The population of Norway exploded in the 19th century, mostly because people didn't die as quickly or as soon as they did in the 18th century. As a result, there were too many people living on not enough land. So many Norwegians emigrated to the U.S. I recently read a book ("Norway to America" by Ingrid Semmingsen) that pointed to three factors: peace, potatoes, and smallpox vaccinations. My mnemonic device for remembering those factors is the three P's (peace, potatoes, and pox).
I've worked assiduously on my family tree most of my life. All of my ancestors came from Norway. Seven of my eight great-grandparents came to America between about 1890 and 1910, and the other one had both parents come from Norway in the late 1850s -- he was a teenage boy who fought in the Civil War for a Wisconsin Regiment (he arrived here at the age of 15 and was on Sherman's March to the Sea when he was about 19 -- and I doubt that he spoke English very well but I think a lot of the other Union soldiers in his Wisconsin regiment spoke Norwegian). He had an older brother who, I'm pretty sure, died in the war.
Here are a few thoughts about why Norwegians came to America from about 1850 to 1910...
Wars, famines, and epidemics are things that can quickly kill a lot of people. If you find a way to eliminate those things or if you live in a place that's lucky enough to avoid them, people won't die as much. If lots of children live and thrive, the population grows. But that can lead to various other problems.
So here are three reasons why the population of Norway increased in the nineteenth century (which, in turn, led to a large migration to the United States). These are the three P's:
1. Norway Had 100+ Years of Peace
Prior to 1814, Norway was part of Denmark. After 1814, Norway entered into a union with Sweden. The history is complicated but it's all connected with the Napoleonic wars.
Here's the short version: Denmark and Norway were allied with France (led by Napoleon, who invaded Russia, which was a disaster). Sweden was an ally of Russia. Napoleon failed spectacularly when he tried to conquer Moscow, and one of the consequences was that Denmark ceded Norway to Sweden. Norway got a bit of home rule (a constitution and a legislature), but Sweden took charge of foreign policy, including both military policy and economic trade policy. There are lots more details about that, including peace treaties or whatever. But that would be another story.
After the union with Sweden, Norway enjoyed a long period of peace until World War II (when the Nazis invaded Norway). Oh, yeah, also Norway got their independence as a country from Sweden in 1905. But the national holiday of Norway is Constitution Day (May 17th/Syttende Mai), when they got their Constitution.
So this is important. In the 19th century, some Norwegian men might have joined the army or navy, but they weren't dying in wars. That's part one of the population explosion. Young soldiers didn't go to war. Most got married and had kids.
2. Norway Had Potatoes
The Spanish discovered this delicious tuber in South America and brought the plant back to Europe. Potatoes eventually reached Norway in the mid-18th century, where they became a regular part of Norse cuisine.
Perhaps you've heard of lefse? It's a Norwegian culinary invention that I would describe to non-Norwegian-Americans as a sort of tortilla made from potatoes. You can throw in sweet or savory ingredients and then you roll it up and eat it. Lefse is the Norwegian version of burritos. Plus, Norwegians eat potatoes that are baked, boiled, mashed, or fried.
Before the arrival of potatoes in Norway (circa 1750, according to Google), various Norwegian communities had had problems with crop failures and occasional famines. When potatoes became widespread, fewer people starved. In addition, the herring and cod fisheries were pretty robust in the 19th century, too. So famine/starvation wasn't a huge problem in 19th-century Norway. They had fish (and cows and sheep and cheese) for protein and potatoes (and various other vegetables, such as rutabagas) for carbohydrates.
That's part two of the population explosion: Norwegians didn't starve to death in the 19th century. When you have food to eat (including potatoes), you and your kids stay alive.
3. Norway Had Smallpox Vaccinations
Vaccinations are part three of the population explosion.
Here's the short version: The famous English doctor, Edward Jenner, noticed that milkmaids who caught cowpox didn't catch smallpox. He performed his first experiments in 1796. He tested his theory and it worked -- you can deliberately infect people with cowpox (a relatively mild disease) to protect them from smallpox. Incidentally, the word "vaccination" comes from the Latin word "vacca" which means "cow," as in "cowpox."
Relatively soon after Jenner's discovery, Norwegians over the age of one were required to be vaccinated, starting in the early 1800s. You'd get an official certificate of vaccination -- which you'd have to produce before you got married or booked passage on a ship to America.
In my family tree, there are several families a long time ago (before 1800) that lost five or six kids to "epedemi" (the Norwegian word for epidemic). I can't imagine how sad that was to the parents.
Speaking of epidemics, let me digress and tell you something about abandoned/empty farms. In my grandmother's notes about her family tree, she mentioned one of her ancestors was named Odegaard. The word "gaard" in Norwegian means "farm" (it's related to the English words "yard" and "garden"). So I searched for farms named Odegaard in Norway, and they're all over the place (so searching for that ancestor was a dead end).
I discovered that "Ode" means abandoned or empty. An odegaard was a farm where everyone died from an epidemic (usually smallpox, although I suppose it might have been some other disease or food poisoning or whatever). Perhaps a few people survived, but then they moved away. So the name of the farm changed to Odegaard (meaning "abandoned farm") -- which became the name when other people moved there. My point is this: before vaccinations became available, smallpox could wipe out everyone on a farm.
So in the early 19th century, Norwegians began to eliminate (or at least to control) smallpox, and that's another reason children didn't die. It's one more factor that contributed to a population explosion.
If you have a dozen or so children and they don't die from starvation (because they can eat potatoes) or from disease (because they got smallpox vaccinations) or from being killed in a war (because of peace), they'll grow up and get married and they'll have more children who'll have more children. Plus, birth control pills didn't exist back then, so everyone just had more and more kids. Who didn't die.
Another factor to consider is this: farmers like to have a lot of kids because the children can milk the cows, make cheese, plant and harvest the fields, chop down trees, etc. and you don't have to pay them because they're kids. You don't have to hire outside workers to do those jobs. By the way, chopping down trees was a way to make money in the winter when there were no crops, and it's also a way to clear land for more farming.
But this all leads to a problem. Over time, all those kids grow up and then they have a bunch of kids. The result is a population explosion (and there's only a limited amount of land to farm).
The three P's (peace, potatoes, and pox) led to another P (population growth). But those weren't the only factors that resulted in Norwegians emigrating to America.
A Few More Things
I'll briefly mention a few other things.
Norway Had Limited Land, The U.S. Had Lots of Empty Land
As the population of Norway grew, a few Norwegians started to emigrate to America, starting about 1825, which is when the sloop named Restauration brought the first small group of Norwegians to America.
By mid-century (1850s), relatively cheap land in America was a big attraction. Then the United States passed the Homestead Act in 1862. Norwegians found that if they came to the United States, they could get 160 acres for almost nothing beyond a few bucks to register the land and to pay the surveyors.
Back then, most land in Norway was already spoken for (and if you weren't the oldest son in line to inherit the farm in Norway, the prospect of almost-free land to start your own farm was a huge incentive to go to America). All you needed was a boat ticket. Once you had a farm in America, you could send letters back to your home farm telling people to come on over. You might even send money for a boat ticket back home to your relatives and friends to come join you. In addition, the transatlantic steamship companies and the American railroad companies published pamphlets in the Norwegian language about how to move to America (advertising to get more customers).
Religion was Another Factor
In the 19th century, there was an evangelical movement in Norway called Haugeanism. Instead of belonging to the official state religion of Lutheranism (which was run by the the church hierarchy with ties to the government of Norway), Haugeans met in private homes and read the Bible on their own and came to their own conclusions. Which was against the law (only preachers from the state religion of Lutheranism could explain the Bible). So the Haugeans were attracted to a new land where they could practice their religion on their own terms without interference by the government or the official state religion. I've read some books that refer to a conflict between high Lutherans (who adhered to the state religion) and low Lutherans (Haugeans who were rebellious, independent, and evangelical). In fact, there were various schisms and attempts at unification among the various Lutheran groups in America. There were a least a dozen synods at one time. When I was a child in the 1960s, most Norwegians were ALC, the Swedes were LCA, and German Lutherans (the most conservative) were Missouri Synod. Since then the Norwegians and Swedes merged into ELCA (and they passed a bunch of resolutions saying being gay is OK, masturbating isn't a sin, and abortion is a personal choice). The German-American Lutherans (Missouri Synod) are still against all those things.
In the 1800s, a few people in Norway were Quakers, too, so some of them ended up moving to Pennsylvania or thereabouts. This Quaker thing is kind of weird. During the Napoleonic wars, some sailors from the Norwegian/Danish navy were captured and held as POWs in England, where they were visited by English Quaker missionaries. Some of the Norwegians were converted and went back to Norway, where they were persecuted by the government because they weren't Lutheran (for example, minor children weren't allowed to be Quakers). So some of the Norwegian Quakers ended up moving to America.
I suppose another attraction of America for young Norwegians was just the adventure of going to somewhere new. They wanted to start a new life in a place where you could succeed or fail on your own terms. Instead of working as a hired hand on somebody else's farm (which was, I imagine, the 19th-century equivalent of working at Burger King), you could go to America and start your own farm.
Canada Played A Role, Too
At some point, England decided that their colony Canada could ship goods to England without paying a tariff. So ships from Canada shipped bulky things like lumber or beaver pelts or other heavy things to England. But the ships had to travel back to Canada with empty cargo space (what would England send back -- candlesticks, china plates, cloth?). So the ships going from England to Canada lowered the price for transporting people -- so they could fill up the ship's hold and make a little money. Norwegians booked passage on ships from England to Canada. Once they got to Canada they'd travel to Wisconsin and Minnesota and other Midwest states.
Plus, Canada is closer to Norway than New York City. So a lot of Norwegians booked the less-expensive passage to Canada, then took boats on the Great Lakes or railroads to the Midwest. One of my ancestors moved to Saskatchewan, Canada, and then moved about 50 miles south to North Dakota. My grandmother was born in Canada but grew up in North Dakota. Another one of my ancestors took an ocean ship to Quebec, then took a smaller boat through the Great Lakes to Wisconsin (near Green Bay, WI). He's the guy who fought in the Civil War.
One more thing
Before the restrictive U.S. immigration laws that were passed in the 1920s, almost anyone (anyone from Europe, I mean) could immigrate to the United States. The U.S. had lots of land and it wanted people to come here.
Here's what The Immigration Policy Center says:
Prior to the 1920s, there were no numerical limitations on immigration to the U.S., but certain persons were banned from entering.
The first “illegal” immigrants were people, like the Chinese, who were banned from entering the U.S. The Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882. Over the years, immigration laws were passed that restricted certain categories of persons from immigrating, but no numerical limitations or quotas existed. Those persons barred from immigrating included Asians (except Japanese and Filipinos), prostitutes, paupers, polygamists, persons with “dangerous and loathsome contagious disease,” persons likely to become a public charge, anarchists and radicals, the “feebleminded” and “insane,” and the illiterate. The vast majority of people who arrived at a port of entry were allowed to enter. Of course, some people lied about their health and political beliefs and entered “illegally.” The Immigration Service excluded only 1 percent of the 25 million immigrants from Europe who arrived at Ellis Island between 1880 and World War I.
If some Republican tells you, "My ancestors came here legally!" tell him or her that before 1920, almost everyone came here legally. The borders were wide open. If you weren't a prostitute or an anarchist or other undesirable, you could come to America.
I realize that I didn't include very many links up until now. But a lot of the research for this diary was from books I've read, not from websites. And I think I'll end this diary with a few links to things I've written on DKos about my my Norwegian ancestors:
My Norwegian Ancestors
Racist Anti-Immigration Policies in the 1920s
Banana cake with chocolate frosting (a memoir)
My Grandfather’s Barometer