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An Immigrant's Advice on America: Some Letters of Søren Bache
Translated and Edited by C. A. Clausen  (Volume XV: Page 77)

After a feeble beginning in 1825, Norwegian immigration grew to considerable proportions during the 1840's. As the "fever" spread, information about America was eagerly sought in Norway. America letters passed from hand to hand and were frequently printed as important news by Norwegian newspapers. People traveled long distances to talk with returned emigrants, seeking information from those who had first-hand knowledge of the country.

Such a man was Søren Bache, the son of Tollef Bache, a well-known businessman and industrial leader of Drammen. The younger Bache went to America in 1839. The following summer, after various prospecting trips through parts of Illinois and Wisconsin, he took up land west of Milwaukee, in what became the famous Muskego settlement. Except for a visit to Norway, from August 1842 to May 1843, he remained in America until 1847. In that year he returned to his native land and there he spent the rest of his life. During his stay in America he kept a diary that throws much light on immigrant life in the Middle West a century ago. {1} The translations here printed are of letters that are to be found in the original Bache diary. The letters prove that, contrary to popular opinion, not all returned emigrants were invariably uncritical boosters of things as they found them in the New World.



October 6, 1842


I have read your letter of September 22, from which I gather that you wish me to assure you of a position in America as well as a safe income for the future. From the credentials I have received I have complete faith in you as a man of good character and upright conduct, but as you are still a total stranger to me I do not feel that I ought to undertake any such obligations. You must not believe that I lack faith in my father's recommendation. A thorough analysis of all facts involved, however, convinces me that I cannot grant your request, as I shall presently explain.

Before leaving America I was well aware of the fact that the Norwegians in my neighborhood wished to get a minister. Both last year and this year, Johansen, Even Heg, {3} and Johannes Kure wrote my father requesting that a seminary student be sent over who might serve as teacher for their children to start with and later become their minister. The problem of finding a suitable man for this position has concerned my father very much, but he has had to tell the people over there that so far he has not succeeded. I know, however, that their desire still persists, and even though I have no children I wish to shoulder my part of the burden so as to assist my fellow immigrants and help build the future of the settlement. But since I have no authority to enter into any binding agreements on their behalf I do not see my way clear to offer you the assurance that you desire.

In America things are done quite differently from here. Not only judges but also sheriffs are elected by the people for terms of four years. If they are found satisfactory they are re-elected. Ministers are also chosen by the congregations, and a minister without a congregation may not conduct weddings.

As for the land, it is very good and rich and yields all sorts of grains without the use of fertilizer. There is still plenty of government land to be had at $1.25 per acre, an acre being about the same as a Danish tønde. {4} All the people from various parts of Norway with whom I have talked over there are very well satisfied. I believe that anyone who is not too emotionally bound to his native place will be happy in America. The financial burdens are much lighter there than here, since our heaviest taxes amount to merely one per cent plus two days of work per year on the highways for men under fifty. No poor people are ever seen there.

Friendly greetings from


March 7, 1843


From your letter of March 1, which I received last Friday, I gather that you would like to have some information about America.

The trip from New York to Wisconsin, with the cheapest accommodations, costs about $12 to $14 for an adult, but children travel for less. Most of the way you go by steamboat and canalboat. The most useful articles to take along are feather beds and wearing apparel, which cost more over there. Houses can be rented and building material is not difficult to obtain at a reasonable price, but wages are rather high, since a common laborer receives fifty cents a day. {5} Furniture can be bought close by, but many things will come high, I believe. The soil is so very rich that it bears the finest grains without any fertilizing; and it is not difficult to sell your produce in the nearest town, three Norwegian miles from our place. Government land sells for $1.25 per acre. The main articles which must be bought in town are farm machinery, household furniture, clothing, and various other types of manufactured goods. Some things arc more expensive over there, others cheaper. Fishing is very good, since all lakes and rivers teem with fish of various types. Hunting also has been very good so far. I cannot say anything about trading since I know nothing about it. It is easiest for blacksmiths to find work, but men of other skills will also be able to get good positions as they become acquainted with conditions. Laws and government are good; so every man can feel secure in the possession of his property. Generally speaking the people are friendly and courteous, but, of course, crooks and scoundrels are found the world over. At the time of my departure, Johansen was feeling well and getting along nicely, and as for me, I like it well in that distant country and expect to return again this spring.



April, 1843


Your gracious letter of April 1 was received yesterday.

It is not my purpose to encourage people to go to America. When someone asks me for advice, however, I am quite willing to express my opinions about the country both pro and con, leaving the inquirer to decide for himself whether or not he wants to emigrate. Undoubtedly there are people who have far too rosy dreams about America, and they are doomed to disappointment. At least two years of work must be put in before a man can win a livelihood from his own acres, but having got that far, he will earn a decent income much more easily over there. Even if a man must depend solely upon the labor of his two hands, he is better off in America than in Norway. These are my sincere convictions, for over here times seem to be getting harder and harder every year. A man who feels himself getting into straitened circumstances would have good reasons for going to America if he so desires and has the hope of improving his condition. If he has some money, even though it does not amount to more than you mention, he would, according to my opinion, be better off over there, because a little capital would make it easier for him to get established. Land is very cheap. For $200 a man can acquire a respectable piece of property large enough for a family like yours not only to maintain themselves but also to put something aside for the future, if they are frugal. Houses can be built just as cheaply there as here. Land is still to be had in our neighborhood, but only second-hand, so to speak, which means that it will cost somewhat more than when bought directly from the government. {6} Communications are not difficult, since our nearest city, Milwaukee on Lake Michigan, is only three Norwegian miles distant. The climate is healthful and in general the soil is good. An English captain named Marryat speaks of Wisconsin as a fine territory and the most healthful part of the Union. {7} If you wish to become well acquainted with America I would advise you to buy the diary he kept there. To my mind it is in every respect the best account I have read about the country. The distance from New York to Wisconsin is about 1500 English miles. In New York there is a money-changer named Peder Slither, a very friendly man, who is well acquainted with Johansen and me and knows where we live. He lives in the basement of the house numbered 69 on Nassau Street. There are also several other Norwegians in New York who are very familiar with the way out to Wisconsin.





In reply to your gracious letter of 22 inst., I wish to state that certain reports concerning the purpose of my return to Norway are absolutely misleading. I have no intention of taking any members of my family or any other Norwegians back to America with me because I feel that this would be too much of a gamble. If they happened to become dissatisfied over there, I might, of course, be blamed for having advised them to make such a move. When people ask me about conditions in America I inform them as best I can without in any way trying to persuade them to leave. They will have to make up their own minds in such matters.

You ask if I believe there would be good opportunities for you and your family to earn a livelihood in America. This is a difficult question to answer. I can say this much, however: that if a man has the urge to go and if he is not too strongly bound to his native land, the prospects for the future are better there than here, especially for young people. But seeing that you are not used to farm work and since a man must start life anew over there, I fear that you will find it rough and monotonous. Neither will your children, who are well bred, like it over there. Your daughters, with their skill in fancywork and other feminine accomplishments, would be best served by going to a city, at least to begin with. It would also be necessary for them to take service with some American family in order to master the language. Without a knowledge of English a person can have no dealings with the people over there. Since your letter gave me the impression that you are not especially hard pressed financially, I would not advise you to take your whole family over at once. If your son and two daughters feel like going it would seem reasonable to send them over first, and, after being there a year or so, they would be able to advise you more fully as to what your prospects might be.



May 4, 1843


Yesterday I received your gracious letter of April 28, wherein I note that you intend to go to America next spring. I also note that you wish to send a letter by me to Carl Corneliussen. I shall be glad to do this little service for you, but the letter must reach me within ten or twelve days, as the captain I am going with expects to sail from Drammen on May 15.

If you have been in your father's store for ten years, as you remark, I must have seen you when Johansen and I were there during Whitsuntide four years ago.

There are good prospects in America for a dependable person who is willing to live economically and accept any kind of work. Drunkards are looked upon with scorn. {8} If a person wants to speculate he must first become acquainted with the language and the monetary system of the country. The traders whom Ole Rynning speaks of as camping out night after night are primarily cattle dealers, {9} and as I suspect that you know nothing about this type of business, I would rather advise you to make your way along some other line. You could do some manual labor, as you say, or you could get a position in a store to begin with. As for languages, the German you have learned will be of some advantage, since there are many Germans out there, but English is the language most necessary to acquire.

It is difficult for me to say which city you ought to go to, but there are many Norwegians both in and around Milwaukee, Wisconsin Territory. I live only three Norwegian miles from there. It is very advisable to bring wearing apparel and feather beds along. I know nothing about selling second-hand clothes, but a certain Captain Marryat of England says in his American diary that it pays well to take along old clothes to sell. I believe that guns and rifles can be bought just as cheaply there as here. The government price of land is $1.25 per acre, but when bought otherwise it runs to $2.00, according to information given us by Johansen last winter.

I ask you not to send this letter to any newspapers because I do not wish to have it printed.



<1> An English translation of the diary is being prepared for publication by C. A. Clausen and Andreas Elviken.

<2> Claus Lauritz Clausen, famous pioneer minister among the Norwegian Americans, was born on the island of Ärø, Denmark, in 1820. After being educated as a schoolteacher, he went to Norway in 1841 and became an influential lay minister. He had hopes of becoming a missionary in South Africa, but through Tollef Bache he became interested in America; hence the exchange of letters referred to above. He accompanied Søren Bache on his return to America, and arrived in Muskego in August, 1843. A few months later he was ordained by a German Lutheran minister, and for a few years he served the Muskego congregation. Later his work expanded into new fields in Wisconsin and Iowa. After a long, influential, and at times stormy career he died in Paulsbo, Washington, in 1892. Accounts of his activities can be found in the standard histories of Norwegian immigration.

<3> Johannes Johansen and Even Hansen Heg played a prominent part in the history of the Muskego settlement, which they joined in 1840. Johansen accompanied Bache to America in 1839 and on his land-seeking trips through Illinois and Wisconsin later on. See "An Immigrant Exploration of the Middle West in 1839," Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 14:41-53 (Northfield, 1944). Johansen was also the author of the Muskego manifesto of 1845, wherein he defended his settlement and America generally against the anti-emigration writings which were common in Norway at that time. For a translation see S. B. Hustvedt, "An American Manifesto by Norwegian Immigrants," American-Scandinavian Review, 13:619 (October, 1925). Johansen and Heg as well as Søren Bache became severe critics of Clausen after he had assumed his work as minister in the settlement.

<4> A measure of land -- 56,000 square feet.

<5> Writing from the Beaver Creek settlement in Illinois in 1838, Ole Rynning in his "True Account of America" says: "Wages are . . . very different in different places, and correspond closely with the prices of other commodities. In this vicinity a capable workman can earn from one-half to one dollar a day in winter, and almost twice as much in summer." In Wisconsin Territory, he continues, prices are two or three times higher than in his community and wages run from three to five dollars per day. A biographical sketch of Ole Rynning and a translation of his book by Theodore C. Blegen can be found in the Minnesota History Bulletin, 2:221-269 (St. Paul, 1917-18). The item quoted above is found on page 254. Ole Rynning's True Account of America has also been published as volume 1 of the Travel and Description Series of the Norwegian-American Historical Association (Minneapolis, 1926).

<6> Rynning says, "When land is purchased from a private person who has himself bought earlier from the government, the price will be from two to thirty dollars an acre." "True Account of America." Minnesota History Bulletin, 2:253.

<7> Captain Frederick Marryat, the famous author of adventure stories, traveled widely in America in the 1830's and published an account of his impressions entitled A Diary in America with Remarks on Its Institutions (8 vols., London, 1839). He refers to Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Wisconsin, and sections of Ohio as the most healthful parts of the country. Diary,

<8> See also Rynning's statement, "People whom I do not advise to go to America are (1) drunkards, who will be detested and will soon perish miserably. "True Account, Minnesota History Bulletin, 2:262.

<9> "An itinerant trader who is quick and of good habits can become a rich man within a short time, but he must not be afraid to undergo hardships and to camp outdoors night after night." Rynning, "True Account," Minnesota History Bulletin, 2:260. There is nothing in Rynning's statement to indicate that he refers primarily to cattle dealers.

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