How Norwegian Immigration Started

Anderson - Amundson Family History
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~ How Norwegian Emigration Started ~

by Neil Hofland (3b8a)


In the first week of July in 1825 organized emigration from Norway to America began.  A small sloop, with a single mast and a jib, named the “Restauration” (“Restoration”) left Stavanger for New York.  On board this 54 foot long ship were 52 persons, including the crew of 7, who are referred to as the “Sloopers.”  When they arrived in New York on October 9th they had been almost 14 weeks on the trip and there were then 53 persons.  A girl was born to one of the leader’s of the group, Lars Larsen and his wife Martha.  The group consisted of 10 married couples and children.  There was 1 single woman, Sara Larsen, a sister of Lars Larsen.  The rest of the group was made up of single men, including 1 who was just 15 years old. 

In order to understand why these people left it is necessary to look Norwegian history to see what shaped their lives in such a way that they decided to emigrate.  Three historical reasons all contributed, the Norwegian political and government history beginning in the 14th century, the early 19th century religious movement led by Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1824), and the Napoleonic wars from 1803 to 1814.

From the 9th century there were 3 independent kingdoms of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.  By the end of the 15th century marriages and unions had taken place between the 3 royal families until all 3 countries were under the rule of the Danish Queen Margaret.  Sweden revolted and gained independence in 1523, but Norway became essentially a colony of Denmark until 1814.  During this time all 3 countries developed a state church that was part of the government.  Most of the important government, military, and church jobs were filled by Danes.  For a time the German duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, and Lauenburg were under the Danish crown, so Danish-Germans were also sent north to help rule Norway for Denmark.  Over time these people became just Norwegians, like the Norwegian emigrants became just Americans.  But they were an upper class and held on to their positions of power that were passed along in families and through marriages.  They did not use patronymic names as the lower classes did, but retained “real” last names in the sense of today. 

Norway was a very rural country.  In 1801 there were 883,440 people in the entire country and only 86,000 lived in towns.  The rural population had classes of its own.  The bonde class was made up of independent land owners.  There never was a feudal system in Norway and the bonde guarded their independence.  They were essentially a rural aristocracy and had been the heart of the national culture for centuries.  This did not mean that the bønder were wealthy or even well off.  Economic conditions were such that many of them lived hand to mouth and were constantly in debt.  Many emigrants were bønder who sold out because they saw little hope of improvement in their conditions. 

The remaining pecking order in Norway was merchants, renters, husmen, laborers, servants, “pensioners”, and charity cases. There weren’t that many merchants around because of the small town population.  Some of these could be quite well off and were almost upper class. Renters were people of some means who rented a larger part of a gard and paid rent in money, produce, or goods.

The term "gard" doesn't exactly mean farm as used in America.  "Estate" might be a better term except that it connotes something much grander than a "gard."  A gard was a piece of land owned by an individual.  If it was large enough, "husmen" (cotters) were allowed to build a small place and have a very small plot of ground for their own use and the right to pasture a few livestock on the landlords' fields, maybe a cow or two and a couple of goats and sheep.  The husmen paid a rent by working specified times for the landowner.  This varied throughout Norway, but could be a reasonable number of days per year up to over 11 hours per day for 6 days of the week in some eastern parts of Norway.  The rent could also be paid in bartered goods, but most people produced barely enough to live on and their labor was all they could trade for a place to live.

Laborers were husmen without land.  They would usually have families and have the use of some building but no land.  They were essentially day laborers and frequently moved from job to job.  Servants were just hired men and women, generally unmarried, who worked room and board, and little more.  “Pensioners” were essentially old people who had passed on their holdings to younger people, usually family members.  They were given set and relatively small amounts of shelter, food, and other amenities.  Lastly there were charity cases who were sent from place to place to be taken care of, and not very well.

By the early 1800s the upper class controlled things and treated the lower classes poorly.  Many were quite arrogant and lorded it over those below them, who did not like it at all, but couldn’t do much because they had no powers.

Hans Nielsen Hauge led a pietistic church revival after 1796.  Although there were adherents in towns, it was mainly a rural movement.  It was a movement of laymen against what was viewed as the prevalent rationalism of the clergy.  His followers were not trying to separate from the state church, but to reform it.  They believed that they should be able to read the bible, meet informally together, and hold devotions without the supervision of the clergy.  The clergy did not like this at all and used their power to resist reforms and cause all the grief they could to the Haugeans, or “readers” as they were also called.  However, the movement continued to grow.

From 1803 to 1814 the Napoleonic wars took place.  By the end of the wars Denmark was an ally of Napoleon and Sweden was allied with England against Napoleon.  Norwegian seamen sailed on both Danish and Norwegian merchant ships that served the cause of Denmark.  When the English navy captured one of these merchant ships the crew would be sent to England and confined in prison.  Lars Larsen was captured in 1807 and was held in England along with other Norwegians and Danish seamen until the wars ended in 1814.  Larsen and other Norwegians were Haugeans.  While on a prison ship near Chatham, England the Haugeans would hold meetings, read the bible, and have devotionals.  The prison authorities noted this and word spread into town concerning this rather unusual behavior for prisoners.

During the 17th century the Society of Friends, or Quakers, originated in England.  There were Quakers living in Chatham and they started visiting, delivering religious material, and discussing Quakerism with the Haugean prisoners.  The Quaker and Haugean beliefs were quite similar and about 30 prisoners were won over to the Quakers and held worship services with them.  When the prisoners were finally released and returned to their homes, the seed of Quakerism was planted in Norway.  In the next few years small Quaker colonies grew in Oslo and Stavanger and worship services were conducted 2 or 3 times a week.  Contact was maintained with the English Quakers and missionaries visited the Norwegians and aided them as much as they could.

During the first 40 years of the 19th century the government and the Lutheran church dealt harshly with those who practiced dissent or separatism.  Hauge was imprisoned from 1804 until 1814 and when he died in 1824 at the age of 53, many of his followers felt that his imprisonment led to his death.  While Haugeans were harassed by the church and government, the Quakers were treated much worse.  They were quite simply victims of religious persecution.  During the late 1830s Norway was moving in the direction of religious freedom, however, as late as 1845 the Quakers in England petitioned the Storting for 5 privileges for their “oppressed brethren.”  They requested: 1. Legal security “in the undisturbed exercise of public worship, according to their conscience.” 2. The validity in law of Quaker marriages. 3. Exemption from compulsion in the matter of baptism and other rites from which they dissent. 4. The legalization of the Quaker affirmation as a substitute for the oath. 5. Relief “from the harassing and oppressive proceedings to which they are now subjected in reference to ecclesiastical demand, and rates for the support of the schools.” 

By 1820 there were both Quakers and Haugeans living in the Stavanger area.  The groups supported each other because of the similarity of their beliefs.  The oppressive religious and political conditions imposed upon both groups as well as some economic problems led to the Quakers sending Kleng Peerson and Knud Olsen Eide to America in 1821 to scout the country for possible emigration.  There are historical questions concerning exact details of the trip, and Eide sort of disappeared, but Kleng Peerson returned to Stavanger in 1824 with a positive report on America.  During the summer of 1824 Lars Larsen and others decided to emigrate.  Preparations for the departure in 1825 began and Kleng Peerson returned to New York state to make arrangements in America.  He was aided by American Quakers in both New York City and Western New York state, where he purchased land for Slooper settlement on the shore of Lake Ontario in what is now Kendall County.  This was to become the first Norwegian settlement in America.  The area was a short distance from a Quaker community.  He returned to New York City and met the Sloopers when they arrived in 1825.

The Sloopers had a very difficult time clearing land, building cabins, and eking out a living for the next few years, but they managed.  In the next 10 years a few individuals went to America but no further organized emigration took place until 1836. 

By the early 1830’s economic conditions of the Sloopers had become much better.  They had made improvements to their farms and the Erie Canal was completed in 1825 making markets more available.  These 2 factors led to an increase in land values.  Kleng Peerson had continued walking around the country scouting for land.  He returned to Kendall County and reported on the excellence of the prospects in the Fox River area just West of Chicago.  Most of the Sloopers sold their land for profit and moved to Illinois where land could be purchased from the government for $1.25 per acre.  In 1835 one of the "sloopers," Knud Anderson Slogvig, returned to Stavanger, probably to find a wife as he was married during this visit.  His first-hand reports created great excitement and people came from all around to talk to him.  "America Fever" had begun.

  Under the leadership of Knud Slogvig two brigs, the "Norden" and "Den Norke Klipper" were fitted out for emigrants and sailed in the summer of 1836 to New York, bringing about 200 more Norwegian immigrants to America.  Another leader of this 1836 immigration was Bjørn Anderson Kvelve, my great-great grandfather on my mother's side of the family.  He was not a Quaker but sympathized with them and did not like Norwegian laws and the office- and land-holding class.  He was a born agitator and debater and was outspoken in his criticism of those who ran Norway and the church.  When he heard of Knud Slogvig's plan to load a ship with emigrants, he began to actively converse with his friends and acquaintances to convince them of the advantages of emigration to America.  He was successful and many joined him and the ranks of those who would leave grew.

Bjørn had another reason for being somewhat bitter with Norway.  He had married out of and above his class to Abel Catherine von Krogh, who was a daughter of a military officer.  Her family had essentially disowned her, and Bjørn and Abel Catherine did not take snubs lightly.  So the the second ship of emigrants, the "Norden," left Stavanger on the first Sunday after Pentecost, Bjørn, Abel Catherine, and their two sons, Andrew and Bruun, were on board.  They arrived in New York on July 12 or 20, 1836 and made their way to Rochester, New York where some of the "sloopers" were able to help them.  Almost all the "Norden" immigrants went directly to the new Fox River settlement just west of Chicago in La Salle County, Illinois.

Succeeding ships left Norwegian ports carrying more and more emigrants.  It is obvious that emigration to escape religious persecution soon became a minor cause, and other factors became more important, but it was a major issue in the decisions made by the Sloopers and the early boatloads to follow.  Eventually correspondence known as “America letters” and return visits by emigrants swelled the flow until it was referred to as “America fever.”  Most of the “America letters” emphasize the economic opportunities in America, but other issues were also reported upon.  Many commented on the lack of class structure and the equality under law.  There were also lots of reports about religious freedom.  While it was not the major reason for most emigrants, it was something they appreciated.

Another factor was Norway's inheritance laws, under which the "gards" and even the "husmen's" places were passed from generation to generation to the oldest son of the family or the oldest daughter if there was not a son.  The younger children had to marry someone who had a place, or get a landlord to let them build a new "husmen's" place, or work as a servant for someone.  It may seem that this was a cruel or unfair practice, but if the "gards" and "husmen's" places had been evenly divided among the children, nobody would have had a piece large enough to make a living.  As population increased it was more and more difficult to find room to make a living and the living "husmen" had was poor.  This was the main motivation for emigrating for most Norwegians.

Of course for each family or individual there were other main and secondary reasons for emigration as well.  In the early years of emigration it was mainly whole families who left.  Only in the later part of the 19th century did significant numbers of individuals come.  The families left because they thought it would be better for them in America and particularly for their children.

Those who came to America did perceive it as a better situation and wrote letters back to relatives and friends encouraging others to come.  Many sent money for tickets for those left behind and gave offers of help when they arrived in America.  "America fever" increased and more and more left for America, but not in equal numbers from all parts of Norway.  Some areas sent much higher percentages of their population because these areas had established a tradition of emigration.  People grew up thinking of emigration as a reasonable decision to improve their lives and the lives of their children.

How did it work out for my great-great-grandmother?  Abel Catherine, the ostracized daughter of a Norwegian military officer, disgraced by marrying a commoner, and an outcast from the land of her birth, lived a hard life filled with the toil of a pioneer woman, but she also lived to see all her children become successful and prosperous and one of her sons, Rasmus B. Anderson, go back to Scandinavia as American Minister (Ambassador) to Denmark.  Sometimes the American dream did, and still does, come true.

Introduction to Norwegian Immigration Norwegian Life in the 1800s American Background

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