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Norwegian Emigration to America During the Nineteenth Century {1}
By Ingrid Gaustad Semmingsen (Volume XI: Page 66)

Much has been written about Norwegian emigration to America, but most of this has been written in America by Norwegian Americans. Relatively accurate and complete statistics have been gathered in Norway, and articles have been written on certain periods of emigration. Halvdan Koht, for instance, has an article on Norwegian emigration in the Danish periodical, Det nye aarhundrede, which was published in Copenhagen during the first decade of the twentieth century. There is also a survey of emigrant history in the report of a governmental committee appointed in 1911. This report touches a number of other matters relative to emigration, but has neither the extent nor the quality of the corresponding survey by a Swedish committee.

The works written in America vary greatly in quality. Many are purely biographical, and it is evident that the authors are interested primarily in family history. Others contain statistics registering the number of Norwegians employed in various fields, the number of Norwegian congregations and churches, or the number who have made their influence felt in American politics and have been elected to fill important offices, and so forth. Many of these works have their value because they contain important material, but it must be said that most of these writers are lacking in breadth and perspective.

The work of the Norwegian-American Historical Association since its founding in 1925 is of quite another type. The work has been directed by experienced scholars, a fact which has left its mark on the yearbook, Studies and Records, and the other books which the association has published. The most complete and extensive work is Professor Theodore C. Blegen's book, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825-1860. This book is an extremely solid and thorough piece of work, written by a well-informed man who has a rich knowledge of his subject, an eminent control over his materials, a good method, and the ability to evaluate wisely and accurately. His book is one that cannot be overlooked in the study of Norwegian emigration to America.

Professor Blegen is the only person who has made extensive studies of the Norwegian background of emigration. To be sure, others have enumerated reasons and factors which might have caused people to emigrate. They have assumed economic, social, religious, and political dissatisfactions, together with the traditional desire for adventure; but these have been left as individual factors, completely isolated and with no connecting links. Professor Blegen, on the other hand, treats emigration, religious dissatisfaction, and agrarian polities as links in one great movement. In the chapter where he expounds the reasons for emigration, Professor Blegen says (p. 160):

The period [1880-60] was one of self-assertion by the bønder, and it would be unsafe to mark off too sharply the boundaries of this spirit. It took one form in Haugeanism; another in the battle of the bønder with officialdom and the struggle for political and economic reform; and yet another in emigration. The rise of emigration, drawn from the class that furnished the power behind the other movements, cannot be divorced from the history of a time when the bønder were speaking out and taking action on the broad national stage of Norwegian affairs.

I think the point of view that Professor Blegen has presented here is a very fruitful one, which can be developed and given a broader base by further study of the source materials. This is my aim in the present essay: to give an outline of the basic reasons for emigration from Norway. I shall restrict this to circumstances in Norway --- those conditions which might impel people to leave Norway, not those which drew them to America. I am well aware of the fact that this means a simplification of the problem, but in this case it is a necessary simplification. I shall also deal mostly with the second half of the nineteenth century, the epoch when emigration became a mass movement.

But first I shall give a brief survey of Norwegian emigration in the nineteenth century.

As is well known, the first company of emigrants set out in 1825. Then there was an interval of eleven years, but from 1836 on emigration was an annual phenomenon. Many years passed, however, before it became a movement of any proportions. During the years 1836-48 only 5.99 per cent of the population increase emigrated. In 1849 the number of emigrants rose to 4,000, and 21.33 per cent of the surplus left the country between 1849 and 1854. After 1854 there was a marked decline, and from 1855-60 only 11.48 per cent of the surplus emigrated. The two following years gave warning that a period of mass emigration was at hand; 14,150 people, or 37.49 per cent of the surplus, left the country.

In the following years there was again a strong decline in the number of emigrants, however, because of the Civil War and the Indian uprisings in the United States. But in 1866 the stream began to flow in earnest. There are two great periods of emigration: in the first, from 1866-73, 110,896 people or 63.42 per cent of the surplus traveled to overseas lands; in the second, from 1879-93, 256,068 left the mother country. In the first half of this long emigration period 77.29 per cent of the surplus left the country; in the second half of the 1880's the percentage was lowered to 60.36; and then it was reduced to 57.49 from 1889-98. There was comparatively little emigration during the rest of the 1890's, but a new high was reached during the first ten years of the twentieth century.

Norwegian emigration to America is of course produced by a variety of reasons, reasons which have differed in various emigration periods and in various parts of the country. It is thus clear to all that it was quite a different matter to be one of the first emigrants, who really went to a new and unknown country, from what it was to be among those who went to America in the 1880's on a ticket bought by relatives on the other side of the sea. Not that the decision was any less crucial to the young man and woman who emigrated in the 1880's, but it cannot be doubted that their motives for emigration had a different tone and color --- they walked a well-trod path which thousands had walked before them, and they profited by the experiences of their predecessors.

In spite of differences in places and periods, one must attempt to find a general background --- factors which were effective during the whole century. Among these reasons I believe one of the most important to have been the great increase in, population.

From the year 1665, when the first fairly reliable census was taken in Norway, down to the year 1801, when the first exact one was taken, the yearly population increase was approximately one-half of one per cent, which is somewhat higher than the average for Europe at that time. The percentage of increase at the end of the eighteenth century was on a par with that in the rest of Europe. Everywhere population was slowly increasing. In 1815, however, a new period began. The percentage suddenly rose in all Europe, and more in Norway than in almost any other country. During the half century from 1815 to 1865, the annual increase in Norway was 1.3 per cent.

This large increase in population lasted throughout the century. One should notice especially that the natural increase continued to be high. The actual increase, however, was somewhat less, because emigration took a large part of the surplus during certain periods.

I do not wish to go into the background and reasons for this tremendous increase in population, which is one of the distinctive facts in the history of all countries during the nineteenth century. I shall only say that there were some factors that one must reckon with from the very beginning of the century, such as vaccination, a better sanitary system, and such new sources of nourishment as the potato. What I do wish to speak of, however, is the very great significance of this population increase for Norwegian society.

Norwegian society had managed to assimilate the moderate surplus of new people up to 1807. (The years 1807-15 are so very extraordinary that they cannot be considered here.) There were still new clearings to be made in the country communities. The small cities, always low in birth rate, had room for a certain number of people, and there was a slow but steady expansion of economic opportunities. The surplus was not so great but that society could absorb it without too much strain on the system. One receives the impression of a fairly steady and harmonious development of Norwegian society from the middle of the eighteenth century.

After 1815 conditions were quite different. It is obvious that it was a difficult problem to make room for so great a surplus in Norway, a country with a simple and undifferentiated social organization and an inelastic economic life, where four-fifths of the population in 1801, and still two-thirds in 1865, were associated with agriculture.

If we look at conditions in England, for instance, we see that there the increase in population and industrial development were more or less simultaneous. But in Norway the population grew while the premises for an industrial development were still lacking. This is especially true in the first half of the nineteenth century.

For this reason a great part of the steadily increasing numbers of young people who were looking for work (already noticeable from 1830 on) were compelled to find room in the rural communities --- to become associated with agriculture in some manner or other. But in the rural communities the property conditions were so firmly settled that it was difficult to become a landowner even if one cleared the land with one's own hands. For that reason the number of cotters and, still more, that of servants and landless day laborers increased much more rapidly than the number of landowners. {2} The old agrarian society was maintained in this way. A considerable quantitative expansion took place in agriculture, but more and more explosives were steadily being gathered within the frame of agrarian society. The Thrane movement gives a very good picture of the social unrest which existed, and the farmers' demands in the Storting for the abolition of trade licensing show how momentous it was for them to be admitted to other fields of work.

The old agrarian society was completely disrupted during the second half of the nineteenth century. A new economic development remodeled Norway from a distinctly agricultural country into one where industry, trade, and urban occupations played a large role. Now at length the interplay between population increase and economic development began to function. Now large sections of the population were regrouped with regard to both livelihood and location, and at the same time emigration became a mass movement affecting almost every rural community in the country. It is obvious that the great increase in population --- the dammed-up reserves in the rural communities --- created the materials both for internal migration and emigration. One might perhaps also say that it constitutes one of the most important impulses leading to the new economic order. One must in any case be aware of what a dynamic expansive power was contained in the new generations with their potential working energy and capacity for consumption.

It is not necessary to discuss here the economic development that followed, but I should like to say a few words about agricultural conditions.

In the last half of the nineteenth century, agricultural development was deterred by a series of long and serious crises, created by the change from self-contained to mercantile agriculture, based on the principle of profit and competition with foreign grain. We can reckon with two such periods of crisis. The first was in the 1860's, the second in the 1880's. The latter was still felt as late as 1895.

The crisis in the 1860's was even more than an agricultural crisis. It was a debt crisis, and in many places, especially in isolated communities, the increase in taxes to state and community which accompanied the new times pressed heavily upon the rural population. Aasmund Olavsen Vinje says of these years: "We were to get roads, railroads, and steamboats. It was expensive business. People were to be enlightened; but teachers' salaries and schools cost money. The poor were to be taken care of in a Christian manner; the cost was terrible. There were to be hospitals and doctors; the price was high." {3}

During these periods there was much unemployment and often actual suffering among the laborers, artisans, and smaller landowners throughout the country. The agricultural population declined both absolutely and relatively from 1865 on. True, the total number of landowners and tenants increased a little from 1865 to 1900, but the amount of male hired help on farms in 1900 was only half of what it had been in 1865, and the number of cotters was less than half. {4} Hired help was sharply reduced. Farming became more and more a family interest. In some parts of the country human help was replaced by machines, while elsewhere old energy-wasting methods were abandoned. Better methods of cultivation were adopted, so that the yield in 1900 was much greater per person occupied in agriculture than it had been in 1865. The farmer learned by necessity to utilize soil, man power, and machines more intensely than before. Without doing so he could not have existed in this period of competition. Wages in agriculture also reached a higher level. Even though they never became very high, this increase meant a heavy load on the running expenses of every single farm. The relationship worked both ways. Farmers got along with less hired help, partly because it was a possibility and partly because it was a necessity. It was also in part the new occupations and America which drew young energies away from agriculture. Lastly one must not overlook the new attitude of the young people --- they wanted to get away.

Some of those who migrated from the rural districts remained in Norway; others went to America. But the emigration to America and the migration within the country were parts of one and the same movement. The old agrarian society was breaking up. A new period had begun, when people did not live and work where they were born. Statistics of the period show, however, that the proportions of emigration and migration vary greatly in different parts of the country. If we look at such counties as Øsffold and Vestfold, we find that the exodus from the agricultural districts was very large, but at the same time emigration to America was quite small. The reason for these conditions will be readily apparent. Occupations that absorbed the surplus developed within the districts themselves. Sawmills and other industries sprang into being. Navigation and whaling were carried on here. The same thing happened in the two Agder counties in the era of sailing vessels. The men either went to sea or got jobs in the shipbuilding industry. There were probably a fair number of sailors who emigrated by deserting their ships in foreign ports. The number who emigrated in this way has been estimated at 11,200 for the decade of 1871-80, but the number who returned during the same years has been estimated at 5,200.

But these numbers were small in comparison with the emigration that arose out of the transition from sail to steam, a change which created a serious crisis along the whole southern coast of Norway. Naturally the two Agder districts were hit the hardest, and came to feel the crisis most acutely toward the end of the 1880's. The rate of emigration leaped up and continued high throughout the 1890's, while at the same time the rate of emigration in other parts of the country was dropping.

In some districts emigration to America and migration within the country were fairly evenly divided, especially in the less mountainous districts of eastern Norway, Romerike, Ringerike, and Hedmark. This was also true of Rogaland, Hordaland, and toward the end of the century, Møre, Romsdal, and Trøndelag. Finally there were districts where nearly the entire surplus went to America. Most typical of these are Opland, the upper valleys in Buskerud and Telemark, and parts of Sogn.

The three northernmost counties were being rapidly developed. Here too the population was sparse, and there was room for a number of migrants from the southern part of the country. Emigration to America from northern Norway was comparatively small during the whole nineteenth century. Only Finmarkens reached during one decade a high of 9.6 per thousand population.

The place which drew most of the rural migrants, particularly people from the lowlands, was Oslo. People from the highlands preferred to go to America. Eilert Sundt wrote in 1870, "The customs and mannerisms of the mountain districts are in sharper contrast to city life than those of the lowlands."

Bergen also drew many people. In the 1870's 55 per cent of all those who married in Bergen had moved in from the countryside. {5} Many other smaller towns also had high rates of immigration in proportion to the population.

I have spoken of the transition from an agricultural society, and of the relationship between emigration to America and migration within the country. Simultaneously with the economic transformation a cultural and spiritual change was also taking place. The breakup of the old agrarian society is also a change from old traditions and views of life. This change too is of great importance in the emigration movement. This can best be illustrated by comparing the position of a farmer boy at the beginning and end of the nineteenth century.

Life was fairly well laid out for a boy who grew up around 1800. In nine out of ten cases he remained in his home community. If he had no property, he probably hired out as a servant until he married and became a cotter, or perhaps he became a settler, broke his own little piece of land, and earned a few extra pennies by logging, driving, or fishing. He was bound to his family traditions and the milieu of the community by a thousand powerful ties. In many districts the young men went out as peddlers, so that they might earn enough money to buy a piece of land in the home community. There was a certain amount of migration within the country, especially to the three northerly counties, but it was of no great consequence and had little or no effect on agrarian society as a whole. It was more an expansion within the frame of the old society than a new creation.

The world had quite a different appearance to the boy who grew up in the rural communities toward the end of the nineteenth century. For him there were a number of possibilities --- more or less inviting, one must admit. He might go to school and he had a number of schools to choose from --- military schools, agricultural colleges, folk high schools, and normal schools. If he chose the latter, he might create for himself a position as community leader. He might go to the city and become a skilled laborer or industrial worker, he might go to sea, or he might emigrate to America.

A transformation of values had taken place among the country youth. Many of them refused to remain in the home community any longer. Agriculture was not highly regarded during the last half of the nineteenth century. This was of course because of the difficult, even desperate, conditions under which agriculture labored, but there can be no doubt that the possibilities of agriculture were often underestimated.

The prejudice against remaining in the home community was especially strong among those who owned no land, that is, cotters and day laborers. The conditions under which they lived were still miserable in the second half of the nineteenth century. The increase in population had made their position much more difficult, so that life for them was less secure than it had been toward the end of the eighteenth century. But instead of the dull hopeless spirit which might occasionally flare up in a Thrane movement, there was now a more conscious self-assertion. Young people refused to become cotters and accept the old terms, they refused to be bound by inelastic contracts. They wanted an opportunity to offer their skill and energy in that labor market where chances were then the best. The terms of the cotter seemed to them to be conditions of slavery. Youth felt the desire to make use of the opportunities offered them, even though to do this it was necessary to cut all ties that bound them to relatives and environment.

This naturally applied not only to the working classes in rural communities. Even earlier we notice that the farming class as a whole grew more self-assertive from decade to decade throughout the country. The landowners saw that some of their class advanced to become important and respected men, in the Storting, in literature, or in economic life. They had begun reading newspapers and had learned to form individual opinions concerning social, religious, and political questions. All this of course had the effect of a powerful stimulant. Both the landowners and the laborers in rural communities felt social inequality much more keenly than earlier. This inequality no longer loomed before them as a sad but inevitable fate to which one was born and must accept. Now it seemed to them an unjust condition which one could either run away from or seek to reform. One could either work one's way out of such conditions, or leave the country where they existed. Very characteristic of the "America letters," which started coming as early as 1830 and continued to come in increasing numbers every year after 1850, are the descriptions of social equality in America, where "an ordinary man does not need to take his hat off for either minister or judge."

The five-year reports of the 1850's from the different districts contain repeated complaints that young people would no longer go into service. They would not tie themselves down; they wanted to be "on their own," as it was called. Day laborers, one report declares, will not hire out on farms unless they are paid extremely good wages, "so long as they can keep the wolf away from the door."

Aasmund Olavsen Vinje gives a very good impression of the new attitude in an article he wrote in Dølen on America and emigration. He says:

As long as people know little, they sit at home in one spot and grow, like grass and trees. But as soon as they begin to learn and think, they go out to find a better home. They do not always find it, but they must always try. Therefore emigration is a sign of enlightenment and individual thought --- when it isn't like the migration of the lemmings: that they migrate because they have eaten the earth bare and no longer find food.

It was the same way with me. The more I learned, the stronger was my desire to leave my home, to go to America or anywhere, only not stay at home where I felt there was nothing for me to do. If I had not learned anything, I should have been content to hire out to the parson or some other landowner, find myself a wife and settle down as a cotter. Perhaps that would have been just as well, but it was impossible. The fire of ideas had been lit in me. {6}

The same idea is illustrated in the songs of the emigration period: "Our modern age with its spirit of progress has so little respect for home and native land." {7}

This change in social outlook is of basic significance in the whole movement of emigration. It is a part of what I have called the breaking up of the old agrarian society. Old ties were cut, so that it grew easier for the individual to free himself and leave his community and his country.

Seemingly in direct refutation to what I have said here, we find that after 1870 the cities have a greater emigration rate than the rural communities. Until 1865 emigration from the towns had been of no consequence. The Central Bureau of Statistics has estimated that only about 200 people left the cities annually for America in the period from 1856-65. But from that time on, and most of all in the 1880's, {8} the percentage grew until, during the last half of that decade, many more were leaving towns than rural districts.

Looking at these facts more closely, we find that a large number of the city emigrants were the same people who earlier had moved in from rural districts, thus making the journey to America in several stages. The people who now were leaving were the same ones who had come to the cities as industrial workers or as "workers with no definite trade," as the statistics list them. Migration to towns continued even through bad times. The later 1870's were bad, but the immigration surplus in Oslo was 13,663, while the birth surplus during the same period of time was only 10,008. We see by the statistics that the urban population of Norway increased by 100,000 from 1875 to 1885, in spite of the fact that the number of industrial workers decreased. Migration to towns continued, then, even though the opportunities for making a living were not expanded.

Complaints over migration from rural districts are continuous throughout the 1880's. Workers in the crafts complained at the competition from the immigrants, who did poor work and underbid skilled labor so that the market was ruined. The official report from Bergen for 1881-85 declared that "there is unabated and perhaps even increasing immigration from the rural districts," and also advances the theory that this migration "steadily makes conditions more difficult for the working people."

These migrants had broken the old ties; they were strangers in the towns. Often they were unwelcome because they literally "took the bread from the mouths of others." Thus it was comparatively easy for them to break up and move on. The only difficulty --- and that was oftentimes serious enough --- was to raise the necessary money to pay for passage across the sea. This too became less of a problem in the 1880's, when the transatlantic shipping companies carried on a bitter price war. In 1884 one could travel to New York for $18.00 and to Chicago for $23.50.

It was quite natural that the migrants continued their journey, when the towns no longer offered the possibilities and openings they had hoped to find. Especially was this true in times of crisis, with reduced wages, fewer working hours, and unemployment, or when they discovered that a worker in town enjoyed no more social distinction than a worker in the country. In emigration statistics from Bergen we find that over half of the adult emigrants from 1875-84 were born outside of the city. The percentage, however, sinks somewhat in the 1890's. Even though the emigrant was city born, we may still in many cases consider his emigration as a continuation of the movement away from the rural areas. For the Norwegian cities of today are young cities, created by immigration from the country.

Internal migration and emigration, which in the nineteenth century means emigration to the United States, are therefore parts of the same movement. The fundamental background of this movement is the growth in population. But the mass movement of population began in earnest with the great nineteenth-century transformation in Norwegian economic and social life. The times, local traditions, and economic conditions in the various parts of the country determined how many of the migrants were to remain in the country and how many were to emigrate. But the stream away from the countryside, the breaking up of the old agrarian order with all its implications for social and political re-orientation --- this went on regardless of good times or bad times.

Many factors which are important in the emigration movement are omitted in the explanation I have given here. As previously stated, all those causes that are inherent in American conditions have been omitted. The great stretches of land in America were of special significance for the Norwegian emigrants. But American wages, and, later on, the ties of kinship and the tickets that were sent home to Norway were also important. Steamship lines, American railroad companies, and land speculators had their agents all over the country. But the most effective agents were after all the letters which came from America throughout the whole century. They told of economic progress in a country where democracy and social equality ruled, and the same letters stimulated those who remained in Norway to demand greater democratic rights for themselves.

I have been obliged to omit these elements, though I-am fully aware that the call from abroad was the motive that overruled all else. "The pull is a greater influence than the push," says the American economist Harry Jerome, {9} who has undertaken a statistical examination of the relationship between business cycles and emigration, and arrives at the conclusion that the emigration curves show greater correlation with the business curves in America than with the corresponding curves for Europe. Arne Skaug, {10} the Norwegian economist, has arrived at the same conclusion with regard to Norway.

But even if I have been obliged to omit important factors, I still believe that the specifically Norwegian background for emigration is important enough to warrant special treatment.


<1> Translated by Professor Einar Haugen --- revised from a first draft by Miss Christie Larsen of Beloit, Wisconsin. Ed.

<2> The number of landowners rose 27 per cent from 1801 to 1855, while the number of cotters was doubled and the number of day laborers was tripled. S. Skappel, "Høstingsbruk og dyrkingsbruk," in Historisk tidsskrift, 31:152.

<3> Dølen, June 3, 1870. 



Number of landowners    
Number of renters
Number of cotters
Number of hired men

<5> Bergensposten, May 2, 1880. Immigrants constituted 42 per cent of the total number of marriages in Bergen from 1850 to 1859; 53 per cent from 1860 to 1869; and 55 per cent from 1870 to 1879. Residents of the so-called "rural parishes" of Bergen are not included in these figures.

<6> Dølen, January 14, 1866.

<7> Einar Haugen, "Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads," in Journal of American Folk-Lore, 51:73 (January-March, 1938).

<8> Annual emigration per 1,000 from towns from rural communities

1881-85 14.4 10.0
1886-90 12.3 7.0

<9> Harry Jerome, Migration and Business Cycles (New York, 1926).

<10> Arne Skaug, Fluctuations in Migration from Norway since 1900 (Paris, 1937).

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