Norway and Immigration

Norway and Immigration

In 1821 the Quakers community in the Stavanger area of Norway sent two members, Cleng Peerson and Knud Olsen Eide, over to America to explore the possibility of emigration in order to avoid religious persecution. Eide died soon after arriving in America but Peerson was able to return with encouraging news about the country.

Cleng Peerson went back to organize the buying of land. On 4th July, 1825, a 52 foot sloop, Restauration, left Stavanger, with fifty-two Norwegians opposed to the Lutheran Church. Ninety-eight days later the ship arrived in New York where Peerson gave them the news that he had acquired land in Kendall, 35 miles north-west of Rochester. Over the next few years Kendall became a stopover on the way to the Middle West. Peerson also helped to organize another Norwegian settlement on the Fox River in Illinois.

In 1837 Ole Rynning arrived in the United States. His book, True Account of America for the Information and Help of Peasant and Commoner, sold in large numbers and helped increase the numbers of people wishing to leave Norway.

Norwegians were involved in the Californian Gold Rush. In 1849 Jon Torsteinson-Rue drove a herd of cattle to California. He settled in Placerville and after an unsuccessful spell as a miner purchased a small ranch at Putah Creek in the Sacramento Valley.

In 1855 Jon Torsteinson-Rue read an article about the difficulties of carrying post across the Sierra Nevada mountains. He remembered as a young child people in Norway people using skies to travel across the snow. After making his own 10 foot long, 25 pound oak skies, Torsteinson-Rue volunteered his services as a mailman.

Torsteinson-Rue made his first mail run in January, 1856. For the next 20 winters, regardless of weather, he took mail between Placerville, California, and Mormon Station, Utah, four times a month. His treks over snowdrifts up to 50 feet high and through blizzards in over 80 mile per hour winds, to deliver mail to those living in isolation became legendary.

News of the Californian Gold Rush as well as poor harvests and unemployment in Norway, stimulated emigration. By 1860 there were over 10,000 Norwegians in Illinois, mainly in the area around Chicago. There were also large numbers in Wisconsin and in 1847 the first Norwegian newspaper, Nordlyset, was published in the state. Over the next ten years another eight Norwegian newspapers began to be published in the United States.

On the outbreak of the Civil War a Norwegian, Hans Christian Heg, was mainly responsible for establishing the Fifteenth Wisconsin Volunteers. Known as the Scandinavian Regiment, others who joined included Ole Johnson, Christian Morbeck, Ole Steensland, Jurgen Wilson and Amund Olsen.

At Chickamauga 63% of the Scandinavian Regiment were killed, wounded or captured. This included Colonel Hans Christian Heg, the highest ranking officer in Wisconsin to die in the war. Heavy losses were also experienced by the Scandinavian Regiment at Pickett's Mill (27th May, 1864).

Most settlers from Norway became farmers. Some worked in copper and iron mines. The United States also attracted engineers and mechanics. Other Norwegians worked as fishermen in the lake ports such as Buffalo and Duluth. By 1870 around 90 per cent of the emigrants from Norway were in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.

In 1896 Ole Rolvaag landed in New York. He worked on several farms in South Dakota before entering college in 1899. Rolvaag became professor of Norwegian at St. Olaf College and in 1912 published Letters From America. He also wrote several novels dealing with Norwegian settlers in South Dakota including Giants in the Earth(1927), Peder Victorious (1929) and Their Fathers' God (1931).

American-Norwegians have played an active role in political life. This is especially true of those living in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Those who have become national figures include Andrew Volstead, Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey.

Between 1820 and 1920 over 730,000 people emigrated from Norway to the United States. This amounted to a figure larger than four fifths of the entire population of Norway at the beginning of the 19th century. This meant that Norway had lost a larger proportion of her total population by immigration to America than any other European country except Ireland. Notable emigrants to the United States include Ole Evinrude, Ivar Giaever, Hans Christian Heg, Sonja Henie, Lars Onsager, Knute Rockne, Finn Ronne, Marta Sandal, Atle Selberg and Karsten Solheim.

An investigation carried out in 1978 revealled that since 1820 over 856,000 people emigrated to the United States from Norway. This amounted to 1.8 per cent of the total foreign immigration during this period.

Norwegians who escaped from Indian massacre in Minnesota in 1862.
Norwegians who escaped from Indian massacre in Minnesota in 1862.

Primary Sources

(1) Ole Munch Raeder, letter written to relatives in Norway (c. 1848)

What an impression it would make on a poor highlander's imagination to be told that some day he might eat wheat bread every day and pork at least three times a week! Here even a tramp can enjoy a chicken dinner once in a while.

(2) Earl Johnson, carried out research into his great grandparents who emigrated to the United States in 1854.

In 1833 here were about 30 families and a number of single men (in Kendall). They were led by a charismatic religious visionary named Cleng Peerson. They arrived in midwinter. That proved too harsh even for Norwegians and they refused to settle there. So Cleng had another vision about verdant farmlands in Illinois. All but a couple members of the group headed out with Cleng for the area near Morris. Most of them built houses in the little settlement which much later became the town of Norway. Evidently this was not an entirely happy group. Cleng either was ousted or became dissatisfied. Within a few years he took off for Texas, this time by himself.

Then in 1997, we did a little sight-seeing and visited the Texas Cultural Museum. This museum contains displays featuring each of the many ethnic groups which settled Texas -- including the Norwegian-Americans. So guess who reappears on the scene. Cleng Peerson. It turns out he did make it all the way down to Texas and became quite an important figure in the Norwegian-Texan and later Norwegian-American community.

According to the display about the Norwegian-Americans they didn't use slaves or like slavery. Most of them lived in their own farming communities - of which there were only a couple or three, since there were fewer than 1000 Norwegian-Americans in the entire state at the time of the Civil War.

(3) John Haug's father decided to leave Norway and seek his fortune in the United States.

My father came from a really poor family. His father and grandfather were both tenant farmers in a little valley in a remote spot in Norway - Fortun, near Luster, almost at the end of Sogne Fjord. It's a lovely place but the whole valley was owned by three people: the rest of the inhabitants of the valley were tenants and there was no chance whatever of getting ahead.

(4) In 1862 Norwegian settlers in Minnesota suffered from Sioux attacks. One settler wrote home to his family in Stavanger about his experiences.

The Indians have begun attacking the farmers. They have already killed a great many people, and many are mutilated in the cruelest manner. Tomahawks and knives have already claimed many victims. Children, less able to defend themselves, are usually burned alive or hanged in the trees, and destruction moves from house to house. the Indians burn everything on their way - houses, hay, grains, and so on. Even if I describe the horror in the strongest possible language, my description would fall short of reality. These troubles have now lasted for about two weeks, and every day larger numbers of settlers come into St Peter to protect their lives from the raging Indians. They crowd themselves together in large stone houses for protection, and the misery is so great that imagination could not depict it in darker colours. A few persons with their hands and feet burned off. May I never again have to see such terrible sights.

(5) An anonymous letter from a Norwegian immigrant in Dodge County, Minnesota, appeared in Morgenbladet, a newspaper in Norway on 22nd November, 1862.

At this time life is not very pleasant in this so-called wonderful America. The country is full of danger, and at no time do we feel any security for our lives or property. Next month (October) there is to be a levy of soldiers for military service, and our county alone is to supply 118 men, in addition to those who have already enlisted as volunteers.

Last week we, therefore, all had to leave our harvesting work and our weeping wives and children and appear at the place of enlistment, downcast and worried. We waited until 6 o'clock in the afternoon. Then, finally, the commissioner arrived, accompanied by a band, which continued playing for a long time to encourage us and give us a foretaste of the joys of war. But we thought only of its sorrows, and despite our reluctance, had to give our name and age. To tempt people to enlist as volunteers, everybody who would volunteer was offered $225, out of which $125 is paid by the county and $100 by the state.

Several men then enlisted, Yankees and Norwegians; and we others, who preferred to stay at home and work for our wives and children, were ordered to be ready at the next levy. Then who is to go will be decided by drawing lots. In the meantime, we were forbidden to leave the country without special permission, and we were also told that no one would get a passport to leave the country. Dejected, we went home, and now we are in a mood of uncertainty and tension, almost like prisoners of war in the formerly do free country. Our names have been taken down - perhaps I shall be a soldier next month and have to leave my home, my wife, child, and everything I have been working for over so many years.

But this is not the worst of it. We have another and far more cruel enemy nearby, namely, the Indians. They are raging, especially in northwestern Minnesota, and perpetrate cruelties which no pen can describe. Every day, settlers come through here who have had to abandon everything they owned to escape a most painful death. Several Norwegians have been killed and many women have been captured.

From this you may see how we live: on the one hand, the prospect of being carried off as cannon fodder to the South; on the other, the imminent danger of falling prey to the Indians; add to this the heavy war tax and everybody has to pay whether he is enlisted as a soldier or not. You are better off who can live at home in peaceful Norway. God grant us patience and fortitude to bear these heavy burdens.

(6) Ole Steensland, description of the Battle of Chickamuga (1863)

Then came the gloomy morning of the 20th when the few of us that were left formed into line of battle. We had orders not to retreat in face of the fact that four strong columns of rebels were charging our weak and scattered line. These were nerve straining moments when boyhood chums were dropping dead or wounded all around me. Ole Milestone was killed on my right, Chris Thompson on my left. I got a bullet through my hat and that did no harm, but I was taken prisoner, and that was something that did hurt.

(7) Stephen O. Himoe, the surgeon who treated Colonel Hans Christian Heg at the Battle of Chickamuga, later commented on what had happened.

Friends who called to see him (Hans Christian Heg), wept like children. Everybody who knew him loved him. He was not only a noble patriot, but a true Christian and died peacefully and calmly, fully persuaded of a glorious immortality through Jesus.

(8) A letter published in the Norwegian newspaper, Aftenbladet (28th September, 1866)

Minnesota, which is still a young state, can undoubtedly look ahead to a great future. By the end of this century it will probably be one of the richest and mightiest states in the whole Union. Its size is about 85,000 square miles. Its fertility is unmatched by that of any other country in the world. The climate is healthful and pleasant, though the summer is terribly hot. Although the winter is short, it is said to be most as severe as in Norway.

I like American customs and habits, opinions, and views very much, especially the fact that there is no class distinction here. The principle of equality has been universally accepted and adopted. The artisan, the farmer, and the borer enjoy the same degree of respect as the merchant and the official.

President Johnson has surrendered completely to the 'Copperheads' and the Rebels in the South allied with them, and is furiously opposing the party that elevated him to power. Because of this the Rebels have begun to stir once more. It has almost got to be so that a loyal man cannot travel, he along stay, in most of the Southern states. During the absence of Sheridan - he has received military charge of Texas and Louisiana - the military in New Orleans was placed under the command of a former Rebel general by telegraphed order from the President. It is hard to imagine a greater insult either to the Army or the country.

But President Johnson is hardly furthering the cause of the South by behaving in this manner, as time will show very soon. The Republican press is breathing smoke and fire. Hundreds of newspapers which supported the President six months ago have changed their attitude completely. But the Republican Party is so strong that for a while yet it will have a majority both in the Senate and in Congress; and the South will not be allowed to send representatives until the North has received complete guarantees that the money and the blood expended on the defense of the Union were not sacrificed in vain.

(9) Ole Rolvaag, Giants in the Earth (1927)

She had lain awake in terror, lost in her own imaginings, wrestling with fearful thoughts that only increased the dread in her soul. It seemed plain to her now the human life could not endure in this country. She had lived here for six weeks and more without seeing another civilized face than those of their own company. What would happen if something sudden should befall them, attack, or sickness, or fire. Ah no, this wasn't a place for human beings to dwell in.

(10) Carl Wittke, We Who Built America (1939)

The Norwegians are a strong, resolute, stubborn people. Practically all are Lutherans, and combine a Lutheran piety and sense of duty with a strong desire for material advancement. They are thrifty and eager to acquire a homestead. They are strong and stubborn individualists, lovers of freedom, law-abiding, and vigorous defenders of their Church.

Norwegian settlers on the Great Plains in 1885.
Norwegian settlers on the Great Plains in 1885.