Dispatches from the Creation Wars

In her speech at the March 24 and 25 Rediscover God in America conference in Iowa, Michelle Bachmann, like the other potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates who spoke at this conference, lavished praise on their fellow speaker, Christian nationalist pseudo-historian David Barton. Bachmann also revealed that her involvement in the history revisionism game goes back even further than her association with Barton. As a student at Oral Roberts University, she met John Eidsmoe, and worked as a research assistant on his 1987 book, Christianity and the Constitution. Eidsmoe is another Christian nationalist history revisionist, whose Christianity and the Constitution book predates the first edition of Barton’s book The Myth of Separation by a year. In fact, some of Barton’s lies are adaptations of Eidsmoe’s lies and half-truths, a number of which are debunked in my book. But I had no idea that Bachmann had been involved with Eidsmoe or his book until she talked about it at the Rediscover God in America conference, or that it was Eidsmoe who introduced her to Barton’s material.

But Bachmann’s admiration of history revisionists wasn’t the thing that really caught my attention in her speech at the conference. It was her detailed account of her family history, aimed at emphasizing her Iowa roots to this audience of Iowans. It was when Bachmann said she was a 7th generation Iowan, descended from Norwegians who immigrated to Iowa in the 1850s, that I started paying attention, simply because it would be mathematically improbable for a Bachmann, who is in her mid-fifties, to be the 7th generation descended from people who immigrated in the 1850s, unless each of her direct ancestors had had a child when they were extremely young. After catching this one obvious lie, I just couldn’t resist doing a little fact checking on the rest of Bachmann’s story. What I found was that Bachmann’s version of her family’s history was as much a work of fiction as anything found in one of David Barton’s books. She wants the people of Iowa to see her as one of them, so she simply changed her family history.

Here’s the video of Bachmann telling her story:

Here’s the transcript:

“Are you all Iowa pastors that are here tonight? Is that what I understand? Oh, well good. That’s why I feel so at home tonight, because I’m with Iowa pastors. I don’t know how many of you know, but I was born in Iowa. I was born in Waterloo, Iowa, and grew up in Waterloo. I grew up in Cedar Falls. And actually, I’m not just an Iowan, I’m a very special kind of Iowan. I’m an ‘Iwegian.’ Now, who knows what an Iwegian is? Okay, there’s a few of those. I’m actually even more than just an Iowan. I’m a 7th generation Iowan. Our family goes back to the 1850s to the first pioneers that came to Iowa from Sognfjord, Norway, where it was about two percent of the land was tillable. And these were not dumb Norwegians. They were very smart. They heard about Iowa, and they said, ‘It’s about a hundred percent fertile land there. Let’s go to Iowa.’

“So they came to Iowa, and they literally felled the trees and built wagons and they plowed the fields. And they were godly people, because there were about eighty Norwegians that went ahead of them, and they got a letter back. It was called the Muskego manifesto, and in the Muskego manifesto it said, ‘We find in America that we have civil and religious liberty, and here we can choose whatever profession we want, and noone tells us what profession we go in. This we consider more wonderful than riches.’ And my great-great-great grandfather, Melchior and Martha Munson, read those words, along with other people in their valley, and they said, ‘This is it. This is our ticket.’ And they got in their mind and in their heart what we all now know as the American dream. And so they sold everything they had — the farm, the land , the cattle, the livestock — everything that they had. They were in their late forties. I looked up the family history. Their parents lived to be just about five years older than they were when they sold everything and took their five children and bought boat tickets to come to Iowa. Isn’t this an amazing story? This is your story, too. It isn’t just my story. This is the story of America.

“And so they literally had the clothes on their backs, a couple of belongings that they could hold. Thirteen weeks it took to get across the ocean, to get to Quebec. But once they got to Quebec, they took almost half as long again to make it overland to finally get to Iowa, where they encountered the worst winter in fifty years. Then the next year — you had a winter like that — the worst flooding in forty-two years. The next winter after that, they had the worst drought that anyone had ever recorded. Now, this is Iowa? They thought this was the land of milk and honey. Then, the year after that, locusts came and ate everything that was their crop. But they kept going, and they persevered, and they were people of faith, and they lived and cried and laughed, and started the first Lutheran church in their area, and they were wonderful, godly men and women of faith, and I am so proud of these people of whom I am descended from. And I’m so thankful for the faith that they faithfully brought down through the family, and now to the seventh generation here in the United States.”

Since Bachmann said her great-great-great grandparents, whose names she provided, emigrated from Norway to Iowa in the 1850s, I searched the 1860 federal census for them. I started by searching for a Melchior Munson in Iowa, but came up empty. But, since unfamiliar foreign first names like Melchior were often misspelled or Americanized when written down by census workers, I didn’t think it was unusual not to find him on the first shot. So I tried Martha Munson, Melchior’s wife, since Martha was a common name that wouldn’t be misspelled. Still nothing. So I broadened my search to include sound-alike last names for Munson, in case it was their last name that was misspelled. Still nothing. Giving my search one last shot, I removed all search parameters except the first name Martha and the last name Munson, including any sound-alike last names. It was only then that I found Melchior and Martha — but not in Iowa. They were in Wisconsin.(1) So, there went that part of Bachmann’s ‘Iowanizing’ of her family history. Her great-great-great grandparents hadn’t gone from Quebec to Iowa. They had settled in Wisconsin.

And what about all those hardships that Bachmann says her ancestors persevered through during their first few years in Iowa — the worst winter in fifty years, the worst flooding in forty-two years, the worst drought that anyone had ever recorded, and a plague of locusts to boot? Well, obviously, none of this happened in Iowa, because her ancestors weren’t in Iowa. And it didn’t happen in Wisconsin either. This all happened in the Dakota Territory. That’s where Melchoir and Martha Munson and their children were from 1861 to 1864.(2) Like many Norwegian immigrants who had settled in Wisconsin, the Munsons set out for the Dakota Territory once Congress made it a territory in 1861.

A number of early histories of the Dakota Territory document that the winter of 1861-1862 was a bad one, which led to flooding when the ice in the Missouri River broke up and blocked the river in the spring of 1862; that the summer of 1863 was very dry, but the settlers still had a good harvest; and that 1864 was the year of the severe drought and the year that grasshoppers came.

According to the 1870 book Outlines of History of the Territory of Dakota, the flood in the spring of 1862 caused the settlers to have to temporarily evacuate, and specifically mentions Elk Point, which is where the Munsons had settled, as being among the places that had an especially good harvest that year, with “all kinds of crops yielding bountifully,”(3) and “The year 1863 was very dry in Dakota, but notwithstanding the drouth, wherever crops were planted and well tended, they yielded well.”(4)

An 1881 book, History of Southeastern Dakota, provides a more detailed account of the weather and natural disasters that occurred in 1862 and 1864.

“In March, 1862, during the breaking up of the Missouri River, that great stream became gorged with ice below the mouth of the Dakota River, and the waters were thrown over the banks, covering nearly the whole valley for sixty miles to Sioux City. The settlers were driven from their homes by the floods, and were obliged to flee to the high lands, with their families and their herds, for safety. The preceding winter had been one of terrible storms and drifting snows, causing much suffering in the poorly constructed houses of the pioneers, and in some cases death from freezing; while the great prairie fires of the previous autumn had brought much disaster to property and danger to life. The season of 1862 following, however, proved to be one of comparative prosperity to the husbandman; the harvests were bountiful, immigration increased, and towns and villages sprang to view along the wooded streams.”(5)

“The season of 1864 was a sad one for the settlements. Not only did lurking Indians hang upon the border for robbery and rapine, but unremmitting drouth and clouds of grasshoppers swept the bloom from the fields and verdure from the plains, and with the approach of autumn, the despondent farmers repaired with their teams to the neighboring States, to bring in supplies upon which to subsist until another hervest-time. The prospects for the future were indeed gloomy, and many of the earliest settlers abandoned the Territory for the purpose of making homes elsewhere.”(6)

But it’s not just where these events occurred that Bachmann is lying about in her revisionist version of her “Iwegian” family history. According to Bachmann, her ancestors “kept going, and they persevered, and they were people of faith.” But did her faithful ancestors really persevere and keep going? Well, no. They were among the settlers written about in the History of southeastern Dakota who “abandoned the Territory for the purpose of making homes elsewhere.” That’s how Melchior and Martha Munson ended up in Iowa — seven years after they came to America. By the time the Munsons abandoned the Dakota Territory in 1864, there was a well established Norwegian community in Chickasaw County, Iowa, so that’s where they stopped and resettled. Clearly, Iowa was never the intended destination of Bachmann’s great-great-great grandfather and grandmother when they left Norway in 1857, as she claims.

Bachmann’s revisionist version of her family history also makes it sound not only like her ancestors’ original destination was Iowa, but that they were among the first Norwegians to venture there, and that the impetus for their decision to go there was a letter referred to as the “Muskego manifesto.” This is a load of bull. First of all, the Muskego manifesto came from Wisconsin, not Iowa. Second, there were a hell of a lot more than “about eighty Norwegians that went ahead of” Bachmann’s great-great-great grandparents. The eighty who signed this letter that, according to Bachmann, inspired her ancestors to follow were just eighty out of thousands of Norwegian immigrants who were already in Wisconsin. Norwegians began arriving in Wisconsin in 1836. By 1850, seven years before Bachmann’s ancestors arrived, there were over 8,000 Norwegians in the state, and by 1860 there were about 44,000. And finally, the Muskego manifesto was written in 1845, twelve years before the Munsons decided to leave Norway. It was one of many letters written by Norwegian immigrants in the mid-1840s that were published in the newspapers in Norway. What was going on was a battle of pro-emigration and anti-emigration letters in the press. There were letters complaining about everything from taxes to rattlesnakes to Mormons, and imploring friends and relatives to forget about coming to America, and other letters, like the Muskego manifesto, disputing the claims in the anti-emigration letters and encouraging Norwegians to emigrate.(7) Besides the fact that these letters came from Wisconsin, and not from Iowa, are we seriously supposed to believe that this letter that Melchior and Martha Munson might have seen printed in a newspaper in 1845 is what made them suddenly decide to pick up and leave Norway twelve years later in 1857? This ludicrous connection is undoubtedly just something that Bachmann concocted after stumbling across the Muskego manifesto in her “research.”

Now, getting back to that 7th generation claim that made me suspicious of Bachmann’s whole story in the first place.

The Munsons were Bachmann’s paternal grandmother’s branch of the family. Bachmann’s father, David John Amble, born in Minnesota in 1929,(8) was the son of Anna T. Munson.

Anna T. Munson, born in Kansas in 1903, was the daughter of Thomas Wilhelm Munson. (Anna T. Munson lived in Iowa from 1905 until she married Bachmann’s grandfather, Jesse Alvin Amble, in 1927, and moved to Minnesota, where he was born and raised.)(9)

Thomas Wilhelm Munson, born in 1880 in Chickasaw County, Iowa, was the son of Halvor Munson.(10) (Thomas Wilhelm Munson moved to Kansas shortly after getting married in 1902, but moved back to Iowa in 1905, which is why Bachmann’s grandmother, Anna, was born in Kansas.)

Halvor Munson, born in Norway in 1846, was the son of Melchior and Martha Munson, and was one of their five children who immigrated to Wisconsin with them in 1857.(11) (Halvor Munson was fifteen years old when the family moved from Wisconsin to the Dakota Territory in 1861. He shortly thereafter joined the Union Army, and served for three years, after which he worked for the government for another three years. He did not move with his parents to Iowa in 1864, but moved there three years later in 1867.)

So, no matter how you count it, Bachmann is not 7th generation. If you consider the first generation to be the first ancestor who was born in America, as most people do, Bachmann would be 4th generation. If you allow for the ambiguity of the term “first generation” to include the immigrant ancestor, and count her great-great grandfather Halvor Munson, who came from Norway as a child, she’s 5th generation. And if you count Melchior and Martha, she’s 6th generation. Still one short of seven.

In addition to lying about her family history in her speech in Iowa, Bachmann, who actually was born in Iowa, but moved to Minnesota as a child, also made it clear that she herself was an Iowan, saying, “I was born in Waterloo, Iowa, and grew up in Waterloo. I grew up in Cedar Falls.” But during her 2008 campaign for reelection in Minnesota, when it was more advantageous for her to be a Minnesotan, her campaign website emphasized her Minnesota roots with a section on its “About” page titled “Rooted in Minnesota,” which began, “Michele grew up in Anoka.”

If Bachmann’s presidential aspirations don’t work out and she has settle for running for reelection to Congress, I wonder how her constituents in Minnesota will feel about her denouncing her Minnesota roots in favor of being an Iowan.

1. 1860 Federal Census; Census Place: Utica, Crawford, Wisconsin; Roll: M653_1402; Page: 914; Image: 188; Family History Library Film: 805402. (Click here to view census page image.)
2. Account of Martha Munson Steensland, daughter of Muns Munson, in Melchior and Martha Munson Family History, 1812-1989. Muns Munson was one of two children born to Melchior and Martha Munson after they arrived in Wisconsin. According to his daughter’s account, Muns, who was born in 1858, was three years old when the family left Wisconsin for the Dakota Territory, and seven years old when they left the Dakota Territory and resettled in Iowa, making their years in the Dakota Territory 1861-1864, dates which correspond with several other sources.
3. James S. Foster, Outlines of History of the Territory of Dakota and Emigrant’s Guide to the Free Lands of the Northwest, (Yankton, Dakota Territory, 1870), 11.
4. ibid., 19.
5. History of Southeastern Dakota: Its Settlement and Growth, (Sioux City, Iowa: Western Publishing Company, 1881), 21.
6. ibid., 24.
7. A selection of these letters, including the Muskego manifesto, can be found in Land of Their Choice: The Immigrants Write Home, (Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press, 1955).
8. 1930 Federal Census; Census Place: Adams, Mower, Minnesota; Roll: 1108; Page: 1B; Enumeration District: 1; Image: 578.0. (Click here to view census page image.)
9. 1910 Federal Census; Census Place: Jacksonville, Chickasaw, Iowa; Roll: T624_396; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 0045; Image: 1136; FHL Number: 1374409. (Click here to view census page image.)
10. ibid.
11. 1860 Federal Census; Census Place: Utica, Crawford, Wisconsin; Roll: M653_1402; Page: 914; Image: 188; Family History Library Film: 805402. (Click here to view census page image – the handwriting is hard to read, but Halvor is the 14 year old son listed.)