This post is a special request from my dad and my sister. They watched Finding Your Roots together and started asking questions. Historians love when people start asking questions!
They wanted to know if there was a reason for the large influx of immigrants into the United States from Norway in the 19th century, maybe something equivalent to the Irish potato famine that drove people out of Ireland. They were interested in general information, as our family was not the only one leaving Norway at that time.
On my dad’s side of the family, my grandfather, Ernest Hanson (1910-2000), was a first-generation American. He was born in 1910, so our family must have come to the United States in the late 19th century. Although I don’t know specifically why my great-grandparents made the trip from Norway to the United States, there are reasons that apply broadly.
Norway experienced great population growth during the 19th century. This was a drain on all resources, including jobs. The amount of land available did not increase with the population, so even farm labor jobs became scarce. But there was farm land available in America that was practically free.
The huge amounts of land available in America also supported mining and other industries. There were simply not enough people in the U.S. for all the work required to make the most of this new land. We needed lots of farmers and laborers.
Many Norwegians were also searching for religious freedom. Per the Norwegian Constitution of 1814, Norwegians were not only required to belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, but were also required to attend services. These requirements were loosened over the course of the 19th century, but it was still a reason for many to desire a home with more religious freedom.
(Fun Fact: The Constitution was amended in 1964 to allow religious freedom for all except the royal family, who are required by the Constitution to be Lutheran.)
My Finnish paternal grandmother, Hilda Hanson (nee Fredrickson) (1914-2004), was also a first-generation American. Since Finland is another Scandinavian country, you would think that the same reasons for emigrating would apply. However, Finland had been a part of the Russian Empire since 1809 and had a whole different set of issues.
Mass emigration from Finland happened very late in the 19th century, later than the Norwegians. Many were fleeing the anti-Finnish policies of the Russian Empire. In the late 19th century, the Russian Empire began a policy of Russification, by which they tried to change the politics, culture, language, religion and military of Finland to become Russian. The policy was meant to terminate any Finnish autonomy and, as you can imagine, led to a great deal of instability as people feared the loss of their culture.
In both Norway and Finland, agents from mining and other companies recruited workers from the Scandinavian countries. But a lot of families and individuals were persuaded to make their own moves by family and friends who had already made the trip. Some immigrants even went back to their home countries to convince others of the opportunities available to them in this new land.
So no potato famine, just the chance for more freedom and opportunities than were available at home. At some point I’ll write a blog post (or several) with more specific information about some of the branches of my family. I’m sure there are some fascinating stories waiting to be shared.
And as a special treat if you have Finnish ancestors, I found a site that has records of Finnish immigrants from 1834-1897. Actually, it’s easy to use and fun even if you don’t have Finnish ancestors. I wasn’t able to find my great-grandfather Eleck Frederickson, even though I checked different spellings for the last name. I’ll need to find out if anyone in the family knows exactly when he arrived. Have fun!