from a Fjord District on Norway's West Coast, 1852-1915 *
by Ragnar Standal (Volume
29: Page 185)
* In recent years many students in Norway have chosen some
aspect of the immigration movement to America as thesis topics.
This article is a summary of a thesis presented at the University
of Trondheim in 1977, entitled "Utvandringa til Amerika frå
Hjørundfjord, Vartdal og Ørsta 1852-1915."
THE FYLKE (county) of Møre og Romsdal long remained
unaffected by the waves of migration from Norway and many
scholars have wondered why this was so. The present study
treats a part of this county, the kommune (municipality) of
Ørsta, comprising the former municipalities of Hjørundfjord,
Vartdal, and Ørsta. Perhaps the findings presented
here will shed light on some facets of the phenomenon in question.
On the initiative of the Sunnmøre Historical Society,
the Hjørundfjord and Ørsta municipalities organized
committees for the study of emigration history about 1960,
while Vartdal tried to include emigration data in its bygdebok
(community history). This material was made available to the
author and was supplemented through correspondence and interviews.
A fair amount of information was thus unearthed which would
otherwise have been difficult to obtain. A study tour in the
United States in 1978 for the purpose of discovering what
might still be left of living tradition about the migration
era also led to some impressive findings.
This article will focus on three main questions:
1. Why did the emigration movement from Hjørundfjord,
Vartdal, and Ørsta begin so late?
2. Were there local variations within the three communities?
If so, is it possible to explain these variations?
3. Who returned to Norway? Why did they return?
Before examining the emigration from Hjørundfjord,
Vartdal, and Ørsta it may be in order to locate these
three bygder (rural communities) on the map of Norway and
to trace certain administrative alterations from earlier times
to the present The three communities are all found in Sunnmøre,
the southernmost part of Møre og Romsdal - not far
from the city of Ålesund.
Administratively Hjørundfjord has been the most independent
of the three districts, presumably because it is the most
isolated. Ecclesiastically, Hjørundfjord formed a part
of Volda parish until 1751, though it had its own fairly independent
chaplain from 1589. The community also had its own lensmann
(sheriff) from about the same period. It became a separate
municipality in 1837 when a law permitting local self-government
was enacted. In area, Hjørundfjord is of medium size
- about 185 square miles, but by the year 1900 its population
had barely reached 2,000.
Vandal is both the newest and the smallest of the three administrative
units. It has at different times shared sheriffs with the
two neighboring communities of Ulstein and Ørsta. Until
1895, when the community became a separate municipality, it
had been a part of Ulstein. Not until 1877 did the people
of Vartdal even have theft own church. Vartdal is barely one-fourth
as large in area as Hjørundfjord and its population
numbered about 700 at the turn of the century.
Ørsta has occupied a middle position between Hjørundfjord
and Vartdal in terms of administration. It was in an ecclesiastical
sense dominated by the stronger neighboring community of Volda,
to which it was an annex, until 1900, when it was set up as
an independent parish together with Vartdal. In secular affairs
Ørsta had a certain amount of self-government before
1883, the year when the community received status as a separate
municipality. A sheriff was appointed for the two districts,
Ørsta and Vartdal, six years later. Ørsta is
only half as large as Hjørundfjord but by 1900 it had
a population of about 2,500 and was growing rapidly. When
the three municipalities were joined in 1964, Ørsta
became the administrative center and gave its name to the
Emigrant protocols (records of mandatory registration with
the police at the point of embarkation), migration lists in
church records, and less traditional sources, such as military
archives and questionnaires among the local people, have made
it possible to identify a number of emigrants who otherwise
would not have been included. Some relatively unknown sources
have been utilized, as for instance the emigrant protocols
for Alesund and Kristiansund. By studying only Norges offisielle
statistikk (NOS, Norway's official statistics) one gets a
distorted picture of small territorial units. Lesser communities
which were under the jurisdiction of larger ones often had
their emigrants listed together with those from the main district,
even after the two areas had been separated.
Emigrants from Hjørundfjord, Vartdal, and Ørsta
up to 1915, according to official Norwegian statistics and
the author's own calculations, both in five-year intervals:
*The two columns indicate the separation when
the communities became individual administrative entities.
Vartdal, the smallest of the three communities in question,
had so few inhabitants and such a small percentage of emigrants
(about 10 percent of the average population during the migration
period) that it may be difficult to draw reliable conclusions
from the material at hand. The most populous community, Ørsta,
had proportionately one and a half times as many emigrants
as Vartdal, while Hjørundfjord had three times as many.
Emigration from all three communities must be characterized
as late when compared with Norway in general - hardly worth
mentioning until the 1880s, when the trickle of emigrants
swelled to a wave. Before that date Hjørundfjord and
Ørsta had sent a few pioneers across, as was true in
many other parts of the country. The first little group from
Hjørundfjord left in 1852, but this was an isolated
The make-up of the groups leaving for the United States would
seem to indicate that emigration from the district under review
skipped the first phase, which, in the country at large, was
strongly marked by family migration. Only in the 1880s can
we find traces here of this tendency, when some member of
a family - father or grown son - would go across to scout
out the lay of the land before the rest of the family followed.
Increasingly, however, the emigrant groups were composed of
unmarried young people, and the average age tended to creep
downward. Men outnumbered women, especially among the young,
which may suggest that a motive force was the desire to escape
military service, but undoubtedly other factors also played
a part. All told, three times as many men as women left the
During the opening phase of the movement the more affluent
members of the communities were numerically dominant among
the emigrant groups. Generally speaking this was also the
pattern in the country as a whole. The poor people had trouble
raising the necessary capital and as a result were slow in
leaving. Thus the migration was primarily from the larger
farms. Considering that the area studied had comparatively
few husmenn (cotters) the migrants from this class were fairly
numerous, but still very few compared with eastern Norwegian
communities like Tinn and Dovre. Practically all the people
who left were involved in agriculture, possibly supplemented
by other sources of income such as fishing. In the Møre
area farms are generally categorized as either sjøgårder
(sea farms) or dalgårder (valley farms), depending on
their proximity to the sea. The economic importance of the
sea is evidenced by the fact that more people left from valley
farms than from sea farms even though the latter - except
in Vartdal - were classified as less valuable.
Nearly one-fourth of the emigrants during the period as a
whole did not indicate their occupation in the police protocols.
Among those who did, servants comprised about one-third. Laborers
of various types also constituted a relatively large segment,
while rather few of the emigrants seem to have taken possession
of farms or cotter's places by the time of emigration. After
the turn of the century there are quite a few fishermen among
those who left - especially from Vartdal, but also from Ørsta.
At first Bergen was the main port of departure. Later, Ålesund
entered the picture and by the 1890s may be said to have monopolized
the emigrant traffic from this part of the country, a fact
which has been little noticed. A few went by way of Trondheim
to the capital city of Christiania in order to take ship from
there directly to America.
The demographic circumstances in Hjørundfjord, Vartdal,
and Ørsta present various problems to the researcher,
especially because the two latter communities were at times
annexes to neighboring municipalities. The population of these
three communities did not increase as rapidly during the first
half of the nineteenth century as in many other parts of Norway.
The growth of population was especially slow in Vartdal. The
slowness of population increase in these coastal communities
may have been caused both by epidemics and by special marriage
practices. It was not unusual for comparatively young men
to marry elderly widows in order to secure a farm. The fact
that many young men signed up as sailors on ships engaged
in foreign trade could also have played a part, especially
as there were frequent mishaps at sea. In Hjørundfjord,
the population reached its peak around 1890, at a time when
it was still increasing quite rapidly in the other two communities.
It is especially when one compares these communities with
communities where emigration had an early start - for example,
Vik in Sogn - that the difference in population growth becomes
obvious. The rapid population growth in Vik from the late
1700s until emigration began in the 1840s reflects the typical
situation in most Norwegian communities at the time.
The changes in population after emigration gained full momentum,
on the other hand, vary much from community to community.
Within the present area of study it would seem that conditions
for earning a livelihood played a deciding role. The surplus
of births over deaths was uniformly low in Hjørundfjord,
Vartdal, and Ørsta until the 1850s, and in Vartdal
also during the early 1860s. This situation resulted from
epidemics during the late 1840s, and also during the 1860s
in Vartdal. Ørsta was best able to cope with the natural
increase in population (surplus of births over deaths); but
of those who did leave Ørsta relatively more went to
America than from the other two communities.
The migrations within the area of study are poorly recorded
in the church membership lists. A special problem is the fact
that movements from one church to another within the same
parish, as between Ørsta and Volda or Vartdal and Ulstein,
were never noted. The tendency was, however, toward more migration
out of than into the area, and this migration was especially
directed toward coastal districts.
The social structure within the three communities changed
during the emigration period. The percentage of landowners
among the agrarian class increased steadily and by the early
1900s there were few tenant farmers left. But the number of
cotters continued to rise longer here than in other parts
of Norway and reached its peak around 1875. The number of
people engaged in occupations outside the two main ones, farming
and fishing, increased very little, but most in Ørsta.
The size of the servant class in the district has been difficult
to establish. In this connection the problem arises of classifying
the adult children who remained at home, and there were many
of them. The changes within this large group are therefore
difficult to ascertain, but the number of servants seems to
have remained large throughout the period studied.
The census reports in most cases reveal a majority of women,
at times fairly large. As far as can be determined, however,
the imbalance never became so great that it produced serious
social problems, as it did in the cities.
ECONOMIC ACTIVITY AND LIVING CONDITIONS
Hjørundfjord, Vartdal, and Ørsta are very similar
in topography. All three are fjord communities surrounded
by high, steep mountains. The best tillable soil is generally
found in the small valleys which cut their way through the
mountain masses. Danger of avalanches, however, puts a limit
to where people can settle, especially in Hjørundfjord.
Of the three communities, Vartdal is the best supplied with
cultivable soil at a proper elevation above sea level and
Hjørundfjord the least so. The sea has been the main
highway for all three communities, but roads and trails through
valleys and mountain passes have played a larger role in Hjørundfjord
and Ørsta than in Vartdal.
Even though source materials relative to the economic life
of the communities are not always clear, it seems fairly certain
that Vartdal grew more food per capita than did the other
two. It would seem that up to about 1875 Vartdal and probably
Hjørundfjord must have been self-sufficient in grain
and potatoes, while in Ørsta increased production could
not keep up with the rapidly growing population.
After 1875 crop-raising gradually diminished, presumably
because more emphasis was placed on animal husbandry - not
necessarily on the size of the herds but on their productivity.
Vartdal also had the most cattle per capita and Ørsta
the fewest, despite the fact that the latter community undoubtedly
had the best system of agriculture.
Cod fishing was an integral part of agricultural life and
all adult males who were physically fit participated in it.
This activity took place mainly during February and March,
when little could be done on the farms because of snow. During
fishing season the men were quartered on the islands in cramped,
overcrowded rooms, but were out on the sea both night and
day when weather permitted. From the sparse information available
regarding income from fishing it would seem that the coastal
communities fared better than the fjord communities such as
Hjørundfjord, which seems to have derived scant profit
from cod fishing since the 1870s.
Rich herring fisheries around the neighboring peninsula of
Stad also failed during the 1870s, while summer fishing in
the inner fjords was always uncertain. Family fishing in waters
near home, however, was of considerable importance to the
daily diet, especially in Hjørundfjord. In the late
1890s fishing developed along more professional lines, and
figures show that Vartdal pursued it much more intensively
than did the other two communities.
Neither Hjørundfjord nor Vartdal had many additional
sources of employment except such as were connected with the
sea. The case was otherwise with Ørsta. A wide variety
of commercial activities occupied many people there, while
others secured jobs connected with the harbor, lighthouses,
and coastal surveying. Toward the end of the century a budding
industrial life began to show promise of viability.
Technology, working methods, and modes of life altered with
accelerating speed throughout the nineteenth century. Highway
connections between the communities, completed by the end
of the century, led to greater exchange of both goods and
ideas. The steep slopes along the Hjørundfjord, however,
delayed road building, so the neighborhoods there remained
more isolated than in the other communities. Steamer communication
began to develop in the late 1850s and Volda-Ørsta
soon got fairly serviceable routes, but Hjørundfjord
lagged behind and had poor steamer service until the late
1880s. In this respect Vartdal occupied an intermediate position.
Volda got regular postal service as early as 1804, and as
the post office, Ekset, was located about halfway between
the villages of Volda and Ørsta, both were able to
take advantage of it. Before the passing of the old century
telephone lines connected these communities with the outside
world, and again Ørsta was first.
New types of agricultural machinery made their appearance
during the 1830s. Volda and Ørsta took the lead with
iron plows and harrows, which also soon found their way to
Hjørundfjord. Vartdal and the coastal areas apparently
lagged behind, possibly because of their greater interest
in fishing. The threshing machine in the 1840s and the winnowing
machine a bit later presumably eased the farmer's labors more
than better plows and harrows had done. But not until dynamite,
in our century, blasted rocks from the fields and the spring-tooth
harrow thoroughly loosened the soil was the field work so
lightened that the labor force could be reduced.
The change from the old strip field system to consolidation
of strips into single farms, which took place after a new
law was passed in 1857, also greatly altered traditional methods
of cultivation and made the introduction of new machinery
easier. To move buildings so that the distance to the fields
would be shorter was frequently impossible because of river
valleys and the threat of avalanches. This was especially
true in Hjørundfjord, and the agrarian census of 1907
reveals that the adoption of modern machinery was least advanced
in that community.
It would appear that a fundamental change of life-style (hamskifte)
first came to these communities during the 1890s. At that
time creameries were established and with them came the change
from grain production to milk production. Then also came greatly
improved farm implements, which resulted in the breaking of
It has already been noted that a change was taking place
in the fishing industry: better boats, with decks, appeared,
larger boats were equipped with steam engines, and after the
turn of the century the use of gasoline motors in smaller
boats made it possible to release a good deal of manpower.
During this period of transition it appears that the fjord
communities fell behind the coastal communities in the catching
of fish and as a consequence laid more stress on agriculture.
The communities of Volda and Ørsta were strong enough
economically to set up their own bank in 1854 while another
twenty-five years passed before Hjørundfjord could
follow their example. And Vartdal remained dependent on neighboring
communities for bank services into the present century.
The early 1880s and 1890s seem to have been economically
a rather depressed period in the three communities studied.
Compared with the other two, however, Hjørundfjord
with its large number of emigrants does not appear to have
been especially hard hit, and sources do not record any financial
crisis within the municipality. Neither does the number of
publicly supported indigents indicate that there was any serious
economic crisis in any of these communities during the half-century
after 1865. Wages for hired men were much higher than those
for servant girls, but that was an old phenomenon. Men's wages
also varied much more than did girls' wages - probably because
young men were more on the lookout for better jobs. Wages
for hired men declined around 1880 and in the early 1890s.
Day laborers received but meager increases until the second
decade of the present century, and throughout the period cotters
as a class were the poorest paid.
The number of foreclosures was high in Sunnmøre during
the 1880s and the execution of writs against indebted property
reached a climax at that time.
Developments were taking place along cultural lines which
prepared the way for economic advances. In 1810 a local newspaper
made its appearance at Ekset - the first rural newspaper in
Norway - and it had much to say to the people. New ideas also
reached these communities through such channels as libraries,
established during the 1820s and 1830s; mission societies
from the 1840s; schools beyond the elementary level from the
1860s; and political organizations from the 1870s. All these
movements reached full fruition after 1880. Hjørundfjord,
however, was rather slow in securing upper-level schools.
EMIGRATION AND LIVING CONDITIONS: CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP
Emigration from the area studied began, as from most other
districts, with the departure of a few pioneers. Their success
or failure in the new land became known at home and had some
influence on the desire of others to leave. For example, sickness
and death struck the first family which emigrated from Hjørundfjord
in 1852, and twenty years elapsed before other emigrants from
that community decided to tempt fate in the New World.
One may ask whether emigration from these communities began
so late because of lack of information. What information there
was probably came first from the newspaper at Ekset, which
took a skeptical attitude toward the movement. Surely emigration
must have been a matter of discussion among fishermen who
chanced to meet along the coast and among people who were
engaged in trade. Information through "America letters" could
not have been of much importance before 1880, as relatively
few people had migrated from these districts before that date.
One must not forget, however, that such letters often had
a wide circulation and would thus reach a far greater number
of readers than merely the family addressed.
Like other parts of Norway, these communities experienced
good years and bad; but the age-old combination of fishing
and agriculture may have tended to lessen the effects of these
fluctuations. Emigration as a solution for such problems was
unknown until the 1850s, and then it was only a momentary
phenomenon. Even after the end of the American Civil War emigration
did not catch on here as it did in many other areas, but the
rather good years in America during the early 1870s seem to
have awakened latent interest. Possibly this can be ascribed
to delayed action, as in the 1850s: there was a time lag before
the idea ripened into action. Harder times at home in the
late 1870s undoubtedly strengthened the urge to emigrate,
but because of certain factors in the United States it did
not find release until the 1880s.
Conditions in America, then, seem to have had a good deal
of influence on the thinking of prospective emigrants. Even
though information about the New World was not especially
plentiful it apparently was sufficient to help people make
up their minds.
An appreciable population increase before 1850 did not produce
the same pressure upon resources in the area studied as in
many other communities. Subsequently conditions changed, but
until about 1880 the excess population found nearby places
to which to move: the city of Alesund, which grew rapidly
after 1850, and the island districts around about. Generally
speaking, conditions in the area were favorable compared with
the situation in districts where emigration began earlier.
Agricultural production in 1875, for instance, was greater
per capita in Hjørundfjord, Vartdal, and Ørsta
than in Sunnfjord farther south or the community of Vik in
the Sogn district. To be sure, farms were larger in those
southern areas but they also had to support more people: an
average of fourteen in Vik in 1835 as against seven in the
three communities in question. It thus appears that soil resources
were more equally distributed in Hjørundfjord, Vartdal,
and Ørsta, and that there were fewer cotters. This
fact tended to reduce social distinctions and to ease the
spirit of discord and the urge to emigrate.
The rather delayed emigration from Sunnmøre as a whole
probably derives from the above-mentioned combination of agriculture
and fishing. Seldom did both of these pursuits fail during
the same year. There is contemporary witness to the fact that
fishing was regarded as an alternative to emigration: "the
spring cod is our America," asserted one newspaper in this
area when the question was broached. The system whereby rich
men owned the fishing stations (væreiersystem) and also
bought and sold the fish - thus having the fishermen in their
power - was unknown in Sunnmøre. There the wealthy
people experimented instead with new types of boats and fishing
methods, thus making gains both for themselves and for the
During the mass-migration era, 1880-1915, a variety of domestic
factors influenced the movement. In part they are similar
to those discussed in connection with the previous period,
but it seems as if many people now reacted differently to
the old problems.
Among causes stretching over the years may be mentioned population
growth, which beginning with the 1850s and 60s had developed
into a disturbing pressure. The number of confirmands in Ørsta,
for instance, was almost twice as large in the late 1870s
as in the late 1850s; and practically the same situation existed
in Hjørundfjord and Vartdal. At that time confirmands
tended to seek employment immediately as adults, which of
course had a definite effect on the labor market. A growing
percentage of people moving out of the communities bears testimony
to the pressure.
Conditions in the agricultural areas do not seem to have
worsened, at least not to an acute degree. But with the abandonment
of the strip-field system and the later emphasis on dairying,
a far more capital-intensive system of production developed.
A correspondingly expensive alteration was also taking place
in the fishing industry. People were confronted with a serious
question as to what they would choose to do - farm or fish
or emigrate. A growing number chose to leave.
Increased education seems to have made the people more self-assured.
Among the lower classes, for instance among cotters and servants,
a stronger social assertiveness appears. There were relatively
few cotters in these communities, but even so the cotter system
lasted longer here than in many other parts of the country.
There seems to have been a relationship between this fact
and the late start of emigration. Class distinctions are known
to have been slight in the narrow valleys of western Norway
compared with conditions in the broader expanses of eastern
Norway and Trøndelag. The sheriff in Hjørundfjord
maintained in the 1870s that there was no difference in rank
between a cotter and a bonde (freeholder) or between servants
and their masters, though conditions were certainly not so
ideal as he implies.
Temporary variations in economic circumstances tended to
affect people's lives more acutely than long-existing conditions.
Among these short-term factors must be mentioned poor harvests
- either on land or at sea. Probably the latter produced the
greater reaction. Fishing has always had something in common
with prospecting for gold: the dream of the big haul. If catches
were small year after year the lure of America might become
General economic conditions also changed rapidly. After the
good times of the seventies came recession around 1880, and
a combination of low prices and poor fishing would naturally
prepare people's minds for a mass exodus. The great wave of
migration from these communities which culminated in the early
1890s was undoubtedly affected also by hard times in the country
generally. In later years, however, it is difficult to establish
any correlation between Norwegian economic conditions and
local emigration. Furthermore, Norwegian industrial life was
quite varied, so good times or hard would rarely strike all
parts of the country simultaneously. Ørsta continued
to offer the best opportunities for supplementary employment,
both inside and outside the community. There is evidence that
these jobs served as an alternative to emigration. Thus, one
returned emigrant said that he could earn just as much money
by harbor or lighthouse work in Norway as he made in America.
Purely personal reasons frequently supplied the motives for
emigrating but it is not always possible to track them down.
The son of a freeholding farmer from Hjørundfjord left
because his fiancée was not acceptable to his parents.
The father of a family from the same community left because
his home was threatened by an avalanche. A man from Vartdal
got involved in an acute financial crisis and saw America
as his best way of escape - and other instances could be cited.
Among external factors which influenced potential emigrants
during the era of mass migration first place must be given
to the ever-increasing spread of information about the outside
world. One of the main sources was the America letters which
were beginning to flow in a steady stream. Around 1880 these
were optimistic in spirit, probably not least so those included
in the newspapers. With only one exception, however, the writers
of some hundred letters examined by the author do not directly
urge people to come to America, nor did an informative diary
sent home in 1888 by a man from Ørsta.
More direct information reached the communities through emigrants
returning home for a visit. A man of Hjørundfjord who
remembered the first ones to return put it as follows: "One
of the reasons for the great migration was that when any of
those who had been over there a while returned for a brief
visit they were so elegantly outfitted with topcoats and fine
suits, golden watch chains, and other grand things." It was
natural that these individuals should then serve as guides
for their old neighbors who wished to emigrate. During the
1880s and 1890s whole groups followed such Norwegian Americans
when they left again.
The many relatives who through the years had settled in America
naturally had a strong influence on emigration. The thought
of leaving did not seem so formidable to people back home
when they had hopes of meeting family members over there.
It was almost equally encouraging to know that they could
go to former neighbors or acquaintances. The steady decline
in the age of emigrants can likely be explained in part by
There is reason to believe that tickets or cash sent home
by relatives or friends had a still greater effect; however,
less help of this kind came to the area studied here than
to most other communities. Scarcely one-fourth of the emigrants
from Hjørundfjord, Vartdal, and Ørsta had received
tickets from America while almost fifty percent of the emigrants
from Tinn in Telemark left with such tickets in their pockets.
This fact may indicate that economic conditions were less
stringent in the communities being studied.
Spot checks of bank withdrawals by people on the point of
emigrating in the 1880s reveal that many of them had a good
deal of money - even men in their twenties managed to finance
their way across. The women were in a worse situation. Instances
can be found where parents and even grandparents withdrew
funds simultaneously with a young woman, presumably to help
her on her way. On rare occasions committees in charge of
poor relief would grant assistance to prospective emigrants.
Economic conditions in America seem to have played a decisive
role in determining the rate of emigration - rather more so
than conditions in Norway. Norwegian newspapers reported regularly
on how times were in America and letter writers naturally
did the same, even though it might be unpleasant to tell the
folks back home of economic difficulties. Be that as it may,
the number of emigrants declined markedly when poor tidings
arrived from beyond the ocean. This became very clear, for
instance, during the depression of the mid-1890s and the bank
panic of 1907.
After 1910 progress in Norway apparently reduced somewhat
the economic lead held by America. Emigration seemed less
attractive and the number of departures declined year after
year. An emigrant from Ørsta who was home for a visit
in 1913 expressed himself as follows: "Those who have the
ability to create a future for themselves in America should
be able to do the same in this country."
The rate of emigration differed considerably between Hjørundfjord,
Vartdal, and Ørsta. It appears that this was caused
primarily by the relationship between population growth and
the economic resources of the three communities. Vartdal managed
best, thanks to the combination of agriculture and fishing.
Toward the end of the migration period fishing developed into
a year-round industry with a wide variety of jobs. The prospering
agriculture and varied industrial life of Ørsta were
unable to expand sufficiently to make room for the great increase
in population. Consequently a larger percentage of people
from Ørsta than from Vartdal resorted to emigration.
The largely agricultural community of Hjørundfjord
had developed its resources as much as possible given the
technology of the time, and as there were few industries to
supplement agriculture the idea of emigrating caught on more
strongly there than in the other two communities.
The subject of remigration has been treated rather summarily
by Norwegian scholars. In Sweden, on the other hand, there
are detailed studies of the phenomenon, such as Lars Göran
Tedebrand's for Västernorrland. The Norwegian source
material seems to be less adaptable for such studies than
the superior Swedish, and this holds for both quantity and
quality. For example, the census returns for 1910 have a section
devoted to returned Norwegian Americans, but by no means all
who had come back home mentioned their stay in America to
the census-takers. This study has therefore depended largely
on personal contacts in addition to archival material.
The percentage of returning immigrants seems to have been
highest in communities characterized by little emigration.
Thus there seems to be a close relationship among economic
conditions, emigration, and remigration. Of the 926 people
who left the three communities, 113 had returned by 1915;
by 1975 the number had reached 152. Working with the last
figure one finds that Hjørundfjord had a remigration
rate of 12.5 percent, while Vartdal and Ørsta could
show percentages almost twice as large: 21 and 22 respectively.
The percentage increases the closer we come to the present
day. The three decades from 1880 until 1910 reveal the following
percentages, respectively: 11 percent, 18 percent, and 21
percent. In another community of Sunnmøre, Sykkylyen,
Martin Gjævenes could show much higher figures for the
same decades: 18 percent, 20 percent, and 28 percent.
As was the case with emigration, men showed a greater proneness
to return, both proportionately and in actual numbers. This
holds true also for neighboring communities, for Norway as
a whole, and for Sweden. As a rule the stay in America was
brief for those who resettled in the old country - usually
less than five years - though an almost equal number remained
there from five to nine years. This agrees quite well with
figures for Norway generally.
The reasons for returning to Norway were varied. "Came home
sick from America," a pastor noted in the death announcement
of a young man from Hjørundfjord. Often tuberculosis
was the cause, but other ailments, mental as well as physical,
were not unknown. Some emigrants returned during periods of
hard times in the United States and some returned because
of homesickness. Three sisters left Norway together. Two of
them were so gripped by yearning for the old home that they
soon returned. The third sister was equally full of longing
but she had been so sick at sea that she did not want to cross
the Atlantic again.
Most of the people concerned, however, had more concrete
reasons for returning home. Many of them came back to take
charge of farms; while only eleven of the returning immigrants
studied were listed as farmers before leaving for America,
the number rose to fifty-five on their return. Surprisingly,
fifteen settled down as cotters or, toward the end of the
period, as petty farmers, though only one of them could be
so classified before emigrating. Attachment to the soil apparently
was very strong, not least in Hjørundfjord. Some men
had wives and children waiting for them in Norway, while still
others had sweethearts whom they could not forget. In Ørsta
they tell of a girl who waited ten years for her Norwegian
American - and he came back! Some of the men returned with
the hope of setting up business of their own with the "nest
egg" they had been able to set aside in the States. Such,
for instance, was the origin of the lumber company Ørsta
Certain social classes disappeared entirely or were greatly
reduced in number as a result of the stay in America. Thus,
in the group studied, thirty-five left as servants but none
of them were so classified after their return. The number
of laborers declined from twenty-nine to nine. These figures
may not be entirely reliable because 15 percent of the emigrants
had not listed any vocation when they left Norway. Not surprisingly,
the smallest percentage of returnees was found among those
groups who had been hardest pressed by poverty before leaving
for America. They evidently remembered what they had left
behind and feared that the same conditions awaited them if
they should return. By and large, the people who returned
settled in their home communities. This was true even where
the prospects for employment were not particularly promising,
and this seems to have been a country-wide tendency.
The effects of remigration are not easily assessed. Some
of the emigrants seem to have gone abroad with the set purpose
of gathering capital and expertise which could advantageously
be invested on their return to Norway. The great majority,
however, simply merged quietly back into the industrial and
social life of the home community.
By way of introduction three main questions were raised which
this study would attempt to answer. How successfully this
has been done must be left for the reader to decide. Another
question to be considered is whether on the basis of the answers
proposed in this article more general conclusions can be drawn
which go beyond the borders of Hjørundfjord, Vartdal,
As was noted early in this paper, the emigration from this
area - and from Sunnmøre in general - has frequently
been characterized as of late origin. The structure of the
emigrant groups from these districts, however, resembled quite
closely the structure of contemporary groups from other parts
of the country: they consisted to a high degree of young people.
From Hjørundfjord, Vartdal, and Ørsta, the family
migrations which were so characteristic of the earlier years
are by and large missing.
What could induce a married couple with children - often
babes in arms - to set out on a long, dangerous journey to
a relatively unknown destination? The answer must be that
the homeland seemed to offer little but poverty and destitution
for either themselves or their descendants. These same dark
prospects may, to some degree, have influenced the young people
who rallied so strongly behind the mass emigration of the
1880s and later. But here one must also reckon with other
forces: opposition to the old order of things, self-assertiveness,
greater expectations for the future. Harder times in Norway
in the late 1870s have been emphasized in most emigration
literature as a main source of the subsequent outpouring of
people. It was not mainly families who left the country, but
young people. They had experienced the good times of the early
1870s and were struck by the change. Their elders, the heads
of families, beheld all this in a longer perspective. They
were used to the ups and downs of life and to them the 1880s
may not have seemed so catastrophic. This attitude may explain
why relatively few families emigrated at the time despite
the fact that steamships and other improvements had by then
greatly eased the crossing.
The many spot surveys which have been made in recent years
strengthen the view that home conditions had increasingly
less influence on emigration than did conditions in America.
It is noticeable that the urge to emigrate struck community
after community simultaneously even though economic conditions
might vary markedly. This situation holds true also when one
compares specific communities with Norway, or even Scandinavia,
as a whole. It is very tempting, therefore, to draw the conclusion
that the main cause was to be found in America: "the pull"
was more potent than "the push." This theory also helps explain
the great migration of the young. No other age group was as
mobile as the young people, especially the men, and they were
the ones who most eagerly grasped the chance to emigrate.
In many respects these facts cast light on both the first
and the second questions posited in the introduction. Emigration
from Hjørundfjord, Vartdal, and Ørsta got such
a late start because there was no direct need which acted
as a push. Like other districts, these communities, and the
areas round about, had their dark years - both on land and
at sea - and their times of crisis. They were not so serious,
however, that they drove people to emigrate. It seems as if
the century-old combination of agriculture and fishing gave
more security than most other sections of the country could
offer their people. The dependability of the annual cod catch
enabled the island districts to support a much larger population
than otherwise would have been the case. As long as these
opportunities were available, the fjord people chose to find
employment in the islands rather than emigrate to America.
But after 1880 even the island people of Sunnmøre began
to emigrate. Love of the home community could no longer restrain
some people of the island community of Ulstein from also joining
the exodus, as the sheriff at the time reported. Economic
conditions were no longer what they once had been.
Other supplementary occupations may have had some of the
same effects on the labor market as fishing. The great difference
in the rates of emigration from Hjørundfjord, Vartdal,
and Ørsta has very little connection with varying agricultural
productivity. In proportion to population it was about equal
in the three communities. The main reason that the migration
was so much more from Hjørundfjord than from Vartdal
and Ørsta was that agricultural productivity had reached
its limit in Hjørundfjord while supplemental industries
failed to develop there to the same degree as in the other
two communities. One may therefore with some justice conclude
that emigration from Møre og Romsdal, in comparison
with the rest of the country, was deferred by the same factors
which lessened emigration from Vartdal and Ørsta in
comparison with Hjørundfjord.