The Collection and Preservation of
By Laurence M. Larson (Volume IX: Page 95)
Every now and then some impatient soul rises among the brethren to demand that immediate steps be taken to write the saga of the Norwegian element in the United States. For more than a century men and women of Norse birth or ancestry have lived in this land; yet one finds it very difficult to learn anything about them. At least there seems to be no book or set of books where one can find a satisfactory account of their doings and achievements.
The answer is that, so far as it can be done at this time, the saga has been in large part written. Attention may be called to Professor T. C. Blegen's work on Norwegian Migration to America, of which one volume has been published and which will, when completed, provide an up-to-date survey of what Norsemen have done in this country, particularly in the Northwest. Various phases and periods of our history have had extensive and thorough treatment by such writers as R. B. Anderson, K. C. Babcock, G. T. Flom, Knut Gjerset, H. R. Holand, O. M. Norlie, and H. Sundby-Hansen, to name only a few.
Much, however, remains to be done. The American citizens of Norwegian blood have become so numerous and are engaged in so many activities, individually and collectively, that the task of relating and describing the results of these activities has become immensely large. It is a task for many men, and it cannot be accomplished in a day.
Fortunately man leaves records of what he does. The great mass of these are, however, of a transitory character,
and most of them are sure to be irretrievably lost. One of the functions of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, to my mind its chief function, is to do what it can to collect and to preserve all such records as have been produced these hundred years by those and among those to whom we are related with respect to culture and race; for without records the story of our part in the building of this wonderful nation can never be told.
Some of these records are material. With these I am not concerned at present, except to say that in building up the Norwegian-American Historical Museum in Decorah, Dr. Gjerset has done and is doing a work that is sure to be of great significance for the future. The records that concern me are chiefly those that are made with pen and ink. Of course, these too are material, though not in the same sense as those that go into a museum.
The historian has to depend almost entirely on written and printed records. His needs, moreover, are not satisfied with few; he needs many, often a vast number. When Ray Stannard Baker began to prepare his biography of Woodrow Wilson, he found in the White House two hundred and fifty thousand letters and telegrams sent to the president by public officials and helpful constituents. In the president's own letter book there were thirty-five thousand items. When assembled, the epistolary material in the White House weighed five tons; and there were printed materials of every kind, all of which the author was supposed to consult.
This is an extreme ease, but it serves to emphasize the magnitude of the historian's task; and it should be clear that a citizen element like ours, numbering a million and a half and engaged in a host of varied activities, is sure to produce a great mass, a tremendous mass, of record materials.
Much of this has already been collected and made accessible to students. In the libraries of the Northwest, especially in those maintained by colleges, universities, seminaries,
and historical societies, there are important collections that are sure to be preserved. One may doubt, however, whether those who have thus far gathered materials of this sort have more than scratched the surface. In homes throughout the land there still remain papers of many kinds, and in large numbers, which the historian some day will wish to examine; and unless these are brought out of the attic and into a safe place, they are sure to perish.
It is pertinent to ask what types of records one is likely to find in these attics. They will be found to exist in a considerable variety. Among them will be books, pamphlets, newspapers, journals or diaries, business records, minutes of public meetings, parish documents, private letters, and many others. I presume that copies of all the important books that concern our history have by this time found their way into libraries and are all preserved, though I know of two or three published some fifty years ago which I have not been able to trace to any collection.
The situation with respect to pamphlets is probably not so satisfactory. Pamphlets that came to farmhouses in pioneer days were usually not preserved. What was the use of keeping them after they once had been read? If a controversial pamphlet (of which there were many) written by a zealous and possibly slightly bitter exponent of some particular sect or party came to a house where different views were held, it was likely to be consigned to the flames; it was worthless, even vicious, and possibly the work of the devil himself. It is to be hoped, however, that there were families here and there who were sufficiently tolerant to allow such materials to survive.
While this association is interested in records of all sorts, it is particularly concerned with the collection of manuscript sources. You have all heard of the quest for America letters, or letters written by emigrants to friends and kinsmen in the Old World. A large number of these have been found
and brought back to the Northwest, though usually in copied form.
There are other letters of many kinds that would help to east a fuller light on what Norwegians have done in the United States. What a wealth of information one could find in the letter files of the men who have exercised leadership among our people, men like Knud Langeland, John A. Johnson, Laur. Larsen, Adolph Bierman, Haldor Boen, and the host of others who have worked and achieved in a large way. I do not know how many collections of private papers are now in our care and possession; but I am sure that there must be many which we ought to acquire at the earliest opportunity.
To a great extent our history is concerned with the fortunes of the Norwegian churches in this country. The pioneer was honestly and often fervently religious, though of course he had many other interests. It is recorded that once when a group of land seekers in Kentucky had found a satisfactory site for a settlement, they proceeded at once to organize a Baptist church. The next day they laid out a race track.
In pioneer times the church was our greatest and most influential institution. It bound the settlers together into a unit (or into several units); it gathered up the settlements and formed them into larger and more inclusive units. In the study of our history we shall never get far away from the church.
The pioneer church was a militant body. The most prominent fact in Norwegian-American history is that for a period of forty years, approximately from 1850 to 1890, the church was engaged in a series of violent controversies which almost amounted to a form of civil strife. Our history is not unique in this respect; elsewhere on the frontier the story is much the same. In part these controversies had their root in deep
religious convictions; but to a considerable extent they may be ascribed to pioneer individualism; for in those days individualism was exceedingly" rugged."
I recall a time when the church to which my family belonged adopted a new hymnbook. Soon one of the farmers discovered that the texts of some of the more beloved hymns were not exactly the same as those in the older book. So the cry arose, "They have altered the hymns!" The explanation that German hymns are not always rendered in the same language by different translators availed nothing. How could the truth be stated differently by different men? And the pastor found it expedient to seek another location.
It is not necessary to discuss the great explosion that came in the later eighties when the farmers were called upon to establish the exact meaning of "intuitu fidei" and to determine the exact shade of difference between "synergi" and "synergismus." It may have been a senseless conflict, but the fact remains that it is an important chapter of our history, inasmuch as it led to many and varied results. For one thing, it stimulated men to write; the conflict produced an abundance of record materials.
The warfare was carried on in the columns of the weekly newspapers, in the sessions of the great church bodies, in voluntary conventions as well as in official gatherings. But the warmest battles were fought in the local congregations. In the official meetings of these bodies, churches were split and pastors deposed. And this drama, for the sessions were often quite dramatic, can be read and studied best in the minutes of the congregations concerned.
The story of this strenuous time has never been told as it ought to be told. The available accounts are nearly all partisan in their viewpoints and need to be corrected on many points. But an honest student, one whose purpose is not only to write a complete history of the period but also to do
justice to all the groups and persons involved, will find himself in the face of a great difficulty: he may have to search for information in more than a hundred localities.
It should be clear, however, that parish documents are of great consequence. Moreover, their use is by no means limited to those who are interested in religious controversy. To a great extent these records, and these alone, tell the story of the pioneer movement. I presume that in practically every case the establishment of a Norwegian settlement meant the founding of a new church. The clergyman was, indeed, behind the settler, but he was never very far behind. A church is organized, a secretary is chosen, and a notable series of congregational minutes takes its beginning, some of which may prove to be unique, not only as historical but also as literary monuments.
From time to time the secretary notes the admission of new members. The settlement is evidently growing and to a considerable extent this growth can be measured in the minutes of the congregational meetings. On the other side, the absence of such minutes would leave local history a very incomplete affair. In the county where I grew up, there were at one time more than twenty Norwegian Lutheran congregations or groups that regarded themselves as religious units. If the records of all these organizations could be assembled, they would, in the hands of a good craftsman, yield a large fund of information, not only as to the religious life of the county, but as to the social and even the economic life as well.
In those days there was no organized effort to maintain vital records. Children were born but no reports were sent to the county seat; men and women died and were buried, but the public officials were not informed. Official records were not kept.
This does not mean, however, that no records were kept. On our shelves in my boyhood home were two books in which
the history of the community was in large measure recorded. The one was the book of minutes or protokol; the other we called the ministerialbok. In the latter the pastor and such other clergymen as visited the settlement from time to time made a record of ministerial acts: of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and burials. If in any family in that settlement a controversy should arise of a sort that might necessitate a search into vital records, the search would lead directly to that book.
I hope that enough has been said to convince all my hearers of the great importance of parish records. But if they are important, should they not be preserved? And how can they be preserved unless they are delivered and entrusted to some organization that is prepared to insure their preservation?
It is quite true that the more recent records are not so important as the earlier ones. There are at present so many sources of historical information that parish minutes may not be entirely indispensable. But those that go back to pioneer times are indispensable and should be preserved in every case.
Sixty years ago S. M. Krogness was one of the better known Norwegian pastors in the Northwest; at least he was well known to those who professed allegiance to the old Augustana Synod. Krogness had literary interests and was a notable collector of books and pamphlets. His library is said to have numbered eight thousand items and was made up largely of materials that had to do with Norwegian-American history. Whatever the actual figures may have been, Krogness had evidently built up an amazing collection. But in 1879 his home burned and all these treasures perished.
To one who has strong historical instincts this was a major tragedy. Unfortunately there have been many similar tragedies in the course of our history, though most of them have been of lesser consequences; and one can be sure that there will be many more. There is, however, no reason why one
should submit to despair: the progress of destruction can be halted if preventive measures are not too long delayed.
One of the functions of this association is to find ways and means to deal with this problem. It is quite clear that we must be prepared at all times to receive and to care for whatever record materials may be sent to us. It is a real satisfaction to know that what we have thus far received is stored in fireproof rooms. But our purpose goes farther than that: it means that we must reach out into the localities where Norwegians have gathered to make homes and search for whatever seems to have value for our work. Furthermore, we have a duty that is fully as important: we must educate our people to realize that records cannot yield their full value unless they are deposited where they can be made available for the use of those who wish to study our past.
The history of records in pioneer times is a story of gross, even criminal, neglect. In 1850 the city council of Milwaukee had its offices in the upper story of a stable. In that year the town had a serious fire and the stable burned. The records of nearly two decades are believed to have perished in that fire; at any rate, the administrative papers of early Milwaukee do not exist.
One day, fifty or sixty years ago, a new governor went out to Santa Fé. One of his first orders was to burn the documentary "rubbish" that he found in the governor's palace. This rubbish was the accumulation of nearly three centuries, twenty thousand documents. Had it not been for the cupidity of the janitor who started out to sell the paper to local merchants, the entire collection would have been destroyed.
Examples of this sort can be found in every section of the land, and we of the northern race are not in position to east the first stone. There is reason to hope, however, that documentary material will be dealt with more intelligently in the future. One new element in the situation is the Norwegian-American Historical Association, which, in its brief career,
has done effective work in making the Norwegian element conscious of the importance of its past and of all that belongs to this same past.
We shall of course not get everything that we should like to possess, but in the course of the years much will come to us, and our collection is sure to have a continuous growth. We shall not get everything because there are those who will not want to part with their possessions. In many cases the reasons will be good. Manuscript materials, especially letters and the earliest records of organizations, may acquire a sentimental value which is sometimes so strong as to forbid a transfer. And this fact we shall have to respect.
But if we may not have the document itself, we may perhaps be allowed to have a copy. Persons and organizations that have valuable records should be encouraged and even urged to have these copied and to give the copies, or still better the originals, to some institution that is prepared to preserve them. And this should be urged not only because an organization like our own would like to have the document, but because it is a form of insurance that should not be neglected.
Recently I saw a letter written by Abraham Lincoln. That in itself was nothing unusual, for the number of Lincoln letters that have survived is very large. For some reason this was regarded as quite valuable. The possessor, a young student, had been offered eight hundred dollars for it but was holding out for one thousand. And this document he carried about in his pocket with other papers of less value. I should be surprised if he still has it. A document so valuable as this should have been placed in a vault or at least in a strong safe. In negotiating its sale the owner could have used a photographic copy, an examination of which would easily satisfy a dealer as to whether the letter was or was not genuine. This copy he could probably secure at an expense of fifty cents, at most not more than a dollar.
I do not intend to discuss the photostatic process but merely call attention to it as something that has come into extensive use. At Illinois we do not usually get handwritten copies of documents in European archives; we buy photostats. They are often no more expensive and have the further advantage of absolute accuracy.
Books can be photographed as well as letters. The expense of photographing a book of two hundred pages or thereabouts will be from ten to twenty cents a page. For making copies of church records nothing better has thus far been devised. If the work is carefully done a photostat is practically a permanent thing. Churches should have their minutes copied in this way, for even if the original may some time be lost, the photostats will always be available.
Another device that is rapidly coming into use is the photographic film. The film strips are not so convenient to use as the photostat, since they have to be read with the help of a projector; but if experiments that are now being made should prove successful, the strips may turn out to be fully as convenient. The film has the advantage of requiring very little storage space. A few days ago I had the opportunity to examine several boxes of these films. The strips were less than an inch wide and were carefully packed in small containers. The boxes placed together made a cube about eighteen inches in each dimension. And this cube contained the film strips of 300,000 book pages of more than average size.
There is much to do with documentary materials once they have been acquired: they must be listed, catalogued, and bound or filed. Sometimes they may have to be mended and otherwise repaired. With all this, however, I am not concerned at this time. After all, the most important thing is to come into possession of a document. The matter of care and treatment will have to be considered later.
As members of this association we have certain serious duties from which we are not absolved by the payment of
dues. We have banded ourselves together in the interest of our history, and it is our duty to promote that purpose in whatever way we can. As members of churches and other organizations it is our duty to make sure that their archives are reasonably sure to be preserved. I do not know what has been done with the records of the old historic congregations in the Koshkonong area, in the Fox River country, on Jefferson Prairie, and in the other great centers of Norwegian-American life and influence; but if they are still intact and have not been deposited in safe places, the church membership should not rest until the necessary provisions have been made.
Furthermore, it is the duty of every member, and, for that matter of everyone who is interested in the task that we have undertaken, to examine his own treasures and to deposit in our archives any book, pamphlet, newspaper, journal, or other document that may in any way add to our knowledge of what Norwegians have done these hundred years in the New World. This is a duty that he owes first of all to the race from which he has sprung; but he also owes it to our association, as almost the only body thus far organized that has for its purpose the preservation of the memorials of the Norwegian people in this land.
We are celebrating today the tenth birthday of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. In these ten years our organization has not been idle. Much has been achieved in every field that lies within its purpose. Important books have been written and published; the archives have grown to respectable proportions. But these achievements must not blind us to the fact that our work has only just begun. It must be continued throughout the entire field of our history and much of this activity must in the future as in the past be concerned with the collection and preservation of sources.
<1> A paper read at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, on October 7, 1935, on the occasion of the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. Ed.