Verses on Norwegian emigration to America, 1853

Between 1836 and 1865, approximately 55,000 Norwegians sailed to the United States.[1] Like most immigrants, they sought opportunities that didn’t exist at home—religious freedom, economic security, land ownership, and educational and social advancement. Most of the emigrants were members of the lowest class, landless farmers who were subject to oppressive social conventions and treated with scorn in their native country.

This anonymous poem,[2] "A Farewell Ode to Emigrants on Their Journey to America," written in 1853 from the perspective of someone who stayed in Norway, illuminates the reasons some left Norway and praises the wonders of America—the natural resources and beauty of the land as well as the opportunities to prosper through hard work and possibly an advantageous marriage:

O that all that you here bitterly must manage without,
you in that distant safe harbor will get tenfold back.
In America’s valleys abounding with flowers,
where the earth does not mock the sweat of its grower.

Many who traveled to America sent letters back home describing their experiences to attract new settlers. The narrator picks up on that practice and makes the following suggestion to his compatriots overseas:

To those left behind here in Norway’s valleys
write many a true and loving word,
for them it will soothe the pain of yearning
and create desire to leave the North . . .

And in a thousand years after the North will be deserted
and the Norwegian’s offspring by the banks of Missouri
will behold freedom’s beautiful red sunrise
shining there in wealth, light and peace,
then forgotten will be the yearning and hardship and miserable days,
in the Norwegians’ new and happy home!

Excerpts

You are going away to maybe never no more
Norway see, your homeland behold.
O that all that you here bitterly must manage without,
you in that distant safe harbor will get tenfold back.
In America’s valleys abounding with flowers,
where the earth does not mock the sweat of its grower,
on your journey there we pray that God
will look down upon your wandering with blessings!
[...]

To those left behind here in Norway’s valleys
write many a true and loving word,
for them it will soothe the pain of yearning
and create desire to leave the North
where brave women, children and men only are provided
scorn and shame, destitution and poverty.
You have it better then, when you speak,
when you beckon them to come where you went.

A translation of the poem is available here.

[1]. Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825–1860 (Northfield, MN: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1931), 19–20.

[2]. The verses are written in Danish, as Denmark had ruled in Norway for 400 years and Danish was the primary written language. After Norway split from Denmark in 1814, Norwegians developed their own written language, which gradually replaced Danish as the preferred literary language.