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Gold, Salt Air, and Callouses
    by Thomas I. Benson (Volume 24: Page 193)

One does not hear or read very much about the Norwegians who lived in California during the past century. The reasons are understandable: There were then relatively few Norwegians in California, they were widely dispersed, they had produced no outstanding political leader, and their main efforts were directed toward achieving economic self-sufficiency and individual acceptance into American society. Yet, a comprehensive and careful inquiry into the lives and circumstances of the California Norwegians reveals that they did their share in a variety of ways in furthering the early growth and historical development of their adopted state. {1}

Considered as a group, the contributions of Norwegians lay primarily in the work that they performed. Most distinctive among their vocational choices was the maritime industry, but they had a definite impact on the economy of the state as general laborers, as workers in the lumber industry, and as building craftsmen. Perhaps equally significant, the Norwegians of nineteenth-century California served as a good example of the "melting pot" phenomenon. They were [194] hopeful, hard-working immigrants who integrated quickly and unobtrusively into the community. When individuals are considered, Norwegian shipbuilders, ship captains, labor leaders, merchants, bankers, artists, and local heroes became known for their noteworthy achievements. Their place in the history of California deserves further study.

The federal census manuscripts furnish one source of objective information. From these original records, it is possible to determine the number of Norwegians living in the state, their patterns of settlement, and their occupational choices. These data also reveal something about their personal identity, such as names, ages, marital status, family size, and literacy. Analysis of this information, together with that obtained from other sources, can help in forming a clear and realistic picture of an immigrant minority.

There were at least two venturesome Norwegians in California well before the onset of the gold rush in 1849. Hubert Howe Bancroft, in his History of California, mentions that John Davis, "a Norwegian carpenter," went to California in 1828. He lived in the Los Angeles area after 1830. Davis is not listed in the 1850 census, but the 1852 California state census for Santa Barbara County shows a John Davis, sixty-two years old, who is recorded as having been born in Norway. He gave his occupation as "tavernkeeper" and was married to Maria Davis, who was born in California. They had six daughters, all born in California.

Peter Storm, a sailor, is one of the most intriguing of all the Norwegians who lived in California during the last century, not only because of his early arrival, but because of his participation in revolutionary activities. Bancroft lists him as one of the forty-seven pioneers who came to California in 1833. He was also one of about fifty men arrested in the Graham Affair, in which a number of foreigners allegedly conspired to overthrow the Alvarado (Mexican) government in 1840.

The first definite record of Peter Storm shows him living [195] in San Francisco in 1844, when he was forty years old. In early 1846 a group of American insurgents seized the town of Sonoma and proclaimed a republic under the "Bear Flag." The controversy over whether Storm or someone else painted the original Bear Flag is still unresolved. Bancroft believed that Storm "probably" took part in the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, but that it was William L. Todd who did the actual painting of the flag. Todd later explained that Storm was asked to paint it, declined, but did help to gather the materials and to mix the paint. Bancroft finally concludes that Storm did indeed paint a Bear Flag, but that it was done later and in Napa. Peter Storm went to Napa County about 1844 to live near Calistoga and was the only Norwegian native listed in that county in the censuses of 1850 and 1852. He died at Calistoga in 1877. {2}

The first real influx of Norwegians to California occurred after the discovery of gold in January, 1848. By 1850 there were 124 Norwegians in California, according to the incomplete federal census of that year. A study of the 1852 California census shows a total of 227 immigrants of Norwegian birth in the twenty-nine counties for which there are partial or complete records. The majority of these people were located in the mining counties — 86 per cent in 1850 and 69 per cent in 1852. The three counties with the largest numbers — El Dorado 30, Calaveras 27, and Tuolumne 20 — contained 70 per cent of the total Norwegian population in 1850, whereas in 1852 the three counties with the largest total number were Tuolumne 35, Yuba 25, and San Francisco 23. But these counties had only 37 per cent of the total. The figures [196] indicate that by 1852 this minority group was mining in several counties rather than concentrating in just a few, and that they were spreading out to other parts of the state in their search for gold or for other profitable employment. This trend is confirmed by the fact that in 1850 there were one or more Norwegians recorded in only thirteen counties, whereas in 1852 they were located in twenty-five. {3}

Understandably, most Norwegians were trying their luck at gold mining: 80.7 per cent in 1850 and 65.6 per cent in 1852. However, by the latter date, a growing proportion of them were apparently becoming disillusioned about their chances in mining and were trying other fields, especially the semiskilled trades, seafaring, laboring, and agriculture.

The great majority of Norwegians in California during the early 1850’s were young men. Almost two thirds were in their twenties and about 85 per cent were between twenty-one and forty. The censuses of 1850 and 1852 do not indicate whether the individual respondent was married, but it seems reasonable to assume that the majority were not. In 1852 only four instances occurred in which a woman not born in Norway had the same last name as the man immediately preceding her on the census sheet. If their marital status is uncertain, the sex of the Norwegians in California at that time is not: 99 per cent were male. Only one Norwegian-born female is listed in the 1850 census, and three in 1852, including a girl of thirteen. Thus the Norwegian gold seekers in California were young, probably unmarried men who by 1852 were beginning to move about the state in search of other opportunities for employment. [197]

From the days of the gold rush throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, increasing numbers of Norwegians were drawn to California. By 1900, there were 5,060, a forty-fold increase from 1850. At the turn of the century, one out of every 293 Californians was Norwegian-born. Almost 1.5 per cent of the foreign population had come from Norway; including the Swedes and the Danes, the Scandinavians in 1900 constituted the fifth largest foreign population group in California. {4}

Economic opportunity was doubtless the major factor in luring Norwegians to California, as it was the fundamental force drawing them from their home country to the United States. To the struggling cotter in Norway or to the discouraged immigrant laborer in Chicago, California offered a new chance: to make a quick fortune mining gold or, later on, to get a better job with higher pay as a sailor, laborer, carpenter, or farmer. What is more, California resembled the home country, with its mountains, valleys, rivers, and beautiful seacoast. Blessed with a healthful climate, the state had about it an aura of fascination, excitement, and promise.

Thus it is not surprising that by 1900 over 5,000 Norwegians were living in California. The midwestern Norwegian immigrant read letters from his countrymen on the Pacific coast, he learned about California in his many Norwegian-language newspapers, and he was cajoled by the advertisements of railroads, land companies, and even by the state government into moving to the West. {5} What does seem rather unusual is that many more did not go there. Between 1850 and 1900, an average of only one out of every 89 Norwegians in the United States lived in California. Evidently its attractions were not sufficiently strong to compete successfully with those of the Middle West.

An analysis of the census materials for 1880, 1890, and 1900 [198] reveals that the Norwegians who did choose California located in almost every part of the state. The largest concentration was in San Francisco, with 45.3 per cent of the state total living there in 1880, 37.7 per cent in 1890, and 42.9 per cent in 1900. The nine counties in the San Francisco Bay area (including San Francisco County) were the adopted home of about 62 per cent of the Norwegians in California during this period. Most of these counties attracted growing numbers between 1880 and 1900, with Alameda County (located directly east of and across the bay from San Francisco) showing the greatest numerical increase outside San Francisco. {6} Furthermore, from 1880 on, Alameda County was always the second largest stronghold of Norwegians in the state until, in 1960, it took the lead from San Francisco. {7}

Norwegians were also part of the amazing growth of southern California, where the seven southernmost counties contained 2.7 per cent of the state’s Norwegian population in 1880, 11.7 per cent in 1890, and 12.6 per cent in 1900. The remainder of the state — the northern and central counties —gained numerically but lost ground relative to the San Francisco Bay area and the southern counties, dropping from 30.5 per cent of the total in 1880 to 29.4 per cent in 1890, and to 24.8 per cent in 1900. Thus it is clear that, between 1850 and 1900, the trend of Norwegian settlement was away from the mining counties and toward the urban San Francisco Bay area and southern California.

Two general observations may be made. Though in limited numbers, Norwegians did reach out into almost every county in the state by 1900. In 1880, there were some living in 51 of the state’s 58 counties; in 1890, they lived in 53 counties; and by 1900 there were two or more living in 57 counties. Besides this dispersion, two somewhat heavily inhabited regions [199] of Norwegian settlement were established outside the San Francisco Bay area: the adjoining Mendocino and Humboldt counties along the northern coast, and the central-valley counties of Fresno, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin, located along the San Joaquin River. The attraction in the first location, according to the 1880 census, was forest-product jobs; 55 per cent of the men were employed as laborers in sawmills, or in logging operations. In the three San Joaquin River counties, the appeal was agriculture; 71 per cent of the Norwegians either engaged in farming or worked as farm hands. {8}

During the 1870’s and early 1880’s, a "Scandinavian colony" developed near Fresno. In 1878, a group of Scandinavians assembled in San Francisco to consider co-operative agricultural ventures, in California, Washington, or Oregon. They elected delegates who visited and eventually bought from the German Land Association one section of land three miles northeast of Fresno. One week after sales opened, 32 of the twenty-acre lots were sold for $15 per acre, with each owner also purchasing one $50 share in the Kings River irrigation canal. At first, sales were restricted to Scandinavians, most of whom were Danish, but later persons of other origins were admitted.

The Scandinavian colony was quite successful; it attracted settlers from California, other parts of the United States, and even from Europe. By 1882, two more sections had been added to the holdings, and almost all of the lots had been sold, at prices ranging from $15 to $100 and even $300 per acre for improved land. The sandy, irrigated land was planted mainly in vines (raisins), fruit trees, vegetables, and berries. This colony was the third largest of seven horticultural settlements established near Fresno during the late 1870’s. All of them were successful primarily because of the dependable supply of Kings River water. {9} [200]

Soon after the gold fever began to subside in the mid-50’s, San Francisco became the most important population center of the Norwegians in California, and it remained so throughout the nineteenth century. From the census manuscripts covering San Francisco for the years 1852, 1860, 1870, and 1880, enough information can be assembled to reconstruct a composite picture of the inhabitants of that city. There were no Norwegian women in San Francisco in 1852, but by 1880 there was an average of one female for every four males. The marital status of San Francisco’s Norwegian population grew from only two married couples in 1852 to five in 1860, from 30.3 per cent married males in 1870 to 45.1 per cent in 1880. Considering that San Francisco was at that time an unstable, diverse frontier city, the high proportion of married Norwegians is rather surprising.

The Norwegians in San Francisco during this period were largely young men; 91.3 per cent were in the 21 to 40 age group in 1852, 82.7 per cent in that category in 1860, 73.8 per cent in 1870, and 67.8 per cent in 1880. Therefore, there was a decline of 28 per cent in the 2 1-40 age group accompanied by a nearly 20 per cent increase in those over 40. The median age rose from 29 in 1852 to 84 in 1880. In that year, the Norwegian women of San Francisco were slightly younger than their men, having a median age of 32.

The increasing numbers of Norwegian-born women in San Francisco, the growing proportion of married men, and the rise in the median age suggest a degree of social stability. But the fact that over 36 per cent of the Norwegians in San Francisco, married and single, lived in boarding houses, and that over two thirds lived within six blocks of the teeming city wharves would seem to modify that conclusion. City boarding houses and life in close proximity to the waterfront of [201] San Francisco were probably not very conducive to tranquil, stable family living. {10}

In 1860, exactly 78 per cent lived within six blocks of San Francisco’s major wharves, and an additional 20 per cent were located between seven and twelve blocks away. Ten years later, the Norwegian population of the city had both grown in numbers and had spread out. A shift of about 10 per cent from the area closest to the bay to that farthest from the wharves had taken place. The fact that 68 per cent lived within walking distance of the wharves can be explained by the fact that in 1870 about 50 per cent of the men were employed in occupations directly involved with the sea. This figure does not include stevedores, common laborers, and those in jobs connected with San Francisco shipping.

In 1880, there were 225 Norwegians living in boarding houses — 36.9 per cent of the total of 692. There were usually, however, not more than two or three living in any single boarding house; they were spread out in many establishments. The fact that over one third lived in such dwellings is understandable, when one recalls that 73.7 per cent were males, of whom 55 per cent were single, and that some 50 per cent were employed in marine occupations. Thus in 1880, there was no Norwegian ghetto as such in San Francisco. Although living largely within the waterfront area, the Norwegians were neither numerous enough as a group nor compact enough in their pattern of settlement to dominate any single neighborhood in the city.

San Francisco offered a great variety of employment opportunities, and fortunately many of the skills required in a growing port city were already familiar to Norwegians. From 1852 to 1880, they were engaged preponderantly in the [202] marine occupations, with about half of them always so employed. The second largest number, about 20 per cent, worked as unskilled laborers. Approximately 15 per cent found work as skilled artisans in the various trades, and about half of that number competed with other San Francisco businessmen. Very few Norwegians were qualified for the professions before 1880, and even then there were only ten (2.1 per cent) of the total Norwegian workers in the city who could be so classified. In the remaining occupational categories — government and public service, agriculture, and artistic pursuits — there were only a handful. Thus, from 1852 to 1880, the vast majority (85 per cent) of the Norwegian male work force was conspicuously employed in three of the city’s most basic, physical types of work: marine occupations, common labor, and the skilled trades. {11}

In 1880, there were more Norwegian-born men employed in unskilled labor occupations in California than in any other category; 328 (29.7 per cent) of the 1,104 were so occupied. The proportion is about what one would expect to find engaged in manual, largely unskilled work — considering the training, experience, and status of this immigrant group. A majority of the men in this category (181, or 55.2 per cent of the total) were classified as common laborers; about one third of these resided in San Francisco. The reason for the large proportion in parts of the state outside the San Francisco Bay area and southern California (50.9 per cent of the total of 328 laborers) is that a substantial number were still gold seekers. Miners accounted for 22.9 per cent of the general labor group in 1880 and for 6.8 per cent of all male workers in the entire state. Why such a relatively large number of men should be still seeking El Dorado, long after the [203] peak of the gold rush, is an interesting commentary on the nature of the group. {12}

It appears that gold continued to lure many Norwegians to California during the 1860’s and 1870’s. Thirty-four of the prospectors in 1880 were young men, ranging rather evenly in age from 21 to 45. Actually, Norwegian interest in mining continued until at least the end of the century, and a number of colorful accounts of gold seekers have been preserved. John H. Smith, for example, lived a long and eventful life. Born in Grimstad, Norway, in 1813, he early took to the sea and sailed to every important port in the world before 1848, when he went to New York. In 1850, Smith traveled to California via Cape Horn and spent the next sixteen years hunting for gold, mainly in Tuolumne County. He then went to work mining coal in Contra Costa County, where on December 10, 1871, he entered a burning coal shaft and rescued seven trapped men. Following this heroic act, John Smith moved to Kings County, where he served as a superintendent in a coal mine for fourteen years. He raised stock and farmed from 1889 until his death in 1907, at the age of ninety-four. {13}

Hagbarth Nielsen, a dairyman in northern California after 1893, decided to seek the elusive pot of gold in the Yukon-Alaska rush. His memoirs, written in Norwegian and English, tell of four years of back-breaking work and bitter cold — the temperature once dropped to minus 70°. After he began to suffer from rheumatism, he recalled, "I thought it better to say goodby to the mines and go back to California for the future. It proved the better choice." {14}

The Norwegians have always been a seafaring people; hence it was only natural that a substantial number who [204] emigrated sought opportunities in the same occupation in America. It is clear that they did so in California. In 1880, 25.8 per cent of all Norwegians in California were employed in maritime work. San Francisco was their major center; 236 (82.8 per cent) of the 285 mariners in California were located there. Also significant is the fact that almost half (48.2 per cent) of all the men working in San Francisco were employed in maritime jobs. For the entire state in 1880, 285 Norwegians in maritime occupations were employed as follows: 80 per cent were seamen (228); 5.8 per cent were master mariners (15); 6.3 per cent were captains (18); and 8.4 per cent (24) were involved in a variety of marine tasks as — fishermen (7), ship carpenters (5), and shipbuilders (3). It is apparent that a major contribution of the California Norwegians, particularly those in San Francisco, was in the area of marine transportation and trade, most notably in manning and commanding vessels, but also in building and repairing them. {15}

San Francisco was the gateway to the gold regions during the 1850’s, and was the most important port on the west coast during the second half of the nineteenth century. As more ships were needed, especially for the river and coasting trade, shipbuilding became an important business in San Francisco. One Norwegian in particular, John G. North (Nortvedt), was one of the first important shipbuilders; as a contemporary San Franciscan expressed it in 1854, "North is regarded as the best shipbuilder in California." Born in Trondhjem, Norway, and trained as a master shipwright and naval architect, North worked his way to California in 1850 and spent four months in the gold fields. In 1852 he started a small shipyard in San Francisco. During the next thirteen years he built 53 bay and river steamers and a total of 273 hulls. Recognized by his contemporaries for the high quality of his work and his honesty, John North contributed [205] substantially to the early growth of the Potrero shipyard and the San Francisco shipbuilding industry. {16}

The Scandinavians generally and the Norwegians in particular dominated the California coastal fleet. So many of them were captains, mates, and crew members in the steam-schooner fleet along the coast that it came to be called the "Scandinavian Navy." The Reverend Christian Hvistendahl, sent to San Francisco to organize a Lutheran congregation, reported in 1874 that there were more Norwegian sailors than others on American ships in California, and that most of the coasting trade was in Scandinavian hands. Many of these mariners are of interest and worthy of brief notice. {17}

Captain H. O. Christianson, who came to California in 1876, was master of the "Melpomone," the largest steel ship in the world at that time. Captain S. Simonsen commanded the brig "Sea Waif" out of San Francisco during the 1880’s; in 1889 he was appointed an admiral in a Central American navy. Captain C. J. Fosen became part owner and captain of the "S. S. Newsboy," a ship of the Robert Dollar lines. He was described by Dollar as "faithful, just, and true." {18}

Undoubtedly the most important Norwegian in the California maritime industry during the nineteenth century was Andrew Furuseth, a man whose entire life was dedicated to improving the working conditions of seamen. Beginning as a foster child in Norway who early took to the sea, Furuseth [206] eventually went to California, where in 1887 he was elected secretary of the Pacific Coast Seamen’s Union. From then until his death in 1938, he worked with persistent and unselfish zeal. He organized the sailors of the Pacific coast, lobbied in Washington for bills bettering the lot of all American seamen, and appealed to the public for sympathy and understanding of the seamen’s problems. His efforts were largely responsible for the passage of the Maguire Act of 1895, the White Act of 1898, the La Follette Act of 1915, and the Jones Act of 1920; this legislation helped sailors to gain freedom and to acquire an improved standard of living. Acknowledged competence in maritime law and economics, his prolific writing, and the presidency of the International Seamen’s Union from 1908 to 1938 assisted Furuseth in achieving his goals. Perhaps his most significant legacy was his insistence upon, and his achievement of, much-needed reforms through legislation rather than violence. {19}

California Norwegians won a reputation for excellent craftsmanship during the nineteenth century. In 1880 there were 166 skilled Norwegian craftsmen in the state, and they accounted for 15.3 per cent of the 1,104 working men in the ethnic group. The largest number of them were in building trades: 39 carpenters (23.5 per cent of the total number of artisans), 18 painters (10.8 per cent), and four masons and one plasterer (3 per cent) — 62 workmen, or 37.3 per cent of the state total of 166. The remainder of the skilled laborers were employed in a wide variety of other jobs: tailors (13), cooks (10), blacksmiths (9), cabinetmakers (9), boot- and shoemakers (8), and machinists (7). Thus there was no area other than the building trades in which Norwegian craftsmen as a group seemed to specialize. {20}

There are several accounts dealing with Norwegian [207] carpenters, mechanics, and other artisans. Iver Knutson was one of the more interesting representatives of this group. As a teen-ager, Knutson traveled overland to California, where he mined for gold during the early 1850’s and later worked as a carpenter in Santa Rosa and Gilroy. In 1872 he moved to the Mussel Slough area of Tulare County (Kings County today) to farm. While there, he was one of the five ranchers killed in the "Battle of Mussel Slough," on May 11, 1880, a tragedy that resulted from a dispute over land titles between settlers and the Southern Pacific Railroad. {21}

The Norwegians in California did not engage in agriculture to the same extent that they did in the American Midwest, where almost half of them were farmers or agricultural laborers. The 1900 census figures reveal a larger proportion of Norwegians farming in the United States than of any other immigrant group. But this situation did not exist in 1880 in California, where only 17.7 per cent were involved in agricultural occupations. Almost two thirds were farmers (52.6 per cent) or farm laborers (11.7 per cent), a few raised or tended livestock, and 23.4 per cent worked steadily in the lumber industry. {22}

Evidently few Norwegians interested in agriculture came to California before 1880. During the state’s early years, land titles were uncertain and many of the better valley areas were bought up by speculators. What land was available, though often relatively inexpensive, required a costly outlay of capital for irrigation, fences, buildings, tools, and other equipment. In addition, the immigrant farmer from the American Midwest or Europe was unfamiliar with California crops and weather conditions. Thus, most of the [208] Norwegian-born who came to California in the early years were understandably motivated more strongly by the prospect of making a small fortune mining gold or silver — or in earning good wages in San Francisco — than in trying to farm. {23}

The record of Norwegian businessmen in California is most impressive when individuals rather than their group are considered. Few of them had the necessary capital, background, desire, or opportunity to enter business in 1880. Of the 71 who did, however, 42 (59.2 per cent of the total) were listed in the census as owners and "keepers" of various small enterprises — as barkeepers (15), grocers (10), and clerks (10). The remaining 29 businessmen (40.8 per cent) could be considered as higher level or larger employers. They included 13 entrepreneurs (seven merchants, a "capitalist," a boot and shoe manufacturer, a builder, a furniture store owner, a jeweler, and a real estate man), 11 dealers (of such goods as carpets, grain, cigars, and general merchandise), and two agents (mill and corn). Certainly the California Norwegians of 1880 cannot be characterized as especially business-minded although there were some notable exceptions. {24}

Most eminent among the early Norwegian businessmen in San Francisco was George C. Johnson, a merchant who traded in steel, iron, and hardware goods. Following a successful career at sea, Captain Johnson moved in 1849 from Chile to California, where he worked as a merchant in the gold-mining area below Marysville. In 1852 Johnson and George W. Gibbs established George C. Johnson and Company, soon to become the largest, most extensive hardware business on the Pacific coast. In the 1870 census, his real estate was valued at $100,000 and his personal estate at $400,000. {25} [209]

Another 1849 arrival, Benjamin A. Henriksen, built the first steamer on San Francisco Bay, but found that he could make more money selling drinking water from his artesian wells at $1.00 per barrel. He made a small fortune. Knud Henry Lund, an 1851 arrival, established a profitable import-export commission merchant business. Christian Christiansen, a San Francisco wine dealer, owned real estate valued at $25,000 and had a personal estate of $10,000 in 1870. {26}

Peder Sather was unquestionably California’s most successful and prominent Norwegian before his death in 1886. His financial achievements were remarkable: the 1870 census taker recorded the value of his real estate at $400,000 and his personal fortune at $400,000. Born in Trondhjem, Norway, on September 17, 1810, Sather was a fisherman before emigrating to New York in 1841. In 1850 he and his money brokerage associate, Edward W. Church, went to San Francisco, where they established a banking office in a wooden shanty built on piles over the water of the bay, so that they could be among the first to meet incoming ships. As business grew, so did Sather’s reputation for sound business practices, "commercial probity and solidity." Finally absorbed by the Bank of California in 1910, Sather’s business was the only banking company organized in San Francisco during the 1850’s to continue business into the twentieth century. {27}

Peder Sather is best remembered today, however, for his contributions as a trustee of the University of California. In his memory, his second wife, Jane Krom (Read), provided the funds to establish the Sather Chair in History and the Sather Professorship of Classical Literature, as well as the University’s two most distinctive landmarks on the Berkeley campus — Sather Gate and the 307-foot Sather Campanile. {28} [210]

Few Norwegians were engaged in the professions in California in 1880. Most numerous of the 18 who could be so classified were eight engineers and four bookkeepers. There were also two ministers (one in San Francisco and one in Oakland), one physician, one architect, one surveyor, and one undertaker. Only 1.7 per cent of all the Norwegians in California in 1880 were professionally employed. This situation is probably accounted for by the fact that well-educated men were little inclined to leave Norway, except for some ministers. {29}

Not many were employed in government or public positions either. Some served as firemen, police officers, soldiers, and as minor local officials. Prominent Scandinavian businessmen in San Francisco and Los Angeles usually acted as consular representatives of Sweden and Norway. {30}

A handful of Norwegians were creatively employed as inventors, musicians, and artists. At least three of the latter achieved more than local attention before the end of the century. Carl H. Jennevold arrived in California in 1890 and earned recognition as a landscape painter. Nels Hagerup was a stevedore and merchant seaman in San Francisco but won his reputation as a prolific painter of the California seashore, with over 6,000 paintings to his credit. {31}

Most eminent of the three immigrant artists was Chris Jorgensen, best known for his paintings of California missions, Yosemite National Park, and the mountains and seascapes of western America. Poor, crippled from birth, and fatherless, Jorgensen arrived in San Francisco with his mother in 1870, when he was ten years old. His talent for drawing resulted in his receiving the first scholarship to the San Francisco Art School (California School of Fine Arts), [211] the first such institution established in the West. In a few years he was appointed instructor; later, in 1881-1883, he served as assistant director of the school. He married one of his students, Angela Ghiradelli, a respected artist and the daughter of an early San Francisco chocolate manufacturer. The two explored and painted the Sierras, the western national parks, deserts, and seacoasts. In 1899 Jorgensen built a studio on the Merced River in Yosemite Valley facing Half Dome, where he became something of a personality, visited by artists and nature lovers, including John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. Exhibitions of his water-color portraits and his marine and landscape scenes have been held in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and a collection of about 200 of his works is today permanently located in the "Jorgensen Room" at the Yosemite National Park Museum. {32}

To many, the most fascinating Norwegian in California following the gold rush was Jon Thoresen Rue, popularly known as "Snowshoe Thompson." His dauntless courage and his faithfulness in carrying the mail over the rugged Sierra Mountains during twenty winters earned him the gratitude and awe of the Placerville, California, and Carson Valley, Nevada, residents. Newspapers and magazines have often printed as much fiction as fact about his daring exploits and harrowing experiences, thereby creating a California legend. {33}

Jon Thoresen Rue was born in Telemark, Norway, in 1827. When he was ten, his family emigrated to a farm in Illinois. Rue caught the California gold fever in 1851, but after mining for three years he began raising cattle and changed his name to John A. Thompson. When he heard of the problems of getting mail over the Sierras during the winter, he volunteered for the service, fashioned a pair of crude 4-inch planks into skis three and a half yards long, and to everyone’s amazement made the ninety-mile crossing from Placerville [212] to Genoa and back in five days, in January, 1856. Nicknamed "Snowshoe," he continued to carry the mail over the mountains until shortly after the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The best evidence indicates that he received little or no pay for almost twenty years of faithful, intrepid service, except a posthumous place in Western folklore and legend. {34}

Also of interest is Andrew Larsen, a Norwegian ship captain who was a leader in the roadbuilding project of the Kaweah Co-operative Commonwealth. This utopian colony was started in 1885 at Visalia, Tulare County, by Burnette G. Haskell and James J. Marlin, two labor leaders and Marxist socialists from San Francisco. Larsen was a resident member of the Kaweah colony who wanted to build a road for logging redwood trees in the area which later became Sequoia National Park. It was started in October, 1886, and with great difficulty was completed four years later, about the same time that the Kaweah colony began to break up. {35}

There are at least two places in California named specifically for a Norwegian — Ishberg Pass and Ishberg Peak, both in Yosemite National Park. The name was given by Lieutenant N. F. McClure in honor of a Norwegian soldier in his detachment who discovered the pass in 1895 while searching for sheepherders’ trails. {36}

No study of Norwegian workers in California would be complete without reference to women. In 1880 there were 354 of them in the state: 76 were single and 278 were married. The vast majority, 77.5 per cent, were housewives. Of the 79 who were gainfully employed, almost half (39) were domestic servants. The Reverend Christian Hvistendahl reported in 1871 that, although there was an oversupply of [213] male laborers and many men were unemployed in San Francisco, there was a shortage of servant girls. Two years later he explained that it was very difficult for families to keep good girls for long because they quickly married young Scandinavian men. The other 40 Norwegian workingwomen were employed in a wide variety of pursuits: dressmakers 10, cooks three, teachers three, nurses two, prostitutes two, saloon girl one, hatter one, and huckster one. {37}

Census manuscripts reveal not only specific, objective information about individuals; they also provide material helpful in developing a composite, somewhat superficial image of the first-generation Norwegians in California. In 1880, there were 1,529 Norwegian-born reported by the census. Of this number, 1,149 were males and 380 were females — that is, three men for every woman. {38}

The California Norwegians fall into three equal age groups: from 17 to 30, 31 to 40, and 41 to 60. In addition, there were about the same number under 17 (3.5 per cent) as were over 60 (3.2 per cent). Clearly, the Norwegians living in California in 1880 were a young people — their median age being 36 years. {39}

Of all Norwegians seventeen years of age or older, 751 (51.8 per cent) were single and 718 (48.7 per cent) were married. There were almost three times as many single men as single women (60.8 compared to 21.5 per cent). Stated in reverse, there were about twice as many married women as married men (78.5 compared to 39.2 per cent). There also was an unusual disparity in the ages of a great number of husbands and wives. In only 46.8 per cent of the marriages was one spouse within six years of the age of the other. Thus, 48.2 per cent of the men were six or more years older than their wives, and 4.6 per cent of the wives were six or [214] more years older than their husbands. The couple with the greatest age disparity, 46 years, was Dr. W. W. Stevenson, 83, and his wife, 37. Conspicuously, marriageable women were at a premium in California in 1880! {40}

It is not surprising that the 440 married Norwegian men showed a 42.1 per cent preference for Norwegian wives. Quite unexpected, however, is the fact that the second largest number of wives were of Irish birth (13.2 per cent of the total); they were followed by native Californians (6.6 per cent). The remaining 168 Norwegian men married women born in 11 foreign countries and 23 American states and territories. The Norwegian women of California, on the other hand, gave evidence of an overwhelming preference for men of Norwegian birth as husbands (66.5 per cent) or for other Scandinavians (9 per cent). {41}

Norwegian families in California were not large in 1880: they averaged 2.9 children. Most of the 375 families had one to four children, and only 16 per cent had five or more. Although these 1,083 children were born in 21 states and four foreign countries, the vast majority, 858 (79.2 per cent), were born in California. Only 72 (6.6 per cent) were born in Norway. Clearly, Norwegian men came to California while young and single, eventually married Scandinavian or Irish wives — or other available women — and then raised their families in California. Only a minority brought a wife and family with them. {42}

The census also contains substantial evidence that the California Norwegians wanted their children to receive at least a basic education. In 1880 there were 209 boys and 257 girls between the ages of six and 16 in the state having one or both parents of Norwegian nativity. The activities of 13.7 per cent are not indicated, but of the remainder, 5 per cent [215] were working, 6.2 per cent were at home, and 75.1 per cent were at school. By comparison, the public day school enrollment of children in all of the United States in 1880 was 65.5 per cent. {43}

The conviction that education was important may have been a reflection of the extremely high literacy rate of 97.2 per cent among Norwegians in California in 1880. Inability to read and write among various groups in 1880 is summarized as follows:

  % Unable to Read % Unable to Write
United States 13.4 17.0
California 7.1 7.8
California, foreign-born   8.6
California, Norwegian-born 2.8 1.4 {44}

Illiteracy was rare in Norway after 1736, when compulsory religious confirmation was instituted in the Lutheran state church. In order to be confirmed, a child had to be able to read Luther’s Catechism, the Lutheran hymnbook, the Bible, and Pontoppidan’s Explanation.

Public schools were established in Norway in 1789. One result was that between 1899 and 1910 Norway enjoyed the lowest rate of illiteracy of any European country; another was that the Scandinavian immigrants in the United States included a smaller percentage of illiterates than any other immigrant group. {45}

The Norwegians brought with them to America their penchant for education and their high tradition of literacy, but [216] they left behind them their naming customs. Some in migrating changed their names completely, while most altered or dropped part of their surnames or simplified the spelling of a patronymic or farm name. Two examples of California Norwegians who changed their names were John A. "Snowshoe" Thompson, originally known as Jon Thoresen Rue, and the former chief justice of the United States supreme court, Earl Warren, whose Norwegian grandfather was named Verran. {46}

A study of the Norwegian names included in the California census of 1880 reveals 530 different surnames; 22 names occur six or more times, 69 two to five times, and 437 once. The most common Norwegian surnames were:

6 {47}

The majority of these first-generation Norwegian surnames are patronymic, possibly two (Lund and Berg) are farm names or derivatives, and six are probably English-American names (Smith, Wilson, Brown, Miller, Thompson, and Williams), signifying a complete name change. It should be kept in mind, however, that these names represent only 22 of the [217] 530 different Norwegian surnames reported in 1880. Many of the remaining 508 names are clearly patronymic, but a greater number appear to be farm names. These findings are in general agreement with the conclusion reached by Marjorie Kimmerle in her study of Norwegian-American surnames: that there were probably more farm names among Norwegian Americans than patronymics. The surrender of naming customs by all and the practice of simplifying or even changing entire names by many thus connotes an eagerness to disguise foreign birth and thereby to appear less alien. {48}

The difficult, subjective question of assimilation must be considered: To what degree were the Norwegian-born, as a group, integrated into California society and how "Americanized" did they become in the process?

The most obvious factor in the Americanization of the Norwegians was their small number and their wide dispersion throughout the state. As they never accounted for more than .34 per cent of the total California population during the nineteenth century, they were easily integrated physically. Because they were scattered throughout the state, they soon lost group identity and were induced to adopt the prevailing language, customs, and culture. Even in San Francisco, which had the largest concentration of Norwegians in the state, they were assimilated rather quickly because of their small number and the absence of a Norwegian ghetto. They had much less influence there than the more numerous, compactly settled Norwegians in the Midwest. {49}

Nearly everything about the Norwegians in California points to an easy integration and Americanization: They were white, they were similar in physique and temperament to Anglo-Europeans, and they were Protestant. Their social [218] customs, morals, and ideals were similar to those of other Californians with west-European backgrounds; all this led to easy mutual acceptance. The typical Norwegians were individualistic yet adaptable and co-operative, courageous yet unemotional, hard-working and law-abiding. The Norwegian character, therefore, lent itself to acceptance by others. They had much in common with other California citizens, and they posed no threat to the leadership. {50}

An important factor in the Americanization of the California Norwegian was the ease with which he could forget his home country. He was not especially nationalistic, and he was free from many of the ties binding an immigrant to his home country. Norway was not a great or powerful European country, and his national heroes tended to be in the remote past. He had held more affection for his home farm and the surrounding district in Norway than for his country as a whole. In addition, motivation in emigrating to America was often not so much to get away from Norway as to take advantage of the economic opportunities in America. The Norwegian, therefore, was not so much an exile with a "chip on his shoulder" as an optimistic, hopeful new American working hard at his second chance. He worked doggedly at improving himself and was unreserved in his commitment and loyalty to his adopted country. {51}

A major reason for the early, unobtrusive assimilation of the Norwegian immigrants in California was the fact that most of them wanted it that way. They wished to associate with and be accepted by the native-born Americans. In this way, they could mitigate the self-consciousness and feelings of inferiority that were usually manifested by immigrants. Tangible evidence of the desire for acceptance by the California community was their concern to learn English and to [219] speak it properly, plus their willingness to Americanize their names in order to appear less foreign. Then, too, the fact that such a large majority of Norwegian children attended school may indicate not only an appreciation of and belief in education, but also an acceptance of American institutions. The fact that over half of the Norwegian men married outside their own ethnic group, and that many found wives outside their church, indicates that a considerable number were not averse even to becoming "domestic Yankees." {52}

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of a foreigner’s desire to become Americanized is his renunciation of allegiance to the country of his birth in order to acquire American citizenship. A study of the 1870 census records of San Francisco reveals that, out of 298 eligible Norwegian males, 131 (44 per cent) had become American citizens. The proportion appears to be very high, considering the unstable character of San Francisco in 1870, and the fact that the majority of the Norwegian males (about 70 per cent) were single. Two studies of Alameda County show that, in 1878, 60.5 per cent and, in 1894, 67.1 per cent of the Norwegian men living there had become American citizens and were registered voters. These examples emphasize the conviction with which these immigrants chose to identify themselves completely with the United States. {53}

Norwegians were assimilated into California society rather quickly, smoothly, and unobtrusively, but it must be acknowledged that an ostensible lack of resistance to assimilation does not signify the total transformation of Norwegians into Americans. For most foreign-born, there would always remain some degree of affection and a measure of nostalgia for the home country, for familiar customs and friends.

And yet they stayed on in California to live, to raise [220] families, and to work. In this process, they contributed their labor toward performing many of the hard, dirty, physical tasks that had to be done if progress was to be made. They helped to build, to operate, and to captain the ships that were so vital to the life and prosperity of San Francisco. They assisted in providing the lumber for many California buildings and in erecting them, and they played an important role in the state’s commerce and agriculture. From among them came revolutionary Peter Storm, shipbuilder John G. North, emancipator Andrew Furuseth, merchant George C. Johnson, banker-philanthropist Peder Sather, artist Chris Jorgensen, and dauntless "Snowshoe" Thompson. It would be hard to deny that the Norwegians of nineteenth-century California merit our attention.


<1> The best source for this period of California history is Kenneth O. Bjork, West of the Great Divide: Norwegian Migration to the Pacific Coast, 1847—1893 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1958). See also Bjork, "Hvistendahl’s Mission to San Francisco, 1870—1875 in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 16:1—63 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1950).

<2> Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of California, 6 vols., 3:409, 4:2—41, 5:110, 146—148 (San Francisco, 1884—1890); Bjork, West of the Great Divide, 22; "California State Census of 1852," 9:27, a typed copy of the original 1852 state census, in the California State Library, Sacramento; Bancroft, California Pioneer Register and Index, 1842—1848, 344 (Baltimore, 1864); Campbell A. Menefee, History and Descriptive Sketch Book of Napa, Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino, 170 (Napa City, California, 1873); "California Census Population Schedules: 1850," in the national archives, Washington, D.C. There is a microfilm copy in the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, hereafter referred to as "California Census."

<3> J. D. B. DeBow, Statistical View of the United States. . . . Being a Compendium of the Seventh Census, 118 (Washington, D.C., 1854). The San Francisco records were destroyed by fire and those for Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties were lost on the way to Washington, D.C. Thus the total of 124 is incomplete. See also Georges Sabagh, "A Critical Analysis of California Population Statistics with Special Emphasis on Census Data: 1850—1870," 115, an unpublished master’s thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 1943. For four counties, no individuals are listed in the 1852 California census; only the estimated total for each county is given. In several of the other counties, the individual records are incomplete or undecipherable.

<4> Twelfth Census of the United States: 1900. Population, 739 (Washington, D.C., 1901); the Commonwealth Club, The Population of California, 67—72, 74—77 (San Francisco, 1946).

<5> Bjork, West of the Greet Divide, 10—11.

<6> The percentages for 1880 are based on a study of the "California Census: 1880." Percentages for 1890 and 1900 follow the Report on Population of the United States at the Eleventh Census: 1890, 1:612, and the Twelfth Census of the United States: 1900. Population, 1:739.

<7> May 17 Jubilee Committee, Souvenir Program: Norway’s Constitution, 150 Years, May 17, 1814—1964, 45 (San Francisco, 1964).

<8> Percentages based on a study of the "California Census: 1880," for Mendocino, Humboldt, Fresno, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin counties.

<9> A detailed discussion of the Scandinavian and similar ventures in Fresno County is in Virginia E. Thickens, "Pioneer Agricultural Colonies of Fresno County," in California Historical Society, Quarterly, 25: 17—38, 169—177 (March, June, 1946). See also Bjork, West of the Great Divide, 220—222, and John S. Hittell, The Commerce and Industries of the Pacific Coast of North America, 97 (San Francisco, 1882).

<10> The Reverend Christian Hvistendahl wrote from San Francisco in 1870 remarking that not only single Norwegians but many families as well lived in hotels or ate their meals in restaurants. He states: "This life in boardinghouses and in restaurants naturally has a bad influence on both the old and the young." See Bjork, "Hvistendahl’s Mission to San Francisco, 1870—1875," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 26:7 (1950).

<11> Based on a study of San Francisco in "California Census" for 1852, 1860, 1870, and 1880. It appears that a minimum of 22.7 per cent of San Francisco’s 353 Norwegians were living in boarding houses in 1870. The 1852 and 1860 censuses do not indicate place of residence. See also John A. Russell, Diagram of Senatorial Districts, Wards and Election Precincts (San Francisco, 1877).

<12> "California Census: 1880."

<13> "California Census: 1880." For a discussion of mining in California between 1848 and 1873, see Rodman W. Paul, California Gold: The Beginning of Mining in the Far West (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1947). See also Eugene L. Menefee and Fred A. Dodge, History of Tulare and Kings Counties, California, 467—468 (Los Angeles, 1913).

<14> Hagbarth Nielsen Papers, in archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, Northfield, Minnesota.

<15> "California Census: 1880."

<16> Bjork, West of the Great Divide, 139—143. The quotation is from Theodore C. Blegen, Land of Their Choice: The Immigrant Writes Home, 250 (Minneapolis, 1955).

<17> Jack McNairn and Jerry MacMullen, Ships of the Redwood Coast, 93—98 (Palo Alto, California, 1945); Bjork, "Hvistendahl’s Mission to San Francisco, 1870—1875," 52. E. W. Wright, ed., Lewis and Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest (Portland, Oregon, 1895), contains almost two dozen biographies of Norwegians who started out as seamen in San Francisco, especially during the 1870’s and 1880’s in tile coastwise trade. Eventually they became masters or owners of ships. There are also a large number of other Scandinavian names listed with no nationality given, many probably Norwegian.

<18> Frank Clinton Merritt, History of Alameda County, California, 2:168 (Chicago, 1928); Lewis and Dryden’s Marine History, 221; Edward M. Stensrud, The Lutheran Church and California, 66 (San Francisco, 1916); Soren C. Roinestad, "A Hundred Years with Norwegians in the East Bay," 5 (Oakland, California, 1963).

<19> Leola M. Bergmann, Americans from Norway, 226—228 (Philadelphia, 1950); Hyman Weintraub, Andrew Furuseth: Emancipator of the Seamen (Berkeley, California, 1959). Weintraub’s book is exceptionally thorough and scholarly.

<20> "California Census: 1880."

<21> Stensrud, The Lutheran Church and California; Roinestad, "A Hundred Years with Norwegians in the East Bay"; Souvenir Program: Norway’s Constitution; Bjork, West of the Great Divide; Menefee and Dodge, Tulare and Kings Counties, 873; James L. Brown, The Mussel Slough Tragedy, 69—77 (1958). Brown’s privately printed account is detailed and balanced.

<22> Fritiof Fryxell, "A Painter of Yosemite," in American-Scandinavian Review, 27:178 (December, 1939); Torger Anderson Hoverstad, The Norwegian Farmers in the United States, 8 (Fargo, North Dakota, 1915); "California Census: 1880."

<23> Walton Bean, California: An Interpretive History, 157—158, 203 (New York, 1968); Hittell, Commerce and Industries of the Pacific Coast, 87; Bjork, West of the Great Divide, 12; Blegen, Land of Their Choice, 248.

<24> "California Census: 1880."

<25> Bjork, West of the Great Divide, 136; Alonzo Phelps, Contemporary Biography of California’s Representative Men, 2: 199 (San Francisco, 1881); State Register and Year Book of Facts: For the Year 1857, 367 (San Francisco, 1857); "California Census: 1870."

<26> The Bay of San Francisco, the Metropolis of the Pacific Coast and Its Suburban Cities: A History, 1:544, 2:31, 545 (Chicago, 1892); Bjork, West of the Great Divide, 136; "California Census: 1870."

<27> "California Census: 1870"; Oakland Tribune, May 16, 1965; Roinestad, "A Hundred Years with Norwegians in the East Bay," 8; Bjork, West of the Great Divide, 138; Souvenir Program: Norway’s Constitution, 9.

<28> Roinestad, "A Hundred Years with Norwegians in the East Bay," 9; Oakland Tribune, May 16, 1965.

<29> "California Census: 1880."

<30> "California Census: 1880." For consular representatives, see Souvenir Program: Norway’s Constitution, 7, and Bergmann, Americans from Norway, 118-119.

<31> ‘California Census: 1880"; Wellington C. Wolfe, Men of California, 260 (San Francisco, 1901); biographical card file, California Historical Society Library, Sacramento.

<32> Fryxell, "A Painter of Yosemite," in American-Scandinavian Review, 27:329—333; The Bay of San Francisco, 2:224; Bjork, West of the Great Divide, 139; Souvenir Program: Norway’s Constitution, 14.

<33> Bjork, West of the Great Divide, 281—284, 288.

<34> Souvenir Program: Norway’s Constitution, 12—13; Bjork, West of the Great Divide, 274, 289. Bjork’s 25-page treatment of Thompson is the best available. Thompson’s skis are now on display at the Sutter’s Fort Museum, Sacramento.

<35> Robert V. Hine, California’s Utopian Colonies, 90—100 (New Haven, Connecticut, 1966).

<36> Erwin Gustav Gudde, California Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary, 162 (Berkeley, California, 1949).

<37> "California Census: 1880"; Bjork, "Hvistendahl’s Mission to San Francisco, 1870—1875," 46, 49.

<38> This total of 1,529 Norwegians is the result of a thorough study of all the original census manuscripts.

<39> "California Census: 1880."

<40> "California Census: 1880."

<41> "California Census: 1880." During the 1870’s, the Irish accounted for over 10 per cent of California’s population and for almost 20 per cent of San Francisco’s; Bean, California: An Interpretive History, 234.

<42> "California Census: 1880."

<43> "California Census: 1880"; Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1917, 207 (Washington, D.C., 1960).

<44> "California Census: 1880." See also Compendium of the Tenth Census (June 1, 1880), 645—646 (Washington, D.C., 1888).

<45> Agnes M. Larson, "The Editorial Policy of Skandinaven, 1900—1903," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 8:114 (1934); United States Senate, Abstracts of Reports of the Immigration Commission, 1:175, 178, 269 (Washington, D.C., 1911). Between 1899 and 1910, the illiteracy rate of Scandinavian immigrants was .4 per cent as compared to the average rate of all immigrants of 26.7 per cent.

<46> A particularly helpful explanation of Norwegian naming customs is found in Marjorie M. Kimmerle, "Norwegian-American Surnames," in NorwegianAmerican Studies and Records, 12:1—32 (1941); Souvenir Program: Norway’s Constitution, 12; Einar Haugen, The Norwegians in America: A Student’s Guide to Localized History, 36 (New York, 1967).

<47> "California Census: 1880."

<48> Kimmerle, "Norwegian-American Surnames," 31.

<49> The Norwegians accounted for .13 per cent of the total California population in 1850, .19 per cent in 1860, .18 per cent in 1870, .20 per cent in 1880,

.31 per cent in 1890, and .34 per cent in 1900. Commonwealth Club, The Population of California, 67—72; Bjork, West of the Great Divide, 186.

<50> Larson, "The Editorial Policy of Skandinaven," 115; Kendric C. Babcock, The Scandinavian Element in the United States, 17—18 (Urbana, Illinois, 1914); Laurence M. Larson, The Changing West and Other Essays, 72 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1937).

<51> Babcock, The Scandinavian Element in the United States, 179—181.

<52> Bjork, West of the Great Divide, 200.

<53> "California Census: 1870." Only in the 1870 census was citizenship listed. The studies of Alameda County were made by this writer. For the number of registered voters of Norwegian nativity, see Great Registers (Oakland, California) for 1878 and 1894.

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