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He was born in Vågå, the son of Tjøstolv Olsson Kleppe of Sygaard (a well-known rabble-rouser, also called "Galin-Tjøstolv", who died in 1797) and Marit Pedersdotter (died 1803) from Horgje in Heidal. He had four siblings. He lived during the period 1803–18 with his maternal aunt on Heringstad farm in Heidal and later took over the farm.
He was well known for reindeer hunting and sharpshooting in the Jotunheimen mountains, and built many cabins or huts at Lake Gjende. He moved there in 1842. In 1850 he bought the mountain farm Brurusten in Murudal from Jakob Kleiven.
He took the name John Gjendin, and shortened it to Jo Gjende in his later days.
He was publicly skeptical about established Christianity. Occupied by natural philosophy, he participated frequently in discussions with the local minister. As a result he was recognized as a freethinker.
He died on the Brurusten farm in Murudal, and was buried in Vågå churchyard. On his grave is a small soapstone monument, which shows a wild reindeer herd in flight, after a painting by Gerhard Munthe.
- Biography by Jacob Bøckmann. John Gjendin (en biographisk skitse)., Norsk Jæger- og Fisker-Forenings tidsskrift, 1873.
- Excerpts from the municipality history by municipality historian Ivar Kleiven from the books I Gamle Daagaa and Heimegrendi.
- Opptrer i dramatiske oppsetinger. Theodor Caspari, Vildanden, et livsbillede fra høifjeldet. Tore Ørjasæter, Jo Gjende. Mulig modell for Peer Gynt av Henrik Ibsen.
- Portrait by Per Hohle, Jo Gjende – storjeger og livsfilosof, fra Mennesker i Naturen, NKS-Forlaget 1973.
- Trygve M. Røer: I Emanuel Mohn og Jo Gjendes fotspor, eller Historien om en vindmølle, og litt til, Sollia forlag, 2004.