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Emigration 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.

Orsta Community Map

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 combined municipality.


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:

  Official Own Official   Own Official   Own
1866-1870 0 0 1   0 6   2
1871-1875 6 7 4   0 9   4
1876-1880 5 5 6   0 13   4
1881-1885 81 86 50   10 58   43
1886-1890 112 104 92   26 138* 1 86
1891-1895 92 92 41   7 94 9 39
1896-1900 47 54 17* 4 2 44 15 24
1901-1905 58 59 30 0 2 128 35 34
1906-1910 85 89 85 4 14 127 71 67
1911-1915 37 29 52 3 6 46 19 24
Total 523 524 378 11 67 663 150 327

*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 phenomenon.

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 area.

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.


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 new ground.

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 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 ordinary fishermen.

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 irresistible.

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 such factors.

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 Bruk.

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, and Ørsta.

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.


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