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Emigration from the District of Sogn, 1839-1915 *
    by Rasmus Sunde translated by C. A. Clausen
(Volume 29: Page 111)

*This article is based on a thesis, entitled “Ei undersøking av utvandringa til Amerika frå Vik i Sogn 1839-1915,” presented to the History Department of the University of Trondheim, 1974.

THE DISTRICT of Sogn is located in the southern part of Nordre Bergenhus amt, present-day Sogn og Fjordane fylke (county), in western Norway. In the opening years of the nineteenth century people dwelling in the Sogn area were rather isolated from the rest of the world. The long fjord made communication easy between the communities along its shores and with the city of Bergen, but most of the inhabitants clung to the neighborhoods and the farms of their birth. New developments of every kind tended to arrive later here than in most other parts of the country.

As far as one can gather there was little mobility among the people of Sogn until well into the 1800s. By the 1830s, however, a change seems to have begun. The people of Sogn were getting into motion. They visited neighboring communities, they went to the city of Bergen, to Romsdalen, and eventually even to far-off northern Norway. And as early as 1839 the first family from Sogn left for America. A certain inner restlessness seemed to be stirring the communities and this ferment among the people expressed itself more and more vigorously. This helps to explain why Sogn was one of the Norwegian districts which, in relation to population, sent most emigrants to America. The movement struck Sogn comparatively early. Per Ivarson Undi, a farmer from Vik who left with his wife and two children in 1839, was the first emigrant. He was the pioneer who blazed the trail. In 1843 thirty more people left Vik, and in 1844 and 1845 the wave gained force when 103 and 111 emigrants, respectively, departed. During these same years an additional 223 people left for America from other parts of Sogn.

Between 1856 and 1865 present-day Sogn og Fjordane lost a larger proportion of her population through emigration than any other Norwegian county. This is astonishing, especially since almost all the emigrants from the county were from Sogn. To be specific, 6,430 emigrants left Sogn while only 226 left the northern district of Sunnfjord og Nordfjord. The emigration from Sogn is still more impressive when one considers that the communities of outer Sogn had very few emigrants - less than a hundred before 1865. From inner and central Sogn, however, migration up until 1865 exceeded 25 percent of the median population figure, the most intensive migration reached by any region. During the five years from 1856 through 1860 almost 20 percent of all Norwegian emigrants were from Sogn. Not surprisingly, therefore, in 1866 the district topped all others in emigration figures. About 5 percent of all the people of Sogn left for America. Since emigration from the area west of Vik and Balestrand was very low, emigration from central and inner Sogn must then have been exceptionally high. For example, from the parish of Arnafjord in Vik more than 10 percent of the inhabitants left for America in 1856. In comparison with the rest of the country, emigration from Sogn declined greatly toward the end of the nineteenth century. During the period 1865-1895 Sogn with 14,500 emigrants represented only 3.5 percent of the Norwegian total. This may indicate that the transition to modern farming techniques, which demanded fewer laborers, had less effect on emigration from Sogn than from other parts of the country.

There are no exact figures for inner and central Sogn, but according to official statistics roughly 25,000 to 30,000 natives of these districts broke loose from their home communities and set off for America. Vik was one of the communities in Sogn hardest hit by the so-called “America fever.” During the emigration period the community consisted of three parishes: Vik, the main parish, with Arnafjord parish on the south side and Kvamsøy on the north side of the Sognefjord. More than 3,000 emigrants can be listed from Vik, which at the very most had a median population of 3,000. Among the older communities in Sogn, however, there are indications that Lærdal had the very highest emigration figure in proportion to population; Luster and Hafslo also had extremely heavy emigration. In order to explain this unusually intense emigration from Sogn it was necessary to find out what developments took place within the fjord and agrarian communities of the country during the 1800s. Space does not permit great detail but some of the main factors will be touched on.

Judging by the extremely heavy migration from Vik around 1845 one must conclude that the population had reached a saturation point in relation to the area’s economic possibilities. According to church records 459 people left the community during a four-year period, most of them going to America but a fair number also to northern Norway.

But what of population developments within Sogn as a whole? Sources reveal that there were considerable variations from community to community. During the period from 1769 to 1845 the populations of inner, central, and outer Sogn increased about 110 percent, 80 percent, and 75 percent respectively. Of the townships, Jostedalen showed the greatest increase with about 200 percent, while Årdal and Lærdal registered only slightly less. During the period from 1845 to 1900 developments were reversed: the population of inner Sogn decreased 17.8 percent while central and outer Sogn showed increases of 9.1 percent and 21 percent respectively. In contrast to inner Sogn especially, the rest of Norway had a population increase of 25 percent during these years. The contrast is even greater during the period from 1845 to 1930, when the population of Norway as a whole grew by 72.5 percent while that of inner Sogn declined by 21 percent. No other Norwegian district of similar size had a comparable decrease in population. A reasonable explanation of this phenomenon would seem to be that the migration from inner Sogn was unusually intense.

Paradoxically, overpopulation led indirectly to population decline, as it brought migration in its wake. Overpopulation was not a new phenomenon but, according to Professor Andreas Holmsen, “there are many indications which make it reasonable to assume that overpopulation had progressed farther in the communities of inner Sogn than in the rest of the country.” The reasoning behind this theory is that the production of potatoes beginning in the late 1700s resulted in better living conditions and a great population increase. Furthermore, the transition to more independent land ownership among the farmers and the increase in the number of cotters were necessary conditions for the growth of population. The narrow fjord and valley regions, however, set natural limits to agrarian expansion, and by 1845 or so these limits had apparently been reached.

By 1845-1855 there is definite evidence that over-population had reached inner Sogn. The number of farmers and of cotters who rented land (husmenn med jord) remained unchanged while there was a slight increase in the number of cotters who worked no land (husmenn uten jord). “A better proof of overpopulation in these farming communities can hardly be obtained,” in the words of Andreas Holmsen. Up until 1845 the number of cotters increased rapidly in Sogn, from about 15 percent of the agrarian population in 1723 to 42 percent in 1825, while by 1845 there were almost as many cotters renting land as there were landowning farmers. Relatively speaking, the inner fjord communities had more cotters but fewer tenant farmers (leilendinger) than the outer communities, where there were few cotters but many tenant farmers. Central Sogn and Vik occupied a middle ground in this respect. As early as 1825 about 62 percent of the farmers there were cotters. In Eivindvik, in outer Sogn, only 16 percent were cotters while about 50 percent were tenants; in Lærdal, in inner Sogn, the latter group was very small.

By and large it seems that cotters with land were the ones who put new soil under cultivation in central and inner Sogn toward the middle of the nineteenth century. Among the landowners there was very little breaking of new ground and not much partitioning of farms. The scarcity of good tillable land discouraged farmers from extending their fields, but the demand for soil on the part of cotters was so great that they found ways of eking out a living on skimpy pieces of marginal land. It can be said that the agricultural system of the time utilized labor power to the utmost in order to expand the cultivated areas and thus wring a bit more sustenance out of existing resources. But the limit had been reached. The increase in production did not keep up with the increase in population. Even the younger sons of independent farmers considered themselves fortunate if they could secure a decent cotter’s place. Many of them had to accept jobs as laborers or secure a livelihood in other ways. Large groups of young people found it difficult to earn a living. For them the future looked bleak indeed.

The economic and social pressure within the narrow fjords and valleys of Sogn toward the middle of the nineteenth century must have been unusually intense. When the first emigrants opened the doors to the New World the exodus set in with such force that it inevitably caused fundamental changes in the social structure of the communities involved.

Who were the people who emigrated from Sogn? The present study concentrates on Vik, but there is reason to believe that the factors involved there hold true for at least the other communities of central and inner Sogn.

One might expect that far more men than women would emigrate. But though more men than women did leave Vik, the difference was not very great prior to1880. This can undoubtedly be explained by the fact that family migrations characterized the early decades. After 1880 men outnumber women, by a proportion of about six to four. For Sogn as a whole during the entire migration period the relationship is approximately eleven men to nine women, or, at the most, twelve men to eight women. It is generally assumed that it was mainly young unmarried men who broke away from the old home surroundings. Researches in connection with Vik reveal something else. Through fifteen five-year periods the composition of the emigrant groups changed character entirely. During the first decade, married men were in the majority while by the turn of the century they accounted for very few emigrants from Vik. It is also true that three times as many widows as widowers emigrated.

A majority of the emigrants from Vik were young people. Most heavily represented was the age group from 20 to 24, followed by the groups from 15 to 19 and 25 to 29 years. During the early period all age groups were fairly evenly represented, but after 1880 a change took place, with heavy concentration in the age group from 15 to 30 years. Among the emigrants from Vik, however, were seven men and six women past the age of seventy.

The sex, age, and marital status of the emigrants can tell much about the structure of the groups that left Vik. It has already been shown that a definite change in all three of these aspects took place around 1880. The early family migrations practically ceased and were replaced by a growing migration of young, unattached people. The contrast between the pioneer migrations and those sixty or seventy years later is very striking. During the five-year period from 1846 through 1850 single persons accounted for only 11 percent of the emigrants from Vik while during the five-year period from 1911 through 1915 all the emigrants were unmarried. Similarly, statistics show that children represented 40 percent of the emigrant group during the first ten-year period while they were missing entirely between 1911 and 1915.

In reality, family migrations were even more common during the early period than the statistics would indicate. Besides those who were listed as a family there were many siblings and other close relatives who traveled together. The early period was characterized not only by family migrations but also by group migrations. Relatives and friends exchanged ideas while planning the hazardous undertaking, helped each other as best they could through the hardships at sea, and generally settled in the same neighborhood at the journey’s end. After reading an informative letter from a member of a group which left Vik in 1843 one may well wonder why family migration was so common. The writer, Guttorm Tistel, warned: “In conclusion I want to let you know that I do not advise anyone who has children to come over. The journey is so unspeakably hard and seldom ends without sickness and misery. Unmarried people can leave without further ado. They do not have anyone to take care of, and there is space and work aplenty for them.”

April was the great emigration month for the people from Vik. During the early period, departure was limited largely to the spring season but later there was more variation. This change was brought about by the transition from sailing vessels to steamships during the 1870s. It can also be explained by the fact that families, which formed such a large part of the early migration, were particularly in need of ample time to prepare for the harsh American winters. Some sort of housing had to be put up in a hurry: sod houses, usually, on the prairies and log cabins in the forest regions.

One of the most important aims of the present research was to establish where the emigrants fitted into the social picture of the community. It is generally assumed that cotters were the ones who most readily broke loose and left for America. But was this the case? The occupational status of both the emigrants themselves and their fathers or guardians was examined in order to get a fairly clear identification of their social background. As far as Vik is concerned the farmer class was both absolutely and relatively the largest group - well ahead of both the cotter and the servant-laborer classes. But the farmer group declined greatly after 1890. The explanation may be that agricultural conditions in Sogn improved toward the end of the century while the financial crisis of the 1890s in the United States discouraged farmers from leaving. Nor did the cotters get involved in the emigration movement as early as the farmers. The latter were generally better situated financially and held a higher position socially and culturally than the cotters. Hence it was easier for them to take the initiative in such a serious undertaking as leaving for America.

Like the rest of their countrymen, the emigrants from Sogn and Vik generally settled in the Midwest - especially in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Iowa.

In the last part of this article some of the factors behind the mass movement to the New World will be considered. It may be difficult to pinpoint the most important causes. One can mention several forces or incentives, all the way from purely personal motives to such psychological stimuli as the all-pervasive America fever. Students of emigration history speak of the “pull” and “push” factors when analyzing the causes of the movement. The pull factors refer to American conditions which attracted emigrants while the push factors refer to unfavorable home conditions which induced people to leave. According to a report by the governor (amtmann) of Nordre Bergenhus county in 1855, there was general agreement that the main cause of emigration from the district was “the hope of better conditions and easier work.”

After these general statements certain push factors in the home community can be examined.

In some parts of Norway religious and to a lesser extent political motives were instrumental in launching the emigrant movement. Especially in districts where dissenters were strongly represented the religious motive often played an important part. As far as Vik is concerned it seems rather that uncertainty about religious conditions in America acted as a deterrent during the early phase of the movement. In his official report to the county governor Dean Houge wrote as follows in 1855 concerning possible political discontent in the area: “I have never been able to detect any discontent with the government, lawgiving, taxation, or official acts in general. On the contrary, people are absolutely naive about politics and never concern themselves with discussing or judging matters which do not directly affect their daily affairs.”

As early as 1845 the county governor mentioned population increase as the most important cause of emigration from Sogn: “It is assumed that overpopulation in the district of Sogn will continue to make emigration a necessity. Agricultural productivity is so limited by natural obstructions that it can not keep up with the population increase.” The rapid growth of the population in Sogn, which was particularly marked during the decade from 1815 to 1825, produced a large group of young people during the 1840s who were looking for work, food, and the opportunity to establish for themselves and their children a home with good prospects for the future. This was undoubtedly one of the most important factors behind the emigration movement.

Overpopulation and shortage of tillable soil in Sogn during the middle years of the century must be seen together. Particularly during the early migration period there are many indications that the desire to secure wider acres in America was a very important motive. For those who could not raise sufficient money to buy a ticket to America an alternative offered itself in either northern Norway or Romsdalen where they could secure a piece of ground at reasonable prices. It was especially cotters or other members of the lower social classes who made use of this escape hatch to obtain a few acres of their own.

Agriculture was practically the only source of livelihood in central and inner Sogn. Because of the barter economy then prevalent, economic conditions in the district depended more on the yearly crops than on the ups and downs of financial affairs in the outside world. Ingrid Semmingsen has maintained that emigration was heaviest during good years. As regards Vik, one may cautiously agree that there was a positive connection between poor crop years and succeeding low emigration while good crop years were followed by high emigration. Nevertheless, it should be noted that agriculture suffered a crisis during the period of mass migration in the later 1880s: at that time the Norwegian farmers were experiencing the transition from a barter economy to a money economy - the great transformation of Norwegian agriculture.

Very likely one of the reasons why Vik and Sogn got involved in the emigrant stream so early was the fact that Per Ivarson Undi left for America in 1839. He was a farmer at Undi in Vik and is said to have been well situated. His wife was from Myrkdalen in Voss and two of her brothers had emigrated even earlier, in 1837. Per Ivarson did very well in the New World and it is not strange that he wrote to his former neighbors, as Ingrid Semmingsen says, “advising them to come over to America.” Per Ivarson Undi served as a release mechanism for the pent-up forces building within the community by 1840. He led the way, not only across the ocean but also into what was then the distant West.

Per Ivarson Undi’s radical action of breaking away from the home society and sailing off to America must in the first instance have affected the neighborhood as a push factor. His America letters, however, and positive reports about his experiences from other emigrants from Vik must be characterized as pull factors. In a letter written from Wiota, Wisconsin, he strongly urged his relatives to come over. Uncertainty and doubts were brushed away: “As you are in such doubts and wish to hear the full truth from Per Undi and his wife whether they ever regretted leaving - well, here both of them stand and declare that they thank the good Lord who gave them the desire and courage to leave their farm and seek their fortune in America where they have found life more comfortable than in Norway.” It is curious to note that Per Ivarson advised his brother to bring along with him: “a copper kettle, a griddle for making flatbread, and a rake-auger. Bring your large broadaxe along if it is an excellent one, also a small axe, two hoes or three, if you have them, or sickles and sheath-knives.”

An emigrant from Vik wrote as follows in 1844: “Recently we visited the region where Peder Undi from Wiig, Sjur Ulum, and Peder Skjærvum from Voss live. All three of them were doing very well and live like rich people.”

Scarcely any other outside factor had as much effect on the emigration movement as the America letters. Their great influence was undoubtedly due to the fact that people had complete confidence in them. The letters were written by relatives or acquaintances who were held to be very reliable and they discussed practical, down-to-earth matters. People back home were given sound advice about the journey and real insight into conditions in the new land.

The emigration protocols for Bergen contain records listing agents for steamship companies in various districts. We find that in 1890 there were nine sub-agents in Sogn whose business it was to induce people to leave for America. Similarly, there were advertisements in the Bergen newspapers, but these newspapers also carried many negative articles about emigration. Very likely the influence of agents, advertisements, and newspapers was not particularly great in Sogn because newspapers were by no means widely read in the district a century ago.

As the emigration movement grew, more and more people naturally found that they had relatives, friends, and acquaintances in America. This fact undoubtedly inspired a feeling of security in those who themselves were thinking of venturing across, and thus played an important part in tipping the scales in favor of emigration.

The emigration protocols for Bergen go back just to 1874 so it is only from that period that there are definite records as to how many emigrants from Vik traveled on tickets sent them from America. But in his report to the county governor in 1855 Dean Houge cites several instances of emigrated relatives sending financial support to people back home: “A cotter’s son, who was so poor when he emigrated in 1847 that I did not charge him any marriage fee, sent a sum of 400 speciedaler in 1852 to his father and siblings so that they might come over to him. I could mention many such special cases. I can not omit noting the remarkable fact that all these remittances come from people who were poor when they emigrated.” In addition to the America letters, reports like these give proof of the strong two-way bonds existing between Sogn and America. This economic help was especially important during the early phase of the emigrant movement because many people then found it very difficult to scrape together enough money for the long journey. There is no doubt that prepaid tickets or travel money served as strong incentives for migrating. Between 1875 and 1915 about 40 percent of the emigrants from Vik had been provided with tickets or travel money from America.

The protocols also give information about emigrants who returned to Norway as visitors. For those who were already mulling the idea of emigrating, this direct contact with Norwegian Americans may have played a decisive role. It must have been reassuring for many a homebred person to have as a travel companion a man who had already been across, who was acquainted with conditions in the new country and could speak the language. It is possible to demonstrate a direct connection between such visits by Norwegian Americans and the flow of emigrants from Vik.

Economic conditions and special circumstances in America naturally influenced the rate of emigration. With few exceptions the United States experienced good years and occasional boom periods during the last half of the nineteenth century. The Homestead Act of 1862 offered settlers up to 160 acres of land practically free; furthermore, railroad building and other rapid developments made possible the opening of the great American West for settlement.

But there were also negative aspects. The first emigrants from Sogn, like many other newcomers, encountered sickness and epidemics both during the long journey and upon arrival at their destination, with a resultant high death rate. Cholera could be an especially severe scourge in the settlements. Ingrid Semmingsen mentions three factors which retarded emigration from Norway: the Civil War of 1861-1865, the Indian uprising in 1862, and business crises in America. It is difficult to establish any definite relationship between the various financial crises in America and a declining rate of emigration from Vik. There are, however, many indications that the depression and agricultural crisis of the 1890s discouraged people from leaving. The Civil War does not seem to have had any particular effect except for 1863 when only seven people emigrated from Vik, and this decline was probably caused more by the Indian uprising of the previous year when several Norwegian settlers were among the victims.

How did the emigrants from Vik and Sogn as a whole fare? It would have been interesting to follow them further into the new land but that is beyond the bounds of this study. Through conversations with old people, however, and through reading about life in the Norwegian settlements one would gather that the great majority of them attained their primary goal of achieving better material and social conditions for themselves and their children in America. The emigrants would undoubtedly have represented a great economic and cultural force in their home communities if they had not chosen to leave. But on the other hand, emigration eased the pressure of overpopulation and unemployment and thus created better conditions for those who remained behind.


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