Norwegian Americans (Norwegian: norskamerikanere) comprise Americans with ancestral roots from Norway. Norwegian immigrants went to the United States primarily in the later half of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century. There are more than 4.5 million Norwegian Americans according to the most recent U.S. census, and most live in the Upper Midwest. Norwegian Americans currently comprise the 10th largest European ancestry group in the United States.
Norsemen from Greenland and Iceland were the first Europeans to reach North America. Leif Ericson reached North America via Norse settlements in Greenland around the year 1000. Norse settlers from Greenland founded the settlement of L'Anse aux Meadows and Point Rosee in Vinland, in what is now Newfoundland, Canada. These settlers failed to establish a permanent settlement because of conflicts with indigenous people and within the Norse community.
There was a Norwegian presence in New Amsterdam (New York after 1664) in the early part of 17th century. Hans Hansen Bergen, a native of Bergen, Norway, was one of the earliest settlers of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam having immigrated in 1633.
Approximately 60 persons had settled in the Manhattan area before the British take-over in 1664. How many Norwegians that settled in New Netherland (the area up the Hudson River to Fort Oranje—now Albany) is not known. The Netherlands (and especially Amsterdam and Hoorn) had strong commercial ties with the coastal lumber trade of Norway during the 17th century and many Norwegians immigrated to Amsterdam. Some of them settled in Dutch colonies, although never in large numbers. (For further reading, see for example J.H. Innes, New Amsterdam and its people.) There were also Norwegian settlers in Pennsylvania in the first half of the 18th century, and in upstate New York in the latter half of the same century.
"...in 1825, during a period of particularly fierce religious strife in Norway. In July of that year, a group of six dissenting families, seeking a haven from the official Norwegian state church, set sail from Stavanger in an undersized sloop, the Restaurationen. When it arrived in New York harbor after an arduous 14-week journey, the Restaurationen caused a sensation, and the local press marveled at the bravery of these Norwegian pilgrims. Local Quakers helped the destitute emigrants, who eventually established a community in upstate New York. Today, their descendants are still known as 'sloopers'."
The earliest immigrants from Norway to America emigrated mostly because of religious motives, as Religious Society of Friends and Haugeans. Organized Norwegian immigration to North America began in 1825, when several dozen Norwegians left Stavanger bound for North America on the sloopRestauration (often called the "Norwegian Mayflower) under the leadership of Cleng Peerson. To a great extent, this early emigration from Norway was borne out of religious persecution, especially for Quakers and a local religious group, the Haugianerne.
The ship landed in New York City, where it was at first impounded for exceeding its passenger limit. After intervention from President John Quincy Adams, the passengers moved on to settle in Kendall, New York with the help of Andreas Stangeland, witnessing the opening of the Erie Canal en route. Many of these immigrants moved on from the Kendall Settlement, settling in Illinois and Wisconsin. Cleng Peerson became a traveling emissary for Norwegian immigrants and died in a Norwegian Settlement near Cranfills Gap, Texas in 1865.
While there were about 65 Norwegian individuals who emigrated via ports in Sweden and elsewhere in the intervening years, the next emigrant ship did not leave Norway for the New World until 1836, when the ships Den Norske Klippe and Norden departed. In 1837, a group of immigrants from Tinn emigrated via Gothenburg to the Fox River Settlement, near present-day Sheridan, Illinois. But it was the writings of Ole Rynning (1809–1838), who traveled to the U.S. on the Ægir in 1837 that energized Norwegian immigration.
The good majority of Norwegian immigrants, close to 500,000, came to the USA via the Canadian Port of Quebec. The British Government repealed the Navigation Acts in 1849, and from 1850 on Canada became the port of choice. Initially, most ships departed from Norwegian ports directly to Quebec as ships carried passengers to Canada and took lumber back to Britain. However, with time, increasing numbers of ships transported passengers from Norwegian ports to English North Sea ports such as Kingston upon Hull. Emigrants were transported overland to Liverpool, where they transferred to trans-Atlantic ships.
The Canadian route offered many advantages to the emigrant over traveling to the USA directly. "They moved on from Quebec both by rail and by steamer for another thousand or more miles (1600 km) for a steerage fare of slightly less than $9.00. Steamers from Quebec, Canada brought them to Toronto, Canada then the immigrants often traveled by rail for 93 miles to Collingwood, Ontario, Canada on Lake Huron, from where steamers transported them across Lake Michigan to Chicago, Milwaukee and Green Bay. Not until the start of the 20th century did Norwegians accept Canada as a land of the second chance. This was also true of the many American-Norwegians who moved to Canada seeking homesteads and new economic opportunities. By 1921 one-third of all Norwegians in Canada had been born in the U.S.
Norwegian settlers in front of their sod house in North Dakota in 1898.
Norwegian immigration through the years was predominantly motivated by economic concerns. Compounded by crop failures, Norwegian agricultural resources were unable to keep up with population growth, and the Homestead Act promised fertile, flat land. As a result, settlement trended westward with each passing year.
Early Norwegian settlements were in Pennsylvania and Illinois, but moved westward into Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. Later waves of Norwegian immigration went to the Western states such as Washington and Oregon, and Utah through missionary efforts of gaining Norwegian and Swedish converts by the Mormons. Additionally, craftsmen also immigrated to a larger, more diverse market. Until recently, there was a Norwegian area in Sunset Park, Brooklyn originally populated by Norwegian craftsmen.
Between 1825 and 1925, more than 800,000 Norwegians immigrated to North America—about one-third of Norway's population with the majority immigrating to the USA, and lesser numbers immigrating to the Dominion of Canada. With the exception of Ireland, no single country contributed a larger percentage of its population to the United States than Norway.
A re-enactment of Norwegian farmers making cheese in Wisconsin.
The majority of the pioneer immigrants, the so-called "Sloopers," assisted by the kindly services of American Quakers, went to Orleans County in western New York state and settled in what became Kendall Township. In the mid-1830s the Kendall settlers gave impetus to the westward movement of Norwegians by founding a settlement in the Fox River area of Illinois. A small urban colony of Norwegians had its genesis in Chicago at about the same time.
Immigrant settlements now stood ready to welcome Norwegian newcomers, who, beginning in 1836, arrived annually. From Illinois, Norwegian pioneers followed the general spread of population northwestward into Wisconsin. Wisconsin remained the center of Norwegian American activity up until the American Civil War, a war in which a number of Norwegian Americans fought for the Union, such as in the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment. In the 1850s Norwegian land seekers began moving into both Iowa and Minnesota, and serious migration to the Dakotas was underway by the 1870s.
The majority of Norwegian agrarian settlements developed in the northern region of the so-called Homestead Act Triangle between the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers. The upper Midwest became the home for most immigrants. In 1910 almost 80 percent of the one million or more Norwegian Americans—the immigrants and their children—lived in that part of the United States. In 1990, 51.7 percent of the Norwegian American population lived in the Midwest; Minnesota had the largest number. Minneapolis functioned as a Norwegian American "capital" for secular and religious activities.
In a letter from Chicago dated 9 November 1855, Elling Haaland from Stavanger, Norway, assured his relatives back home that "of all nations Norwegians are those who are most favored by Americans."
A newcomer from Norway who arrives here will be surprised indeed to find in the heart of the country, more than a thousand miles from his landing place, a town where language and way of life so unmistakably remind him of his native land. Svein Nilsson, a Norwegian American journalist (in Billed-Magazin, May 14, 1870).
This sentiment was expressed frequently as the immigrants attempted to seek acceptance and negotiate entrance into the new society. In their segregated farming communities, Norwegians were spared direct prejudice and might indeed have been viewed as a welcome ingredient in a region's development. Still, a sense of inferiority was inherent in their position. The immigrants were occasionally referred to as "guests" in the United States and they were not immune to condescending and disparaging attitudes by old-stock Americans. Economic adaptation required a certain amount of interaction with a larger commercial environment, from working for an American farmer to doing business with the seed dealer, the banker, and the elevator operator. Products had to be grown and sold— all of which pulled Norwegian farmers into social contact with their American neighbors.
In places like Brooklyn, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle, Norwegian-Americans interacted with the multi-cultural environment of the city while constructing a complex ethnic community that met the needs of its members. It might be said that a Scandinavian melting pot existed in the urban setting among Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes, evidenced in residential and occupational patterns, in political mobilization, and in public commemoration. Inter-marriage promoted inter-ethnic assimilation. There are no longer any Norwegian immigrant enclaves or neighborhoods in America's great cities. Beginning in the 1920s, Norwegian-Americans increasingly became suburban, and one might claim, more American.
Norwegian Americans cultivated bonds with Norway, sending gifts home often and offering aid during natural disasters and other hardships in Norway. Relief in the form of collected funds was forthcoming without delay. Only during conflicts within the Swedish-Norwegian union, however, did Norwegian Americans become involved directly in the political life of Norway. In the 1880s they formed societies to assist Norwegian liberals, collecting money to assist rifle clubs in Norway should the political conflict between liberals and conservatives call for arms.
The ongoing tensions between Sweden and Norway and Norway's humiliating retreat in 1895 fueled nationalism and created anguish. Norwegian Americans raised money to strengthen Norway's military defenses. The unilateral declaration by Norway on June 7, 1905, to dissolve its union with Sweden yielded a new holiday of patriotic celebration.
In American popular culture, Norwegian Americans were the central characters in the popular CBS network television series, "Mama" (1949-1956). Set in San Francisco around 1900, The weekly program focused on working-class family life.
There are more than 4.5 million people of Norwegian ancestry in the United States today. Of these, approximately three million claim "Norwegian" as their sole or primary ancestry. The population of Norway itself in 2013 was 5.1 million.
A little more than 2% of whites in the United States are of Norwegian descent. In the Upper Midwest, especially Minnesota, western Wisconsin, northern Iowa, and the Dakotas, more than 15% of whites are of Norwegian descent. Nearly one-third of all North Dakotans claim Norwegian as their ancestry.
55% of Norwegian Americans live in the Midwest; 21% live in California, Oregon and Washington.
Norwegian Americans actively celebrate and maintain their heritage in many ways. Much of it centers on the Lutheran-Evangelical churches they were born into. Culinary customs (e.g., lutefisk and lefse), costumes (bunad), and Norwegian holidays (Syttende Mai, May 17) are also popular. A number of towns in the United States, particularly in the Upper Midwest, display very strong Norwegian influences.
Use of the Norwegian language in the United States was at its peak between 1900 and World War I, then declined in the 1920s and 1930s. Over one million Americans spoke Norwegian as their primary language from 1900 to World War I, and more than 3,000 Lutheran churches in the Upper Midwest used Norwegian as their sole language. There were hundreds of Norwegian-language newspapers across the Upper Midwest:
The Northfield Independent was another notable newspaper. The editor was Andrew Rowberg, who collected massive numbers of Norwegian births and deaths in U.S. The file he created is now known as The Rowberg File Maintained at St. Olaf College, and is commonly used in family research across the USA and Norway.
Over 600,000 homes received at least one Norwegian newspaper in 1910.
However, use of the language declined in part due to the rise of nationalism among the American population during and after World War I. During this period, readership of Norwegian-language publications fell. Norwegian Lutheran churches began to hold their services in English, and the younger generation of Norwegian Americans was encouraged to speak English rather than Norwegian. When Norway itself was liberated from Nazi Germany in 1945, relatively few Norwegian Americans under the age of 40 still spoke Norwegian as their primary language (although many still understood the language). As such, they were not passing the language on to their children, the next generation of Norwegian Americans.
Some sources stated that today there are 81,000 Americans who speak Norwegian as their primary language, however, according to the US Census, only 55,475 Americans spoke Norwegian at home as of 2000, and the American Community Survey in 2005 showed that only 39,524 people use the language at home. Still, most Norwegian Americans can speak a common Norwegian with easy words like hello, yes and no. Today, there are still 1,209 people who only understand Norwegian or who do not speak English well in the United States. In 2000 this figure was 215 for those under 17 years old, whereas it increased to 216 in 2005. For other age groups, the numbers went down. For those who are from 18 to 64 years old, went down from 915 in 2000 to 491 in 2005. For those who are older than 65 years it went drastically down from 890 to 502 in the same period. The Norwegian language is likely to never die out in the U.S. because there is still immigration, of course on a much smaller scale, but they emigrate often to other areas, like Texas, where the number of Norwegian speakers increase.
Two Norwegian Lutheran churches in the United States continue to use Norwegian as a primary liturgical language, Mindekirken in Minneapolis and Minnekirken in Chicago. There are also several Norwegian Seaman's Churches in the US that have services in Norwegian. They are located in Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, New Orleans, and New York.
Literary writing in Norwegian in North America includes the works of Ole Edvart Rølvaag, whose best-known work Giants in the Earth ("I de dage", literally In Those Days) was published in both English and Norwegian versions. Rølvaag was a professor from 1906 to 1931 at St. Olaf College, where he was also head of the Norwegian studies department beginning in 1916.
Norwegian Americans are often more religious than the Norwegians in Norway.
While Norway is one of the most secular countries in the world, Norwegians are one of the most religious ethnic groups in the U.S., with 90% acknowledging a religious affiliation.
Most Norwegian immigrants to the United States, particularly in the migration wave between the 1860s and early 20th century, were members of the Church of Norway, an evangelical Lutheran church established by the Constitution of Norway. As they settled in their new homeland and forged their own communities, however, Norwegian-American Lutherans diverged from the state church in many ways, forming synods and conferences that ultimately contributed to the present Lutheran establishment in the United States.
The Norwegian Lutheran church was a focal point in rural settlements in the Upper Midwest. The congregation became an all-encompassing institution for its members, creating a tight social network that touched all aspects of immigrant life. The force of tradition in religious practice made the church a central institution in the urban environment as well. The severe reality of urban life increased the social role of the church.
Most Norwegians have been Lutheran. There were Methodists concentrated especially in Chicago, with its own theological seminary. Some Norwegians became Baptists. There were also groups of Quakers, relating back to "the Sloopers," and Mormons who joined the trek to the "New Jerusalem" in Salt Lake City, Utah.
This patriotic fantasy in flag was given to the American friend, violinist and composer Ole Bull (1818-1880) as a gift from The New York Philharmonic Society. The flag of Norway has been the U.S. star banner that the union mark instead of the Norwegian-Swedish "Sildesalaten".
In humanitarian work, Greg Mortenson, born in Minnesota, whose ancestors came from Tromsø in 1876, has worked since 1993 to build over 150 schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is the author of best-seller Three Cups of Tea, which has sold over 4 million copies in 49 countries, including Norway.
Nordic Heritage Museum in the Ballard district of Seattle. Ballard is noted as one of the few Norwegian/Scandinavian "cultural ghettos" in Greater Seattle, which is heavily Scandinavian in background overall.
^a Incidentally, the number of Americans of Norwegian descent living in the U.S. today (4.5 million) is roughly equal to the 2005 current[update] population of Norway (4.6 million). In April 2012 Norway´s population surpassed 5 million (ssb.no), of which 1.1 million is either born outside Norway, or born in Norway with both or one parent born outside Norway.
Bergland, Betty A., and Lori Ann Lahlum, eds. Norwegian American Women: Migration, Communities, and Identities (Minnesota Historical Society Press; 2011) 320 pages; scholarly essays on the experiences in rural and urban settings.
Bjork, Kenneth. West of the Great Divide: Norwegian Migration to the Pacific Coast, 1847–1893 (Norwegian-American Historical Association, Northfield, Minn., 1958)
Blegen, Theodore C.Norwegian Migration to the United States (2 vols., Norwegian-American Historical Association, Northfield, Minn., 1931–40)
Blegen, Theodore C.Cleng Peerson and Norwegian Immigration, (Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 7 March 1921: 303–21)
Evjen, John O.Scandinavian Immigrants in New York 1630-1674 (Genealogical Pub. Co., Baltimore, 1972)
Flom, George T.A History of Norwegian Immigration to the United States: From the Earliest Beginning Down to the Year 1848 (Private Printing. Iowa City, IA. 1909)
Gjerde, Jon. The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830–1917 (University of North Carolina Press, 1997)
Gjerde, JonFrom Peasants to Farmers: The Migration from Balestrand, Norway, to the Upper Middle West (Cambridge, New York : Cambridge University Press, 1985)
Lovoll, Odd S.Norwegian Newspapers in America: Connecting Norway and the New Land (Minnesota Historical Society Press; 2010) 432 pages; discusses more than 280 Norwegian-language papers, both short-lived and successful, founded after 1847.
Mathiesen, Henrik Olav. "Belonging in the Midwest: Norwegian Americans and the Process of Attachment, ca. 1830-1860," American Nineteenth Century History 15 (no. 2, 2014) pp: 119-46.
Munch, Peter A.Authority and Freedom: Controversy in Norwegian-American Congregations, (Norwegian-American Studies 28. 1979)
Nelson, E. Clifford, and Eugene L. Fevold, The Lutheran Church among Norwegian Americans: A History of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, Augsburg Pub. House, 2 vols. 1960)
Nelson, O. N. History of the Scandinavians and successful Scandinavians in the United States (O. N. Nelson and Company. Minneapolis, MN: 1893)
Norlie, Olaf M.History of the Norwegian People in America (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1925)
Olson, Gary D. "Norwegian Immigrants in Early Sioux Falls: A Demographic Profile," Norwegian-American Studies, 36 (2011), pp 45–84.
Qualey, Carlton C.Norwegian Settlement in the United States (Northfield, Minn.: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1938)
Norwegian American Genealogical Center & Naeseth Library - Norwegian and Norwegian Americang Genealogy. Collection includes bygdebøker, family histories, Norwegian church records, Norwegian American Lutheran church records, cemetery transcripts, transcripts of ship passenger lists, obituaries and more.
1 Poles came to the United States legally as Austrians, Germans, Prussians or Russians throughout the 19th century, because from 1772-1795 till 1918, all Polish lands had been partitioned between imperial Austria, Prussia (a protoplast of Germany) and Russia until Poland regained its sovereignty in the wake of World War I.
7 Disputed; Roma have recognized origins and historic ties to Asia (specifically to Northern India), but they experienced at least some distinctive identity development while in diaspora among Europeans.
8 Ancestral home is a member of the European Union today despite disputes facing only for the United Kingdom over EU referendum.
9 Only for the UK and Ireland; they use a regional variation of the English language but traditionally distinguishes certain customs from Continental Europe.