Norwegian Migration to America Before the Civil War *
By Brynjolf J. Hovde (Volume VI: Page 162)
For a generation American historians have been supremely aware of the importance of the frontier in the development of the American people. Professor Frederick Jackson Turner has had the satisfaction, vouchsafed to very few historians, of seeing the thesis that he propounded become almost the obsession of students of American history. It has been an exceedingly fruitful "obsession," and there are adequate reasons to indicate that it has not, even yet, yielded all the results of which it is capable.
So far, however, the frontier has been studied almost entirely as an isolated phenomenon; usually the frontiersman has been accepted as having arrived, and has then been studied in his new environment. There has been comparatively little emphasis placed upon his European origins. It ought to be obvious, however, and fortunately it is becoming so, that of all American historical phenomena the frontier, the westward thrust of population, is probably least to be considered as an independent unit. The behavior of the individual under frontier conditions was no doubt determined in very large measure by that immediate environment, but no one in this age of the biological and sociological sciences would dispute the contention that the pre-frontier racial and social heredity of the individual must also be taken into account. The interest in the westward movement therefore carried within
itself the germ of a new interest, namely that in immigration.
There has always been some interest in immigration history, to be sure; but it has been cultivated chiefly by emotional enthusiasts who had not the disciplined critical faculty that is characteristic of the best historical scholars. There are, of course, worthy exceptions to this statement; in the special field of Norwegian immigration, for example, the work of Professor George T. Flora might be mentioned. It remains true, nevertheless, that the brightest prospects for the field of immigration history have come with the assumption of this field by such men as Professors George M. Stephenson, Marcus L. Hansen, and Theodore C. Blegen. Professor Blegen's recently published volume, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825-1860, affords excellent proof of what may be expected in immigration history when it is cultivated by scholars who have adequate background and preparation. This book is a marker in the literature of its kind, not because it inaugurates the study of Norwegian immigration, for few immigrant groups have been so conscious of their own history as the Norwegian-American; not because it reveals hidden causes and startling movements; but because it presents what will probably for a long time to come prove to be the most exhaustive and most definitive study of a limited period of Norwegian immigration that has been made.
The volume is marked by a skillful organization of a highly complex and varied body of material, achieved by a happy blending of the topical and chronological methods of arrangement. The first five chapters deal with the first origins and earliest development of the emigration movement in nineteenth-century Norway, and carry the story down to about 1840. The first chapter contains an adequate, though highly compressed, exposition of the general political, economic, and social conditions of Norway in the nineteenth
century, especially during the first quarter. By constant allusions, in specific cases throughout the remainder of the volume, the author makes up very largely for the brevity of this discussion. There is nowhere in either Norwegian or English a more authoritative account of the "Sloopers," the first party of Norwegian emigrants to America (1825), than is to be found in Blegen's second chapter and in the appendix to his book. The third, fourth, and fifth chapters measure up well to the standard set in the second, and together they constitute the best comprehensive exposition of the lodgment of the emigration idea in the mind of a part of the Norwegian people. In chapters 6-11, Professor Blegen describes how this idea took root and spread, how emigration grew from a small trickle to a "run" with a real current. Here there is to be found some of the finest construction work in the whole volume and some very valuable new material, notably in chapter 9, "Early 'America Letters,'" and in chapter 11, "'America Books' and Frontier Social and Economic Conditions." The next three chapters deal with matters somewhat extraneous to the main current of Norwegian emigration: the gold-seeking fever, Ole Bull's colony in Pennsylvania, and "Emigrant Songs and Poems." One naturally regrets that the latter are not reproduced in rhyme and meter, even though one recognizes that the literal prose rendition possesses the virtue of being less likely to diverge from the thought and spirit of the originals. The last two chapters carry the story from about 1850 to 1860. The graphs, maps, and many reproductions of facsimiles add materially to the appearance of the book and to the appreciation of its content.
To the reviewer Professor Blegen's achievements seem to fall naturally into three groups. In the first place, he has discovered and used what appear at present to be all the important sources of Norwegian immigration history. Archival material, available only in Norway and therefore almost
untouched before, is used in this volume to give definite information on points that formerly were only half understood. He has found official declarations of policy, reports on the causes and extent of the emigration movement, and clearance papers with which to correct faulty American statistics. Newspapers, especially Norwegian-American newspapers, have been used to some extent by earlier writers on this subject, but Blegen has covered the no less important ones published in Norway, and in his hands they have furnished a large fund of new knowledge. A very important group of sources, little used heretofore, is made up by the books and pamphlets on America, most of them written by Norwegian immigrants, published contemporaneously in Norway. Nevertheless, it is in the extensive use that he makes of the "America letters" that Professor Blegen particularly distinguishes himself. Their potential value as historical source material has been vaguely realized for a long time, but it is chiefly due to Blegen that their worth has begun to be understood.
There has always been one great obstacle to their use, however; they have not been available in collected form. Professor Blegen has performed the service of bringing together a great number of these interesting documents, and to that end has searched extensively both in America and in Norway. Out of this rich collection he has drawn information on details that simply did not exist to earlier Norwegian emigration historians. As this material is naturally intensely vital there would be present a great temptation to take it all at its face value, and even to grow romantic over it; there is little to indicate that Blegen allowed himself to be so swayed. His treatment of the "America letters" is highly objective and critical; it reveals the hand of the trained historian. There can be little doubt that in the "America letters" Professor Blegen
In the second place, Professor Blegen has recognized and demonstrated the multitudinous interrelations of emigration with the internal development of Norway in the period with which he deals. More fully than has been done in any previous study of Norwegian emigration, he has dealt with the European aspects of it. He has also, though only incidentally, pointed out some of the results of emigration that were felt by the people remaining behind, a phase of the emigration question which has been strangely neglected.
The reviewer would be inclined to disagree, however, with the seeming intimation, on page 265, that it was the emigration issue that provoked public discussion of Norwegian agricultural reform. Discussion on that subject had begun much earlier than 1850 (the date of the pamphlet to which Professor Blegen here makes reference) and was not caused by fear of emigration. It is perfectly true, nevertheless, that agricultural reformers were able to utilize the patriotic worry over emigration to promote their ends.
Finally, Professor Blegen has demonstrated with emphasis the existence and importance of factors other than the purely economic in producing the phenomenon of emigration from Norway. It would be a grievous limitation of the subject if historians should confine themselves to a comparison of emigration curves and business cycles, valuable though such specialized studies obviously are. Blegen is by no means oblivious of the economic motive; it lies like a concrete foundation under all that he writes. But his source
materials, especially, perhaps, the "America letters," have enabled him to give definiteness of outline and depth of perspective to things far more difficult to define precisely than
economic reactions and numbers; things that are usually thrown, with an admission of impotence, into the convenient historical wastebasket labeled imponderabilia; such things, namely, as the influence of a fixed idea, whether based on actual fact or not, the drawing power of a friend already emigrated, the effect of an accidental reading of a book or a letter. With a degree of precision that is nothing less than
remarkable, he has been able to follow the emigration thought from individual to individual, and from parish to parish.
There is one important historical purpose that the "America books and letters" can obviously be made to serve; they should contain very valuable information on social conditions on the frontier. It must be remembered, however, that the task the author sets himself in this volume is that of describing the causes and the process of Norwegian migration to America until the Civil War. Description of conditions among the immigrants is therefore only ancillary to that task. Consequently historians will look forward with expectation to further use of this material, either by Professor Blegen himself or by some qualified scholar whom he will admit to it. They will also await with eagerness the promised volume on Norwegian migration to America between 1860 and 1924.
* Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825-1860. (Northfield, Minnesota, The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1931. xi, 413. $3.50)
<1> Cf. Professor John W. Oliver's interesting resume of the assessment of the results produced by this school of historians made at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association at Louisville in 1931, in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 18:218-220 (September, 1931).
<2> Cf. Professor Blegen's articles in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review and in Studies and Records, and his pamphlet The "America Letters" (Oslo, 1928).
<3> Cf. however, the monumental Swedish Emigrationsutredningen (Stockholm, 1908-1912) in twenty volumes, and reports and recommendations of the Norwegian Emigration Committee (Kristiania, 1918-1915).