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A Doctrinaire Idealist: Hans Barlien
By D. G. Ristad (Volume III: Page 13)

Overhalla is a parish in the district of Namdalen along the Namsen River and is one of the northernmost in the diocese of Trondhjem, Norway. On the Barlien farm homestead in this parish on February 29, 1772, was born Hans Barlien, the son of an old family of prosperous and independent freeholders. The boy was precocious, courageous, strong, and independent. At the age of twenty-one he broke with family tradition by marrying his servant, Kjerstine Skistad, four years his senior. Intelligent and masterful, he early became a leader. He was largely self-taught; he read whatever books and other printed matter found their way into the secluded valley, but he did his own thinking. An original and creative genius, he was keenly interested in inventions and developed great mechanical skill, even building and experimenting with a gliding plane. The writer's maternal grandfather, who knew him personally, related how Hans Barlien glided through the air from the peak of the barn roof a considerable distance and landed safely. There were, of course, many who considered him erratic and queer; he was so different from the average type of man at that time.

The stirring news of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era, and the reaction to these movements in the political life of the peoples of Scandinavia, aroused in the soul of Hans Barlien a burning zeal for social, religious, political, and economic reforms. -- freedom of thought, equality of opportunity, popular education, and a general realization in private and public life of the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The theories of the French Revolution and of modern democracy had entered his blood. And he was not a silent brooding philosopher, satisfied to deal with new thoughts in the abstract; on the contrary, he was a man of action, and his courage, flaming enthusiasm, and faith in the possibility of the realization of the new ideas won to him a large following, especially among the laborers, poor tenants, and tax-ridden countryfolk. The ridicule, invective, and intimidation heaped on him by the office-holding class, the clergy and administrative aristocracy, as they saw his radical and intemperate attacks on the existing order and the privileged classes, simply increased his popularity among the less privileged.

During the early years of the century, Denmark having supported Napoleon, the English fleet blockaded the coast of Norway and stopped importation of grain and other foodstuffs; and this, together with failures of crops at home, left the people on the verge of famine. The laborers, tenants, and small freeholders, who were the greatest sufferers, found in Hans Barlien a warm and outspoken sympathizer, and, of course, readily adopted his animosity towards the upper classes of society and laid on them the blame for all ills. Hans Barlien was continually pondering methods and means that might be inaugurated to relieve the needy and establish an economic order of society in which all classes would share alike both in prosperity and adversity. To assist the laborers he thought of establishing industries. Confident that his judgment was correct, he sold his farm and moved to Trondhjem, and launched there upon the manufacture of pottery. This was in 1803. That his efforts must have met with considerable success is evident from the fact that in 1809 the Danish government conferred upon him the knighthood of the Order of Danebrog.

What combination of causes led him to give up his enterprise in Trondhjem is not quite clear. It could not have been on account of financial difficulties, for we find that in 1812 he had bought a large farm, Aargaard, lying between Steinkjer and Namsos. On this farm he attempted to put into operation his new ideas of independence and equality. To his many tenants, he seems to have offered new opportunities of independence by making them freeholders, an experiment at least fifty years ahead of the times.

In order to reach the public with his revolutionary theories, he opened a printing shop on his farm and published there a paper with the poetic title The Milky Way. Though a diligent search has been made, not even a fragment of this interesting publication has been found. {1} This publication did, however, place Hans Barlien so prominently before the people of his district that in 1815, the year after the adoption of the new constitution of an independent Norway, he became a candidate for representative to the first regular national legislature (Storthing), and was elected. After serving through the first session he was, in 1821, chosen as second alternate, and in 1830 first alternate from his district. He should have sat also in the extraordinary legislature of 1822, but was refused power of attorney, because of an action raised against him by the governor of the province of North Trondhjem for a libelous verbal attack on a certain attorney within the district. {2}

His challenging attitude toward the officialdom of his age and his biting criticism of their principles and conduct naturally met with active hostility and opposition. His aggressive radicalism and intemperate language caused him a great many lawsuits and other annoyances, which finally assumed the character of fanatical persecution and affected his financial welfare through all kinds of hindrances placed in his way by his adversaries. At last the battle became too unequal; even his friends grew timid, lost their organization, and assumed the role of interested but inactive bystanders. Disillusioned and embittered, he turned his back upon Norway, leaving his wife and children, never to meet them again, and sailed for America, the only land holding out the hand of friendship to one of his kind.

One of his younger contemporaries, also from Overhalla, Svein Nilsson, himself an idealist and a believer in the new democracy (somewhat later an immigrant in America), says of Hans Barlien: {3}

As one of the carriers of the ideas of the age of the French Revolution he had many friends, who were commonly called "Barlians." Equipped with great natural gifts that proved themselves productive in literary as well as in industrial and mechanical fields, he was the object of popular admiration, while many, especially the clergy and the public officials, opposed him on account of the liberal religious and political theories that he fought for .... The frivolous manner in which on many occasions he expressed his views, both orally and in writing, entangled him in many lawsuits, out of which he as a rule escaped unconvicted in consequence of his matchless shrewdness and mental acuteness. Weary of the everlasting conflicts with his opponents the then aged man decided to emigrate to America, whence he kept up a lively correspondence with his political allies and friends in Norway. It seems as if the American institutions suited his taste ....His letters breathe bitter hatred for Norway. They were copied, circulated and widely read. But by this time only a few had full confidence in the reports of the old agitator, and the 'America-fever' did not spread in earnest among the masses, until Ole Rynning's book became known in the northern sections of the diocese of Trondhjem.

In the year 1837 Hans Barlien emigrated from Norway to the United States. {4} He is supposed to have visited the Fox River settlement in Illinois. He did not remain there very long, but moved on to Missouri. In a letter dated at "St. Fransville," Missouri, on April 23, 1839, and addressed to the Reverend Mr. Rynning, Ole Rynning's father at Snaasen, he says that he has been in St. Louis sixteen months. {5}

Shortly after this we find him at Sugar Creek, near Keokuk, Iowa. He is, as far as we know, the first Norwegian to settle in this state. The purpose of his wanderings in America is not difficult to understand; his letters to friends in Norway (nearly all of them lost) revealed that his ambition was to start a colony in America for Norwegians who were dissatisfied with conditions in the home country, and who, like himself, wanted elbow-room for the new ideas of political, spiritual, and economic freedom and opportunity. In 1840 Kleng Peerson and his followers of landseekers visited Sugar Creek. A number of Norwegians did actually find their way to this infant colony and settle there. Here Hans Barlien died on October 31, 1842. With his death the young colony lost its leader, and when the Mormon sect shortly after broke into the settlement, a considerable number of the settlers were won over to the new religion, and together with other fellow-believers joined the westward movement in 1846, finally settling in Utah.

In one of his last letters to friends in Norway Hans Barlien gives the following expression to his enthusiasm for America and conditions here:

At last I can breathe freely. No one is here persecuted on account of his religious belief; anyone is permitted to worship God in his own way, as his conscience dictates. Pickpockets, lawyers, unscrupulous creditors, a corrupt government, and vagabonds have lost all power to harm the people. Any occupation is free, and everyone reaps the fruits of his own industry. By wise legislation the American citizens are safe against oppression. The so-called free constitution of Norway has so far only served to oppress the people with a continually increasing tax burden for the benefit of the governing class, and to foster luxury and laziness; such conditions must of necessity lead to general ruin.

While sojourning in St. Louis he wrote to his friend Andreas T. Svarliaunet in Overhalla a letter which is translated below. {6} The letter is rather rambling and lacking in logical sequence, but it is interesting for the light it sheds on the causes of Norwegian emigration to America at that time, as well as for its expression of the naive and complete faith in the excellence of American institutions, living in the hearts of the Norwegian immigrants. This love and trust were rather typical, making emigration for them an adventure into the earthly paradise of their vivid dreams. The tone of the letter reveals the undiscriminating and uncompromising spirit of the man, his fierce hatred of oppression of every sort, on the one hand; and on the other, the beautiful idealism of his view of what human society ought to be, and his unselfish desire to make it a reality in the lives of his fellow countrymen.

St. Louis, Missouri, North America, July 14, 1838.
Dearest Friend: Andreas T. Svarliaunet, Overhalla.

I am now about thirteen hundred Norwegian miles distant from my Norwegian friends and from my dear Fatherland, the land of my birth, a step that I found to be necessary in spite of my advanced age by reason of the pickpockets and other regular robbers and supermen, who are in the habit of taking their neighbors' property by force, and who cannot endure anyone who understands and dares to declare that such conduct is wrong. As long as I had my manhood's strength, I was able to defend my life, but under the semblance of legal procedure they gradually deprived me of my property, contrary to all law and justice. If I had waited until old age had dulled my senses and memory, the robbers and band of pickpockets would have seen their opportunity of victory, and would have made the common people believe that I have been and am a base fellow. It was, therefore, necessary to withdraw from this evident and imminent danger. However, do not for a minute believe that for this reason I consider myself released from my oath as a voting citizen, to the constitution and the king. If all citizens were Americans, or had the intelligence and temper of these, they would at once choose a leader and place all these robbers in the workhouse until they learned to win their livelihood in the manner prescribed by God: "in the sweat of thy brow." But because, perhaps, the greater number of you are like the unfaithful cattledogs that drive the sheep to the wolves in order to live upon the leavings, it is useless to help you, for, even if the privileged miscreants were exterminated, the dogs would take their places, and matters would be worse instead of better.

In order that I may be of assistance to the upright I will try to secure so much of the fertile land found here as to be able to receive and place thereon a few thousand familie's, and organize a colony with a government in harmony with nature, and in a manner to preclude the thriving of injustice.

Though this is called a slave state, theft is so rare that, though all kinds of things, whether valuable or not, hang on the fences or are placed within open, fenced places, they are never taken. Even things that have dropped in the road from wagons, such as a horseshoe, a boot, or the like, are not picked up by anyone, but left until the street is cleaned, and then hauled away and dumped, the street cleaners and the driver not seeming even to see them.

Is it that way in Norway? Here (in America) it is a shame to make use of anything not really your own. In Norway the common folk imitate the officials in stealing by craft and by violence, and those are regarded and honored most, who steal most.

Here we have no police or military guards or night watchmen; public opinion as to what constitutes good morals is the only thing that is back of a security that cannot be matched in Scandinavia.

So many strangers arrive in this city that they cannot be housed. {7} Shanties are, therefore, built in great numbers to house both the considerable belongings of the travelers and the people themselves, and they all sleep there as securely as if they were within a fortress. All this is due to the protection of this accepted moral order. In truth, this is stronger than all the bulls, laws, regulations, police forces, penalties, and so forth, of Europe. They have trained even the wild Indians so that anyone without any danger may associate with those of them who have received some degree of enlightenment as to what is real honor or disgrace. In this way they may be employed in war against other Indians, and have won both honor and fortune.

Soldiers are here given food and clothing and $12 a month, and do not lose their freedom, for they may resign, if they so choose, when their period of service expires. Those who entered the service when I was in Washington, enlisted for six months at $8 a month, and those among them who consented to reenlist would then receive $2 a day, or $60 a month.

They choose their own officers, but Congress appoints the generals, and also others at will. Intelligence and manliness are honored, but stupidity and cowardice are despised. In short, it is the spirit of Christ Jesus that rules America; for the word Jesus connotes love, while the word Christ, the concept of wisdom. Let the government of Norway and some of its officials slander the American government as much as they please, their government will never match this.

It cannot be denied that here also is much folly. Many worship Mammon so that they cheat where they are able so to do in order to gain their neighbor's property. But then, one need not ask to find out that immigrants of this sort have come from Germania. I have named them the wild "Turks," and the Americans seem to think the term is suitable. The Americans despise all Europeans, except the Scandinavians, most of all the Irish; but they are hopeful for the Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes. As a general rule I have found that as the corruption in Norway increases because of the manners at court, the manners here make progress in virtue and perfection because of the spirit of the government.

One day at the dinner table some Americans who board at the place where I lodge, asked me about my religion. I gave my confession of faith in this way: "I was born a Lutheran, but for thirty years I have had neither faith, nor religion." At this their faces cleared, and they held this to be good sense, and said they hoped that I soon would learn their language.

In my purpose to organize a colony I have found special encouragement. Those who join it would not need to learn the new language, and they would not easily be offended by the wild "Turks," and there are other advantages of such colonization. Anyone who is able and willing to engage in a useful occupation may live well, and, if he is saving, may become prosperous in a short time. A common hired girl, assisting in the household, receives good food, better than that served at Christmas time in Norway, and a silver dollar a day in wages. It is, however, the farmer that has the most gainful occupation when he delivers his products at the market. Farming is most lucrative because there are too many towns and too little farming, and above all is it profitable because the farmer raises all that he needs in great abundance, and he never knows of a failure of crops.

'Thus I find myself highly satisfied here, and live in the sweet expectation of being able to be of assistance to my right-thinking countrymen by preparing a place of refuge for all who will take advantage of it.

If it is desired that I charter a boat for the voyage, a list of all the passengers should be mailed to me and to Mr. Bing, wholesale merchant at Trondhjem, who will ship them to New Orleans or to any other American seaport, and then by stage to their destination. If anyone has money to take passage at once, book for New Orleans, and from there by steamboat 1200 miles to St. Louis. The fare for this last distance is $8 for each person and his baggage.

The cost of transportation across the ocean varies. Last summer it was at the highest when I had to pay $50, and board myself. But then I had the privilege of a cabin and was served coffee in the morning and tea at night. Those in the steerage, who receive only fuel and water, paid $30 for adults, $10 for minors, and babies were carried free of charge.

The lack of accommodation was caused by a check in the trade, due to the fact that Congress had forbidden the banks, for some time, to make payments in silver. This prohibition was lifted on November 30, and December first was celebrated as a holiday. Cannon were fired all day, and in the evening illuminations and bonfires were lit around in the city, and so on.

I have referred to the rejoicing of the merchants on account of the lifting of the ban on specie payment, a protest against the manifestation of the spirit that has no care for the common welfare, as long as it can enrich itself.


N.B. Some letters to Norway and Denmark I have mailed via the West Indies to be forwarded from St. Thomas to Copenhagen.

When this letter is read in Overhalla by anyone who desires to hear from me, let it be sent to Lorents Lyngsnæs at Vigten {8} who will know how to deal with it discreetly.


<1> For this information the writer is indebted to O. A. Aavatsmark of Namsos, Norway, editor and historian, who has written, in a manuscript not yet published, a careful study of Hans Barlien's career in the Norwegian period.

<2> Carl G. O. Hansen, "Det Norske Amerika gjennem Hundrede Aar," in Minneapolis Tidende, May 28, 1925, Historisk Afdeling A, p. 14.

<3> "De skandinaviske Setlementer i Amerika," in Billed-Magazin (Madison, Wisconsin), 1:34 (January 2, 1859).

<4> Barlien is believed to have been a passenger on the ship "Enigheden," which arrived in New York from Stavanger about the middle of September, 1837. The manifest for this trip in the New York Customs House is dated September 14, 1837. Since the name of Barlien does not appear on it, however, it is possible that he was not a member of this party. See Henry J. Cadbury, "Four Immigrant Shiploads of 1836 and 1837," in Norwegian-American Historical Association. STUDIES AND RECORDS, 2: 46. According to the same source there were only ninety-one passengers on board "Enigheden" when it arrived. Dr. Flom and Dr. Norlie, who assign Barlien to this party of immigrants', give the number as ninety-three. George T. Flom, A History of Norwegian Immigration to the United States, 108 (Iowa City, 1909); Olaf M. Norlie, History of the Norwegian People in America, 138 (Minneapolis, 1925).

<5> This letter was published by Rynning in Morgenbladet (Christiania), 1839, no. 283. A typewritten copy is in the possession of the Minnesota Historical Society.

<6> The document translated is a copy of the original made by the late Andreas Skogmo, organist In Overhalla, and is printed In the Norwegian language in Trønderlaget's Aarbok 1926, pp. 25-29.

<7> In his letter of April 23, 1839, already cited, Barlien sets the population of St. Louis at 20,000.

<8> Vigten is an island in the Namsenfjord.

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