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Three America Letters to Lesja
    translated and edited by Carlton C. Qualey (Volume 27: Page 41)

presented here are three examples of letters that Norwegian settlers in America sent back to family members and friends in Norway during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Expressions of disillusionment are relatively rare in immigrant correspondence. In the first letter below, however, Syver Christopherson states plainly his belief that glowing claims of opportunities for a Norwegian newcomer in America had been greatly exaggerated. He had left his farm, Øijordet in Lesja, for the United States, expecting his wife and four children to follow him when he became established in this country. His farm equipment had been sold at auction, and the lease was to be transferred to the new owner, Ole Toresen Hole. The letter was dated at approximately the time of settlement of the accounts in Norway.

A letter written by Jens Grønbek to his brother-in-law, Christian Heltzen of Hemnes in Rana, Nordland, has a far more optimistic tone about America than that of Christopherson. However, he stresses the fact that an immigrant from Norway would need capital to get started in farming. One must have friends, he says, not so much for the land - which could be had by [42] homesteading - as for equipment, housing, and sustenance until his first crops are harvested.

Letters of immigrants who settled in the northern part of Minnesota are rather hard to come by. But one writer from Lesja, who lived in Duluth, wrote a long account of his experiences in what he called “the land of hope.” Identifiable only by his first name, “Ole,” he evidently sent home his journal-like record to be preserved by his family. What he put into the itemized log of the voyage across the Atlantic and of his experiences in the New World is given in part here. {1}


1. WE HAVE BEEN FOOLED

Syver Christopherson from Waseca, Minnesota, to “my dear friend” P. H. Kolstad, October 3, 1869.

I have had in mind writing to you for some time, but have delayed in hopes of hearing from home in response to two letters I have written since coming to America, both without reply. Either your letters or mine have gone astray. I hope that you will send me a full report from home.

First, I will report on how things have gone with me since I came here. On my arrival in Christiania, I met several acquaintances who advised me to buy my ticket to Oconto [Wisconsin, on the north side of Green Bay], known for its work opportunities. So I went there - it took six weeks from the time I left home. I got a job at $30 a month with free board. Wages ranged from $20 to $30 depending on the work. At the sawmill where I worked, there were many acquaintances, such as the [43] Lilleenstad boys and others. With so many people there who knew me, I could not imagine that there would be any difficulty in securing payment of wages.

After two months or so I had earned about $70, but there was great difficulty in getting my money; it was almost impossible for newcomers who did not know the language. So I quit, for I could not work for promises and good faith. On my departure, I got only $10 of my wages, the remainder to be paid after the mill shut down in the fall. Whether or not I get anything then I know not. Even though several others have had the same experience, I cannot understand how these Lesja people could have written, as they did, a much-too-favorable account despite conditions far different at best. I fear that every corner of America is infected with the same illness.

A month ago I left Oconto and came here [Waseca], where I now work on the railroad. Wages are $2 per day and I pay $3.50 weekly for board. The work is unusually heavy and strenuous, and there has been a lot of rain since I came, and so conditions have been difficult. Wages are paid as of the 15th of the month; there remain always 15 days unpaid. This is to hold workers on the job. I still have not received payment since I arrived here. Travel in America is almost impossible, for it is so unreasonably expensive. From Oconto to here cost $25. I am not sure how long I will be in this place, and I do not know if there will be work this winter. I plan to stay on as long as there is a job to be had. It is very difficult to work in the winter and wages are poor.

I can report little concerning general conditions, as I have been in America too short a time. However, I have traveled through a good part of the country and have talked with many Norwegians who have been here both a short and a long time. Some have thrived quite well, but even so I cannot understand where those who write so glowingly get their information. It is only a tenth part [44] correct, and I hear loud complaints from acquaintances and friends who have been fooled. In any case, Minnesota is a very cold and severe area. Even though it is only September, the weather at night has been so cold that there has been frost and rime, and added to this there is a penetrating wind. Nevertheless, over 100,000 acres of land have been settled this past summer. There is plenty of prairie land to be had but no woodland. What is one to do for wood to burn and to build with? To settle on such land seems to be impossible. Most people do not take this into consideration until too late.

I know all too well that there are many in Lesja who are quite well circumstanced but who have America notions. If they had seen what I have seen, they would regard these notions as wind and wine. I can truthfully advise you that if one in his situation in Norway used the same time and effort as must be devoted here, his situation would be quite different. I have heard the same from solid farmers who have been in this country for a longer time than I. Otherwise, America is in many respects attractive, if one does not dwell overly on either the bright or the dark.

Syvert Hage and Ole Paulsen formed a partnership, but they are now separated - why I do not know. I have not yet met them, but I have had a letter from S. Hage. As for myself, I am in good health, thank God, but as to any definite arrangement for my family, I cannot say until I have been able to accumulate some money. In addition, I must have a place for them to live. It is now very difficult to find a house to rent, and that is understandable when one thinks of the hundreds of thousands who are streaming into this area each year, most of them poor and without anything. No matter where one stations oneself, one meets hundreds of workers, some unemployed and some employed. If in an hour’s time an employer hires a hundred men, another hundred will have gathered in [45] another hour. So perhaps the demand for labor is better here.

You must greet my brother Erik and tell him not to be in a hurry to emigrate, at least until I find a congenial place to live and it is clear that he will have employment. I will let him know.

If anyone wants my lease and will pay 600 specie dollars for it, let it be sold. I will not sell my timber for under 5 per unit. If I cannot get that, they can lie there, for that is a cheap price and someone will have use for building materials.

I read in a letter from Th. Tendevold to his son here that it looks like a good year there, and I am glad to hear it. Insofar as this is true, I hope you will have no losses in the harvest. I know you are doing your best. Write me when you can with one or another item about the family and how it went with the auction. I now have money for the bank payment, but I hope no interest will be charged. I hope the tax will be dropped, for there is no way for me to get the money to pay it. To make sure you get the money, I will soon send it in care of T. Hattrem in Christiania, and he will forward it to you. Even though it is expensive to exchange American dollars for Norwegian specie, what with 154 American dollars for 100 specie dollars, that cannot be helped. The auction must have been held long ago, and I will let you know how the money should be paid.

I enclose a letter to my wife. I cannot in any way understand why she has not written to me. One of my letters might have been lost, but I cannot believe both went astray. I must now break off this letter. You and the family are greeted most cordially by your friend, Syver Christopherson. [46]

2. RAISE $600 AND COME TO AMERICA

Jens Grønbek from Rice County, Minnesota, to his brother-in-law, Christian Heltzen of Hemnes in Nordland, Norway, September, 1867.

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your welcome letter, which was both unexpected and remarkable. I got it from a smith in town who asked if I knew someone named Jens Grønbek. I had not known that Hans Jansen had gone to America, and I have no news of him. I would guess he is somewhere in Minnesota. I was especially glad to learn from your letter that you and dear Laura as well as others of the family live comfortably. But I am very sorry that your Lofoten investment did not turn out well. You ask that I report to you concerning conditions here. This I will do by way of addition to what I have written to you before.

America is a naturally rich land, endowed with virtually everything, except to a dull-witted European who is disappointed not to find money in the streets or who expects to get things without moving his arms. Spring work has been delayed by heavy rains this year. I think we sowed wheat in the middle of May. Now we have harvested and, thanks to God, it is good. The quantity is about average.

There are many thousand acres of available land here - government, school, and railroad land - although it is increasingly in the West. As for government or homestead land, one can take a quarter section or 160 acres free, except for payment of a registration fee of $14 per quarter, and this is almost all arable land. An acre is 41/2 Norwegian maal. Schools and railroad companies have received large grants of land for their support, and they sell for 6 shillings American or 75 shillings Norwegian per acre. This land you can use as you wish and can sell when you will, and therefore it is most sought. On homesteads, you are obligated to establish a residence, build a [47] house, and start cultivation. You must live on the claim for six months of each year, and you may not sell it for five years, during which time it is free of taxes or further payments. It is this policy, of course, that makes the American government so generous and good for immigrants.

Now then, if one has land, the most important items are horses or oxen, a wagon, a plow, and other things necessary for a farmer. A pair of good work horses costs $400 to $500, a yoke of oxen, $160 to $200, and a wagon, $140 to $160. A plow, a harrow, and harness for the horses cost $200.

A beginner usually buys a pair of oxen and a wagon and makes out very well. I know farmers, wealthy people, who own many horses, including my employer who still uses oxen for farm work. I am now doing fall plowing with them every day.

This year my employer got about 1,200 to 1,400 bushels of wheat. The price this spring was two specie dollars for No. 1 wheat, 1½ dollars for No. 2, and 1 specie dollar for No. 0. A bushel weighs about 60 pounds.

Do you know what, my dear Christian? If you find farming in Norway unrewarding and your earnings at sea are poor, I advise you, as your friend and brother-in-law, to abandon everything, and - if you can raise $600 - to come to Minnesota. Do not believe that all is lies and fables in reports that in one year in America all will be well, for I can testify that it is true, despite the fact that, last fall when I came, I thought for a time I would starve. But an American came to me in friendly fashion and said, “Huad yuh want? Want yuh work? Will yuh have som ting to eat and trink?” That is, did I need anything, did I want work, and was I hungry? I did not understand him and continued hungry even though I had been offered all these good things.

I have now worked for a Norwegian farmer since [48] Christmas and will remain here until October. I have it very good here. Five meals each day of the best food in the world, so that I fear I have become choosy. You can best understand the food here when I say that the cost of board for a week is $5 and for individual meals $1 to $1.80.

Now, dear Christian, if you consider selling and emigrating across the Atlantic Ocean, please write me. Do not be worried about the voyage, either for your wife or for the children. Neither should you be alarmed about Indians or other trolls in America, for the former are now chased away, and the Yankees, that is Americans, are as kind a folk toward a stranger as I can imagine.

I am uncertain whether to make a trip to Norway in the spring or to go farther west and look over the land. If you plan to migrate, I will come to Rana, for one thing is certain: you will need as much money as possible. Andreas and Nils Jørgen bought land this spring, but I have met no acquaintances from Norway since Christmas. Nearly all newcomers want to return to the homeland until they have become American citizens, and then hardly anyone wants to return.

Dear Christian, tell Laura that I will soon see her again. Greet all friends and family.

3. A NORWEGIAN IN NORTHERN MINNESOTA

From Duluth, “Ole” Writes for His Family in Norway of His Experiences in Faraway America.

April 24, 1896. On Friday evening, we went aboard the ship Angelo. This morning at ten o’clock a mass of people had gathered on the dock, and a big departure party took place. We passengers are 540 emigrants. Have had some stormy weather, but it is behind us. We have all been well, but this is an abnormal life, with so many people forced together in a small area, and with men, women, and children - some ill, others drunk or [49] confused. If we get bad weather, God help us. We now expect soon to be in Christiansand.

Saturday, April 25. We left Christiansand in the night at 1:00 o’clock. There I got me some food and coffee. Slept well this night, and today the weather is unusually fine and we are all in good health.

Sunday, April 26. Slept well last night. Lovely weather. We now can see the coast of England. Yes, now we can see the city [Hull?] and boats pass us on all sides. We were allowed to go ashore Sunday evening to see the town but had to return to the ship to sleep. We had quite a good time there, especially as the other young men enjoyed talking with Englishmen.

On Monday morning we went ashore for good. We were driven with horses a way to the Emigrant House. There we were given some inedible food and our rail tickets. Then we boarded the train.

We had quite a pleasant journey across England. It was green and beautiful where there were fields. Otherwise it seemed like only towns all the way. After a journey of four and a half hours, we arrived in Liverpool. We were driven by horse carriage again to the hotel. There are many of us and here we met more. There are only three of us left of the group from Lesja. Hans Rise, S. Larson, and J. Jørnstad are going on another line, but we will meet them when we can. Here we remain until we get tired and discouraged. We should have left Tuesday but then we were ordered to wait until Saturday, May 2nd.

It is frustrating to be delayed on a journey - unhealthful and unpleasant it is, too. Fog, smoke, and rain daily. We have been around town a good deal, and we have found a nice park and a good museum. There is a seaman’s church near here, and we have gone there several times. [50]

Finally it is Saturday. After a painful ordeal and a trial of patience, we got our tickets, and so in a wagon to the docks. Here we were crowded into a small boat which brought us out to the large Ivernis of the Cunard Line. There was a comical tumult until we came to order and were shown to our bunks. Not until after noon did we draw away from land. The weather is good. Goodby, England.

Sunday, May 3. Well, today is Sunday. How pleasant it would be at home. If only I could eat porridge with you. The food has been poor since we left. My thoughts fly home to you dear ones. How pleasant and quiet I had it there.

It is a sad fact that many emigrate because of bad advice, including those who had good reason to stay at home. Now it is not difficult to hear that they wish themselves home again. I came on deck at 9:00 o’clock after a good night’s sleep. Soon after we put in at Queenstown, Ireland. Here over 800 came aboard. I do not understand what will happen. We now have over 3,000 emigrants, but there are accommodations for only 480. It is a remarkable situation - sadly unpleasant. The weather is still good. Think if a disease were to break out.

Monday, May 4. It is somewhat windy. Thorvald and Anton are sick abed. I am well and so must not complain.

Tuesday, May 5. It is stormy. The elements are afire. The sea is whipped into white froth-topped waves. My comrades are very ill and have not eaten food either yesterday or today. I am meanwhile quite well.

Wednesday, May 6. The weather is fine. My comrades have crawled on deck and have taken some food. I have caught a nasty cold and fear I shall be ill.

Thursday, May 7. I was very ill with a cold last night and am still. The weather was good during the night and this [51] morning, but now it looks as if we will have a storm. Cloudy again. We are only 1,500 miles from Ireland and have half way to go. This is a shamefully slow boat.

Friday, May 8. Today is fast day here. How pleasant it would be to be at home. Here it is as usual. We have some good weather, and we are all on deck. We have seen two ships today.

Saturday, May 9. Now we have been a week on board. We are 2,700 miles from Liverpool, but we still have about 700 miles to America. It is a long trip, but the weather is good.

Sunday, May 10. Exceptionally fine weather. Had a good dinner and ate well. This morning we expect to see the land of hope. All are glad.

It is now Monday morning, the 11th, 6:00 o’clock. We can see land on both sides. Hurrah for America. Finally, at 11:00 o’clock in the evening, we are on the train. It has been a strenuous day. Much hurry and walking. Twice we were on boats. Have seen the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Tuesday, May 12. We ride endlessly across fine country. The trees are in full foliage. It is nice here.

Wednesday, May 13. We continue on the train. We are very tired and irritated. We are traveling more slowly today, and the country is not as attractive. Only woods and wasteland.

Thursday, May 14. We have had an unusually long and tiresome journey. Last evening at 11:00 o’clock we came to Sault Ste. Marie, and had to stay there until 9:00 o’clock this morning. Despite its being midnight, we went into town and got a good meal which we richly deserved. Then we went on to Michigan and will arrive in Duluth at 9:00 o’clock in the morning. We parted from our comrades today, and so Thorvald and I are now [52] alone. We have been in town and got rid of hair and beard. We must look good when we arrive in Duluth.

Ole proceeded immediately from Duluth to Tower, where a sister lived. He was warmly received and provided with food, lodging, and the opportunity to rest. Returning to Duluth, he soon found occupation as a construction laborer, crushing rock. He was injured on this job and for a time was unable to work. The following paragraphs from his journal reveal his strong interest in the American celebration on the Fourth of July.

The Fourth of July is America’s greatest day of celebration, and I was now a well man again. This day is usually observed with all kinds of amusements and pleasures. Every house in town was decorated with flags, and music was played in the streets. Rockets and fireworks were sent into the air in massive amounts and explosion after explosion was set off. All who could move themselves assembled, from the smallest to the grey-haired and those bent with age.

People in masses went out to the parks. Some went to hear speeches. In the evening there were dances. Some hired horses and wagon and drove out into the country. Others sailed on the lake. Everyone did his best to make the day memorable. Food in plenty was handed out. The day was blessed with good weather, which added to the pleasure.

Our relatives and a few others spent the day outside the town on a picnic. In the evening I went to the pavilion, where a fine opera was performed to the edification of a huge gathering. When that broke up, I went home and laid myself down to rest, satisfied with the day but also impressed by its unanticipated festive nature.

In subsequent sections of the journal, Ole includes [53] details of his daily work. During this period, he became vitally interested in the presidential election of 1896.

This campaign of 1896 was the cause of so much disturbance, and of such sound and fury and large expenditure of money for no clear purpose as I had thought impossible. People were divided into two parties, each with its platform. Republicans wanted minting of gold and silver according to previous practice, with only a small portion of silver minted. The Democrats on the contrary wanted free coinage of silver as well as of gold, on a ratio of 16 to 1. Each party nominated a candidate, and speakers went out to campaign for them. Thus in Duluth we had new speakers each day, and the largest halls were filled to capacity. At times they were so crowded that people were injured. The police had to come in to prevent trouble. For each speaker, there was a parade. Hundreds of horses and fine carriages packed with people, all kinds of spectacles, the blasting of horns, marching bands, followed by thousands walking or riding. One could become deafened by the noise. I took out my first papers to become a citizen of the United States, so that I could vote for president. I had never before had this right, and I felt rather proud to have taken one step higher as a worthy citizen.

Then came election day, the 3rd of November, and no one overslept that morning. The day was quiet. Each person who could vote did so in silence, and all wondered what the evening’s news would be. All saloons were closed and everything was quiet and peaceful. But then in the evening reports began coming in from the several states, and then things livened up again.

Each telegram that arrived was posted in various places so that one could read it. Ear-shattering hurrahs were given for the winning party. People stood around all night to get the news. Certainty about the result did [54] not come in until the next afternoon. Then it became known that the Republicans had won and that McKinley had been elected president. Naturally that was good news to the winners, but just as bad news for the losers. When the election was over, there came an end to all the noise. It became quieter in the streets than ever before. Winter was coming and people had to think of other things than politics.

Notes:

<1> A copy of Syver Christopherson’s letter to P. H. Kolstad was furnished by Professor Ingrid Semmingsen of the University of Oslo. It is now in the possession of Per Kolstad in Norway. Mrs. Semmingsen also sent a copy of the Grønbek-to-Heltzen letter; she had received it from Mrs. Ingeborg Thune-Holm, a granddaughter of Christian Heltzen. The journal written by Ole is now in the possession of Inga Slettahaugen of Lesjaverk. A copy of it was also made available by Professor Semmingsen.

 

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