NORWAY-L Archives

Archiver > NORWAY > 1999-03 > 0920454350

From: Neil A Hofland <>
Subject: Transition - 2 - [47] - [56]
Date: Wed, 3 Mar 1999 09:45:50 +0000


Theodore C. Blegen' s "Norwegian Migration to America, The American
Transition" is published with the kind permission of the
Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA), St. Olaf College, 1510
St. Olaf Avenue, Northfield, MN 55057-1097. (email: )
This book is under copyright and permission has been granted for
educational purposes and is not to be used in any way for any commercial

Mrs. Elisabeth Koren describes in detail the interior of one pioneer
house: "This is a very large room, which includes the entire house, with
an ordinary small stove in the middle of the floor. This is far from able
to create a suitable temperature for the large room, which, although new,
is wretched enough. The floor consists of unplaned boards which bob up
and down when one walks on them. The entry to the cellar is in the one
end and is covered with a pair of loose boards laid an inch apart. The
ceiling consists likewise of unplaned boards through which one can look
up into the loft and glimpse the sky through the roof. Near the trap door
of the cellar stands a bed and under this a box, which is pulled out at
night and serves as a bed for the youngest members of the family. On the
other side of the windows are shelves full of tools. In the lower end of
the room Ingeborg has her milk shelves and other kitchen articles. Near
the stove stands the table by which I now sit, and around it usually
stands a circle of chairs, which are distinguished by their variety of
form and material. On these Sivert and his sons, as many as can find
places, have their seats. Ingeborg, the mistress of the house, a pretty
and attractive woman who always wears a white cap, is working with the
dinner with the help of her two small daughters and is at this moment
baking biscuits for us." {21}
The human touch in Mrs. Koren's picture serves to remind one that,
however small and lacking in comforts, the log cabins and sod houses were
homes where human beings lived. In these houses were the smells of
cooking, the lusty eating of food by tired and hungry folk, the clatter
of housework, [48] the tumult of children, the give and take of family
talk, the murmur of traditional devotions, the peace of darkness and rest
at night. Here were spinning wheel, loom, copper kettles, bowls, pots,
pans, dishes, and other paraphernalia of the housewife. {22} In the
morning the husband, after his breakfast, went to the fields to do the
day's work, sometimes using tools and implements that he had brought with
him from Norway --- scythe and broadax, for example --- but more
frequently employing the mechanical products of American ingenuity and
rejoicing with each new advance in the realm of farm machinery. The
farmer worked hard, but his wife worked even harder. She did the
housework, cared for the children, prepared the meals, helped to care for
the cattle, pigs, sheep, and chickens, milked the cows, churned the
butter, made the soap, did the canning in summer and fall, prepared
cheese, carded and spun the wool, wove cloth, dyed it with homemade dyes,
knitted and sewed clothing, mended mittens and socks. {23} On occasion
she pitched in and helped to rake hay or bind the Gain after it had been
cut with the cradle. She bore children year after year; and she cared for
the sick when her home was struck by disease. She got little leisure or
relaxation. Mrs. Gro Svendsen, who loved to read, evidently was obliged
to get in most of her reading during her confinements. For most of the
pioneer women there was the diversion of going to church of a Sunday or
of spending a part of an evening before the fireplace or in the dim light
of a tallow candle. Probably the housewife knitted while stories out of
long ago were told. She or her husband, or perchance a grandmother, would
spin tales of wood nymphs, hobgoblins, trolls, and ghosts, hair-raising
stories from the Norwegian "Black Book," told in a hushed voice, or
accounts of the heroic struggles of supermen. {24} [49]

(Picture of A Newspaper Advertisement [From Den norske Amerikaner, March
1, 1856.])

The early Norwegian settlers were reluctant to venture out on the
prairie, but even in the 1840's Munch Rder concluded that those who had
done so in Wisconsin --- at Rock Prairie, for example --- " as a rule
were more successful than those who had cut their way into the woods." He
found that "one or two years will generally suffice to fill the barns out
on the prairies," whereas the woods people worked for three or four years
and even then had difficulty in raising "enough food for their own use."
He granted that it often was hard to find water on the prairies and that
getting wood for fences, fuel, and buildings offered difficulties,
particularly since speculators often bought up near-by woods. But he
still thought it wiser to take prairie lands than to go into the woods.
"I think capital can be invested more profitably than in felling trees,"
he said, and he brushed aside the difficulty of getting necessary wood.
Even the price demanded by speculators for woodlands held on the edge of
the prairies usually was "only two or three dollars an acre." Munch Rder
[50] called attention to the possibilities in buying up prairie lands,
dividing them into farms, building a cabin on each farm, plowing an acre
or two, then selling to incoming immigrants who were eager to get
established quickly. "I know many Norwegians who have made good profits
in this way," he said; and he quoted figures to show that it was also
theoretically possible to buy land and, using hired labor, to clear,
plant, harrow, and harvest, and thus regain in a single year the total
outlay plus some profit. {25} Such a procedure obviously hinged upon the
possession of a certain amount of capital for investment, and the
ordinary immigrant had no surplus. He went the long way, did the pioneer
job from beginning to end with his own hands and the help of his
children, and gradually built up reserves. Once the wooded lands were
cleared, the problem was to break the soil. "Did you ever see one of
those huge breaking plows?" asks R. B. Anderson. "On its beam, which was
from eight to twelve feet long, there was framed an axle, on each end of
which was a wheel, sawed from an oak log. This wheel held the plow
upright. It was a sight worth seeing, when a ten or twelve year old boy
drove an ox team of six to ten yoke, and the heavy queer-looking plow,
with its coulter and broad share was turning the virgin soil in black
furrows two to three feet wide." {26}
For many of the immigrants there was, as has been suggested, a
considerable element of time involved in establishing themselves as
independent farm owners. Sometimes they would claim and improve lands and
then sell the improvements and set out for new and more favorable
frontiers. The usual story, according to Kendric C. Babcock, exhibits a
preliminary period of one to five years in the older settlements of
Illinois or Wisconsin, then a hunt for good lands [51] farther west. He
tells of Levor Timanson, who settled in Rock County with his father in
1848 and for some years was a farm hand, a mason, and a carpenter, then
trekked in 1853 to Iowa and Minnesota, and finally selected land in the
Spring Grove region of Minnesota, where by 1882 he was the prosperous
owner of 840 acres. Of the immigrant farmers generally, Babcock writes,
"They were in turn apprentices and journeymen, and finally attained to
the full dignity of masters of their own estates." He quotes an early
account of the Norwegian settlers in Dakota, "Most of them came with just
enough to get on Government land and build a shack . . . . Now they are
loaning money to their less fortunate neighbors." {27}
The immigrants accepted the frontier doctrine of land for the actual
settlers and were generally hostile to speculators. Sometimes they joined
land claim associations to protect actual settlers from the machinations
of buyers who attempted to secure the ownership of lands which had been
occupied and improved by others. Sometimes they took steps against
speculators without benefit of claim associations. According to Munch
Rder, the Norwegians had much to learn from the Yankees, who were very
clever about introducing "a certain appearance of law and order even into
a practice which in the nature of the ease is the direct opposite of law
and order." Had the Norwegian settlers at Koshkonong late in 1846
operated through a regularly organized land claim association, they
probably would have been more effective than they were in dealing with a
certain speculator from Milwaukee. An immigrant had occupied forty acres
of land without purchasing it or even entering a claim. He put up a cabin
and a stable, fenced the land, and began to cultivate some fifteen acres.
Meanwhile the [52] speculator, also a Norwegian, proceeded to buy the
land and attempted to take it over in midwinter without compensating the
squatter for the improvements he had made. Friends of the squatter
intervened and attempted to persuade the buyer to sell the farm to the
actual settler at the original purchase price. This he refused to do. The
result was that a crowd of some twenty or thirty Norwegians, their faces
blackened, appeared one night at the house where the speculator was
stopping, dragged him out of bed, put a halter around his neck, probably
struck him, and forced him to sign a document promising to sell the land
and to make out a deed to the actual settler.
This seems to have been a casual raid, without the authority of a claim
association behind it. The buyer promptly appealed to the Norwegian
pastor, J. W. C. Dietrichson, insisted that he had been nearly murdered,
and accused certain members of the minister's congregation of being the
culprits. The pastor gave him little sympathy. He said that if the man
wanted to prove that he was indeed a man of honor, as he maintained, he
would fulfill the contract he had signed and thus at one stroke show that
he was not a coward who signed under duress or a dishonorable scoundrel
who chose to live on the labor of others. He had only himself to thank
for the treatment he had received. This ministerial argument did not
carry conviction, the man promptly appealed to the justice of the peace
for redress, and the case was brought to court. Dietrichson, after
refusing to serve as an interpreter, was called as a witness, though he
explained in court that he knew nothing about the Milwaukee man save that
he was a liar and a deceiver. The upshot was that the speculator won his
case, and a fine of $150.00 was assessed against the men accused of
mistreating him, including the poor farmer who had cultivated the land.
Munch Rder believed that if the matter had been handled by a regular
[53] claim association and under its formal rules, the speculator would
not have succeeded in his scheme. {28}
In 1870, when A. Lewenhaupt, the charg d'affaires attached to the
Swedish-Norwegian legation at Washington, investigated the general
problem of the migration of Norwegians and Swedes to America, he gave
much attention to their houses and economic status. By that time the
early settlements had grown prosperous. A typical one, he found, was
"situated at the edge of a little forest, and consists of many beautiful
farmhouses surrounded by luxuriant corn and wheat fields." The dwellings,
white frame houses with four windows in the lower story and two in the
upper, reminded him of" the small country dwellings near Stockholm." He
took note of "the little shanty inhabited by the immigrant during his
early years" standing near the newer frame house. Barns were still not
very common, he said, in the Illinois region, where he found that "the
cattle and horses are placed in large sheds covered with straw but open
on the sides." Not uncommonly the immigrant who upon his arrival twenty
years earlier had been obliged to mortgage his trunk "is now the owner of
a fine, well-developed farm of 360 acres, of which the greater part is
open field, and of seven cattle and nine horses, besides valuable farm
implements and machinery.'' Such an establishment Lewenhaupt judged to be
worth from fifteen to seventeen thousand Norwegian specie dollars. The
advance to prosperity was closely related, he believed, to the general
rise in land values. "Once the land had been bought, its value rose from
year to year with the approach of the railroad and the accessibility of a
labor supply." It was of course no longer possible for a poor immigrant
to buy land in Illinois, but if he went to western [54] Minnesota and
Kansas, he might find circumstances similar to those from which the
Illinois pioneers had so richly profited. All this did not mean that the
immigrants uniformly were prosperous. Some lived in shanties on five-acre
tracts; often a recently arrived family inhabited the original cabin of
the prosperous farmer and had no other furniture than "a bed, one chair,
one cradle, and the big chest." Lewenhaupt, after extensive observations
of the Scandinavian immigrants, both new and old, said, however, "It is
impossible to travel in the West without reaching the conviction that the
principal motive for immigration is fundamentally the hope of bettering
the conditions of life, and that this hope may actually become a reality
for the majority." {29}
The Swedish official of 1870 spoke of the perils of disease on the
emigrant voyage, but he did not consider it necessary to discuss the
problem of health in the western settlements. Had he made his trip in an
earlier period, he doubtless would have felt obliged to analyze the
health conditions among the immigrant settlers. Pioneering, with its
problems of adjustment in both social and economic respects, was an
ordeal even for those immigrants who retained their health and strength.
Unhappily, however, circumstances added ordeal by fever to the many other
hardships that the pioneers had to undergo. Many factors let down the
defenses against the attack of disease on the American frontiers of the
earlier period. The water supply of the settlers was often uncertain,
sometimes polluted. Houses were often terribly crowded. New immigrants,
recently disembarked from festering emigrant packets, poured into the
communities, frequently poverty stricken and germ laden. Sewage
facilities were completely primitive. The concept of public health was
still [55] a thing of the future. The wonder is not that many died, but
that so many survived.
Usually the sites of Norwegian settlements were fairly well chosen, and
their rating from the point of view of health was relatively good; but
sometimes the pioneers made hasty and ill-advised selections. The area of
the Beaver Creek colony in Illinois, selected in the late summer of 1837,
turned out to be swampy the following spring, with malaria lurking in the
mosquito-infested stagnant water that flooded much of the ground.
Muskego, too, was low, a popular breeding spot for anopheles; and the
disadvantages of its site were made the more acute when hundreds of new
immigrants descended each season upon the settlement, with their quota of
germs and infection gathered up on the crossing and the inland journey.
In Chicago many of the pioneer Norwegians lived along the river or the
lake shore amid nauseating sanitary conditions and reaped the inevitable
crop of disease.
Privations on board ship; the use of contaminated food and water;
exposure to typhoid fever, typhus, and cholera; and the hazards of the
inland journey by people who often were nearly penniless--these things
constituted something less than an ideal introduction to American
pioneering. The challenge of the West was to buoyant strength, to
vitality in making adjustments to new conditions of work and climate.
Many immigrants went as far as their money carried them --- and then were
dependent upon assistance in some form. Even if they were able to buy
land or ventured, without funds, to squat on the public domain, they
often were so reduced in their reserves that they started out with
inadequate equipment. Thus they faced difficulties even without
encountering ordeal by fever. The psychic adjustment was made harder by
such circumstances as the arrival of parties in the burning heat of July
or August, or, if they came in the autumn, a quick plunge into the cold
of winter. The strangeness of American food, the difficulties of the
English [56] language, and nostalgia sometimes contributed a final touch
of initial disillusionment. But human beings are not easily defeated by
circumstances. They manage to emerge from their trials, often scarred and
hurt, but not beaten. Many individuals, it is true, could not weather
them and went down, but by and large the immigrants who came to America
triumphed over the hardships into which they were plunged. The story of
the ordeal by fever is revealed in hundreds of America letters and other
contemporary records, and in modern times an illuminating and scholarly
monographic study of the subject has been made by the distinguished
American pathologist, Dr. Ludvig Hektoen, in collaboration with the
historian, Dr. Knut Gjerset --- both sons of Norwegian pioneers. {30}

<21> Koren, Fra pioneertiden, 95, 106, 145; C. K. Preus, "Minder fra
Spring Prairie prestegaard," in Symra, 2: 18-30 (1906); Norlie, Fra
pioner-presternes saga, 180; Johnson, in Samband, no. 88, p. 570 ff.
<22> See Johnson, in Samband, no. 88, p. 571.
<23> I have in part paraphrased an admirable statement by Johnson of the
work of the pioneer women. See his article in Samband, no. 88, p. 572.
<24> Johnson describes frontier winter evenings, in Samband, no. 88, p.
<25> Rder, America in the Forties, 73 ff.
<26> Rasmus B. Anderson, First Chapter of Norwegian Immigration
(1821-1840), 435 (Madison, 1895).
<27> Kendric C. Babcock, Scandinavian Element in the United States,
95-98, 101 (University of Illinois, Studies in the Social Sciences, vol.
8, no. 3 --- Urbana, 1914).
<28> A detailed and highly interesting account of this episode is given
by Dietrichson in a letter from Koshkonong dated January 29, 1847, and
published in Stavanger amtstidende og adresseavis, April 10, 1847.
Rder's comments on the case are in America in the Forties, 76, 77. Some
interesting information about "claim jumpers" and claim associations is
in Helgeson, Fra "Indianernes lande," 163-168.
<29> The Lewenhaupt report was printed as a sixteen-page pamphlet
entitled lndberetning fra hans majestts charg d'affaires i Washington
angaaende udvandringen fra de forende riger til de nordamerikanske
Forenede Stater, without indication of date and place of publication. I
have had a photostat made of a copy which I found in the Norwegian
<30> "Health Conditions and the Practice of Medicine among the Early
Norwegian Settlers, 1825-1865," in Studies and Records, 1:1-59.

You don't need to buy Internet access to use free Internet e-mail.
Get completely free e-mail from Juno at
or call Juno at (800) 654-JUNO [654-5866]

This thread: