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From: Neil A Hofland <>
Subject: Transition - 7 - [229] - [240]
Date: Sun, 21 Mar 1999 08:56:48 +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 purpose.

Gro Svendsen, pioneer mother, came to America in 1862 from her home in
Aal, Hallingdal, as a bride, a merry, lighthearted, affectionate girl of
twenty-one who was blessed with a lively curiosity. {38} Crossing the
ocean, she made friends with the captain and crew and was given the
"freedom of the ship." She relates that on "Easter evening there was
dancing on the deck, and if we had only known how to waltz, we could have
danced; but since we did not know how and apparently lacked the desire to
learn, we shall have to live without waltzing." A bird flew onto the deck
and was killed by the captain's dog --- Gro was heartbroken. "Poor little
creature that sought haven with us, but instead was torn to pieces!" she
exclaimed. The dog whelped --- Gro was delighted with its five puppies.
Gro's mother-in-law had a baby --- Gro took care of it and held it in her
arms when the captain baptized it. She took note of the Seventeenth of
May, and though it seemed to be ignored by the emigrants generally, she
celebrated the day by herself, for she knew [230] what it meant to her
native land. One night after midnight the seamen called her on deck to
see an eclipse of the moon. When she reached Quebec she was pleased to
have a taste of wheat bread and a drink of fresh milk. She was charmed,
after the long voyage, by the sound of cocks crowing and of church bells
fining --- the bells of six Quebec churches whose spires, she wrote, were
"shining like silver in the morning sun."
And so Gro's party made its way to the American interior. Shortly after
reaching St. Ansgar, Iowa, the baby that had been born at sea died and
was buried. Gro and her husband went farther west and settled near
Estherville, Iowa. They had not been long in America before Gro's first
child was born; and at the first opportunity she sent a daguerreotype of
her husband, baby, and herself to her people in Norway. She wanted to
know as soon as possible what they thought of her child.
With a boy in her arms Gro attended an English school, "held at no great
distance from here." She was determined to learn the language of her
adopted country. Before long she herself was teaching school three days a
week at twelve dollars a month, doing her heavier housework on the other
days. Her boy grew and flourished, learned to say a few words, was
smarter and prettier, his mother believed, than any other child in the
community. "But one thing more," she wrote to her father, "can you tell
me how I am to get my little boy vaccinated?" Later she thanked him for
sending vaccine from Norway. A second son was born. And then, in 1864,
Gro's husband Ole was drafted and marched away to the Civil War--she was
left at home, she said, like a "lonely bird." The second son was baptized
on the day Svendsen departed, and Gro insisted upon naming him Niels
Olaus, using two names, an unusual thing in her family. The second was a
form of her husband's name. She hinted in one letter at her reason for
thus naming the boy: [231] she evidently had a premonition that the
father would be killed in the war --- she sent him away to the
battlefields but, by the device of the name, she also kept him at home by
her side. A third son was born while the father was away. Svendsen served
in Sherman's army and returned home safely in August, 1865. He was
discharged as an "honorable soldier," Gro explained to her parents in
Norway, and in seven thousand miles of traveling and marching "he has
seen and heard and felt much." She sent a picture of him in uniform to
show her relatives in Norway what an American soldier looked like.
After the war the family grew steadily larger, and its activities were
faithfully reported in letters to Norway written by Gro. Presently Svend
was able to "handle the oxen very well, hitch and unhitch them to the
wagon, and drive them long stretches alone, drive them down to water for
his father, and do a number of things better than boys several years
older than he is." Gro had a never-ceasing interest in the education of
her boys. "But reading has been at a standstill this summer," she wrote
in 1868. "Now, however, we have begun again, and in this district we are
going to have three months of English school during the winter, and an
American as schoolteacher. The school is to be held in Erik Sando's
house." She also reported that the community would "have Norwegian school
for several months, with Ole Johnson from the Bergen district as the
teacher." Gro liked to tell about the progress of her children. There was
Svend, for example. He had been at school for two months, was the
youngest pupil, but won special praise for his unusual attentiveness and
diligence. He had read through the first reader and was plowing through
it again.
When Gro's fifth son was born, there seems to have been some difference
of opinion between the father and the mother about naming him. The name,
selected by Gro, was Albert Olai --- the "Albert" in honor of "old
Aslag," but she was [232] unwilling to give the boy a name that would be
so strange on American lips as "Aslag." In 1871 "little Steffen" arrived,
and Gro wrote, "I thought I'd select a name that was a little more in
conformity with American so that he wouldn't have to change it himself if
ever he went out to live among Americans." This American tendency was
also indicated when a pony on Gro's farm was named "Greeley." Gro had a
genuine interest in names. In one letter she explained in careful detail
the meaning and pronunciation of "Iowa." It signified, she said, "the
beautiful land," and she told a circumstantial story of how the Indians
gave it this poetical name. She also explained how the village of
Estherville got its name --- in fact, she said, she herself had on one
occasion entertained the American lady named "Esther," for whom the
village was named. Gro lived in Petterson Township, and she gave full
information about the Norwegian pioneer whose memory was thus
perpetuated. Her farm she called "Skrattegaard," her husband's somewhat
infrequently used surname and the name of his home farm in Norway.
In 1873 a daughter was born to Gro and named Birgit. In due time another
daughter, Sigri, appeared. Meanwhile Gro was not wholly satisfied with
the progress of her sons. They were attending both Norwegian and English
schools, but she feared they were not making rapid strides. "Had they
been at home," she exclaimed impatiently, "I know well enough that they
would have been much further advanced. Here Norwegian school is held so
rarely, and it is so difficult to try to teach them at home." Her
seven-year-old Ole, she reported in 1874, had the sharpest mind of all
the children, and she was teaching him both English and Norwegian. Albert
puzzled her, for he seemed remote and liked to ask "strange, disturbing
little questions" on such extraordinary subjects as creation. Another
son she described as the "actor" of the family. [233]
The first house of the Svendsens was small and ugly, Gro thought, but it
was replaced after the Civil War by a better one, and she explained that
the new one would have come sooner had not her husband gone to war. Gro
was always interested in the church and its successive ministers. Halyard
Hande she regarded as exceptionally able, a man more interested in human
needs than in church controversies. When he left to become a newspaper
editor in Chicago and a new minister arrived, she expressed a grave doubt
that the new man was of sufficient intellectual stature for the position.
Of her husband she always wrote proudly, on one occasion explaining that
he had held various positions of honor --- constable, town trustee, and
deacon in the church.
In 1876 woes struck the Svendsen family --- measles, the death of Sigri,
a scourge of grasshoppers that destroyed the crops, and other
disappointments. Gro, usually buoyant and dauntless, wore an air of
resignation to fate. In all these happenings she saw the will of God.
Morbidly she took a picture of Sigri a few days before the child died.
When, the next year, another girl was born --- Gro had ten babies in
about a decade and a half --- the mother named it Sigri and thought of it
as a gift from God to replace the lost Sigri. The new baby, with its dark
brown eyes, seemed to her to be the image of the first Sigri. Gro
continued to be depressed, however, and she felt that the "little thing"
probably would be with her "only a short time." But presently her
interests began to revive. All six of her boys were "going to English
school every day." On Wednesdays two of them were "studying for
confirmation at our pastor's." Some of them also attended the Norwegian
Sunday school. "So we strive to do what we can to help them learn
something useful both for life and eternity," wrote Gro. But she
confessed discouragement as she thought of "our sacred duties as parents
and the heavy responsibilities laid upon us." She lacked the means to do
all that she wanted to do for her children, [234] and she was frankly
discontented. She talked the problem over with her husband and records
his philosophical answer: "We must try to do our best by them according
to our own lights and our means, and then entrust the rest to the Lord,
who will help us if we pray him to."
It was in the midst of such speculations about the duties of parents and
concern over the future of her children that this gallant and faithful
lady died in 1878 in childbirth at the age of thirty-seven. She had
described her husband as an "honorable soldier " --- she herself was an
honorable pioneer wife and mother who typified the best in both the
immigrant and the American tradition. After reading her letters one can
understand why Ole sent a lock of her hair to Norway and decorated her
grave with marble and planted a tree on it, and why her friends planted
flowers in her honor. The husband soon departed from the Iowa scene to
pioneer in the Dakota country west of the Red River. Gro's boys wrote to
their grandfather in Norway on Easter Sunday, 1880, from their new home
in Dakota. Carl had been working on the farm of Tosten Nyhus. He had
attended the Norwegian school and in his confirmation class had learned
the Explanation and Bible history. "We are all well," he wrote, "and
getting along nicely, for which we must thank the Lord." Ole, thirteen
years old, had studied the Explanation up to the second article, had
learned number 239 in Landstad's hymnbook, was attending school every
day. Albert, seven, said, "My good grandfather, I must write to you to
tell you that I am also going to school at Ole M. Bole's and have learned
the second commandment in the Explanation and two little songs." He was
the boy who asked strange and disturbing questions, but his letter does
not tell us what questions he asked of Ole M. Bole. Nils, sixteen, said
that he was planning to read for confirmation with Pastor Hagb. "Greet
grandmother from me," he added. Steffen, nine, explained that he was "the
first one to learn [235] 'Oh, grant it, God,'" and sent his best wishes
to grandfather and "Gommo." Birgit and Sigri also transmitted their
greetings. Barren and stiff little missives they are --- after the warm
and vivid letters of Gro --- but they were treasured in a Norwegian home
for more than a half century. {39}
Growing children found many ways of amusing themselves in frontier
times. They went sledding, skiing, and tobogganing in winter, swimming,
fishing, trapping, hunting, and flower-picking in summer. One of the Heg
boys at Muskego was a hero to the community when he shot a swan. {40}
Youngsters tried to tame wild animals --- foxes, woodchucks, possums,
coons, coyotes, wolves, and even skunks. A household animal was usually
assigned to each child --- an artful way, perhaps, of insuring a more
cheerful care of the animals. On some frontiers neighbors lived very far
apart, and families were obliged to be socially self-sufficient for
considerable periods of time. But families were large. Birth control was
unknown and ordinarily there were annual additions to the family. The
number of children frequently ranged from a half dozen to a dozen or
more. Professor Larson tells of a neighbor who could never remember
offhand how many [236] children he had, though by calling the roll he
generally managed to list them all. {41} Such large families meant that
each farm was a little community in itself.
After confirmation class, children often frolicked, though this was not
always possible, for some had to go many miles on foot and wanted to get
home before darkness came on. Rlvaag in Peder Victorious gives a vivid
account of recess time in a Norwegian school, when hot rivalries had full
swing and the teacher frequently had to intervene. There were also
interracial rivalries. Hamlin Garland, recalling the district school that
he attended as a boy, writes, "Here I came in contact with the Norwegian
boys from the colony to the north, and a bitter feud arose (or existed)
between the ' Yankees,' as they called us, and the ' Norskies,' as we
called them." Garland remembers that sometimes the feud broke into open
war, when "showers of sticks and stones filled the air, and our hearts
burned with the heat of savage conflict." It was usually at parting that
diplomatic relations were broken. The boys might walk pleasantly together
for half a mile, when they "suddenly split into hostile ranks, and warred
with true tribal frenzy as long as we could find a stone or a clod to
serve as missile." Garland recalls no "personal animosity" in this feud;
to him it was Pict fighting Angle. {42}
Such rivalries among the boys sometimes had parallels in the relations
between adult Norwegian Americans and other groups. Larson, for example,
has told the story of a riot in an Iowa community where the Norwegian
element seemed to be getting control of a local political convention.
Fence rails and neck yokes were the weapons in a fight between a gang of
malcontents, largely Irish, and a crowd of Norwegians. Larson pays
tribute to the fighting qualities of the Irish, but they were finally
driven from the field by their [237] opponents, who outnumbered them.
"Clan sentiment," Professor Larson asserts, was definitely present in the
1870's, but he points out that "racial antagonism could not long endure
the wearing force of daily contact, and soon it disappeared altogether."
In the summer the immigrant children often went on berrying expeditions,
and in the autumn parties went nutting in the woodlands --- unless they
chanced to live on the treeless plains. Lulla Preus recalled excursions
to pick flowers, plums, grapes, walnuts, hickory nuts, and hazelnuts; and
Larson remembered the attraction of prairie flowers, especially the
violet, which he called "night and day." Rosin-weed was the frontier
boy's chewing gum. There were also indoor amusements. Lulla Preus spoke
of the invariable readiness of her mother "to entertain the young people.
Either she played the piano for us, told us stories, or taught us any
number of games which she could take part in, too, and thus give them
added life." She remembered twilight scenes when her father would tell
stories or sing. "There seemed to be no end to the hymns and little songs
which my parents knew." {44} There appear to have been relatively few
competitive sports. Wrestling was popular among boys, however, and both
boys and girls took part in spelling matches. In some games old
counting-out rhymes were used, not unlike "eeny, meeny, miney, mo '"
Elle melle
Mig fortelle
Skibet gaar
Ut paa haar
Rygg i rann
To i spann
Snipp, snapp, snute,

The immigrant frontier boy, according to Larson, was looked upon as
sufficiently developed at fourteen to do the [238] work of a man; and
many a farmer found the road to prosperity cleared for him by the man
power of his own family as his many boys reached the age when they could
share in the rough work of the fields. Sometime between fourteen and
sixteen, confirmation was solemnized. When this event took place, "in
some respects a person was considered as having attained his majority."
One reminiscent writer says that confirmation "for us settlers' children
was the day when boys or girls had to begin supporting themselves." {45}
If this was its practical significance, it must be remembered that it was
primarily a religious landmark. Larson's minister insisted that he be
confirmed as he neared his sixteenth year, and his parents acquiesced,
though the son seemed not to be impressed with the necessity of the
rite--and his parents were sadly aware of the state of his mind. It is
apparent that he cannily realized how stereotyped the ceremony often was,
and the seeming futility of hammering required answers into the heads of
some of the country dolts. "Dost thou renounce the devil and all his
works?" the minister asked a terrified youngster who had no idea of the
meaning of the strange word "renounce." "No," he answered in swift
relief, to the horror of the congregation. The clergyman rephrased the
question, avoided the word "renounce," and put the matter so that it
called for a negative answer; but the boy now aware that his original"
No" was wrong, blurted out "Yes." The sacrament was, of course, a solemn
occasion, prepared for by a period of "reading for the minister "; and
the confirmands, as well as the proud parents, were dressed in their best
when the fateful day of public examination and vows arrived. Sometimes
guests visited the homes of the young confirmed people after services
were over, and occasionally there were "confirmation gifts." {46}
A little-recognized role of pioneer immigrant children was [239] that of
mitigating the nostalgia of
the pioneer mothers. So common and so deeply rooted was this immigrant
nostalgia that it was a part of the folkways of the people. "Fate has
indeed separated me from my native land and all that was dear to me
there," wrote Henrietta Jessen from Wisconsin in 1850, "but it is not
denied me to pour forth my feelings upon this paper. My dear sisters, it
was a bitter cup for me to drink, to leave a dear mother and sisters and
to part forever in this life, though living." This was a typical note,
echoed over and over again in the America letters and the ballads of the
emigrants, but usually it was accompanied by an assurance of trust in an
all-wise providence. Henrietta thought that of all the emigrants from
Arendal, "none went on board with a heavier heart" than she. She hoped
that time would heal her wounds, though, she added, "up to the present I
cannot deny that homesickness gnaws at me hard." Yet she thanked "the
Lord who gave me strength to carry out this step, which I hope will be
for my own and my children's best in the future." She was confident that
God "protected me and mine over the ocean's waves and led us to a
fruitful land, where God's blessings are daily before our eyes." {47}
Henrietta Jessen and thousands like her found companionship and comfort
in their children, and they held their courage. There was a never-ending
round of tasks and activities --- loom and spinning wheel to be run,
meals to be cooked, the sick to be cared for. There was childbearing year
after year --- and the incessant demands of infants and children of
varying ages. Time, and not least the unrelenting work that packed its
passing hours, did indeed heal their wounds. The initial ordeals of
pioneering were met, and for [240] many there came the "better days" that
had beckoned them. Events crowded upon the homes and upon the communities
of which the homes were a part. Time and interest were poured into church
and social relationships. There was the eternal march of the seasons,
each posing its particular problems and challenges. Children passed from
infancy to their teens, girls shared in the work of the house as boys
went out to share in the work of the field, and presently the second
generation came of age. Some of the pioneer mothers did not survive their
ordeals to win final rewards, but many had the satisfaction of seeing
their children solidly established on prosperous farms or in the near-by
towns, sometimes making places of trust and service for themselves in the
life of community and state. {48} The hunger for schooling and education
that marked the spirit of Gro Svendsen was characteristic of very many
pioneers, and a significant phase of the frontier folkways. For Gro and
her kind saw education as the path to the larger opportunities that
America offered. The hunger was that of parents ambitious for the welfare
of their children, and in many instances it communicated itself to those
children. It became a common thing for the younger generation to go to
school and to push on to academies, colleges, and universities --- and
they began to make careers in the professions. So in a thousand ways the
transition to American life, working across the years and generations,
made good the hope that gave confidence to the Henrietta Jessens and Gro
Svendsens and their husbands of the frontier era --- the hope that
strengthened the souls of the immigrant fathers and mothers as, with
courage and patience, they grappled with their many ordeals.

<38> This section, dealing with the family life of Gro Svendsen, is based
upon her letters written in the 1860's and 1870's. The particular letters
here used form p. 157-302 of the Nielsen Papers.
<39> Gro Svendsen was a gifted writer as well as a personality of force
and charm. In one of her letters she mentions the fact that she
occasionally sent contributions to the Norwegian-American newspaper
Fdrelandet og emigranten. She often served as "secretary" to her
neighbors, helping them to write letters. One of Gro's brothers was the
Reverend Ole Nilsen, of whom Laurence M. Larson, in his Log Book, 233,
writes, "Even the finest clerical types of modern fiction could scarcely
be an improvement on the character of this country pastor." Gro died on
June 24, 1878, and was buried in the Brujeld cemetery near Wallingford.
The grave, I discovered on a visit in 1940, has been marked with a new
monument in recent years. The Reverend L. A. Mathre of Estherville kindly
allowed me to examine the Estherville church records, which are in his
possession. I am translating Gro's letters into English and expect to
bring them out in book form. Some years ago Ole Nilsen published a short
novel entitled Dalrosen: Fra virke-lighetens verden paa begge sider ay
hayet (" The Rose of the Valley: From the World of Reality on Both Sides
of the Sea ") in which Gro, whose name is changed for the purposes of the
story to Aase Dalro, is the principal character. The story, which runs to
seventy-six pages, was brought out by the Augsburg Publishing House in
Minneapolis (n. d.). It is a moving tale, based upon the true experiences
of Gro and her husband, and the characterization of Gro herself is done
with genuine understanding of her quality.
<40> Bache Diary, April 8, 1846.
<41> Log Book, 43.
<42> A Son of the Middle Border, 77 (New York, 1917).
<43> See Larson's essay on "The Convention Riot at Benson Grove, Iowa, in
1876," in the Changing West, 89-48.
<44> Preus, in Symra, 7: 7-12; Larson, Log Book, 29.
<45> Ylvisaker, Eminent Pioneers, 31.
<46> Larson, Log Book, 131-134.
<47> Mrs. Jessen's letter, in Studies and Records, 5:22-26. Mrs. E. G.
Quamme in an essay on "The Norwegian Pioneer Mother" suggests three
outstanding traits that seem to find confirmation in the story of
Henrietta Jessen: devotion to family ties, faith in the future of
America, and firm religious convictions. Guttersen, "Norse-American
Women," 23-25.
<48> For a vivid portrait of a pioneer wife and mother, Mrs. Gjertrud
Hilleboe, whose "training, knowledge of the English language, American
ideas of housekeeping, and other accomplishments, made her a teacher and
leader among the women who came directly from their foreign homes," see
Guttersen, "Norse-American Women," 28-43,

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