VIK, NORWAY – Each stop at the homes of my family’s immigrant forebears was more scenic than the last, until finally reaching an overlook in the western fjords region. There the views were so spectacular we had to pull off the road just to take it all in.
I’m certain one of us in the car said the same thing we did at the other stops: “Why would they leave such as a beautiful spot?”
That’s what I have been thinking about since, why my mom’s great-grandparents had traded views of the fjords and verdant valleys in Norway for the prairie land of western Minnesota. The answer, of course, was economic opportunity.
We are now in a time when immigration is often in the news, and maybe it’s helpful to give some thought to the question of why people try it. Nothing about leaving your home for a new country looks easy, even now.
One way to better understand the lives of immigrants is to seek some sense of why your own family left.
More than 800,000 Minnesotans have Norwegian ancestry, based on census estimates, many undoubtedly knowing a lot more about their Norwegian heritage than I did. On a trip this month to Norway, I just drove and read maps. The real research had been done by my brother Larry, a recently retired vice provost of Cornell University’s medical school.
Without one of the documents he brought with us, an excerpt of an old Nebben family history, we wouldn’t have known where to look for the Norwegian home of one set of great grandparents.
From ancestry records we only knew of a birthplace in Nord-Fron, an area north of the ski town of Lillehammer that’s maybe half the size of one of our counties.
Nebben turned out to be a family name derived from the shape of the land, a 4- or 5-acre slice where a river cascaded out of a lake and rushed down a narrow valley. We were elated to find the spot, far off the main road, and it was indeed a beautiful country for maybe a summer cabin.
It didn’t look like a good place to try to make a living at farming, now or 150 years ago.
Johannes Nebben and his wife, Anne, had been “reared in extreme poverty and hardship,” as the family history described it. “It is well known to many of their descendants that their married life at Nebben was one of great privation and suffering for the whole family.”
That sounds a little like it could have been bad luck, but a hard life for farmers in Norway seemed to be common in the 1800s. In the town of Vik, on Norway’s famous Sognefjord, the valley was flatter and richer. Yet more than 3,000 people left for America in the 1800s from a municipality that maybe peaked at only 3,000 in population.
One who left was John Trytten, known as Tryti in Norway. He came to the United States in time to march with the Union Army in the American Civil War. He then went back to Norway to collect family members, eventually arriving in Chippewa County.
There are a lot of Tryti family headstones in the yard of Hopperstad Stave Church, a 12th-century structure in Vik so well-known a Minnesota replica stands in Moorhead.
There is still a Tryti farm nearby as well.
We can’t be sure why John Trytten, our mom’s great grandfather, left for western Minnesota. We do know, however, that a swelling population had eventually overwhelmed the available land, for the town and for families, according to an essay on emigration from the region by Norwegian historian Rasmus Sunde.
Even the landowning farmers’ younger sons, too far down the line to ever inherit, felt lucky if they found small tenant farming plots.
“Large groups of young people found it difficult to earn a living,” Sunde wrote. “For them the future looked bleak indeed.”
Meanwhile, in our Upper Midwest the government was interested in attracting more farmers, with policies such as the Homestead Acts of the 1860s that would grant up to 160 acres.
The result was what apparently got called “America Fever.” For many young Norwegians, the only question became when to go.
Only Ireland and Italy in Europe sent abroad more immigrants in the 1800s, as a percentage of the population, than Norway did. The Norwegians weren’t all farmers, but what’s noteworthy is that they left almost exclusively for the United States and mostly to just to a handful of states.
Minnesota gained more than its share.
Letters sent back home, along with money from Norwegian-Americans who were doing well, fueled American Fever. Sunde quoted one official from Vik who could recall a neighbor leaving for America so poor his marriage fee was waived, yet he soon had the cash to pay the way over for the rest of his family.
“I could mention many such special cases,” this official continued. “I cannot omit noting the remarkable fact that all these remittances come from people who were poor when they emigrated.”
It wasn’t until after 1900 that Norwegian government and church leaders grew concerned enough about the migration to America to push back on it, according to an essay published by the Norwegian-American Historical Association by the scholar Arne Hassing.
The best time to come had by then already passed, as the best farmland became expensive. And Hassing found a melancholy account from the early 1900s about the downside of coming to America.
The writer, a Norwegian immigrant named Peter Myrvold who had ended up in North Dakota, said the economic case for coming to America was not persuasive. Opportunity, yes, but also high cost of living and little economic security.
And America was changing the Norwegians, too, even the first generation born here. The idea had been to form tight-knit colonies, and our mom described church services conducted in Norwegian into the 1930s. But these colonies broke down.
The Norwegian immigrants had created farms but not real homes, Myrvold continued, valued only for the cash they would bring in a sale. The younger folks seldom inherited the homestead, like they did in Norway. Instead the old homesteaders would sell their farms to strangers and move away.
And maybe that is a version of our story, too, although ours seems like one with a happier ending. We became Americans and did well. On the other hand, I have no idea who is now farming the Trytten land in Chippewa County.