An Immigrant Exploration of the Middle West in 1839
A Letter By Johannes Johansen and Søren Bache;
Translated By the Verdandi Study Club (Volume XIV: Page 41)
In 1839 two Norwegian immigrants, Johannes Johansen and Søren Bache, journeyed from Norway to America, made their way to Chicago, visited the Fox River settlement in Illinois, and then traveled by wagon into southern Wisconsin looking for a good site for the establishment of a new immigrant settlement.
They knew of the rising interest of Norwegians in the New World. They knew that people in the old country were eager to read reliable reports of conditions in the West. And so when they returned to the Fox River colony from their exploratory trip, they wrote a long letter, signed by both of them, in which they reported their experiences and observations in detail. They addressed this letter to their friends and relatives in Norway, and it was published in the spring of 1840 in the "Times" (Tiden) of Drammen, a small town on the Christiania Fjord in southeastern Norway.
It is this document, transcribed some years ago from the Norwegian newspaper in which it first appeared, that the members of the Verdandi Club of Minneapolis here present in an English translation. It has a double historical interest, for it is both a record of immigrant scouting in the early pioneer period and an illustration of the kind of report that was read by prospective emigrants in Norway and influenced their decisions.
The letter was written at a strategic time in the early development of Norwegian settlement. Pathfinders of the pioneer group that crossed the Atlantic in the "Restoration" in
1825 and settled in western New York had pushed westward to Illinois to found the Fox River colony in 1834. In the middle 1830's emigration from Norway to America took an upward swing. Ole Rynning led a party of emigrants to the Beaver Creek colony south of Chicago in 1837, and that unhappy experiment had nearly run its course by 1839. Rynning himself, the author of a True Account of America, the first "America book" published in Norway, had died at Beaver Creek, as had many others of the immigrant band of 1837, and the settlement had been virtually abandoned. The Fox River colony had grown vigorously, although its settlers were undergoing severe ordeals, particularly those imposed by malaria and other diseases that took heavy toll of their numbers. Meanwhile, other Norwegians were studying the prospects of pioneering in the rich areas to the northward and were launching new settlements. Thus Ole Nattestad pushed into Wisconsin in 1838 to found the Jefferson Prairie colony, and a party of emigrants headed by his brother Ansten Nattestad joined him there in 1839. The summer of that year also saw the beginnings, some distance south of Milwaukee, of the famous Muskego colony.
It was in the autumn of that year, on October 31, that Bache and Johansen, with a companion, set out by wagon from Fox River to see Wisconsin for themselves. They intended originally to go to Milwaukee and to investigate the Muskego settlement after first visiting the Jefferson Prairie region, but this plan was changed upon the advice of a stranger who urged them to strike into new country. They did go to the Jefferson Prairie settlement, met the Nattestads, and learned about the prospects for Norwegian immigrants at that place, but thereafter, instead of heading toward the shores of Lake Michigan and Muskego, they turned toward the Rock River and Koshkonong region, where important Norwegian settlements were later built. They spent, in all,
three weeks in travel and investigation, and then returned to Fox River, where on the last day of 1889 they signed their report to friends in Norway.
They did not disguise the drawbacks of life in the West. They painted in fact a dark picture of everyday living conditions, especially of the inadequacy of frontier houses and the onslaught of disease upon the pioneers, but they also took into account the undoubted advantages of western America. On the whole they confirmed the favorable view that Ole Rynning had given in his True Account of America, and they wrote with enthusiasm about Wisconsin, with its abundant and unexploited resources.
The next summer, in 1840, the two men continued their search, went to Chicago, then proceeded north, found lands to their liking some distance to the south of the Muskego settlers of 1889, and chose a site on the shores of Wind Lake in what later was known as Norway Township. This became the nucleus of the Muskego settlement, famous in Norwegian-American annals for numerous immigrant institutional beginnings and as a mother colony to many immigrant settlements.
Both Bache and Johansen played important roles in the life of this colony in the 1840's. It was Johansen who drafted the Muskego manifesto of 1845, an open letter by the Muskego colonists to the people of Norway. This remarkable letter was written in protest against anti-emigration writings which then had wide currency in Norway, and in defense of America as a goal for immigrants. The men of Muskego recognized the difficulties that confronted the Norwegian pioneers of the 1840's, but they recalled also the sufferings of those earlier immigrants "who opened the way for coming generations by founding the first colony in the United States, the Virginia colony." Thus in their thinking they linked themselves with the original colonists of America. They
declared their faith in the land of their adoption -- in "a liberal government in a fruitful land, where freedom and equality are the rule in religious as in civil matters, and where each one of us is at liberty to earn his living practically as he chooses." And they found "no reason to regret the decision" that brought them to America.
Johansen died less than a year after writing this manifesto. Bache, prominent in the affairs of Muskego, a founder of the first Norwegian newspaper published in the United States, and the author of a remarkable pioneer diary that the Norwegian-American Historical Association hopes ultimately to publish in an English translation, returned to Norway in 1847.
THEODORE C. BLEGEN
JOHANNES JOHANSEN AND SØREN BACHE TO RELATIVES, FRIENDS,
AND ACQUAINTANCES, DECEMBER 31, 1839
[Tiden (Drammen), March 3, 1840]
DEAR RELATIVES, FRIENDS, AND ACQUAINTANCES:
We are certain that everybody will be interested in hearing something about our trip, and so we send you the following brief report: On July 15th we left Gothenborg on the ship "Skogsmand," Captain Rundberg, and arrived without incident at Newport Harbor on the second of September. We left on the same day by steamer for New York, reaching there the next morning. Here we stopped only until the evening of the 4th, going by steamer to Albany, where we arrived on the evening of the 5th. We left there the next morning by train for Schenectady.
On the evening of the same day we took a canalboat for Buffalo, which we reached on the morning of the 14th. We stayed here only three or four hours and then traveled by steamer over lakes
Erie, Huron, and Michigan, to Chicago, where we landed on Sunday, September 22nd. The distance we had covered from New York to this point was 1,522 English miles.
Here we once more caught up with most of Ansteen Nattestad's company. Ansteen with a few of his party had that very morning set off for Jefferson Prairie in Wisconsin Territory, about ninety English miles to the northwest, where his brother Ole had settled last summer. The rest of this group took the same road a few days later. We, on the other hand, set out after a stay of two days for Fox River in Illinois, about seventy English miles to the southwest of Chicago, where most of the first emigrants from Norway now live.
Arriving at this place, we found it a rather discouraging destination for our journey because of the great amount of sickness here -- ague and diarrhea -- which Ole Rynning has reported to be so commonly prevalent among recent emigrants.
Here there was not a single house where someone wasn't lying sick. In most houses there were several, and many had died this summer and last, among them Rynning himself. The news of his death was most unpleasant for us, for we had expected to get information from him about many things that would have been helpful to us. He and his company had been very unlucky in the choice of the land where they settled. It was by a little brook called Beaver Creek, where the ground was so flat and low that after heavy rains it was completely flooded. In the opinion of people with experience, this produces unhealthiness and is the main cause of the sickness we have referred to. Their attention was called to this situation, but they paid little heed until nearly half of those living there had died. After this the survivors finally left and sought temporary refuge with the Norwegians here. Rynning died last fall, about the end of September, and everyone who knew him testified to his noble character. Many
thought that if only he had been fortunate enough to find a more suitable place to settle, he might have been living now.
During the last two summers sickness has been more prevalent than usual. The reason for this is supposed to be the fact that these years had unusually great drought and heat. This caused the rivers to shrink and the swamps to dry up. This evaporation is considered harmful to the health. We believe the sickness here must be attributed to the climate's sudden alternation of cold and heat. This is very noticeable here as compared with our climate at home. When we arrived here about the end of September, the cold was so severe one week that it partially froze at night, whereas a part of October was as hot as the dog days are at home in the warmest summer. These changes are said to happen often so suddenly that a person dripping with sweat from the heat scarcely has time to pull his jacket on before he feels the harmful effects of the surprisingly sudden cold. We certainly admit that the sickness is for the most part the result of the causes we have described and consequently will afflict to some extent nearly everyone who has not become hardened to it. We cannot, however, avoid saying -- and several people agree with us -- that the wretched houses these folk live in contribute to the sickness.
An ordinary living house is built here in one day -- at least up to the roof.
Its walls are so open that in many places there are three or four inches between each log, and in the winter these openings must be filled in with wood splinters and clay to make the house reasonably tight. Some of this chinking falls out and leaves holes so large that a cat could almost pass freely in and out. People seldom have more than one room, which must serve as kitchen, dining room, and bedroom. There is a loft overhead which is far from being as tight as an ordinary hayloft in Norway and this must serve as a bedroom when there are more people in the house than there is room for downstairs. It is highly probable that such accommodations, which are so exposed to draft and drifting snow that sometimes the beds are almost covered in
the morning with a foot of heavy snow, must have harmful results for the health of those who are used to snug and warm houses. Sometimes the cold here is at least as severe as that to which they were accustomed. In fact, one feels the cold even more here on the flat prairies, where there is no protection against the sharp, penetrating north wind.
We do not know, and can only guess, the reason for this poor method of building, but we think that it comes from the American's bent and necessity to move from one place to another. When a person has got a piece of new land cultivated enough so that he can earn a little from it, he sells it and begins on a new piece. It sometimes happens that for one reason or another he is obliged to move yet again, without the slightest compensation for his house or the cultivation of his land. Fear of loss has in this way made it necessary for him to build simply. Some of the Norwegians, however, have now begun to put up better houses.
From Chicago to this place we had our first opportunity to see something of the country, which was chiefly prairie, with small wooded sections of oak here and there at intervals of several Norwegian miles. Everywhere the ground was covered with luxuriant grass and with beautiful flowers that still were in full blossom. That the soil here is extremely fertile we could see from the large amount of wheat, corn, and oats that already had been harvested and stood in stacks on the cultivated fields.
The extent of cultivation is most insignificant compared with what is wilderness. It is probable, moreover, that the largest part will always remain wilderness because of lack of woods for building material and fuel for settlers. As far as the quality of the soil is concerned, we assume that what Rynning and others have reported is absolutely correct: that without cultivation it will yield the most luxuriant growth of all sorts, even to the finest kitchen vegetables, and with much less effort than at home.
This year has been unusually productive. As a result, provisions can be had at very low prices. A barrel of wheat (240 pounds, English weight) costs two dollars; a barrel of corn one dollar; a barrel of oats one dollar; a pound of salt pork five Norwegian skillings; a pound of meat three skillings; and so forth.
Wages, on the other hand, are very high by comparison -- a half dollar and board a day for a day laborer in the winter, and a dollar to a dollar and a half a week for a servant girl. She receives as much as two dollars if she understands the language. It is easy for girls to find work at any time, whereas it is sometimes hard for men to find work in the wintertime, since the farmers themselves have little to do then. Wages in the summer are usually a dollar a day plus board, however, and one can therefore earn enough to live on the surplus in the winter -- and still save money.
This is true if a person keeps his health, but unfortunately many have lost their health during the past two summers. Some have been sick from twelve to sixteen weeks, and many have died from their sickness. This has been particularly true of the latest arrivals. Of one party, most of whom came from Voss, fourteen or fifteen died. They had arrived in Chicago in the severest heat of the past summer. Most of them were poor people who had put more than they owned into the expenses of their journey and were forced to get work at once in order to earn their subsistence. Many of them took to canal digging as the steadiest and most profitable -- but also the most strenuous and unhealthful -- work here during the summer. Most of them came down at once with sickness and were brought to the hospital in Chicago, where only a few escaped death.
Our intention was not to look for land here at Fox River, as we had been informed previously that nothing was available at government prices. Even if there had been, we did not consider it wisest to settle here where the climate, more than in many other places, was so likely to bring on illness. But we did find it advisable to stop here to seek guidance and to consider in which direction we ought to go to find the best accommodations.
The report we had about Missouri did not encourage us to go there, since it lacked good water as well as other necessities. Before coming we had heard Wisconsin Territory mentioned as the place which at the moment was the most popular objective for immigrants. Several persons from Tind, who had arrived before us, had taken that route and settled in the neighborhood of a
town called Milwaukee, situated on Lake Michigan.
Since this district lies north from here, we assume that the climate there is more healthful and more like the climate Norwegians are used to. Therefore, we decided to make a trip there to see it. In addition, there is said to be plenty of forest and land there available at government prices.
After a stay of about a month here, we rented a horse and a small wagon, and on October 31st, three of us set out. We crossed Fox River about eight English miles above here and took the road to Jefferson's Prairie situated about ninety miles away, in Wisconsin Territory, only two English miles from the Illinois border. Here we met Ole and Ansteen Nattestad, with most of those who had come with the latter last summer. Ole had put up a house and plowed as much ground as necessary to raise enough for his own needs, and this year he had his first harvest, which was excellent. We assumed that the country here was healthful, since there had been no sickness, yet none of those who had arrived last summer seemed to want to settle here because the most and best of the forests had been bought up already. They intended, as we did, to have a look at the country farther north, where, we were informed, there was more and better forest land. But they wanted first to hear the results of our trip. They were all well and seemed to be satisfied, since they were earning good wages by working for the neighboring farmers. Because of the unusual scarcity of money, however, they were forced to take their earnings in provisions, and received a fourth of a barrel of wheat and board per day.
After spending two days here, we continued our journey as first planned, in the direction where the above-mentioned Norwegians had settled in the vicinity of Milwaukee, located about seventy English miles from here. We had covered a distance of about twenty miles on this road when we met a man who seemed to have some knowledge of the condition of the surrounding country. He was of the opinion that it would be better to take the opposite route, which went west from here to a place called Fort Atkinson
on Rock River, on the other side of which
there was said to be more suitable land with sufficient forest. It was already late in the fall and we considered it doubtful, if we followed our original plan, that we should be able to reach our objective before snowfall. We therefore took his advice, and after a little more than a day's journey we arrived at the place mentioned above.
Here we had to ferry across the river, and as there were no special roads in the direction we were to travel, the ferryman advised us to leave our wagon with him and borrow a saddle that we might take turns in using. He seemed to be intelligent and to know the lay of the land in the vicinity very well, and we accepted the necessary directions that he kindly gave us and started off, continuing west. We were just under forty-three degrees north latitude and about seventy miles farther north than when we started the trip.
The land nearest the river was very low and flat and thinly covered with large and small oak trees. When we had gone about three English miles farther, we came to hills with small valleys that were something new to us. Now the land began to rise, and when we had ascended what we considered the highest elevation, we climbed a knoll to get a view of the surroundings.. To our way of thinking, it was the finest view on our whole trip. In all directions little valleys and elevations ran quite regularly from north to south and from west to east, all well covered with large oak trees except at the foot of the hills. From our vantage point, the land sloped away gradually so that we could see rather far, and we sighted a pretty little lake in the distance, right in the direction we were headed. After a gratifying look, we journeyed on. To make a more satisfactory inspection we planned to put up for the night and arrived at the appointed place at eight o'clock in the evening.
We found lodging with a Mr. Snele, who had located here this summer and was the only inhabitant in the seven miles we had covered. Beyond him there was no one. He had built his house on the shore of the little lake we had seen, and he had a very fine place. The next morning our host was kind enough to accompany us in order to look over the land farther west. The prairie recommenced about three miles from his place. Within
about a mile of our destination we had to cross a little stream called the Kushkonong Creek.
Here land had been bought up and a town laid out, but building had not yet begun. In this stream there was water enough at all seasons for a mill, but there was little current. Even so, it seemed possible that a dam could be made. The land was low on the side of the creek from which we came, whereas on the other side it was rather high and steep. We had quite a distance to climb before we reached the top where the prairie we wanted to see came into view.
When we gained the summit, there unfolded before our eyes a grassland which in appearance and luxuriance resembled the finest and most cultivated fields in Norway. Unfortunately the lack of trees made it unsuitable for settlement. Time prevented our going farther as there was no place ahead where we could find shelter. Reluctantly we had to return, therefore, with our host and spend another night with him.
During the past summer a band of Indians had wandered about in this vicinity. As none had been seen for the past six weeks, it was assumed that they had withdrawn to the western woods where they generally stayed during the winter. Our host regarded them as a peaceful people who roamed about to hunt and fish.
Of all we had seen on our trip, we liked best the stretch of country between Rock River and our host's place, if such were obtainable at government prices. As some had been sold and no one could show us what was still available, we had to let everything else wait until we could get the necessary information at the Milwaukee Land Office. It was not convenient to do so on this trip, however.
The next morning we left our friendly host and hostess, hoping we should meet again. We retraced our steps until we crossed the river. From there we took another way, which first followed the stream, and we happened upon several pretty, new towns. The whole country was very attractive and, where there were trees, it was bought up and settled. Otherwise our journey lay over immense prairies where the grass had for the most part been burned down. One of the prairies we crossed is supposed to be
about three hundred miles long. After an absence of about three weeks, we returned to the settlement, where we intended to rest until open roads next spring allow us to investigate further.
We were gratified to learn that the health conditions in Wisconsin were usually good. Where people lived close to the streams, only a few cases of the aforementioned diseases had appeared during the summer. In the past fourteen or fifteen years, even these had been new to the region.
Realizing that many of you would like to have our opinion about the advantages one can with certainty expect by coming to America, we can state that anyone who is steady and has the desire and the ability to work will, as far as we have hitherto experienced, always find a good subsistence here.
If you lack the necessities of life for your family and there is reason to believe the future holds no promise for the better, then you have reason to try America.
To be sure, during the past two years, sickness and death have been prevalent. It can be said of many, "He sought his livelihood but unfortunately found death." This has not always been true, however. Diseases could in certain places have been just as common and dangerous as here, but in many places could have resulted from carelessness. Many have lived here for years without sickness and claim better health than in Norway.
One who has decided to come and has the means to assist others must guard against spending so much that he will lack money with which to buy land on his arrival. Many have become financially embarrassed because of the dishonesty or the death of their debtors. He who has the opportunity would be smart to inquire of friends who are there as to the best opportunities for the purchase of land.
On account of the high wages and low prices there is little advantage at the moment to work more land than necessary for home use. It would be worth while to bring a good supply of work clothes and bedding. When freight is figured, it is just as cheap to buy heavy articles here. It does not pay to bring guns to sell.
Concerning business, we believe thorough experience and
understanding of the people and their financial system are necessary for hope of success in such a venture.
The laws grant each individual freedom from liability for debts when they move out of the state. Many take advantage of this fact and become swindlers even though they could pay. Each state has its own bank as well as many branch banks of which some are always insolvent. All have their own paper money, and, besides, there is always much counterfeit money in circulation. Finally, gold and silver coins of all kinds are valuable as a medium of exchange when they are made of pure, precious metals. It is useless to bring Danish marks and smaller coins of impure silver. On the contrary, larger Norwegian and Danish silver coins and new Norwegian marks are exchangeable for full value. Outside of American money, English sovereigns and five-franc pieces are used here mostly. The first is worth $4.84 and the last ninety-four cents.
As I have said before, tilling of the soil under present conditions is not important, but cattle raising would be profitable under good management. On the large prairies which offer food for millions of livestock there is opportunity to feed as many animals as one is able to gather sufficient winter food for. In the fall these prairies are burnt over, causing more damage than good. In spite of the abundance of feed, stock prices are high -- a cow brings from sixteen to thirty dollars, and a pound of butter twenty-five cents in the winter but only half in the summer. The reason for this difference is that one keeps few animals in the winter because they freeze as a result of the lack of good barns.
LA SALLE COUNTY, FOX RIVER, STATE OF
ILLINOIS, DECEMBER 31, 1839
<1> The Muskego manifesto, written on January 6, 1845, was published in Morgenbladet (Christiania), April 1, 1845. See S. B. D, "An American Manifesto by Norwegian Immigrants," in American-Scandinavian Review, 13:619 (October, 1925); and Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825-1860, 209-211 (Northfield, 1931).
<2> The spelling is "Scheneclady" in the original.
<3> For the general historical setting of the letter, with its allusions to individuals and events, the reader is referred to Norwegian Migration to America, vol. 1, especially chapters 8-7, and to Carlton C. Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States (Northfield, 1988).
<4> A biographical sketch of Ole Rynning and a translation of his book are included in Ole Rynning's True Account of America, published in 1926 by the Norwegian-American Historical Association. Johansen and Bache refer to him as "Rønning."
<5> On the frontier houses built by immigrants, see Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition, chapter 2 (Northfield, 1940).
<6> The writers of the letter spell the name "Millwalky."
<7> The spelling in the original is "Forth-Atchinson."
<8> The accepted form is "Koshkonong," not "Kushkonong."