NAHA Header


Marcus Thrane in America
Some Unpublished Letters from 1880-1884
Translated and Edited By Waldemar Westergaard (Volume IX: Page 67)

Marcus Møller Thrane (1817-1890), the founder of the organized labor movement in Norway, spent the last twenty-three years of his life in Chicago and the Upper Mississippi Valley. His American activities as editor, lecturer, and railroad land agent were chiefly among the Norwegian and Danish immigrant population. In 1917 Professor Halvdan Koht of Oslo published a biographical sketch of Thrane and a historical account of the movement that he headed. The materials for the study of Thrane's American career are scattered and have not received the attention that they deserve. Hence it seems appropriate to make available to students these intimate letters, five in number, that he wrote to his friend, Christen Westergaard, who had printed a large number of the issues of Dagslyset (The Light of Day), and was at the time of writing living on his homestead in Dakota Territory.

Thrane was a product of the revolutionary movement of 1848. His success in organizing working men's associations throughout Norway, to the point where upwards of twenty thousand members were enrolled by 1850, seriously alarmed the government. In July, 1851, he was placed under arrest, and, with some two hundred of his followers who suffered a similar fate, he was indicted for "crimes against the security of the state." The defendants were kept in custody during the four years that the trial dragged on, and Thrane remained in prison about four years more, part of the time in solitary confinement on bread and water. The theories on which Thrane based his program of social reform were derived in the main from the French Utopian, Etienne Cabet, from Louis Blanc, and particularly from the German Socialist, Wilhelm Weitling. His demands included the "right to work," the "right to property," and the "right to credit." The state was to seize all idle lands that were arable and sell them to the peasants, and provide working men's banks to make loans to workers buying land. He accepted Karl Marx's theory of the class struggle, and he looked for a long and bitter conflict between rich and poor.

In 1863 Thrane came to the United States. He lived in Chicago for several years, published Socialist magazines in Dano-Norwegian, and helped to organize sections of the First International. His initial publishing venture in this country was Den Norske Amerikaner (The Norwegian-American). In 1869, he started Dagslyset, which appeared with fair regularity until 1878. For several years, Dagslyset was printed by Christen Westergaard, assisted by his wife, and when the Westergaards moved to Becket, Sherburne County, Minnesota, they took the printing press with them and printed the last issues there. When they moved farther west in 1878, taking the press with them in their covered wagon, Thrane turned to his old friend, the Dane, Louis Pio, and with him started Den nye tid (The New Age). It is an interesting coincidence that Den nye tid thus became the joint enterprise of two exiles from the Scandinavian North, the one the founder of the labor movement in Norway, the other the founder of social democracy in Denmark. About 1880, or possibly a little before that date, Thrane became a land agent for the Great Northern Railroad, with a pass enabling him to travel on all its lines. The letters here printed were mainly written during this period. But even while helping to direct immigrants to new lands, he lectured and wrote and agitated to promote the ideals that he had consistently held since he had fought the fight for labor in Norway in 1848 and after.

In the letter of February 16, 1882, Thrane refers to "a great and good cause" for which he needed money. He was not willing to indicate in writing what the "cause" was, but that he was perhaps thinking of a fresh newspaper enterprise, as Edvard Bull suggests, is highly improbable. Friends in Dakota in whom he confided at this time certainly understood that he wished "to turn things upside down in Norway," should he have the chance. He managed to return to Norway in 1883, but as Koht says, the Workers' Society in Christiania refused even to provide him a hall in which to speak; and this refusal brought no protest on his behalf. He was a stranger in his own country.

The first published account of the Thrane movement in Norway was O. A. Overland's Thraniterbevægelsen (Christiania, 1903). Halvdan Koht's "Die 48er Arbeiterbewegung in Norwegen" appeared in Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung, 2:237-274 (1912). Two biographies appeared on the hundredth anniversary of Thrane's birth, the monograph by Koht already mentioned, and a life by J. Friis. K. V. Hammer and W. Keilhau wrote the sketch of Thrane in Salomonsen's Konversations leksikon, 22:405-406 (Copenhagen, 1927), while Yngvar Nielsen furnished the brief account in Nordisk familiebok, vol. 28, col. 1192-1193 (Stockholm, 1919). The article in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, 14: 623, is from the hand of H. Koht. A sketch of the Thrane movement, with emphasis upon its implications for the backgrounds of emigration from Norway, appears in Theodore C. Blegen's Norwegian Migration to America, 324-329 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1931). A dozen years ago, the writer loaned the late Professor Edvard Bull of Oslo the Thrane manuscripts in his possession, consisting of the five letters here printed and some thirty-six pages of copy intended for Dagslyset. Bull published the last letter in full and brief extracts from some of the others, and nearly all of the copy, in Der 20. aarh. (The Twentieth Century) for August-November, 1924, inclusive, an Oslo labor party publication edited by Oscar Torp. A source of first importance for the study of Thrane's career in the United States is the file of Dagslyet preserved by C. Westergaard, which was deposited, after his death in 1919, with the State University Library at Grand Forks, North Dakota. Some numbers of Dagslyset and of its successor, Den nye tid, are to be found in the collections of the Minnesota and the Wisconsin historical societies.

All five of the letters herewith translated were written by Thrane to Christen Westergaard. The originals are in the possession of the present writer.


EAU CLAIRE, WIS., October 5, 1880.


1. After traversing the entire Red River Valley on the Minnesota side and spending three days in Winnepeg {1} (Manitoba, Canada), I journeyed southward, remaining two days in Crookston, and half a day in Ada, and four days in Caledonia visiting Hanson and Jahr; and then I was in Becket three days, where they all asked me to send greetings to the Westergaard family. I was especially to bring greetings from Nicolay Andersen and his wife and children. Then I went on to St. Paul, where I stayed one hour, then to Menomonee (Wis.) six hours, and thence to Eau Claire to visit my son, the well beloved, in whom I am well pleased. I have been here in Eau Claire three days and go tomorrow to Menomonee to give a lecture, then to Minneapolis, where I shall remain one or two days, and then perhaps one day in La Crosse, and then to Kenosha one day, and then to Chicago, where I shall remain eight days, and then to --- Europe!!!!

2. I have sent money to a firm with orders to send one dozen handkerchiefs (18 x 18) to Christine (Jippa mi).

3. You are doing the right thing in selling out in order to pay all your debts and take new land. Good luck with the bargain!!!

4. Now I must ask you about something. Are you willing, if paid for the trouble, to take up a timber claim for my son and for one or two sons-in-law, plant the trees and look after them??? In such case, then please let me know expense incurred, time used, etc. Of course, you should not undertake this unless you are going to file on a timber claim yourself. Let me know about this as soon as possible, as I have only a couple of weeks remaining before I leave the country. I expect to leave for Europe on October 20. You are quite surprised, I see; indeed, I am just as much surprised myself, and I shall not quite believe it's so until I am actually on board the steamer.

5. Well, that is all. Greet everyone from your friend

Address: 276 North Ave., Chicago, Ill.


EAU CLAIRE, WIS., February 16, 1882.
P. O. Box 1041.


1. I have often answered your letter of May 1, 1881, in my thoughts, but now I shall answer it in reality!

2. I have been twice in your vicinity, namely in Fargo, but since it would cost "cash money" to make a trip to New Buffalo, I have not made it, as "cash money" is "scarce" with me, as you know.

3. I understand that you are making good progress, if not in wisdom and virtue, then in trees, "cutlings," strawberries, wheat, mules, oxen, cows, buildings, etc., etc.; but mayhap you are also progressing in wisdom and virtue, and this would please me to hear.

4. So Christine is now married! That is indeed good news: may the Lord bless them and their offspring!

5. So you have got a nice writing desk that is useful in acquiring wisdom! Yes, indeed, that's not so bad! But will it also give you virtue?

6. So the Lord has blessed you and your Paulun [Fr. pavillon], so that you now have large kine and small kine. But how about silver? Have you many shekels to spare? If so, I want to ask you (if called upon) whether you are willing to risk $50 or $100 on a great and good cause (without my telling you what the cause is, but simply taking my word for it). If this sum will ever be called for depends on whether "plenty money" can be raised for the cause, since nothing can be done with less than $1,000. A confidential answer is requested.

7. I thank you for your invitation. But money for travel is no easy matter. Besides, I have so very many invitations that I don't know which to accept: three or four invitations in Minnesota, two or three in Wisconsin, one in Colorado, one in Illinois, etc., etc.

8. The violin? Oh, pshaw! You are rich enough now to buy a new violin in place of the sorry violin that you have now. You can buy a better violin in Chicago for two or three dollars than in New Buffalo or Fargo for ten or twelve dollars.

9. Let this be enough for this time. Greet your wife and the whole family, and if you meet Solberg, then give him my greetings and tell him that I expect to hear from him.

With friendly greetings,

1. I saw Humel in Chicago. Sends regards.
2. All Wisconsin is free from snow; here it is half summer all the time. But they say Minnesota has snow.


MINNEAPOLIS, MINN., June 20, 1882.
(Address: care Mr. Gunneson, 108 Washington Ave., S.)


1. First I must thank you for the recent pleasant visit and report that from New Buffalo I went to Fargo, where I remained two days and had a couple of meetings with Humel. From Fargo to Fergus Falls, one day; thence to Minneapolis. Then I went to Red Wing to see my old friend, Dr. Sundberg, remaining eight days; then to St. Paul, one day; then to Minneapolis, and here I have been one week, and will probably stay another week. I now have a son-in-law here, the architect C. Struck, who now has an office in the city, but the family lives five miles from town, by lovely Lake Calhoun.

2. The reason that I am writing to you now is that I am seeking some wise counsel regarding the plan we discussed, of taking a trip to the Mouse River. I am strongly in favor of it; and not I alone, but my son-in-law, Struck, also is possessed of a devilish desire to take part in such a journey. If anything comes of it, may he join us? He is a hunter, a fisherman, and everything. Therefore, "please" let me know by return mail if the Mouse River trip is coming off, and when.

3. I hope that Grandma has recovered and that you are all well, and that all the goslings are alive, and the strawberries all in bloom.

4. This letter may be answered very briefly, as we shall presumably see each other very soon. Write soon, flux,

5. Give my greetings to your wife and children, Grandma, brother Jacob, Christine, Ruth and Haba . . . (!!!) from your friend


P.S. In The New Time [Den Nye Tid], no. 25, you, your wife, Christian, and Grandma are mentioned. Your wife will be so vexed at me that she will be ready to scratch my eyes out the next time she sees me. Likewise Christian.


FISHERS LANDING, MINN., July 14, 1882.


1. In Minneapolis, on the day before I left town, I got your letter telling me that it would be impossible to make the Mouse River trip this year. Well, the Lord's will be done!

2. On June 30, I left Minneapolis, and I spent a couple of days in Moorhead, a couple of days in Hillsboro, a couple of days in Crookston, some days in Stephen with Sustad, where, together with a companion, I caught ninety-one nice pike.

3. Today I go to Grafton, tomorrow to Hillsboro, Monday to Caledonia, where I shall remain several days, then back to Hillsboro to get the "stage" to Mayville, where I shall remain a week, and from there I go down, that is, southward. When I reach Fargo, my heart's desire is to pay a visit to New Buffalo, but since I do not have a free ticket on the Northern Pacific, the trip from Fargo to Buffalo and return would cost me some $4.00, which I cannot afford at present. But should I get a free ticket on the Northern Pacific, I shall be able to see you once more, before I, like Moses, lay my bones to rest; and if I come, I hope to be able to pull many fine fish [stater] out of the creek.

4. And possibly I shall stay for a while at Christine's and look out for her during Jacob's absence, so she won't run around loose [saa hun inte flyer gærn some e' and' Fløifille].

5. How is Ruth getting on, and the eighth of the small prophets?

6. When you get this letter, it is my exceeding great desire that you write me at this address: Hillsboro, D. T., care E. Jahr. How is Grandma getting on?

7. Greetings to Grandma and Christian and Tulla and all of you from

Your friend


276 NORTH AVE., CHICAGO, ILL,., Jan. 30, 1884.


1. Your amusing, witty letter reached me the day before yesterday, and I must not fail to answer it at once.

2. God's death! What numbers of cattle you now have, and think of your having a thousand bushels of wheat, if you please! You are indeed a rich man, or rather, you ought to be, but you tell me that you are now deeper in debt than before. If this is really true, if you manage so badly and make such a financial hodge-podge of it [slige financielle Sammensurier], then may the Lord punish you with complete bankruptcy, and force you to leave farm and buildings and cattle and implements and everything, so that you would have to start anew once more. You should be ashamed of yourselves! Well, the Lord is patient for a time, but the rod of his anger will descend at last.

3. So Humel is married? Indeed! That pleases me --- no, him, at least for a time. You say that he lives in Deadwood. Where is Deadwood? In which state and which county?

4. I am glad to hear the Solbergs are "all right." I shall write them today.

5. So you have four wild geese? You don't say! Tell me, how do they behave themselves? Don't they want to fly away, especially when they hear other wild geese honking?

6. Books: Yes, I suppose it is now time to think of spiritual food, now that you have for five years been concerned with material things. You have bought a lot of books at a small price, but the question is, what you gave for them; for to have a lot of unusable books, even at very small cost, makes them still expensive books. As I said, it depends on how much you gave for the books. But on the whole, it does not pay to buy books in that way. And to buy new books does not do either, as they become too expensive --- or one might rather say, new books may also be bought cheaply (very cheaply), when one knows which edition to ask for. For work that in one edition costs two dollars, you may get in another edition for fifty cents. On the whole, you will get no satisfaction out of buying books at random; that is only to throw your money away without any return, to say nothing of valuable time lost in reading books that are of no account. You read English well, don't you? In any case, you must learn it; so much good stuff is to be found in English books, but most of what appears in any literature is not worth reading. I shall compile a small list of good books for you. Here in Chicago are two or three stores that sell old books. There are a number of good books that may be secured cheaply, but most books I would not have even as a gift. When I pass them, I shall drop in and look about and make note of some good books with the prices.

7. Should you have plenty of time now for reading, then write to Ole Jahr and ask him to send you by express Madame Blavatzky's book, two stout volumes. He borrowed them from me more than a year ago; now you may borrow them. That book will interest you frightfully, terribly, shockingly, "awfull, fear-full" much. But you need several months to read it, it is altogether interesting, every page of it. I do not recall the name of the town where Ole Jahr lives, but it is not far from you. You may send the letter enclosed in a letter addressed to Erik Jahr, Hillsboro, Dacota Terr., and ask him to send the letter to his brother Ole.

8. I am living a very quiet and lonely life, see scarcely anyone, as I am tired of the whole world, after having to leave Europe with nix komt heraus. I am in desperate need of money and if you could loan me ten dollars, it would be devilish welcome; but the loan would have to be for an undetermined time. Give my greetings to wife and children and Grandma and the whole family, from

Yours truly,

<1> Thrane's spellings of Winnipeg, Menominee, and Dakota have been followed in these translations.

<<  Previous Page   |  Next Page   >>

To the Home Page