The current economic uncertainty (with so many, including myself, looking for work) has caused me to think about my grandparents and the reasons they came to America. My grandparents as well as the millions of other people during the period of mass emigration (in Norway and other countries) battled uncertainty in their future to venture across oceans to settle in America.
My grandmother grew up in the town of Egersund as the third daughter in a family with four children. Her father had died while all of the children were young, so they moved in with her mother’s brother and his large family in the city of Kristiansund (North). Her situation was not very good and she had little reason to believe that her prospects would become significantly better so as a 24 year old, she left Norway for America. Her reason, I found this simple phrase in her immigration paperwork at Ellis Island: Reason for leaving country of origin: For a better life.
My grandfather like so many of the boys and men in the 1800s took to the sea. His father had died, leaving at least 7 children under the age of 16. As the oldest boy, going to sea was the best way to make money and send it home for the family to live. After being at sea for 5 years he settled in the US and eventually 2 siblings joined him here. As an adult he took a job at the Chicago Sun-Times working 42 years as a pressman.
Whether you are Norwegian, Irish, Polish or of any other ethnic background, similar stories and reasons can be easily found.
So, what was happening in Norway?
In the book Norway to America by Ingrid Semmingsen (p. 99) I found the following quotes:
The half century from 1865 to 1915 was the time of mass emigration, even though Norwegian emigrants were only a small percentage of those who came to American each year. But Norway had few people to spare. When close to three-quarters of a million persons left the country in the course of fifty year, it was a massive loss for a country that had only 1,800,000 inhabitants in 1865 and 2,500,000 in 1915. In proportion to total population only Ireland had a higher percentage emigrating.
In this period [1879 – 1893 editor] a quarter million departed the country, leaving a population increase of only 150,000. In some years the number of emigrants was greater than the surplus of births, causing a population decrease. The record was set in 1882 when 29,000 persons emigrated, leaving Norway with 5,000 fewer people at the end of the year.
Clearly, our Norwegian ancestors (as well as many other countries) were having a terrible time finding work and a suitable place to live. For centuries prior to 1800, the Norwegian population growth was minimal, in 1664 the population was around 440,00 by 1815 the population was 885,431. However the population of Norway doubled to 1,701,756 by 1865 and reached nearly 3 million in 1930 [Statistics Norway website]. For anyone that has been to Norway we can easily see that, and in particular before 1900, Norway’s countryside would have trouble supporting this number of people.
In the 1800’s most of the people of Norway lived on farms and in small communities around farming areas. This is made evident by the population percentages in for example Oslo. In 1801, 7.5 percent of the total population of Norway lived in Oslo, by 1930, 17.4 percent live in Oslo and today over 20 percent of Norway’s population live in Oslo. While the percentage only went up 2.5 times the actual population went up over 7 times in the same period. This vast expansion of the city population must have placed a great strain on the economics of the people.
Equally so the increase in farm population made sharing and inheriting farm property almost impossible, while the increase in mechanization made it more difficult to find work. Case in point, my grandfather’s father (Thomas) was born on a farm in Førde Kommune (now called Naustdal Kommune). Because Thomas’ father was not a land owner, he would never inherit a farm and finding work was very difficult. He was able to learn a trade however and moved to Bergen, returning to Sunnfjord (a multi kommune region) only to find and take a bride from Jølster Kommune. His sister, having little chance to find a local husband move to Bergen also, eventually marrying a man in Bergen.
While times were difficult then, as they are difficult today. Hard work and changes in the way (and where) they lived, gave our ancestors new hope and livelihood, they also provide me with renewed excitement about the future.
In a future entry I’ll take a deeper look at the communities that my ancestors left. These are my stories, I’d love to here your stories too.
Ken Nordan, Contributing Editor
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