Ancestors Are The People of History: The Canute Peterson Story – On a Swim and a Prayer
Originally published in meridianmagazine.com
By James W. Petty, AG, CG
In our continuing series, Ancestors are the People of History, the story for this issue comes from Sister Janet Peterson, relating the story of her husband’s 2nd Great Grandfather, Canute Peterson. This life story doesn’t focus on a given historical event, but rather shows how our ancestors through their life experiences often stimulate historical events to take place. Our ancestors were often in a position to make choices and take actions that affected the lives of their families and the people around them, sometimes affecting the lives of many other people. We call these experiences “historical events.” Canute Peterson was one of those people who followed the promptings of the Spirit of our Heavenly Father in his life, and by acting on those promptings, influenced the course of history in his community and the Church as a whole.
Canute Peterson (1824-1902)
By Janet Peterson
At age seventy-eight, Canute Peterson reviewed his life and the promises given him in his patriarchal blessing by John Smith in Nauvoo sixty years earlier. Patriarch Smith told the newly converted Canute that “he shall have an inheritance in Zion, . . . fill a great mission, . . . gather thousands of the remnants of Jacob to the place which He hath appointed, . . . and raise up a posterity to keep thy name in remembrance.”
Canute was born on his father’s farm in Eidsfjord, Hardanger, Norway, on May 13, 1824. Besides farming, Canute’s father, Peder Jonson, fished, hunted, and raised sheep, goats, and reindeer. His forefathers had lived in this picturesque area surrounded by black granite mountains for hundreds of years. Canute described his home as “very snug and tight, built of beautiful hewn logs.” He did not go to school, but his mother, Herborg Knutsen, taught him the Lord’s Prayer, hymns, and the Ten Commandments.
Desirous to move to the promising new land of America, the Peterson family left Norway in 1837 and settled in LaSalle, Illinois, a community of Norwegians. Canute’s father, Peder, died just a year later. An only child, young Canute found work with farmers to support his mother, who had severe rheumatism. Canute walked all night on Saturdays to spend the Sabbath with his mother, then, on Sunday nights, walked back to the farm where he worked.
As LaSalle County was just 200 miles from Nauvoo, missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints preached the gospel to the group of Norwegians in August 1842 and baptized nearly 100 people. Canute and his mother were among them. Two years later, Canute was called on a mission to Wisconsin. On his journey home in the early spring, he had to cross the Fox River, which was full of floating ice. Since there was no bridge nor ferry within miles, he undressed, tied the bundle to his head, and waded and swam to the other shore. He said, “This was a very hard task, but we got across all right.”
Canute traveled to Nauvoo in January 1846 to receive his endowment at the Nauvoo Temple. Because of the intense persecution of the Saints, preparations for the great exodus were going on night and day. Canute offered his help for the journey westward but was told by Charles C. Rich, a Church leader, to take care of his ailing mother. He did so until she passed away in June 1848.
In April 1849, Canute headed west with a wagon train of Saints led by Ezra T. Benson. Among the group was Sarah Ann Nelson, a young woman he was acquainted with in LaSalle. En route she was stricken with cholera, as were others in the camp. Canute went into the woods to pray that the Lord would spare Sarah’s life. He recalled, “I became so filled with the Spirit of the Lord that I thought I hardly touched the ground while going from the place of prayer to the wagon.” He went to the wagon where she was lying and blessed her. She was immediately healed. He soon proposed to Sarah, and they were married at Council Bluffs, Iowa, July 2, 1849, by Elder Orson Hyde.
Canute became the hero of the group for when they came to a large river, they found the ferry had been left on the other side. Canute, with much effort, swam across the wide river and brought the ferry back. He said, “After this, when there was any swimming to be done, I was generally asked to do it, and so became quite popular.” He described the abundance of game they found along the way—buffaloes, antelopes, and elk. “I was a lucky hunter, and brought probably as much meat into camp as most of the men,” he said. When the party reached the last crossing of the Sweetwater River, a forty-hour snowstorm stopped their progress and nearly froze people and animals.
They lived in the Old Fort in Salt Lake City, where their first son, Peter Cornelius was born in 1850. Canute and Sarah were called to help settle Lehi. In 1851 a son named Canute died two weeks after his birth. Father Canute received another mission call—this time to Norway. Peter was a toddler and Sarah was pregnant when he departed for his mission. She gave birth to Sarah Ann a few months later in January 1853. While he was on shipboard enroute to Norway, he saw in vision the birth of his daughter, as if he were back in their cabin.
Canute taught and baptized a number of people in his homeland. Many Scandinavians had been prepared spiritually to receive the gospel, joined the Church during the 1850s, and immigrated to Zion. Canute’s mission lasted more than four years.
The Petersons had five more children while living in Lehi: Parley Pratt, Canute Weiderborg, Nels, Martha Amelia, and Walber Herbertie. Martha died at age two. In 1867, President Brigham Young asked Canute to move to Sanpete County to serve as bishop of Ephraim. Canute and Sarah’s last child, John Maurset, was born there in 1868.
At this time, the Indians were very hostile and carried on the Black Hawk War. A year after Canute’s arrival, ten Indian leaders came to his home to talk over the situation; this meeting resulted in a lasting peace treaty. The Indians fondly called Canute “White Father.”
Another mission call came to Canute in 1871 to serve as president of the Scandinavian Mission. When he returned in two years, he brought with him another large group of Scandinavian converts. President Young chose Canute as the first stake president of the Sanpete Stake. He later served as patriarch. As stake president, Canute helped found the Sanpete Stake Academy, which later became Snow College. Because he had not had the opportunity to attend school, President Peterson was anxious that the young people of Sanpete County could do so. General Church leaders often stayed at the Peterson home in Ephraim, so when Wilford Woodruff and John Henry Smith were enjoying Sarah Ann’s delicious cooking, Canute approached them with the idea of a school.
Canute supervised the building of the Manti Temple, which was completed in 1888. President Woodruff stayed at his home for the dedication. Canute’s federal-style home on Main Street in Ephraim is now on the Historic Register. Built in 1869, it is a two-story yellow brick house with marbleized fireplaces and a curved stairway. A hiding place under the back room provided a refuge for President Woodruff when federal marshals were tracking polygamists during the 1880s.
Canute married two other wives, Gertrude Maria Rolfson and Charlotte Ekstrom, who lived in separate homes next to Sarah Ann’s. Altogether Canute had 21 children. At age 78, he died in Ephraim October 14, 1902.
The story of Canute Peterson is a testimony of courage, faith, and love that will be treasured by many generations of his descendants. When parents share this message with their children they will be telling them “When times get rough and the situation you are in seems impossible to overcome, remember the story of Grandpa Canute Peterson; dive right in and swim until you get to the other shore. Like him, you can do it. And when your testimony is weak, remember Grandpa Canute, and go to the Lord in prayer, and the Lord will sustain you, and lift your heart.” For this family Canute Peterson was an Ancestor who was a Person of History. The testimony of his life will be remembered and cherished forever.
Ancestors are the People of History. Please share the story of your ancestor with us at Meridian Magazine. Each of you out there has an experience, or have had ancestors whose brush with history provides new and interesting details to the history of our past. Please sit down and spend a few minutes sharing your special stories with us. Remember, We and our Ancestors are the People of History; only by sharing the stories that we and our ancestors experienced will the testimonies and memories of the past be relayed to our descendants. Please send your stories to email@example.com , and we will take it from there.
Canute Peterson (1824-1902)
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