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Knute Nelson Memorial, St. Paul

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Knute Nelson Memorial (front view)

The Knute Nelson Memorial outside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. Photograph by Flickr user Photo Phiend, March 24, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In December of 1928, the Knute Nelson Memorial was unveiled on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol. The memorial celebrates the impact of Norwegian immigration in Minnesota by portraying Nelson as a Norwegian American hero.

Knute Nelson was born in Norway in 1843, immigrated to the United States as a small child, and moved to Minnesota as a young lawyer. He served as Minnesota’s first foreign-born governor (1893–1895) and as a United States congressman (1883–1889) and a senator (1895–1923). He is well known for the Nelson Act of 1889, which forcibly relocated Ojibwe people in Minnesota to the White Earth Reservation. At the time of his death in 1923, Nelson was an important figure for Norwegian immigrant communities in Minnesota.

Upon his death, Nelson’s colleagues in the US Senate and the Minnesota government worked to establish and preserve his legacy as an example of the ideal immigrant story. Their remembrances described Nelson as both quintessentially Norwegian and quintessentially American. The rags-to-riches narrative that emerged emphasized his military service for the Union in the Civil War and his subsequent public service career, while preserving his identity as Norwegian.

Nelson became a symbol of Norwegian Americans in Minnesota in part because of his awareness of his ethnic identity. The height of Nelson’s political career occurred at a time when the formation of a unique Norwegian American ethnic identity clashed with a widespread belief that immigrants must assimilate or “Americanize.” Nelson was skilled at navigating this landscape, and could foreground either his ethnic or his American identity depending on what was politically expedient. He worked to establish Norwegians and other Northern European immigrants as productive contributors to American society and culture. Like other Nordic Americans at that time, however, Nelson believed that Eastern Europeans should be subject to immigration restrictions.

The image of himself that Nelson cultivated—both fully Norwegian and fully American, a promoter of Norewegians as a desirable immigrant population—is reflected in the history of the Knute Nelson Memorial. The governor of Minnesota at the time of Nelson’s death was personally invested in preserving this legacy. That governor, J. A. O. Preus, was a Norwegian American who served as a clerk for Senator Nelson, and in 1924 he appointed a committee to raise funds for the commission of a Knute Nelson Memorial to be erected on the Capitol grounds. The committee worked with local organizations and advertised in newspapers throughout Minnesota to solicit donations. Their goal was to raise $50,000 through small donations that came from every part of the state in order to establish Nelson as widely respected.

This campaign was met at times with criticism similar to that Nelson himself faced. For instance, the Houston County Chief lambasted the committee’s proposal for overemphasizing Nelson’s Norwegian roots, saying the memorial “should be erected to Knute Nelson the American, and not to Knute Nelson the Norwegian.”

Indeed, Nelson’s ethnic identity was central to the project. In 1927, the committee commissioned the sculptor John Karl Daniels, another Norwegian American, to construct the memorial. Daniels’s design features Nelson standing on a plinth that is flanked by representations of his dual identities. One side portrays Nelson as an immigrant child standing with his Norwegian mother, and the other side portrays Nelson as a Civil War soldier.

The Knute Nelson Memorial was unveiled in December of 1928—just over four and a half years after his death. A modest ceremony in the chambers of the Minnesota House of Representatives marked the memorial’s dedication.

The Knute Nelson Memorial emphasizes his immigrant story and does not address the controversial aspects of his legacy. This includes the Nelson Act of 1889 and his support of allotment policies that dispossessed Ojibwe people in Minnesota of their homelands. In a meeting of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board on November 18, 2019, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Ojibwe) argued that the presence of the Nelson Memorial interferes with the experience of the capitol, due to the harm he caused to Native Americans in Minnesota. On March 13, 2020, prominent environmental activist Winona LaDuke (also White Earth Ojibwe) said the Nelson Memorial is “reminding us of an era of exploitation of Native people,” and suggested the construction of a memorial for an Indigenous leader of Minnesota.

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“An Explanation.” Houston County Chief, November 27, 1924.

Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board. CAAPB Board Meeting Minutes for November 18, 2019.

“Campaign for Nelson Memorial.” Redwood Gazette, November 26, 1924.

“Campaign to Raise Fund for Nelson Statue.” Northwest Bulletin-Appeal, November 8, 1924.

“En Staty af Framlidne Senator Knute Nelson.” Svenska Amerikansa Posten, May 9, 1928.

“Governor Preus in a Proclamation.” Redwood Gazette, November 19, 1924.

“Knute Nelson: Memorial addresses delivered in the United States Senate in memory of Knute Nelson late a senator from Minnesota.” Sixty-eighth Congress, March 9, 1924.

“Knute Nelson Memorial Committee.” Svenska Folkets Tidning, May 12, 1927.

“Knute Nelson Minne Hedras.” Svenska Folkets Tidning, October 8, 1924.

LaDuke, Winona. “In Praise of Good Governance—and Good Relationships.” MinnPost, March 13, 2020.

“Memorial to Nelson Unveiled.” Redwood Gazette, December 26, 1928.

“Memorials—If So, Why?” Houston County Chief, November 20, 1924.

“Minneapolis Sculptor Will Erect Nelson Monument.” Republican Press, June 24, 1927.

“Nelson Memorial Will Be Dedicated This Fall.” Atwater Republican Press, September 28, 1928.

Preus, Jacob A. O. "Knute Nelson." Minnesota History 5, no. 5 (February 1924): 328–347.

——— . Farewell Message of Governor J. A. O. Preus to the Legislature of Minnesota. Riverside Press: St. Paul, 1925.

“Raising Fund for Senator Nelson Memorial.” Republican Press, November 28, 1924.

“St. Paul.” Pelican Rapids Press, November 27, 1924.

“St. Paul.” Tomahawk, December 4, 1924.

“Statyen över Framlidne Senator Knute Nelson.” Svenska Amerikansa Posten, September 12 1928.

“Statyn an Senator Knute Nelson.” Svenska Amerikansa Posten, December 26, 1928.

Thaler, Peter. “Concepts of Ethnicity in Early Twentieth-Century Norwegian America.” Scandinavian Studies 69, no. 1 (Winter 1997): 85–103.

“The Knute Nelson Memorial Committee.” Redwood Gazette, June 15, 1927.

Zeidel, Robert F. "Knute Nelson and the Immigration Question: A Political Dilemma." Minnesota History 56, no. 6 (Summer 1999): 328–344.

Related Images

Knute Nelson Memorial (front view)
Knute Nelson Memorial (front view)
Knute Nelson Memorial (front view)
Knute Nelson Memorial (front view)
Knute Nelson Memorial
Knute Nelson Memorial
Knute Nelson Memorial (side view)
Knute Nelson Memorial (side view)
Knute Nelson Memorial (rear and side view)
Knute Nelson Memorial (rear and side view)
Plaque on the Knute Nelson Memorial
Plaque on the Knute Nelson Memorial

Turning Point

In 1924, Governor J. A. O. Preus appoints a committee to solicit small donations from every Minnesota county for a Knute Nelson Memorial.



Knute Nelson is born in Evanger, Voss, Norway, on February 2.


He and his widowed mother immigrate to the United States, settling in Chicago, then Wisconsin.


Nelson enlists in the Fourth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War.


He moves with his family to Alexandria, Minnesota, to farm and practice law.


He becomes a Minnesota state senator and serves until 1879.


He is a Fifth Congressional District representative until 1893.


The Nelson Act, which forcibly relocated Ojibwe people in Minnesota to the White Earth Reservation, is enacted into law.


Nelson is elected governor of Minnesota and holds the post until January 31, 1895.


He resigns as governor to run successfully for the US Senate, where he remains until 1923.


Nelson dies on April 28, during his fifth senatorial term.


The Knute Nelson Memorial Committee begins a state-wide fundraising campaign in November.


Norwegian American sculptor John Karl Daniels is commissioned to create the memorial.


Three months after the unveiling date first advertised, the Knute Nelson Memorial is dedicated in a small ceremony.


In a meeting of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Ojibwe) critiques the Nelson Memorial.


Winona LaDuke (White Earth Ojibwe) criticizes the presence of a memorial to Knute Nelson at the capitol.