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Interpreting the Promise of America

Book CoverIn Their Own Words: Letters from Norwegian Immigrants
Zempel, Solveig

ISBN 0-8166-1859-3
225 pp. Copyright © 1991, Regents of the University of Minnesota
Published in cooperation with The Norwegian-American Historical Association.

Hans Øverland was born in Nedstrand, near Stavanger, in 1864. He emigrated to Minneapolis as a young man in 1887. After working briefly in Minnesota, he went to Montana, where he worked on the railroad and held a variety of unskilled jobs. He was not very happy and longed to go home. Help from his father finally allowed him to make the journey home in 1893, after six years in America.

Norwegian migration to America began in 1825, when a small group of religious dissenters left Stavanger on the sloop Restauration. Immigration from Norway was sporadic until 1836, when it became continuous. During the founding, or pioneer, period (1825-66), immigration was primarily undertaken in family groups, and the numbers in any given year were not large. Even so, by the end of the 1860s, more than seventy-seven thousand Norwegians had settled in the United States, moving from the first colony in New York to the Fox River Valley area of Illinois, then spreading gradually into rural settlements in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. These first immigrants, in spite of the rigors of pioneer life and their relatively small numbers, established cultural institutions and created a Norwegian-American society ever eager to welcome new members and fresh blood from Norway.

America acted as a powerful magnet in the period following the Civil War. Emigration offered opportunities never before imagined. The discontented, the financially hard-pressed, and the adventuresome found a new outlet for their frustration or creative energy. The six decades from the mid-1860s to the mid-1920s witnessed mass immigration, when over 770,000 people left Norway to start a new life in a new land. The family groups that had predominated during the pioneer period were largely succeeded in the period of mass immigration by younger, often unmarried men and women. The traffic was not entirely one-way, however, and it is estimated that of all the emigrants who left Norway after 1880, about one quarter returned home again. The flow of immigrants into the United States finally slowed to a trickle in the late 1920s, ending a century of direct linguistic and cultural contact between Norwegian Americans and the homeland.

"Zempel's book covers a wide range of experiences...Writing to family friends, nine immigrants, including a teacher, a railroad worker, an unmarried mother, and a politician, recounted their experiences of immigration and community building during a period of mass migration..."

- The Annals of Iowa

"Zempel's book covers a wide range of experiences from 1870 to 1945. Writing to family friends, nine immigrants, including a teacher, a railroad worker, an unmarried mother, and a politician, recounted their experiences of immigration and community building during a period of mass migration to this country. They wrote from various regions, both cities and farms, about their successes in America, providing invaluable documentation of everyday life."
The Annals of Iowa

During the period of mass immigration, Norwegians settled not only in the traditional, strongly Scandinavian areas of the Midwest, but also spread to the Pacific Northwest, to Texas, Montana, California, and Alaska. They lived not only in rural areas, but also formed urban colonies in the cities of New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle. They became not only farmers, but also lumberjacks, laborers, gold miners, professionals, politicians, businessmen, and bums.

Various emotional and personal reasons for emigrating affected individual decisions. However, during the period of mass immigration, the desire to attain better economic conditions was clearly the primary motivating force. Historians of migration sometimes refer to "push" and "pull" factors. The first large-scale migration from Scandinavia came during the years of sporadic famine at the end of the 1860s, which closely followed the Homestead Act of 1862 on this side of the Atlantic. Thus the landless of Norway were able to obtain free land in America—a powerful "pull" factor. Demographic, social, and economic changes in Norway, which led to an increase in the landless class and a surplus of labor, were "push" forces, though changes in American economic conditions generally led to fluctuations in immigration curves, indicating that "pull" factors were a stronger influence that "push" factors. Once emigration from Norway had begun, earlier emigrants, through letters and return journeys, exerted another powerful pull, as did advertising by states, steamship lines, and railroads. Einar Haugen has described the situation of nineteenth-century Norwegian immigrants more poetically, saying that they "were like Adam and Eve after they had tasted the apple of knowledge: they suddenly discovered that they were hungry. The apple they ate was the news of America. … They emigrated because they had learned to be dissatisfied, and because a changing world had provided them with a hope of escape from their dissatisfaction.

"This is an eminently readable, entertaining, and excellent book. Zempel uses the letters of nine Norwegian immigrants not only to depict their singular experiences of living, working, marrying, and raising a family but also to convey their sadness, loneliness, joy, and hope."


- Journal of the West

The "America letters," as they were called, were important in their time, not only because they conveyed what their recipients naturally considered to be reliable information and thereby encouraged further immigration, but also because they kept open the channels of communication between the two worlds. This was, of course, a two-way exchange, with letters flowing in both directions, keeping the immigrants in touch with what was happening in Norway as well as informing Norwegians of what was happening in America.

Letters had great personal significance to the immigrants who wrote them, as well as to the recipients who stayed behind, and helped them make the separation less painful. In writing, those who had left were able to share their new experiences, as well as entice others to join them, and to maintain ties with family and friends. One can often detect in the letters a compulsion to defend the decision to emigrate. For a few immigrants, writing letters home was their only, and consequently cherished, opportunity to communicate their thoughts and feelings in their native language.

In his capacity as editor of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, Lovoll edited and supervised the production of thirty-three books. Lovoll's activity as an author and editor has not, however, been confined to the work of the association. His many books and articles, listed in the bibliography included in the pressed volume, are further evidence of interest and competence in a broad array of fields.

Odd Lovoll's work as a scholar has attained wide notice. He was decorated with the Knight's Cross First Class of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit in 1986 by King Olav V and in 1989 he was inducted into membership in the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Among the many honors that have come to him in the United States are awards from the state historical societies of both Illinois and Wisconsin.


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