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Emigration from Agder to America, 1890-1915 *
    by Sverre Ordahl translated by C. A. Clausen (Volume 29: Page 313)

*"Utvandring frå Agder til Amerika 1890-1915," in Arnfinn Engen, ed., Utvandringa - det store opphrotet (Oslo, 1978), 137-156.

FROM THE time when Norwegian emigration began in earnest during the 1840s until the outbreak of the First World War more than 70,000 people from Agder crossed the ocean - the vast majority to the United States. To put this figure in perspective, the population of the two Agder counties (fylker) numbered about 116,000 in 1845 and 158,000 in 1910. It is thus plain that emigration made a great inroad into the population of these two southernmost counties, but the strength of the movement fluctuated greatly. If the two counties are compared with the country as a whole, it becomes evident that it was during the latter part of the Norwegian emigration movement that Agder joined the exodus in earnest. To be sure, around 1850 there was considerable emigration from East Agder, but after the middle 1850s this early movement stagnated entirely. Only after 1880 did people from the Agder counties plunge into the mass-emigration stream, but then they did so with a vengeance. After 1890 no other counties showed as high a percentage of emigrants as East and West Agder. During all three of the periods covered in this study -1891-1900, 1901-1910, and 1911-1915 - West Agder, followed by East Agder, "exported" a larger proportion of its population than any other Norwegian county

the four communities

An important question therefore presents itself: why was the emigrant stream from these southern areas held in abeyance from the middle of the 1850s until about 1880? An answer to this question will also explain why around 1880 the floodgates were thrown open here as nowhere else in the country. Next one may ask whether the outflow was uniform from all parts of the district - and if not, why not? A great number of people left, but a still greater number remained behind. What caused one group to leave and another group to stay at home? And finally, where did most of the emigrants from Agder find a place for themselves in America?

The following table shows how many persons per 1000 median population left Norway and the Agder districts annually during the periods indicated:

  1846-1855 1856-1865 1866-1875 1876-1890 1891-1900 1901-1910 1911-1915


Church records reveal that the first emigrants to leave Agder came from the inland communities of Setesdal. It was also from these same communities that the movement continued most vigorously during the early years and on into the 1860s. Many of these northern communities reached a population peak around 1850, and during the following decades people migrated southward toward the coastal regions, where many found employment while others continued onward to America. A few people from the coastal areas also left during the earliest emigration wave, but this proved to be a mere episode. About twenty-five years ensued - until about 1880 -during which the church records of the Agder coastal area list scarcely any emigrants.

No lengthy research is necessary to discover why the southern coastal regions, during a quarter of a century, exerted a greater pull than America. The explanation is found in the sailing vessels which during the winters could be seen in practically every little cove. The thirty-year period from mid-century until about 1880 was a golden age for the southern coastal towns.

As an example of how rapid the growth of the sailing fleet was, one can take a look at the Grimstad toll district (the parishes of Grimstad, Landvik, and Fjære). In 1849 the district had a sailing fleet of about 9,300 register tons; by 1860 the tonnage had just about trebled. By 1865 the district could boast 112 ships even if vessels of less than 100 register tons are disregarded. The ownership of this commercial fleet was widely distributed, as practically all the companies were small and most vessels were held in partnership. But business was good. The companies earned money, and work was plentiful for those who wanted to go to sea. By the end of the year 1880 the East Agder fleet alone employed more than 9,200 seamen.

This great commercial expansion exerted a strong ripple effect. Many of the ships were built close to where the owners lived. In the Grimstad toll district, for instance, vessels were built in some forty different localities during the latter half of the century. Some of these shipyards were short-lived and, of course, most of them were small. They did, however, furnish jobs for about 1,000 men, at a time when the three parishes concerned had a population of only some 8,000.

The 1850s, then, were a golden age for large parts of the southern coastal area. There can be no doubt that this explains why there were so few emigrants from Agder at the time, because the emigration figures shot upward as soon as the economic foundations of the golden age began to be undermined. From about 1880 machine-propelled iron vessels began competing with the sail-driven wooden ships. Steamships were much more costly to build or to buy than the traditional sailing ships. Many small shipping companies did not have sufficient capital for heavy investments; some of them united to form larger concerns but others kept on with the old ways until they were forced to give up. The fact that a fair number of shipping companies clung to sailing ships was undoubtedly due to the fact that they also owned the yards where the ships were built. There they had a labor force for whom they felt responsible and they had capital investments which they were reluctant to write off. Still, at the end of 1880 the East Agder merchant fleet employed 9,200 seamen; five years later the number had sunk to 8,300.

The construction of an iron vessel requires a large shipbuilding operation. This created difficulties for the many small shipyards, which were forced either to restrict their operations or to close entirely. In East Agder 162 ships were built during the period 1876-1880, while only 93 were built between 1881 and 1885. It is obvious that a number of men would lose their jobs as a result of the crisis in shipping and shipbuilding; and with unemployment came pressure on wages with the result that earnings declined even for those shipyard workers and sailors who were fortunate enough to remain employed.

During the decade 1866-1875 an average of about 350 people left Agder for America every year, while between 1876 and 1890 the annual average rose to more than 1,150. But the end was not yet: during the 1890s the figure swelled to 1,625 and during the first decade of this century to no less than 2,525 per year. This period marked the climax. During the five years from 1911 to 1915 the annual average fell to about 1,200 - roughly the same as between 1876 and 1890. After 1915 there were still a number of emigrants from Agder, but the figures can in no way compare with those of the prewar period. Economic conditions in America between the two world wars were not encouraging and, furthermore, laws aiming to restrict immigration were adopted in the United States. Nevertheless, emigration from Agder has to a degree continued up to the present time.


The group of almost 50,000 people - or 47,511 to he exact - who, according to official statistics, emigrated from Agder between 1891 and 1915 will now be exa mined more closely.

Emigration from Agder, 1891-1915
Years East Agder West Agder Agder
1891-1900 7,057 9,168 16,225
1901-1910 11,635 13,590 25,225
1911-1915 2,376 3,685 6,061
Totals 21,068 26,443 47,511


A calculation of how many people emigrated in proportion to the population reveals that the number of emigrants between 1891 and 1900 equaled about 12 percent of the combined census figures for East and West Agder in 1891. The corresponding figure for the next decade, 1901-1910, was about 16 percent. The number of emigrants between 1911 and 1915 ran to about 4 percent of the population in 1910, but it must be noted that this figure covers only a five-year period. Obviously the emigration movement from Agder was at its very strongest during the years immediately after the turn of the century. The peak was reached in 1906 when nearly 3,400 emigrants left the district - no less than 2.1 percent of the total population in a single year.

In order to get a clearer picture of the volume and nature of the emigration movement from Agder, separate figures for the various districts (fogderi) and towns within the two counties will be listed in the following tables.

The tables take into consideration changes in boundaries (i.e. town expansion). Hence the figures from the three periods are not directly comparable.

One must bear in mind that the period 1911-1915 covers only five years. Nevertheless, it is clear that emigration from all the towns and districts listed was less intense during these years than during the two preceding decades. Similarly it is obvious that the period 1901-1910 yields the highest figures for all parts of Agder. But when one compares the various towns and districts under consideration, marked differences become apparent. In East Agder, for instance, Setesdal had heavy emigration during the first period with only a slight increase during the second decade, and then a great drop during the years immediately preceding the First World War. In the neighboring district of Nedenes, emigration was much more intense between 1901 and 1910.

From the parishes of Valle and Bygland, in upper Setesdal, emigration actually began to decrease as early as 1890. In these two parishes emigration reached its high point during the 1880s. This can undoubtedly be explained by the fact that it was just this part of Agder which had the highest percentage of cotters, and it is apparent that in these communities emigration helped solve a social problem. By the end of the century the cotter class had practically disappeared; and with it disappeared also one of the main motive forces behind the emigration movement. In addition, more job opportunities opened up for those who did not have a farm or had a farm too small to provide an acceptable standard of living. In 1896 the Setesdal Railway was completed from Kristiansand to Bygland, and during the same year Bygland secured an agricultural school. Furthermore, in 1898, a combined saw- and planing mill began operations - also in Bygland. These developments, however, did not have enough effect on the southern part of Setesdal to prevent the district as a whole from having a slightly greater outflow of emigrants during 1901-1910 than during the previous decade.

The district of Nedenes experienced a rapid growth of population until about 1880 because of factors mentioned earlier. When a struggle for the remaining jobs developed, emigration became an escape hatch for many of the unemployed or underemployed. The collapse of the shipbuilding industry became total after the turn of the century and no new industries arose which could absorb the discharged workers.

The towns of East Agder were affected a good deal more seriously by the crisis in the sailing-ship traffic than were the surrounding rural areas, since they were more deeply involved economically with the imperiled industry than were the country districts. In the rural communities agriculture could, at least for a while, provide employment for some of those who lost their shipbuilding and seafaring jobs. This fact undoubtedly explains why the rural areas did not register really high emigration figures until after the turn of the century. By then it became clear to people that they had to leave if they wished to maintain their accustomed standard of living. Throughout this period of crisis the chances of finding employment in the towns were slight. As a consequence the emigration movement reached such dimensions that with one exception (the town of Risør between 1891 and 1900) the population of all the towns in East Agder was reduced during the decades of 1891-1900 and 1901-1910. During the latter decade the population of Grimstad - which was hardest hit - dropped from 3,000 to about 2,400. More than 700 people left the town in that decade, a figure which represents about 25 percent of the population in 1900. From the larger city of Arendal, with a population of 11,000 or more in 1900, nearly 2,000 people emigrated during the following ten years.

In West Agder there was a still higher degree of emigration. Of the two districts within its bounds, Lister presents especially high figures. The fact that the figures for the district of Mandal are considerably lower can undoubtedly he explained by the industrial developments in and around the city of Kristiansand.

Within the districts the intensity of emigration might vary greatly from community to community, as in the case of Setesdal. By looking more closely at the district of Lister during the years 1901-1910 one discovers that the communities of Nes, near Flekkefjord, and Herad, near Farsund, represent the two extremes. During that decade the number of emigrants from Nes equaled 9 percent of the total population in 1900, while the corresponding figure for Herad was no less than 32 percent. In most of the communities within the district the people who left during the decade comprised more than 20 percent of the census figure in 1900. The question arises: why was it that this part of Agder experienced such a high degree of emigration? The explanation is no doubt found primarily in the small farms of these communities which could barely support a family and certainly could not provide any employment for others. This part of Norway had, relatively speaking, the smallest number of cotters in the whole country; but, at the same time, there were very few large farms. Therefore, to a greater degree than in other parts of the country, the inhabitants of these communities all had the same problems to wrestle with in order to make a living. When supplemental earnings, which the farm families depended on in part, were cut from under them, the people of these communities were harder struck than elsewhere.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century it was very common for teen-age boys to go to sea. In some communities it was practically unheard of that a twenty-year-old had not had this experience. A study of the census lists for 1865 from a typical coastal community like Spind, near Farsund, reveals that no less than 90 percent of the nineteen-year-olds who had not yet left their homes had been at sea. Every spring, whole groups of men who wanted to go to sea trekked toward the Arendal-Grimstad area to get berths. In this part of Agder the coastal traffic which previously had provided a living for so many men was given its death blow around 1850 when a number of steamships began to ply regular routes along the coast and quickly won out over the small sailing vessels. The fleet of large sailing vessels, however, grew rapidly during the years after 1850, especially in East Agder. Hence it was comparatively easy for a man to secure a berth without going too far afield. But when problems arose also for the larger sailing vessels, then the livelihood of practically every young man in Spind was endangered - and the same was presumably true in the neighboring communities.

When considered as a group, the towns of West Agder consistently registered lower emigration figures than the towns in East Agder. This comes from the fact that one of the towns in the western county - Kristiansand - developed along different lines than did the other towns in that part of the country. Kristiansand had a population about twice as large as the three other towns in the county - Mandal, Farsund, and Flekkefjord - combined. The number of emigrants from Kristiansand during the decade 1901-1910 equaled 12 percent of the town population in 1910. To be sure, population developments in Flekkefjord were similar to those in Kristiansand, as the number of inhabitants there increased steadily during the years 1891-1910.

One may ask: "What caused the rapid growth of two urban centers in West Agder while the two other towns declined drastically?" The answer is that Kristiansand and Flekkefjord benefited from the new industrial growth which at the time was spreading over Norway. The consequent job openings offered the youth then coming of age an alternative to emigration. This held true not only for the two towns concerned but also for the nearby rural areas.. The community of Nes near Flekkefjord, as noted earlier, had the lowest rate of emigration from the Lister district during the decade 1901-1910. Around the turn of the century several new industries were established in Flekkefjord. Among them can be mentioned a woolen mill, a flour mill, and a furniture factory. Furthermore, in 1904 the railroad line was extended to Flekkefjord. During the decade 1891-1900 the population of the town increased by more than 30 percent; and the growth continued into the new century, though at a slower rate. Despite these new opportunities, many of the rural young people who had moved to town decided after a while to leave for America, as the high emigration figures for Flekkefjord would indicate.

But the largest town in Agder - Kristiansand - was in much better condition to keep a firm grip on its inhabitants. It had a varied economic system by the end of the 1800s and was far less dependent on the sailing ship industry than the other towns in the region. During the years immediately after the turn of the century several large manufacturing plants grew up in Kristiansand, among them an aluminum factory, a ferroalloy refinery, and a nickelworks. Concerns such as Fiskaa Verk and Falconbridge nickelworks still play fundamental roles in the industrial life of the city. This was the only urban area in the Agder district where large-scale industry developed prior to the First World War.

The two main forces behind the European emigration movements were undoubtedly the desire for a better livelihood and the desire to escape from the social pattern of the home area. If one then asks, what was the main motive which caused people from Agder to leave during the years around the turn of the century, there can be no doubt about the answer. The mass migration out of Agder was no flight from social oppression but was inspired by a search for a higher standard of living than could be found at home. From upper Setesdal - where the cotter system had been common - emigration was on the decline after 1890 and practically non-existent by the end of the period studied. That part of Norway where social equality was most marked - the Lister district - had the highest rate of emigration. A study of various rural communities and towns presents the same picture: where employment was available, emigration was light as compared with areas where no new industries sprang up.

During the five-year period 1911-1915 there was a great drop in the emigration figures. This may have been caused partly by the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914. After that, people might naturally think twice before setting out on the Atlantic. But the war does not completely explain the decline. As already emphasized, it was the hope of improving their economic condition which was decisive for the vast majority of those who chose to emigrate. After 1910 it was not as evident as it had been some years earlier that opportunities were so much greater in America. For one thing, a recession had begun in America a few years earlier. Furthermore, there had been a great thinning of the ranks of the young and able-bodied in Norway during the previous decades. As a consequence there were better chances for those who remained at home and for the rising generation even in regions where employment possibilities had not substantially improved. It can be argued that large sections of Agder would have been depopulated if emigration had continued for long at the same level as before 1910. The tendency was clear: it was especially the young people who emigrated. In a town like Farsund, with a population of about 1,500 in 1910, only twenty couples were married between 1911 and 1915. Economic conditions in Agder were bad but not so miserable that the district had to be completely depopulated.


Statistics can be misleading. This is true of the emigration statistics for Agder. A main feature of the population figures for the region as a whole is that they remain practically static between 1890 and 1910. But if one compares the two counties one finds that there was a population decline in East Agder while there was an increase in West Agder.

Population figures for Agder, 1891-1910

East Agder
West Agder


Below are figures for the surplus of births over deaths, emigration, and growth or decline of population in the two Agder counties from 1891 to 1910.

East Agder
Natural increase
Population change
West Agder
Natural increase
Population change
+ 500

These figures reveal the paradoxical situation that East Agder had both a larger natural increase and less emigration than West Agder; still it was in East Agder that the population declined while it increased in West Agder. Was the influx of people from other parts of Norway so much greater in West Agder than in the neighboring county? It is difficult to secure reliable figures for migrations within the country, but it can be definitely asserted that they by no means equaled the figures for emigration. Agder was not a part of Norway which exerted any great pull during the period studied - this is proved by the contemporary mass exodus to America - so one may reasonably conclude that the district was a net loser in the migration exchange with other Norwegian communities.

The factor which intrudes and blurs the picture rendered by the emigration statistics is the matter of remigration. The census of 1910 was supposed to note those who were Norwegian Americans. But this was a rather vague concept: a person who had been in America some ten or twelve years previously would most likely not indicate this on the census list. As a consequence, the figures thus secured would be much too low. Nevertheless, the census shows about 3,000 people in Agder in this category: and of these, the great majority - almost 2,400 - lived in West Agder. A not inconsiderable number of emigrants had thus been in America for a while only to return to Norway. But frequently they changed their minds and set off again. Some of them became real birds of passage who remained only a year or two on either side of the Atlantic. It was especially in West Agder that this traffic took place; as a result the emigration figures for this county are too high, though how much too high is difficult to say. But it is reasonable to assume that the actual loss of population through emigration from West Agder did not much exceed that from East Agder.


The emigration movement divided numerous families. Among some groups of siblings, the majority left while among others the majority chose to remain in Norway. In certain families all the siblings emigrated while in other families all of them remained behind. But these two extremes were exceptions. A concrete example of what could happen in this respect involves the families of a couple who shortly before 1910 settled on a farm at Sævik in Spind. The husband, Severin, was born in Herad, and the wife, Tea, grew up in Sævik. Herad and Spind were numbered among the communities which had the very heaviest emigration. Both Tea and Severin had been in America before they settled on their farm. In fact, they were married in America in 1907. Severin was born in 1882 as the second child in a group of twelve siblings, eleven of whom reached adulthood. Tea was born in 1884 - the youngest in a family of six. Only three of these seventeen siblings never set foot on American soil, and one of the three died at the age of seventeen. That left two girls who reached adulthood and did not go to America; but even they left their home communities and moved to eastern Norway.

Most of the fourteen who went to America came back to Norway one or more times. Some of them returned to settle in the land of their birth, then visited America on occasion. Six of the fourteen remained in America permanently. Of those who married, a majority of them did so in America. Among the varied ethnic groups they encountered in America, the emigrants usually sought out people of their home community and maintained contact with them. Apparently it was not difficult in America to get in touch with friends or relatives from Norway if one so desired.

Whether or not to leave for America was a decision that each individual had to make for himself. What was the pull which induced some to leave, while others remained in Norway? And what caused some of the emigrants to retrace their steps, while others chose to remain in America?

In this connection it may be sufficient to consider two factors which might determine a person's future. One of these would plainly be economic. In America they would have a better chance to earn money than in Norway. They could no doubt secure a livelihood at home, but in America they might possibly become rich. This was a great attraction. But then there were the bonds which held a person to the old community: the childhood home, relatives and friends, the neighborhood with its many memories. A sensitive person found it difficult to tear himself away from his past. Whichever of these two factors proved the more powerful would often decide where an individual would spend the rest of his life. The two forces might vary in strength from time to time. If conditions were especially difficult at home or especially promising in America, then the voices of longing might be silenced. Or if many relatives and friends had already crossed the Atlantic before him, then it would be easier for a person to leave the old home place. It is, of course, plain that people of differing temperaments would be affected differently by these two forces.

Those who had got into awkward situations at home would likely welcome a chance to get a new start in life where nobody knew them. Those who were primarily interested in economic success probably did not feel the pull of home quite so strongly. But then there were others who were never free of their longings. A man of that sort could write home to parents in reply to assurances that they were not about to sell the farm: ". . . that cheered me greatly because it is so sad to think that I might never again roam about among the familiar mountains of home; and Lars [a brother] says that the farm will never be sold. . ." As if to underscore the seriousness of what he wrote, he went on: "Lars and I will send some money so you can hire help and not wear yourselves out. And one of us will undoubtedly return home after a while to help you."

In the great majority of America letters one finds expressions of longing and nostalgia coupled with accounts of how well-off the writers are in a material sense. One man who did especially well in America described in letter after letter to Norway the affluent life he was leading. But still he carried a pain in his heart - he had forsaken his parents whom he ought to have helped: "I feel sad many a time for having gone away from father and mother whose burdens I could have lightened." He wrote this to a younger brother whom he asked not to leave home because then the old folk would be left entirely without help.

This tug-of-war in the human heart between longing for home and the urge to go where there are greater chances for advancement is an ever-present phenomenon; but it became especially marked in connection with the overseas migration because of the vast distances involved. There the conflict caused some people to shuttle continually between the old home and the new until they virtually became homeless no matter where they happened to be. Up until the present generation a fair number of such people were found in Agder - indeed, a few of them can still be met there.

For those who entered into marriage, the bonds with the home community were weakened; and those who married non-Norwegians very seldom returned to Norway. On the other hand, if the spouse also came from the home community then chances were greater that their new home would be in Norway - and Agder.

Around the turn of the century, one alternative for those who wanted to get ahead was to go to America. Another was to go to school and prepare oneself for a profession. But for most of the young people, this was out of the question. Common people could not afford a higher education. Only those who were blest with unusual determination managed to fight their way through along this line, and they usually remained in Norway. Generally they were of an idealistic bent and became leaders in the church, young people's organizations, temperance movements, and similar causes.

The statement is often made that it was the most gifted and capable people - the "cream," so to speak - who went to America and remained there. This contention may very well be questioned. Those who were strongly inclined toward gaining material wealth and who were most successful in this endeavor usually remained in America - and the same was true of those who were total failures. In addition there were, of course, those who stayed more or less by chance. On the other hand, those who had the greatest ability and a desire to use it toward securing an education often stayed in Norway. And those who had the greatest love for the home community either remained at home or returned after having been in America. The claim that it was a superior part of the population which emigrated is therefore highly debatable.


A great majority of the early emigrants from Norway settled down as farmers in America. Until about the turn of the century, free land was still available there - areas which had not yet been bought or otherwise acquired by people of European stock. The first emigrants from Agder were also in search of land, and this remained true of many newcomers as long as homesteads could be claimed. During the years between 1890 and 1915 a considerable group of emigrants from various Agder communities also went on to rural districts of Canada where large areas had been opened up for homesteading. There are indications that a considerable number of people from Agder, around the turn of the century, settled just along the boundary line between the United States and Canada. For instance, a little Søgne colony grew up near the border town of Antler in North Dakota. The founder of this colony was an emigrant from the community of Søgne who had settled near Antler. He returned to Norway for a visit in 1906 and must have spoken eloquently of his new home area and its many opportunities because he induced a whole group of young people from Søgne to settle in that neighborhood. By reading a number of America letters from this period one gets the impression that land could be obtained rather easily in these border regions up to the beginning of the First World War.

During the years 1890-1915, however, it was not mainly land hunger which inspired people from Agder to leave for America. The many urban emigrants were not interested in shifting to farming - a type of work they were unfamiliar with and which they had a tendency to look down on. Many of the America letters during these years, moreover, do not speak in particularly glowing terms about farming conditions. In 1907, for instance, a farmer wrote: "It is a shame that there is so little income from landowning in this country." He considered that he had a rather large farm but still he had to work like a slave to keep his head above water. This man was unmarried and consequently did not have a family to help him with the farm work. Still, it is clear that letters like these would not encourage prospective emigrants to take up farming in America. In 1920 a woman who had spent a long time visiting relatives and friends in the United States and had been in the Dakotas for six months wrote as follows about rural conditions there: "Practically everyone I talked with wanted to get away; but where would the money come from? Against their will they had to remain there with their despondency." From the Dakotas she went to the West Coast and these were her impressions: "To get away from the yellow, barren, desolate prairie to this sunny, beautiful landscape is like entering directly into heaven!" It is quite clear that most of the people from Agder shared this view. It was not the prairie which attracted them.

Very few of the emigrants had learned any special trade before they left. They could hardly expect to become anything but common laborers. Many of them came from rural communities and preferred country life in America also, but this did not make it necessary for them to engage in farm work. A good many of the men from Agder who emigrated between 1890 and 1915 earned their livelihood in the forests. There is much evidence of this in America letters, emigration protocols, and accounts by people who returned home. Work in the logging camps could be backbreaking and the camps were usually located in outlying places, far from the centers of civilization. And it might happen that in such a camp there would be but one lone Norwegian. More generally, however, Norwegians found work together with others of their countrymen - preferably those from their own home community.

A majority of the people in Agder live along the coast. It was natural, therefore, that many of those who emigrated found work related to the sea. Some became fishermen - especially on the West Coast - while a much larger number shipped as seamen. "To sail on the [Great] Lakes" became an expression with its own meaning. There were also many who found work on tugboats and barges.

For those who preferred to stay on land there were opportunities for jobs in factories; but the most common occupation was in construction, ranging all the way from farmhouses to city skyscrapers. After the First World War carpenters probably represent the largest occupational group to leave Agder for America.

It must have been a difficult transition, indeed, for emigrants to be transplanted from a small, familiar community in Norway to the teeming life of a large factory in America. Here they were thrown into a far more complex and highly organized life than they were accustomed to. Not only did they encounter new technology but frequently also different patterns of relationships between the workers than they had experienced in the rural communities or small towns of Norway. Labor unions, strikes, and lockouts were phenomena quite new to most of them. Here is part of a letter dated Seattle, July 5, 1907: "I work on a building. I help the masons. We have gotten a small pay raise. We get $3.50 per day from the first of July. I have joined a labor union so I do not need to argue about the pay. We do not work more than five and a half days during the week." This was dangerous work. As he wrote, "A man was killed here today" - a circumstance which explains why he was paid comparatively well and why it was easy for newcomers to get this type of employment.

This same letter-writer had several siblings in America. In a letter from his brother one detects an element of class consciousness which must have been something new for people who had grown up in thinly settled neighborhoods in Agder: "It is now a long time since I came down from the woods. I now work in Seattle. I am laying sidewalk on the street, which is not easy work, but as long as a person is to work as a common laborer he will have to be satisfied with many things. The capitalists know how to drive their slaves, for certain." Thus he wrote in 1906. In a letter of 1907 he wrote that he occupied a tent, and in 1908 his sister wrote home that he lived together with another man in a little hut "which looks something like a bath house." There is no doubt that these immigrant laborers lived in miserable conditions, but as long as they had jobs they were quite well paid. And they had something in reserve which saved the great majority of them from sinking into despair: they had a home in Norway.

The emigrants from Agder who engaged in agricultural work and those who became lumberjacks naturally had to remain in country districts. But those who became construction workers or had other types of industrial jobs lived in cities. Though not quite as many young women as young men chose to leave Agder for America, a majority of those who did went to the cities, where they secured positions as servant maids with urban families.

The jobs which newcomers obtained in America were usually quite insecure. This was especially true of men and most particularly of the so-called "birds of passage." During times of recession, for example, construction projects were the hardest hit. During good times, on the other hand, wages in this branch were higher than in other kinds of industry. There were two main reasons why these newcomers so often got rather insecure employment. In the first place, they were unskilled laborers and usually had difficulties with the language, which limited their job opportunities largely to rough manual labor. And secondly, if they were laid off and were unable to obtain other work, they could always return to Norway. Those who did get a good steady job which they could not hope to regain if they went home for a longer visit usually struck roots in America. But those who definitely did not aim to remain did not seek employment of this kind.

Thus, emigrants from Agder around the turn of the century gravitated largely toward urban centers in America. There were sections of New York where people from Agder formed the largest single ethnic group. Chicago, in the Midwest, and Seattle, on the Pacific coast, were well known in Agder. Many people in the district had relatives and friends there, and in other large and small cities.

It is obvious that young people who earlier had not been farther from home than the nearest Norwegian coastal town would be greatly impressed when they suddenly found themselves in a swarming American city. In 1908 a young girl left for Seattle from a little upland community in Agder. Five months after her arrival she wrote: "Downtown is what we call the area where all the business places are located. No people live there; they live around about in the hills. Yes, I must say that Seattle is both big and strange. It stretches out for miles. I have no idea how large it is, and many large lakes and parks lie within the city. Directly above where I live is the largest park [the zoo]; it is much larger than the whole farm at home and there are many wild animals in it. I do not know how many parks there are here; I have been in five but there are many more." One might expect that she would be unhappy in Seattle and feel like a stranger, but that was by no means the case: "I like America exceptionally well. I could never have thought that I would feel so well satisfied here." Her letter also reveals one very important reason why she was so happy in her new surroundings: she had several relatives and many other acquaintances to associate with, though it does not appear that she mingled much with Americans. There is every reason to believe that the emotions felt by this girl were typical of the reactions experienced by the young people who went across at that time. They got along well because they did not sever all connections with the world in which they had grown up. Even if their new circumstances were very much less limited than they had been accustomed to, they created, together with acquaintances from home, their own little world. If they found themselves a spouse in this little circle, it usually did not take long before they returned to Norway.


The great majority of emigrants from Agder to America left during the twenty-five-year period studied here. The mass migration from Agder was related only in a minor degree to social problems of a structural nature, since such problems were practically non-existent in the district. Even those parts of Agder which had a comparatively large cotter class - Setesdal especially - sent only a small fraction of their population across the Atlantic after 1890. In other parts of Norway emigration had offered an attractive alternative for cotters and younger sons, who by emigrating might achieve the same status and privileges as those enjoyed by the landowners - the upper class in the Norwegian rural communities.

It was a crisis in one of the most important industries of the district which unleashed the mass migration from Agder. The building and use of sailing ships entered a boom period about the middle of the century, providing jobs for an ever-increasing labor force. This expansion was especially marked in East Agder, and as a consequence it also attracted a certain number of young people from the sister county. But around 1880 all activities connected with the sailing ships entered a period of severe crisis. In their search for a new livelihood, masses of the people who were thrown out of work left the country. Both East and West Agder experienced an intensity of emigration unmatched by any other part of Norway. A difference can be observed between the migration movements from the two counties, however, inasmuch as the exodus from West Agder showed a stronger element of pure job-hunting. In the same manner as young people from the western county formerly poured to Grimstad or Arendal in search of work, they now went to America. Many of them had not actually planned to emigrate, even though this frequently turned out to be their fate.

The great migration from this district is of comparatively recent date. Most people in Agder therefore have close relatives in America. These bonds of relationship across the Atlantic have established firm contacts between this part of Norway and America. This circumstance, coupled with the fact that so many people living in Agder have spent time in America, explains why no other part of Norway has received so strong an American impress as these two counties. This can be seen in clothing, in language, and even in given names. Now, however, American influence is in rapid decline, and the emigration from Agder is becoming a part of history.


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