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Land of Their Choice

Land of Their Choice: The Immigrants Write Home

Copyright Date: 1955
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 484
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  • Book Info
    Land of Their Choice
    Book Description:

    This collection of “American letters” that immigrants wrote to friends and relatives in the lands they had left tells a little-known human story that is part of the larger saga of America. It constitutes a kind of composite diary of everyday people at the grass roots of American life. The letters published here, written by Norwegian immigrants in the middle of the nineteenth century, are truly representative of a great body of historical material - literally millions of such letters that immigrants of every nationality wrote to the people back home. Describing their journeys, the new country, the problems and pleasures of daily life, the letters afford new insight into the American past and at the same time reflect the image of America that was projected into the minds of Europeans in an era when millions were crossing the seas and moving west. The letters were written from many different parts of the United States. Many relate the experiences of settlers in the Middle West, particularly in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. But there are also accounts of pioneer life in Texas and as far away from the Atlantic crossing as California. The story of Oleana, the ill-fated Utopian project established in Pennsylvania by the famous Norwegian violinist, Ole Bull, is revealed in a collection of letters written by settlers in this project. An English translation of the amusing ballad of Oleana adds verve to this section. Another fascinating portion of the volume is devoted to first-hand accounts of the transatlantic gold rush that drew Norwegians directly by ship from their native land to California in the 1850’s. There are some letters written by leaders in Norwegian-American history, such as Johann R. Reiersen, who was a well-known newspaper editor in Christianssand, Norway, before he migrated to America, and the Rev. J.W. Dietrichson who sought to establish the Church of Norway on American soil and whose letters, now translated into English for the first time, relate his experiences in Wisconsin.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6159-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-xiv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xv-2)
  3. The Immigrant Image of America
    (pp. 3-14)

    The nineteenth century witnessed a new discovery of America. It came about, not through the daring of a new Columbus, but as a consequence of letters written by immigrants to the people of the Old World. It was a progressive and widening discovery that played an important role in the migration of millions of Europeans from their home countries to the United States.

    Explorers and map makers, ever since the existence and shape of America were first discerned in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, had been eager and quick to publish their findings. But the realities of the New World...

  4. The “Sloopfolk” Arrive
    (pp. 15-31)

    Modern Norwegian migration to America begins with a “Mayflower” under another name—theRestoration.The year is 1825, but across the gulf of time, some parallels and comparisons with the year 1620 suggest themselves. Both vessels were tiny (the Norwegian sloop of 1825 was less than a fourth the size of the historic Mayflower); the voyages were long; the people aboard were devout; they were men and women of courage and hope; and their quests set tracks for others to follow across the years.

    No newspaper reporter met the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, but when the sloopRestoration,with fifty-three...

  5. Westward to El-a-noy
    (pp. 32-60)

    Coming in an increasing tide from New York and the Old World, the Norwegian immigrants probably did not sing the ballad of El-a-noy, which pictured Adam visiting the state and imagining it to be the garden he “played in when a boy.” But to them El-a-noy meant land, potential wealth, perhaps honor, too, and, beginning in 1834, they did in fact move their families westward.

    Once more Cleng Peerson was their pathfinder. Always restless, he broke away from the New York colony in 1833, traveled to Ohio, across Michigan, and through northern Indiana to Illinois. Some have asserted that he...

  6. Wisconsin Is the Place
    (pp. 61-88)

    The theme of Stephen Vincent Benet’s Western Star is that “Americans are always moving on.” The poet sings of their “unassuaged and restless hearts” and regards their mobility as “an old Spanish custom gone astray” or a “sort of English fever.” These are poetic guesses that miss the obvious — the vast spaces of America, the waves of young people from the East and from Europe who sought their fortunes in these spaces, and the succession of frontiers that marked the conquest of a continent. Frederick Jackson Turner goes to the heart of the matter when he says that “perennial rebirth,”...

  7. The Atlantic Crossing
    (pp. 89-117)

    The emigrants who crossed the Atlantic in sailing vessels were quick and eager to tell their friends at home about the difficulties, as well as the pleasant experiences, on their long voyage. When Rynning’sTrue Account of Americawas published in 1838, prospective Norwegian emigrants found in its pages advice distilled from experience.* Only the preceding year Rynning had made the Atlantic crossing in the barkAegir,one of eighty-four emigrants who spent more than two months at sea before they landed at New York harbor. His book was a printed immigrant letter addressed to everybody. He spoke with authority...

  8. Scouting the Promised Land
    (pp. 118-134)

    One does not read far in the “America letters” before discovering that there were scouts who spied out the land, advance agents of organized emigration parties, men with an urge to see, investigate, and report. Some of these leaders emerged also as colonizers who guided emigrants to the sites they selected.

    One of the pathfinders and colonizers in the saga of Scandinavian immigration was Johan R. Reiersen. A liberal newspaper editor in Norway, he had crowded his columns with glowing discussions and reports of America while belligerently urging reforms in his homeland. His writings stirred wide controversy, and he himself...

  9. Spreading the Gospel
    (pp. 135-151)

    Through the course of American history churches and their ministers have been identified with the country’s changing frontiers. Often missionaries to the Indians have preceded the settlers, and ministers have seldom been far behind the pioneers. In many European countries the church, Catholic or Protestant, took an active interest in the spiritual welfare of its emigrated sons and daughters cut loose from established religious ties.

    The state church of Norway, it is true, at first showed little concern about its former adherents who had left for America, but at an early date individual ministers threw in their lot with the...

  10. Journeying toward New Horizons
    (pp. 152-174)

    To New York eyes the “sloopfolk,” when they reached the American metropolis after their fourteen-week voyage, were a “novel sight,” but as the sailing vessels of the 1830’s and 1840’s landed thousands of immigrants from the north of Europe, the novelty vanished. The arrival of folk of strange speech and costume became routine. And as the traffic increased in volume, the immigrants, after quarantine and after scrubbing their clothes, landed in a hubbub of runners and agents ready to direct them to “boarding houses” and to supply them with tickets for the West—ready also to separate them from their...

  11. Ordeal and Debate
    (pp. 175-203)

    Aballad of the late 1870’s reviews the ordeal of immigrant pioneering in Wisconsin, tells of the difficult problem of speech when English was “only a meaningless babble,” describes a hole in the ground — a sod-covered room — that was house and hearth and home, refers to the difficulty of selecting lands, mentions rocky roads and oxcart travel, and recalls the drudgery of past years. But the ballad closes on a happy note, celebrating success despite early reverses and boasting of schoolhouses, farms, and churches. It sums up the tale in a triumphant line, “We are living right royally here.”

    Professor Einar...

  12. Appraising the American Scene
    (pp. 204-221)

    The immigrant discovery of America in the nineteenth century was aided by thousands of travelers who came to the United States as tourists in search of adventure or under the impelling urgings of a curiosity that was all-European in breadth. Not a few foreigners embarked on missions of serious investigation, exploring American political, economic, and social life or attempting to fill out the Old World understanding of the American land and its varied and stupendous resources. Some saw America only from car windows or on polite and comfortable tours that never penetrated the hinterland of the seaboard. Inevitably there was...

  13. The Transatlantic Gold Rush
    (pp. 222-256)

    The thrilling news of gold in the Far West reached Norway in the summer and autumn of 1848.* By the following year a miner who had dug gold in California had actually returned to Norway, and newspapers carried many stories about his adventures, betraying a special curiosity about a mysterious chest, presumably of money or gold dust, that he was said to have brought back with him. Emigration, stimulated in part by the exciting news from the West, leaped from 1,400 in 1848 to 4,000 in 1849. A bark was announced for a trip direct from Norway to California in...

  14. Cheerful Voices at Mid-Century
    (pp. 257-279)

    In Norway, as in other parts of Europe, there were violent differences of opinion about America — a psychological state that has not disappeared in times remote from the days of lonely frontiers and struggling pioneers when immigrant letters reflected conflicting emotions and judgments. Svein Nilssen, a pioneer collector of immigrant stories, records that in the earlier years of migration from northern Europe, “opinion was divided.” He writes, “Some saw everything pertaining to the world across the sea in rosy colors, while others were astounded that anybody should venture to emigrate to a land full of poisonous snakes, bloodthirsty animals, and...

  15. More Than a Ballad
    (pp. 280-300)

    Oleana is a celebrated episode in American history, but its fame derives less from its connection with the glamorous violinist Ole Bull and the colony he established in Pennsylvania in 1852 than from the fact that it inspired the satirical ballad “Oleana,” still remembered and still sung a century after the violinist’s paternalistic schemes collapsed like a punctured tire.

    Oleana was, of course, more than a ballad and an ironical laugh. It was an organized colonization project born in the mind of a musical genius. Ole Bull first came to America in 1843 and gave concerts extensively throughout the country,...

  16. A Humorist in Canaan
    (pp. 301-320)

    Frithjof Meidell, a brother of the brilliant Meidell who wrote the ballad of Oleana, was a spirited and ironical soul who observed the turbulent life of the frontier in the 1850’s with an alert eye to its comic aspects, but also with an understanding that was not wholly masked by his gay and extravagant exaggerations.

    He was the son of an army officer, received a good education in Norway and in Scotland, and turned up in Springfield, Illinois, in the summer of 1853. The originals of many of his letters, written chiefly to his mother, were made available to me...

  17. A Lady Grow Old in Texas
    (pp. 321-350)

    Elise Amalie Wserenskjold, who lived in Texas from 1847 until her death in 1895 in her eighty-first year, was a woman of cultivation, courageous convictions, and forceful pen. The daughter of a clergyman, Nicolai S. Tvede, she had the early advantages of a home of books and cultural interests.

    When only nineteen years old, she established a private school for children in the town of Tønsberg, Norway, which she conducted for three years. In the late 1830’s she married Svend Foyn, who became the builder of the modem whaling industry of Norway and ranks as one of the outstanding figures...

  18. In Defense of the Southwest
    (pp. 351-372)

    Texas, as Dr. Qualey has pointed out, has “enjoyed a fame in Norwegian-American history quite out of proportion to the actual number” of Norwegians who settled in that state.* The explanation lies largely in the fact that Cleng Peerson, Johan R. Reiersen, Elise Waerenskjold, and other widely known immigrants, most of them skilled in the art of communicating their views to others, chose Texas in preference to the northern states as an area for immigrant settlement. They were not able, however persistent and eloquent their arguments, to divert large numbers of immigrants from the northern routes to the Middle West,...

  19. From a Frontier Parsonage
    (pp. 373-387)

    The formal church histories are often interesting and useful, but they seldom take the reader inside a frontier parsonage for an intimate look at the home life and interests of the pioneer clergyman in the setting of his congregation and pastoral duties.

    Olaus Duus was a pioneer minister on the Wisconsin frontier in the 1850’s whose many letters, written from the parsonage at Waupaca to his relatives “at home” in Norway have survived the hand of time. They have been translated into English in a volume entitled Frontier Parsonage: The Letters of Olaus Fredrik Duus, Norwegian Pastor in Wisconsin, 1855-1858,*...

  20. The Beautiful Land
    (pp. 388-418)

    The first chapter in what became a migration to Iowa has already been presented in the diary-letter of Gro Svendsen, which describes in vivid phrases an Atlantic crossing of 1862. The major portion of the present chapter follows the fortunes of this pioneer woman as she makes her way to Iowa and records her life on the frontier through the 1860’s and 1870’s until shortly before her death in 1878. She was an exuberant woman, insatiably curious about every turn in the novel experiences in which she had a part, and not without skill in the art of telling her...

  21. The Glorious New Scandinavia
    (pp. 419-446)

    It was Fredrika Bremer who in 1850 described Minnesota as a “glorious new Scandinavia” and prophesied for the coming North Star State a great and “beautiful” future.*

    The gentle Swedish traveler and writer who journeyed up the Mississippi in pre-railroad days saw what was still nearly virgin territory, a land of primitive Sioux and Chippewa, of unfished lakes, mainly uncut woods, and unplowed prairies. A land of optimism and hope, however! Statehood was still eight years off in the future, but the Territory had been established, with St. Paul as its capital, towns were springing up, and settlers were beginning...

  22. Index
    (pp. 449-463)