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August 26, 2016

World War I Daybook Update – Knute Nelson Research

Filed under: Civil War Daybook — Lori Williamson @ 4:54 pm

Hello! My name is Martin Branyon and I was one of the World War I Day Book Researchers for summer 2016. My work this summer involved going through the MNHS manuscripts collection to find relevant documents for the Day Book. I specifically worked with the Knute Nelson Papers collection. Nelson was a Norwegian Immigrant who served for the Union during the Civil War and managed to rise through Minnesota politics to be a well-known Republican Senator by World War I. As a History and Political Science undergrad at the University of Minnesota I found sections of this collection to be right up my alley.

The collection sheds light on both the daily life of Minnesotans during the war and the local politics of the time period. I found particularly interesting the numerous letters that dealt with groups that were critical of the war. Many letters described how the government and citizens reacted to anti-war activity in the state.

Some of the most interesting documents concerning politics and groups opposed to war were dated from July 1917. I found a letter written on July 10, 1917, from a Minneapolis lawyer by the name of Jonas Weil to be particularly interesting. According to his letter a doctor by the name of Eugene Friedman had been held in Hennepin County jail for three weeks, without formal charges being known to him, for allegedly being “antagonistic to the United States Government”. The letter captured how suppression of alleged anti-war proponents was enforced through the government; however suppression of anti-war criticism being carried out by citizens is a common theme of the collection.

A letter from July 14, 1917, by Bemidji lawyer Elmer E. McDonald captures this theme. In a letter to Nelson describing the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizing among lumber and agricultural workers, McDonald nominates a local Bemidji man to infiltrate the IWW and essentially spy on their activity. McDonald clearly saw the IWW as a distinct threat that had to be aggressively targeted by the government and citizens. This sort of political suppression offers interesting insights to the lengths to which citizens would go to protect the war effort.

In addition to opposition to leftist groups, the war elicited strong nativist responses. A letter dated July 25, 1917, from the owner of a Duluth grocery store warned Nelson about the dangers of foreign born residents and citizens in the country. The Duluth man states that all foreign born non-citizens and citizens should be deported from the United States. A strange statement given that Nelson himself was born in Norway. However, it expresses a common theme in the collection of anti-immigrant sentiment during the war.

The Knute Nelson collection offers an interesting view of Minnesota and the home front during the war. The collection offers a personal account of diverse selection of Minnesotan political issues, from censorship and nativism to women’s suffrage and immigrant rights. Be sure to check out the World War I Daybook in April 2017 to learn more about the history and politics of Minnesota during the war!

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