Although Sweden sent more emigrants to the United States than any other Scandinavian country, Norway sent a greater percentage of its population—nearly 1 million people between 1820 and 1920. Indeed, some estimates suggest that during the great immigrations of the 19th century Norway lost a higher proportion of its people to the U.S. than any country other than Ireland.
Emigration from Norway to North America started more slowly, however. Some Norwegian adventurers accompanied Dutch colonists to New Amsterdam in the 17th century, and members of the Moravian religious sect joined German Moravians in Pennsylvania in the 18th.
Norwegian immigration’s Mayflower moment came in 1825, during a period of particularly fierce religious strife in Norway. In July of that year, a group of six dissenting families, seeking a haven from the official Norwegian state church, set sail from Stavanger in an undersized sloop, the Restaurationen.
When it arrived in New York harbor after an arduous 14-week journey, the Restaurationen caused a sensation, and the local press marveled at the bravery of these Norwegian pilgrims.
Local Quakers helped the destitute emigrants, who eventually established a community in upstate New York. Today, their descendants are still known as “sloopers”.
Word of the sloopers’ arrival, and of other Norwegians’ success in the U.S., soon reached their homeland, and America letters circulated as never before.
In the 1840s, prospective emigrants could read a new magazine, Norway and America, that published stories of Norwegians in the New World, and successful emigrants toured Norway, some sponsored by financial concerns in the U.S. One emigrant, Andreas Ueland, described the effect that one homecoming emigrant had on his compatriots.
A farmer from Houston County, Minnesota, returned on a visit the winter of ’70-’71. He infected half the population in that district with what was called the America fever, and I who was then the most susceptible caught the fever in its most virulent form. No more amusement of any kind, only brooding on how to get away to America. It was like a desperate case of homesickness reversed.
Immigration surged after the U.S. Civil War and followed many of the same patterns as the Swedish immigration that preceded it. By the end of the 1860s there were more than 40,000 Norwegians in the U.S. More than one-ninth of Norway’s total population, 176,000 people, came in the 1880s.
These immigrants, mostly rural families, made their way to the newly-opened lands of the Midwest, settling in Minnesota and Wisconsin, then moving west to Iowa, the Dakotas and sometimes the Pacific Coast.
By the end of century, urban Norwegians had begun to arrive in substantial numbers as well, and formed lasting communities in the cities of the Great Lakes and East Coast.
Norwegian immigration dropped off dramatically after the Immigration Act of 1924, and quickly slowed to a few thousand a year—a rate that has remained largely unchanged to the present day.
Founder of the Nordstrom Department Store chain. In 1887, 16-year-old John W. Nordstrom left his home in Sweden for the promise of New York City. He arrived with $5 in his pocket, a fifth grade education, and not a word of English to his name.