NAHA Header


Immigration as Viewed by a Norwegian-American Farmer in 1869
A Letter Translated and Edited by Jacob Hodnefield (Volume II: Page 53)


The letter of which the following is a translation was written by Ole Spillum of North Cape, Wisconsin, on January 8, 1869, to the bailiff (lendsmand) of his home district in Norway, one J┐rgen Havig Spillum emigrated from Overhalden, Namsos, Trondhjem diocese, Norway, in 1845 or 1846, and located at North Cape, Racine County, Wisconsin, in the well-known Muskego settlement.

The letter appears to have been written in answer to one by the bailiff requesting Spillum to collect an account from a certain Guldvig, a late immigrant. After an introduction concerning a group of immigrants from Namsos, Spillum relates his experiences in trying to locate Guldvig and describes the procedure which finally brought some information of his whereabouts. In doing this, and also later on in the letter, he takes occasion to describe American conditions and tell about the affairs of Norwegian immigrants.

A more argumentative portion of the letter concerns emigration as a public question in Norway, and here he writes with some vigor and takes issue with the bailiff, who evidently has expressed himself in favor of a restriction of emigration. To strengthen his argument he introduces comparisons with Germany and England and comments on the fact that in those countries emigration has not produced evil effects. An interesting portion of his letter is his mention of Svein Nilsson and a number of pioneer Norwegian publications.

The discussion throughout is intelligent and reveals a wide knowledge of affairs both in this country and abroad. And, although he leaves a sentence or two incomplete, the language is better than would be expected of a farmer in a pioneer community. It is not unusual, however, to find good letter writers among the Norwegian immigrants of the period.

The original of the letter--a gift of Mr. Ingeman Ranum of St. Paul-- is to be found in the manuscript division of the Minnesota Historical Society.

OLE. SPILLUM TO J»RGEN, HAVIG, January 8, 1869
[Minnesota Historical Society MSS.--A. L. S.]


I received your letters of March 25 and May 7 last year long before the Namsos ship landed in America, as it had a long journey. The only people I have met of the whole company are Christian Rikammeren and the wife of a peasant and her son from Namdalseidet. I inquired diligently concerning Gabriel Berre. They knew he had been on the ship but did not know where he had purposed to go or whither he went.

I know nothing of where either Gabriel or Otte Vemunvig are. Only from your letters do I know that they are in America. Neither did I know that there was a descendant of old Guldvig in this country before I read it in your letter. I immediately began to inquire among the Namdalings whom I met; and all had heard the report that he was dead, but no one knew where he had died, neither did they know whence this report had its origin.

Finally Oluf Joelsen Aune was able to tell me that when he made a trip through northeastern Iowa, northwestern Wisconsin, and southeastern Minnesota in 1866 he had met this Guldvig in the little town of Lansing on the Mississippi in the northeastern corner of Iowa. They slept together that night, and Guldvig complained of his chest and coughed almost all night. (I think this must have given occasion for the report that he was dead.) Guldvig had nothing to do at that time but spoke of going where he could find government land in order to take a piece under the homestead law and engage in vine-culture.

Altho vine-culture is almost the most profitable agriculture in America, provided soil and climate are agreeable, for one who has never before seen a cultivated grape grow I would rather advise planting potatoes, as thereby he would at least get a surer crop; at least such is the case on the east side of the Rocky Mountains; on the west side, however, soil and climate are said to be especially adapted for vine-culture.

Students and such as do not relish heavy work nearly always call at our pastor's in case there may be a parochial school position or something of that sort whereby they may earn a little money. Thus I inquired of our minister, Christian Hvistendahl, if he had met this Guldvig at any synod or other gathering; but he knew nothing of him. I then had Pastor Hvistendahl inquire for him at the conference for western ministers which was to be held the last part of October in Red Wing. in Minnesota; where Pastor Frick, minister to the Norwegian Lutheran congregations in LaCrosse and vicinity, said that he had taken up land in Harrison County, Iowa, and that his post office was Dunlap, and as far as he knew he lived there yet. His address is consequently Dunlap, Harrison County, Iowa.

If he has become a pioneer, there is probably not much money to be expected from him during the first seasons; but yet I wrote to him during the first days in November; and, as I feared he would suspect that I had a commission from you to carry out, I said nothing about the matter but only inquired concerning the prospects for immigrants at that place, and when I had entered into his confidence I would propose my errand later. I asked for an answer as soon as possible, but I have not received any nor do I think I shall receive any. Still I am almost certain that he received my letter, as according to the postal law the writer has a right to put on the letter: "If not called for within 20 days, please return to O. Spillum, North Cape, Wis.," that is, "If not called for in 20 days please return to," etc. I put 20 days as I thought perhaps he had a long way to the post office and thus would not visit it often, but I have received nothing of one thing or another.

Harrison County is one of the boundary counties of Iowa on the west side of the state where the Missouri River, which here runs almost directly north and south, divides Nebraska from Iowa. Harrison County is about 70 miles from Iowa's southern boundary and about 120 from the northern boundary and about 20 miles north of the city of Council Bluffs on the Iowa side and Omaha on the Nebraska side of the Missouri, where the Pacific railway comes through and crosses the river on a bridge. According to reports, the railway will be ready from ocean to ocean next summer.

Before I leave Iowa I wish to say that one of the largest, if not the largest, Norwegian settlement in America is found in the northeastern part of this state,--the counties of Winneshiek, Allamakee, Howard, Mitchell, Fayette, and adjoining counties. In the first of these is located the thriving town of Decorah, whose population is said to be mostly Norwegian. This settlement is something more than 200 miles northeast of Harrison County. As a continuation of this colony is the Norwegian settlement in southeastern Minnesota in the counties of Houston, Fillmore, Mower, Freeborn, Olmsted, Winona, and others. Here are many from Indherred and Namdalen. I wish to observe that I have taken the geographic locations as well as the distances from the map, as my foot has never trod Iowa's soil, nevertheless I consider them reliable.

In regard to emigration I am not in entire accord with you. While I must praise your patriotism highly I cannot share fully your view that a prohibition of emigration would be beneficial to Norway at the present time. One hears complaints from all sides in regard to the increasing burden of poor support, and this seems to indicate that there is not profitable employment for all. I know of only two remedies for this evil: one is to create work for those who do not find remunerative employment in agriculture, fishing, marine commerce, and trade; and the other is emigration; for it will avail little in many cases to fold your hands and await the direct aid of God, as then God has given us our reason and sense to little or no purpose if we will not use them for the service of ourselves and our fellow men. Nor am I persuaded that the emigrants lately have removed a considerable amount of capital from Norway, and I find no cause to think that they will do so in the future. Most of them do not have more than enough to pay transportation, and the Norwegian ships earn that, for the most part, for carrying them across the ocean; indeed, it is not seldom that some of them get money sent to them from friends in America to put into the pockets of the Norwegian ship proprietors to take these people across the ocean. If a person in addition takes into consideration that, even if the larger part of those who go to America are poor, they nevertheless consume not a little foreign luxuries such as tobacco, coffee, sugar, and so on, without producing a corresponding amount of products which the foreigner needs, there is thus a shortage according to customary calculation. The little sum of money which the emigrants have left after their traveling expenses are covered would not be enough by far for these luxuries for their lifetime, and Norway will thus get a smaller bill from the foreigner by getting rid of this consuming member of society.

To attempt to curb emigration by shrewdly contrived newspaper articles or similar means would in my opinion make the bad worse; for ever since the days of Eve the human race seems to have been contaminated with the sin of being contrary, even if it is to their own corruption.

If history does not lie, Germany was just as terrified in the beginning as Norway is now, and still more, when large numbers of her able-bodied military men and laborers found their way across the ocean to the American colonies; for the government, besides placing in their way at home every obstruction that it could, hired correspondents in America who for pay should picture the terrible fate which the adventurous emigrant could expect; but Germany found that this rather had the opposite effect, and finally found that its strength as a nation, in physical, intellectual, or financial power, did not diminish in proportion to the country's resources but rather increased, altho every year since it has contributed not a small portion to America.

Great Britain also has continued for hundreds of years to send out thousands to all parts of the world and still the population continues to increase at home, when one excepts poor Ireland, which in spite of its rich soil continues to diminish. English politics in connection with religious restraint in relation to this island seems to be the reason why the Irishman, known for his ignorance and quick temper, develops aversion to his ancestral soil and seeks refuge in other parts of the world. I myself have discovered that you can make a simple Irishman your friend by no quicker method than by disparaging English rule in Ireland. The nefarious uprisings which have taken place recently in America and in Ireland are in fact for no other purpose than that the leaders thereby may gain access to the pockets of the credulous in order to fill their own. Our government, as well as the larger part of the population, smiles at seeing John Bull tremble in his breeches upon hearing that filibuster expeditions are equipped here against his country; for people still remember very well the "Alabama" and others which this Master Bull watched so complacently when our merchant ships were destroyed in the late war.

It pleases us Norwegians in this country to learn that the old revered land of our birth had a good crop the past year, and this will doubtless result in that not so many will think of America but will find work and food at home. I have already read that the farmers among the northern mountains have begun to export grain to England and at good prices. As far as America is concerned we had last year a medium crop when the country as a whole is considered. In the northwestern states where most of the wheat is raised it was good as far as quantity is concerned, but it was rather light, as it was forced too much by the dry and warm weather we had the first part of July. The corn was generally good, the oats fair, potatoes good in some parts, in others destroyed by insects; in this neighborhood rather good. Hay, a medium crop.

My brother Henrik greets you and thanks you for the business you transacted for him. He received your letter with enclosed receipt early in the fall.

It pleases us to hear that our old aunt has not suffered anything during these hard times; but Henrik scratched his head somewhat over the fact that Amund and Sophia should have received the money under the present circumstances; for we had heard that the aged one had been all the time at Sophia's who, according to reports, is poor; but we had not considered that when times became difficult her second daughter Olea would become obliged to take her for a time. In a joking way I said to Henrik that, if there were to be any help in it, a money order for 100 Spd., or at the least 50, from him would be the thing. He replied, likewise in semi-jest, "Well, who knows what notions I might get into my head; but if I shall fulfill my promise I guess I shall have to keep such thoughts away this year." Henrik has promised to lend a man who has bought a farm in the neighborhood 1000 dollars the latter part of the winter.

But I think likely that some time later he will burden you with a money order for some acquaintance or other who he hears is in need; for he sees that on account of his poor eyesight there are reasonable probabilities that he will become a public charge. But as fate has so decreed, he not only is satisfied and content in his condition but lives as well as any one could wish, and the best of all this is that he himself believes it and appreciates it. Consequently he is so much the more thankful to Providence that has given him all this and to the land of his birth to which he is indebted for the bodily and spiritual endowments he has received. Thus he has said of late that at some time he would provide a large amount for some object of charity in the locality of his birth, but as yet he has not arrived at any conclusion concerning what it should be used for.

Naturally he wishes that it would be used where it would do the most good, but he has not decided whether he would divide it among private persons or give it for public support; for both persons and their real circumstances, as well as conditions in special cases, begin to be strange to a person who has been away so long; and to believe the worst reports from Norway would be perhaps as senseless as to believe the most rose-colored a person hears concerning America.

The Peter M. Ansj┐ns are well and getting along nicely. It seems that he does not wish the money he has in Norway brought to America, at least not in the immediate future. To what use he has assigned it I do not know,--very probably he himself does not know as yet.

Svend Nilsen visited us last May; he was here then about a week. He told us that he went to America as the correspondent of Morgenbladet {1} in order to give reliable reports concerning the condition of the Norwegians in this country, which they thought were lacking there at home. At first he employed what spare time he had in writing for Skandinaven, a newspaper then recently started in Chicago, and later he wrote for Emigranten, which was printed in Madison, Wisconsin, but now he had severed his connection also with this. But when the legislature of Wisconsin last winter appropriated a sum of money in order to send a suitable person of each nationality to travel throughout the state and investigate the condition of his countrymen and prepare a report which should be sent to the country of each, Svend thereupon obtained this position for the Scandinavians, and it was on this trip that he visited us. He thus served two masters at the same time, Morgenbladet and Wisconsin. From the first he received three specie dollars per column and from the latter seventy-five dollars a month and free transportation on the railroads. He also had a third purpose in this trip; he wanted to publish a little illustrated weekly in Madison, Wisconsin, Billed Magasinet {2} where in each number he would introduce a portion of the history of Norwegian emigration to America, for which he had gathered material on this trip. Here he brings in, in accordance with the words of the emigrants themselves, the causes which induced them to take up the pilgrim's staff and the difficulties they had to endure in their new home, and their present condition. {3} Some numbers of Billed Magasinet already have been issued and people seem to like it very well. Twenty-five subscriptions have been placed at North Cape already and there may be perhaps even more. There is just one newspaper that has a larger number of subscribers here, namely Skandinaven, which sends very nearly twice as many each week to us here at North Cape.

In spite of the fact that money has not increased in Svend's pockets since he came to America, but rather diminished, nevertheless he has high ideas concerning this country; so much so that I had to observe that the aged Morgenblad would hardly digest such opinions, especially as long as it retained the opinions that it has had hitherto concerning America and its institutions; neither could one expect anything else as long as it remained an admirer of the aristocratic London Times. He replied that he had a free hand and would write according to his own convictions and if Morgenbladet was not satisfied therewith they would have to dismiss him.

My brother Michal with wife and four children are healthy and doing well.

You have heard perhaps that something over a year ago I lost my wife and youngest child. The remaining four children and I are well and are dragging along with time as best we may according to circumstances.

Conditions of health have been generally good for a long time so that it is seldom we hear that anyone is sick.

I had a letter recently from the Geisness people. Old Aunt Ane, the widow of John Andersen Berre, died last fall. Lorents P. Flak had been sick for a long time but was at that time better, and the wife of Andreas Halvorsen also was sick last summer but better at that time. Carl Halvorsen is said to be on the road to become a rich farmer.

Greet your brother Andreas Havig, also Christian Havig; and you and your family are hereby greeted by yours ever obedient,


<1> A newspaper published in the Norwegian capital, Christiania.

<2> Two volumes of this magazine were published from 1868 to 1870.

<3> These articles are among the most important sources of information on the early Norwegian immigration and its Causes.

<<   Previous Page   |   Next Page   >>

To the Home Page