Since it is located on a pass providing access to the Gudbrandsdalen, Lesja lies on an important trade route used in prehistoric times. The area is first mentioned in the written chronicle of the Heimskringla (The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway) by Snorri Sturluson. The account of King Olaf's (A.D. 1015-1021) conversion of Dale-Gudbrand to Christianity is popularly recognized. King Olaf's success was short-lived, for in 1029 the Norwegian nobles, seething with discontent, rallied round the invading Knut the Great, and Olaf had to flee. To avoid engaging a fleet of 25 ships, 400 of King Olav's men and 100 loyal peasant farmers from Romsdal built a road up from the Romsdalfjord which passed through the area that became known as Lesjaverk. His men fled along this road and across Gudbrandsdal. There he was not warmly received since he had killed King Thorer of Gudbrandsdal, so he went on to Hedmark. From there he proceeded to Sweden and on to Russia. On his return a year later he fell at the Battle of Stiklestad.
Iron smelting is recorded in Lesja municipality at Lesjaverk (Lesja Iron Works) as early as 1614, when King Christian IV of Denmark and Norway authorized the Romsdal Market at Devold on the Rauma river 4 miles upstream of Åndalsnes. With this change, Molde assumed the role as principal market town for Romsdal formerly held by Veøy. This change was made to provide the ironworkers at Lesjaverk with a convenient outlet for their products as well as providing them a market to purchases goods and food supplies such as stockfish and grain.
Jakob Bersveinson Klukstad (1710 to 1773), who was born in Lom spent most of his career on Klukstad farm in Lesja. Klukstad was the foremost Norwegian sculptor and painter of his generation. His work can still be seen in churches at Lesja, Skjåk, and Heidal.
The Lesja area in the Gudbrandsdal was source of numerous emigrants to America. According to Du Chaillu, "...during the great famine of 1867; a year memorable in the annals of Northern Europe, when, in consequence of an early and heavy frost in summer, the crops were destroyed, and desolation and death spread over vast districts. The lichen and the bark of the birch tree, mixed with a little flour, became the food of the people after the cattle had been eaten up and nothing else was left. The year following a strong tide of emigration set out for America."
After the German invasion of April 1940, while King Haakan and the Norwegian government were moving from Elverum to the west coast, the King and Crown Prince Olaf arrived in Otta on the night of April 13. The prime minister and his colleagues, who were then in Lesja, were summoned and a communiqué, ending "God save Norway," and urging resistance to the unprovoked attack was issued. They now intended to relocate to the west coast, but the Germans had dropped paratroopers higher in the Gudbrandsdalen, at Dombås, cutting off the rail route. It was not until the evening of the 21st that the King was able to travel by road from Otta to Lesja on the east-west watershed and then down the narrow Romsdal to Åndalsnes.
During the war a British fighter squadron (flying 'Gloster Gladiators') flew from the icebound surface of lake Lesjaskogsvatnet. No. 263 Squadron RAF operated with 18 Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters in late April 1940 as part of the Norwegian Campaign.
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