tirsdag 5. februar 2013

From Nittedal to Nebraska and on

Norwegians come to the Land of Opportunity

Norwegians love being noticed by Uncle America. I took note of one particular thread on a debate forum where people were listing references to Norway in American pop-culture. One prominent mention was that of the character Mahoney from the 1980s Police Academy series mentioning the king of Norway in the third installment of the series.

In the last few years, Norway has seemingly been swept by a "Norwegian-American craze." Television programs have showcased Norwegian-Americans coming to Norway to find their roots, while others have had Norwegians travelling to the United States in search of descendants of those who moved across the pond. Others yet have showcased life in Norwegian-American communities where the traditions and customs were transplanted in the 1800s and have remained fixed ever since, offering us a peculiar insight in to a unique aspect of American culture. I also have to mention the episode "Coming to Homerica" of The Simpsons where the town is overrun by Norwegian-Americans who impose their culture upon the local Springfield residents with humorous results (The Simpsons creator Matt Groening is himself a Norwegian-American.) Of course the entire episode highlighted elements of the current immigrant debates the United States, but that is another matter entirely.

Homer Simpson drunk on Norwegian aquavit

As someone who has earned a master's degree in North American area studies, I have to say I quite enjoy these programs as they often combine some of things I enjoy and love the most: genealogical research, history, and the United States. Therefore, my third entry in this blog will be devoted to a Norwegian-American tale in my own family tree! I originally thought about writing this as I would an academic paper, but decided against it as it might get a bit too dry and it would take too much time considering it's supposed to be a fun blog entry. I've drawn from subjects I've taken on American immigration as well, lectures, some is from memory, and some aspects are from Jon Gjerde's book "Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History" and Aristide Zolberg's book "A Nation by Design."

During the fall of 2012 I was looking in to the ancestors of my great grandmother - my mother's father's mother (oldemor) - who came from the Nittedal and Skedsmo areas of Akershus county in Norway. I had traced the line back to the early 1800s, but I had never made any wholehearted attempt to investigate anything other than my own direct line of ancestry. But as progress stalls in terms of making progress further back in time, it seemed natural to fill out the blanks here and there along the way.

Dagny Dahlboe (1905-1986) - my great grandmother - was one of Marius Jensen Dahlboe (1869-1949) and Anna Louise Nilsdatter Dahlboe's (1876-1942) ten children. Marius himself was one of nine children that Jens Christiansen (1834-1900) had with his wife Anne Dorthea Olsdatter (1842-1929.) In other words, the family tree has a lot of branches with each generation, and tracing them proved somewhat difficult, though I have made some significant progress in the last few months.

Jens Christiansen - my great great great grandfather (tipp-tipp-oldefar)  - was one of only two children that Christian Jacobsen (1794-1868) and Berthe Marie Christophersdatter (1801-1848) had. The other child was Johan Christiansen.

Johan was born April 8, 1838 in Skedsmo, Akershus.  He grew up on his father's farm, Braanaasbakken (Brånås) and had his confirmation October 3, 1852 in Skedsmo church. At that point his mother was already deceased, and he made his livelihood working on his father's farm, as is evident from the 1865 census.

Also working there was the young servant girl Sørine Vilhelmsdatter from Elverum in Hedmark county, born October 25, 1835. She had moved to the area in search of work and spent her days laboring on several nearby farms before giving birth - out of wedlock - to Lars Martin in 1858. The father, Ole Olsen also of Elverum, had moved on to the capital Christiania. Having a child out of wedlock was, at the time, considered a great shame and was probably a burden for Sørine as she strived to make ends meet. After coming to Braanaasbakken she met Johan and in 1866 the two had a child together out of wedlock. Their daughter Mathilde, while a private blessing and source of joy for the small family, probably compounded the shame as a result of social stigma. A year later on March 2, 1867, Johan and Sørine married, and Johan status as Lars Martin's father became set in stone, regardless of actual bloodlines.

In 1867, perhaps as a privilege of being the firstborn, Johan's brother Jens had sufficient means to become a "husmand" at Omsenbakken (Omsi) farm in Nittedal (a position he held until his death in 1900.) Meanwhile, their father Christian Jacobsen was severely ill, which might explain why Johan was listed as his father's helper in the 1865 census. Subsequently, Christian passed away June 27, 1868. Johan and Sørine along their two children were apparently left with few options, and thus they departed their homeland in 1871, seeking a new life in the United States of America.

A Norwegian-American called Svein Nilsson reflected upon his reasons for leaving Norway in his writings in 1868. Certainly, when considering Johan's situation around the same time, Nilsson's conclusion is probably not too far off the mark.

"I was my father's oldest son and as such was entitled to inherit a farm, which was held to be one of the best in the community; but it was encumbered with a debt of fourteen hundred dollars. I worked at home until I was twenty-five years old and consequently was unable to save any money. It was obvious that I would assure myself a hopeless future by taking charge of the farm with its heavy indebtness, buying out my brothers and sisters in such a fashion that they suffered no injustice, and finally, providing a pension for my father.  I noticed with apprehension how one farm after another fell into the hands of the sheriff and other moneylenders. This increased my fear of getting involved with any kind of farming. But I got married and had to make some provision for the future. Then it occurred to me that it would be best to leave for America. ... What I have just said explains what brought me to leave my native land, and I presume that the other members of our party were led to their decision by similar reasoning."
In 1755, some hundred odd years prior, Benjamin Franklin had written on the topic of migration to the Colonies. The great inventor and later Founding Father's words can be seen as a reflection of the social views of the time which, perhaps surprising to a present day reader, lumps a number of ethnicities and nationalities in to a big unlikely mix. In a point-by-point list he writes in opposition of non-English migration, arguing that it will "darken its people."

"... the number of purely white people in the world is proportionally very small. All Africa is black and tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English made the principal body of white people on the face of the earth."

He concludes his list and excuses his point of view by saying "But perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my Country, for such kind of partiality is natural to Mankind." It is fair to assume that if Franklin regarded Swedes as "swarthy," Norwegians were equally so. While it is somewhat peculiar from a modern point of view to consider Scandinavians, Germans and so forth distinctly different from Englishmen, the definition of "whiteness" has been reconsidered many times in history. Gradual assimilation and consequent intermingling between ethnicities in the United States has helped blur the lines with time, but there has always been a certain tendency to regard the latest wave of immigrants as somewhat less worthy than the one that came before.

Regardless of such views, Norwegian immigration to the United States began in full circa 1825 with a relatively gradual increase in numbers with each passing year. By 1850, some 13,000 people in the United States were Norwegian American. Swedes writing home in the 1840s reflected on the many hardships endured by the Scandinavian pioneers.

"the emigrant ... will have to suffer much in the beginning, limit himself considerably, and sacrifice much of what he was accustomed to in Europe ... I caution against all exaggerated hopes and golden air castles; cold reality will otherwise lame your arm and crush your courage; both must be fresh and active." But he also goes on to say "I am partial to a republican form of government, and I have realized my youthful dream of social equality." Others seem to share his sentiment, writing "that if someone intends to come over here ... they would be much better off here than in Sweden. Until they learned the language they could not get more than four dollars a week plus food and gifts, but as soon as they got more used to things they could surely get more."

Labor shortages and subsequent government efforts to encourage immigration of skilled labor in the 1850s increased the waves of Norwegians, among others. Aristide Zolberg describes this in his book "A Nation by Design - Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America." He calls specific attention to the Homestead Act of 1862 which sought to stimulate immigration by offering free land for "resident aliens who had filed a declaration of intention." The Homestead Act provided opportunity for westward settlement, thereby fulfilling the idea of "Manifest Destiny" where settlers were meant to spread across the entirety of America to the Pacific coast, and also provided ample opportunity for Europeans with few options in their homeland. Zolberg paraphrases Brinley Thomas who put forth the idea that "reversing the dynamics of the earlier period, in the second half of the nineteenth century Atlantic migration was determined by American pull rather than by the European push."

The privileges provided by the Homestead Act were widely publicized by the U.S. consulates and embassies across Europe and did indeed renew interest in immigration, but the onslaught and instability brought about by the American Civil War seems to have temporarily put a dampener on Norwegian willingness to make the move. While a mere 23,550 Norwegians came to the United States during the war between 1861 and 1865, the subsequent peace brought 15,455 Norwegians in 1866 alone.

The American Civil War did, however, provide an opportunity for Norwegians and other newly arrived immigrants to prove dissidents who frowned upon immigration wrong in some ways. During the conflict many Norwegians fought on the side of the Union against the Confederacy, sometimes in wholly Norwegian regiments. As such, they proved their loyalty to the nation through a sort of "blood sacrifice" that helped cement their status as Americans, regardless of falling outside the traditional WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) demographic. Certainly by 1868, the Norwegian-American's status was in ascendance as reflected in various writings describing the immigrant experience.  

 "The stolidity and slowness which characterize the Norwegians disappear in America. The determination and energy of the American people seems to electrify the newcomer. He soon notices that the saying 'help yourself' is not mere play with words but a slogan to be followed in all the vicissitudes of life. Necessity compels him to become more enterprising; the force of example strengthens and stimulates him; old prejudices vanish; energies awakens; dejection gives place to buoyancy; he tackles one or another worthwhile job; if the first or second attempt does not succeed, he turns to something else, because here work is respected and all legitimate pursuits, except the sale of liquor, are looked upon as honorable. ... All class barriers are broken down. No one asks about birth or family connections. ... Accustomed to privation and physical exertion in their native land, they were peculiarly suited to tackle the frontier and clear the way for later groups of immigrants."

In 1871, the year Johan, Sørine, Lars Martin and Mathilde chose to make the journey, they were just four among 12,055 others. While we now tend to associate coming to America with the idea of steam ships entering New York City harbor while the passengers gaze with hope upon the Statue of Liberty (built in 1886,) many Norwegians made their way in to the United States by way of Canada. With cheap fares available, the Norwegians moved by rail from the Port of Quebec on to the Great Lakes where steamers brought them to the states traditionally associated with Norwegian-Americans, particularly Wisconsin and Minnesota.

While I have been unable to find any specific record of Johan and family coming to the United States, it is entirely possible they chose the Canadian route. By 1880 they were living in Omaha, Nebraska in the Midwest. Here Johan worked at the Willow Springs Distilling Company and his name had been "Americanized" - as was typical - to John Christenson.

Omaha, Nebraska in 1876

By 1880, 182,000 people (2.7% of the U.S. population) had been born in Norway. In a ranking of top 10 countries of origin that year, Norway was number 6 (and Sweden was number 5.) While no further trace has been found of Johan and Sørine after 1880, their son Lars Martin would eventually follow suit with many other Norwegian-Americans and settled in Oregon on the Pacific coast. Later his descendants moved on to California and I have greatly enjoyed e-mailing back and forth with them and also providing them with family trees and research I've done on both Johan and Sørine's ancestors, interpreting parish records and censuses to give them greater insight in to their family history.

Between 1830 and 1900, approximately 522,000 Norwegians traversed the Atlantic to come to the United States. In 1910 1,000,000 Americans identified Norwegian as their ancestry, a number which had exploded to 4,600,000 by 2009. Norwegian-American culture seems to have stood the test of time as well as periods of Americanization that might otherwise have erased cultural ties to the old fatherland. World War I was one such period, where Norwegians - considered to be part of the great Gothic family - faced renewed discrimination due to being lumped together with Germans. Consequently, Norwegian ties and traditions were somewhat subdued during that period, which some argue accelerated the Norwegian-Americans' proper integration in to the American melting pot. As we continue to be captivated by these descendants of our ancestors, they seem to be equally captivated by us. They truly appreciate their heritage because it is something that defines them as something unique in an otherwise great mass of people. And I look forward to continuing to traces branches of my family across the pond in the years to come!

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