested in moving further west when he in 1870 was invited by Lars K. Aaker to set up a practice in Alexandria, Minnesota, in Douglas County, part of the state's "Upper Country." Nelson was attracted by the possibilities afforded by the opening frontier, especially the prospect of the railroad. After also visiting Fergus Falls, he moved his wife and newborn son Henry to Alexandria in August of 1871. He was admitted to the Minnesota bar in October and set up a legal practice primarily around land cases referred to him by Aaker, the land agent. He also bought a 120-acre homestead in Alexandria, a claim that was contested but which he won. He also became an accomplished trial lawyer, was elected the Douglas County attorney, and acted as the county attorney for Pope County.
As was typically the case at that time, Nelson's legal work on land issues got him involved in political issues. He became a champion for the economic development of the Upper Country through the introduction of the railroad.
Nelson's first challenge in the state senate was a contentious issue, whether to re-elect Alexander Ramsey to the United States Senate for a third term, against the wishes of governor Cushman Davis. This proved to be a balancing act for Nelson, who was caught between his allegiance to the Douglas county Republicans, who were staunch Davis supporters; and his land office constituency, who favored the incumbent. Nelson voted for Ramsey, dark-horse candidate William D. Washburn, and finally for the victor, Samuel J. R. McMillan.
Nelson then turned his attention from what he called the "Senatorial game of chance" to the issue of extending the railroad infrastructure into the Upper Country. His constituents elected him in large part to resolve the gridlock that prevented the completion of the railroad extension from St. Cloud west to Alexandria and beyond. The railroad company, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (SP&P), had run out of funds to complete the so-called St. Vincent extension, and the bondholders were unwilling to invest further. The Minnesota legislature agreed on the need for the railroad but were not in a position to pay for its completion.
In 1875, Nelson introduced a bill - the Upper Country bill - that gave SP&P added incentives in the form of land to complete the line, but also imposed a deadline after which the rights to build the railroad were forfeited, presumably in favor of Northern Pacific, whose plans would bypass Alexandria. The bill met with controversy from both sides of the issue and was ultimately amended to the point that Nelson first sought to table it, and then abstained from voting on it himself. Still, the bill was enacted and was considered a success in its time, with most of the credit going to Nelson.
It took several years for the various financial and political matters to be sorted out, and Nelson played an active role throughout, both as an elected official, attorney, and businessman. He secured rights-of-way for virtually the entire line Alexandria to Fergus Falls, negotiating with many stakeholders for every tract of land. This proved to be an all-consuming effort for several years, though he did run unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of Minnesota in 1879.
In November 1878, the train finally reached Alexandria, thanks in large part to Nelson's close working relationship with James J. Hill. Several towns in Minnesota were founded as a result of these efforts, including Nelson and Ashby.
By then, Nelson had developed the strategy of orchestrating a "bottoms-up" campaign in which he would quietly enlist supporters to publicly encourage him to run, only to appear reluctant about the candidacy. His constituency in the frontier in the Upper Country put him at a disadvantage with respect to the rivaling Twin Cities. After having flexed his political muscle by "bolting" from the campaign for a few weeks, he put his support behind the Republican nomination of Jacob Stewart, a medical doctor from St. Paul, who won the election against the Democrat William McNair. This endorsement did not get backed by the Norwegian-American community, however, who both were concerned about the perceived Know-Nothingness of Stewart, and the notion that a ruling class was emerging.
The campaign opened in 1882 and quickly devolved into one of the most contentious elections in history at that point. The contest between Nelson and Charles F. Kindred for the "Bloody Fifth," as it became known, involved graft, intimidation, and election fraud at every turn. The Republican convention on July 12th in Detroit Lakes was compared to the Battle of the Boyne. 150 delegates fought over 80 seats, and after a scuffle in the main conference center, the Kindred and Nelson campaigns nominated each of their candidates.
The rivalry between Kindred and Nelson centered to a large extent on the two competing railroads in the Upper Country, the Northern Pacific in Kindred's corner and the Great Northern in Nelson's. Kindred ended up spending between $150,000 and $200,000, but Nelson won handily, overcoming massive election fraud in Northern Pacific counties.
Nelson served in the United States House of Representatives from March 3, 1883 to March 3, 1889 in the 48th, 49th, and 50th congresses. In keeping with practices of the Gilded Age, Nelson's first agenda item in Congress was to ensure patronage for his supporters in Minnesota by doling out the limited number of federal appointments available. Most were made through Paul C. Sletten, the Receiver of the U.S. Land Office in Crookston. In addition to rewarding political support, he also was obliged to flex political muscle by replacing pro-Kindred appointees in the forested counties around the Northern Pacific Railroad, the so-called "Pineries." Particularly publicized was the firing of Søren Listoe as the Register of the U.S. Land Office in Fergus Falls.
Nelson was frustrated by what he perceived as the lack of effectiveness in the House. He got involved in long debates about pension issues for Civil War veterans, but his most notable legacy as a representative was in passing the 1889 Nelson Act, which effectively created the White Earth Indian Reservation, which freed up significant land for immigrants, at the expense of Native Americans.
Considering his time in the House a "personal failure," he decided not to seek reelection in 1888. Some suspect that his narrow escape from a drowning accident on October 11, 1886 also played a role in increasing his ambition.
Increasing pressure on the Minnesotan agricultural economy gave rise to the Farmers' Alliance, which became a formidable political force within both parties, but especially the Republican party. In 1890, the alliance voted to run its own candidates, and there was talk of making Nelson one such candidate. In the Minnesota alliance convention in July 1890, Nelson did not acknowledge interest from the delegates, which ended up nominating Sidney M. Owen as their candidate. But after the Alliance made a strong showing in the 1890 legislative election, Nelson's star rose further in the state Republican party, as his standing in the Upper Country was a strong alternative to the Alliance.
Nelson saw this as an opportunity to build his candidacy for governor, though there are indications that his ultimate goal all along was the U.S. Senate. As was his practice, he arranged to have himself drafted as a candidate by others, rather than actively pursuing office. To a great extent, this was assured through the support of appointed officeholder who feared losing patronage to Alliance political victories. Appealing to the Republican need for unity at the convention, he maneuvred to gain the support of rivals such as Davis and Washburn, or at least avoid their opposition. He was unanimously nominated by 709 delegates as the Republican candidate for governor on July 28, 1892 in the St. Paul People's Church. His acceptance speech was a libertarian broadside against both Democrats and Populists and emboldened the delegates for the election campaign.
The ensuing campaign against the Democratic nominee Daniel Lawler and Populist Ignatius Donnelly centered on allegations of undue influence by railroad interests, tariffs, and ethnicity and patriotism. When Nelson took the campaign to northwestern Minnesota, he had a minor physical altercation with Tobias Sawby, a local populist. After a grueling campaign, he carried 51 of 80 counties with 42.6% (109,220) of the votes against Lawler's 37% and Donnelly's 15.6%. He gave a short victory speech in Alexandria, saying "I go in without having made any promises to any combine, corporation, or person, and shall endeavor to do right, because it is right, and I endeavor to give an administration for the people, for the people, and by the people."
As governor, Nelson had significant limitations on his ability to pursue his outlined policy. The balance of power in Minnesota was shared among five independently elected officials, the state legislature, and the governor. In his inaugural speech on January 4, 1893, he presented himself as a fiscal conservative with an affinity for education and he dwelled on statistics related to various state services and for solutions.
Nelson used his governorship as a bully pulpit for modest Republican reforms that were meant to provide more reasonable alternatives to the more radical Populist actions. He promoted the "Governor's Grain Bill" as a way to regulate trade in grain, specifically by giving the Railroad and Warehouse Commission the authority to license, inspect, and regulate country grain elevators. The Republican members of the legislature supported it as well, going so far as making it a party measure. Opposition to the bill from Democrats and Populists were based on suspicion against the railroad commission. The bill went through two rounds of voting with considerable horse trading but in the end won narrowly, giving Nelson credibility as a political force.
Nelson also ended up cooperating with his former adversary, Ignatius Donnelly on the "timber ring" investigation that sought to put an end to land claim fraud in lumber areas. Nelson convened an interstate Anti-Trust Conference in Chicago on June 5, 1893, where he spoke against the lumber trust and in favor of strengthening the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890.
The Panic of 1893 created a crisis for the railroad companies, and after a series of wage cuts in the Great Northern, the American Railway Union went on strike on April 13. Nelson sought to hedge his position by suggesting that the parties engage in arbitration while demanding law and order from the strikers. He then removed himself from the conflict, leaving enforcement to Federal marshals and left the arbitration to private business leaders. The strike was resolved largely in favor of the workers, and Nelson was left untarnished.
He was renominated handily for the 1894 campaign, running again against Populist Sidney Owen and Democrat George Becker. He ran this campaign on dry facts, projecting the image of a systematic and scientific reformer compared to such populist speakers as Mary Ellen Lease and Jerry Simpson. He demonstrated hands-on leadership in the particularly dry summer of 1894, when the Great Hinckley Fire spread across east-central Minnesota on September 1. Although the state did not have the financial means to provide direct support, Nelson used his office to encourage private relief efforts. He won the election with 60,000 votes more than Owen.
Nelson's campaign for election to the United States Senate was reported to have begun early in 1894. It was conducted quietly and behind the scenes, to avoid the appearance that his bid for governorship was less than genuine, and also to avoid an internal Republican feud with the incumbent US senator William D. Washburn.
Before the 17th Amendment went into effect in 1914, U.S. senators were elected by their state legislatures, so Nelson's campaign for Minnesota's second Senate seat was a "still hunt," consisting of building support among incoming legislators while letting Washburn think that he was running unopposed for the Republican nomination.
Sensing Nelson's rising star in the Republican establishment, Washburn tried on the one hand to obtain unequivocal assurance from Nelson that he was not in the race for the Senate; while solidifying his standing as the Minneapolis candidate. On September 21, 1894, the two candidates met at the Freeborn county fair in Albert Lea, where Nelson was asked directly whether he supported Washburn's candidacy or had his own designs for the Senate seat. Accounts vary about his exact wording, but the prevailing view was that, in an impressive demonstration of parisology encouraged the state legislature "...to elect your Republican legislative ticket, so as to send my friend Washburn back the United States senate, or if you do not like him, send some other good Republican."
It became apparent that Nelson's strategy was to first prevent Washburn from gaining a straightforward majority in either the nomination or the election in the Republican caucus, and then appear as a unifying choice for the Republicans. To do this, he had to strike a fine balance between appealing to Scandinavian ethnic pride on the one hand and showing himself a true American on the other; between the appearance of treachery against Washburn and maintaining an honest impression.
The campaign came to a head in the so-called "Three Week War," or "Hotel Campaign" that was in full force by January 5, 1895. The confrontations, lobbying, cajoling, and alleged bribery centered around the Windsor and Merchants hotels in St. Paul. Legislators were unnerved by the campaign, and the outcome remained uncertain, and return visits to their constituencies in mid-January did little to clarify public opinion. Public meetings with "wirepullers" had similarly little effect.
Nelson's strength became apparent but was not yet decisive on January 18 when the Republicans caucused. Washburn fell well short of reaching the necessary 72 votes to nominate, and a number of erstwhile supporters fell to Nelson the second ballot. By the time the election went to the full legislature, it was apparent that Washburn had lost. On January 23 Nelson was elected to the United States Senate, the first Scandinavian-born American to reach this post. Washburn was exhausted from the campaign but called for direct, popular elections of senators. It is remembered as one of the bitterest elections in Minnesota political history.
The legacy of the campaign was manifold: Washburn cut a wealthy, urban, aristocratic native Yankee from Maine to Nelson's hard-working immigrant from the Upper Country. Nelson's victory reinforced the growing influence of Minnesota outside the Twin Cities, and it gave considerable rise to Scandinavian political awareness. Nelson decided early to make this image his platform, asking his constituency to call him Uncle Knute.
Nelson maintained - as he would throughout his career - a strong anti-Populist, though pragmatic profile. His most important first term accomplishment is probably the Nelson Bankruptcy Law intended to give farmers the means to enter into voluntary, as opposed to forced bankruptcy by creditors. He positioned this as an alternative to the Judiciary Committee that was much harsher to debtors. Although he championed the bill for its own merits, it also gave him an opportunity to disassociate himself from his background as an attorney, and also build favor with his agricultural constituency. After 18 months of painstaking negotiations, Nelson managed to get the bill passed by Congress on June 24, 1898. Filing bankruptcy would be known for some time afterwards as "taking the Nelson cure."
If Nelson had shown his independent instincts in the bankruptcy law, he toed the party line in his position on the Spanish-American War, where he enthusiastically supported the war effort. He got embroiled in a bitter debate on the Senate floor on the issue of annexing the Philippines and Hawaii. His own immigrant background and abolitionist ideals were, at least in hindsight, sharply at odds with his view that the US could freely annex new territories without offering their inhabitants anything approaching citizen rights. He and one of the authors of the treaty, senior Minnesota senator, Cushman Davis, voted with the majority in ratifying the Treaty of Paris, and is often quoted for saying that:
He traveled alone and made his home town of Evanger one of the first stops. He arrived at the village in a horse-drawn buggy with only his luggage and was received as an honored guest. He spoke in his native dialect of Vossemål, slipping only into riksmål only when he felt it necessary to make an important political point. His hosts quickly started addressing him in the familiar "du Knut," which he appeared to enjoy.
From his birth town of Evanger, Nelson traveled on to Kristiania, where he refused official honors, and to Stockholm, where he made even less fuss. He spent a week in Copenhagen, visiting with his own patronage appointments Laurits Swenson, U.S. ambassador to Denmark and Søren Listoe, consul to Rotterdam. He had an audience with king Christian IX and a formal dinner hosted by Swenson. He traveled through the contentious area of Schleswig-Holstein and the site of the Battle of Waterloo.
He traveled home via England and happened to be in the visitor's gallery in the British parliament on October 17 when Queen Victoria had convened an extraordinary session to debate the Second Boer War.
Up until that point, Nelson's political career was largely based on the issues of an unfolding economic frontier, with land development, immigration, and Gilded Age dynamics. With the birth of the Progressive Era, the winds of reform started blowing more from the east than the west, and urban issues came more to the forefront. As a result, Nelson had to reinvent his political strategy.
In the cross-winds of the political movements of the time, he chose a largely "moderate progressive" profile, accepting government intervention on some issues (e.g., anti-trust matters) but opposed anything that smacked of socialism. He eased up on patronage as a political tool and focused instead on helping his constituents in matters small and large, often invoking the image of himself as a "drayhorse" - a hard-working, persistent advocate for the things and people he believed in.
He was elected the 12th Governor of Minnesota in 1892 and reelected in 1894, and served until January 31, 1895, when he resigned, preparatory to becoming Senator. He was elected as a Republican to the United States Senate in 1895. While in the Senate, he was involved in the creation of the Department of Commerce and Labor, and the passage of the Nelson Bankruptcy Act in 1898. He served in the Senate until his death in 1923 enroute by train from Washington DC to his hometown of Alexandria, Minnesota, where he was buried. He served in the senate in the 54th, 55th, 56th, 57th, 58th, 59th, 60th, 61st, 62nd, 63rd, 64th, 65th, 66th, and 67th congresses.
While debating the Treaty of Paris (1898) on the senate floor, Nelson said: "Providence has given the United States the duty of extending Christian civilization. We come as ministering angels, not despots."