An Immigrant's Advice on America: Some Letters of Søren Bache
Translated and Edited by C. A. Clausen (Volume XV: Page 77)
After a feeble beginning in 1825, Norwegian immigration grew to considerable
proportions during the 1840's. As the "fever" spread, information about America
was eagerly sought in Norway. America letters passed from hand to hand and were frequently
printed as important news by Norwegian newspapers. People traveled long distances to talk
with returned emigrants, seeking information from those who had first-hand knowledge of
Such a man was Søren Bache, the son of Tollef Bache, a well-known businessman and
industrial leader of Drammen. The younger Bache went to America in 1839. The following
summer, after various prospecting trips through parts of Illinois and Wisconsin, he took
up land west of Milwaukee, in what became the famous Muskego settlement. Except for a
visit to Norway, from August 1842 to May 1843, he remained in America until 1847. In that
year he returned to his native land and there he spent the rest of his life. During his
stay in America he kept a diary that throws much light on immigrant life in the Middle
West a century ago.
The translations here printed are of letters that are to be found
in the original Bache diary. The letters prove that, contrary to popular opinion, not all
returned emigrants were invariably uncritical boosters of things as they found them in the
C. A. CLAUSEN
AS FOR THE LAND, IT IS VERY GOOD AND RICH
WALLE via DRAMMEN
October 6, 1842
To MR. C. L. CLAUSEN,
I have read your letter of September 22, from which I gather that you wish me to assure
you of a position in America as well as a safe income for the future. From the credentials
I have received I have complete faith in you as a man of good character and upright
conduct, but as you are still a total stranger to me I do not feel that I ought to
undertake any such obligations. You must not believe that I lack faith in my father's
recommendation. A thorough analysis of all facts involved, however, convinces me that I
cannot grant your request, as I shall presently explain.
Before leaving America I was well aware of the fact that the Norwegians in my
neighborhood wished to get a minister. Both last year and this year, Johansen, Even Heg,
and Johannes Kure wrote my father requesting that a seminary student be sent over who
might serve as teacher for their children to start with and later become their minister.
The problem of finding
a suitable man for this position has concerned my father very
much, but he has had to tell the people over there that so far he has not succeeded. I
know, however, that their desire still persists, and even though I have no children I wish
to shoulder my part of the burden so as to assist my fellow immigrants and help build the
future of the settlement. But since I have no authority to enter into any binding
agreements on their behalf I do not see my way clear to offer you the assurance that you
In America things are done quite differently from here. Not only judges but also
sheriffs are elected by the people for terms of four years. If they are found satisfactory
they are re-elected. Ministers are also chosen by the congregations, and a minister
without a congregation may not conduct weddings.
As for the land, it is very good and rich and yields all sorts of grains without the
use of fertilizer. There is still plenty of government land to be had at $1.25 per acre,
an acre being about the same as a Danish tønde.
All the people from various
parts of Norway with whom I have talked over there are very well satisfied. I believe that
anyone who is not too emotionally bound to his native place will be happy in America. The
financial burdens are much lighter there than here, since our heaviest taxes amount to
merely one per cent plus two days of work per year on the highways for men under fifty. No
poor people are ever seen there.
Friendly greetings from
OF COURSE, CROOKS AND SCOUNDRELS ARE FOUND
WALLE via DRAMMEN
March 7, 1843
To Mr. E. BACHE, LILLESAND.
From your letter of March 1, which I received last Friday, I gather that you would like
to have some information about America.
The trip from New York to Wisconsin, with the cheapest accommodations, costs about $12
to $14 for an adult, but
children travel for less. Most of the way you go by
steamboat and canalboat. The most useful articles to take along are feather beds and
wearing apparel, which cost more over there. Houses can be rented and building material is
not difficult to obtain at a reasonable price, but wages are rather high, since a common
laborer receives fifty cents a day.
Furniture can be bought close by, but many things
will come high, I believe. The soil is so very rich that it bears the finest grains
without any fertilizing; and it is not difficult to sell your produce in the nearest town,
three Norwegian miles from our place. Government land sells for $1.25 per acre. The main
articles which must be bought in town are farm machinery, household furniture, clothing,
and various other types of manufactured goods. Some things arc more expensive over there,
others cheaper. Fishing is very good, since all lakes and rivers teem with fish of various
types. Hunting also has been very good so far. I cannot say anything about trading since I
know nothing about it. It is easiest for blacksmiths to find work, but men of other skills
will also be able to get good positions as they become acquainted with conditions. Laws
and government are good; so every man can feel secure in the possession of his property.
Generally speaking the people are friendly and courteous, but, of course, crooks and
scoundrels are found the world over. At the time of my departure, Johansen was feeling
well and getting along nicely, and as for me, I like it well in that distant country and
expect to return again this spring.
FAR TOO ROSY DREAMS ABOUT AMERICA
WALLE via DRAMMEN
MR. E. BACHE, LILLESAND.
Your gracious letter of April 1 was received yesterday.
It is not my purpose to encourage people to go to America. When someone asks me for
advice, however, I am quite willing to express my opinions about the country both pro and
con, leaving the inquirer to decide for himself whether or not he wants to emigrate.
Undoubtedly there are people who have far too rosy dreams about America, and they are
doomed to disappointment. At least two years of work must be put in before a man can win a
livelihood from his own acres, but having got that far, he will earn a decent income much
more easily over there. Even if a man must depend solely upon the labor of his two hands,
he is better off in America than in Norway. These are my sincere convictions, for over
here times seem to be getting harder and harder every year. A man who feels himself
getting into straitened circumstances would have good reasons for going to America if he
so desires and has the hope of improving his condition. If he has some money, even though
it does not amount to more than you mention, he would, according to my opinion, be better
off over there, because a little capital would make it easier for him to get established.
Land is very cheap. For $200 a man can acquire a respectable piece of property large
enough for a family like yours not only to maintain themselves but also to put something
aside for the future, if they are frugal. Houses can be built just as cheaply there as
here. Land is still to be had in our neighborhood, but only second-hand, so to speak,
which means that it will cost somewhat more than when bought directly from the government.
Communications are not difficult, since our nearest city, Milwaukee on Lake Michigan,
is only three Norwegian miles distant. The climate is healthful and in general the soil is
good. An English captain named Marryat speaks of Wisconsin as a
fine territory and
the most healthful part of the Union.
If you wish to become well acquainted with
America I would advise you to buy the diary he kept there. To my mind it is in every
respect the best account I have read about the country. The distance from New York to
Wisconsin is about 1500 English miles. In New York there is a money-changer named Peder
Slither, a very friendly man, who is well acquainted with Johansen and me and knows where
we live. He lives in the basement of the house numbered 69 on Nassau Street. There are
also several other Norwegians in New York who are very familiar with the way out to
YOU WILL FIND IT ROUGH AND MONOTONOUS
MR. PAUL KNUTZEN, SKIEN.
In reply to your gracious letter of 22 inst., I wish to state that certain reports
concerning the purpose of my return to Norway are absolutely misleading. I have no
intention of taking any members of my family or any other Norwegians back to America with
me because I feel that this would be too much of a gamble. If they happened to become
dissatisfied over there, I might, of course, be blamed for having advised them to make
such a move. When people ask me about conditions in America I inform them as best I can
without in any way trying to persuade them to leave. They will have to make up their own
minds in such matters.
You ask if I believe there would be good opportunities for you and your family to earn
a livelihood in America. This is a difficult question to answer. I can say this much,
however: that if a man has the urge to go and if he is not too strongly bound to his
native land, the prospects for the future are better there than here, especially for young
people. But seeing that you are not used to farm work and since a man must start life
anew over there, I fear that you will find it rough and monotonous. Neither will your
children, who are well bred, like it over there. Your daughters, with their skill in
fancywork and other feminine accomplishments, would be best served by going to a city, at
least to begin with. It would also be necessary for them to take service with some
American family in order to master the language. Without a knowledge of English a person
can have no dealings with the people over there. Since your letter gave me the impression
that you are not especially hard pressed financially, I would not advise you to take your
whole family over at once. If your son and two daughters feel like going it would seem
reasonable to send them over first, and, after being there a year or so, they would be
able to advise you more fully as to what your prospects might be.
YOU COULD DO SOME MANUAL LABOR
WALLE via DRAMMEN
May 4, 1843
MR. OLE BJERKREM, CHRISTIANSAND.
Yesterday I received your gracious letter of April 28, wherein I note that you intend
to go to America next spring. I also note that you wish to send a letter by me to Carl
Corneliussen. I shall be glad to do this little service for you, but the letter must reach
me within ten or twelve days, as the captain I am going with expects to sail from Drammen
on May 15.
If you have been in your father's store for ten years, as you remark, I must have seen
you when Johansen and I were there during Whitsuntide four years ago.
There are good prospects in America for a dependable person who is willing to live
economically and accept any kind of work. Drunkards are looked upon with scorn.
person wants to speculate he must first become acquainted with the language and the
monetary system of the country. The traders whom Ole Rynning speaks of as camping out
night after night are
primarily cattle dealers,
and as I suspect that you know
nothing about this type of business, I would rather advise you to make your way along some
other line. You could do some manual labor, as you say, or you could get a position in a
store to begin with. As for languages, the German you have learned will be of some
advantage, since there are many Germans out there, but English is the language most
necessary to acquire.
It is difficult for me to say which city you ought to go to, but there are many
Norwegians both in and around Milwaukee, Wisconsin Territory. I live only three Norwegian
miles from there. It is very advisable to bring wearing apparel and feather beds along. I
know nothing about selling second-hand clothes, but a certain Captain Marryat of England
says in his American diary that it pays well to take along old clothes to sell. I believe
that guns and rifles can be bought just as cheaply there as here. The government price of
land is $1.25 per acre, but when bought otherwise it runs to $2.00, according to
information given us by Johansen last winter.
I ask you not to send this letter to any newspapers because I do not wish to have it
<1> An English translation of the diary is being prepared for publication by C.
A. Clausen and Andreas Elviken.
<2> Claus Lauritz Clausen, famous pioneer minister among the Norwegian Americans,
was born on the island of Ärø, Denmark, in 1820. After being educated as a
schoolteacher, he went to Norway in 1841 and became an influential lay minister. He had
hopes of becoming a missionary in South Africa, but through Tollef Bache he became
interested in America; hence the exchange of letters referred to above. He accompanied
Søren Bache on his return to America, and arrived in Muskego in August, 1843. A few
months later he was ordained by a German Lutheran minister, and for a few years he served
the Muskego congregation. Later his work expanded into new fields in Wisconsin and Iowa.
After a long, influential, and at times stormy career he died in Paulsbo, Washington, in
1892. Accounts of his activities can be found in the standard histories of Norwegian
<3> Johannes Johansen and Even Hansen Heg played a prominent part in the history
of the Muskego settlement, which they joined in 1840. Johansen accompanied Bache to
America in 1839 and on his land-seeking trips through Illinois and Wisconsin later on. See
"An Immigrant Exploration of the Middle West in 1839," Norwegian-American
Studies and Records, 14:41-53 (Northfield, 1944). Johansen was also the author of the
Muskego manifesto of 1845, wherein he defended his settlement and America generally
against the anti-emigration writings which were common in Norway at that time. For a
translation see S. B. Hustvedt, "An American Manifesto by Norwegian Immigrants,"
American-Scandinavian Review, 13:619 (October, 1925). Johansen and Heg as well as
Søren Bache became severe critics of Clausen after he had assumed his work as minister in
<4> A measure of land -- 56,000 square feet.
<5> Writing from the Beaver Creek settlement in Illinois in 1838, Ole Rynning in
his "True Account of America" says: "Wages are . . . very
different in different places, and correspond closely with the prices of other
commodities. In this vicinity a capable workman can earn from one-half to one dollar a day
in winter, and almost twice as much in summer." In Wisconsin Territory, he continues,
prices are two or three times higher than in his community and wages run from three to
five dollars per day. A biographical sketch of Ole Rynning and a translation of his book
by Theodore C. Blegen can be found in the Minnesota History Bulletin, 2:221-269
(St. Paul, 1917-18). The item quoted above is found on page 254. Ole Rynning's True
Account of America has also been published as volume 1 of the Travel and
Description Series of the Norwegian-American Historical Association (Minneapolis,
<6> Rynning says, "When land is purchased from a private person who has
himself bought earlier from the government, the price will be from two to thirty dollars
an acre." "True Account of America." Minnesota History Bulletin, 2:253.
<7> Captain Frederick Marryat, the famous author of adventure stories, traveled
widely in America in the 1830's and published an account of his impressions entitled A
Diary in America with Remarks on Its Institutions (8 vols., London, 1839). He refers
to Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Wisconsin, and sections of Ohio as the most healthful
parts of the country. Diary,
<8> See also Rynning's statement, "People whom I do not advise to go to
America are (1) drunkards, who will be detested and will soon perish miserably. "True
Account, Minnesota History Bulletin, 2:262.
<9> "An itinerant trader who is quick and of good habits can become a rich
man within a short time, but he must not be afraid to undergo hardships and to camp
outdoors night after night." Rynning, "True Account," Minnesota History
Bulletin, 2:260. There is nothing in Rynning's statement to indicate that he refers
primarily to cattle dealers.