Before the 19th century, the people of the Scandinavian lands—Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland—had often visited North America. Some came for exploration, some came to launch colonial adventures, and some came to stay and follow their faith.
But by the end of the United States’ first century of existence, Scandinavians began to come by the tens of thousands, and they came to start new lives for themselves. In so doing, they filled the Great Plains and the cities of the North; they founded new, distinctive communities from Connecticut to California; and they helped build the America of the 20th century.
Travelers from Scandinavia first set foot in the Western Hemisphere more than a thousand years ago, and may even have been the first Europeans in North America.
Beginning in the 7th century, the Vikings, a seagoing people from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, roamed widely over much of the planet, founding settlements in far-off lands and trading with, or raiding, the local inhabitants.
Some of the Vikings’ surviving sagas mention the birth of a baby boy in a distant settlement named “Vinland”. Today, a few scholars have suggested that Vinland might have been an island off the coast of present-day New York, but no one knows for sure.
Regardless, every October 9 many Scandinavian Americans still celebrate the birthday of Leif Erickson, the Viking captain who founded the settlement of Vinland and thus, they maintain, discovered America.
By the 17th and 18th centuries, the Vikings were a dim memory, and the people of Scandinavia began to look to North America as a possible colonial destination. As was the case with other European elites of the time, wealthy Scandinavians considered the eastern seaboard of the Americas a promising site for investment and sought to launch colonial enterprises there.
At the same time, many ordinary Scandinavians, chafing at the limited religious and political freedom in their homelands, saw the New World as a land of liberty, and traveled there to found new communities where they might practice their conscience in peace.
It was in the 19th century, however, that the great migration of Scandinavians to the U.S. took place. The once-prosperous Scandinavian nations were rocked by political strife and social upheaval as regional wars and agricultural disasters created tremendous instability in everyday life.
Meanwhile, official corruption, the policies of powerful state churches, and an increasing disparity between the rich and the poor drove many thousands of Scandinavians to seek a better life elsewhere.
By the middle of the century, the time was ripe for mass immigration, and Scandinavians began arriving in American ports in large numbers.
Each group of immigrants from Sweden, from Norway, from Denmark, Finland, and Iceland, would take a different path to life in the United States.