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The Disillusionment of an Immigrant: Sjur Jørensen Haaeim's "Information on Conditions in North America"
    Translated and edited by Gunnar J. Malmin (Volume II: Page 1)


In volume I of the Norwegian-American Historical Association's STUDIES AND RECORDS an English translation was published of Bishop Jacob Neuman's Word of Admonition to the Peasants, a philippic against emigration originally brought out in Norway in 1837. Sjur Jørgensen Haaeim's ten-page pamphlet, entitled Information on Conditions in North America, which was published at Christiania in 1842, was probably put into print as a result of Neumann's efforts. In fact it is likely that the bishop himself revised the manuscript. It will be noted in the text that certain parts of the author's original manuscript are omitted, and in their place are brief summaries in brackets, supplied by someone else.

The reason for supposing the publication of this pamphlet to be the work of Bishop Neumann is not only the general fact that he had previously, through the publication of his own Word of Admonition, showed a special interest in discouraging emigration, but more specifically the fact that he had published, in 1839, a letter from Syver Jørgensen Haajem (undoubtedly identical with our author), written in Illinois on April 22, 1839. This letter appeared in Bergens Stiftstidende, in Tiden (published at Drammen), and probably also in other Norwegian newspapers.

In this letter Haaeim, or Haajem, relates that he emigrated from Hardanger in 1836. He gives a very mournful account of the difficulties he and many other Norwegians have encountered and expresses his earnest desire to return home to Norway. He even asks if a collection cannot be taken up in Norway to help pay his passage. He states that some emigrated from Norway on account of their hatred of the clergy and of others in authority, others on account of bitterness toward their neighbors, or even on account of crimes and offenses committed in their home communities. "When all these people get together in one community you can easily imagine what goes on in these American forests. There isn't a church within a hundred miles and we are thrown into the midst of the worst heathendom in the world. A few individuals had decided to return to Norway, but they died last fall; if they had succeeded in getting home I don't think quite so many Norwegians would have emigrated thereafter. I have so much to tell the Norwegian people that I haven't room for it all. I therefore ask that you tell all my brethren in Christ not even to think of coming here; I assure them that they will regret it, unless they are completely reckless in every respect. I am now suffering from poverty, and many with me, mostly on account of sickness. {1}

[Title Page]

Information on Conditions in North America, especially concerning the Welfare of the Norwegian Emigrants, written by the Norwegian Farmer, Sjur Jørgensen Haaeim of Graven's Parish in Hardanger, who emigrated but returned to Norway. Christiania, 1842. Published by Chr. Grøndahl.


[The author's manuscript begins with a detailed description of his journey from his home, the "gaard" Haaeim of Graven's Parish in Hardanger, but, as this description cannot be presumed to have more than ordinary interest for the reader, we shall merely relate that he and his family, together with a number of other Norwegian emigrants, went by way of Gothenburg, where they had to pay thirty dollars in passage-money for each adult and provide themselves with food and water for three months, which entailed no little expense; and that the voyage was impeded for eight days by icebergs.]

After a voyage of five weeks and four days we reached our destination, New York, where I at once looked up a man by the name of Frederik Wang, from Gudbrandsdalen, who lives in New York; one of the Swedish sailors on the vessel we came on went with me. When we reached the house we found the man standing on the doorstep; I greeted him and he immediately said that as I was a Norwegian I must come in. He had a saloon, where he sold all kinds of drinks. Here I was treated most generously with wine, brandy, and beer, and when I told him that there were many of us Norwegians in the party and that we had come with the idea of settling here in this country, he asked where our ship was anchored and he promised to go with us to the ship in order to talk with all the Norwegians who were with us. On the way to the ship he stopped at a baker's shop and bought a dollar's worth of bread, which he distributed among all the Norwegians, and he arranged with the captain to have us live on board the ship until he could provide for our passage. We remained three days on the ship, and during this period occurred the celebration which takes place every year on the Fourth of July, the day the Americans won their independence from England and formed a union of their own. This day is the most festive day of the year, and many things could be told about what occurred that day but that would take too much space.

[After having described the journey from New York to Chicago by river-boat, railway, and steamship, the author continues:]

After a voyage of thirteen days across Lake Erie we arrived at Chicago, where part of our group had to remain because they had no money left to continue their journey. From Chicago to the place in Illinois where the Norwegians have settled is a distance of sixty English miles by country road; we therefore rented horses and wagons, and after three days' journey we at length reached our destination, Medelport, where the Norwegians have settled. {2} Everyone can imagine the longing we felt to meet countrymen in this distant land, and at the same time to see the end of all our troubles and the embarrassments we had experienced on account of the language.

But how surprised we became as we approached their miserable dwellings, which we, to judge by all the glowing descriptions we had heard, had expected to find in far better condition. Now there weren't enough houses to afford lodging to us all for the winter; we were therefore obliged to build three houses of the humble kind in use there, and thus we obtained lodging for the winter. We soon found out that all the land thereabouts was taken, and, as we had come with the sole purpose of acquiring a piece of land, of which we had been told there was such an abundance, we now found fresh cause for worry. The end of it all was that we had to go out among strangers and earn the necessary means of support for our families, and we worked there the whole winter. When spring approached we hired a man from the Stavanger district, one of the first emigrants, by the name of Kleng Pederson Hesthammer, {3} who knew the language and had much knowledge of conditions in the country. This man made a tour of investigation for us and came back and reported that he had found plenty of good land on the west side of the Mississippi River. In the first part of May we started out again and hired a Norwegian to drive us to Ottawa, where we embarked on a steamship and traveled three hundred English miles down the Illinois River to St. Louis. There we took another steamship, which went up the Mississippi, and then we still had a distance of sixty miles across country to the end of our journey, and again we had to hire horses and wagons, for which we paid twenty-five dollars. Now we had arrived in the wilderness and at our destination, and we had to start by setting up a hut, in which we made our simple dwelling until we could get settled and each of us take into use his own piece of land before the auction on the land took place. After a few days each one of us marked out his own piece and started to cut timber for a house, and, with great difficulty, we struggled along a little over a year; then we could see what the desert gave us. Here we had a distance of fifty English miles to the nearest mill, and twenty-five miles to the nearest town, and that consisted only of two stores, a saloon, a restaurant, and a blacksmith shop. The name of the town was Skjelbyveld, {4} and the place where we had settled was called Skjelbycountry, in the state of Missouri. When we had been there a year, we found it quite impossible to remain any longer and so we returned to Illinois, where I had spent the first winter. There I bought a piece of woodland for which I paid a hundred dollars, and there I built a house according to Norwegian fashion and paid the two carpenters a dollar a day each until the house was completed. Here I was taken ill, and the first time I lay in bed full twenty-six weeks, and all expected me to die, but the Lord willed that I "try the earth" yet a while longer. I was finally able to be on my feet again but the next summer I was taken ill again and then I was in bed fourteen weeks. After that, both my children were taken ill, so that I never expected that they would live. My wife lay sick fourteen weeks the first time and six weeks the following year; I had to pay for doctor and medicine both for myself and for my family, so that the little money I had left was spent. The disease was not contagious but was occasioned by the abrupt change from warm to cold; the hot summer days caused the sweat to flow even when we sat still, so that our clothes were quite soaked, and when night came there fell a fog or dew which brought a much colder temperature, and this dew lay until the sun rose.

Now this disease smote all without exception, but not all equally hard; some died at once, others lay many months before death took them, still others recovered after a prolonged illness. But I can safely say that in 1838 and 1839 the disease had spread to every home to such an extent that at many places there wasn't even anyone to give the sick a drink of water. At many places the cows were not milked, so that their milk failed altogether--and so it was in many other respects. We hear a great deal of talk about high wages; it is true that the wages are high, but every farmer who leaves Norway ought to consider the fact that in America he must start from the very bottom in every respect, both as to house and all his farm implements, and how can it be possible for one man to get around to all this! Nearly all the building material consists of oak, and I suppose everyone is acquainted with the difficulty of working with oak. It is quite impossible for one man to get along without hiring laborers, much more so than in Norway, where a man is in possession of a well-arranged farm, where he has everything in tolerably good shape; but when you come to the wilderness in America you must take everything from the very beginning; and if you are to pay out a dollar a day for any length of time you will certainly need to have a good sum of money if it is to suffice for everything until the soil can reward the tiller's sweat.

I will now truthfully and conscientiously give an account of as much as I am able to do. As far as religion is concerned, I really must praise the American states, both as regards the Americans themselves and the immigrants from Europe. It is possible to attend school if one calmly remains in the older settlements, but everyone will understand that in the wilderness there are neither schools nor churches. But here and there are houses in which -- though very seldom -- missionaries conduct services. There are no communion services nor baptisms, except such as are administered by the immigrants themselves, amounting to the same thing as what we call home-baptism. {5}

There are persons in authority just as well as in Norway but with this distinction that there is an election of officers every fourth year, and when they have served four years and society recognizes them as honest and capable in the discharge of their duties they may be reelected for another four years. Taxes vary, because each state has its own laws, but there is one tax which everyone must pay as soon as he has a house and a farm; namely, the tax on personal property. The assessor goes around to each house and assesses everything about the place, such as horses, wagons, cows, oxen, sheep, and hogs, -- everything a man has, great and small, -- and he pays one per cent in tax; this is called property tax and is the same as our formueskat in Norway. A man who has purchased a piece of land need not pay any taxes on it until he has occupied it for five years, but after that he must pay a land-tax, and this tax had become quite considerable in Illinois; according to our way of figuring a man would have to pay seventeen and a half daler {6} a year for a full-fledged farm, and this was collected from everyone, and if one couldn't pay, the tax was collected by execution or mortgage, just as in Norway.

I will also tell you a little about the expenses one must meet on the voyage from Norway and until he gets far enough inland to buy land. The passage from Norway to New York has generally cost thirty daler, but in New York one has daily expenses; one must buy food, and there are so many changes in the manner of travel, from steamers to railroads, then to canal-boats, and finally with horses and wagons on the country road, which cost three or four times as much as here, so that, no matter how simply one travels, no one, in my opinion, can get to the frontier for less than seventy or eighty daler. It must be noted that no one who wants to try his luck in America should go to Illinois because all the land there has already been purchased a long time ago, and if you buy a piece of land from someone else, you pay ten times the government price, which in our money is a daler and a mark {7} per acre. One had best go either to Wisconsin or Missouri territory. In these regions there is still land to get, but the best is already taken. In this connection let me add that altogether too many are cheated when they come into the wilderness and settle on a piece of land, as everyone is entitled to do if he can pay the set price when the auction is held; but, if he is so unfortunate at that time as not to have enough money to pay for it in cash the same day, then any man who has money may buy the land, but the one who has settled and built it up, of course, has the preemption; if he who has bought the land cares to compensate the occupant for improvements on the property, you can thank his generosity for that; if not, no one can make any legal claims on him. Everyone ought to bear this in mind who intends to settle on such a piece of land; many of the Norwegians have worked several years, built houses, plowed the fields, built fences, and one thing or another, and when the auction was held have been obliged to leave all without the least compensation. In Illinois, where I lived for four years, there was, to be sure, a tolerably good crop of wheat and corn, but a quite mediocre crop of potatoes and oats. The oats were used only for the cattle, and the potatoes never tasted good because the soil is too fine and there is no sand in it anywhere thereabouts. If anyone, now and then, had anything left over of his crop, the cost of transporting it to Chicago was so great that it didn't pay; when a man secured lodging for the night in the home of an American, it cost him a dollar, and I know for a fact that I had to pay half a dollar just to lie on the floor, using my own bed-clothes. But when the canal is finished from our nearest city, Ottawa, to Chicago, it will be more convenient to ship things; and yet there were very few who had anything left of their crops where I was. To be sure there were some of the first immigrants, who settled in Illinois sixteen or eighteen years ago, who had improved their farms sufficiently to leave a surplus of their crops, but there were also, alas! many of the later immigrants who had given up their farms here in Norway and were then reduced to such straits that they had to receive assistance from the poorhouse every week. Quite good arrangements have been made for the needy, and this is paid for by the landing-fee which every person must pay upon landing at New York, four dollars for an adult and two dollars for a child. This is put into a fund, and, when anyone is afflicted with sickness or poverty, he receives help from this fund. But this is not the case with people out in the wilderness, where there are neither towns nor anything, and there are certainly many needy people there who can receive no help.

But that which I thought the most alarming for anyone who comes to America with wife and children is that so many of the parents die and leave their poor orphans to wander about among strangers; I have myself helped move them from one place to another, and sometimes their condition has become better, sometimes worse. Of all these I will only mention one family from Tind, namely, that of Østen Bakke, who passed away a short time after he had arrived at Beaver Creek, Illinois, together with Rynning and many others in the party during the short period of three months. {8} This Østen Bakke left seven children, of whom the oldest daughter was blind when they left Norway, and she wandered about together with the other six in a helpless plight; there are so many such examples that we can't even mention them.

Craftsmen who had learned their profession in a city in Norway could get employment, to be sure, but practically every handicraft had to be learned over again, although it did not take more than five or six weeks' work to learn the method used in this country in every respect. But those who had not learned any handicraft were obliged to seek work on the canals, and there was also some work to be obtained at various places on the railroad. There they would work by the week or by the month and had tolerably good pay, as we figure in Norway, from three to four marks a day, and those who were capable workers and spoke the language got a dollar a day, but those who did heavy labor daily could not last long, as the Americans drive their laborers much harder than we do and because of the heavy sweat occasioned every day by the fierce summer heat and the immoderate drinking of cold water.

When they had struggled along this way for a time, practically all without exception were taken ill, and those who had no shelter were obliged to go to others for care and attention, and this became very expensive, as they had to pay, as a rule, two or two and a half dollars a week, -- and the sickness might last from twenty to twenty-six weeks, -- yes, many were forced to keep their bed a whole year. Those who died were buried in the open field because, of course, there was no consecrated cemetery, nor were there any churches, either, until we came to Chicago, sixty miles from our home.

Cattle-raising on the average farm of a hundred and sixty acres varied considerably. In the state of New York all the land is covered with woods, which must be cleared away, the land plowed and sown with timothy-seed; at such places one could not feed more than six or eight cows, one or two pairs of oxen, one or two horses, and a few sheep, but the raising of sheep was not profitable as the summer heat is too severe for them. In Illinois, on the other hand, the land is of a quite different nature, consisting of so-called prairies, or huge plains covered with grass. These plains have been purchased by speculators, who, on account of the lack of trees, cannot sell them immediately, and therefore one is free to cut as much hay and pasture as many cattle on them as he pleases. The raising of hogs was, however, the most profitable because most of the woods consisted of oak of various kinds, all of which bore a kind of nut which dropped to the ground in the fall, and big herds of swine fed on the nuts until they became nice and fat; pork never tasted quite as good, however, as here in Norway.

A farm equipped with buildings and in good condition commands a price of sixteen to eighteen hundred dollars for a hundred and sixty acres. But, of course, account must be taken of the nature of the soil, the value of the timber, and the distance to the main roads. There is a great variety of conditions among those who have settled in America. Those who have been there sixteen or eighteen years have put their farms into pretty good shape and they can, in part, make a living from their farms without being obliged to work for others; but lately, when money has become so scarce, many settlers, even of those who came earliest, have worked for others in order to earn money for clothes and other necessities, because there is neither spinning nor weaving, but when a man has clipped his sheep he must take the wool to a carding machine and then to a spinning and weaving machine, where all the work is done on it. There were two mills near the place where I lived, one nine and the other seven miles from my home; we paid with grain, a half bushel or an eighth part of every barrel, both for wheat and for corn.

Barley and rye do not thrive because the strong summer heat forces their growth so much that they turn white before they are half ripe. After I returned to Norway I heard a rumor to the effect that women can make good money in America by baking flatbrød, {9} but this is altogether false, as I don't know of any place in America where flatbrød is used. In all the houses they use metal ovens, which they buy in the towns; in such ovens they could bake bread just as well as in the best baker's oven in Norway. I brought such an oven back with me to Norway and I can easily bake rye bread in it of the 24-mark size. {10} Two or three blacksmiths emigrated but they had to learn their trade anew in many respects before they got any work. A few carpenters also came, but they didn't get very far and had to work for others for a time. But there were two, whom I knew well, who started making window-casings and this work brought them good profits.

It seldom happens that the Norwegians can settle in the vicinity of any of their countrymen. One year a party of Norwegians come and settle, then a party from Germany, from Ireland, from England, and so on, and they go beyond the others into the wilderness, and so they cannot settle in one district right near each other.

At the places I visited I heard varying opinions regarding emigration and I can truthfully say that most of the people regretted very much their decision to emigrate, especially those who had sold their excellent farms here in Norway and had to do hard manual labor for others and scarcely earn enough to provide themselves with the bare necessities of life. It often happened that the American people merely looked to their own interests, and in many affairs the Americans showed themselves utterly undependable; they were ready enough to promise but it was a rarity when they kept their promises. But if any of the Norwegians was mistreated, one way or another, or had a lawsuit to bring before the courts, he could obtain his full rights when matters came into the hands of the authorities; for all legal affairs were decided upon according to the evidence.

I will surely advise anyone against making this journey, because one encounters so many difficulties he never expected on account of the many changes in the manner of travel and the many embarrassments caused by the language, which are very considerable, in spite of the fact that there now are some Norwegians in almost every city. The worst of all is sickness, to which all are subject, and which has laid so many a man in the grave. Finally, I must add that when a man leaves his farm in Norway and comes to America with the thought of getting a better farm, -- which he seldom succeeds in doing, -- even if he buys a piece of uncultivated land, he is obliged to hire laborers at a dollar a day and also provide himself with all kinds of farm implements and, finally, also food for himself and his family for two or three years, until the soil can produce enough to support its tillers.

Just among my acquaintances from Graven's Parish, some of whom came to America with me, others later, the following died a short time after they arrived: Peder Moursæt, Gunder Tvete with wife and son, Niels Wambein, Siovat Wasenden with wife and four of his children, Lars Spilde with wife and two children, Olge Svelge with wife (two children are still living), Aslak Holven, Niels Bilde, Tosten Dahlen, and Holger Nøstvig.

[The author returned to Norway in 1841, this voyage costing him the rest of his money, which, at the time he left Norway, amounted to about four hundred speciedaler. Many of his countrymen would have liked to return with him but lacked the means and had, under present conditions, very little hope of ever achieving their desire in this respect.]

<1> Tiden (Drammen), March 15, 1840.

<2> Obviously the Fox River settlement in the northeastern part of La Salle County, established in 1834 under the leadership of Cleng Peerson by a number of the sloop immigrants of 1825. Medelport may refer to Milllngton, in the adjacent Kendall County.

<3> Cleng Peerson, famous in the history of Norwegian immigration as the advance agent of the sloop immigration of 1825 and as a guide to later immigrants to the Middle West.

<4> Shelbyvllle, in Shelby County, Missouri. A colony was established there in 1837 by Cleng Peerson, but it proved to be a failure and most of the Norwegians had left by 1840. A rather mournful description of this colony is found in Peter Testman, Kort Beskrivelse over de vigtigste Erfaringer under et Ophold i Nord-America og paa flere dermed forbundne Reiser (Stavanger, 1839), translated and edited by Theodore C. Blegen as Peter Testman's Account of his Experiences in North America (Norwegian-American Historical Association, Publications, Travel and Description Series, volume 2 -- Northfield, Minnesota, 1927).

<5> Hjemmedaab

<6> A daler is equivalent to $1.07 in American money.

<7> A mark is equivalent to eight and five-eighths cents in American money. The government price, as is known, was $1.25 an acre.

<8> The tragic Beaver Creek colony was founded by Ole Rynning's party in 1837. See Ole Rynning. Sanfærdig Beretning om America (Christiania, 1838), translated and edited by Theodore C. Blegen as Ole Rynning's True Account America (Norwegian-American Historical Association, Publications, Travel and Description Series, volume 1 - Minneapolis, 1926).

<9> A thin, brittle cake made of barley or rye and water.

<10> This is not quite clear. It may possibly mean 2 -- 4 mark size.

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