Norwegian Life in the 1800s

Anderson - Amundson Family History
Web Site

~ Norwegian Life in the 1800s ~

by Neil Hofland (3b8a)


     Norwegian American descendants often wonder why their ancestors emigrated and ask the following type of questions: "My ancestors had farms in Norway.  Some owned, some rented.  What is the average size of a farm that supported a family? What is the average  size of a husman’s farm?  Did they have other occupations in addition to farming their land? Judging from the animals listed, the farms could not have been very large in acreage to support one horse, one goat and two pigs and a cow.  One horse could not plow a large acreage by itself either."

     My views on these questions are based solely on my knowledge of the Årdal kommune, a fair amount of study, and what real Norwegians have told me, at least what I think I remember they told me.  Other locations in Norway could have variations, but I think things were pretty much the same in most places.

     First we must define a couple of terms.  I wish to make a distinction a gard is not a farm in the American sense. Each kommune is divided into gards, and then possibly into bruks on a gard, and finally into husmen's places. There used to be about 32 gards in Årdal. We translate "gard" into farm but that isn't really correct. Estate would be a better word except it is far too grand. A gard was a piece of land somebody owned. It could contain anywhere from an acre or 2 (0.81 hectares) up to 30 (12.15 hectares) or so acres of what might generously be referred to as field land. The gard could also include fairly large tracts of mountainous land and a "stol" (seter) or 2 or 3. At the time a gard acquired its name, hundreds of years ago it was all owned by a single individual and the name usually never changed throughout history, at least not in Årdal.

     If during history part of a gard was sold to another individual, there would be two owners and their holdings would be referred to as Bruk 1 and Bruk 2, but the gard was still called by its original name. Bruk means "a small farm that was once a part of a big farm."   Some gards never were subdivided while others were chopped up into small bits.  If somebody living on one bruk bought an adjoining bruk I believe what he owned would be merged into one bruk.  It was also possible to rent an entire gard or bruk.

     So, I believe it is reasonable to say that if someone owned or rented a whole gard or a bruk on a gard and made his living primarily from the land, it can be called a farm and he can be called a farmer.  Keep in mind that this is on a much smaller scale than we tend to think of in America.   I have been told that the average size farm in Norway today is about 30 to 40 acres (12.15 to 16.2 hectares).  I know that when Americans drive through Norway there appear to be far too many buildings for the land.  The average size gard in Årdal was probably only 10 to 15 acres (4.05 to 6.075 hectares).  As I have defined bruks to be farms as well, the size of the average farm would be even smaller because many of the gards were subdivided into as many a 4 or 5 bruks.  The largest gard in Årdal was and still is Hovland and it has around 30 acres (12.15 hectares) or so.  Mind you I am not counting any mountain land or the seters or støls on them.  This amount of this extra land varied quite a bit.

     If the amount of land owned by an individual was big enough to require more workers to maximize production than available in the land owner's family, a husman, or cotter, was allowed to have the use (not ownership) of a small piece of land the size of a city lot to maybe 1/4 acre. He could build there and use the land for his own benefit. He paid his rent by working a specified number of days for the landowner. The larger the gard, or bruk, the more husmen lived on it with their families. Some gards weren't big enough for any husmen and some large gards like Hovland had a dozen or more. In the 1801 census Hovland had about 75 people living on it (about 30 acres) including the husmen and their families.

     To my way of thinking the husman or cotter places were not farms but small plots of land and it is stretching things to call husmen farmers.  There were at best poorly paid hired men.  It is true they farmed in the sense that they raised things on their little plots that eked out a meager existence for their families.  I guess you could say that hired men are farmers, but it strikes me as a little misleading.

     Remember, we are talking about the husmen with land.  There were also husmen who only got a place for their family to live and did not get the use of any land.  There were also a great many that didn't even have a place of their own but were "servants or hired men and women" who worked for their food and a place to sleep.

     Almost all our ancestors who emigrated were husmen and their families or servants, in a broad sense.  There were landowners who sold out and left as well.  Most people's lives were extremely difficult in Norway. There were many reasons people left and books to be read on the subject, but for most people the biggest reason was to try to get a better life for the family and especially to secure more opportunity for their children. Almost all of the early emigration from Norway was composed of entire family groups. Single people who came were generally sisters or brothers or other relatives of parents of the family.  We tend to refer to all of these people as farmers and think of them living on farms because we can't imagine how difficult their lives were.  We don't have a frame of reference because over the last 100 to 150 years the standard of living has increased dramatically, not only in America but in Norway and other countries as well.

     The question was asked, "Did they have other occupations in addition to farming their land?"  I suppose some people managed to find other little things to do to help eke out a living, but for most of the people there just wasn't any time available.  They were just struggling to keep themselves and their families alive.  To put all this into perspective I am going to quote from the Introduction to Theodore Blegen's first volume on Norwegian Migration.  Here is what he says about conditions in 1845.

"A convenient point at which to examine the rural population groupings is the year 1845.  The total population was then 1,328,471. There were 77,780 independent land holders, most of them presumably family heads. These freeholders made up the bonde element --- perhaps the most powerful and influential element in the population of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Norway. The designation of peasants as applied to this class is misleading. Norway never had a feudal system, and the bønder had behind them ancient traditions not only of independence but also of vigorous self-assertion.  These freeholders in fact constituted a rural aristocracy, which through centuries had been the very heart of the national culture. They were proud of their traditions, but their position carried with it no necessary implication of wealth. In truth, the economic position of the bønder has been difficult. Many, pressed to the wall by adverse conditions, have sold their ancient farms and emigrated to America. And in many other cases younger sons, barred by the practical workings of the odel system of land tenure from having a share in the ancestral estates, have sought their fortunes in the West. One result of the odel system has been the holding of estates through many generations by one line in direct descent. It is not uncommon in the Norwegian valleys to find farms that have remained in the possession of one family, handed down from father to son, generation after generation, since the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Some understanding of the feeling about land ownership bred by such traditions may be had by noting the view of a Norwegian immigrant who explains that all the sons in his father's family, though only a few of them became farmers, insisted upon owning farm lands in America, "largely for reasons of sentiment, in harmony with the old conception of land ownership." The essence of this conception was that "land possessed a certain dignity and worth, aside from its purely commercial value. It was the pride of the old chieftains; it insured economic well-being and personal independence; it gave stability and permanence to the family in whose possession it remained from century to century."  It is not to be wondered at that the bondestand made itself a power in the affairs of modern Norway. After the establishment of constitutional government in that country in 1814, the bønder, becoming increasingly class-conscious, entered upon a protracted but successful contest with the privileged official class and the clergy for leadership in the state. The "rural population," as Hardy says, "survived centuries of foreign domination, until in the nineteenth century it came once more into its own as the heart and kernel of Norwegian democracy."  Various aspects and implications of the battle of the bønder are considered in later chapters of the present work; it remains to be noted here that from the bondestand have come a large number of the political leaders, writers, poets, musicians, and professional men of modern Norway; and that the same class has contributed liberally, in various fields, to leadership among the Norwegians transplanted to America.

The rural population of Norway in 1845 included, in addition to the bønder, 58,049 husmænd, 25,047 renters, 47,000 laborers [husmen without land], and 146,000 servants. The husmænd and laborers, mainly family heads, have been estimated to represent elements of respectively 300,000 and 230,000 people.  Most interesting of these classes from the point of view of emigration were the husmænd, or cotters. These people, most of whom were to be found in the eastern parts of Norway, ordinarily leased small pieces of land to work for themselves, and were required, usually under written contracts, to give a specified amount of service to their landlords, the bønder. Small lots of land, with cottages and other buildings, usually some distance behind the central buildings of the gaard, were reserved for the use of husmænd. It is clear that heavy demands were made upon the cotters. In 1850 they were asking that their required services be restricted to five days a week and the working day to eleven hours. One writer states that practically the only free time the husmænd had for work on their own plots of ground was on Sundays. The value of services beyond the stipulated arrangements might be placed as high as twelve pennies a day in summer, less than half that in winter. Professor Koht writes that the husmænd were personally free --- that is, they were not bound to the soil --- but that in effect they were economic serfs. "It was only on rare occasions," he continues, "that any of them were able to win their way out of poverty."  Hardy characterizes the husmand historically as the liberated thrall.  Both  politically and socially the class was on a lower plane than that of the bonde. It lacked the suffrage, since its members could not meet the property qualification. The husmænd were on the increase in the period when the emigration movement was rising, an increase that went from 48,571 in 1825 to 65,060 in 1855, the latter being the highest point in the history of the class. In a later chapter the movement for reform with reference to the cotters and its connections with emigration are considered in some detail. Poverty coupled with stern demands upon the time and service of the cotters tended in many cases to embitter their attitude toward the bønder, whose relationship to the lesser class had had a patriarchal flavor in an earlier day.

A considerable number of pensioners, who had surrendered their property to their heirs upon condition of receiving annual allowances and living quarters, are represented in the population of 1845 --- 46,512 of them."

     It took me several years to accumulate the knowledge about the conditions in which my ancestors lived.  At first I thought of them as happy farmers in the American sense who just decided to come to America.  Over time I built up a pretty fair intellectual concept of life in Årdal in the 19th Century.  But I did not really understand until I went to visit Årdal in 1994.  I was staying with a "cousin" and his wife.  One set of my great grandparents lived on a husman's place named Ivarsplassen of the Hovland gard until they emigrated in 1870.  The other set were husmen without land and left from a place called Hausehalsen that no one seemed to know anything about.  Since then I have found it was across the fjord in the Lærdal kommune.

     I told my cousin that I wanted to see where Ivarsplassen was.  I told him I realized it would no longer be there but I wanted to stand on the ground.  I told him if he didn't know where it was, I didn't want him to tell me so but take me somewhere and point to a spot and say that's where it was.  I explained that I live in Santa Monica and visitors always want to see the movie stars' homes in Beverly Hills.  I drive them around among the mansions and point out where all kinds of stars live now or lived in the past.  I don't have the foggiest idea where any movie star lives in Beverly Hills but my guests don't know that and are thrilled and satisfied.  My cousin smiled and said he would show me Ivarsplassen.

     The next day we got in the car and drove about 6 miles out to the Hovland gard and down a few driveways and stopped in front of a weedy patch of ground with a small log cabin on it, maybe 12 by 14 feet (3.36 by 4.27 meters) in size.  There were 2 other ramshackle buildings on the plot, one quite a bit smaller than the cabin.  The plot was triangular in shape.  It was about 100 feet (30.5 meters) across the front and narrowed down to about 20 feet (6.1 meters) at the back.  The sides of the plot were about 80 feet (24.4 meters) or so.  I started laughing because I thought my cousin was playing the same trick on me as I play with the star's homes.

     He told me it was not a joke and it really was Ivarsplassen.  It is the only unmodified husman's place left in Årdal and the kommune wanted to buy it and turn it into a little museum.  When I realized he was serious and that this was where my great grandparents lived along with my great grandfather's parents, their old parents, his brother, a sister with a child, a half sister and her husband, and their 3 children, I became very silent and stared numbly at the place.  I thought of 10 adults and 4 children living in that little place and somehow eking out a living.  As I stood there looking a true appreciation for the harshness of their lives and the difficulties they endured was slowly absorbed into my mind.  It was a moment I will never forget.  I admit quite frankly that I stood there and cried. 

     If this long rambling piece brings just one person a little closer to understanding the enormous debt we owe to our ancestors for struggling and surviving, it will have been worth the effort writing it.  In some small way I understand how they did it.  I have learned that when people are poor and everyone around them is poor, nobody thinks of themselves as poor.  Our ancestors were just like everyone else and did what they could to keep going.  They had no other choice.

Introduction to Norwegian Immigration How Norwegian Immigration Started American Background

Back to Home Page