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Emigration as Viewed by a Norwegian Student of Agriculture in 1850:
A. Budde's "From a Letter About America"
Translated by A. Sophie Bøe, with an introduction by Theodore C. Blegen
(Volume III: Page 43)


Some years ago Professor Foerster took occasion to point out that although one hears both of an immigration problem and of an emigration problem, there is, strictly speaking, only a migration problem. {1} The historical approach to the study of American immigration has given stimulus to the exploitation of this view. The emigrant and the immigrant are one and the same person, and to understand him the student obviously must know not only his story from the date of his arrival in America but also the complex European backgrounds from which this story is projected. In other words, one is dealing with international history. A chapter in the evolution of modern Europe merges with a chapter in the making of America.

The literature of emigration, in which are reflected not only the motives and the reactions of the emigrants themselves but also the currents of opinion, hostile or otherwise, that the movement generated in the Old World, is an enlightening source of information for the economic and social history of Europe. The document herewith presented in an English translation may be taken as an illustration of the foregoing generalization. Jan Adolph Budde's little book entitled From a Letter about America is one of the most interesting of the discordant notes in the chorus of Norwegian voices chanting of America in the forties and fifties. The volume was brought out at Stavanger in 1850 by the director of the agricultural school of Stavanger Amt, and may be read as a reflection of the views on emigration held by a man who was professionally interested in modernizing agricultural methods in Norway about the middle of the nineteenth century. Budde had traveled widely in Europe before, in 1844, he became the head of the Stavanger agricultural school, established in that year. He conducted the school for more than thirty years, and in 1877 was knighted in honor of his service to Norwegian agriculture. {2} From a Letter about America is a vigorous argument against emigration. If in part it is based upon misinformation and if the author's bias leads him into some naive claims, yet in certain respects he was undoubtedly right. As a special student of agricultural conditions he was on safe ground when he claimed that changes in agricultural methods, had they been made by the farmers of Norway would have brought them good returns. The immigrant in America, as he truthfully asserted, must change his farming methods completely. Why not change them in Norway? In other writings Budde urged farmers to install up-to-date machinery on their farms, to use fertilizers for their soil, and in general to modernize their methods; and on his own "model farm" he doubtless exemplified his theories. {3} Budde's book is historically interesting not only in connection with the agricultural problem in Norway but also in relation to the psychology of the prospective emigrant. If the author was unwarrantedly pessimistic about the situation in the United States, his treatise doubtless served as an effective antidote to the false hopes raised by glowing reports from America.

Budde's book sounds a constructive note that was typical of Norway in the fifties, for the period was one of vigorous economic improvement. Turning its back upon previously held laissez-faire views, the government organized a new department of the interior and embarked upon a number of important economic reforms. In 1851 the Storthing authorized the construction of the first Norwegian railway, which was completed in 1854. At the same time the state entered upon a vigorous road-building program, which tended to mitigate to some extent the isolation characteristic of the earlier part of the century. The first telegraph line in Norway -- connecting Christiania and Drammen -- was opened in 1855; and the telegraph and a new postal system played their parts in knitting together the communities of the land. The government attempted to aid the farmer by establishing a farm-loan system by which he was enabled to borrow money at lower rates than those available from private money-lenders. The fifties were also a period in which the question of agricultural education came to the fore, as indeed the student anticipates when he finds writers like Budde stressing agricultural reform, rather than emigration, as a solution of the problems confronting the Norwegian tillers of the soil. A national agricultural college was established in 1859 and has had since its founding a model farm. Agricultural schools began to lay the foundations .for changes that were destined eventually to alter the character of Norwegian farming. {4}

Miss Bøe's translation of the Budde document was made from a typewritten transcript of a copy of the original in the library of the University of Oslo.


From a Letter about America. By A. Budde, Director of the Agricultural School of Stavanger Amt. Stavanger. Published by C. Floor. Printed by Paul T. Dreyer. 1850.


Spring is drawing near -- strange desires begin to stir -- birds of passage are flying -- the weather-vanes point toward the West -- America's undulating plains lie stretched out before the mind's eye. Let us start -- they meet us at the shore -- each tries to outdo the other -- they offer us their steamboats and carry us toward those places where farms of a hundred tønder {5} cost only 125 specie-dollars, -- there where one reaps without fertilizing, -- where each one can tap his own sugar from the trees ....

So these pictures have intoxicated you too -- so you too want to go from eight hundred to nine hundred sea-miles across the ocean, and after that more than one hundred and fifty Norwegian miles {6} through the country to Wisconsin, and expose -- I shall not speak of you, yourself--but your wife and your small children to the dangers and hardships of such a journey, stowed together in the filth and foul air under the deck of the ship for so long a time with seasickness all around you? Have you really assured yourself of conditions over there, and made your calculations? I must say that I have not yet seen a really comprehensive account of America, much as I have sought for it. Half truths and part commendation of this country, but almost always with this supplement, "I shall advise neither for nor against," in my eyes a suspicious qualification, which shows that America's advantages are, by no means, so entirely clear -- I must assume, however, that the advantages are sufficiently emphasized, but not the disadvantages. Perhaps it is just this which has made you uncertain, since you ask for my opinion, although on the other hand you seem to have made your decision. This your wish I shall with pleasure grant you, and, for lack of anything better, give you what I know, and what I have obtained from entirely reliable sources, which I have sought, as I was surprised to learn that no one made money from farming in America, and that many who were well-to-do here lost all their possessions, and were forced to sell the farms which they had begun to cultivate.

I shall work out a computation for you just as it presents itself in the vicinity of Milwaukee, and found it on the prices prevailing there, which are as follows: 1 1/4 dollars per acre (about a Norwegian tønderland), forest as well as prairie-land. To plow an acre with furrows, 18 inches wide and 4 to 6 inches deep, the cost is 2 1/2 to 3 dollars. The average crop is 25 bushels (about 6 barrels) of wheat per acre, and the price of this is 2 dollars a barrel. The highest it has ever been is 4 dollars -- but grain has here too been more than double the price of what it is now. A man during harvest gets 1 dollar a day for cutting grain. To hire a horse costs 1 dollar a day. The price of a horse is from 40 to 100 dollars. An ox costs from 30 to 50 dollars. My informant paid 20 dollars a year in taxes for 100 acres of uncultivated land. Since grain is so cheap and wages so high, it would not be possible to thresh with a flail, but threshing-machines go about threshing for a price of 5 skillings a bushel -- 20 skillings a barrel -- though without cleansing. The straw is considered of no value, since one does not fertilize, partly because the new soil is fertile for a long time without manure -- neither have most of the Norwegians been able to build stables but tie their cattle to the walls of their houses in the winter, and this often causes them to die miserably in the snow. Money in America is loaned out at 10 to 12 per cent -- a higher interest is unlawful. The cost of planting an acre with wheat, which is the common seed, can be computed in the following way:

Plowing 2 specie dollars 2 ort 12 skillings {7}
Harrowing and Sowing 1 2 12
Seed sown 1 1/2 bushel --- 3 18
Harvesting 3 --- ---
Threshing and Cleaning 1 1 ---
Hauling to Market
    (Milwaukee, 20 English miles)





11 specie dollars

4 ort

18 skillings
    Receipts 25 bu. Wheat 12 specie dollars
    Expenditures 11 specie dollars 4 ort 18 skillings


6 skillings

From this you will see that there is absolutely no advantage in owning land in the far West, and still less so when from this the interest on the funds invested, and on the capital for carrying on the business is also counted. It is quite different in the eastern states, for the price of grain is much higher there, but there too the land in certain sections is much more expensive than in Norway. I know that it has happened that grain and other products have brought such low prices that it has not paid to harvest excellent crops, but they have been left to rot in the fields; this has caused a strong stench which has been looked upon as the cause of diseases breaking out. ( Ohio 183 {1} [sic] ). You can then see that one cannot get a living merely from owning land far out there in the West; on the contrary, one gets it only from one's personal work -- for besides the expenses stated you will have many more: 20 dollars in taxes for a hundred acres (uncultivated), fences (fence-wire), roads, houses, etc., etc., to construct and keep in repair.

If we want to make a comparison with my business here in Stavanger Amt, it would, figured according to an average crop on my farm, give the following result with a rotation of crops of: oats, root vegetables, wintergrain or barley, five-year grass: average surplus 18 dollars per acre. Fertilizing is in this case, for the years the land is used for field, added to the expenditures with the big sum of 10 dollars, 11 skillings, the average for a year. The capital which is invested in the field is assumed to be 100 dollars per acre, and interest is computed on this as well as on the capital needed to carry on the business. However, in order that you can judge my figures correctly, I shall add another, for example, for potatoes:

Working of soil, etc 14 specie dollars 2 ort 23 skillings
Manure 13 --- ---
Seed sown
    8 barrels at 1 dollar



35 specie dollars
2 ort 23 Skillings
To this I want to add the
interest on capital invested
and for carrying on business,
which was not counted in
the computation for America



41 specie dollars
2 ort 23 skillings
Receipts: 80 barrels at
    4 ort, including hay



Profit 25 specie dollars 2 ort 1 skilling

You see that personal work is better paid in America, but farming is far, far more profitable in Norway.

Those, on the other hand, who prefer to work for others, or work by the day, very likely are better off than the menial workers in Norway, provided only that they are fortunate enough to keep their good health and that they can endure to compete with the native Americans, both of which, however, have their difficulties. Unbiased people from this part of the country have told me that a man in America must do several times as much work (three?) as is customary here in a day. My chief informant -- a Norwegian returned from America -- as an example, told of people who had worked themselves to death. The work is so violent and so forced that Norwegians think, on their arrival in America, that they can by no means endure it, but they are forced to -- there is nothing else they can do, and after a long time of torment they work, if not exactly abreast of the Americans, then at least with them. If servants or laborers can force themselves to go through this purgatory, and if they want to risk the climate, which is unhealthful for Norwegians, they may, to be sure, do well as far as earnings are concerned -- although, no doubt, many things which require much work, for example, boots and shoes, and the like, are pretty expensive. If, on the other hand, they become sick, they have, for the most part, lost the game. Not always can one count on help -- Rynning, who had helped many people, died, entirely helpless, not far from the door of his house, which he was unable to reach. {8} Sickness carries away a great number of the Norwegian immigrants, and if they do recover from it they are not well, or the disease may recur again and again for several years. My informant had this sickness for some time and was cured several years ago, but still has slight touches of it, he who formerly had had such excellent health. The principal sickness that attacks the Norwegians is a bad malignant ague; but consumption too is very common, and is caused by the climate; yes, it is such a bad disease, even for the native Americans, that wealthy people often spend the summers in the West Indies for the sake of their health, three hundred and fifty sea-miles south of New York. It is of course well known to you that most of those who emigrated last year are already dead. After all it is a well-known truth, and proved by statistics, that in no country in the world is the average length of life so long as in Norway. From this, it seems to me, one ought to be able to infer that Norway is a good place to live in, and when I think about it, I wonder why so many want to emigrate; it is of no use to depend on youth and health; and crowded as it may indeed seem to many people, there still is sufficient room in our church yards.

In regard to dwelling-places, America offers very little. The first thing one must think about, when one wants to settle down, is to go into the woods to chop down trees. But in order to build, many difficulties present themselves because of the lack of lumber easy to handle. The real Americans build their homes of brick. The immigrants, in order to economize, build log-cabins of huge trunks of oak, which are hard to work with and to handle, and what is more, after they are placed in the walls they are in constant motion, and begin to curve, one day one way, and the next the other, and the clay which was forced into the openings the preceding day falls out again, and new clay must be forced in in another place. In most cases the Norwegians cannot afford the price of a wooden floor, but must be content with the bare ground for a floor. My informant, who is a very well-to-do man, and who has been in America for eight years, awakened on winter mornings to find snow, which had drifted in during the night, covering his bed.

What, then, are the advantages of America, you may ask, if they do not include money, health, nor conveniences? "Oh well, over there they eat wheat bread, -- and here rye or oaten bread." And still I must say that one of my greatest enjoyments on a trip abroad in 1838, was when I, after a stay in England and France where, in the beginning, I had enjoyed eating wheat bread, came to Hamburg and got a bite of rye bread. It was a delight -- a vision of the mountains of my native land floated by. "But on the whole, one lives well, one eats much meat and pork." That is true, these things are cheap; they cost only one or two skillings for half a pound; but in the interior there is very little fish -- just think of those people who are far from the sea, the Russian, for instance, how eager he is to get herring or other fish. "One can get one's own sugar by tapping the sap of the maple-trees and boiling it down." One can boil syrup from birch-juice too, and also from the root of the juniper bush (in Hallingdal they prepare juniper licorice), but it scarcely pays. Cane-sugar is, after all, the common sugar in America, and costs as a rule thirteen skillings a pound. And anyway, a sufficient number of maple trees to produce sugar will soon be a thing of the past, and only in rather sparsely settled places is it still possible to find any number. Many heavy articles which must be brought from the coast are rather expensive.

"I can, no doubt, make both ends meet in this country, for my own part," you will perhaps say; "I can, maybe, even live more comfortably here than in America, and avoid much adversity and trouble, but I do this for my children. What would there be from this impoverished manure-hungry soil, when we begin to divide the farms? Over there things grow without fertilizing -- over there are wide expanses; if it ever becomes too populous around me then my children can move farther west."

But again I must ask you: So long as it is not yet too crowded for you here at home, why will you run the risk of this trouble? Why not leave it to your children to move farther west, as well from here as from your new farm in America? Or do you think that you have a better insight into these matters now than they will have in the future? If you are economical and industrious, then, no doubt, your property will increase rather than decrease, and the same property ought, I should think, be sufficient after your death to take the same people across as are now planning to travel for it. Or do you think you can there undertake to divide farms indefinitely, which you think cannot be done here; then hear what experiences have been told from America. If you think that American soil is not subject to exhaustion, then hear what a reliable man, Professor Johnston, says about it: "General evidence of sure but slow exhaustion meets one in the history of agriculture in almost every country. Nowhere, however, is it more striking than in the old slave states in America; Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, once rich and fertile, have now become generally barren through a long-continued forced and exhausting cultivation, and enormous expanses are abandoned in hopeless sterility."

When my informant came to America he annually cut a piece of land that had a remarkably heavy growth of grass which reached almost up to his shoulders. He stayed over there for eight years, but the piece had, during the last years, fallen off so much that he did not consider it worth cutting. So quickly had it become exhausted. Or do you think that Norway cannot hold more people, that it is full? When you reach America you will be absolutely forced to begin using another method of farming, and to work much harder, no matter how much you are opposed to changing your system. Why not begin using a better mode of cultivation already here in your Fatherland, and your farm will maybe support both you and your children for many generations still. If you go to America you will learn something you never had believed. Now see, does not our land lie here uncultivated? The stones here with us are scarcely any worse than the roots of the oak trees in America. To be sure, there are several districts there, chiefly out near the sea, where the population is stowed together because of a few years of successful fishing, but where now very distinct signs of over-population are found, and where many farms ought rather to be laid out for the grazing of sheep than have any more time wasted on them. Not any farther away than in the district of Jaederen there are to be found ever so many farms, which, if bought by several in partnership, could, no doubt, be divided into many parts, and could then by effective reclaiming and cultivation support the men clearing them as well as they now feed merely single families, and yield a much greater profit than the American farming does. In still other places this is the case, that it is the inefficiency of the man cultivating the soil which is the reason why people cannot live on their farms, and his stupidity is often so great that he does not even take the trouble to think of, trace out, and become familiar with anything better -- slowness, yes, even laziness, is often too general to make it easy to free oneself of it. In America circumstances force one to straighten out both these matters.

Why, then, is America praised so much? This is not always done; there are many who have come home who do not praise it. There are many over there who even curse their emigration, but who now are forced to stay there. But still it is more often praised, and why? Now the reasons may be of various kinds: (1) Many have been fortunate and industrious, and have really worked their way up -- in this country too one can be successful, and with persistence work one's way up. (2) Others praise it because to emigrate was their own idea, and few will admit, even to themselves, that they acted foolishly, but would rather, as long as possible, hold out, and defend the course which they have so far taken. (3) Many feel homesick and long for their relatives and think that by persuading them to come across they can still their longing. (4) Many people, who are by nature discontented, praise it because they hope for greater happiness than they find in the shadow of the old ridges to which they want to bid farewell forever; for more rest than by the swell of the familiar waves; for more peace on the long monotonous billows of America's prairies, in the melancholy log-cabins, than on the old familiar paths between neighbors, on which they ran so joyfully in their childhood; for greater love through a foreign tongue than through the sound of that language which gave to the soul of the child all its ideas, and in which it found a name for everything that was dear to it. Many have become tired of the homelike, simple things; and why?-- because discontent and peevishness have taken up their abode in their hearts, which before were so kind and glad -- and for all this the native land must bear the blame. A Latin author, Horace, says, "Qui trans mare vehunt, coelum, non animum mutant," by which he means: Many a one who is troubled with a restless mind -- be it peevishness, self-conceit, envy, covetousness, or whatsoever -- thinks that when he gets far away among strangers it will become better than it has been; but he is mistaken. Contentment comes only when some day he has found humility, for without that there is everywhere the same opposition, the same obstacles, the same occasions for disappointment and sorrow. (5) How many letters from America do not tell of the eternal unrest, the constant moving: "I have sold my first farm and bought another farther west." One soon finds out that one has been fooled -- one is anxious to get rid of that which one has bought -- one buys up more land in order to foist it upon immigrants who do not have a roof over their heads -- one soon learns the trick in the selling of farms, which is like horse-trading in this country -- and the more people that come over, the more sale of farms, and the more new immigrants, the more cheap laborers to be had; for when they have been there for some time they will no longer work for the first price. There are even those who hire many servants here in this country, and on promise to pay their passage across, engage them to work for a long time without pay, but usually they were fooled when they leased themselves, for when they get over, the contract is broken, which, as far as I know, is not considered binding in America.

The awful speculation going on among the Americans soon infects the immigrants. It matters not what is the object of the speculations -- articles of merchandise, cattle, or men. There is more speculation in men, I dare say, than in cattle. It is said that a cargo of immigrants sells for a tolerably fair price to a steamship company. From the moment an immigrant has set his foot on American ground, the speculators begin to cast covetous glances on him as an object of pecuniary gain; and he does not escape their clutches even though he thinks he has buried himself in the western wilderness. There they pursue him -- examine into his right to enter into the country, if it might be possible in some legal, but roundabout way, to oust or wring from him the fruits of many years of hard labor in the sweat of his brow, or press out of him sums of money or work. Arbitrary treatment, even in the courts of justice, is not uncommon, and it would profit a foreigner very little to set himself in defiance. However, that the last-named disgraceful speculation has ever been carried on by Norwegians is a thing I have never heard. I only want at this time to show you the height of speculation in regard to immigrants, and beg you to be careful. (6) It is sufficiently known that Americans have begun to praise themselves, and everything over there, so exceedingly much at the expense of the Old World. I do by no means deny that they are a very able people -- they sometimes in derision call even the Norwegian immigrants Indians. The immigrants hear this repeated so often that they learn the habit too, even though they do not always carry it so far as the man who wrote home and told about his nine pigs -- he had but one sow that he hoped would bring forth eight pigs. Another man who came back from America, had two gold coins which he always carried with him, and whenever that country was spoken of, he would produce these as an example of the abundance which that country offered. It was said he did not possess much more than these two coins, worth perhaps about ten dollars. Many have come back poorer than when they went across, only to settle down again in the land of their birth. Those who are entirely impoverished or are dead have good reasons for not returning. Many who have come back speak about going over again; but nothing comes of it for most of them; others have become so entangled in affairs over there, that they must return; or they have come back to hire people or to persuade others to go back with them. Only a few will admit that they have acted unwisely.

Nevertheless, it is, incidentally, strange that we are called upon to subscribe money to provide churches, schools, preachers, and so forth, for these rich boasting people. One might rather think that they ought to be able to help us some time when we have a year of poor crops.

(7) Furthermore, those who convey immigrants across are profited by much praising of America. I do not know, however, of Stavanger people ever having carried on this business of sly recruiting as it has been done in some places, where masters of vessels or ships' officers have traveled into the country districts and deluded the poor peasants with all manner of rainbow-colored pictures of America.

Those who, probably, are the most successful in America are skilled workers -- they are not quite so exposed to ague as the farmers -- but they ought to be young people, for they must be content to begin as apprentices even though they have been master workmen here, seeing that they work in an entirely different way, and with different tools than they do here. Still, to be sure, I know of many craftsmen who have come back after having squandered away much money; I know of two capable carpenters who, on the way back from America, were lost entirely quite near their native land on the coast of Jutland.

As far as you are concerned I might predict the following outcome:

America offers you, in all likelihood: more meat to eat, a greater area of land to cultivate, more exertion, less comfort, a shorter life; now choose. Do you, in addition, want to give up your love for your childhood memories, your mother-tongue, your native home -- as Esau did for a portion of food?

Now, I know you have a great longing for America; I will go no further so as not to irritate you. Even though I cannot restrain you from emigrating, still I can perhaps moderate your expectations about America so that you will not be quite so disappointed, as though I had not written to you -- a disappointment which perhaps will be instrumental in making you more unhappy than necessary. Go then, when you simply cannot be contented here at home; however, always keep this in view: that no special good fortune awaits you over there in America, but rather adversity and hard work -- perhaps even much of it, in case sickness and misfortune come to your home.

Finally I want to help you to consider if the reports that have come to you are written with sufficient knowledge and impartiality and not to serve the advantage of one or the other. You must use your acuteness in judging correctly in this matter. In regard to myself, then you can readily see that, happy as I am to hear from you once in a while -- for we almost never come in closer contact -- it is, after all, of no consequence to me whether you stay or go, only that I am interested in your welfare and it is because of this interest I have written these lines for your use, and presented to you the impressions each one of these accounts has made on me, and the total impression, which I have received of America. You would scarcely believe it, but there was a time when I was an enthusiast about this country -- indeed, you may perhaps still remember my love for the outdoors and the simplicity of things -- my admiration for America's two great men, in whose spirit I believed all the people lived. But my views have changed somewhat -- if one here is entangled in the meshes of selfishness and speculation, which would profit by the greater simplicity and tameness of others, then I fear that to a still greater degree, it is the case over there: slavery is America's great scandal.

<1> Robert F. Foerster, The Italian Emigration of Our Times, vi (Harvard Economic Studies, vol. 20, Cambridge, 1919).

<2> J. B. Halvorsen, Norsk Forfatter-Lexikon, 1814-1880, 1: 507-508 (Christiania, 1885).

<3> For a list of Budde's writings, see Halvorsen, Norsk Forfatter-Lexikon, 1: 508.

<4> J. Smitt, Norges Landbrug i dette Aarhundrede (Christiania, 1883); Knut Gjerset, History of the Norwegian People, 2: 515 (New York, 1915); Norway: Official Publication for the Paris Exhibition. 443, 470 (Christiania, 1900).

<5> A Norwegian tønderland, or tønde land, is a measure of land, 56,000 square feet. The author considers a tønderland about equivalent to an acre.

<6> A Norwegian mile equals about seven English miles.

<7> A skilling is equivalent to about one cent in American money; and one ort equals 24 skillings.

<8> This is a mistake. The episode referred to was a trip made by Rynning in the winter of 1837-38 "In the middle of the winter he walked almost barefoot across a prairie; he was near his house, but he could not reach it without help; and he was almost frozen stiff when people found him and brought him home," writes a Dr. Brandt, who visited the western settlements in 1840. Ansten Nattestad, a friend and neighbor of Rynning, refers to the trip as an "exploring expedition," and remarks, "The ice on the swamps and the crusts of snow cut his boots. He finally reached the colony, but his feet were frozen and lacerated. They presented a terrible sight, and we all thought he would be a cripple for life." It was after Rynning's return from this trip and while he was confined to his bed that he wrote his True Account of America for the Information and Help of Peasant and Commoner. His death occurred the next fall, in September, 1838, probably from malaria. See Blegen, Ole Rynning's True Account of America, 12-14.

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