This account is taken from the old church records of the Christdala Swedish Church near Millersburg.
In 1870, the first Swedish settlers arrived in Rice County and settled near Millersburg – Youngquist, Johnson, Olson, Swanson, Peter and Anna Gustafson.They saw the natural abundance of America as God’s plan for humanity. But immigrant life was not easy and there were many burdens – they had to clear trees and stumps, break sod, plant crops, build houses and barns, and there were hardships from economic depression in 1873 and a terrible grasshopper plague.
They were poor people, like all immigrants, and they had to barter in town, trading their farm produce for tools and clothing. By 1876 there were 13 Swedish families living in the Millersburg area, and during the summer of 1876 Peter Gustafson was joined by his brother Nicolaus and nephew Ernst, both recently arrived from Sweden. On September 6, 1876, two very different groups of people in Millersburg made two very important decisions, with grave consequences for both parties.
One party consisted of four heavily armed criminals led by Cole Younger. They spent the night at the Cushman Hotel in Millersburg -- the building still stands today just east of the old Millersburg School on the south side of the road.
The other party consisted of five members of the Swedish community. They met at Peter Youngquist’s home and prepared to go into Northfield the next day, September 7, using Youngquist’s mule-team, to sell farm produce and barter for winter items. On the morning of September 7, the four armed men left the Cushman Hotel and headed east on the Dundas road to link up with four other members of their infamous gang. About the same time, Peter Youngquist harnessed his mules and headed for Northfield, also on the Dundas road, with four of his Swedish neighbors.
One of the Swedes in the Youngquist party was 30 years old and had just arrived from Sweden. He spoke no English. His name was Nicolaus Gustafson. The Swedes arrived in Northfield about 1:00 pm and set up their wagon along the river by Fifth Street to sell their produce and vegetables.
At 2:00 pm they heard gunshots and Gustafson ran to the intersection of Division and Fifth about a block away to see what had happened. Standing near the corner, by Bierman’s Mortuary, was another Swede named John Olson, who later built the Christdala Swedish Church near Millersburg.
Olson was an eyewitness and later testified in a court deposition about what happened to Nicolaus Gustafson at Bierman’s corner that day. Cole Younger was riding his horse around the intersection, shooting and demanding that people get off the street. Gustafson did not understand what was going on and was shot in the head by Cole Younger.
Nicolaus bled profusely and died four days later, Monday September 11, 1876.
He was buried in Northfield for the Swedes had no cemetery in Millersburg. That night after the shooting, the Swedes went back home and the small community met in Peter Youngquist’s home, determined to build a church and cemetery. Youngquist offered land adjacent to his house overlooking Circle Lake.
The next year they hired John Olson, and Christdala was built the following year.
Today the church is on the National Register of Historic Places, and you can see a permanent bronze marker dedicated to the memory of Nicolaus Gustafson. But that’s not the end of the story. Nicolaus Gustafson’s grave had no marker, and over the years he was a forgotten man. Some even thought he was a Norwegian, a sad state of affairs for a Swede, for when Cole Younger and his brothers were captured near Madelia and later tried in Faribault, the prosecutor thought Gustafson was a Norwegian because he had been taken to the Norwegian Hotel after he was shot.
The story ends happily in 1994 when we identified his grave. We found two letters pinned to his death certificate at the Rice County Court House -- the mayor of Faribault was writing to the mayor of Northfield, asking the name of the “Norwegian” who was shot during the bank robbery. The mayor of Northfield responded, saying that the “Norwegian” was actually a Swede named Gustafson and that he was buried in Lot #1 of the Northfield Cemetery. The rest is history.
The people of Northfield corrected the record and placed a marker at the gravesite of Nicolaus Gustafson in May 1994. And at the Christdala Swedish Church just west of the Boonies Grill at the old Millersburg Store, there is a permanent bronze marker telling the story of what happened to Nicolaus Gustafson in Northfield, Minnesota on that fateful day, September 7, 1876 – 134 years ago. And each year, on a Sunday afternoon in September, you are welcome to an open house at the old Christdala Swedish Church to pay tribute to Nicolaus Gustafson.