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The Immigrant Image of America
    By Theodore C. Blegen (Volume 19: Page 1)

The nineteenth century witnessed a new discovery of America. It came about, not through the daring of a new Columbus, but as a consequence of letters written by immigrants to the people of the Old World. It was a progressive and widening discovery that played an important role in the migration of millions of Europeans from their home countries to the United States.

Explorers and map makers, ever since the existence and shape of America were first discerned in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, had been eager and quick to publish their findings. But the realities of the New World meant little, and indeed were almost unknown, to the everyday people of Europe until they began to read, in their own homes, the firsthand narratives of friends and relatives who had braved the Atlantic and had seen for themselves what America really was like.

Books in earlier times were accessible to only a few, and even in book-reading families precise information about America was uncommon. Not more than a shadowy understanding of the rising giant of the West could be gained from a name, a map, or stray allusions in books and newspapers. There was much curiosity about the western world, but save in circles where it was motivated by self-interest, it did not result in precise knowledge. Once the forces of emigration made themselves felt, the curiosity of all who felt the slightest urge to move and better their lot was as insatiable as it was concrete and practical. People asked questions with a purpose, and they wanted answers. So the letters from across the sea were read with absorbed interest, often passed from one family to another in a widening circle, occasionally made available to newspapers of the neighborhood, and invariably treasured. [2]

In England in the seventeenth century, we are told, a letter from New England was “venerated as a Sacred Script, or as the Writing of some Holy Prophet, ‘twas carried many miles where divers came to hear it.” This is a faithful description of the reception of thousands of letters from the New World in the earlier years of the nineteenth century in the Scandinavian North and in other parts of Europe. As emigration broadened and gathered volume from all the countries of the Old World, an interest - and even veneration - like that stirred by seventeenth-century news from the Pilgrims and Puritans, spread until scarcely a home was untouched by it and by the impact of direct communication with the New Canaan. In the Scandinavian countries such letters were called “America letters.” The impulse to emigrate was diagnosed as the “America fever.”

The interest in “America letters” had deeper roots than a passing curiosity about the details of travel and of land, prices, work, and hundreds of other items that found their way into homely accounts of personal observation. Under lying it was an awareness that emigration was a choice between two worlds. In the letters immigrants wrote home, they told, from its initial chapters, the story of a decision and its consequences. For most of them there was no going home again, and this they knew. They wrote about the land of their choice. They reported a changed and changing way of life that would shape the lives of their children. Their accounts of travel were accounts of more than travel by water and by land - ”for the immigrant crossed more than an ocean and a continent; his traveling was

. . . . across the sprung longitudes of the mind
And the blood’s latitudes.”

Breaking his new land, the immigrant also broke with his past, but the latter was a slower process than the former. Yet the process was inevitable, and it had wide reach. As I have written elsewhere: “The immigrant, no matter what [3] country he sailed from, disembarked in a land of different culture. The chests and bundles under which he staggered at the ports of landing were filled with tangible evidences of his own culture: tools, clothing, furniture, food. Just as surely as the farming implements he brought could not be used effectively on American soil or the clothes he wore were not suitable to American temperatures, so too he would find the less material parts of his Old World culture, those packed away in the immigrant chests of thought and tradition, no longer adequate to his needs.”

The “America letters” form a diary on a grand scale, kept by people who were experiencing this change of worlds. Their letters have an unconscious eloquence, sometimes a stylistic simplicity, that makes reading them memorable. I have collected many of them and have found in them “everything from fire and passion to elation and sorrow-the life of ‘hamlet, workshop, and meadow,’ the reflection of folk characteristics in people undergoing the transition from one mode of life to another.”

The letters are filled with contrasts that spring from idealistic hopes and realistic disappointments. America was indeed the “land of Canaan” and the hopes it inspired are exemplified in millions of letters. But alongside hope is disillusionment. The making of America is a theme that histories, novels, and motion pictures have often apotheosized. The immigrant letters throw light upon some of the cost in human travail and suffering and upon many aspects that are quite without glamour. But no reader, viewing the record across the decades, can escape the impression that the promise and opportunity of America were substantially what the immigrants believed them to be. They were not a myth.

On the other hand, no greater mistake could be made than to suppose that once the immigrants arrived in America, all was sunshine and success for them. They began at the bottom of the ladder. Most of them were poor. They were ignorant of the language of the country to which they had [4] come. They faced disease and unremitting hard work done at a pace to which they were unaccustomed. They had the pangs of homesickness. Often they were cheated not only by sharp-dealing “Yankees” but also by their own countrymen. They did not always select lands with good judgment. They knew disappointment and tasted failure. But as the decades went by, they got their second wind, won some measure of success, and were joined by thousands of their countrymen. Some went down, it is true, under the trials they faced, but the majority survived their ordeals and worked their way to “better days.” The letters afford pictures of conditions endured and problems faced, but they also supply a needed perspective upon initial troubles.

Reverses could not, in the long run, destroy the implicit immigrant faith in the freedom of the new land. In the 1840’s an immigrant correspondence society in Chicago, organized for the specific purpose of writing “America letters,” went to the heart of this matter. “Here,” said one of the letters, “it is not asked, what or who was your father, but the question is, what are you?” Freedom “seems as essential to every citizen of the United States as the air he breathes. It is part of his life, which cannot be compromised or surrendered, and which is cherished and defended as life itself. It is a national attribute, common to all. Herein lies the secret of the equality everywhere seen. It is an American political creed to be one people. This elevates the lowly and brings down the great.”

Eighty immigrant settlers in a Wisconsin community that had suffered tragically from malaria and cholera issued a manifesto in the 1840’s that minimized the initial difficulties of immigrants. It reminded Norway of “the sufferings of those earliest immigrants who opened the way for coming generations by founding the first colony in the United States, the Virginia colony.” This manifesto declares the immigrant faith: “We have no expectation of gaining riches; but we live under a liberal government in a fruitful land, where freedom and equality are the rule in religious as in civil matters, and [5] where each one of us is at liberty to earn his living practically as he chooses. Such opportunities are more to be desired than riches; through these opportunities we have a prospect of preparing for ourselves, by diligence and industry, a carefree old age. We have therefore no reason to regret the decision that brought us to this country.”

This was more than the voice of fourscore immigrant settlers in a midwestern community-it was the voice of nineteenth-century America, a part of that total of opinion and information from the West that “discovered,” or revealed, America to the minds of people in Norway and Europe.

An interesting aspect of the letters, from the point of view of the European image of America, is their reflection of a national debate in the home countries on the merits of America compared with the advantages of staying home. This debate reached into homes, newspapers, books and pamphlets, even songs and ballads. Was the West a mirage? Could the immigrants survive the hardships they would face? Why go to America? Why not stay at home and make the best of opportunities there? Such questions, as they appeared in Norway, for example, in the 1830’s, 1840’s, and 1850’s, were of such major interest that immigrants’ letters were snatched up and published in great numbers in newspapers; preachers discoursed on the dangers of emigration; pamphlets were written to discourage prospective emigrants; and the Norwegians who had made their decision and established homes in the New World were glad to join in the discussion. Though some immigrants fed the fires of the anti-American writers, most of the new “Americans” defended America and emigration and looked with patient and philosophic eyes at their early woes.

The immigrant’s image of America, portrayed with a thousand details in letters, is interesting not only as a record of what was thus transmitted directly to vast numbers of people in Europe in the nineteenth century, but also as a propelling [6] force in emigration itself. There has been all too often an air of impersonality in accounts of American immigration. The coming of thirty millions of people was a movement of such magnitude that, to many, it has seemed futile to try to disengage personalities from the mass. Many writers have forgotten the individual man in the surging complex of international circumstances. World forces pushed people out of their accustomed environment; world forces pulled them westward with magnetic power. But the pivot of human motion is individual life. Migration was a simple individual act - a decision that led to consequences - and the “America letters” were a dynamic factor - perhaps the most effective single factor, in bringing discontent to a focus and into action. Praise of America pointed to a contrast. The New World, if not a Utopia, nevertheless offered land and opportunity and hope denied, or rigidly limited, in the Old. Even if criticism of conditions in the home countries was not explicitly offered, the implication of contrast was always there. And recognition of the contrast turned discontent into resolution.

The effects of the letters were often strengthened by the temporary return home of immigrants - ”America travelers,” as they were called; and the records tell of many such a returned immigrant who later went back to America as the leader of large numbers of new immigrants.

The “America letters” present these leaders too, not only the rank and file of the immigrant mass. They reveal path-finders and scouts, men who ventured to frontiers little known, who on their own or as designated agents searched for new Canaans and gave some direction to the course of settlement. In the letters they appear as pathfinders for the first group migrations, as scouts on the prairies of Midwestern states, as investigators of the wooded areas farther north, and as searchers whose travels took them afield from the conventional lines of expansion. The findings of such immigrant chieftains made their way not only into letters but also into newspapers, books, and emigrant guides. Their [7] descriptions fed the flames of controversy on the European side of the Atlantic about the resources and promises of the New World, but they also had a sharp impact upon prospective emigrants. Great forces affected the emigrants - land policy, the particular stage of the westward movement at any given time, the character of transportation by sea and by land, and the changing economic and social conditions in two parts of the world - but it remains true that leadership was a part of the immigrant story.

Some of the “America letters” represented a critical sophistication - those of Ole Munch Ræder, for example. A distinguished jurist in the 1840’s, visiting the United States to study the American jury system, Ræder traveled widely among the immigrant settlements and recorded his observations in lively letters that were printed in the press of his own country. His letters are in the tradition of the more searching and valuable European commentaries on American life in the nineteenth century. In the immigrant drama they represent an interlude - a pause for an appraising look-around. Their historical value has been recognized by full publication in book form and the inclusion of passages in such recent anthologies as Henry Steele Commager’s America in Perspective and Oscar Handlin’s This Was America.

For the most part the immigrants who wrote home were people of little education, and land and work and hardship bulk large in their reports. But it should not be forgotten that life meant more than making a living, more than sheer survival. The immigrants were people. They fell in love, married, and had children. They grappled with the intricate business of learning a new language. They took cognizance of new social and political situations. They became aware of political parties and both national and state issues. They helped to elect officials, and the time came when they ran for office themselves. They had neighbors and friends and became living parts of communities. They concerned themselves with schooling for their children, and for many this [8] seemed the great and open highway to the better days they dreamed of.

Many sought consolation in religion and the church. Not a few of those who came from Norway were pietists, influenced by the teachings of a great lay preacher, Hans Nielsen Hauge, who had stirred a national revolt in his country against the rationalism of the eighteenth century; and their piety was deepened by the psychological turbulence and uncertainty of migration itself. Coming from a country with an established church, they pioneered frontiers where there were no churches of their own faith and tradition among the innumerable sects which flourished in the frontier atmosphere of religious freedom. They felt a need to satisfy in some regular fashion their cravings for the steadiness and comfort that organized worship, as they devoutly believed, would give them.

It is in this context that one must read the expressions of Christian piety that flood the “America letters” and also understand the earnestness with which, from the 1840’s on, missionaries from Norway set about establishing what they regarded as religious order out of confusion. The preacher, lay or trained, is an important and influential figure in the immigrant story set forth in the “America letters,” but underlying his role was the religious faith that the immigrants held as a shared heritage and as a staff to lean on in times of adversity as well as of success.

Thus the “America letters” are significant for the image of America that they transmitted to the people of the European world, and they were factors in ripening into action the discontents of thousands of people who crowded onto the emigrant ships. They are important, too, for their revelation of immigrants as human beings with names, personalities, and all the attributes of men and women living their lives amid change and struggle. Firmness and foibles, joy and sorrow are coupled, in the writing of immigrants, with dreams [9] of what America might mean not only for their own lives but also for those of their children and children’s children.

These aspects of the letters that common people wrote about the land of their choice are of more than passing interest, but, read today, with the aid of a long perspective, they are also of value as contemporary documents of the American scene. This scene was viewed by observers at the grass roots of American society in a period of fabulous change when immigrants, alongside native Americans, occupied successive frontiers in the expansion of the nation.

Such generalizations find illustration in “America letters” that were sent off to Norway in the general period from the 1820’s to the 1870’s. They represent a geographical spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In their entirety, they make up a composite diary that starts, when John Quincy Adams was president, with the “Mayflower” of Norwegian migration and runs until immigrants from the western half of the Scandinavian peninsula had traversed America east to west and north to south.

The story of emigration is one of mobility. To the immigrant as to others, America, in Archibald MacLeish’s phrase, was “west and the winds blowing.” Every emigrant had imprinted on his memory the experiences of the Atlantic crossing, and the letters recording them are vivid and memorable. Once arrived at an eastern port, he moved on to the interior, and this odyssey he also wrote about to the people he bad left. The crossing of the seas and the way west are essential chapters in the international story of the emigrant who at the end of his voyage became an immigrant.

When the letters begin, in the 1820’s, western New York seemed a frontier region. The Erie Canal was opened just before the first pioneers arrived, and the early newcomers used it. Rochester became the center from which they looked out upon the institutions and prospects of the United States. The novelty of the early migrations from western Norway helps to explain the interest and even excitement with which [10] the first returning “America letters” were received, copied, and circulated in wide districts; and there is a firm link between the spread of these letters and the departure in the 1830’s of shiploads of emigrants.

Meanwhile, the immigrants had already been infected with the virus of the westward movement. The scenes of their reporting shifted to Illinois and then to Wisconsin. “This is Canaan,” exclaimed a writer who had sung the praises of America from western New York, but, now in the 1830’s, admired the fertile stretches of Illinois. “Norway,” he declared, “cannot be compared to America any more than a desert can be compared to a garden in full bloom.” But dissident voices came from those who had tasted misfortune, and they were quick to point out that Illinois was far from being a land of milk and honey. So the clash of testimony, soon to resound through the length and breadth of Norway, began; and the testimony became more voluminous and vocal as the emigrant stream turned northward. “Wisconsin is the place,” wrote another emigrant in a phrase that echoes through the whole course of emigration with changes in scenes and names of states. But it is often accompanied by qualifications and reservations as illness and other frontier trials dampen earlier enthusiasm.

For many, emigration was not just a single step or venture. It was a series of moves, with the always advancing frontier a beckoning goal. As numbers grew and small beginnings led to compact settlements, “mother colonies” in Illinois and Wisconsin served as centers from which lines radiated to more distant Canaans. And as dispersion proceeded, the letters reflected the story in full range. They told of the ordeals of pioneering; they described humble personal and institutional beginnings; they recorded satisfaction and disappointment; they pictured the isolated farm home gradually becoming part of a community; and they reflected an immigrant community life characteristic of many frontiers across the land. The shadings and gradations of immigrant [11] transition from old to new ways were everywhere apparent, but immigrant roots were striking down into the new soil.

The fresh interest of the “America letters” is strikingly illustrated by the contemporary immigrant narratives of the California gold rush. Few dramatic episodes in American history have attracted more attention than that spectacular treasure hunt, but its story has not yet been fully told. Historians, for all their zeal, have not brought within the compass of a comprehensive and rounded narrative the world-wide, as well as the American, repercussions and aftereffects of the gold discovery. The negligible general use thus far made of the contemporary records of the excitement that swept Norway, once the gold reports reached that northern land, suggests that possibly only fragments of the rich and widespread historical materials in Europe on the gold rush have been found and translated into English. Not one of the California letters now translated from early Norwegian newspapers has so much as been cited in any general work on the forty-niners. With a single exception they are made available for the first time in English translations.

The immigrant story embraces, in addition to New Canaans of the West and the El Dorado of the forty-niners, the Utopia of the violinist Ole Bull, who in the early 1850’s planned a colony in Pennsylvania as a haven for his compatriots. In view of the idealistic hopes of the violinist and the large sums of money he poured into his philanthropic scheme, it is ironical that his colony, named “Oleana” in his honor, is today remembered chiefly because of the satirical ballad “Oleana,” which sang its praises in verses that told of salmon hopping from brook to kettle, cakes that rained out of the heavens, and “little roasted piggies” that politely asked one to have some ham. The ballad was what the romantic nationalists in Norway, who branded emigration as national desertion, wanted. The song was chanted to the accompaniment of the folk laughter of a nation. But it was not the ballad that destroyed the hopes of Ole Bull and [12] caused his colonists to go west. It was the inherent defects of the Utopia itself, ill chosen as to lands and weakened by dependence upon the bounty of the paternalistic and impractical Ole Bull. Most of the settlers, after disheartening experiences, pushed out to the Middle West to make their own independent way. Oleana, recalled by a song and recorded in “America letters,” is an episode that takes a minor place in the long succession of American Utopias.

Satire would have neither sting nor enduring humor if its barbs punctured merely false or empty hopes and promises. The laughter at “Oleana” must have been in the end rueful, for no ballad could laugh away the claims of America. Roasted pigs did not roam the streets in search of empty platters and manna did not stream down from the skies, but underlying ironical exaggerations was a firm element of truth, and the “America letters,” by their continuing impact, drove it home even to skeptical minds. The actualities masked by ridicule appear also in the genial exaggerations of a humorist - the brother of the author of “Oleana”- who lived in Lincoln’s town in the 1850’s and whose letters tell of roads lined with hedges of bacon and tobacco. This writer, Frithjof Meidell, saw the comic aspects of the American West; and he penned an amusing and ironical description of frontier town building, but he also caught the reality of frontier optimism and its foundations.

The highways of immigrant expansion ran west and north, but America was, after all, a gigantic land, and it is not surprising that immigrants came in not only by transportation channels extending from New York and Quebec west, but also through southern doorways. Emigrant ships sailed for the most part along customary routes to the northern seaboard, but they also made their way to New Orleans and to the west coast - and many immigrants knew steamboat travel both up and down the Mississippi. Texas seems far off the beaten paths of Scandinavian immigrant land seeking, but Norwegian immigrants were there as early as the 1840’s. [13] Their settlements in Texas were islands, not mainlands, of immigrant colonization, but they are interesting in the record of the “America letters,” principally through the long-continued writing of a woman who arrived in Texas as early as 1847 and maintained her correspondence to the home country for nearly half a century. As her letters and others from the same region illustrate, these immigrant Texans were protagonists not only of the glories of Texas, but also for the wider sweep of America - and their voices were widely heard in the home country.

The attractions of the North were greater than those of the Southwest, and Texas never became a focal point for large numbers of Norwegian immigrants. They followed in stead the waterways and pathways to the Middle West, to the Great Plains, and to the lands beyond. Their letters give much attention, therefore, to northern areas - Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. From a Wisconsin parish, a frontier minister views the American scene in the 1850’s with an eye to the social transition of his countrymen. A pioneer woman in Iowa, in the 1860’s and 1870’s, chronicles in a lively personal style the many events and problems of immigrant life, always with thoughts and plans for her children and their education.

And many “America letters” went out from Fredrika Bremer’s “glorious new Scandinavia,” the North Star State. The beginnings touch the immemorial cycle that swings from humble origins to high future achievement. A farmer writing nearly a century ago from a river valley in Minnesota could not know that one of his grandsons, appointed by the President of the United States, would officially represent in the capital of his own home country the western empire in which he, the immigrant, had cast his humble lot. But still he looked into the future when he wrote simply, “I can say truthfully that I do not regret our coming here.” This sentiment was echoed by many another, including a frontier heroine who faced the terror of Indian war in all its savagery [14] and whose story recalls the comment of Vernon Louis Parrington that “The epic conquest of the continent must be read in the light of women’s sufferings as well as in that of men’s endurance.” The Minnesota saga also includes the account of a journalist who traveled by oxcart to the north-flowing Red River in the 1860’s and penned the praises of its fertile valley, on the rim of the Dakota prairies, with a serene conviction that this, after all, was the real land of Canaan. It would become, he believed, “one of the richest and most beautiful regions in America,” and many immigrants took his words as sober prophecy.

The “America letters” have historical breadth and depth. They unfold a panorama not alone of the particular migration they record but of many aspects common to American immigration. Their human interest sustains the view that immigrants are not mere “rows of figures or symbols of trends and inter-relationships.” The record is a human one of hopes and heartaches, courage and fear, failure and success, and of ferment and transition to new ideas and habits and ways of living. But the significance of the letters goes beyond such considerations, for they delineate, in part at least, the image of America that stirred the people of Europe; and they document important chapters in the social and economic history of the land of their choice, especially on its changing frontiers. {1}


<1> This essay comprises the opening chapter of the book entitled Land of Their Choice: The Immigrants Write Home, edited by Theodore C. Blegen. It is here reprinted by permission of the University of Minnesota Press, with a few minor changes and with the omission of footnotes. Land of Their Choice, published late in 1955 by the University of Minnesota Press (468 pages), is a collection of “America letters” written by Norwegian immigrants to their relatives and friends in Norway in the nineteenth century. Many of the letters, translated into English, are presented in full, some in the form of excerpts. Their scope may be suggested by listing a few of the titles of the eighteen chapters under which the letters are grouped. Examples are “The ‘Sloopfolk’ Arrive,” “Westward to El-a-noy,” “Wisconsin Is the Place,” “The Atlantic Crossing,” “Spreading the Gospel,” “The Transatlantic Gold Rush,” “A Lady Grows Old in Texas,” “The Beautiful Land,” and “The Glorious New Scandinavia.” Ed.


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