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Recollections from My Journey to America and My First Years in America*
    by Halle Steensland
translated by Odd S. Lovoll (Volume 33: Page 235)

*Symra (1909), 80-89. Halle Steensland (1832-1910) was one of the founders, with other Scandinavians, of the Hekla Fire Insurance Company (1871).John A. Johnson was also an officer of this company. Steensland later became a prominent banker in Madison, Wisconsin, and was active in civic life.

On Easter Sunday April 16, 1854, the brig Niord, captained by M. Olsen of Mandal, left Stavanger with a precious load of about one hundred people, men, women, and children of different ages, not counting the ship’s crew. They were people who had found circumstances in the homeland to be somewhat confining and had set the United States as the goal for their journey. There, according to what they had heard about this rich land, they hoped to have a more abundant income than they could have expected in Norway. And let us hope that most were not disappointed in their expectations, though disappointments did occur, as many a hard battle awaited them before they achieved a more or less independent position. But “the dear daily bread” was not wanting in most cases, even from the start, at least for those who were able and willing to work.

It was surely not a pleasure trip for many of the people concerned, because to depart from the homeland and leave [236] behind relatives and friends and accustomed surroundings tugs at the very roots of the heart, especially for those who have to provide not only for their own but also for their family’s future. At that time those who remained behind never expected to see the emigrants again, and among the latter there were undoubtedly few who dared to hope to revisit Norway. If anyone did return for a brief stay, it was nearly considered a miracle, and people came from great distances to visit him and showered him with questions about conditions in America, so that he had all he could do to answer them. Nowadays a trip to Norway is quite a common enterprise.

A journey to America between the years 1840 and 1870 - not to mention the Sloopers’ voyage in 1825 - was an entirely different matter than it is today. Then direct emigration from Norway to America was exclusively by relatively small sailing ships with only temporary and poor furnishings. The furnishings were intended merely for the voyage across and were to be removed on arrival to make room for other cargo or freight. Now, however, one travels on “palace liners” more than 700 feet long, and makes the crossing in from eight to ten days, as compared to six to fourteen weeks, the latter being the longest I have heard about from reliable sources.

The emigrants in those days had to supply themselves with the necessities of life during the passage and be their own cooks and waiters, families as well as single persons. Several people usually combined their kitchen and food chores and it all occurred, as far as I can recall, without much grumbling or commotion. The only items that were provided without cost by the shipping company were the stove, firewood, and water, as well as fresh air when one stood on deck, though the company did not actually provide the latter. To be sure fresh air was also free below deck, but when so many people had to stay in such a limited space at night and occasionally by day, one may more easily imagine its quality than I can describe it.

The crossing to Quebec or New York by sailing ships cost in what I will call my time from sixteen to twenty dollars; now it is by steamships and then by railroad to Chicago for about fifty dollars, which is relatively less expensive than at [237] that time, since circumstances in Norway are now much more prosperous. People in Norway then had little money. Where I came from, for instance, a servant girl in the country received only two speciedaler in cash as an annual salary, along with a few pieces of clothing which she had to help make and a pair of shoes. These two speciedaler, about the same as two dollars in American money, were hardly sufficient for her to purchase a few ribbons and brightly colored scarfs from a peddler or “Numedøl” as the traveling salesmen were called, since more of the peddlers seemed to be from that part of the country.

By far the major part of the emigrants on board the Niord were country people from different communities, and among them were two families with the same farm name as mine, but they were neither from the same farm nor even from the same community. One family was from Hardanger or thereabouts and the second was the family of a blacksmith who had lived most recently in Stavanger. The first man’s name was Erik and he and his family went to Iowa, but I have not heard about or from them since. The name of the head of the second family was Ole and his family settled in Iowa county in Wisconsin, where several of his descendants still live and thrive. After arriving here I have often met some of the children.

There was also a Rasmus Spande with his wife from Stavanger or the vicinity. He settled as a farmer near Newburg, Minnesota.

On board were also a few “general store hawkers” from Stavanger, of whom I was one, and that same year there were some such “hawkers” who emigrated on other ships from Stavanger as well, but few of them made it farther west than Chicago where after some years they disappeared from the scene. They did not belong to Norway’s best representatives and for hardly more than half a dozen of them did things go well.

The late well-known and highly respected Knud Thompson of Decorah, Iowa, told me that he was also on the Niord, but we did not become acquainted at that time. It was only after we met in common labor for the United Lutheran Church that a closer familiarity and friendship came about. [238]

On board, after the usual internal revolutions associated with an ocean voyage - that is, for those who are not used to the sea - we made it as comfortable as circumstances permitted. The young amused themselves with one thing or another, while those who were more mature naturally harbored more serious thoughts of what the future would offer them. During the passage a child was born, and a boy of eight died and following a brief devotion was lowered into the ocean. The boy’s final words had been: “Oh, Jesus, now I can see land.” But we were still far from the coast of America.

We saw many icebergs and were partly surrounded by them.

After a voyage of four weeks we caught sight of land outside the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, but because of drifting ice and fog we sailed back and forth so long that it was six weeks before we reached our destination of Quebec. There to my alarm we were met by people who approached us in boats to sell us something or to guide us to land; they appeared to me to be so offensive, yes, even ugly, that I thought that if I had to live among such people then I had arrived at the wrong place.

I can still recall clearly how lovely the land seemed to me from the St. Lawrence on its left or western side. At that time I had experienced only the southwest coast of Norway, which is not especially attractive, and a little bit of the fjords in Ryfylke. The right side of the river was very mountainous and in that regard resembled the homeland, but in the bays there were towns. I noticed how the church steeples glittered in the sun and called this to the attention of the river pilot. I remember so well how he turned a little toward me, but without smiling, and I am still uncertain whether he viewed me with scorn or pity. He said nothing, but might very well have thought what a hick I was to imagine that a sight he could see every day was anything remarkable or worthy of notice.

The journey from Quebec to Montreal in Canada was by rail and from there by canal boat to Lake Ontario and across the lake by steamboat to Hamilton in Canada. From there we again took the train to Windsor and then across the river to [239] Detroit. On our journey through Canada I occasionally had to function as interpreter, since I had studied English with Asbjørn Kloster in Stavanger for a few evening hours. It so happened when we went ashore in Toronto that a woman wished to have veal for dinner and I requested “calf beef,” which I noticed made the cook smile at my poor English, but the woman did get what she wanted.

On the trains we were put on board freight cars with planks as seats - the best side turned up, naturally - and with no support for the back. Around us people were dying of cholera, which was very common in 1854, but as far as I can recall everyone in our company made it safely to Chicago, which already then was a quite well known though relatively small city. After my arrival in Chicago I first found employment in a grocery store and later in a carpet shop, an easy place to work, for a dollar a day without board, which seemed to me quite good after I had received in Norway only three, repeat three, Norwegian skilling (about 3 cents) a day and board to teach some small children to read, and later, in Stavanger, fifteen speciedaler and board annually. But some of my equally unwise friends convinced me that it was not enough for me and I foolishly quit my job without having another one in sight. This became a hard but at the same time useful lesson, and one which I later on occasion have passed on to others who have requested my advice: hold on to what you have and if this should not suit you look around for something better. I myself sought in vain for suitable employment, became an agent for something or other, which failed, and had temporary work scouring knives, forks, and other kitchen utensils in a hotel, which did not last long.

Then I became sick with jaundice, but recovered and went to Janesville, Wisconsin, where I found lodging with one Nils Svege, or Sveger, as he called himself, who had been recommended to me by a returned Norwegian American. This my host once said to me [in his own rural vernacular]: “It is terrible how dreadfully you speak Norwegian.” I had merely retained my country speech. In Stavanger, where I had lived a few years, it would not have been possible for a [240] country boy to make any changes in his speech, because then the street urchins would immediately have said: “Listen to that peasant boor how he has already begun to imitate city speech.”

This criticism by Sveger, which I assumed to be well intended, caused me to consider that since I now was in a free country, it should be possible undisturbed gradually to make appropriate changes in my mother tongue - even though my original speech might have been adequate for everyday use, yes, even for Sunday use - and the result is that my speech has become what it is today. On my visits to Norway there have been those who have been unable to guess from which part of the country I came, since they could not notice any particular dialect. I have been back to Norway six times.

It was probably in October of 1854 that I came to Wisconsin, where I got work with a farmer on Rock Prairie in Rock county. But I worked there only until January, 1855, because the farmer had been elected sheriff and moved to Janesville, and once again I found myself unemployed.

Something that to me was very peculiar happened while I worked for the farmer. This occurred on a Sunday afternoon when the whole family, including myself and a workman of about thirty-five, were sitting conversing in the living room. I have always had a certain penchant for reading and I was reading in a large book where I found something that seemed so remarkable that I tried to call it to the attention of the workman by passing the book to him, but he simply pushed it away without a word, which I thought was a little strange. The following day the daughter of the farmer said to me: “You obviously thought it was curious that the man would not look at the book. The fact is that he does not know how to read.” This was a revelation to me, as I had never heard of, nor could imagine, a grown-up person who could not read a book. A few years ago, however, I heard about a Norwegian in this country who could not read a book. I know of course that such cases are very common among other nationalities.

Working for the farmer I had, among other things, to milk the cows and husk corn, and since the corn was still soft I could gnaw it off the cob and eat it with great delight. I had [241] become a little malnourished during my illness in Chicago and I still possessed my good Norwegian teeth. I had lost only one that when it ached had been pulled out by a blacksmith in Pedersgjerde in Stavanger, since there were not dentists in the town back then. From all the corn I ate I became fatter than I have ever been since.

On the farm there was also threshing of timothy hay and the newcomer was of course put in the worst place, behind the machine, and anyone who has had such a job knows what that is like.

In Janesville I tried without much success to get something to do, as an apprentice shoemaker, carpenter’s apprentice, brush maker, and other pursuits, but all in vain. I then moved to Madison where progress also was slow, but I did meet someone who was going to open a store in Clinton, now Rockdale, Wisconsin, and I moved there until he went to another place. On May 19, 1855, he took me with him to Madison, which we reached in the middle of the night, and he drove to a shop and knocked on the door. The door was opened, I was let in, and I was given a place to lie on the floor underneath the counter. In this store I worked for four years until the business closed. Then in 1859 I opened a little store in Madison, where I still live, together with an American who had also been a clerk in the same shop.

It might be of interest to hear about schools in Norway during my childhood, sixty-five to seventy years ago. The school went from house to house depending on the size of the farm, and the schoolteacher’s annual salary was from ten to twelve speciedaler and board. Instruction was totally elementary, as there were no books in grammar, geography, history, or arithmetic, only Grogaard’s reader. I remember so well the first time the teacher tried to teach me to figure. He wrote the number sixteen on a slate, which was not mine since I did not own that much then, and asked me to divide it by two. This I found to be completely impossible - and I have not since been any kind of a master with figures. He likely noticed that the task seemed to be somewhat difficult for me and said: “If [242] you can master it today, you deserve a prize.” How I solved that problem I cannot recall.

The pupils, at least some of them, had a little writing in school, but few of them made enough progress to have any future benefit from it. With the exception of a few evening sessions in English, German, and some Norwegian in Stavanger, I have never had any education other than what life has taught me.

The educational conditions I have noted remind me of what the great Norwegian politician Ole Gabriel Ueland said about his own time. His mother taught him to read, and in order to learn arithmetic he went to Kristiansand, I think it was, and purchased three slates which he himself framed. Still, he attained national significance as a lawmaker and will retain a prominent position in the history of Norway.

I do not consider myself among the pioneers in this country, as I have not cleared the forest or plowed the prairie, although in other areas I have made great efforts. Agricultural work has never appealed to me even though I was born and grew up in the country. There is, however, no other occupation that I would recommend more strongly to young people. No other position gives more secure prospects for an annual income and relative independence.

My career I dare say is not completely unknown. It has been rather prosaic and straightforward. Besides, it is not my place to say much about it. I will nevertheless mention this:

When I came to Madison, which became my future place of residence, I had, as far as I can recall, about forty dollars in my pocket, which at that time did not seem to me to be insignificant.

 

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