Norwegian Immigration in the Nineteenth Century
by Scott Nelson
For most Norwegians in the nineteenth century, America remained a remote and exotic place until the first immigrants began to write home. These "American letters," which traveled from the immigrants back to former neighbors, friends, and family in the old country and which were freely shared with others, had a great influence on the extent and nature of nineteenth century migration from Europe, and especially from Norway, to the United States. Once these early Norwegian immigrant letters reached Norway, quite a few of them were transformed into pamphlets and used as emigrant guides for the rural class. Many of the letters were read aloud, copied by hand, or printed in newspapers, where they entered the public debate on immigration. Ole Rynning's letters were made into a booklet -- True Account of America for the Information and Help of Peasant and Commoner Written by a Norwegian Who Arrived there in the Month of June, 1837.
During the winter of 1837, only eight months after Rynning had landed in New York, he wrote his thoughts on America from his sickbed in Beaver Creek, Illinois. (a detailed look at Ole Rynning is available from the National Library of Norway). In the spring of 1838, Ansten Nattestad, a friend of Ole Rynning, made a trip back to Norway to visit friends and relatives taking with him Rynning's writings, as well as letters from nearly all the earlier Norwegian emigrants whom he had met. This trip was instrumental in disseminating information about America in Norway. Among the Norwegian lower classes in the 1830s little was known of America, so there was great eagerness to get definite information on the whole emigration process, and especially on the opportunities in the new land.
How did Ole Rynning's True Account of America act as an incentive for Norwegian immigration to the United States?
- Excerpts Ole Rynning's True Account of America, 1837 (PDF) (A complete version of Ole Rynning's True Account of America with footnotes and background information can also be found at the National Library of Norway)
- NARA Written Document Analysis Worksheet (PDF), National Archives
- Students will analyze the challenges and opportunities faced by the immigrants.
- Students will gain an understanding of the decision-making process used by Norweigans in determining whether or not to come to America.
- Students will compare and contrast the reasons for immigration today with reasons for immigration in the nineteenth century.
The teacher will ask how many of the students or their parents came to the U.S. from a different country. Using their responses as a guide, the teacher will write on the board a list of the reasons why these people came to America.
The teacher will write immigrant Gullik O. Gravdal's 1839 quote on the board or on an overhead:
"Hardly any other Norwegian publication has been purchased and read with such avidity as this Rynning's Account of America. People traveled long distances to hear 'news' from the land of wonders, and many who before were scarcely able to read began in earnest to practice in the 'America-book,' making such progress that they were soon able to spell their way forward and acquire most of the contents. â€¦ Ministers and bailiffs tired to frighten us with terrible tales about the dreadful sea monsters, and about man-eating wild animals in the new world; but when Ansten Nattestad had said Yes and Amen to Rynning's Account, all fears and doubts were removed. "
The teacher will hold a class discussion about the quote, explaining that the class is going to investigate the document that helped open the gates of Norwegian immigration.
Read and discuss the Gravdal quote.
Read the preface to Ole Rynning's True Account of America with the whole class:
DEAR COUNTRYMEN -- PEASANTS AND ARTISANS:
I have now been in America eight months, and in this time have had an opportunity to learn much in regard to which I vainly sought to procure information before I left Norway. I felt on that occasion how unpleasant it is for those who wish to emigrate to America to be without a trustworthy and fairly detailed account of the country. I learned also how great the ignorance of the people is, and what false and preposterous reports were believed as full truth. It has therefore been my endeavor in this little publication to answer every question that I myself raised, to make clear every point in regard to which I observed that people were in ignorance, and to refute the false reports which have come to my ears, partly before my departure from Norway and partly after my arrival here. I trust, dear reader, that you will not find any point concerning which you desired information overlooked or imperfectly treated.
ILLINOIS, February, 13, 1838
Break the class up into groups of five using the "jigsaw" method: Distribute the five excerpts to the primary group, one per student. Then move the students into a secondary group with other students who have been assigned the same excerpt. In the secondary group, the students read, analyze, and discuss the excerpt, answering questions 6A, 6D, and 6E on the Written Document Analysis Worksheet.
Ask students to return to their primary groups and report back to the groups with the information that they learned about their assigned excerpts.
Organize a whole-class discussion, in which students share their responses to the three questions in the Written Document Analysis Worksheet.
After the presentations, the teacher will lead a discussion on the "push-and-pull" factors found in Rynning's Account (why Norwegians were pushed out of Norway, and why they were pulled toward America). The class will be asked to come to an agreement on the three most important reasons why Norwegians came to America.
Unfortunately, Ole Rynning and almost the entire community of Norwegians at Beaver Creek, Illinois died from malarial fever in the winter of 1838, just as Rynning's Account was starting to be shared back in Norway. Some historians wonder if Rynning would have changed his view of America in a second writing had he lived longer.
Have the students write "revised" versions of their chapters for a book the class will put together that will be titled: True Account of America for the Information and Help for the Newly Arrived Immigrants Written by a Middle School Student Who Is Living at the Present Moment. First, ask the students to read their chapters aloud to the class and then compile the chapters into the class book.