Sunday, 28 May 2017

Nels Nelson (1868-1931), Bachelor Homesteader in Saskatchewan

Nels Nelson about 1905

Children love stories involving treasure or buried loot. Dad told us tales of mysterious treasure said to be hidden in or under the derelict farmhouse that had belonged to his Uncle Nels. By the 1950's, when Dad was farming this land, my siblings and I took every opportunity to do some sleuthing. We never found a single thing.

Uncle Nels with a neighbour's child in front of his house

The story no doubt started as many family stories do, based on supposition and questionable theories. No money had been found when Nels died just after Christmas in 1931. It was thought that since he had remained a bachelor for life (unlike his family-oriented sisters) he would have been able to accumulate considerable wealth.

His farm was located on the historic Battleford Trail between Swift Current and Battleford, Saskatchewan. The Trail had been used by First Nations and then became a major supply route in the late 19th century. At the time of the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, it was used by Colonel William Otter and his men to reach Battleford from Swift Current to take part in the Battle of Cut Knife on 2 May 1885. Although the Cree and Metis won this battle decisively, the government forces would ultimately prevail and settlement by Europeans would occur. By the time the railroads came through the area, the trail had decreased in popularity but was still in occasional use into the 1920's.

Marker on the land north of the Nels Nelson property where the trail is still visible in the prairie

Dennis Nelson's relative visiting Ken Bardahl at the Battleford Trail marker 

Having a fairly large house enabled Nels to provide accommodation to travelers on this route. Still, did any of the homesteaders in the early days of Saskatchewan truly become wealthy? And how much could he have earned from providing accommodations to sporadic travelers? Really, I think the tales of hidden treasure were quite simply wishful thinking on the part of his surviving relatives.

But what of Uncle Nels? People who don't leave descendants often seem to get short-changed in the memory department. What can we learn about his life and times?

Nels Nelson was the second child born to Carl Johan Nelson and Karen Marie Nilsdatter, the first to be born in the United States after the family emigrated from Norway in 1867.

Church record from Ringerike, Buskerud, Norway indicating the departure of Carl, Karen and baby daughter Gunhild (Julia)

Nels would be the only son in a family of 8 children, the youngest of whom was my Grandma Louise. The family first settled in Wisconsin for three months but then moved to Le Grand, Douglas County, Minnesota. Nels was born on 26 September 1868 in Douglas County. By the time he was confirmed in the Pomme de Terre Lutheran Church on 30 November 1884, they were residing at Pomme de Terre, Grant County, Minnesota.

Carl and Karen Nelson with their children c1890 - Nels standing centre rear immediately behind my Grandmother Louise

Throughout the various census records from 1875 (Le Grand, Douglas County, MN) until 1905 (Erdahl, Grant County, MN), Nels is listed living with his parents and some or all of his sisters. In 1906 he was one of the witnesses to the marriage of his sister Louise to John Bardahl in Erdahl.

Nels Nelson (rear) farming with father Carl, 1898 Minnesota

In addition to his farming ventures, he was also in business with his brother-in-law Gus Gilbertson from 1903 to 1910. They had a general merchandise and hardware store in Erdahl. In 1906 they moved from a location on Main Street to one on Elm Avenue. "Farmers should remember that we buy cream - 21¢ per lb. of butter fat; eggs - 13¢ per dozen. Bring us your produce."

By 1910 when he left home, Nels would have been 42 years of age. In the census for that year in Erdahl, Carl and Karen are listed along with just one daughter and four grandchildren. The nest must have felt terribly empty for Carl and Karen. Several of their children had moved away, some to North Dakota and several, including son Nels, had taken up homesteads in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Family Picnic in Saskatchewan 1910
adults left to right: John Bardahl, Louise Nelson Bardahl, Josephine Nelson Nelson, Dennis Nelson, George Gilbertson, Nels Nelson on the far right (missing from this view of photo was Selma Nelson Gilbertson holding baby Marvel Bardahl)
children left to right: Wallace Nelson, Lyla Gilbertson, Lorraine Nelson, Arnold Gilbertson, Joetta Bardahl, Vernon Nelson, Francis Gilbertson

Father Carl died shortly before Christmas in 1911 and his widow Karen survived him by just over 4 years. Both died of stomach cancer and are buried in Erdahl Lutheran Cemetery in Grant County, Minnesota.

In Canada, the siblings settled near one another and provided a good deal of support to one another as they worked to establish farms, build houses and barns, churches and schools and a whole new community in the Atlas school district near Leinan, Saskatchewan. Nels filed for his own homestead near sisters Louise (and husband John Bardahl), Selma (and husband Gustav Gilbertson), and Josie (and husband Dennis Nelson). Another sister Laura (and husband Steve Bardahl) homesteaded a few miles away but don't seem to have remained long in the area. Nels's homestead application was dated January 1910 for the N.E.17-18-14 W3M. He later picked up the pre-emption on N.W. 16-18-14.

Nels Nelson in front of his home on the northeast quarter of section 17

The 1911 Canadian census is the first in which Nels appears as the head of his own household. He is 42 years old, single, of Norwegian extraction and a farmer. Listed just beneath him are his sisters Selma and Josephine with their husbands and children. He was still farming in the same area by the time of the 1916 Saskatchewan census and by then had become a Canadian citizen.

In 1918 when he made a visit to family in the United States, he was required to fill in a "Alien Registration and Declaration of Holdings" form. In it, he said he had been residing in Elbow Lake, MN since 21 December 1917 but was about to return to his home in Canada the following month (March 1918). His listed property included two quarter sections in Canada and a 1/8 interest in 240 acres in Grant County which he inherited as part of his mother's estate.

My cousin Roger believes that Nels moved to Medicine Hat around 1920, but attempts to find him in either location in the 1921 census have so far proven futile.

Nels died in hospital in Medicine Hat, Alberta on the 29th of December 1931 and is buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Swift Current, Saskatchewan.

Nels Nelson's stone in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Swift Current, Saskatchewan
Sisters Josie Nelson and Louise Bardahl administered his estate and nephews James and Ken Bardahl were the next owners of Nels Nelson's land.  Niece Joetta (Bardahl) Gordon lived in the home with her husband Ed Gordon and their young family for a few years in the 1930's. After that, the house was left to decay.  Only a few stories and family references to "Nels's place" remain to mark the dreams and efforts of this early Saskatchewan bachelor farmer.


  • Canadian Encyclopedia article on the Northwest Rebellion accessed online 22 May 2017 at
  • Wikpedia article on the Northwest Rebellion accessed online 22 May 2017 at
  • Memories to Cherish: Stewart Valley and Leinan, Stewart Valley-Leinan History Book Committee, 1987
  • 1887 Erdahl Centennial 1987 - Reunion July 2-3, 1988,The Erdahl Centennial Committee, 1987