Dugout Dwellings: Pioneer Housing in 19th Century Minnesota

The Archaeology of Dugouts

Dugout Dwelling Entrance, Oregon 1939
CIRCA 1939: Mr. and Mrs. Wardlow at entrance to their dugout basement home. Dead Ox Flat, Malheur County, Oregon. Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images

The great American frontier, the leading edge of that fast-moving wave of European immigrants that washed over the North American continent after Columbus, reached what is now western Minnesota in the mid-1860s. There, the settlers found what might have been a daunting climate if they had originated in southern Europe, but for the thousands of Scandinavians the sparse trees, the flat, marshy landscape and the frigid winters must have seemed like a milder version of their homelands.

The Norwegians and Swedes knew how to develop such a landscape, how to make things grow in the short growing season, and, most importantly, how to keep warm and safe in the winters. No wonder these hardy immigrants were not put off by a months-long journey or the news of ongoing battles with the original inhabitants (if indeed they heard the news at all).

Scandinavian Dugout Dwellings

The Scandinavian dugout house was ideally suited for such a climate and time. Excavated into the slope of a hillside, and roofed with logs or blocks of turf or sod, the dugouts were warm in winter and cool in summer, if a bit on the dark and clammy side. Doors and windows were limited to one wall, and the windows would have been covered with oiled paper, until pane glass became readily available. Such houses were perfect for setting up the beginnings of a homestead, for keeping the family safe and healthy until crop yields permitted the purchase of lumber for a frame farmhouse.

Norwegian Pioneer: Anna Byberg Christopher Goulson

The modern descendants of Norwegian immigrants Anna Byberg and her husbands Lars Christopherson and Hans Goulson know this story well. On the old family farm lies a rectangular depression full of scrub brush and 30-50 year old trees. The depression measures 40 feet north/south by 20 feet east/west and about 4-6 feet deep, and it is surrounded by earthen berms—piles of earth excavated from the interior.
This depression, excavated in 2002 by archaeologist Donald Linebaugh then of the University of Kentucky, now at the University of Maryland, was determined to be the remains of a dugout house, built by Anna Byberg and her first husband Lars Christopherson, and used as a residence by the Christophersons and their children for nearly ten years.

According to historic research compiled by Linebaugh and his crew (including a large number of Byberg-Christopherson-Goulson family volunteers), Anna Byberg was born in Byneset, Norway on December 3, 1847. She came to the territory of Wisconsin with her brother Ole and perhaps her sister Emma in 1868. She married a 35-year old Norwegian farmer named Lars Christopherson in LaCrosse Wisconsin in 1869 and likely traveled to their new homestead on the Chippewa River later that year.

Lars probably built that dugout (perhaps with the help of neighbors) in 1869 or 1870, and Lars and Anna moved in and stayed there for nearly a decade, until Lars died in 1878. They had five children, but two died young, like Lars of scarlet fever. The next year, Anna married neighbor Hans Goulson, a second-generation Norwegian farmer; Hans and Anna lived in the dugout for at least another year, while a frame farmhouse was being built. The building was completed and the family moved in by 1881.

Dugouts and Archaeology

The dugout was subjected to archaeological investigation during the summer of 2002, and that included systematic shovel testing, and the placement of four test units and three trenches. Linebaugh’s analysis of the excavations suggest that the dugout had low sidewalls and a wooden roof. The roof was probably pole-rafter construction, and probably made of a combination of basswood, ash, elm, oak, and cottonwood, all woods likely available at the edge of the Chippewa river.

The dugout was probably 18-20 feet long (north/south) by 13-15 feet wide (east/west). The door opened to a southern light. The 200-300 square foot area included one room only, with interior walls of bare earth, with a packed earthen floor and log, woven branches or sod block ceiling. Domestic artifacts probably related to the dugout occupation included a knife handle, a brass grommet, and a range of animal bones (white tailed deer, rabbit, birds, chicken and bivalves.

Census data state that the Christophersons had milk cows and working oxen; and the Goulsons kept poultry as well.

After Anna married Hans, they built a new frame farmhouse, with over twice the space of the dugout, and clear pane windows. Although traditional notions of what early European settlers lived (generally a ‘log cabin’), in the northern Midwest, a dugout shelter could be and was a popular choice for some, inexpensive, convenient and habitable.

For Further Reading

Donald W. Linebaugh. 2003. Digging into a Dugout House (Site 21SW17): The Archaeology of Norwegian Immigrant Anna Byberg Christopherson Goulson, Swenoda Township, Swift County, Minnesota. Program for Archaeological Research, Department of Anthropology, the University of Kentucky.
--- 2005. Excavating the Dugout House of Norwegian Immigrant Anna Byberg Christopherson Goulson, Swift County, Minnesota. Historical Archaeology 39(2):63-88.