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Jørgen Gjerdrum's Letters from America, 1874-75
By Carlton C. Qualey (Volume XI: Page 82)

"To Jørgen Gjerdrum, born March 7, 1819, and his wife, Helene (Lina) Margrethe, born September 29, 1821, at Lange, on the occasion of their silver wedding, the 18th of June 1872, from a good friend (B. Bjørnson)." Thus reads the title page of a pamphlet edition of an eleven-stanza poem by the great Norwegian poet. On further examination, the title page reveals that the "fest" was celebrated at the Gjerdrum gaard "paa Blekøen ved Christiania" and that the festivities, involving 350 guests, continued from June 18 to 23. Gjerdrum himself published and annotated Bjørnson's poem, and from this and other sources one can learn something of the man who in the winter of 1874-75 made and reported to Dagbladet (Christiania) an extended visit to the Norwegian settlements in America. {1}

Jørgen Gjerdrum was an enterprising pioneer in the field of insurance in Norway. As executive director of the fire-insurance company, Storebrand, he built up this firm and laid a substantial foundation for the subsequent development of fire insurance in Norway. It was on his initiative that the life-insurance firm, Idun, was organized and advanced. His published reports and recommendations on Norwegian fire insurance are landmarks in the history of that business. In addition to his business enterprises, he was an ardent sportsman and was active in early Norwegian sports clubs --- hunting, fishing, skiing, skating, gymnastic --- and wrote several articles for various publications promoting interest in sports. He practiced what he preached, both on his numerous children and on himself, and some of the children seem to have won sports prizes. He was strongly nationalistic and both practiced and advocated old Norse customs. He urged simplified spelling and a return to old Norse forms of language. His crusading republicanism brought him into some disrepute and seems to have hindered him somewhat in business. In 1850, for example, he led the public demonstration against the deportation of Harro Harring, a republican writer and agitator, and his opinions seem to have been a factor in his removal in 1872 as director of Storebrand.

It was undoubtedly his passionate republicanism, as well as the emigration of several of his children, that aroused his deep interest in the United States and Canada and in the causes of the emigration movement. His desire personally to investigate conditions in the Norwegian settlements in America, his exasperation with Norwegian governmental policies respecting the conditions causing emigration, and his wish to visit his son in Canada brought about his decision to make a trip across the Atlantic. In December, 1874, accompanied by a younger son, he departed from Christiania and voyaged via Hamburg to New York and thence inland, returning via England in the spring of 1875. The strenuous trip and the severe exposure suffered during the voyage across the North Sea at the end of his return journey contributed to an illness which brought about his death at the age of fifty-six on August 6, 1875. Meanwhile, he had contributed to Dagbladet eighteen letters which constitute a detailed and lively record of the trip, his observations, and his conclusions on the subject of Norwegian emigration to America. {2}


Gjerdrum's trip undoubtedly aroused considerable interest in Norway. Announcements of his trip were published in Dagbladet the previous July 21 and again on October 24. That a man of his prominence should undertake a visit to America could not fail to attract attention. It may be assumed that his articles were widely read, and Gjerdrum himself seems to have been conscious of his responsibility. In his first letter, written aboard ship en route from Hamburg to New York, he stated that his "interests and pen are not for an ordinary travelogue" but that this "trip involves my countrymen, to learn to know their situation and to reach a conclusion . . . as to whether or not they, in general and in particular, are satisfied with emigrating from Norway to America." He disclaimed any preconceived opinions about emigration, except that he felt governmental interference, aside from sanitary and police regulations, was undesirable.

After some remarks as to the smallness of everything in Norway as compared to "out in the world " --- remarks that might conceivably not be too well received --- Gjerdrum gave a highly detailed description of the steamship "Goethe" on which he and his son engaged second-class passage from Hamburg to New York. He argued strongly for emigration via Hamburg rather than via England because of the comparative excellence of accommodations on the German vessel. He demonstrated that one could travel from Christiania to New York via Hamburg for a minimum of twenty-five specie dollars, third class. His republicanism was delighted when the few first-class passengers joined those in second class in social activities on the ship. "Think of it! Snobbishness had to give way while one of America's senior lawyers played quite unselfconsciously on the organ without fear of losing his dignity, and the young folks tumbled around in the usual whirling dances. Yes, propriety in the European sense was put aside and one must indeed ask how a European nobleman would have regarded it."

Gjerdrum's comments on the German people may not be wholly without a present-day significance. "The Germans are a pleasant people. They are free and natural when not commanded to act in another way; for they allow themselves to be ordered about to a remarkable degree. The worst one can say of them is that they accept and fear authority, and this they cannot deny. They love the hand that punishes them. One must therefore wonder at so much love of freedom and independence on the one hand in their society, and so much belief in authority and lack of self-confidence on the other. It is really as though their actions negate their protestations of liberty. But I suppose it is the singularly strong influence of nationalism, which cannot be understood by rules of logic but alone by feeling."

The emigrants in steerage he found to be mostly Germans from Mecklenburg and Prussia, most of them older men and women, and many children. The chief motive for emigration he found to be the desire to escape military service obligations. "But it is not easy to escape military service when men between the ages of 18 and 30 years are held as hostages to be killed or wounded when the ruler so desires." He inveighed against this "tyranny" but said that the Germans all blamed French preparations, which forced Bismarck to hold himself en garde. There were a few Russian emigrants, two Danes, one Swede, and but one Swiss, who was used by Gjerdrum to illustrate his thesis that people who are democratically governed do not emigrate. Steerage accommodations he found satisfactory except for lack of dining tables. The least attractive feature was the presence of a large number of small birds in cages en route from the Black Forest to America to be sold. There was a "fearful singing of birds."

Fine weather blessed the first part of the voyage but the latter part was made unpleasant by storms that brought "much complaint by the ladies and seasickness to practically all passengers." Gjerdrum himself seems not to have missed one of the "many and rich meals," which were "welcome diversions for healthy people." He was amazed at the fury of the storm, which tossed the big ship about and caused him to think darkly of eternity. However, the weather improved in time to permit the passengers to recover before disembarking.


Gjerdrum had been led by American census statistics to expect to find about four hundred Norwegian born in Brooklyn and New York. The Norwegian consul and the pastor of the Lutheran congregation there maintained that there were ten times that many. He met very few, and most of these were seamen or people serving them. He accounted for his not meeting many by reasoning that "nationalities rapidly disappear in these colossal circumstances, in which Norwegian conceptions of large and small must be set aside." He was overwhelmed by the city. "Take a tram car and ride for two solid hours and you will not get from one end of the city to the other. We drove on Broadway yesterday and counted what we met in five minutes. There were 132 large vehicles of all kinds. Stand still for the same period, and you will be passed by 300 or so a second." It was no wonder to him that a small group of people might become so spread out as to make it difficult to maintain connections. However, the consul assured him that his countrymen were doing well. "In any case, only one Norwegian beggar comes to his office for every fifty Swedes." Thus Gjerdrum's national pride found expression.

He was pleased to find that the pastor of the Norwegian Lutheran congregation, though without "Latin training after Norwegian conceptions," was nevertheless "mirabile dictu --- in possession of adequate culture to carry on his work." The congregation had 150 members. The Sunday services he found similar to those in Norway, but he was delighted by the democratic congregational meeting he attended the following Tuesday. In addition to this congregation, he found a Norwegian society, organized originally by the "lawyer Reymert, {3} with about fifty members. This society gave aid to ill countrymen and served as a rallying point where Norwegians could maintain contact with one other.

Gjerdrum's sense of propriety was upset by the low state of morals among the Norwegian seamen in New York, but he blamed the many temptations in such a large city. He was, however, encouraged by a visit to a Norwegian seamen's boardinghouse on New York's East Side. He found the food good but thought that the "long evening devotions were a bit too much for the money, as one says." He thought they were Quakers but was informed that the faith was Baptist. He found this boardinghouse to be "temperance" and reasonable in price. Other prices in New York, however, he found too high for his means.

In his third letter, written from Toronto, Gjerdrum told of remarkable experiences he had had in New York with bondefanger (swindlers), and of how, with the aid of police, he had rid himself of an importunate man who had sought to insinuate himself into Gjerdrum's confidence. He also told of the unhappy fate of a fellow traveler on the "Goethe," who was slugged and robbed in New York, and related his own narrow escape from a robber one night when he lost his way to his hotel. "I cannot, therefore, praise the safety of New York but was glad to get away with a whole skin."

Toronto he found in the throes of hard times, with many unemployed. Railroad construction was at a standstill, but people hoped for better times.


The census report of five hundred Norwegian-born people in Detroit Gjerdrum found to be just as unreliable as the report on New York. He reasoned that if the number was. correct, "a colossal number must at the moment of census-taking have stopped in the city for a few days." Even that seemed hardly credible. He interviewed a Norwegian merchant who had lived in Detroit for twenty-two years and who had helped many Norwegian emigrants en route westward. The chief trouble experienced by emigrants was loss of baggage. This he indicated could be avoided by checking the baggage on the rail ticket, instead of carrying one's bags and thus easily losing them. From Detroit Gjerdrum went up into Michigan, chiefly to visit a former tenant who had emigrated many years before and was living near Port Crescent, Michigan. Failing to secure passage by boat up Lake Huron, Gjerdrum traveled by rail to Bay City and thence by stage northward through woods and prairies, past deer and Indians. Concerning the representatives of the latter that he saw he wrote: "Yes, it is a wretched race, fated to be destroyed and to give way before the enterprising Europeans. Rightly did our forefathers call them skrællinger." He noted the presence in Michigan, as elsewhere in America, of many Germans. Finally he reached the homestead of his old acquaintance, six miles from Port Crescent. There follows a long account of a hunting trip with his friend and a comparison of Indian and European hunting methods.

Gjerdrum's old friend told him of the circumstances of his emigration to America. It was the story of a ne'er-do-well husmand on Gjerdrum's father's gaard, a man with a wife and seven children, possessed of slender means, and owing many debts. Taking with him a twenty-year-old son, this man emigrated via Quebec to Michigan, where the two found work in lumber camps and on railroads. After five years they saved enough money to pay passage for those of the family remaining in Norway. The family resided for a few years at Port Huron but finally settled on the homestead, which had been increased to 520 acres of arable land, and which supported the large family well. In reply to Gjerdrum's inquiry as to the less attractive features of emigrating, the erstwhile husmand said: "I cannot claim to be a rich man; far from it! But I have, nevertheless, everything that I need and desire. And I believe absolutely that a husmand's situation in Norway cannot be compared to that of a farmer in America." Gjerdrum was amazed at the transformation of this ne'er-do-well into an independent and respected citizen of the New World. He visited several homes of Norwegians in the neighborhood. This was his first contact with Norwegian emigrants in frontier conditions and he was favorably impressed.

After this visit, Gjerdrum crossed to Grand Haven, Michigan. Here he visited the Norwegian consul and found other Norwegian emigrants, all content with their new home. Before leaving the subject of Michigan he gave his readers a brief description of the physiography of the state, its rich farm lands and many forests, and the rapidly rising land prices. He regretted not being able to visit Muskegon and Manistee, where he knew there were a number of Norwegian settlers. His next step was to cross Lake Michigan by steamer to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


In Milwaukee and Racine, Gjerdrum found many Norwegian seamen who stated that they had emigrated to take advantage of higher wages and better opportunities on the Great Lakes. He then visited Depere and Green Bay and found there many of his countrymen working in the sawmills and lumber camps. In the former city he encountered one of his father's former servant girls who now was married to a stonemason from Christiania. The couple had a healthy child, owned their home, and were well content with America.

In Menominee, Wisconsin, he found a large number of Norwegian laborers working for a lumber company. In most of the hotels he found Norwegian waitresses. A Norwegian hotelkeeper in Menominee informed him that he had emigrated from Gudbrandsdal as a young man, sixteen years previously, and gave unstinted praise to his new homeland. The next stop noted was St. Paul, Minnesota.

"I am now in the heart of the emigrants' country and am hearing much about their situation and the sufferings which all have experienced on their journey here." He heard many complaints about steerage conditions and about the wrongdoings of emigrant agents. As to the latter, Gjerdrum felt that the emigrants themselves were somewhat to blame because of their inexperience as travelers. Also, the flood of emigrants brought with them inevitable confusion, which even the best-intentioned agent could not prevent. He strongly advised checking baggage and inquiring the way carefully so as to avoid going astray in this strange new world --- this "Babel's land," as he called it. The Norwegian consul in St. Paul minimized the reports of the ravages of grasshoppers in regions to the westward and stated that the average yield of wheat per acre in the affected districts was five to six bushels, which was sufficient for subsistence, without counting available outside assistance.

Regarding poverty and charity, Gjerdrum found that starvation was unheard of and that charity in America was given in food and supplies rather than in money. The farmers in the grasshopper-affected areas were given free grain and food by the railroads, he reported. "Yes, the helpfulness and friendliness in this free land is undoubtedly greater than in Europe with all its charity funds, where Christian teachings of charity are carried out in a grudging manner as though everything could be reckoned by inches or price, in lots or fifths."

In order to give his readers some conception of American hotels, with which by this time he had become rather too well acquainted, he described his hotel in St. Paul from roof to basement and all that went on between. He visited the post office, which seemed to him well arranged in that each person had his own lockbox. The latter he had never seen in Europe. He admired the efficiency of the American postal service.

In writing of his visit to Minneapolis, where Gjerdrum reported finding many Norwegians, he characteristically digressed to give an account of American newspapers. He found them especially efficient in reporting current events fully. He complained, however, that newspaper reading took the place of pleasant conversation and friendly intercourse. "Newspapers are almost as necessary to Americans as food."

Here in Minnesota and Wisconsin the population is so considerably Norwegian that one finds one's countrymen in all kinds of occupations, from laborers to officials and capitalists. One finds little of national feeling among them. It is the church and newspapers published in Norwegian that provide whatever bonds so far have been maintained, although it does seem to me that our ministers are so fanatically and intolerantly concerned with what ordinary folk must call metaphysics that they are more likely to cause disunion and strife than friendliness and peace.

I have spent so much of fourteen days amongst fellow countrymen that I have scarcely spoken an English word. Among the general impressions of the trip is this, that far from wishing themselves back in the supposed fleshpots of the home country, my countrymen intend to stay here where life is real. There are naturally exceptions, but I must add what both fellow countrymen and Americans steadfastly insist, that ordinarily, among common folk, a diligent, sincere, and industrious man can achieve an independent station and good future for himself and his family sooner than in old, aged, prejudice-infected Europe, where there is scant room in the too numerous population to achieve any easy and fortunate results.

Gjerdrum also argued that a better standard of living in America raised moral and sanitary standards among the emigrants. While at home poverty made cleanliness expensive, here plenty made high standards possible and obligatory. He found the most striking differences in the treatment of servants, both men and women. They were treated here as equals and were given every consideration. {4}


From the Twin Cities Gjerdrum traveled on to Red Wing and Rushford, Minnesota; La Crosse, Wisconsin; Decorah, Iowa; Madison, Wisconsin; and Chicago, with side trips to the Norwegian settlements in Goodhue and Houston counties in Minnesota; Washington Prairie in Iowa; and the Koshkonong area in Wisconsin. In Goodhue County, he visited "Pastor M.," {5} "Doktor G.," and "our old publicist P.H.H." {6} The Norwegian Lutheran Synod had met there that autumn, and Gjerdrum tried to grasp the seemingly vital distinctions between the Norwegian Synod, the Conference, the Elling Synod, and the Augustana Synod, but found "no essential difference in their dogma. In any case, I have not heard a reasonable word from any side of the controversy, so that it seems to me somewhat strange that they should argue so sharply against one another." He reported temperatures there as low as twenty-five degrees below zero, but stated that the dry climate made the cold endurable.

In Rushford, Minnesota, he found a large wagon factory, and took occasion to describe for his readers various types of American carriages: freight wagons, buggies, and carioles. In La Crosse, Wisconsin, he stayed eight days and seems to have been much feted by the Norwegians of the city. Among them he found many who had achieved wealth and official position. He attended a "ball" given by the Norwegians of La Crosse, and was amazed at the democratic way in which even the servant girls were invited to dance. {7}

At Decorah, Iowa, he visited Luther College --- "a college or training school for ministers, with four professors and over two hundred alumni and students." At church services there he heard "a graceful and pleasing sermon by Professor L." {8} Again he remarked on the religious strife amongst the Lutheran church organizations.

From Decorah he went up to Washington Prairie "to find some friends from Nordmark." He found them well established, their only complaint being about heavy work during the summer heat. Among his acquaintances there he found a former shepherd boy from Saetersdal who now, at the age of fifty, was a prosperous merchant. "He was a complete gentleman, in speech, dress, and manners, and no Christiania aristocrat could find anything to criticize." Gjerdrum found, in general, that despite the current depression, all the Norwegian emigrants were satisfied with having left Norway and were optimistic for the future. One Nordmark friend, for example, had in twenty years built up a farm valued at nearly ten thousand dollars, while at home he would probably have been able to gain a scant living and in his old age would perhaps have to have been supported by the communal charity funds.

In Madison, Wisconsin, he was especially interested in the Hecla fire-insurance firm, which sought to serve Norwegian farmers. He found the rates double those at home, but the same regulations obtained. He envied the company its rich market. Visits to the state Capitol, the legislature --- which included two Norwegians --- the post office, and a historical museum, and a meeting with the governor of the state kept him busy several days.

Gjerdrum visited Professor R. B. Anderson at the University of Wisconsin. Anderson showed him around the campus, and took him to call on "Ole Bull's charming wife whom we found in comfortable circumstances, with an attractive two- or three-year-old child." Of Anderson, he wrote: "Anderson is a highly gifted and, in Norwegian literature, an unusually learned man who, from memory, gave long quotations from A. O. Vinje and others, that brought tears to my eyes .... Here I found a countryman with literary training who strove persistently for the advancement of Norwegian culture." Anderson told him of his work on the Viking voyages to America, and spoke also to Gjerdrum of his eagerness to have Bjørnson make a visit to this country. The next day, Anderson accompanied Gjerdrum to the railroad station for the journey to Chicago, where Gjerdrum stayed three and one-half weeks.


"Even in New York I had the idea that it might be amusing to experience personally how an enterprising man, without going out of the way for any special kind of work, could earn a dollar." He thought of shoeshining, but was warned that he might arouse the antagonism of the boys regularly employed in that work. Finally he decided to try selling the Chicago Tribune on the streets of Chicago. On Valentine's Day, February 14, he purchased fifty copies at three cents each and sold them at five cents. It took him from seven o'clock in the morning until noon to dispose of them all. "So that day passed and I had my dollar, but I cannot say that it would be easy to do it again."

Gjerdrum was impressed by the American public-school system, especially by the fact that no church had control. He felt that the churches did not suffer thereby, but rather that the contrary was true.

Traces of the great Chicago fire of 1871 were still to be seen in the winter of 1875, and Gjerdrum took occasion in his thirteenth letter to give an account of the conflagration and to draw therefrom lessons as to fire-prevention and fire insurance. The new Chicago, rising on the old site, was, he reported, provided with elaborate fire-prevention regulations and building codes as well as a full complement of waterworks.

The Norwegians of Chicago had formed many societies that served to unify them and provide social intercourse. Gjerdrum named the Nora, the Norwegian Society, and the Norwegian Dramatic Society. He found that these democratically organized groups were successful and gave great satisfaction to the members. Moderation in drinking and behavior he noted in all the groups.

"Freedom and self-help" he found to be the dominant philosophy of this new ]and. An enterprising person of any temperament could achieve respected independence. American conditions he constantly contrasted with "obsolete, idiotic, aristocratic Europe, where social position and rank are almost as in the Middle Ages when clergy and nobility ruled, and where the forces of reaction --- political as well as religious --- would seem to require a Hercules such as Luther to clean the stables. Yes, it can truthfully be said that there is freedom in the air here."

A young son who had stopped a while in Canada joined Gjerdrum in Chicago and decided to settle there. Gjerdrum stated that his five eldest sons had now been in America, either to visit or stay. He felt that this was a better finishing school than attendance at any "Latin school or university."

At the end of February he departed from Chicago. He was accompanied to the station by ten countrymen who saw him aboard his Pullman on which he was to travel to Toronto to visit his son. There he attended the baptism of his first grandchild in the Methodist church. He remarked that one must be liberal in matters of religion. A person could be just as good a Christian even though not baptized by a Lutheran minister, he maintained.


Gjerdrum had considered taking steerage passage home, so as to experience travel in typical emigrant quarters, but he finally found it impossible to "renounce accustomed living conveniences to that extent." He therefore took second-class passage to Liverpool from Portland, Maine, {9} on an Allan Line ship. Although the ship was smaller than the "Goethe," he found the accommodations similar and satisfactory. The passage was a stormy one and the ship was two days late. He was not agreeably impressed by the steerage accommodations on the Allan Line ships, especially as one of his sons had complained of them after traveling that way in 1871. Four of the officers and crew were Norwegians, all having left home because better wages and opportunities were to be found elsewhere.

He finally reached Liverpool on March 13 and learned that Norway's coasts were blockaded by ice because of the long and hard winter and that all shipping was at a standstill. Hearing of a Norwegian freighter that was loading iron and coal at Newcastle, he wired for a berth, proceeded across England, and boarded the ship. Gjerdrum's account of the stormy crossing of the North Sea, the landing from a small rowboat at a point near Egersund, and his final journey home is exciting and dramatic, but it cannot be described here.

In his concluding letter to Dagbladet, Gjerdrum wrote that he planned summer journeys into the various districts of Norway to relate his experiences and to answer questions about America. He also planned to write a book about his travels. Unhappily, death prevented fulfillment of these plans. He concludes:

The sum of my experiences in America is a reaffirmation of the old saying, "Help yourself and take care of yourself!" This is not cold and harsh egoism. On the contrary, every man of integrity has feelings of responsibility and duty to help others in the small or large communities of which he is a fellow citizen. But each must realize or seek to discover his own limitations so that he may restrict himself to his calling, for one's strength lies in knowing its limits. When the individual has thus assured himself a sound foundation, and when he feels that he has insured his own future, then he will be best able to work for what the English philosopher Bentham sets forth as man's ultimate purpose, "the greatest good for the greatest possible number of people."

Thus Gjerdrum revealed himself as a nineteenth-century liberal, and his American experiences must have strengthened his faith.


<1> See Norsk biografisk leksikon, 4:476 (Oslo, 1929). A copy of the pamphlet edition of Bjørnson's poem is among the R. B. Anderson Papers in the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

<2> Dagbladet (Christiania), December 3, 10, 16, 24, 1874, January 5, 9, 19, February 2, 10, 25, March 10, 15, 19, 20, 30, April 3, 10, 1875. Photostatic copies are in the possession of Professor T. C. Blegen. The first six installments were reprinted biweekly in Norden (Chicago), January 14 to February 18, 1875, and installments were also published in Fædrelandet og emigranten (La Crosse, Wisconsin) and in Nordisk folkeblad (Minneapolis) during Gjerdrum's visit. Quotations given in this article are the present writer's translations.

<3> Probably James Denoon Reymert.

<4> The next letter, the ninth in the series, is an article written for Fædrelander og emigranten on "One of the Causes of Emigration." Gjerdrum chose to discuss political conditions in Norway and argued that class distinctions between the ruling classes and common people caused discontent that was a factor in emigration. He stated that paternalism was no substitute for real democracy, that the king should be responsible to the elected representatives of the people, and that the people should be allowed to rule themselves. In the tenth letter he replied to what he regarded as scurrilous attacks that had appeared in Morgenbladet on America and the emigrants here, based, he said, on slight acquaintance with this country.

<5> Undoubtedly the Reverend B. J. Muus.

<6> Probably Paul Hjelm-Hansen, who resided in Goodhue County.

<7> In an installment just preceding this point in the series, Gjerdrum discussed the case of Marcus Thrane, an exiled Norwegian labor leader, then living in Chicago.

<8> Probably Professor Laur. Larsen.

<9> Gjerdrum explains that Portland was the winter port for the Allan Line, which, during other seasons, used Montreal and Quebec as ports. He found a number of Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes in Portland. At the time of his visit a Scandinavian Lutheran congregation was being formed.

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