Immigration and Life in the Upper Midwest

Decision to Immigrate

“Why did he [Ole Rølvaag] leave a spot so dear and kinsmen so much a part of his own being, for few men have been more attached to home, to kin, and to race than was Ole Edvart Rølvaag? He had the strong mind’s feeling of destiny. The objectives were by no means clear. But it became increasingly clear to him that the sea could not furnish the play he most desired. He needed more room; he needed larger opportunities. Six winters he had sailed the coast of Lofoten. He would try an even larger sea with vaster horizons. Upon returning from the fishing grounds in the spring of 1896, he began to ponder the question more deeply. The 22nd of April he was twenty years old. It was time to decide.”

Ole Edvart Rølvaag, A Biography

In 1896, Ole Rølvaag’s uncle, Jakob Frederick Jakobsen, bought him a ticket to Union City, South Dakota. Jakob had emigrated a few years prior and was able to secure Ole a job as a farmhand in Elk Point. Ole recognized the vast opportunities he would have in the US if he immigrated, but that did not make the decision to leave home any less difficult. His writings in his immigration diary reflect the emotional toll of leaving home, particularly in leaving behind his mother and a young woman whom he loved. The depression that overcame him as he traveled from Dønna to Trondheim and then to North America reveals not only his emotional side, but also the shared longing for home that many immigrants felt. While waiting for his next voyage in Trondheim, Ole notes how he misses his mother and does not know when, or if, he will see her again. This realization troubles him, but he also notes that he wants more out of life than what he can attain in Dønna. His immigration diary reflects the difficulties of immigration as well as the frustrations of youth.

A Life in South Dakota

When Ole disembarked from his train in South Dakota, he eagerly searched for his uncle in the crowd of people at the station. After being unable to find him, Ole decided to walk to the farm where his uncle was living. Unfamiliar with the area, Ole walked for hours and deep into the night hoping to come upon his uncle’s farm. He feet ached, his stomach was hungry, and he was frightened by the sounds and an unlucky encounter with a large snake on the prairie. Eventually, he came upon a Norwegian farmer who offered to drive him to his uncle’s farm. This night proved to be quite traumatic for Ole, and he would recollect on it for years to come as a near death experience and his first memory of South Dakota.

After Ole was reunited with his uncle, he quickly got to work as a farmhand in Elk Point. He worked there for nearly 2 years before he was persuaded to attend school. In 1898, at the age of 22, Ole’s pastor enrolled him in Augustana Academy in Canton, South Dakota. Ole was not an extraordinary student in Norway, but he found greater opportunity and success in South Dakota and later Minnesota. Unlike his schooling in Norway, which was primarily based on rote memorization of Biblical texts, his schooling in Augustana allowed him to utilize his skills in logic and creativity. Ole’s emotions continued to drive his ambition and writing, as his memoirs during this time describe an unrequited love and utter devastation at this loss, goals of being the top of his class and frustrations when his peers exceeded him. This drive to succeed and find meaning in his life motivated him to graduate from Augustana and continue learning at St. Olaf College.

Group photo of students of Augustana Academy, Canton, South Dakota, circa 1898. O.E. Rølvaag is pictured in the center. (p0584_00117)

Time at St. Olaf and the Making of Writer

By the summer of 1902, Ole saw it as his life’s ambition to attend college and complete his degree. He put as much, if not markedly more, effort into his studies at St. Olaf as he had done at Augustana Academy. Upon entering, he decided to dedicate his studies to theology as well as literature and languages. For some time, he had considered entering seminary, but his time at St. Olaf directed him toward a different path. Through essay contests, oratory competitions, sermons, and other moments to share his prose. He continued to prefer writing in Norwegian, as his English was still not at the level of his peers.

Ole would continue to write short stories and review books while he attended St. Olaf. He also worked on the first issue of the St. Olaf’s yearbook, The Viking, as class historian. In between his time at school, he would travel to Lime Grove and teach courses to young students. In teaching he found a new calling which came to change his life. By 1904, he no longer had the intention of entering seminary and found himself on the verge of graduation with a few options for his future. On April 13th, 1904, he wrote about his intention for his future: “Next year I want to graduate from St. Olaf. As soon as I have been graduated, I leave for Norway…I should be back here in the fall before school opens. I should probably spend my days as a good-for-nothing professor. This is my plan for life—not minutely but an outline.”

That summer he taught at a school in Bisbee, North Dakota. It was during that time that he became engaged to Jennie Berdahl, a longtime friend and acquaintance. They would marry in 1908, and her strong mind and support would encourage him throughout his life.

Explore more resources: