Norwegian immigrant Knute Nelson served state and country throughout his life, first as a soldier and a lawyer, then as a legislator and the twelfth governor of Minnesota. He was the state's first foreign-born governor.
Nelson was born in Evanger, Voss, Norway, on February 2, 1843. In 1849, he and his widowed mother immigrated to the United States, settling first in Chicago (1849–1850) and then in Dane County, Wisconsin, where he enlisted in the Fourth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry (1861–1864) during the Civil War. After the war, Nelson graduated from the Albion Academy and studied law in a Madison, Wisconsin, law office. He was admitted to the bar in 1867. The same year, he married Nicolina (Nicoline) Jacobson. Nelson, a Republican, was a representative in the Wisconsin Assembly from 1868 to 1869.
In 1871, he moved with his family to Alexandria, Minnesota, where he practiced law while farming a homestead tract. He served as Douglas County attorney (1872–1874), Minnesota state senator (1875–1879), presidential elector (1880), University of Minnesota regent (1882–1893), and Fifth Congressional District representative (1883–1889).
Nelson was elected governor of Minnesota in 1892 and 1894, holding the post from January 4, 1893, to January 31, 1895. He resigned in 1895 to run successfully for the US Senate, where he remained until 1923. Nelson was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Committee on Public Lands, and he was active on the Commerce and Indian Affairs committees. His most notable legislative measures included the Nelson Bankruptcy Act (1898) and the act creating the Department of Commerce and Labor (1902). He also helped establish the Interstate Commerce Commission. Nelson supported a low tariff, a federal income tax, Prohibition, the Sherman Antitrust Act, and the League of Nations. He died on April 28, 1923, during his fifth senatorial term. He is buried in Alexandria, Minnesota.
In 1895, Knute Nelson is elected to the US Senate, the culmination of a long career of political service.