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Svein Nilsson, Pioneer Norwegian-American Historian
By D. G. Ristad (Volume IX: Page 29)

For qualities of mind and character, for leadership in the furtherance of cultural progress among his countrymen both in Norway and in the United States, and particularly for his pioneering work in Norwegian-American settlement history, Svein Nilsson merits historical recognition. {1}

Nilsson served as the editor of Billed-magazin, the first illustrated monthly issued in the Norwegian language in America. This periodical was published by B. W. Suckow at Madison, Wisconsin, beginning in the autumn of 1868. For this magazine Nilsson wrote a series of articles that constitute an important landmark in the recording of the pioneer Norwegian settlements of the West and the coming of the early immigrants. These articles bear the general title "De skandinaviske setlementer i Amerika" (The Scandinavian Settlements in America). A commentary upon Nilsson's fitness for his task and his conception of the problem involved in it is given in his own "Introductory Statement" in the first issue of Billed-magazin: {2}

One of the most remarkable phenomena of this century is the emigration that has taken place from Europe to the New World discovered by Columbus. The inhabitants of Ireland together with the Germans have furnished the largest quota to the ranks of the emigrants. To these emigrant hosts, but fewer in number, the French, the Italians, the Swiss, and other national groups have joined themselves. Even the sparsely populated Scandinavian countries have participated actively in this emigration, and their number in America now must be close to three hundred thousand souls.

The significance of this movement upon the history of culture in America is strikingly evident to anyone who undertakes a journey over the northern half of this western continent for the purpose of gaining historical information. A comparison between the present time (1868) and a time less than a generation ago reveals the progress. The rapid change from wilderness to fertile fields, the steadily increasing prosperity of the settlers, the rapid development of industry and other sources of subsistence, and an almost unparalleled advance in all directions must of necessity strike the visiting stranger with surprise. From the east westward the stream of immigrants has flowed over the immensely great western plains. The barbaric son of the wilderness has fled before the advancing civilization. The natural resources so generously provided by Providence have become available; an industrious and virile people have become the possessors of the soil; immigration has brought a steady supply of energetic labor power; the use of machinery, to an extent unapproached in other countries, has raised industry and agriculture to a level impossible of realization without these aids; the free institutions and the free choice of occupation have aided in the development of the practical-mindedness of the people; immigrants arriving from the most enlightened and advanced countries of the Old World meet in rapidly growing cities and pioneer settlements, where ideas are exchanged, where everything is tested and the best is retained as a possession of the smart Americans. These are some of the outstanding results of immigration, and furnish the key to the nation's marvelous progress in economic well-being, in industry, education, and commerce.

The same causes that brought the blessings of civilization and an enterprising people to the North American continent have reflected blessings also upon the people in the countries of Europe most interested in emigration. The emigration has furnished a natural release to the overpopulated sections of these countries, relieved enforced idleness and the evils due to unemployment. The discontented elements in Europe found on the other side of the Atlantic a home that richly repaid the diligent toiler, while at the same time the political freedom held him secure against the encroachments of the ruling powers. Those who in the home countries had suffered persecution on account of their religious beliefs found in America a haven of safety entirely to their liking. From the countries where the people suffered most from oppression and poverty came the largest number of immigrants, more especially from sections of unhappy Ireland and from Germany. Again we have confirmation of the fact that where real misery exists, real help is also at hand, and it seems as if Providence interposes at the right moment to provide relief so as to make it possible for the underprivileged to escape rampant impoverishment and its attending moral degradation.

Having offered this Introductory Statement, we call the attention of the reader especially to the settlements in North America established by the Scandinavians. The probable causes of emigration, the sorrows and privations of the first years, the growth of the settlements, the gradual economic improvement, natural resources, and the prevailing social, religious, moral, and political conditions in these settlements will be discussed.

In carrying out this ambitious pioneering program of Norwegian-American historical research Nilsson secured his historical materials largely through personal interviews with immigrants. He embarked upon a series of visits to the different localities where Norwegian immigrants had set-tied, sought out those who had arrived in the earlier years, carefully recorded their stories, and later embodied them as first-hand narratives in his general series on the settlements. The emphasis upon first-hand materials, upon the pioneer immigrant's own story, coupled with a keen and searching interest in causes and motives, gave lasting value to Nilsson's articles; and that value was enhanced by the fact that he did his work in the sixties, when many of the first Norwegian pioneers in the West were still living. Ansten and Ole Nattestad, for example, who came to Illinois in 1837 and whose experiences are intimately bound up with the larger saga of the Norwegians in the West, were among those interviewed by Nilsson. He permits them to tell their own stories, one after the other, without limitation of space, and the result is a vivid, first-hand record that has been of primary importance to every historian who has delved in this field since Nilsson's day. He was interested not only in the historical backgrounds but also in the new environment of his countrymen and in the possibilities latent within the new situation. A realist in the matter of dealing with facts, he was an idealist and a dreamer in his ultimate view of life and its prospects on American soil.

Svein Nilsson came from a long line of freeholders on the farm Katmo in the settlement of Øysletta, a part of the parish of Overhalla in Namdalen, Norway. He was born on September 14, 1826. His grandfather, Ole Johnson, was born in 1752; his father, Nils Olsen, and mother, Siri Fosland, were married in 1811 and had five children. The one of these children that forms the subject of this paper signed his name "Sven Nielsen" during the early years of his life; in his American period he adopted the form "Svein Nilsson. {3}

The educational facilities in northern rural Norway a hundred years ago were limited largely to the training in reading and writing that was given at home, supplemented by such guidance as was furnished by itinerant schoolmasters who had had no normal school preparation, but possessed natural ability beyond the average. Such teachers mastered the catechism, the art of writing, and the rudiments of arithmetic. There were no schoolhouses, no organized school districts, and no educational supervision beyond that reposing in the parish pastor, who prepared the youth for confirmation. Only in well-to-do homes were there books outside of a Bible, some standard Lutheran collections of sermons, Luther's Small Cathechism, and the church hymns. The value of this literature should not be underestimated, however, in measuring its influence upon spiritual and moral culture. In addition to this, all the better homes cultivated the by no means unimportant habit of perpetuating by oral repetition the traditions of family, province, and nation, and a goodly measure of legend and poetic lore that fed the mind and stimulated the imagination and the craving for knowledge. This was the intellectual, spiritual, and moral atmosphere in which Svein Nilsson found himself during his childhood and early youth.

The impulses of a new intellectual awakening in Norway ushered in at the beginning of the nineteenth century had also reached the people on the farms in Overhalla. The leaven of the Hans Nielsen Hauge movement with its influence of religious fervor, paired with practical material endeavors, was doing its work to stimulate new ambition among the people. The new political and economic doctrines preached by the gifted radical Hans Barlien, {4} himself one of their own kind, was, if not entirely convincing in its method, yet suggestive of an approaching new social order. Added to this was the adventurous spirit manifested in the emigration to America, a movement dramatically represented in Ole Rynning and realistically enforced by his True Account of America (1838). Out of the combination of these circumstances flowed influences that quickened the imagination and created aspirations toward a fuller and richer life. The mentally alert Katmo household responded to the impact of the new spirit, and when the first normal school in the diocese was founded at Klebu, a secluded parish east of Trondheim, it was decided that the gifted son, Svein, should be entered at this school.

One of the first graduates from this normal school, and the very first with a formal normal training to return to his own parish, Svein Nilsson was welcomed by the people of the valley as a bearer of the torch of enlightenment and a leader in education. For Overhalla he became the real founder of the new common school system, a leader in the establishment of parish libraries, in the appointment of a veterinary for the section, in securing increased appropriations for the common school, in promoting better methods of tilling the soil, and in the advancement of home industry and arts. He attempted to bring about improvement in the facilities of transportation on the Namsen River and the regulation and protection of the fisheries. He made a strong plea for the annual public celebration of the Seventeenth of May, the natal day of the national constitution of 1814. {5} But it was by his work as a teacher that Nilsson left the deepest imprint upon the people of his native valley. His enthusiasm was contagious, his broadening of the course of study opened new vistas of interest in the field of knowledge, not only among the children, but among the parents as well, who often gathered in the schoolroom, crowding it to suffocation, sitting for hours in rapt attention to the instruction of the energetic teacher. And it was the love of his calling that furnished the motive for his work--not the size of the salary; while in Overhalla he never received above forty dollars a year, and with his pupils he had to adjust himself to the varying accommodations afforded in private homes, moving the "school" around from neighborhood to neighborhood in order to give each vicinity the opportunity of having it in its midst. {6}

In September, 1849, Svein Nilsson accepted a position as teacher of the school in the village of Namsos. {7} Besides private subscriptions, the school received a small appropriation from a local bank. When Namsos in 1855 became an incorporated community, new and improved conditions for the public school followed, as required under the national law governing public education. Nilsson was offered the continuation of his position as teacher with the promise of a free house and $150 yearly salary. To the surprise of everybody he did not accept. He now had larger plans, and the following year during the month of August he left for Kristiania to enter the university. He was matriculated as a student of natural sciences and mathematics. {8} Of his work in the school at Namsos one of the leading citizens and a public official says: "Since our capable teacher, S. Nielsen, left us in August of last year, no school has been in session. The pre-eminently able teacher (seminarist) has merited much of our city, especially as an educator, but also by his private as well as his valuable public services." {9} On account of the lack of capable teachers for the public school, Svein Nilsson conducted a private normal course preparing young men for teaching the elementary branches. These students were named "Katmo-seminarists." {10}

From 1856 to 1867 Nilsson studied and worked in Oslo. He earned his living by coaching students in the university and by newspaper work. He became connected with Morgenbladet, the leading conservative daily of the period, the editor of which, Chr. Friele, discovered in Nilsson an almost uncanny ability to ferret out important news concerning the back-stage movements in politics. There was considerable speculation by the politicians involved in these movements as to how Morgenbladet obtained its information; no one suspected that the apparently harmless Nilsson was the source of the scoops. {11}

The momentous events of the Civil War caused eager attention in the European countries to be given to American affairs and created an increasing interest in the reunited states of the western world. This interest was in part due to the fact that so large a number of the soldiers, especially in the northern army, had come from homes in the old country where relatives, friends, and neighbors followed the war news and the "letters from the front" with anxious concern. That Svein Nilsson, alert, sympathetic, wide-awake, well-informed, should be interested in America, and especially in his own countrymen there, was natural. The spirit of adventure had always been upon him; he was energetic and eager to learn; perhaps he was drawn by the better economic opportunities of the New World; at all events, in 1867 he decided to emigrate. He went to the West and made Madison, Wisconsin, his first home. There he entered the service of Emigranten, a Norwegian weekly newspaper. Later he became the editor of Billed-magazin. Nilsson also taught classes at the Augustana Synod institution, then located at Marshall, Wisconsin; and it is for this reason that he is usually spoken of as "Professor" Svein Nilsson. It was during these years (1868-70) that he wrote the series of articles, already mentioned, "The Scandinavian Settlements in America." {12} The permanent value of the magazine, according to a historian of the Norwegian-American press, consists in Svein Nilsson's "series of articles dealing with Norwegian immigration and the first settlements in New York, Illinois, and Wisconsin." With "no small sacrifice of time and labor," Nilsson visited these settlements, "collecting his materials on long and difficult pedestrian journeys." {13}

In 1870 Nilsson entered the service of the John Anderson Publishing Company as associate editor of Skandinaven. Two years later he became editor in chief, and he continued to occupy that position until 1886. His editorial work was marked by strong individuality as well as by loyalty to the policies of the paper. "Nilsson was personally unostentatious, modest and friendly, easy to get along with. In his editorial capacity he was not always so guileless and manageable, as he showed in some of the controversial leaders he penned. According to his native gifts he fitted most excellently into the program of Skandinaven; this he also endeavored to do most conscientiously." {14}

Shortly after severing his connection with Skandinaven he assumed the editorial leadership of Nordvesten, published at St. Paul, Minnesota. After a year and a half he returned to Chicago. {15} By this time he had become deeply interested in the modern trends of social and economic reform. The writer met him in his home in Chicago in 1896 and found him to hold very liberal, if not radical, opinions concerning labor and capital and the almost unbounded range of problems connected with the relation of the two. He had then been editor since 1894 of Fremskridt, a five-column eight-page labor organ, an excellently printed and well-edited publication. It had a rather brief independent existence, however, the publishers finding it to their advantage to venture a merger with another paper. {16}

Nilsson's last years in Chicago were saddened by the infirmities and disappointments of old age. While not embittered by his lot, he felt the humiliation of being forgotten. He died, if not in actual want, distressed and lonely. At the time of his death in 1908, very little was said about his career, his personality, or his devotion to the cause of his countrymen in America. The present tribute to his memory is offered in grateful, if tardy, acknowledgment of his epoch-making contribution to public education in his native valley in Norway, and of his unselfish services to the early history and culture of the pioneering Norwegians in the United States.

<1> See an article "Svein Nilsson" by the present writer in Trøndelagets aarbok, 1931, p. 63-70, and also in the same series, 1926, p. 21-38, an article entitled "Utvandring til Amerika fra Overhalla, Namdalen."

<2> Billed-magazin, 1:6 (October 3, 1868). Files of this rare magazine are owned by the Minnesota Historical Society and the Luther College Library. The series on the Scandinavian settlements ran in the issues from October 3, 1868, to September 17, 1870. They are to be found in volume 1:6-8, 10-13, 17-20, 30-31, 34-36, 44-46, 62-63, 69-73, 74, 82-84, 93-95, 102-104, 107-108, 154-55, 171-173, 182-183, 186-188, 202-204, 226-227, 234-235, 386-390, 398-399, 412-414; and volume 2:15-16, 23-24, 36-38, 41-44, 50-52, 114, 122-123, 130-132, 150, 154-155, 162-164, 202-204, 210-211, 218-219. 236-238, 242, 276-277, 282-283, 293-294, 300-301. In volume 2, p. 58-60, 66-67, 75-76 (February 19 and 26 and March 5, 1870), Nilsson published a very interesting "Beretning om de norske setlementer i Texas" (Account of the Norwegian Settlements in Texas) by Mrs. Elise Amalle Wærenskjold, one of the most noted of the Norwegian pioneers in Texas. See Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825-1860, 184 f. (Northfield, 1931).

<3> See documents in Trøndelagets aarbok, 1931, p. 64-65.

<4> D. G. Ristad, "A Doctrinaire Idealist: Hans Barlien," in Norwegian-American Historical Association, Studies and Records, 5:13-22 (Northfield, 1928).

<5> Some of the early letters of Nilsson are in the possession of Olay Flotten, local historian in Overhalla, who permitted me to publish a number of them, which throw light upon the points here discussed, in Trøndelagets aarbok, 1931, p.

<6> Based upon the recollections of pupils of Nilsson- the writer's mother, Fru Johanna Bergitte Ristad, and Kristen Tetlie of Overhalla, whom the writer visited in 1930.

<7> O. S. Aavatsmark, Namsos, 272 (Oslo, 1914).

<8> Johs. B. Wist, ed., Norsk-Amerikanernes festskrift 1914, 51 (Decorah, Iowa, 1914).

<9> Aavatsmark, Namsos, 273.

<10> Aavatsmark, Namsos, 273; and a personal letter from the author in 1931.

<11> Norsk-Amerikanernes festskrift, 51.

<12> Norsk-Amerikanernes festskrift, 51.

<13> Norsk-Amerikanernes festskrift, 182-183.

<14> Norsk-Amerikanernes festskrift 51.

<15> Norsk-Amerikanernes festskrift, 51.

<16> Norsk-Amerikanernes festskrift, 172.

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