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Land, Sea, and Ice: Explorers and Discoverers in the
Norwegian-American Press
    by Arlow W. Andersen (Volume 33: Page 243)

The year 1893 brought to Chicago a replica of the Viking Gokstad ship. There it remains on display in Lincoln Park, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Unlike the Viking ships of old, it made no stops at Iceland or Greenland. Captain Magnus Andersen sailed the little vessel from Bergen to St. John’s, Newfoundland, in twenty-seven days. Ironically, it was intended as Norway’s contribution to the Columbian Exposition, or World’s Fair, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the historic voyage of the Genoese navigator from Palos in Spain to the distant islands of the Caribbean Sea. With the North Atlantic voyages of Leif Ericson and other Norsemen in mind, Norwegian-American journalists, with few exceptions, found it a bit awkward to bestow honors upon Christopher Columbus, “the admiral of the ocean sea.” {1}

Icelandic sagas tell the story of Norse voyages. Historians of today take them seriously, not for accuracy of detail but for the larger picture of medieval exploration in northern waters. The sagas, says Captain Alan Villiers of the National Geographic Society, are not imaginary. Newspapermen born in Norway had known from their school days about Bjarni Herjulfson, who sailed in the year 986 from Iceland to Greenland and beyond. Leif Ericson, around the year 1000, sailed westward from Greenland and scanned the horizon for a sight of the coastline which Bjarni had reported seeing. He landed at a place which he named Vinland and then returned to Iceland.

While Leif’s sensational landfall on the coast of North America commanded the attention and admiration of his countrymen centuries later, the voyage of Thorfinn Karlsefni several years after Leif's expedition was less publicized in Norwegian-American journals. With a party of some 160 men Thorfinn spent several years in the Vinland so elusive to scholars. Apparently the hostility of the natives, whom he scornfully called skrælinger (wretches), figured in his decision to return to Iceland.

Immigrant interest in Leif Ericson was generated in response to the annual celebration of October 12th as Columbus Day, especially in New York and Chicago. Norwegian-American newspapers reminded readers and the general public of their own salt-spray heroes. Leif Ericson monuments sprang up here and there. In 1901 the Norwegian community of Chicago’s Northwest Side erected a statue in Humboldt Park. Since the sloop Restauration had landed with its passengers in New York on October 9, 1825, that October date was chosen for several ceremonies. Nicolay Grevstad explained in Skandinaven of Chicago that the Columbian Exposition of 1892-1893 had inspired the idea of the monument. In fact, a committee was formed for the purpose at that time. {2}

Many questions were raised then and later in the press. Did Columbus know about the voyages of the Norsemen? Where did Leif Ericson land in North America? Rasmus B. Anderson of Amerika, in Madison, Wisconsin, arguing with Gustav Storm of the University of Christiania, claimed that Columbus knew about the voyages of the Northmen. Anderson ruled out Nova Scotia as a place of settlement. No grapes ever grew there, he said. He found in P. P. Iverslie a fellow critic of Storm’s theories and published Iverslie’s arguments extensively. In so doing Anderson advertised his own book, America Not Discovered by Columbus, first published in 1874. {3}

Prior to the Storm-Iverslie controversy, Skandinaven too had sounded off, but mainly on the failure to understand the broader implications of Norse contact with the European and North American continents. In English, editor Grevstad complained that the Chicago public schools were not offering enough history. Now that the United States had become a world power, more attention should be accorded the Orient, Russia, and even Scandinavia. American and English history were no longer enough. More familiar with the facts than most of his countrymen, Grevstad declared, “Scandinavia is the cradle of what is known as Anglo-Saxon liberty and institutions. The folk-moot, certain essential features of the jury system , and root principles of the common law had their origin among the hardy Norsemen. Norse expansion and enterprise during the Viking age exerted a decisive influence upon the history of Europe.” {4}

An appeal for recognition of Leif succeeded. Not so in the case of Ganger Rolf (Rollo the Walker), who was known to have led his conquering Vikings into France in the year 911. Looking forward to the millenial anniversary in 1911, Rasmus B. Anderson proposed a financial drive for the erection of a monument. The response fell considerably short of enthusiastic. Most editors and publishers were indifferent to the suggestion. Waldemar Ager of Reform, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and A. A. Trovaten of Fram, in Fargo, North Dakota, probably spoke for the majority when they pointed out that Ganger Rolf was a pagan chieftain who turned Christian only when appeased with a large fief, the Duchy of Normandy. Instead of honoring this chameleon, would it not be better to raise funds for the restoration of Trondheim cathedral in preparation for the year 1914, when Norway would celebrate a hundred years of government under the Eidsvoll Constitution? With the passage of time, when the festivities of 1911 in Rouen, France, commemorated Ganger Rolf’s achievement, Grevstad came to his defense. Two well-known persons in Norwegian-American circles represented Skandinaven in France on that occasion, Olaf O. Ray, a Chicago lawyer, and Hjalmar Rued Holand, spokesman for the authenticity of the Kensington rune stone, of which more will be said later. {5}

Not all Scandinavian Americans were in agreement on the significance of Ericson’s exploit. Some even exalted that of Columbus, among them two Danish editors of Norwegian newspapers, C. L. Bahnsen of Statstidende, in Hillsboro, North Dakota, and J. M. Sjødahl of the Mormon Bikuben (The Beehive), in Salt Lake City, Utah. Bahnsen chose the year 1906 to stress the worldwide significance of Columbus’s voyage. The great navigator had died exactly four hundred years earlier. His name, said Bahnsen, “is written in the stars.” These were fighting words, coming out of a Norwegian community. Years later Sjødahl set forth a Mormon interpretation. Columbus, he believed, came with divine inspiration. He fulfilled the prophecy of Nephi, which had been written two thousand years before the epochal voyage. “The spirit of God inspired Columbus.” A second editorial softened the blow against the Norse hero a bit. Ericson was too early. His achievement went unnoticed. Europe was then in a state of confusion. God’s time had not yet come. Bibuken, read more by Danish converts in the Mormon Zion than by Norwegians, seldom mentioned Leif Ericson. {6}

More disturbing to Leif Ericson’s numerous admirers was a bombshell from Fridtjof Nansen, Norway’s distinguished Arctic explorer. In a speech delivered in Christiania in 1910 he suggested that the Vinland story, as reflected in the sagas, was legendary and not necessarily true. He did not deny outright that Vikings penetrated the North American coastline five hundred years before Columbus sighted the Caribbean islands. Nevertheless, his doubts raised two questions. Had Leif Ericson ever lived, and did he lead the party that came upon the shores of Labrador, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, or New England? Debate on the first question was practically ended. Few have doubted, then or since, the existence of the man. But uncertainty remains as to the point of debarkation on American soil. Archeological research may some day solve the mystery. {7}

For the most part immigrant journalists strove to emulate Nansen’s scientific objectivity. Peer Strømme, editing Normanden of Grand Forks, North Dakota, stood aloof. He invited the reaction of such confirmed Ericson devotees as Rasmus B. Anderson and P. P. Iverslie. Iverslie, a literary figure who often broke a lance with opponents in Chicago’s Norden and other media, obliged with an article in Kvartalskrjft, a literary quarterly. Nansen, he said, was “on slippery ice” in casting doubt upon the validity of the sagas. Johannes B. Wist of Decorah-Posten took no stand in this show of academic forensics. He merely called attention to what was being said by others. He and Kristian Prestgard, joint editors of the periodical Symra, published an article on Nansen’s attack on the Vinland sagas in which the author, Professor Julius Olson of the University of Wisconsin, sought to calm his readers. Nansen’s point of view was not original, he wrote. It was still possible to believe that Norsemen arrived in America at the time indicated. {8}

Nansen or no Nansen, Leif Ericson survived. In the decades following Nansen’s address the Norwegian-American press kept alive the image of the Scandinavian discoverer. The Knights of Columbus must not succeed in getting Columbus Day officially observed nationwide. Norwegians must heed the warning from Illinois, where the day was introduced. Leif Ericson parades must be supported. People were urged to read William Hovgaard’s new book, Voyages of the Norsemen to America. Peer Strømme prompted readers of Normanden in the heavily Norwegian state of North Dakota to be on the lookout for Knut Gjerset’s History of the Norwegian People. {9}

In the 1890s, when the Vinland voyages had been the subject of discussion and conjecture for a score of years, it was inevitable that the finding of a stone in Minnesota with runic carvings would arouse unusual interest. The years was 1898, the place the farm of a Swedish immigrant, Olof Ohman, near the town of Kensington, in Douglas county, about twenty-three miles south of Alexandria, the county seat. The stone was about thirty inches high, sixteen inches wide, and five or six inches thick. Between 1898 and 1915, and to a lesser degree even to the present day, defenders and skeptics have debated the authenticity of the Kensington rune stone. But the debate has been carried on by amateurs and scholars mainly unrelated to the field of newspaper publishing. With the exception of Rasmus B. Anderson, Norwegian-American editors generally withheld judgment. Up to a point, however, they were willing to accept opinions, pro and con, from readers and contributors.

The gist of the claim is that Norsemen (Swedes and Norwegians) came from Vinland by way of Hudson Bay into Minnesota in the year 1362. Indians attacked the party, which promptly made its way back to comrades on the shore of Hudson Bay. The inscription on the stone has been variously translated. Professor George O. Curme, a German philologist on the staff of Northwestern University, provided one such translation: “Eight Goths and twenty-two Norwegians on an expedition of discovery from the Vinland of the West. We had a camp with two boats a day’s journey from this stone. We went out fishing one day. After we came home we found a man red with blood and dead. Good-by, rescue from evil. We have men at the ocean to look after our ships fourteen days’ journey from this island. Year 1362.”

Carl G. O. Hansen of Minneapolis Tidende took no position. He was aware that Curme viewed the stone as a genuine historical document, but he called the attention of readers to Professor O. J. Breda’s belief that the strange object was a hoax. In the Minnesota professor’s judgment the language was only partly runic. Grevstad of Skandinaven shared the cautious approach with Hansen. Later reports, all negative, from runologists in Scandinavia were accepted as more reliable in the immigrant press. Specialists like Gustav Storm, Sophus Bugge, and Oluf Rygh of the University of Christiania could not be taken lightly. {10}

A new and outspoken figure contributed to what Professor Theodore Blegen has called cycles of controversy regarding the enigmatic Kensington artifact. Young Hjalmar Rued Holand, fresh from the University of Wisconsin with a master’s degree in history, probably knew of the stone as early as 1899. But he did not visit Kensington until 1907 to see the mysterious object with his own eyes. More than any other person he revived the debate. Holand had no doubts about the stone’s authenticity and proceeded to keep the matter before the Norwegian community and the general public until his death in 1963. In 1908 he included eight pages on the stone in his De norske settlementers historie, to be followed by The Kensington Stone: A Study in Pre-Columbian American History (Ephraim, Wisconsin, 1932) and, after numerous lectures, articles, and books, his last publication, A Pre-Columbian Crusade in America (New York, 1962).

Most immigrant newsmen found Holand hard to swallow. Trovaten of Fargo’s Fram denounced him as arrogant. By claiming genuiness for the stone, Holand ignored expert opinion in Scandinavia on linguistic and historical questions. R. B. Anderson was exasperated by Holand’s speech in Madison before the state historical society. He judged Holand severely: “The Kensington stone belongs in the same scrap pile with Dr. Cook’s North Pole story and the Cardiff Giant.” Yet Anderson opened his columns to both sides with articles by Juul Dieserud, who discredited Holand, by P. P. Iverslie in rebuttal to Dieserud, and by Professor George T. Flom of the University of Illinois. As one who had served on the staff of the Library of Congress for thirty years, as cataloger and expert in foreign languages, Dieserud was well qualified to speak. Flom, proficient in Scandinavian languages, was no less distinguished. Not only was he the first editor of Scandinavian Studies, a scholarly quarterly publication, but his interests included the fields of paleography and runology. For him, Holand’s arguments remained unconvincing.

Iverslie, in Kvartalskrift, advised patience in the search for truth. After all, he argued, the runic inscription had not been proved a hoax. Greystad of Chicago’s Skandinaven leaned toward the hoax theory. “There are too many questionable features and facets,” he wrote. Wist of Decorah-Posten begged for a truce and recommended that the confusion be allowed to subside before examining the question further. And Waldemar Ager of Reform seems to have breathed a sigh of relief when he learned that Holand, in 1912, had purchased a farm in Ephraim, Wisconsin. Editors were mistaken, however, if they assumed that the adamant defender would be satisfied with looking peacefully over Green Bay in that far northeastern corner of the Badger State. {11}

The intellectual tug of war over the controversial stone lost much of its intensity during the World War of 1914-1918. Following the war Wist reopened his columns to Holand, who professed to have uncovered new evidence. His forbearance strained, Wist satirized Holand in his popular column titled “Mellemmad” (between meals, or a snack). He voiced his reservations about reports of other artifacts in the Kensington area. Hansen in Minneapolis Tidende responded with the same suspicion when he heard of a medieval Norwegian axe being found on a farm near Crookston, Minnesota. {12}

Kristian Prestgard, who followed Wist in guiding Decorah-Posten, proved to be equally deaf to Holand’s pleading arguments. He was willing to see the question pursued further, perhaps by Holand and the Norwegian-American Historical Association, an organization about to get under way in 1925. He suggested that the Kensington pastime was about as worthwhile as the current “craze” for solving crossword puzzles. Even so, he hedged on Holand’s qualifications for this pursuit. The Wisconsin investigator, no matter how well informed after seventeen years of searching and speculating, had become “a party to the affair.” Holand and others would engage in a fruitless quest for the truth for many years to come. {13}

Professors Erik Wahlgren and Theodore Blegen and other competent scholars of a later day come to no final verdict. They cannot provide proof of either falsity or genuineness, but they leave some useful observations. The finger of guilt points mainly to three Scandinavian immigrant characters: Olof Ohman and Sven Fogelblad, both Swedes, and their Norwegian neighbor Nils Flaten. Unfortunately, it is too late for these men to speak for themselves. They were tantalizingly reticent when interviewed. Wahlgren describes Ohman as “a rather taciturn man,” who “took no pains to counteract the report that he was the impostor.” Blegen agrees, portraying Ohman as deceptively dull. He is said to have had some knowledge of Swedish history. Fogelblad, as an itinerant schoolmaster, knew something of the world of letters. As a theological candidate from Uppsala University, he served for a time as a Lutheran minister in his homeland. His classical education raised some suspicion. Flaten, as much a local product as the other two men, cannot be ruled out as a suspect. Or the stone carver may have been none of these three. Possibly he was “a relatively untutored immigrant,” seeking “cultural revenge.” That is to say, as a less educated person he might have delighted in baffling his superiors in the academic and scientific worlds. So the conjecture continues. Were these Goths (Swedes) and Norwegians descended from an earlier colony in Greenland, long since disappeared? Were they forced into exile during the struggle of rival chieftains for power in medieval Norway? Underneath it all remains the fact that if Scandinavians penetrated the Upper Midwest in the fourteenth century they withdrew and contributed little of consequence to the development of America. Still, it would be gratifying to know whether such an interesting and bold human venture was ever completed. Will Greenland’s mile-high ice sheet some day divulge the secret? Will the shimmering waters of Hudson Bay ever mirror the truth of this puzzling story? {14}

Norwegians stood on firmer ground, or ice, when discussing polar exploration. Two of their countrymen, Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, became principals in heroic efforts to unlock the secrets of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Nansen (1861-1930) came within 260 miles of the undiscovered North Pole in 1895. Amundsen (1872-1928) planted the flag of Norway at the South Pole on December 14, 1911.

Nansen’s life falls into two main periods, each with its own emphasis. In his youth he gave himself to scientific studies, including exploration. After 1905 he was primarily a statesman, serving the government of Norway, by then separated from Sweden, as minister to Great Britain and later carrying out special assignments for the League of Nations. Press references to Nansen were rather scarce prior to the 1890s. In 1888 he had taken passage on a sealing vessel bound for the eastern coast of Greenland. For a time he had been contemplating a personal inspection of the vast island that Eric the Red, father of Leif Ericson, discovered in the year 984. He planned to ski from east to west across the icy plateau never traversed by men. In the company of several companions he set out on the hazardous crossing on August 15. Eskimos at Godthaab, on the western shore, greeted the men on October 3. But the Norwegian-American press gave the event little publicity, perhaps because of the lack of communication. There was no fanfare.

Nansen’s ski trek toward the North Pole in 1895 was better recorded in the newspapers. Nordisk Tidende reported his plans three years in advance. The ambitious Norwegian and his party left Norway in the sailing vessel Fram (Forward) on June 24, 1893. As anticipated, the ship became solidly frozen in the ice, at north latitude 85 degrees and 57 minutes. Nansen and his friend Hjalmar Johansen left the ship and its crew and trudged toward the pole with their skis, sledges, and dogs. This technique for travel in the frozen wastes would not be lost upon young Roald Amundsen, who would one day stand at the South Pole. Nothing was heard from Nansen or the Fram for many months. Journalists speculated that he might have reached the coveted latitude of ninety degrees, the North Pole, but could not communicate the fact. Nansen had not declared his ultimate destination to be the North Pole. Adventure and curiosity drew him on. One newspaper reported good news for Norwegians, “to the glory and honor of old Ultima Thule.” Finally Nansen reported having reached the northern latitude of 86 degrees and 14 minutes, farther north than any other explorer to date. Editors seem to have registered by their silence doubts as to the original rumors of discovery. However, doubts did not prevent their joining in the general rejoicing over the return of Nansen and Johansen by way of Franz Josef Land and St. Petersburg. The Fram, captained by the intrepid Otto Sverdrup, returned to Norway separately, in 1902. {15}

In 1897, the year in which Nansen published In Farthest North, he was feted in public meetings in New York and Chicago. Several journals made note of his desire to head for the South Pole in the near future, a plan which he soon abandoned. At the Chicago banquet Grevstad of Skandinaven exalted his greatness as a man and as an explorer. During the year there was at least one sour note, orchestrated by the Chicago Daily News. The Chicago editor accommodated an anonymous rhymester who questioned whether Nansen had come as close to the North Pole as he had indicated. {16}

Controversy swirled about two later expeditions to the North Pole, both by Americans, Dr. Frederick A. Cook and Captain (later Admiral) Robert E. Peary. Cook let it be known that he planted the flag of the United States there in 1908. Many believed him. But Peary, credited with the discovery in 1909, found no flag on his arrival. Quickly the press switched to Peary. Otto Sverdrup, Nansen’s trusted companion, verified the Cook claim, thereby adding to the confusion. Danish authorities perceived scandal in Cook’s story, leading Nordisk Tidende and probably other journals to cast doubt upon Peary’s reported exploit as well. “Away with this North Pole humbug!” was their attitude. Matthew Henson, a black man whose own story led to questions about Peary’s claim to discovery, and at least two Eskimos accompanied Peary on the alleged final dash to the North Pole. {17}

William Jennings Bryan took this naval officer to task on another matter. Peary had been speaking before a New York banquet audience in 1915. Perhaps gripped by the threatening disruptions of the war then raging in Europe, an anti-British Peary orated on the necessity for further American expansion. “We cannot stand still,” he declared. “In a hundred years we will either have ceased to exist as a nation, or we will have taken possession of all of North America.” Editor John Benson of Skandinaven saw things Peary’s way. Bryan would always talk peace, he said, even if the enemy burned the roof over his head. Norwegian Americans accepted as genuine Peary’s account of polar discovery, but the debate over his claim refused to die. In January of 1990, however, the National Geographic Society, after commissioning the Navigation Foundation to make a comprehensive study of the Peary expedition, concluded that new evidence confirms that this expedition actually reached the near vicinity of the North Pole. {18}

Roald Amundsen’s fascination with polar exploration and his conquests of the northwest and northeast passages stimulated more response in the Norwegian-American press than did the maritime accomplishments of his esteemed contemporary, Fridtjof Nansen. Following his first-hand experience in Antarctic exploration with the Belgian ship Belgica in 1897, Amundsen became identified at home and abroad with maritime exploits.

For four centuries English and Portuguese navigators had contemplated sailing from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific by following a route north of Canada and Alaska. None had succeeded. In 1903 Amundsen bought an old fishing sloop of fifty tons, the Gjøa, assembled a select crew of six men, and stored up food enough to last for five years. The party left Christiania on June 16. The press in America, judging from the paucity of comment, remained unimpressed. Without the convenience of the wireless telegraph, editors and reporters found themselves conjecturing as to the whereabouts and the activities of the Gjøa personnel. The truth seemed to be that Amundsen had discovered the magnetic North Pole, and the newspapers credited him with the feat. That was late in 1905. Responses were highly complimentary but not usually bursting with national pride. His was “a great accomplishment,” said one. His daring deed thrilled the world, said another. Skandinaven reported Amundsen’s calculation of the magnetic pole’s location, which had not shifted as some had conjectured. So the restless Norseman had moved westward with the pack ice and had dog-sledged to the north magnetic pole, leaving the Gjøa icelocked. When at long last the ice freed the ship he made his way through the Bering Strait. Today the Gjøa stands next to the Fram in Oslo’s Bygdøy Museum. {19}

Immigrant journalists followed Amundsen’s progress as he delivered a year-long series of lectures in America and Scandinavia. Grevstad welcomed him to Chicago. Emil Nielsen, smarting from Norway’s choice of a Danish prince as its king in 1905, felt compelled nevertheless to feature Amundsen’s warm reception in Christiania by “the Danish king.” Nielsen had hoped that Norway would choose to be a republic. He was pleased, however, that Amundsen was to speak in New York’s Carnegie Hall. Bikuben’s Andrew Jenson, himself of Danish descent, announced that Amundsen would lecture in Salt Lake City. He translated into Danish the welcoming address by the governor of Utah. And Pacific Skandinaven, which Wist called a political newspaper for the state of Oregon, sent out the word that the first man to navigate the Northwest Passage would speak in Portland. {20}

Interest in the polar regions took on new proportions in 1911 as Amundsen made preparations with the Fram to discover the South Pole, though when he left Norway it was ostensibly in the direction of the North Pole. In 1903, Ernest Shackleton, an Anglo-Irishman of demonstrated leadership ability and fortitude, had come within ninety-seven miles of the South Pole. He turned back when his supplies ran low. The English Captain Robert Falcon Scott was about to sail southward from New Zealand in late 1911 in his Terra Nova when, from the Madeira Islands, Amundsen cabled him “Am going south.” Since Amundsen’s men expected him to head northward, certain questions arise. Did he really have the North Pole in mind as he set sail from Norway? Did the reported successes, widely believed, of Cook and Peary in reaching the North Pole in 1908 and 1909 cause him to change his plans? Roland Huntford, correspondent in Scandinavia for the London Observer, believes that Amundsen doubted the claims of Cook and Peary. Whatever the reason for shifting course by 180 degrees, the race was on between Amundsen and Scott. {21}

Norwegian readers would learn through publications years afterward that Amundsen and Scott were able to reach as far as seventy-eight degrees south latitude by sailing in relatively open water. Then they had to walk and climb the remaining eight hundred miles to the pole, which was located on a plateau ten thousand feet above sea level. Scott chose a different route from Amundsen’s and used Siberian dogs and ponies, which succumbed to the rigors of weather and rough terrain. Amundsen used only Greenland huskies, as on his previous expeditions. Now and then his men slaughtered a dog in order to provide food for the rest of the pack.

The immigrant press reflected the excitement of this struggle of men against a forbidding nature. Amundsen reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911. There he planted the Norwegian flag and named the region Haakon VII’s Land. Word reached the press of the world from Hobart, in Tasmania, on March 7, 1912. As Jenson stated in Bikuben, the achievement was great in its own right. Its broader significance was yet to be determined. In Decorah-Posten Wist expressed the happiness of all Norwegians. “This is a scientific achievement more than a sporting event,” he editorialized. He praised Scott as well as Amundsen. The luckless British explorer came upon the Norwegian flag on or about January 17, 1912, a month or so after Amundsen’s arrival. More tragic, Scott’s immediate party of four, including himself, died of starvation and exposure on the return trip. Their fate was not known for several weeks. {22}

Honors rolled in on Amundsen. The press was not slow to announce his speaking engagements. British geographers accepted his polar findings. In Washington, the National Geographic Society bestowed its medal upon him. Again “Norway’s greatest son” appeared in Carnegie Hall. Over fifteen hundred were in attendance. Salt Lake City, Seattle, Fargo-Moorhead, and Grand Forks welcomed him. Nordisk Tidende stated, whether accurately or not, that the distinguished explorer lectured 150 times in six months. After his speaking tour he returned to Norway to prepare for his next expedition, to be partially funded by the National Geographic Society. {23}

Secrecy surrounded Amundsen’s plans. Would he really seek personal satisfaction by reaching the North Pole, thus mastering both polar regions? Would Peary’s claim to discovery make a difference in his decision? In any event, in 1917, Amundsen let it be known that the Northeast Passage was his next challenge. But the excitement attending his South Pole venture could not be duplicated. Only John S. Hansen of Bikuben, L. H. Lund of Chicago’s Scandia, and the editorial staff of Normanden of Grand Forks made mention of Amundsen’s effort in the Maud to proceed from northern Norway eastward, north of Russia, to the Bering Strait. They knew that he was drifting in the ice pack. Normanden praised this man who, when his ship was frozen in off Siberia, set off with three men on a dangerous journey. Simon Johnson liked Amundsen’s disregard for the “money-seeking propensity of modern man.” He was “a new example of human courage and boundless energy.” {24}

As soon as they succeeded in clearing the Northeast Passage for the first time, and while the Maud was still frozen in the ice, Amundsen appealed for funds for charting the Arctic regions. The immigrant press sympathized but made no organized effort to assist him. Nevertheless, he and the American Lincoln Ellsworth departed with their crews, this time by plane, on May 21, 1925. Scandia’s Lund, who had heard Amundsen speak in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, apparently disbelieved Peary’s claim to the discovery of the North Pole. “Someone is bound to reach the North Pole,” he wrote. “Amundsen deserves the honor more than any other.” Prestgard of Decorah-Posten shared Lund’s sentiments. Despite giving the appearance of a sporting venture, he declared, Amundsen was “strengthening the feeling of oneness in Norway.” In 1926 Amundsen flew with Umberto Nobile of Italy from Svalbard to Alaska and passed over the North Pole, as Admiral Richard Byrd had done. In 1928 Nobile crashed in the Arctic. Amundsen left on a rescue mission with five men and never returned. {25}

In a recent review essay on Norway and Antarctica a Norwegian scholar, Johan N. Tønnessen, evaluated two books of the 1960s concerned with Scott and Amundsen. L. B. Quartermain of New Zealand, the editor of Antarctica, a scientific journal, wrote South to the Pole: The Early History of the Ross Ice Barrier (Oxford, 1967). Quartermain emphasizes Scott’s practical reasons for undertaking the hazardous expedition. He claims that his deficient preparation, lack of adequate equipment, and aloofness from his men worked to Scott’s disadvantage. The second book, by Reginald Pound, analyzes Scott’s character and personality in order to find a possible explanation for Scott’s failure to complete his mission. In Scott of the Antarctic (London, 1966) Pound examines the thesis that Amundsen’s decisiveness may have contributed to a lack of confidence on Scott’s part. Amundsen’s telegram reading “Am going south” was the first shock. Scott felt the pressure of having to be the first to the South Pole. The British people expected no less. A second shock came when some of Scott’s men visited Framheim, Amundsen’s base camp on the Ross barrier, and returned to inform Scott of Amundsen’s excellent preparations and the quality and high morale of his experienced men. But Scott’s finding of the Norwegian flag at the coveted pole was the worst jolt of all. Himself an Englishman, Pound judges Scott severely. Of Scott, he says, “Great Britain was what mattered and a foreigner was unthinkable.” {26}

Neither Quartermain nor Pound gives a nod to Ernest Shackleton, whose biographer, Roland Huntford, saves Shackleton from oblivion with “Any fool can go on blindly forward. It required insight and moral courage to turn back.” Amundsen too had praised Shackleton years earlier when he declared, “Do not let it be said that Shackleton has failed.” Shackleton’s expedition of 1903 undoubtedly stimulated his better prepared successors.

The drama of sea and ice offers little satisfaction to those who are concerned only with politics and related public affairs. However, insofar as it stirred the emotions and bore implications of extending significantly the frontiers of scientific inquiry, it drew the attention of the learned world and, in the process, touched the pride of the nations involved. The sciences of geography, geology, meteorology, and oceanography were destined to benefit from the findings of deep-sea mariners and polar explorers.

British historians and journalists, already cited, have been in the forefront of an ongoing discussion over the relative merits of the achievements of Cook, Peary, Shackleton, Scott, Nansen, and Amundsen. More importantly, perhaps, non-Scandinavian scholars credit the Norwegians with superiority in oceanic and polar ventures. Some Englishmen are downright hard on their fellow countryman, Robert Falcon Scott, charging that personal ambition led to his death and those of his companions. Norwegian-American newspaper editors and columnists scarcely went so far as to denigrate Scott’s accomplishments. They acknowledged great courage and persistence in the stubborn Englishman who, after all, reached his geographical goal, even if too late to claim priority in discovery.

In the main, immigrant journalists tempered their judgments on exploration and claims of discovery. Let Christopher Columbus have his day. He sailed westward in the fullness of time. The Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 was appropriate. A few journalists from Norway made the long trip to report on the celebration. Immigrant writers also gave it good coverage. Their common view seemed to be that Leif Ericson and his contemporaries were too early but that Ericson nevertheless deserved proper recognition. Meanwhile, the Kensington stone debate should subside. More verifiable achievements could be seen in the activities of Ericson, Nansen, and Amundsen.

The press in Norway may have soured on Amundsen as he returned from the South Pole and immediately made a plea for financial support for new exploration in Arctic waters. He was always in debt. However, audiences on both sides of the Atlantic welcomed him warmly as he lectured in their cities. In Britain too he was well received. Yet not all Britishers saw in him the Napoleon of the polar regions, a title once given him by a Belgian admirer. Amundsen’s memoirs, My Life as an Explorer (Garden City, New York, 1927), show signs of resentment toward British schoolmasters who, despite the evidence, were said to present Scott to their pupils as the true discoverer of the South Pole.

If one seeks an explanation for immigrant journalistic restraint in withholding high praise for Nansen and Amundsen and, on the other hand, for carefully avoiding disparagement of Scott’s achievement, the issue of the dissolution of the Union with Sweden may be an important factor in the answer. From the 1880s on down to the separation in 1905 no issue in Norway equaled in importance the future status of the country. Editors of Norwegian descent, both at home and in America, trusted monarchical Britain to be sympathetic with Norway’s aspirations for complete independence under her constitution of 1814, which incorporated British as well as French and American concepts of government. Norway’s decision by plebiscite, following the unilateral declaration of independence of June 7, 1905, to retain a monarchical form of government with a cabinet system patterned after the British model pleased the English. To strengthen relations even further Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Arctic explorer now turned diplomat, was well appreciated in Britain as Norway’s first minister there after the dissolution of the union.

An additional circumstance may have played a positive role in maintaining good rapport not only between Britain and Norway but also between Britain and the United States. As immigrant journalists were aware, Britain was looking over her shoulder at a resurgent Germany which, under Kaiser Wilhelm II’s aggressive leadership, challenged Britain’s rulership of the seas. Given the shift in the European balance of power, Britain found it expedient to turn to the United States, to strengthen Anglo-American ties. If the United States should be in need of British support in world affairs, it behooved Americans of Norse heritage to look more charitably toward the island kingdom from which, after all, the former North American colonies inherited the English language and culture. Under these conditions Norwegian Americans, in common with most of their neighbors, were less likely to question British hero worship of Captain Scott and his valiant men.

Immigrant newspaper readers were no strangers to heroic tales of travel and exploration. With less publicity many had shared the trials of Odysseus as emigrants. Stories of geographical discovery were not only read with interest; they often provided welcome relief from the political and religious controversies of the day. In the case of the Norwegians, an upsurge of national consciousness and pride accompanied the long period of tension with Swedish authorities and the eventual breakup of the Union. Love for the motherland in no way distracted attention from the voyages and discoveries of Norway’s sons. And those who grew up on skis found it easy to empathize with Nansen and Amundsen.

Norwegian newspapermen in Norway and America were generally careful to avoid superlatives when reporting Norwegian successes. They were familiar with the names of non-Scandinavians who had contributed notably to the sum of geographical lore. Parenthetically, one must admit that some editors were not much moved. Waldemar Ager of Reform comes to mind in this connection. One wonders whether the rather frail-looking man with a keen mind and a deep love of Norwegian culture believed that adulation of physical prowess in the conquest of nature might go too far. Most Scandinavians believed otherwise. They respected the maritime accomplishments of Columbus and Cabot, of Verrazano and Magellan, and of Hudson and Drake. Conversely, it is evident that non-Scandinavians honored the polar pioneers, Nansen and Amundsen. Somehow Norwegians were expected to take naturally to open water and ice floes.

To those who meditated more deeply there was a consciousness that scientific experimentation, though its results could not be anticipated, was necessary to avoid stagnation. One need not expect immediate rewards. There are those who appear to have matured in mind and spirit in the process of actual discovery or in the vicarious enjoyment of it. Edmund Burke said it well in his essay on “The sublime and the beautiful.” The waters must be troubled, he wrote, before they can exert their virtues. Men and women who work “beyond the surface of things” may clear the way for others.


<1> These data and some of the following are recorded in many sources. See, for example, Captain Alan Villiers, Men, Ships, and the Sea (Washington, D. C., 1962), 60-67.

<2> Skandinaven, October 16, 1901. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed October 9 as Leif Ericson Day, to be observed annually thereafter.

<3> Amerika og Norden, April 12, 1899. The Iverslie articles ran serially in Amerika from June 11 to July 16, 1909, and from February 25 to April 18, 1910. See Lloyd Hustvedt, Rasmus Bjørn Anderson (Northfield, Minnesota, 1966), 242. Iverslie also published a collection of his arguments privately in Gustav Storms studier over vinlandsreiserne (Minneapolis, 1912).

<4> Skandinaven, January 5, 1900.

<5> Reform, August 9, 1904. Fram, February 3, 1905. Skandinaven, June 26, 1911. Olaf O. Ray served on the staff of Den Nye Tid, a Chicago Socialist newspaper, in the early 1880s. He was the son of Olai Olsen, founder and editor of Trondhjems Dagsposten of Norway.

<6> Statstidende, June 26, 1906. Bikuben, October 18, 1923, and October 23, 1924.

<7> Amerika, November 11, 1910. Anderson’s comments on Nansen in his Amerika ran from November 11, 1910, to March 10, 1911. Publications on the general subject include James Robert Enterline, Viking America: The Norse Crossings and their Legacy (New York, 1972); Helge Marcus Ingstad, Westward to Vinland: The Discovery of Pre-Columbian House-Sites in North America (New York, 1969); Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, A.D. 500-1600 (New York, 1971); Johannes Brønsted, “Norsemen in North America before Columbus,” in Annual Report of the Board of Governors, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D. C., 1953), 367-405.

<8> Normanden, November 9, 1910. Iverslie, “Nansen paa Glat Is,” in Kvartalskrift, 6 (October, 1910), 5-16. Decorah-Posten, November 4, 1910, and February 14, 1911. Julius E. Olson, “Nansens Angreb paa Vinlandssagaerne,” in Symra, 7 (Decorah, Iowa, 1911), 133 and 148. A typical response in disagreement with Nansen came from Juul Dieserud of the Library of Congress. Dieserud’s lecture of March 14, 1913, in the Norwegian Seamen’s Church of Brooklyn, as announced and then recorded in Nordisk Tidende of March 6 and 20, 1913, presented the historical facts as he saw them.

<9> Nordisk Tidende, January 20, 1910; September 26, 1912; November 26, 1914; March 18, 1915. Skandinaven, October 19, 1910. Verdens Gang (Chicago), October 24, 1910. Amerika, March21 and October 17, 1913. William Hovgaard served as Professor of Naval Construction at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his view, the voyages extended farther south than had been supposed. His book, Voyages of the Norsemen to America (New York, 1914), was published by the American Scandinavian Foundation. Minneapolis Tidende, October 29, 1914.

<10> Minneapolis Tidende, March 3, 1899. Skandinaven, March 3, 1899. For two scholarly studies, among others, see Erik Wahlgren, The Kensington Stone: A Mystery Solved (Madison, Wisconsin, 1958), and Theodore C. Blegen, The Kensington Rune Stone: New Light on an Old Riddle (St. Paul, Minnesota, 1968). Blegen (p. 23) gives Curme’s translation of the inscription.

<11> Fram, May 21, 1909. Amerika, February 11, May 13, June 10, 17, and 24, and July 15, 1910. Kvartalskrift, 5 (July, 1909), 13-21; 6 (January, 1910), 8-16; 7 (October, 1911), 6-11; and 10 (January, 1914), 3-10. Skandinaven, January 7, 1911. Decorah-Posten, January 16, 1912. Reform, May 28, 1912.

<12> Warren Upham, archaeologist for the Minnesota Historical Society, defended the stone in 1916 as historically authentic. He believed that Olof Ohman was an honest man; see Nordisk Tidende, July 13, 1916. Decorah-Posten, November 14 and 21, 1917; January 4, 1921. Minneapolis Tidende, March 30, 1922.

<13> Decorah-Posten, March 6 and 20, 1925. Editor Prestgard arrived in Chicago in 1893 as a Norwegian newspaper correspondent to cover the World’s Columbian Exposition. He decided to remain in the United States. Rasmus B. Anderson was among the first to argue with Holand. He ceased publishing Amerika in 1922.

<14> Wahlgren, The Kensington Stone, 174-181. Blegen, The Kensington Rune Stone, 109-123. All Monge and Ole G. Landsverk, both Norwegian Americans, provide an unusual and interesting interpretation of the Kensington inscription in their Norse Medieval Cryptography in Runic Carvings (Glendale, California, 1967). One of Hjalmar Rued Holand’s last defenses of its authenticity appeared as “The Origin of the Kensington Inscription,” in Scandinavian Studies, 23 (February, 1951), 23-30. This article was followed by “The Ghost of the Kensington Stone,” by Erik Moltke of Denmark’s National Museum in Copenhagen, in Scandinavian Studies, 25 (February, 1953), 1-14. Moltke reminds readers that “all the leading runologists of Scandinavia (and Germany) have pronounced the Kensington Stone to be false.”

<15> Nordisk Tidende, June 10, 1892; April 19, 1895; February 18 and 21, August 21 and 28, and September 4, 1896; and October 9 and 23, 1902. Normanden, February 19, 1896. Washington-Posten, September 26, 1902.

<16> Nordisk Tidende (January 21, 1898) reprinted the sarcastic rhyme titled “Nansen’s Chance,” opening with these lines:

And so he wrote a lecture and a thrilling book as well,
And the wondering people praised him to the sky;
Perhaps his map was right, but who on earth can tell -
Since he had such opportunities to lie!

<17> Verdens Gang, September 3 and 10, 1909. Normanden, September 8, 1909; February 23, 1910. Folkebladet, September 8, 15, and 22, and October 27, 1909. Minneapolis Tidende, September 9 and 16, 1909. Fremad, September 9, 1909. Bikuben, September 9 and 16, 1909; January 13, 1910. Nordisk Tidende, March 17 and November 10, 1910. For Peary’s alleged duplicity see Dennis Rawlins, Peary at the North Pole: Fact or Fiction (Washington, D. C., 1973), 281-294.

<18> Skandinaven, April 23, 1915. The Navigation Foundation, the group of experts selected by the National Geographic Society, discovered that Dennis Rawlins (see note 17) mistook the serial numbers on Peary’s chronometer watches for calculations of compass variation. See Rear Admiral Thomas D. Davies, “New Evidence Places Peary at the Pole,” in National Geographic, 177 (January, 1990), 44-61.

<19> Syd Dakota Ekko, November 30, 1905. Folkebladet, December 3, 1905. Washington Posten, December 8 and 15, 1905. Verdens Gang, December 8, 1905. Skandinaven, December 8 and 13, 1905. Amerika, December 15, 1905. Minneapolis Tidende, December 15, 1905;January 5, 1906. The Gjøa was first placed in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, in 1909. The city released it to Norway in 1972.

<20> Skandinaven, November 7, 1906. Nordisk Tidende, February 28 and October 10, 1907. Normanden, August 28, 1907. Bikuben, November 14, 1907; February 13 and March 12, 1908. Pacific Skandinaven, March26, 1908.

<21> Not many Norwegian-American publications reported Ernest Shackleton’s expedition. Pacific Skandinaven of April 30, 1909, did so, but very belatedly. Roland Huntford, Shackleton (New York, 1986), provides a long overdue biography.

<22> Pacific Skandinaven, October 28, 1910; March 6, 1912. Normanden, June 28, 1911; March 13, 1912. Nordisk Tidende, February 22, 1912. Bikuben, March 11, 1912. Skandinaven, March 13, 1912. Amerika, March 15, 1912. Minneapolis Tidende, March 14, 1912. Fremad, March 14, 1912. Social Demokraten, October 25, 1912. Fridtjof Nansen, “Norges Flag paa Sydpolen,” in Kvartalskrift, 8 (April, 1912), 34-38. Decorah-Posten, March 12 and April 5, 1912. Pertinent works on the polar expeditions of Scott and Amundsen include Elspeth Huxley, Scott of the Antarctic (New York, 1978); Roald Amundsen, The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the Fram, 1910-1912 (New York, 1976); and Roland Huntford, Scott and Amundsen: The Race to the South Pole (New York, 1984).

<23> Folkebladet, March 13, 1912. Verdens Gang, January 17, 1913. Nordisk Tidende, January 2 and 16 and July 3, 1913. Pacific Skandinaven, April 4, 1913. Normanden, April 16, 1913. Bikuben, April 17, 1913. Fram, April 24, 1913.

<24> Skandinaven March 13, 1912. Nordisk Tidende, March26 and April 16, 1914;July 12 and November 22, 1917. Normanden, May 12, 1916; November 26, 1920. Bikuben, November 4, 1919.

<25> Normanden, October 17 and 24, 1924;June 26, 1925. Nordisk Tidende, April 17 and July 3, 1924; May 28, June 25, July 9, and August 20, 1925. Scandia, November29 and December 4, 1925; June 6 and 27, July 11, and August 1, 1926. Decorah-Posten, May 26 and June 23, 1925. Tacoma Tidende, June 19, 1925. Ottar Raastad presents a brief tribute in “Roald Amundsen: A Centennial Appreciation,” in American-Scandinavian Review, 60 (December, 1972), 392-400.

<26> Johan N. Tønnessen, “Norge og Antarktis,” in Historisk Tidsskrift (Oslo, 1981), 327-332.


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