Note: Quotations from Norwegian-American Literature were sent in from Gene Estensen. Thanks Gene.
These quotations are from my collection of books on our Norwegian-American history. They touched me as I read them, so much so that I collected them over the years. May you enjoy them as much as I have.
Gene Estensen (Østensen in Tinn, Telemark)
“He only deserves to be remembered by posterity who treasures up and preserves the history of his ancestors.” —Edmund Burke
“Histories have been written and more will be written of the Norwegians in America, but no man can tell adequately of the tearing asunder of tender ties, the hardships and dangers crossing the deep, the work and worry, the hopes and fears, the laughter and tears, of men and women who with bare hands carved out of a wilderness a new kingdom. Rønning, N. N., Fifty Years in America, p.19.
“To the dear, departed ones, whose busy hands changed the giant forest into fertile fields; whose love of home established the hearthstones, the tender ties of which yet bind together the heartstrings of the native born; whose patriotism gave the best of their live and substance for the defense of their country; whose graves make sacred the soil their feet so often trod”. Gresham, Nicollet and Le Suer Counties Minnesota, Dedication.
“The first mile that leads away from the old home is a long mile”. Clausen, C. A., A Chronicler of Immigrant Life, p. 36.
“It was the boldest that set off first”, from Vilhelm Moberg. Semmingsen, Norway to America, p. 38.
“Of strong and rugged physique, inured to hardship, industrious and energetic and possessing courage, will power and infinite patience they faced alike the primeval wilderness and boundless prairies and by sheer force tamed the wild nature for the permanent blessing of mankind,” wrote Minnesota Railroad and Warehouse Commissioner O. P. B. Jacobson n 1921. Lovell, Odd, The Promise Fulfilled, p. 143.
“To the immigrant the word ‘America’ belongs to the same class of words as heaven, mother, love, hope. It stands for the fulfillment of dreams, for equality, liberty and opportunity”. Rønning, N. N., Fifty Years in America, p.27.
“The Scandinavians love the wider horizon, the salty air, and sometimes even the wild waves. The blood of adventure and freedom is still coursing in their veins”. Rønning, N. N., Fifty Years in America, p.104.
“As Rølvaag put it as early as 1907:”If a man is to realize in full measure the potentialities of his own being he must first of all learn to know the people of his own kin and his own people’s history and literature. This knowledge constitutes our cultural roots.” Semmingsen, Norway to America, p. 143.
“The strongest and most important characteristic of the Norwegian people, according to Rølvaag, is their love of freedom, which leads them to set their highest priority on individual rights under a common law. Since this last trait is the essence of the American ideal, it means that the Norwegian immigrant is already a good American before he even leaves home”. Rølvaag, Concerning Our Heritage, p. Introduction.
“If only we Norwegian Americans could learn to will the impossible as much as our ancestors have done”! Rølvaag, Concerning Our Heritage, p. 51.
“As a person grows older, memories of childhood and early youth are often recalled. When I walk alone out in the country or even when I drift with the crowd in the city, when I listen to old melodies and especially when I sit alone in my room at twilight, I see mountains and meadows, hills, and valleys which I knew so well and loved so much; I hear the clang of cowbells, the murmur of the brooks, and the song of the lark in the sunlit sky. I live over again many episodes; sometimes I laugh and sometimes I don’t.” Rønning, The Boy from Telemark, preface.
“If we are to credit the testimony of certain ancient writers – those, that is to say, of the 16th and 17th centuries – the people of Telemark were a very rough race indeed, one of the authors saying that they were ‘a bad, ungodly, hard, wild, and riotous people.’ Rønning, The Boy from Telemark, p. 9.
“the stones at Meaas in Seljord were anointed each Thursday evening”. Rønning, The Boy from Telemark, p. 11. Could this be where the name Øystein came from (lucky stone, and later precious stone)? Øystein-sen, Østensen, then Estensen.
The great dramatist Henrik Ibsen was born in Skien, Telemark. Rønning, The Boy from Telemark, p. 16.
Gifted writers from Norway were Bjørnson, Ibsen, Lie, and Garborg. Rønning, The Boy from Telemark, p. 56.
For the Christmas story about feeding the birds, spikkeband, see Rønning, The Boy from Telemark, p. 21.
“Norwegian immigrants never forget the mountains, fjords, and the valleys of their native land”. Rønning, The Boy from Telemark, p. 39.
In the mountain community of Tinn the class of independent farmers continued to provide a majority of the emigrants. Lovell, Odd, The Promise of America, p. 25.
For a description of Tinnsjø, and the farms around her read Rønning, The Boy from Telemark, p. 129. The waterfall at Rjukan and the climbing of Gausta Peak are eloquently described.
“I cannot help believing that the departed dear ones see us and hear us”. Rønning, The Boy from Telemark, p. 140.
“I had two countries. Norway I loved because of what it had given me; America I loved because what it gave and promised to give”. Rønning, The Boy from Telemark, p. 148.
For examples of homesickness, see Zempel, Solveig, In their own Words.
“By far the greater part (98.5%) of the population of Norway is of Teutonic, or Germanic origin…..the Teutonic peoples – the English and Americans, the Germans and Hollanders, the Danes, Swedes, Icelanders and Norwegians – control about 35 % of the land area of the earth”. Norlie, The History of the Norwegian People in America, p. 19.
“We of Norse blood, but American birth, if we are true to the best that is in us, cannot fail to have an interest in the trials and the achievements of the pioneer fathers. We must recognize the true heroism of the men and women who braved the hardships and suffered the privations of frontier life in the thirties, forties, and fifties”. Flom, George, Norwegian Immigration to the United States, p. 17.
“How our fathers toiled and how much they suffered, we, their descendants, who are now enjoying the fruits of their labors, can never realize or know; and we owe them a debt of gratitude which we can never pay. The best we can do, is to live worthy lives, and to try to keep green the memories of those who did so little for themselves and so much for us”. Anderson, Rasmus, Norwegian Immigration 1821-1840, p. 432.
“The dear fatherland is always in his memory- perhaps more correctly in his imagination – with a vague charm over it which he cannot explain. Distance lends enchantment to the view”. Blegen, The American Transition, p. 469.
In 1868, a reporter went down to the dock to see the emigrants leaving for America. For a description of the joy and tears, see Blegen, The American Transition, p. 478. He saw “women, old and young, weeping their bitter tears” and “strong, broad-shouldered men, silently gazing at the hills”.
“It is a strange longing that arises in the soul when one thinks about the land one has left, the place where mother and father lived.” Hale, Their Own Saga, p. 26.
For a list of the newspaper articles available, and the years covered, see Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States, p. 260.
For a chart, year by year, of Norwegian emigration, see Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, p. 18. “Only twelve hundred people emigrated in the thirties. A rapid rise followed, with five thousand from 1841 to 1845 and twelve thousand in the next five years”. See this chart also in Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States, p. 6.
Many of my Estensen (Østensen) ancestors left farm Såheimsmogen for America. For a picture of the farm buildings see p. 139 in Kulturminner I Tinn, by Ulf Hope and Per Berntsen.
For a treatment of family naming see Blegen, The American Transition, p. 93.
Coffee was the most cherished drink of the immigrants. See Blegen, The American Transition, p. 196 for a discussion of food and drink.
Several families were noted for opening their homes, for years, to newcomers from Norway. See Blegen, The American Transition, p. 212.
For a description of the early schools see Blegen, The American Transition, p. 240.
“We must turn to fiction, however, rather than to history, for an
adequate treatment of the interrelations between them; and it is worth
noting that the power of such a novel as Giants in the Earth lies not so
much in its portrayal of the external scene as in its understanding of
the psychological realities underlying the struggle of the immigrants to
subdue the prairie that stretched away toward the western rim”. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, preface.
“And the immigrant letters, “America letters,” as they were called everywhere in Norway, make one’s understanding of the human side of the story more intimate. They are “documents that betray the spirit, hopes, and aspirations of the humble folk who tilled the soil, felled the forest, and tended the loom.” Such personal records swing wide the door to the realization that immigrants are people, not lines in a graph or figures in a table”. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, preface.
“I desire here to mention especially my sense of obligation to Professor Rasmus B. Anderson and Dr. George T. Flom for the valuable pioneering work they have done in the field of Norwegian immigration”. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, preface.
“Three-fourths of all the land in Norway can not be cultivated, and of the remaining one-fourth by far the greater portion is forested. In fact, not more than from three to four per cent of all the land comprised within the total area of 124,495 square miles is tillable, and even of this the larger part is meadow land”. G. Tanberg quoted in Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, p. 2.
“Restricted though the Norwegian agricultural lands were, the overwhelming majority of the people derived their livelihood from them in the earlier part of the century. The town population in 1801 comprised only 86,000 in a total of 883,440. In 1865 two-thirds of the population gained their living from agriculture, cattle-raising, and lumbering. The leading cereal crop raised by Norwegian farmers about the middle of the nineteenth century was oats, with barley and mangcorn — the latter a mixture of barley and oats — next. Wheat was grown, but only on a very small scale. A considerable acreage was devoted to potatoes, though a marked decline in potato raising occurred after 1850”. O. J. Brouch quoted in Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, p. 4.
Local representatives of the official class were the Sheriff (lensmann) and the parish priest. Lovell, Odd, The Promise of America, p. 9.
“In truth, the economic position of the bønder has been difficult. Many, pressed to the wall by adverse conditions, have sold their ancient farms and emigrated to America”. And in many other cases younger sons, barred by the practical workings of the odel system of land tenure from having a share in the ancestral estates, have sought their fortunes in the West. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, p. 5.
“To be free and independent has always been the greatest ambition of every true Norseman”. Nelson, O. A., History of Scandinavians in the United States, p. 20. “Stubbornness, firmness, and determination are qualities which the follower of Odin has been largely blessed with. To him no defeat was final. Failure meant only delay. He overcame all opposition, conquered every obstacle, defied every difficulty. Mountains, oceans, deserts, rivers, must not hinder his purpose.”
For a discussion of the conditions that caused widespread immigration to America, turn to Flom, Norwegian Immigration to the United States, p. 221.
Common folk in Norway noted with satisfaction that in America there was no difference between the “upper Class” and the “tramp”. The workman could keep his hat or cap on even when he was talking with the minister or a judge. Semmingsen, Norway to America, p. 127.
“Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are among the five European states, which virtually have no illiterate classes of people. In Russia only 21 persons out of a hundred can read and write, in Italy 58, in Hungary 61, in Austria 75, in Ireland 76, in the United States 78, in Great Britain 91, in Holland 92, in Germany 99, and in the Scandinavian countries 991/2.
Nelson, O. A., History of Scandinavians in the United States, p. 33.
“It has always been considered a great shame to return to the North, even for a short visit, before a person has been successful abroad, and few have done it.” Nelson, O. A., History of Scandinavians in the United States, p. 45.
“it is naturally the men who have intelligence, some financial resources, energy, and ambition that emigrate. It requires all these to break loose from the ties of kindred, of neighborhood, and country, and to start out on a long and difficult journey”. Nelson, O. A., History of Scandinavians in the United States, p. 48.
“The passion for the possession of land and for independence that goes with it have characterized the Scandinavians from the earliest times….”. Nelson, O. A., History of Scandinavians in the United States, p. 60.
To read a tribute to the pioneer women, see Nelson, O. A., History of Scandinavians in the United States, p. 114 in History of Wisconsin.
For a history of the Railroads, see Norlie, The History of the Norwegian People in America, p. 336.
A “bygdelag” is a society composed of natives of a “bygd”, that is , some particular settlement or group of settlements in Norway and their descendants in America. For a history of the “lags” see Norlie, The History of the Norwegian People in America, p. 437.
For an example of Telemark poetry, see Norlie, The History of the Norwegian People in America, p. 510.
“he will study the documents that betray the spirit, hopes, and aspirations of the humble folk who tilled the soil, felled the forest, and tended the loom- in short, who followed the occupations that to the lot of the less favored majority in every land”. Blegen, Land of Their Choice, p. xi. Referring to the work of Dr. Stephenson.
“It is an American creed to be one people. This elevates the lowly and brings down the great”. Blegen, Land of Their Choice, p. 6.
“The only one I advise to come here is the farmer, although not the one who is wealthy and making a good living in has native country, for he will have too great difficulties and wish that he were back home again.” Blegen, Land of Their Choice, p. 82.
“We must see to it that the Telers are not forgotten”. Torkel Oftelie in Telelaget, Telemark to America Volume II, p. 5.
“The Norwegian churches at all times have had their Ladies Aids that tried to live up to their name. Hansen, Carl, My Minneapolis, p. 254.
Tinn, Telemark, Norway covers 706 square miles, only 4.4 of which are cultivated. Fifty are water, 65 forest, and the rest mountain pastures. Thus, 99% is mountain pastures, mountain terrain, forests, and water. Norwegian-American Studies, Vol. 29, p. 45. From Tinnsjø, five valleys fan out. They are Vestfjorddalen, Husvolldalen, Gjøysdalen, Mårdalen, and Tessungdalen. In earlier years forestry in Tinn was closely tied to privileges which the state granted to towns and sawmills. This system put the farmers into a state of dependency and indebtedness to the burghers who well knew how to profit by their advantages. The master of Gimsøy cloister near Skien had a monopoly on the purchase of timber in the whole drainage area of Tinn until is was cancelled in 1798. Norwegian-American Studies, Vol. 29, p. 65. During the period 1814 to 1850 the Norwegian lumber market was in a depressed state. The høstingsbruk system was the main pillar under the old order in Tinn.
“Nostalgia permeates the whole of Norwegian-American literature”, Lovoll, Odd, The Promise of America, p. 216.
Nearly fifty years passed after Norwegians began going to America before anyone among the immigrants started to write short stories and novels. See explanation on Lovoll, Odd, The Promise of America, p. 213.
For a good explanation of the Bygdelag movement see Lovoll, Odd, The Promise of America, p. 282. The most engrossing bybdelag magazine is probably Telesoga (The Telemarkings Saga) edited by Torkel Oftelie between 1909 and 1924. p. 288.
For a table of the Norwegian settlements in America, by year of settlement, see Norlie, The History of the Norwegian People in America, p. 145. Page 148 has a tribute to these early pioneers that should be read by all.
Norway was the first land in the world to grant women the right to vote and hold public office. Norlie, Olaf, History of the Norwegian People in America, p. 22.
Modern Norwegian, a dialect of Danish, is almost entirely a Teutonic language Norlie, The History of the Norwegian People in America, p. 25.
The story of Norway can be divided into two periods, of almost equal duration – the Prehistoric (from 300 B.C. to 872 A.D.) and the Historic (from 872 A. D.). The Historic period falls into six sub-periods – independence (800-1319), union with Sweden (1319-1380), union with Denmark and Sweden – the Calmar Union (1380-1523), union with Denmark (1523-1814), union with Sweden (1814-1905), and independence (1905-present). Norlie, The History of the Norwegian People in America, p. 28.
There were amts, like Bratsberg, which are now called flyke (flyker is plural) that are analogous to our states. Next came kommunes that are analogous to our counties. The local equivalent is the parish. There are two kinds of parishes in Norway, the Prestegjeld, in most cases identical to the kommune, and the kirke if there is more than one church in the prestegjeld. The next division is the gard. A gard was a piece of land that somebody secured ownership of in the distant past. The boundaries were fuzzy at first but became clear with time. This gard was given a name which stayed regardless of owner. If a gard was subdivided by the owner selling a piece of it, it now contained Bruk 1, Bruk 2, and so forth. A Bruk means a smaller farm that was once part of a larger gard. The last division is the husman’s place. If an owner had more land than he could operate, he would provide a small piece of ground to someone, provided they performed labor for the landlord. The husman could build a house, grow crops, graze goats, or whatever on his place. Husman had rights to the land. Generally, his oldest son, or daughter if he had no son, inherited the right to continue to “own” the husman place. The husman was somewhere between owner and renter. A gard could range from 2.471 acres (1 hectare) to about 40 acres of crop land. This does not count forest. The average size of farm is perhaps 35 acres today. Today, Norway has no municipal governments, just kommune, fylke, and national government, i.e., Tinn Kommune, Telemark Fylke, Norway.
A “selveier” (S on the census) is a person who owns the farm land he or she is using and has a registered deed. Back in history, the land of Norway was owned by the church, the crown, or other landowners. By 1660, a fifth of southern Norway had a “selveier”. A “Leilending” (leil, or L) is usually translated to Tenant Farmer couples. They didn’t own the land. The right to use the land was through a lease contract called a “bygselbrev”, hence the term bygselmann. The lease was valid for his or her lifetime. The biggest threat was the death of one of the couple. Since there had to be a couple on the farm, remarriages were common. The “Husmann” or cotter (sometimes crofter) is unique. The farm land they used was never registered as separate units. Their land stood on land that belonged to a “selveier” or was leased from a “Leilending”. There lease contracts were limited in time and “husmann” were generally a couple. A “husmann med jord”, or husm. M/j (cotter with land) had houses and some land to use. A “husman uten jord”, husm. U/j had houses but no land to farm but the couple may have owned a cow or sheep. A “strandsitter”, or shore dweller, is more or less the same as “husmann uten jord”. The emigration to America was heavily recruited from the husmann group.
The “innerst” is also called the “losjerende” or logerende, a couple or single pesons who rented a room (or rooms), often on farms. They could be newlyweds, people who moved from place to place, seasonal workers, very poor, old, or sick people.
“Gårdbruker” or gårdmann have the same meaning, a farmer. The cover the selveier and leilending groups. Abbreviations include garbr, gbr, gardm, and others.
“Forpakter”, or forpagter refers to a group of people that manage a farm for it’s owner.
A class of government officials, or embetsmenn, did much of the governing for most of a century and rural resentment of this class and the taxes they administered ran high.
In early Norway, the engagement (trolovelse) was considered a truly binding agreement, and was recorded in churchbooks. There were two witnesses, both male. It was custom that the girl brought a dowry, that could be cash, part of a farm, or an entire farm. The groom would usually give the girl an engagement gift to show his intentions. If she accepted this gift, this meant she accepted his proposal. The dowry was given to the groom upon the engagement. This permitted sexual relations, and the marriage ceremony itself came at some time later, more as a legal issue to protect the rights of the children, etc. The date from the engagement to the birth of the first child was important. If the first child was born too early, the husband could be fined for having been with his wife too early.
In some parts of Norway, the young girls would stuff their stockings to make their legs look stouter, because the young men and older widows were looking for girls with stouter legs to handle the heavy work on the farm.
Often, when the wife died, the normal naming convention was altered in honor of the deceased. Often, the next child was named in honor of the deceased.
Odelsrett, or right to inherit the farm is interesting. The oldest son, the “odelsgutt” inherited the farm. An oldest son could leave, then return to take the farm from his sibling. The younger sons did not inherit the farm so they sought an “odelsjente”, the oldest daughter in the family without a son. If they could not find an odelsjente, they had few options but to become a husmann. Husmann were generally poor but many were quite wealthy because they had a trade off the farm. The term “husmannplass” is actually derived from real estate property taxes while the farms were “skyldsatt” i.e., assessed for tax purposes. Thus, a husmann did not pay any real estate property taxes. Taxes were often in terms of products produced on the farm. In the mountain areas, this was often butter. In some cases it was grain, calfskins, goatskins, or fish. You could tell the wealth of one gard versus another by taxes paid which was a better measure than acres owned.
“Practically speaking, however, it was virtually impossible socially for a husmand to rise above his station, and it was only the exceptional individual who was able to achieve independence economically. “Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States, p. 11.
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