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The America Book

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Ole Rynning was a young Norwegian who saw America as a land of hope. "Nothing," said one of his friends, "could shake his belief that America would become a place of refuge for the masses of people in Europe who toiled in poverty."

Rynning got a chance to test that conviction. In 1837 he gave up a life of privilege in Norway to join a group of poor peasants hoping to find that refuge on the prairies of Illinois. The settlers crossed the ocean, came by boat to Chicago, and ended up at a settlement called Beaver Creek, seventy miles from Chicago, and here they built their log cabins.

Even at Beaver Creek, Rynning could not forget the masses of poor back in Norway. That first winter he wrote a book called True Account of America for the Help of Peasant and Commoner. Rynning wrote about the immigrant experience from the dreams and hope to the nitty gritty of how to hunt on the prairie. He wrote about how easy food was to find: fifteen dollars for a good rifle, and the settler could have deer, grouse, rabbit, turkeys and geese aplenty. He told how everyone could worship God in whatever way they pleased. He disposed of all those foolish rumors about hardships.

When it was published in Norway in 1838, Rynning's book became the would-be immigrant’s bible. Peasants who had never learned to read began to use the book as a primer for their first reading lessons. Thousands of Norwegians were inspired by the book to cross the ocean to America—to Utopia.

They did not know that Ole Rynning wrote his book from bed, confined by disease and frostbite from exposure to the harsh winter. They were not aware that the following spring and summer was even worse at Beaver Creek. A wet spring brought on disease and despair. Overworked, and with blistered hands, Ole himself caught malaria and died that September at the age of thirty, his faith in America still unshaken. Many other colonists died, and by 1840, all but one of the living had left Beaver Creek and scattered through the Midwest.

Yet Ole Rynning's America Book was hardly a lie. The Norwegians whom it enticed to America did thrive and prosper in later generations as Ole's dream promised. The America Book was true; it was just not factual.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.