Driven to emigrate by overpopulation, unfulfilled nationalism, and a fractured economy, hundreds of thousands of Norwegians came to Minnesota between 1851 and 1920, making the Twin Cities the unofficial capital of Norwegian America. Internal religious and social conflicts shaped the group’s experience in its new home as much as Minnesota’s climate and geography.
The first Norwegians in North America arrived in Newfoundland with Leif Erikson around 1000 AD. Their settlements, however, were short-lived; Icelandic sagas and Inuit accounts share similar stories of conflict between Erikson’s colonists and proto-Inuit natives.
Norwegians may have older connections to North America than any other non- Scandinavian country in Europe, but they did not begin emigrating in earnest until the second half of the nineteenth century, due to tensions brought on by economic shifts, a growing population, and individual drives for status and autonomy.
Improved farming techniques led to food surpluses that doubled the country’s population between 1750 and 1850. This growth was unsustainable; Norway’s fickle growing conditions, short summers, and recently depleted fish stocks threatened to cause widespread famine.
Ironically, increasing numbers of young people saw emigration as necessary to maintain their society’s way of life. The Tocquevillian ideal of politically involved yeoman farmers appealed greatly to Norwegians. In the 1840s and 1850s, accounts of the American Midwest from settler-colonists like Ole Rynning convinced tens of thousands that immigrating to America would help solve their problems.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, new technology made the journey to America more appealing to prospective European immigrants while simultaneously wreaking havoc on Norway’s economy. Steamships put tens of thousands of shipbuilders, dockworkers, and sailors out of work, and Norwegian farmers could not compete with the cheaper grain that was now easily shipped from continental Europe. At the same time, steamships made travel to America less burdensome; voyages abroad “iron-sailed” passenger liners from ship towns like Liverpool to New York and Quebec were cheaper and faster than voyages by sail. Faster travel times also meant that information from family members and community leaders in America reached more curious Norwegians.
Prior to the establishment of Minnesota Territory in 1849, several hundred Norwegians lived around present-day southern Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa. After landing in New York, many took steamers through the Great Lakes to the swampy village of Chicago. By 1860, many of those who had stayed to see the city explode from a few dozen shacks in 1840 to a population of more than 100,000 were dismayed at the difficulty of maintaining their native culture and religion. Among a sea of different ethnic groups, they feared their children would lose their Norwegian identity. Some wrote negative letters home to tell the next wave of immigrants that their way of life was best pursued on farms further west.
The first Norwegians to arrive in Minnesota Territory settled in the southeast, near the Mississippi River, in 1851, after the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. Like their compatriots in Wisconsin and Iowa, they wrote letters home to Norway extolling the suitability of the land and climate, easing the fears of relatives and community members that they would be alone abroad. These so-called “America Letters” had been circulating in Norway and Sweden since the 1840s. So great was local excitement and “America fever” that letters were read and copied hundreds of times. Ole Rynning’s True Account of America was the most popular of these documents. The short tract answered common questions (e.g., how much did land cost? What skills were in demand?) and dispelled rumors spread by a lack of information. Poisonous snakes were uncommon, Rynning assured his readers, and emigrants faced no risk of being sold into slavery.
In order to save up for tickets, fathers and sons often made the journey before the rest of their family members, staking claims or working in high-demand professions such as carpentry, tailoring, and blacksmithing. Unlike other immigrant populations, however, the first wave of Norwegians had an almost even gender split, indicating that whole families came over with the intention of staying.
For Norwegians willing to endure continual hardships, Minnesota was a place of immense opportunity. The first generation of immigrants largely stayed in the southeastern corner of the state, where farmland was available in large tracts until the mid-1860s. Norwegian settler-colonists were apprehensive about straying from this region, which had ample clean water and lumber, ready access to established towns like Decorah and Rock Prairie, and, by the late 1850s, dozens of small Norwegian communities. Fears of extreme social isolation, Indigenous people like the Dakota, and crop failure kept most Norwegians off the open prairie until access to cheap farmland near Norwegian population centers dried up.
The first Norwegians in the grassy plains of southern and central Minnesota lived in abodes that suited their budgets and available materials; some built cabins out of sod, others simply dug out hills. They followed Red River ox cart trails for hundreds of miles looking for choice land. When they chose sites, getting crops in the ground took priority over living conditions. Entire families often lived in a “soddy” not much larger than ten by twelve feet square with poor ventilation; mental illness and communicable disease outbreaks were common. Rynning appealed to the frugality of his readers in addressing this issue: “Many of the newcomers have been shocked by the wretched huts which are the first dwellings of the settlers… Before the land has been put into such shape that it can support a man, it is hardly wise to put money into costly living-houses.”
Good returns on spring wheat crops allowed this first generation of immigrants to pay for tickets for friends and relatives; by 1857 there were almost 7,000 Norwegians living in Minnesota. This number would seem like a drop in the bucket in less than two decades.
Enclaves and animosity
In 1858, after the first Norwegian immigrants had established themselves in Minnesota, the territory became a state. A second wave of newcomers—tens of thousands— began to arrive in the 1860s, eager to recreate the villages they had left behind almost four thousand miles away.
Like their predecessors—many of them their parents—in the first generation of immigrants, those who came after statehood were young; most were from rural areas outside Bergen and Oslo. The gender ratio remained at nearly fifty-fifty, and letters indicate that young, single women of this wave were interested in procuring land grants. With millions of acres of recently seized land still available, farming remained the most common profession among Norwegians for decades.
The Homestead Act of 1862 gave 160 acres of land to families in exchange for their promise to live on and cultivate the land for at least five years. Subsequent acts made it easier for Yankee and European settlercolonists alike to cheaply increase the size of their lots, especially if they had fought in the Civil War. To displaced Scandinavian farmers who had been renting plots of land that averaged only two acres back home, this was the chance of a lifetime. Railroad companies were granted wide swaths of land in exchange for building lines. They sent plat maps, advertisements, and agents to Norway promising cheap and accessible farmland for less than two dollars an acre.
Spurred by cheap land, larger Norwegian settlements started to spring up in southern Minnesota. Entire communities were often made up of immigrants from the same region, or even the same village, back in Norway. For example, 1,135 of the 1,200-odd residents of Spring Grove in Houston County were Norwegian by 1870; the majority was from the Hallingdal region, northwest of Oslo. Known as bygds, these ethnic enclaves preserved the social hierarchies and customs of the “old world;” Norwegian regional dialects were noticeable well into the twentieth century in small towns across the state.
Serving as places of worship, business, and social gathering, Lutheran churches became the main forces of cohesion—and contention— in these towns. A former resident of Spring Grove noted only half-jokingly in the 1970s that visitors could easily determine that they were in a Norwegian settlement if “they saw two churches close together, preferably on opposite sides of the road.” Frustration with the monolithic and hierarchical Church of Norway had been a contributing factor in the hard choice to leave for many Norwegians, and they wasted no time in establishing new branches of Lutheranism, known as synods. By 1865, there were five separate synods of Norwegian American Lutheranism, each with their own doctrine and class associations.
Old regional and religious rivalries from Norway manifested themselves in rural Minnesota as immigrants argued that their town, or their respective synod, was the most productive, pious, and industrious. Of the several colleges founded by Norwegians in the state, all were affiliated with seminaries. Before church mergers in later decades, they represented three different synods between them.
In spite of debates over “high” versus “low” churches, old regional rivalries and class antagonisms, Norwegian Americans of the second wave were united by shared experiences of language barriers, hardship, and frustration over being misidentified as Swedes by most Yankees.
Growth and new experiences
The immigration pattern set by the first wave of Norwegian Americans was repeated twice more before the turn of the century. After running out of farmland in southern Minnesota, Norwegian settler-colonists moved northwest, settling around towns like Alexandria, Fergus Falls, and Thief River Falls. By the mid-1870s, a final wave of rural immigration took Norwegians into the Red River Valley, where thousands more put down roots along both sides of the Minnesota– North Dakota border.
In 1870, there were about 50,000 Norwegians living in Minnesota. By 1880, there were more than 120,000, more than of them half foreign-born. This third wave of Norwegians differed from the first two in demographic, outlook, and goals. Norway’s economy had improved, and farmers had gained the political representation and religious freedom that had driven earlier generations to leave. The land scarcity and famines that had pushed entire families to leave rural Norway had subsided, and young men from Norway’s cities now came in droves to Minnesota seeking better-paying employment.
As railroad lines reduced the time needed to travel through the state, homestead properties were quickly snapped up. Those who still wanted to farm largely went on to North Dakota. From this point on, foreignborn Norwegians—both men and women— poured into Minnesota’s major cities, along with tens of thousands of first- and secondgeneration Norwegian Americans looking for work.
While farming remained the Norwegian ideal for decades, increasing numbers found other forms of work. Along Lake Superior, communities like Tofte practiced a combination of subsistence farming and seasonal fishing that would not have seemed out of place in Norway. In the coming decades, many would find well-paying work inland at iron mines and in logging camps.
Knowledge of carpentry, masonry, and even engineering enabled many Norwegian men to earn good wages in building up St. Paul, and then Minneapolis. Hundreds of Norwegian women found work as seamstresses and dressmakers in shops; some, like Lina Christianson, started successful businesses.
Domestic work in middle- and upperclass households employed thousands of young Norwegian women of this generation. The desirability of English-speaking “help” allowed their children to enjoy far greater opportunities than their parents thanks to bilingual exposure from a young age. The prejudices of the time also contributed to the success of Norwegians in this field; Scandinavian servants were seen as more prestigious than Irish servants.
Expansion and acceptance
Combined with a nationalistic excitement over the prospect of Norway’s independence from Sweden, increasing political, social, and economic clout made the period of 1880 to the start of the Great War an exciting time to be Norwegian in Minnesota. By 1905, there were more than 250,000 Norwegians in the state, and almost 45,000 of them lived in Minneapolis. Because their parents had arrived in Minnesota earlier than most, children of the first generation of Norwegian immigrants quickly climbed the social ladder though education and business opportunities presented by Minnesota’s exponential growth at the turn of the century.
Thanks to appreciation and development on farmland acquired through federal land grants, Norwegians owned about 650 million dollars’ worth of land in the country (more than 16 billion in 2018 dollars) by the late nineteenth century. A third of them lived in Minnesota. By combining forces with Swedes, they exerted a disproportionate role in early Minnesotan politics.
By the 1890s, Lutheran pietism and antialcohol policies kept Norwegians popular with Protestants and Republicans wary of Irish and German Catholic influence, while the group’s collective distrust of urban elites attracted Grangers and Populists. Norwegians would go on to play a key role in shaping the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, which dominated state politics through the Great Depression and elevated influential players like Floyd B. Olson. It merged with the Democratic party to form the Democratic Farmer-Labor party (DFL) in 1944.
Nativism and assimilation: The Melting Pot
While Norwegian-language newspapers and the low intermarriage rates of early Norwegian communities helped to preserve Old World traditions and language for the first two generations of immigrants, young Norwegians were increasingly exposed to different cultures and hierarchies as they moved to larger cities.
The growing tension between heritage and assimilation came to a head when America entered World War I. In the 1890s, nativist rhetoric from politicians like Massachusetts’ Henry Cabot Lodge had urged Americans to preserve the hegemony of Protestant Anglo-Saxons against millions of new immigrants. It reappeared in the 1910s, strengthened by fears of political radicals and German saboteurs.
Denounced as “hyphenated Americans,” immigrants who had already officially renounced their allegiance to their former homes when they became citizens were now under immense pressure to prove their loyalty and American-ness. In Minnesota, Governor Burnquist’s Commission of Public Safety sought to censor foreign-language newspapers which leaned socialist or sympathized with Germans. In 1917, the commission ordered schoolteachers to instruct students solely in English.
At a conference in Minnesota that same year, the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America, to which most Norwegian Minnesotans belonged after multiple synod mergers, decided to drop “Norwegian” from its name. The number of church services in Norwegian dropped precipitously, and families’ ongoing adoption of English as the primary language spoken at home accelerated in the 1920s. From 1915 to 1945, the number of Lutheran church services conducted in English in Minnesota increased from 22 percent to 93 percent.
Norwegian Americans welcomed the presence of Calvin Coolidge at the 1925 Norse- American Centennial in the Twin Cities as an omen that the United States would spare Norway the draconian immigration restrictions it had placed on most of Continental Europe. At the event, the president who had just signed away access to America for most of Europe in fear of potential Catholic, Jewish, and socialist fifth columns announced to thunderous applause that Leif Erikson, not Christopher Columbus, was the first to discover America.
The centennial celebrated the wholesale assimilation of Norwegians, highlighting their industry and a “Protestant work ethic” palatable to mainstream America rather than their folk traditions. Along with a full-size replica of Leif Erikson’s ship, the highlight of the event was a schoolchildren’s chorus in red, white, and blue garments arranging themselves into a human Norwegian flag. The children then turned their costumes inside out, morphing the display into the stars and stripes. Clearly, to belong in the American melting pot in the 1920s, one needed to relegate the less superficial aspects of one’s heritage to the back burner.
In spite of Coolidge’s affirmation that Norwegians had officially “arrived” as an accepted group, the immigration bills of the 1920s cut the number of Norwegians coming to America by more than half. This restriction was mild compared to those facing the majority of Europe, as well as the rest of the world. By this time, however, the “push” and “pull” factors that had driven large-scale emigration for decades had subsided.
Economic modernization, a strong farmerlabor political alliance, and a labor movement empowered by a depleted worker pool (only Ireland lost a greater portion of its population to America) helped raise wages and improve working conditions in Norway. For the first time in generations, young Norwegians could enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents. Factory work had lost its stigma, while Norway’s traditional shipping and fishing industries had found a niche in the wider European economy.
In 1942, the Sons of Norway, a Minneapolis based fraternal organization and insurance agency that catered to Norwegians, began printing its magazine in English rather than Norwegian. Without a constant stream of new immigrants from Norway, Norwegian became a language of grandparents and isolated farming communities. Nevertheless, a substantial number of Minnesotans continued to identify as Norwegian American in the twentieth century. More than threequarters of a million Minnesotans identified as Norwegian American on the 1990 census, a figure that rivals the total number of Norwegians who originally immigrated to the entire country.
The Norwegian legacy in the 21st century
Norwegians have had a strong impact on the identity and politics of Minnesota. A visitor with little knowledge of the state might name the Vikings football team, church basement ladies, and a vaguely Scandinavian brogue among the first things that come to mind when thinking of Minnesota. For better or worse, the Minnesotans of Fargo, A Prairie Home Companion, and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street share a heavy Norwegian influence.
The Norwegian tradition of a civically engaged and reform-minded agrarian class has radically shaped Minnesotan politics for more than a century; both vice presidents with Minnesota roots, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, were the children of Norwegian immigrants, as was Coya Knutson, the state’s first congresswoman. A statue of Leif Erikson has stood near the Capitol in St. Paul since 1949.
Meshbesher, Samuel, “Norwegian Immigration to Minnesota.” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. www.mnopedia.org/ norwegian-immigration-minnesota (accessed September 7, 2018).
Hundreds of thousands of Norwegians immigrated to Minnesota between 1860 and 1920 seeking jobs, farmland, religious freedom, and political representation after overpopulation and a stagnant economy reduced their quality of life in Norway.
Taking advantage of their new religious freedom, Norwegians across America attached themselves to branches of Protestantism with significant doctrinal variations; Lutheran church mergers in the 1900s were often contentious.
Most Norwegian Minnesotans were farmers, but many continued family trades such as carpentry and fishing for men, and dressmaking and tailoring for women. Young Norwegians enjoyed a comparatively high level of education thanks to church-affiliated colleges.
Due to cultural similarities with “Yankee” America and being one of the first immigrant groups to reach the state en masse, Norwegians have played a significant role in shaping Minnesota’s economy, politics, and culture.
1825: Cleng Peerson leads Haguean Lutherans aboard the ship “Restauration” to America, fleeing persecution by the Church of Norway. Peerson’s group will later establish a community in Illinois.
1837: Ole Rynning publishes True Account of America, describing the people of the United States and the farmland of Illinois and Wisconsin. His account is wildly popular and is often credited with starting Norwegian migration to the Upper Midwest.
1851: The first Norwegians in Minnesota cross over the Southwestern Wisconsin border to Fillmore County. At this time, Native Americans outnumber European-Americans in the area five-to-one, but the balance will shift dramatically in the coming decade.
1860: About 10,500 Norwegian immigrants and their children are living in Minnesota, mostly in counties bordering the Mississippi River.
1862: Congress authorizes the Homestead Act. Any adult who had “never borne arms” against the Union could receive 160 acres of surveyed land on the condition that he or she promised to reside there for five years, subtracting time for military service.
1863: As one of the few established groups in Minnesota, Norwegians are among the Homestead Act’s prime beneficiaries. They choose quarter sections (160-acre lots) for themselves and family members before newer immigrants and East Coasters can arrive to make claims.
1866: Widespread starvation caused by successive crop failures rocks rural Scandinavia for three years, prompting a mass immigration from Norway and the first major wave of immigrants from Sweden.
1872: Highlighting the chain-like nature of Norwegian immigration, 39 percent of immigrants leaving from Oslo have prepaid tickets; families and work await them in the Midwest.
1875: After running out of land in southeastern Minnesota, Norwegians begin moving west and north, settling in the formerly Dakota
held Minnesota River Valley and in a nearly solid band along Minnesota’s western border, eventually reaching the Red River Valley.
1893: Knute Nelson becomes the first Norwegian governor of Minnesota. While it was a landmark moment, public opinion of Nelson was mixed. Many Republicans, including Norwegians, saw him as a compromise candidate.
1905: Norway secures independence from Sweden. Syttende Mai, a holiday analogous to Independence Day, had been celebrated by nationalistic Norwegians on May 17th for decades. Many considered their communities in America part of “Greater Norway.”
1917: When the US enters World War I, the loyalty of “hyphenated-Americans” is called into question. Restrictions on foreign language use in schools, churches, and newspapers lower Norwegian fluency rates among the children of Norwegian immigrants.
1930: After gaining fame for taking on corrupt businessmen and the Klan as Hennepin County Attorney General and fighting right-to-work laws in the face of death threats, Floyd B. Olson is elected governor by a wide margin on the Farmer-Labor Party platform.
1955: “Coya” Knutson becomes Minnesota’s first congresswoman. Before a party-engineered scandal ended her career, Knutson passed the foundations of federal student aid programs, advocated new markets for farmers, and authored more than sixty bills.