Between 1820 and 1920, nearly one million people migrated from Norway. Estimates suggest that, behind Ireland, Norway lost a higher portion of its people that other countries. In 1825, during a period of religious strife, organized migration to America started. News of the arrival of the Sloopers on the Restaurationen reached Norway, and an increase of American letters started circulating. By the end of the 1860s, more than 40,000 had already migrated. By the 1880s, more than one-ninth (176,000) of Norway’s population migrated. Coming from rural areas, Norwegians settled in Minnesota and Wisconsin, then moved west to Iowa, the Dakotas, and sometimes the Pacific Coast. After the Immigration Act of 1924, Norwegian migration dropped off dramatically.
Journey to settlement
Rølvaag’s heavy correspondence, personal notes, accounts from the Berdahls themselves, and newspaper clippings provide glimpses of the true stories that Rølvaag was inspired by in writing his pioneer novel. The novel Giants in the Earth follows a family struggling to succeed on the barren prairies of South Dakota, including an idealistic pioneering father, Per Hansa, and a more conservative, melancholy mother, Beret, who longs for her homeland. The novel is set in the 1870s, and includes a variety of real events that occurred when the Berdahls themselves were homesteading on the plains of South Dakota in those same years.
Many details used in the novel are taken directly from the accounts of the Berdahl family, primarily Andrew and his brother Erick, who were in their 20’s at the time, giving the book its authentic feel and realistic tragedy.
Andrew Berdahl’s account
The latter part of May 1856 we sailed from Bergen for Quebec. The voyage was uneventful as far as my memory goes. In fair weather Erick and I would be on the deck having learned to balance ourselves as the ship rolled and dipped on the waves. We were never seasick, but Aunt Thrina was seasick on the whole voyage and mother a part of the time.
Our ship was a slow sailor but had made many trips across with emigrants. In a Preus Family biography I see that Rev. A. Preus and wife just married came across on this ship Columbus in May and June 1851 in 7 weeks to New York. It took us 8 weeks and 2 days to Quebec as I learned from father and mother. After passing doctor’s examination and as I have learned no one detained at quarantine. The ship took us up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal. From here we were transferred to boats going by way of the Welland canal and up the great lakes to Chicago. I can remember the landing at Chicago, the immense lot of baggage of all sorts piled up on the wharf and the commotion and anxiety of each family finding their belongings. The whole ship load was here now; but their final destination from here was at different points. An interpreter was with us from Montreal, to help set them on the right track from here. So we were sent on the Illinois Central, now just finished, to Gallena Ill. and then by river boat to Lansing.
The accommodations for immigrants were very primitive. We were all crowded into a cattle car with our baggage with rough board benches set up along the sides of the car to sit on.
The boat ride up the Mississippi to Lansing during one night was even worse, quartered among a lot of very rough deckhands. Those of the company on this last leg of our journey as I remember it were: Father and Mother, us 4 children and two of father’s sisters, Thrina and Anna, Mr. and Mrs. Torkel Fosse with many children, and Sjur Tveit and his fiancee. We arrived at Lansing early in the morning after about 3 months’ strenuous journey since leaving our old home. While I know our people those of the mature age breathed a sigh of relief and thankfulness we still had a distance of about 30 miles to go to reach the Big Canoe settlement in Winneshiek County Iowa, where father had a distant relative to whom we were going and Sjur Tveit had a brother, and the Fosse family were old acquaintances of these people from Norway who had immigrated to this country a few years ago. These people not knowing when we would arrive, or possibly not knowing even that we were coming this summer, were not in Lansing to meet us. But this being a town with many Norwegians in business, and this being the marketplace for people in the Big Canoe settlement they soon found two men from the settlement who promised to bring us to our destination. They were Ole Stöen and Jörgen Brunsvold, with an ox team and lumber wagon each.
Berdahl family autobiography, page 4-5
Erick Berdahl’s account
One of those going, namely Sjur Tveir had a brother living in Winneshiek Co., Iowa, and Father decided to go with him as they were well acquainted. And I believe they claimed some relationship. Father’s two sisters, Thrina and Anna, also came with us. I do not remember the date we started on that long journey, but it seems vividly in my mind that Father and Mother both shed tears as we left, and naturally we cried with them. That, of course, must have been when they left.
From Quebec until we got to Winneshiek County, Iowa, took us another three weeks, went part of the way on canal boats drawn by mules. And some distance on the train and by Steamboat on the Mississippi River to Lansing, Iowa. Then, by oxen and heavy truck wagon, for 30 miles until we reached the destination. What a trip it must have been with four children to take care of on all kinds of transportation and not understand a word of the language spoken.
Berdahl family autobiography, page 4
Giants in the Earth
First they had boarded the boat at Sandnessjöen. . . . This boat had carried them southward along the coast. . . . In Namsos there had been a large ship with many white sails, that had taken her, with her dear ones, and sailed away–that had carried them off relentlessly, farther and farther from the land they knew. In this ship they had sailed for weeks; the weeks had even grown into months; they had seemed to be crossing an ocean which had no end. . . . There had been something almost laughable in this blind course, steadily fixed on the sunset! When head winds came, they beat up against them; before sweeping fair breezes they scudded along; but always they were westering! . . .
. . . At last they had landed in Quebec. There she had walked about the streets, confused and bewildered by a jargon of unintelligible sounds that did not seem like the speech of people. . . . Was this the Promised Land? Ah no–it was only the beginning of the real journey. . . . Then something within her had risen up in revolt: I will go no farther! . . .
. . . But they had kept on, just the same–had pushed steadily westward, over plains, through deserts, into towns, and out of them again. . . . One fine day they had stood in Detroit, Michigan. This wasn’t the place, either, it seemed. . . . Move on! . . . Once more she had felt the spirit of revolt rising to shout aloud: I will go no farther! . . . But it had been as if a resistless flood had torn them loose from their foundations and was carrying them helplessly along on its current–flinging them here and there, hurling them madly onward, with no known destination ahead.
Farther and farther onward . . . always west. . . . For a brief while there had been a chance to relax once more; they had travelled on water again, and she could hear the familiar splash of waves against the ship’s side. This language she knew of old, and did not fear; it had lessened the torture of that section of the journey for her, though they had been subjected to much ill-treatment and there had been a great deal of bullying and brawling on board.
At last the day had arrived when they had landed in Milwaukee. But here they were only to make a new start–to take another plunge into the unknown. . . . Farther, and always farther. . . . The relentless current kept whirling them along. . . . Was it bound nowhere, then? . . . Did it have no end? . . .
In the course of time they had come jogging into a place called Prairie du Chien. . . . Had that been in Wisconsin, or some other place named after savages? . . . It made no difference–they had gone on. They had floundered along to Lansing, in Iowa. . . . Onward again. Finally they had reached Fillmore County, in Minnesota. . . . But even that wasn’t the place, it seemed! . . .
. . . Now she was lying here on a little green hillock, surrounded by the open, endless prairie, far off in a spot from which no road led back! . . . It seemed to her that she had lived many lives already, in each one of which she had done nothing but wander and wander, always straying farther way from the home that was dear to her.
Giants in the Earth, page 44-46
The Homestead Act
The Homestead Act of 1862, opened up millions of acres to any adult who had never taken up arms against the United States Government. This included women and immigrants who had applied for citizenship were eligible. The Act allowed settlers to claim land for free as long as they lived on it for five years and made improvements such as building a house. The act brought 75,000 people to Minnesota in its first three years, quickly settling the prairie and displacing the Dakota living there.
Most homesteads were registered by men, but a notable number of single women also took to the land. They left the expectations of family or city life for the freedom they found on the open prairie. Many of these women married later and join her claims with their husbands. For others, they enjoyed their independence and never married.
Learn more about the Homestead Act from the Library of Congress.
Interested in finding land records in Minnesota? Check out the Minnesota Historical Society.
Explore more resources
- Stavig letters, 1882
- Ingeborg O. Bergeim diaries, 1874-1922
- Nils Jacobson Sonmor autobiography, 1887
- “Norwegian Immigrants In Early Sioux Falls: A Demographic Profile” by Gary D. Olson
- “Farewell to an Old Homestead” by Ethel J. Odegard