As part of our series "400 Years of Immigration History" this month on Twitter, we've invited the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum to illuminate the history of the first Norwegian immigrants to come to America, aboard the Restauration in 1825. Follow the Twitter campaign at twitter.com/tenementmuseum.
The American immigrant experience in all its diversity can be dramatically and effectively viewed through the lens of Norwegian immigration.
The first Norwegian immigrants came to American for some of the same reasons that the English colonists did, and during the largest wave of Norwegian immigration, later in the 19th century, immigrants came for the same reasons that were typical of other immigrant groups at the time.
Like many early settlers, these were religious "dissenters," members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and 'Haugeans,' a pietistic sect, seeking greater freedom of religious and political expression than they could find in Norway under the state-sanctioned Lutheran Church.
Norway is a rugged, rocky country riven with mountains and fjords. The introduction of the potato was a great relief to Norwegian farmers. The crop could grow almost anywhere, in different soils and conditions. With limited arable land, it was the custom for the eldest son to take over the family farm, leaving any other male siblings to find work elsewhere. Aided by years of peace and potatoes, the population of Norway grew in the decades preceding immigration, eventually leaving many men without employment and increasing the allure of building a new life in the New World.
Then, after helping to build the population up, the potato let the people of Norway down. The great potato famine was not isolated to Ireland. It affected much of Europe and hit Norway hard in 1859 and 1860. In 1861 a late frost killed the harvest. Food was scarce again and children grew sick and died. With little land, opportunity or food, restless, discontented eyes turned westward.
Norwegian immigrants made America their vesterheim, their western home. It was a home they shared with immigrants from many other countries, and together they helped build a nation. Each group wrote its own integral chapter in the American story. Today, we all still share that vesterheim and, at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, you can discover how our very uniqueness is what connects us all.
Early on in the immigration period, Norwegian-American leaders recognized the need to preserve cultural diversity if the nation was to thrive. O. E. Rølvaag made this an underlying theme of his novels and essays and, in 1895, the faculty and administrators of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, resolved that its museum would concentrate on collecting artifacts related to Norwegian immigration. Because of this extraordinary foresight, countless artifacts and documents have been preserved that together bring to life the Norwegian-American experience and in doing so help tell the amazing story of building one nation out of many.
With over 24,000 artifacts and 16 historic buildings, this national treasure was called one of “ten great places in the nation to admire American folk art.” The lives of the people who settled America were truly as colorful as their folk art, and their stories speak through the objects they left behind. Come and see what they have to say to you -- and about you.
Vesterheim also preserves living traditions through events, tours to Norway, educational programs for children and adults, and classes in Norwegian culture and folk art, including rosemaling (decorative painting), woodcarving and woodworking, knifemaking, and textile arts.
For more information about everything that Vesterheim has to offer, check out our website, vesterheim.org.
- Special thanks to Charlie Langton at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum for this post. All images courtesy Vesterheim.