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Factors in Assimilation: A Comparative Study*
    by Torben Krontoft (Volume 26: Page 184)

* The author wishes to express thanks to The American-Scandinavian Foundation for a grant which assisted in the preparation of this article.

The thousands of nineteenth-century emigrants from the Scandinavian countries to America brought with them—along with their keepsakes and their iron-bound trunks—the troubled realization that they must somehow find their place in an utterly strange environment. How would they make a go of it in the new land of promise? Could they be assimilated successfully into the mainstream of American life? What adjustments must they make? What would it cost them in terms of their old-world heritage, which they feared they had left behind them forever?

It is clear that the Danes and Norwegians—people of basically the same race, national origin, and religion as the old American stock—would be assimilated quickly because of these similarities. A fundamental consideration would also be the degree to which members of these two national groups settled in concentrated communities of their own people. Which nationality—the Danes or the Norwegians— would adapt itself more readily, and for what reasons, to the general society of the new country? Could either survive as individuals outside an enclave of Scandinavians surrounded by Yankee influences?

The first problem the immigrants had to face was difficulty with a strange language. The percentage of illiteracy among Scandinavians, aged fourteen years or over, was 0.8 percent in 1900, the lowest of all the transplanted groups. {1} Although a few individuals came with some knowledge of English, it was not then common to have had any formal preparation in that language. But the Scandinavians had the advantage of great similarity in vocabulary and structure between American speech and their own. This fact made the transition relatively easy for Danes and Norwegians, who spoke almost the same tongue. At first, they could simply mix English words into their sentences; as time went on, they could transform their speech into fairly good English.

There were, however, individual differences. These were caused by age at the time of migration and variations in the need to use the new language daily. In the concentrated Danish settlement at Dannebrog, Nebraska, A. C. Nielsen’s neighbors were all Danish. So "most of the year he had no use for this foreign tongue." {2} Peter Ebbesen, on the other hand, had migrated to the same settlement as a child. He became county treasurer and contributed to Danish newspapers, but he admitted that English was more natural for him. {3}

For some Danes, it was a sacred duty to keep their own speech alive. In the long run, theirs was a lost cause. Contacts with Americans in business and politics were inescapable. As later generations of immigrants and second-generation Danish Americans moved to the cities, with their wider social contacts, Danish was largely abandoned. {4} When the influx of immigrants stopped in the 1920s, the old-country language no longer had a renewing influence. This direct break in contact put an end to the use of the mother tongue in Danish-American social organizations and churches. H. A. Pedersen has established that, in Clark County, Wisconsin, where the Danes comprised half of the population, by 1930 "the Danish language [was] not used in organizations any more." {5} In the churches, a transition in language took place at about the same time. The following table indicates at what date English became predominant in the Danish and Norwegian synods: {6}

  Sunday School Religious Services


-Danish Church 1929 1940
-United Church about 1920 about 1925
-Lutheran Free Church before 1920 about 1925
-Evangelical Lutheran Church before 1920 1925-1930

The reason for the longer life of Danish in the Danish Church was that the members of this synod constituted a small and rather nationalistic minority. It is interesting to see how little difference in time there was in the language transition between the avowedly more nationalistic Danish Church and the United Church, which sought to be more rapidly assimilated.

The second generation of Danish Americans naturally grew up speaking English, but in many homes the parents wanted their children to use the old tongue, at least as a second language. This tendency caused many controversies. The 1940 census shows that English was the everyday language of 20 percent in the first generation, 53 percent in the second, and 93 percent in the third and subsequent generations. Pedersen’s findings after 1947 in Clark County, Wisconsin, show the same trend. The figures below give the percentage of people who used English in the way indicated: {7}

  First Generation Second Generation


-Less than Half 44 10
-Predominantly 19 14
-Exclusively 37 76
-Less than Half 80 32
-Predominantly 15 38
-Exclusively 5 30

There is revealed here a clear tendency for the use of English to be greater among children compared with adults, and in the second generation as compared with the first.

The Norwegians had experiences similar to those of the Danes, but they were more successful in keeping their language alive. In one Norwegian settlement, a newcomer from Norway wanted to board with an Irishman, the only non-Norwegian in the community. He had expected to learn some English, but was surprised to discover that Norwegian was spoken at the family table. {8}

Studies of the use of Norwegian emphasize the importance of concentration in distinctly ethnic settlements. In the Norwegian-American churches of South Dakota in 1935—1936, according to one authority, "the use of Norwegian was strongest in the compact, early established settlements." {9} It was not the number of Norwegians that mattered, but the degree of concentration. In 1940, Washington had a Norwegian-born population of 26,489 and Wisconsin, 23,211, but more Norwegian was spoken in the latter state. {10}

The effect of the greater concentration of Norwegians is shown in the 1940 national census figures on continued use of their native tongue. Danes had the lowest percentage of language retention (31). The Swedes had 44 percent, the Norwegians, 52, and the Poles, 75. In the areas where Danes concentrated most heavily, their language retention was above average: Iowa had 45 percent, South Dakota, 41, Wisconsin, 40, Minnesota, 38, and Michigan, 37. {11} Apparently more Norwegians than Danes retained the use of their original speech, despite great similarity between the two Scandinavian languages. The reason for the difference must be explained by the higher degree of concentration among Norwegian immigrants.

The habits of the two national groups in their manner of dress offer further understanding of the process of assimilation. Danish clothing in the second half of the nineteenth century was only slightly different from that of Americans. The Norwegians reveal greater variety because national costumes were retained longer in their homeland. They thought that American clothes were inferior in quality to their own, and quite often they brought an enormous supply with them when they emigrated. Although they mended their garments over and over again, they lasted only a limited time. Then the day came when the family had to start yarn-spinning, sewing, and knitting—or to buy new clothing. From this point on, Americanization took place rapidly, but it was popular to wear the warm woolen clothes sent by relatives in Norway.

Eating habits varied more widely between the two national groups. The Danes were used to a daily diet consisting of potatoes, milk products, and large quantities of porridge and rye bread. They also loved open-faced sandwiches. A. Bobjerg gives an example of a Danish-American menu in the late nineteenth century:

Breakfast at 6 a.m.: Pancakes, oatmeal porridge, eggs, hot potatoes, bread with cheese or meat, cake and coffee.

Coffee break with sandwiches.

Dinner at 12 noon: Meat and potatoes with brown gravy, rice porridge, soup, cabbage, peas, fruit porridge, bread with cheese and jam, cake and coffee.

Coffee break with sandwiches.

Supper at 6 p.m.: The same as breakfast.

Coffee at night, perhaps with cake. {12}

To a large degree the essential elements of the Danish farm menu were maintained, but American pancakes were quickly added. The Danes were in a dilemma when they could not get the right kind of rye flour for their pumpernickel bread. As a result, they ground it themselves in coffee grinders. Both Norwegians and Danes missed their varied fish dishes, and had difficulties during the hot summers in preparing the milk products to which they were accustomed.

In highly concentrated areas, traditional eating habits were kept alive longer than elsewhere. In Spring Grove, Minnesota, according to C. A. Qualey, "The food was all prepared in Norwegian style, and Norwegian dishes and manners prevailed for many years." {13} But adoption of new products and the difficulty in getting the old-world specialties changed the bill of fare in many homes. The cherished dishes, prepared in the home-country style, were often occasional, giving "an extra touch to an otherwise American meal." {14}

Drinking habits caused difficulties. Norwegians and Danes usually brewed their own beer and were quite addicted to hard liquor (aquavit), especially at social events. Their tendencies in this direction sometimes caused indignation on the part of puritanical Americans and pietistic fellow countrymen. Another characteristic of immigrants was pipe smoking, a habit which made the cultivation of tobacco almost a symbol of Norwegianism in certain parts of Wisconsin. {15}

The general impression is that clothing habits changed rapidly, eating habits more slowly. The difference in the speed of change between Danes and Norwegians is to be found in the differing degree of ethnic concentration.

The Danish tradition in farm building was to have three or four long, low buildings attached to one another at right angles, forming a closed square in the middle. These structures were built of beams—with bricks, clay, or stones in between—and were usually whitewashed. Such buildings differed from those of Americans, but in only a very few places with high concentration did they continue to be erected. Paul C. Nyholm, writing of the Danish settlement at Viborg, South Dakota, says: "The houses were built in Danish style and with thatched roofs." {16} Most immigrants found it much easier to use the abundance of cheap wood for frame houses and farm buildings in the American style.

The Norwegians had a tradition of constructing their farm buildings of wood, often of logs, and they usually scattered them. Therefore the plan of organizing farm structures in the United States was nothing new to them.

As for occupations, most Scandinavian immigrants chose to be farmers, and it was only natural for them to settle in the Midwestern agricultural states. Among the Norwegians, according to Einar Haugen, "ownership of land [was] the only basis of social prestige which they thoroughly understood." {17} This is probably why they had the highest percentage of persons gainfully employed in agriculture—54.6 as compared to 44.4 for the Danes, 32.8 for the Swedes, and 12.2 for the Poles. {18} Though the Norwegians were used to agriculture, linguistic analyses of the gradual substitution of English words for Norwegian "suggest that approximately fifty per cent of American agriculture was new to the immigrant." {19} The differences in farming methods lay both in crops and in the use of oxen. At a later stage, the Norwegian farmers had no names of their own for new machinery. Threats to their plantings—prairie fires and grasshoppers— were also phenomena new to the people from Europe.

The organization of work as practiced by Norwegians was also different from that of the Americans. One farm boy reported, "I never saw my father milk a cow. Men in Europe did not do that. . . . During the busy season, mother also helped with some field work." {20} As new machinery came into use, it was common to cooperate in the use of it. One authority reveals: "These equipment rings were, characteristically, ethnocentric in membership." {21} In another sociological study, however, it was found that the old system of exchanging work was "regardless of ethnicity or status. [It] tended to integrate the rural community." {22}

Sometimes the Danes and Norwegians were extremely traditional in their selection of land. At one place the latter, "as a general rule, settled in the valleys, avoiding the ridges and prairie land whenever they had a choice." {23} This was the practice they were used to. The reason for the choice could also be nationalistic. When M. C. Pedersen in 1868 started a Danish settlement in Wisconsin, he chose Polk County, though it had poor soil, in order to make the Danes dominant in local politics.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Danish-American churches launched a program designed to preserve the Danish nationality. Its purpose was to concentrate the Danes in ethnic enclaves. The religious bodies succeeded in organizing new colonies in Minnesota, Texas, Colorado, North Dakota, and Montana. The Norwegian-American churches mounted a similar drive. Both groups were largely unsuccessful for lack of popular support. An interesting pattern in the general location of the Scandinavian-American population generally placed the Danes south of the Swedes and Norwegians. {24}

The church was the most important factor in perpetuating the sense of belonging to a special subgroup in American society. Settlements of one nationality were organized to enable the immigrants to support a Danish or Norwegian minister and, if possible, a schoolteacher.

The great difference between the Danes and the Norwegians lay in the relative strength of their ethnic churches. The first Norwegian synod was organized in 1846; the first Danish in 1872. There was no general urge in America for a separate Danish religious body; its synod actually developed from private roots in Denmark. In 1871 four ministers were sent to the United States to establish a Danish-American church. As one writer has observed: "If such a group of pastors had not come from Denmark, it is doubtful that there would ever have been organized a Danish Church in America." {25}

Very important for an understanding of the difference between the Norwegians and the Danes in America is the fact that the former were much more religious. They had a stronger and more popular spiritual tradition which they were able to transfer to the United States.

The last quarter of the nineteenth century was a time of alienation of the common people from the church in Denmark. So it was logical that the internal life of the Danish-American congregations was determined to a large degree by the development of religious life in the home country. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a split took place in the Church of Denmark between a fundamentalist "home missionary" group and a more liberal, nationalistic element led by N. F. S. Grundtvig. The division was deep and lasting. One writer points out: "Much of that which later occurred in the history of the Danish-American churches must be explained by the heritage from Denmark rather than by the American environment." {26} They were divided into the same two factions as in the old country: the Danish Church stressed nationalism and education in Danish culture, and the United Church favored the assimilation of the Danes.

It is interesting to compare developments within these two synods. As shown in the following table, the assimilation-minded United Church was much more successful in increasing its membership than was the Danish: {27}

  1910 1929 1950 1959
The Danish Church 20,853 19,731 19,404 23,952
The United Church 19,884 29,590 46,459 70,149

The Danes were positively more favorable to the process of assimilation than to any stress on nationality. As we have seen, the Danish Church was, significantly, unsuccessful in one of its main policies: keeping alive the Danish language. What the Danes wanted was merely a service similar to the one they were used to. The same observer adds: "They went to church to . . . continue some of the accustomed traditions, rather than from a deeply personal sense of need or strong Christian conviction. . . . The language was not important, so . . . the majority of the congregations still used the ritual of the Church of Denmark, but in English translations and with additions." {28}

At the same time, persons of other nationalities were admitted to membership, and individuals of the second generation attended churches of other denominations. Pedersen’s figures for the percentage of church affiliation in Clark County, Wisconsin, reveal these trends: {29}

  First Generation Second Generation
Danish Church Member 75   64.1  
Language used at service:        
-Danish   35   7.7
-Danish and English   25   15.4
-English   15   41.0
Member of other church --   15.4  
Not a church member 25   20.5  

The differences between Danes and Norwegians in church affiliation are shown in the percentages of the two groups belonging to ethnic churches: {30}

  1860 1870 1880 1890
Norwegians 30.2 34.1 53.2 58.9
Danes -- -- 6.3 10.1

The reason why the Danes stayed out of their ethnic churches was probably that they were alienated by the cross-pressures arising from the strong rivalry between the two Danish synods. Instead of choosing between the two churches—and thus becoming involved in the conflict over assimilation—most Danes preferred to remain outside the churches entirely. By so doing, they avoided the controversy.

This factor must be seen as the major cause of the differing degree of assimilation among Danes and Norwegians. The latter were concentrated in settlements to a greater extent than were the Danes, thus making a quite successful attempt at preserving their traditional religion. In this way., they escaped the social contacts which otherwise would have resulted in assimilation at the same rate as the Danes. The identification of religion and nationality as one and the same among the Norwegians was so strong, one minister wrote, "that Norwegians who have joined the Methodist Church or any other non-Lutheran religious organization are no more recognized as ‘Norwegians’ in the full sense of the word." {31}

Closely connected with the churches in the assimilation process were the schools. In a survey of Danish-American life from 1912, one author writes: "Until now it is only the two small churches that have conducted Danish schools in America." {32} These schools were mainly held in the summer with religious and language curriculums, conducted by ministers. Only very few full-time parochial schools were established. "The overwhelming majority of the second generation," we learn, "attended the public schools." {33}

Although they were more numerous, the Norwegian schools had the same character as the Danish. In 1909 the 3,001 Norwegian congregations supported 1,715 summer schools. {34} In 1912 the number of schools conducted by the Danish Church was 147. {35}

To have any kind of success in education, a combined high school and college system was necessary. Both Danes and Norwegians tried to establish such institutions in their theological seminaries. The Danish experiment was relatively unsuccessful; only one small college with a distinctly ethnic background still exists. The Norwegians did somewhat better, a fact that probably accounts for the differing numbers of students enrolled in courses in the Scandinavian languages in the United States in the fall of 1957: {36}

  University College High School
Danish 28 27 --
Norwegian 217 479 171
Swedish 259 289 192

The ethnic associations of Danes and Norwegians were similar in many ways, and none had a very large membership. The Norwegians were held together more by religion than by nationality. Their associations were often organized by ministers for support of church life and of education in the national culture. Characteristically, most of these groups were organized on a secular basis starting with social functions. In order to survive, however, they had to have a vital function, usually mutual health and funeral assistance. The two strongest Danish associations—Dania of California (1879) and the Danish Brotherhood (1881) and Sisterhood (1883)—adopted this type of program.

The spiritual leader of the Danish Church, F. L. Grundtvig, son of N. F. S. Grundtvig, organized a "Danish Peoples Society" in 1887 with the stated belief that "we are going to be the best American citizens if we continue to be Danish." {37} The Society’s program called for gathering Danes in selected places as a condition for the growth of a strong Danish spiritual life, the support of Danish schools and libraries, the promotion of meetings, and the founding of homes for young people in the cities. Grundtvig was well aware of the importance that concentration plays in the life of a minority group. However, the Society’s effort was unsuccessful because interest and financial backing were lacking. The Danes did not wish to live in ethnic communities.

The Norwegians had much the same kind of organizations, but theirs were stronger than those of the Danes and their associations were able to attain a higher cultural level. The Norwegian-American Historical Association, founded in 1925, is an example of this success.

The social aspects of these national organizations tended to center around national holidays. The Danish 5th of June and the Norwegian 17th of May, the constitution days, were celebrated, but the American 4th of July was also observed. Typical decorations for these events were pictures of Frederik VII, Lincoln, Dannebrog (the Danish flag), and the Stars and Stripes. {38}

When it came to family traditions, feelings were stronger. The Danish and Norwegian ways of celebrating Christmas, for instance, were kept alive longer than most other observances.

A great variety of short-lived Norwegian and Danish newspapers and magazines had their day in the United States. None was especially influential in the assimilation process. Some were church publications; others were essentially secular in character. Both tended to be ethnocentric and somewhat limited in outlook. Often gossipy, they also contained stories and letters from various parts of the world, especially from the homeland and from settlements of their countrymen in the New World. Their basic purpose was to provide news for those who were not able to read English. As the language transition took place, the papers began using some English and later ceased publication. There was one important difference between Norwegian and Danish newspapers. The former were more interested than the latter in American public affairs and several of their editors later entered politics.

It is tempting to dismiss national consciousness as an unmeasurable factor in the assimilation process. But it is clear that it accounts for a significant difference between the Danish and Norwegian immigrants. Norway had been ruled by Denmark until 1814, when it adopted a constitution and declared itself independent. After a short period of confusion, the country was forced to enter a union with Sweden. There followed a strong rural political liberation movement from the middle of the nineteenth century, but independence was not fully accomplished until 1905. This important change undoubtedly furthered a strong national feeling and increased the political consciousness of the population.

From 1848 to 1851, Denmark engaged in a partially successful war against Prussia. But in 1864 the Danes were badly beaten and lost Schleswig-Holstein to Germany. For the rest of the century, the country experienced a great decline in national pride and spirit. The Danes from Schleswig-Holstein, however, often emigrated and became "national leaders" of their countrymen in America. {39}

Marriage has always been a crucial factor in the assimilation process. The main characteristic of a closed group is that it has few social contacts with the surrounding culture and practically no intermarriage. A very good measure of the assimilation of an immigrant is, therefore, his willingness to cross over national lines in choosing a spouse.

In heavily concentrated Danish settlements, it was natural to marry other Danes; many sources indicate that intermarriage with other groups was considered out of place. In Nysted, Nebraska, a Dane had married a non-Danish girl. As Nielsen points out, "that was considered a handicap in the community." {40} In another Nebraska settlement of mixed Danish and German population, "until a few years ago (1950) there was almost an iron curtain drawn on the borderline that separated Germans from Danes." {41}

The ethnocentric marriage system weakened for second-and third-generation Danes, as Pedersen has shown in a study of Clark County. The table below shows the trend: {42}

  First Generation Second Generation
Wife of Same ethnic stock 88   53  
-Immigrant   50   10
-Native Born   38   43
Wife of other ethinic stock 12   47  

The Norwegians were also hesitant to marry outside their group. In Trempealeau County, Wisconsin, Merle E. Curti found the following figures for the marriage patterns of Norwegian men and women. The following table gives the country of origin for the mate: {43}

1860 Norway U.S. Canada England Ireland Germany Other
41 men 36 3 1 -- 1 -- --
36 women 36 -- -- -- -- -- --
1,191 men 1,117 58 1 1 -- 2 12
1,344 women 1,117 221 2 -- 1 3 --

The Danes did not do very well in politics. In some places, where they dominated a township, they elected their countrymen to local offices, but, as voters, there was no great unity among them. From Luck Township, Polk County, Wisconsin, the story is told of how some of the Danes in 1877 had allied themselves with the Indians to get a couple of men elected. The next year this political "combination" was undercut by another Danish group, which paid the Indians three dollars to go fishing on election day. {44}

The Danes had the greatest percentage of naturalizations, 78.1 percent, a political move which they engaged in mainly to enable them to take up homesteads and to vote. {45} They used these rights but did not function as a national group. In 1920 the Wisconsin Assembly had six Danish-born members, and in 1912 the state superintendent of schools in Minnesota was Danish-born. {46} None of these men, however, conceived of themselves as specifically representing the Danish-American community.

On their arrival, the Norwegians were more politically minded than their fellow Scandinavians. In coming first, they had had an opportunity to participate in the political turmoil before the Civil War. Thus they early became educated in American politics. They took part fervently in local affairs and also at state and national levels. When they emerged as state leaders, they were still in close contact with the Norwegian-American community. The main reason for their greater prominence probably was that, in some states, they were such a large group as to be significant politically. Furthermore, their cultural consciousness and cohesiveness often made them act as a bloc which could be manipulated.

Early Norwegian and Danish immigrant farmers conducted, at least in the beginning, self-sufficient farming operations without many social contacts. The Norwegians had an advantage: there was no social order in Europe as basically similar to the American as theirs. The difference between the owners of big and small farms in Norway was not as great as in Denmark. The Danish farmers were in the beginning stages of farming for a market. As the change from self-sufficient to market farming took place, economic transactions with the outer world furthered social contacts and paved the way for later assimilation in America. Where ethnic concentration was high in the new country, a farmer could often sell his products and buy groceries at the local Danish or Norwegian country store. One authority adds:

"About the people outside the nationality group, however, their knowledge was limited to a few persons who had distinguished themselves in the community." {47}

Change of social status—especially the movement of the second generation to the cities—was a major factor in the assimilation process. Status as a member of an ethnic group changed to that of membership in a social group. "To them [farm people], the ‘American’ is the urban, sophisticated businessman, secular and independent. . . . Any adoption of an urban standard or way of life is identified as ‘Americanization.’" {48} This shift of base meant not only the loss of the second generation for the nationality group but often the dissolution of a concentrated settlement. In Clark County, Wisconsin, Pedersen found that "the farms of the Danish operators will continue to be sold to other people interested in farming." {49}

In communities of mixed population, social relations were often "gossiping visits," and an analysis of this type of contact shows that of all visits 92.6 to 97.6 percent were within the same nationality group. Nonfamily visits accounted for 66.7 to 90.3 percent. {50} As late as 1947, social relations in a mixed community with a high percentage of Norwegians were strained. On this point, one observer writes: "Only twenty-six farm operators in the township have not joined [the Farm Bureau]. Of these twenty-six, sixteen are unacculturated Norwegian families who still have a strong distrust for any association outside of the Norwegian Lutheran Church." {51} The remaining ten were six Yankee dirt farmers and four persons who were opposed to the Farm Bureau’s policies.

Men were suspicious of American institutions, and their wives encountered difficulties in getting into purely social groups. "The current members (57) of the club [The Rural Afternoon Club] come from the following types of families: 46 are of the Yankee, ‘old landowner’ middle class, nine are highly acculturated Norwegians, and two are upwardly mobile lower-class Yankees." {52} The Norwegians were all members of the third or fourth generation, and significantly all the upper-class Yankee ladies had left the club when the last two groups were permitted to join.

The enormous nineteenth-century increase in population in Europe, which was the background for the emigration movement, was most marked in Norway in the fifty years from 1815 to 1865. In that country, the increase was 1.3 percent annually. {53} At the same time, industrialization was developing only slowly; this fact meant that the population surplus could not be absorbed inside Norway. In the years from 1866 to 1873, emigration annually took 63.42 percent, and in 1879 to 1893, 57 to 89 percent, of the increase. {54} Norway had the second highest rate of emigration in Europe, next to Ireland, and those who left the country came especially from areas which could not absorb the surplus population.

Norwegian emigration was a mass movement. It included a relatively high proportion of people who later brought over their families. In the years between 1872 and 1875, 39 percent of the emigrants from Christiania (Oslo) had prepaid transportation, that is, tickets bought by someone already in the United States. {55} Families often emigrated en masse and settled in the same way.

Emigration from Denmark had the same basic causes as that from Norway, but the population growth of the Danes was slower and their industrialization faster. They emigrated mainly as individuals and had a larger proportion of young and single persons leaving the homeland. In the years from 1901 to 1905, the males in the age group 20—30 years accounted for 46 percent of the total. In the same period, the men in all age groups were 63 percent of all the emigrants. {56} The high proportion of young males led to a larger distribution of the Danes in America, and the composition of age and sex had implications not only for the degree of concentration, but also for the ability to assimilate. Presumably younger people adapt more easily to new environments, and a large proportion of young men wanted to marry. There were few Danish girls, and so they married Americans.

Consideration of all the factors involved in assimilation must lead to the judgment that, although the Danes and the Norwegians responded in similar ways to the American environment, the Danes assimilated more easily. But it is also true that the reason for the difference was one of cultural disposition. Strong feelings of national consciousness and religion led to a high degree of concentration in Norwegian settlements. That they did concentrate more is shown by the following figures for 1890: {57}

Ethnic Group from: Norway Sweden Poland Denmark
Total population of state with highest percentage of ethnic stock (Wisconsin) 322,665 478,041 147,440 132,543
Percentage of ethnic stock in the state 31 20.9 19.7


Percentage of ethnic stock in county (population over 500) with greatest concentration of ethnic group 80 79.6 72.2 47
Percentage of ethnic stock in counties contiguos with above county 56.6 22.2 10.3 8
Percentage of ethnic stock in city (population over 25,000) with highest concentratin of ethnic group 20.78 31.24 57.11 23.24

As Professor Munch points out, ". . . we have to expect variations in the adjustment of a nationality group on the basis of its relative numerical strength in the particular area where it lives." {58} At an early stage of emigration, the Danes "became Americanized quickly, but a reaction set in after an increase in emigration." The change in the pattern of settlement and the organization of a Danish church "definitely retarded the Americanization process which had spontaneously taken place among the immigrants prior to 1871." {59}

The concentration could lead to extremes: "In the city of Westby [Wisconsin], which . . . is about 95 per cent Norwegian, it has [led to the creation of a] community center with most of the economic, social, and cultural services that are usually allotted to such a center. . . . In this way, the Norwegians in this settlement have actually managed to withdraw the whole area from the (more natural) economic and social control of the ‘Yankee’-dominated city of Viroqua." {60}

A review of the factors and the reactions of Danish and Norwegian immigrants to the United States shows that both groups acculturated quite easily. It was the assimilation process that turned out differently. Both were so close culturally to the Americans that there was no great problem in this area. Then why did the Norwegians not assimilate—that is, intermarry, participate in primary social contact with the host culture, and the like—to the same degree as the Danes?

Danes and Norwegians were basically of the same race and had essentially the same Protestant religion and general North European cultural background as the native American stock. Therefore the answer is to be found in the differing degree to which the two groups lived in communities with high concentrations of an ethnic minority. And the reason for the concentration must be explained by interpreting national character as it is shaped by a people’s history. {61}


<1> Emily Greene Balch, Our Slavic Fellow Citizens, 479 (New York, 1910).

<2> Alfred C. Nielsen, Life in an American Denmark, 20 (Des Moines, Iowa, 1962).

<3> Anton Kvist, ed., Den gamle pionér fortæller, 176 (Copenhagen, 1935).

<4> Max Henius, Den dansk fødte Amerikaner, 46 (Chicago, 1912).

<5> Harald Ansgar Pedersen, "Acculturation among Danish and Polish Ethnic Groups in Wisconsin," 57, an unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1949.

<6> Paul C. Nyholm, The Americanization of the Danish Lutheran Churches in America, table i (Copenhagen and Minneapolis, 1963).

<7> Pedersen, "Acculturation," table 15.

<8> Einar Haugen, "The Struggle over Norwegian," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 17:1 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1952).

<9> Ibid., 5.

<10> Ibid., 6.

<11> Nyholm, Americanization, 452.

<12> A. Bobjerg, En dansk nybygd i Wisconsin: 40 aar i Storskoven, 1869— 1909 (Copenhagen, 1909).

<13> Carlton C. Qualey, "A Typical Norwegian Settlement: Spring Grove, Minnesota," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 9:54, 61 (1936).

<14> Peter A. Munch, "Segregation and Assimilation of Norwegian Settlements in Wisconsin," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 18:102, 105 (1954).

<15> Ibid., 104.

<16> Nyholm, Americanization, 117.

<17> Einar Haugen, "Norwegian Migration to America," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 18:1, 2 (1954).

<18> Balch, Our Slavic Fellow Citizens, 470.

<19> Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition, 91 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1940).

<20> Nielsen, American Denmark, 33.

<21> Pedersen, "Acculturation," 102.

<22> Evon Z. Vogt, "Social Stratification in the Rural Middle West: A Structural Analysis," in Rural Sociology, 12:364—75.

<23> Munch, "Segregation and Assimilation," 116.

<24> George T. Flom, "The Scandinavian Factor in the American Population," in Iowa Journal of History and Politics, 3:57, 87.

<25> Nyholm, Americanization, 80.

<26> Ibid., 98.

<27> Ibid., table 27.

<28> Ibid., 95, 361.

<29> Pedersen, "Acculturation," table 12.

<30> John A. Bille, "A History of the Danes in America," in Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, 11:1—41 (Madison, 1898).

<31> Munch, "Segregation and Assimilation," 135, 136.

<32> Henius, Den dansk fødte Amerikaner, 64.

<33> Nyholm, Americanization, 235.

<34> Blegen, The American Transition, 275—76.

<35> Henius, Den dansk fødte Amerikaner, 40.

<36> Hedin Bronner, "A Centenary of Norwegian Studies in American Institutions of Learning," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 20:165 (1959).

<37> Henius, Den danskfødte Amerikaner, 86, 87.

<38> Kvist, Den gamle pionér, 26.

<39> George M. Stephenson, "The Mind of the Scandinavian Immigrant," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 4:71 (1929).

<40> Nielsen, American Denmark, 64.

<41> Nyholm, Americanization, 291.

<42> Pedersen, "Acculturation," table 8.

<43> Merle E. Curti, The Making of an American Community: A Case Study of Democracy in a Frontier County, table 2, 105 (Stanford, California, 1959).

<44> Bobjerg, En dansk nybygd, 30, 31.

<45> Nyholm, Americanization, 452.

<46> Henius, Den danskfødte Amerikaner, 20, 170.

<47> Munch, "Segregation and Assimilation," 132.

<48> Ibid., 126.

<49> Pedersen, "Acculturation," 54.

<50> Munch, "Segregation and Assimilation," table 2, 133.

<51> Vogt, "Social Stratification," 371.

<52> Ibid., 372, 373.

<53> Ingrid Gaustad Semmingsen, "Norwegian Emigration," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 11:66, 69 (1944).

<54> Semmingsen, "Norwegian Emigration," 68.

<55> Blegen, American Transition, 462.

<56> Kristian Hvidt, "Danish Emigration Prior to 1914: Trends and Problems," in Scandinavian Economic History Review, 16:158—78.

<57> Bille, "A History of the Danes in America," 11.

<58> Munch, "Segregation and Assimilation," 109.

<59> Nyholm, Americanization, 45, 81.

<60> Munch, "Segregation and Assimilation," 114.

<61> The parallel consideration of acculturation, distinguished from assimilation as developed in this article, is analyzed in detail by the British historian Milton M. Gordon in his book, Assimilation in American Life (New York, 1964).

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