August 9-11: Wagon Train Reunion

Event Details

Date: August 8 - August 10, 2013

Location: Augustana Campus and Heritage Park

Ticket Info: For more information visit:

On August 9-11, 2013, an estimated 300 descendants of an Eleven Covered Wagon Train convened in Sioux Falls to celebrate the 140th Anniversary of the original, incredible four-week journey. The reunion events were held on campus and at Heritage Park.

It began on May 18, 1873, when the Wagon Train left Fillmore County, Minnesota, and headed west into the sunset to claim land in the Dakota Territory. It ended on June 18, 1873, upon their arrival in the northeast corner of Minnehaha County, about eight miles west of Garretson, S.D. It is believed that this Eleven Covered Wagon Train may have been one of the longest to ever enter Dakota territory.

Most people who comprised the Eleven Covered Wagons began immigrating from Norway to America in the mid 1850s, settling in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

In the Spring of 1871, Johannes Berdahl and several neighbors started west to look over the country and see for themselves what land was available to be claimed. When they got as far as the Sioux River in Dakota Territory near the present location of Brandon, S.D., they found what they were looking for. The land was good and there was an abundance of timber so they turned around and went back to Minnesota, very excited about what they had seen and found. The Western Fever had begun.

They returned to the same location the following Spring, but much to their dismay, somebody had already staked claim to the land they had looked over the year before. They consulted a local surveyor who took them to another area further north and east along the Slipup Creek in Edison Township. It looked good and, while it didn’t have timber, it did have water and hay. The next morning they started on a three-day trip to the Vermillion land office to file their claims.

On May 18, 1873, a caravan of eight covered wagons departed Fillmore County for their new home in Dakota Territory. The Wagon Train started with five families: Mr & Mrs Johannes Berdahl with nine children; Mrs. Power (a widow) with six children and her brother-in-law Allen Power and his son; Mr. and Mrs John Loftesness and their six children; Mr. and Mrs. Olaus Jenson and three children; and Mrs Lars Branvold and one son. They were joined a few days later by Mr. and Mrs. Thor Hermanson and his five daughters and his grandfather Herman Wangsness and his wife and youngest son. Mr. William Tobin, traveling alone, joined the group later in the journey.

They were now a caravan of 46 people with 11 covered wagons, six horse teams, five teams of oxen, along with 85 head of cattle, eight colts, and 30 sheep. During the first few days, all of the youngsters got plenty of exercise by keeping the big herd together following the wagon train. Once in the open prairie, the cattle would come along when they saw the wagons move. In the evenings a large tent was used as a dining hall, although each family had to provide its own food.

It was a very bad Spring for travel due to heavy rains and flooding. West of Austin, Minn., they had to unload all of the wagons and ship goods by train to Winnebago City. There were days when they were not able to travel more than six or eight miles. The horses proved to be of little use and only the faithful oxen could be hitched up as needed to cross the marshy places.

They reached their destination on June 18, 1873, a month after they left Fillmore County. The actual arrival was a shock as a prairie fire had blazed across the area a few days earlier, leaving black desolation in every direction. The first years were ones of severe testing. The grasshoppers came in clouds and devoured the crops each of the first four years and then the Big Blizzard of 1881 arrived, which is still talked about.

Two of Johannes Berdahl’s sons, Andrew and Erick, each wrote journals describing the journey and homesteading in Dakota Territory. One of Andrew Berdahl’s daughters, Jennie, married the Norwegian novelist, Ole Rolvaag, on the Berdahl Homestead near Garretson and that house is now part of the Heritage Park on the campus of Augustana College. In his classic pioneer novel, “Giants in the Earth,” Rolvaag revealed the human cost of the American pioneer experience. Rolvaag gave much credit to his father-in-law and uncle for their writings and stories about the families on Eleven Covered Wagons, as he wrote “Giants in the Earth.”

The pioneer beginnings in this country were simple, humble and fraught with hardship and deprivation.

At the reunion in August, these and other stories were shared. New friendships were made and relationships discovered, all based on the ancestors in whom we take pride.

Based on relevant information contained in the Autobiography of Erick J. Berdahl written about 1928 and The Thor Hermanson Family by Christie Hermanson Monson in 1950.