TV-series like «Gunsmoke» and «How the west was won» are television history. So is the iconic actor James Arness who starred in both of them. Marshal Matt Dillon and Zeb Macahan left a mark on generations of television-viewers around the world.
What some viewers may not know is that James Arness was the grandson of Norwegian emigrant Peder Andreas Olsen Aursnes – born in Sykkylven, Møre og Romsdal, Norway.
The brother of James Arness was the well-known TV and film actor Peter Graves.
Identified as a Norwegian
When reading «James Arness: an autobiography» it becomes clear that James identified as a Norwegian. The opening paragraph is the first indication:
«When my grandfather landed on Ellis Island in 1887, his name was Peter Aursnes, but «I had to throw away the s in the middle of my name», he reminded his father and brother in a letter dated 4 September 1893. Because the Americans could not pronounce the Norwegian, his family should spell the name «Aurness» when they wrote to him».
A later photo in the book is captioned «Dad, Peter and me. The happy Vikings!»
James Arness even got his first movie-part based on his ability to speak with a Scandinavian accent. That was in the film «The farmer’s daughter» from 1947 – starring Loretta Young and Joseph Cotten.
Sykkylven – close to the city of Ålesund – became a separate municipality 1 August 1883. Previously, the community had been part of the municipality of Ørskog. At the time, the community consisted of about 2 000 inhabitants.
Originally, Sykkylven was an agricultural and fishing community. Later it became the home of several successful furniture manufacturers.
Even today, it is a reasonably small community – with less than 8 000 inhabitants.
Grandfather Peder Andreas Olson Aursnes
Grandfather Peter – or Peder – was born 5 April 1860. The farm that he grew up on was one of several Aursnes farms: Olegarden. His older brother, Lars Karl, was born in 1852 and his younger sister, Anna Petrine, in 1869. Lars Karl was the one destined to take over the farm.
According to the 1865-census, the farm had 1 horse, 8 cows, 12 sheep, 4 goats and 1 pig.
Tragedy strikes in the small community of Ørskog-Sykkylven
In 1875, grandfather Peter sadly lost his little sister, Anna Petrine. She was only 6 years old. The local history book has no added mention of her passing.
The loss of a daughter and a little sister is a devastating experience for anyone – but when looking for more information in the 1875 Ørskog death records, a terrible and long since forgotten tragedy starts unravelling. Between May and December of that year, around 40 children from this little community died of Scarlet Fever: Peter’s little sister among them. He was 15 at the time.
This tragedy must have been a devastating blow to this small community – and it must have been something that followed Peter Aursnes all through his life. And who knows, maybe this was what triggered him into becoming a medical doctor later in life. In Norway back then, becoming a doctor was highly unusual for the son of a small-scale farmer, and it must have taken lots of commitment and personal sacrifice.
Through the barriers of time, let us take a moment to remember Anna Petrine and the children who lost their lives in Ørskog and Sykkylven back in 1875.
Visited Norway only once
James Arness visited Norway and Sykkylven only once – in 1958. With just a postcard as his map – one that a Norwegian relative had sent to James’ father in 1909 – he jumped on a plane to Oslo – travelling with his friend, the actor Paul “Tiny” Nichols who was of Swedish descent.
From Oslo, they travelled by train through the country to Åndalsnes, then by steamer to Ålesund – and finally by taxi and ferry between Ålesund and Sykkylven.
Both the local newspaper Sykkylvsbladet – and James Arness himself in his autobiography – covered the event.
It must have been an emotional moment when he arrived at the Aursnes farm and was greeted like a long-lost son by his distant relatives. And later, when seeing the photograph of his grandfather still hanging on the wall, 70 years after he left.
One very touching coincidence on that day – one that James was seemingly completely unaware of – was that the elderly lady who first greeted him – Anne Petrine Fauske – had the same first names as his grandfather’s lost sister.
Another lady who arrived at the house later that afternoon was Karn Bjerke, grandfather Peter’s niece. She was only three when Peter left, but she still remembered him well: simply because he was so fond of her. On the day that he set out on his journey to America, he had held her close and given her the longest and warmest of hugs. He knew that he probably would never see her again.
During his visit, James Arness mentioned to Sykkylvsbladet that his grandfather was an avid amateur painter. He had painted a picture of Aursnes and the fjord – a painting that James was very fond of. He still had it in his home in America at that time.
Local history books
Sykkylven has an active local history group, and several local history books have been published. They are all available for free in .pdf format from their website sykkylven.sogenemnd.no (in Norwegian).
The local emigration book – published in 1957 – says the following about Peter:
«Aursnes, Peter Andreas Olsen (Olegarden) – b. 5 April 1860 (Aurness). Went to school in Norway and studied medicine in Kristiania (Oslo) for a while, but had to abort his studies. He emigrated to Minneapolis in 1887 and took his doctor’s degree at the University of Minnesota. In the period 1891—93 he was an assistant to the renowned doctor Knud Høegh. He started his own doctor’s practice. From the 1890s onwards, he wrote his name Aurness. From 1894 he was a doctor at the Norwegian Lutheran Deaconess Hospital in Minneapolis. In 1904 he was a head doctor at the Norwegian Lutheran Deaconess Home and Hospital. In 1925 he was granted a patent for a stethoscope. He attended «Sunnmørslaget» for a while, but more so the Scandinavian «Odin Club», which he co-founded in 1898. He married Ida Cirkler, born in New Ulm, Minnesota. She came to Minneapolis in 1865. Her father and her two brothers were all doctors. Her father also owned several grain-mills and was well off. Peter Aurness became the owner of the Mount Rainier Mining Co. in Washington. He had a man from Røros (a mining town in Norway) heading up the mine, an undertaking that was more of a hobby. — Doctor Aurness resided for the longest at 1937 Park Avenue, Minneapolis. He was injured in a car accident around 1925 and died of cancer 17 December 1928. His wife died in 1930, 72 years of age. His son Rolf C. Aurness, who is a chemist, is married and has two children.»
Based on this last sentence, little would the reader know that these «two children» were the two world-renowned actors and brothers, James Arness and Peter Graves.
Totally without ego
When reading about granddad Peter Andreas Aursnes and the family journey, then you realise that even television icons come from normal families and backgrounds. And James Arness was probably more «normal» than most of them. In the foreword of James’ autobiography, Burt Reynolds states quite emphatically: «he was totally without ego». And after reading the autobiography, it is not difficult to believe him. James Arness was a true son of his humble origins.
The farm in Sykkylven – where to find it
Back then – in grandfather Peter’s childhood – the municipality name was Ørskog – and in the local history book, the name of the farm area is spelt Ørsnes. The name of the farm is listed as Olegarden.
For those of you interested in taking a look at the area – try the Norwegian interactive property map at seeiendom.no – typing in 1528-1/2 in the search field. Or you can try the coordinates 62.40785602 6.55383432 on Google maps. By using the street view functionality, you will see the Aursnes landscape.
Read more about Norwegian history in The old Norwegian farm | the storehouse – stabburet
Main sources: «Sykkylven: gardssoga 1» by Gustav Weiberg Aurdal – Sykkylven Sogenemnd 1972 | «Utvandrarane frå Sykkylven» by Martin Gjævenes – Sykkylven Sogenemnd 1957 | Sykkylvsbladet – per.aursnes.net | «James Arness: an autobiography» by James Arness and James E. Wise Jr | Wikipedia.org.
Main photo: James Arness in Gunsmoke. | Publicity photo.