ellen mcbee

She's always up to something…

Norwegian Immigrants

on January 23, 2018

Recently, the Occupier of the White House has been quoted as saying…well, that other countries aren’t as nice as Norway. He thinks we should get some clean, polite white people who speak English to immigrate instead of those pesky, poor, black and brown people we seem to attract.

I know! Let’s have a story!

It’s 1902, and 20 year old Klara Jermina Elsina Sorensen is emigrating, to Sioux Rapids, Iowa. She will travel with her 19 year old brother Arthur and her 17 year old sister Hilda.

The ticket for all three cost $168. Where did it come from?

Klara’s father was Elias Sorensen. And his sister Petrika had already emigrated to America with her husband. They had four kids and were doing well, so they invited others in the family to join them. Petrika was 15 years older than Elias and had left for America when he was still quite young, but she and her husband and other family members gathered money to bring Elias’ family to Iowa.

Chain migration.

Once the tickets arrived, they sailed from Tromso to Trondheim. Trondheim was the largest city they had visited; they were met by agents for the shipping company. Their baptismal certificates would be checked before they signed the emigrant book at the police station. Arthur, who was too young for military service, presented a document from the local commissioner.

From Trondheim it was four days to Hull, in England, where they waited in a warehouse until the next train arrived to take them to Liverpool. The food would have been plain, but ample. I can’t tell if they were allowed to leave the warehouse. The local authorities in Hull were eager to move them on as fast as possible.

In Liverpool, they might have waited several more days to board the ship for Philadelphia. During their wait, they would stay in boarding houses (paid for by the shipping company) and answer questions for going to America. Questions like, “Are you a polygamist?”

Subtle, huh?

At the time, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormons, were controversial. In particular, their embrace of the practice of polygamy, which had kept Utah from becoming a state for many years. I’ll include a link below, but to get to the point, the church did not disavow polygamy until 1904.

Meanwhile, there had been few immigrants from Scandinavia until the mid-nineteenth century. When the first Mormon missionaries went into the world, they made large numbers of converts in Scandinavia. These folks wanted to go to Salt Lake City. It wasn’t really a religious test, except that it was. Plural marriage was why the U.S. Government and much of nineteenth century America didn’t care for Mormonism; they thought it was destroying the social fabric, ruining family values, inviting anarchy. Think gay marriage, only with more hoopskirts.

They swore they were not polygamists. They were Lutherans. They didn’t care much about religion, because in Scandinavia as in most of the world by then free practice of religion was widespread. Especially if you belonged to the dominant religion. So, they got on the ship and sailed third class to Philadelphia.

This would have been in slightly better conditions than the old “steerage” class for earlier immigrants. It involved communal living space, limited sanitary facilities, and shelves to sleep on. And seasickness. Lots and lots of seasickness. And when they arrived, they were in Philadelphia. They didn’t see the Statue of Liberty.

They saw something even better. Though, not from the ship.

Independence Hall. The place where America was born, one sweltering summer in 1776. And then another one in 1787.

I’ve written about this before. Independence Hall is practically a religious experience for me. I’m no doubt projecting this onto my great-grandmother; they were probably just looking for a bath by the time they got to Philadelphia. They were met by cousins, older men they’d never met before. And a few days later, after a medical exam, they got on another train to Sioux Rapids, Iowa.

Now, why would a person go through all that? We think of the immigrant experience as people looking for freedom: of speech, of assembly, of carrying loaded weapons. I’m sure all that sounded good, but they had a much more immediate reason.

The place they were from was a tiny village called Dafjord, Norway. A place now mostly known for gorgeous pictures of the Northern Lights. Reindeer. Re-enactors of traditional Sami culture. In other words, tourism. Even today it’s a pain in the neck to get there. By all accounts, they were a farming family. They might have had sheep or goats as well as growing food. But it’s about 250 miles above the Arctic Circle, where the growing season was short. And in a place without industry other than fishing, it’s not hard to understand that what they were really looking for was economic opportunity.

I have been told there’s a letter from their father, which arrived in Iowa shortly after they did. I haven’t seen it and anyway it’s in Norwegian. He detailed the hardships of the rest of the family; that the crops had failed and it was coming on cold weather. In April 1903, at the age of 54, he died.

The three siblings went to work at once. They paid back the $168 to their cousins, and then they started saving to bring their mother and the remaining siblings to America.

Things went along fine until 1917, which is when America entered World War I. Back in Norway, this might not have had much impact on them. But in their new country? Nativism had one of its periodic surges. And this time, it was directed at the political beliefs of recent immigrants. Many people thought that Scandinavians were Socialists.

Klara’s marriage had already been planned by her mother, who had brought a man from the old country to marry her. Instead, she married a native-born citizen. The children weren’t taught to speak Norwegian, because they had to assimilate. All that many of them knew about life in Norway was that Mama couldn’t pronounce the letter J.

They were poor. They came to America through the help of relatives. They were regarded with suspicion for religious and political beliefs, based solely on where they were from. But within a few generations, they looked just like everybody else.

Not because they were deserving. Because they were white.

The meaning of the immigrant experience isn’t, “I got mine, too bad for you.” It’s, “My family came for something better. And there’s a place at our table for you, too.” In a country of immigrants, we have to do better; we have to be the people our grandparents dreamed we would be. Healthy, strong, and…

Welcoming to the stranger.


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