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Betsey Rusk

Betsey Rusk, Jeremiah Rusk's second wife, about 1890.

Photo courtesy of the Vernon County Historical Society

Norwegian-Americans will have another chance to learn from noted genealogist Liv Marit Haakenstad Wednesday, March 14, at 10 a.m. at the museum. She is again visiting Wisconsin from Norway for a short time and will be teaching our monthly genealogy class that day. Although this is not the usual day for the class, this date will fit in with her tour schedule.

Liv Marit will be talking to the class about how to do research using Norwegian newspapers and Norwegian-American newspapers. One such newspaper was the Decorah-Posten, published in nearby Decorah, Iowa, from 1874 to 1972, nearly 100 years. This newspaper was very important to immigrant families, relaying news of both Norway and Norwegian settlements around the U.S.

You can learn more about Liv Marit by visiting her website, The genealogy class will be held in the museum’s first-floor conference room, which is handicapped-accessible. Classes are free to members of the Vernon County Historical Society, and $5 for nonmembers. New students are always welcome.

Perhaps one of the people mentioned in a long-ago Norwegian-American newspaper was Berta Marie Bergum, also known as Betsey Johnson. The 1884 “History of Vernon County” describes her simply as “Elizabeth, wife of J.M. Rusk,” even though she was, by that point, the First Lady of Wisconsin, her husband being Governor Jeremiah Rusk.

March is Women’s History Month, and a good opportunity to look more closely at Betsey, so often over-shadowed by Jeremiah. She was born Nov. 18, 1838, in Søndre Land, Norway, to John Olson Bergum and Nellie Johnson. In 1849, at age 11, she emigrated to America with her parents, settling on a farm in Coon Prairie.

A few years later, Betsey took a job in nearby Viroqua, working as a maid at the Buckeye House, an inn run by a young man from Ohio named Jeremiah Rusk. Jeremiah had a wife and two small children, Charity and Lycurgus. When his wife Mary died in January of 1856, Betsey may have then become a maid and nanny in the Rusk household. Romance bloomed, and in November of that same year, on Betsey’s 18th birthday, she and Jeremiah were married.

She gave birth to son Alonzo in 1858, and daughter Ida one year later. Then in 1861, Jeremiah went to Madison as a state legislator, and in 1862 he joined the Civil War. For Betsey, 1862 was a year of sadness over the death of little Alonzo, worry as her husband went to war, and joy over the birth of daughter Mary. Betsey must have spent long periods of time running their home alone during the early 1860s.

The Civil War ended in 1865 and Jeremiah came home. But, he was soon off to Madison again, serving in a number of political positions for the next 12 years. It appears that during most of this time, Betsey continued to raise the children and manage the farm in Viroqua. The couple’s last child, son Blaine, was born in 1874.

When Jeremiah became governor in 1882, the family moved to Madison with him for his three terms. There Betsey ran the governor’s mansion and managed its many social occasions. During their time in Madison, daughter Ida died, another grief for her mother.

In 1889, Jeremiah became the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and the family moved even farther away, to Washington, D.C. Here Betsey again ran a large home and managed official duties. Her husband retired in March of 1893, and the family returned to their home and farm on the edge of Viroqua. Then Jeremiah died suddenly in November of that same year. The farm was sold, and Betsey and her two remaining children, Mary and Blaine, moved closer into town. It was a time of great change for them, as they dealt with their loss and their new situation.

Blaine died in 1906, and Mary stayed on with her mother, managing the household as Betsey aged. The two spent their winters in California, and the rest of the year in Viroqua. Betsey died Aug. 18, 1919, in Viroqua. She had lived a remarkable life, traveling across the ocean to a pioneer farm and then on to the seats of power of our state’s and our nation’s capitals.


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