The Great Settling

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. 

The Homestead Act

Press and daily Dakotaian. (Yankton, Dakota Territory [S.D.]), 15 Oct. 1880. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <>

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