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The Norwegian Experience in Wisconsin

Essay by Chris Pederson

The Norwegian Experience in Wisconsin
by Chris Pederson


Driving from La Crosse, Wisconsin to Eau Claire or Madison, the signs of Norwegian presence are abundant. Some towns seem to have more Norwegian flags than American ones. Some town banners have Viking ships portrayed on them and many of the public schools have Vikings or Norsemen for their mascots. There are various museums and Scandinavian stores throughout the areas settled by Norwegians. Norwegians have an above average appreciation for their heritage, and Wisconsin has an above average amount of Norwegians. I will explain the reasons they came here, as well as their unique experiences, history, and continued appreciation of their heritage in the state of Wisconsin.

All over Europe in the mid-eighteenth century the populations of Europes nations were rising. New foods from the New World, better medicine, and improved sanitation lowered the death rate and increased the birthrate. By the early eighteen hundreds Norway had reached its population capacity. At the same time, changes in agriculture, industrialization, and society left many Norwegians without any chance of finding work or any other prospects. The rumors of opportunities to get land at low prices in America started to tempt many Norwegians.

In the year 1825 the ship Restaurationen arrived with 53 of the first Norwegian immigrants in New York. These immigrants sent letters home that would, along with immigrants returning to Norway, encourage others to the prospect of coming to America. In the late 1830s and 1860s nearly 70,000 had immigrated to America. In the United States census of 1860 there were as many Norwegians in Wisconsin as in all the rest of the country.

The first settlers had found land and settled in Illinois. The area ended up being too marshy and unhealthy and they started moving north toward the Wisconsin Territory. In 1838 Ole Knutson Nattestad became first settler to stake a claim in Wisconsin. Many other Norwegian settlers followed suit, starting new colonies that would serve as the immediate destination for many of the incoming Norwegians. These newer immigrants would then form new colonies and in turn become a dispersion point for others. It was this way Norwegians leapfrogged their way through Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and further westward. It was a great comfort for Norwegians to come to these settlements where people had the same heritage, language and similar thoughts. In some of these settlements people lived virtually as they had in Norway.

Norwegian immigrant guidebooks, such as Ole Rynnings, stressed the importance of learning English. He wrote, "Before having learned the language fairly well, one must not expect to receive so large a wage as the native-born American." For better employment, land and crop dealings, and other things, Norwegian immigrants realized the importance of learning English. More than other immigrants native tongues, Scandinavian languages have a certain similar vocabulary and word structure as English. Norwegians could learn English with less difficulty and sooner than others.

During the Civil War 3,000 to 4,000 Norwegians from Wisconsin fought for the Union. Their leader was Colonel Hans Christian Heg. He led them in the 15th or Norwegian Regiment. Colonel Heg himself recruited for the regiment. He is quoted as saying, "To arms for the defense of the old Union, established by George Washington." He also declared that never had there been a better opportunity "to fight for a noble cause, to win an honored name and proud memories for the future, and an experience that could not be had elsewhere." The Norwegian-American paper Emigranten also recruited for the 15th Regiment. Ninety percent of the Regiment was born in Norway and some had enlisted upon arrival.

The regiment and Colonel Heg became heroes to Norwegian Americans. They battled in Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, and Georgia. They won many honors along the way. In Quiners Military History of Wisconsin the 15th were called one of the bravest and most efficient regiments. The Annals of the Army of The Cumberland, 1864 stated,

"They are amongst the best and the bravest of our soldiers. Descendants of the sturdy Vikings of medieval times, they have in the long lapse of years lost none of that daring valor, power of endurance, and remarkable coolness in times of excitement, which characterized their ancestors. Next to bravery, their most marked quality is calmness. Always cool and collected, they act with the same deliberation and forethought in the trying hours of danger as in the transactions of every-day life. Temperate and virtuous, obedient and well disciplined, they are in every respect model soldiers, and challenge the admiration and respect of all whose good fortune it is to mingle with them."

Colonel Heg had been put in charge of a brigade of four regiments, including the 15th, putting him in line to become a general. Shortly after, he was struck down by a bullet at the battle of Chickamauga, Georgia. Many of Colonel Hegs men also did not make it back from the bloody Civil War. Losses are said to be a third of those who fought in the regiment. The battle of Chickamauga was reenacted on site in 1999 by descendants of those who fought in the 15th and other reenactors, including Naval Captain Heg, the great grandson of Colonel Heg. Reenactors also came from Norway and Denmark, filling the ranks of the 15th. Today there is a bronze statue of Colonel Heg at the Capitol in Madison, one in Muskego (where Heg was from) and one in Lier, Norway (where the Heg family was from). The sacrifices made by the 15th a hundred years ago have not been forgotten.

By 1915, no less than 750,000 Norwegians had immigrated to the United States. They had large families and their contribution to the population of the United States citizenship is estimated at over 3 million.

There were few chances in the early period for Norwegian-Americans to express their cultural heritage. Many had brought beautiful examples of Norwegian arts and handicrafts with them. There were breastpins and brooches to be worn with folk costumes from all classes of Norwegian society. At present a fine example of these made by a student at UWL is on display in an exhibit at the Fine Arts Center. Today these costumes are sometimes worn at special cultural events and celebrations such as Syttende Mai (Norwegian Independence Day) in Stoughton. Housewives also returned to baking Lefse when potato flour became available again in the late 1800s as well as other traditional food when the occasion allowed. In America some of these foods were given more cultural significance than in Norway. They became a holiday food and link to the past. In many areas of Wisconsin, Lefse is in abundance at Thanksgiving and Christmas in local grocery stores.

The first Norwegian-American newspaper appeared in 1847, called Nordlyset (Northern Light). They stated in their first issue, "Besides information about the constitution of this country and reports from Scandinavia, historical, agricultural, and religious news, we intend to bring contributions from private individuals and everything else that is suitable and useful for the information and entertainment of our readers. The editors will make every effort to preserve the strictest possible neutrality in matters of politics and religion." They however stopped publication after three years and were succeeded by another long-lasting Norwegian-American newspaper. In 1852 publication of the Emigranten (The Emigrant) began. This paper was not however free of politics and took political positions for liberal public land policies, in support of certain candidates, and took a position against slavery. The Norwegian-American press also sought to remind immigrants to appreciate their nationality in the face of pressure to fully Americanize. These papers preserved the language and helped bring a boom in local and national Norwegian Societies. Many Norwegian organizations exist today, such as the Sons of Norway , who have been around for over a hundred years and have a membership of nearly 70,000 in Wisconsin, Minnesota and other areas.

There are also various types of museums dedicated to Norwegian Americans in Wisconsin. In the late 1920s work was started on Little Norway, an outdoor museum with replica Norwegian and Norwegian-American buildings. It even has a large replica stave church built by Norway for the Worlds Fair in the late 1800s. Another historic open-air museum is Norskedalen. It has original Norwegian-American buildings where they were first built and others were relocated there. There are also various Scandinavian shops in Wisconsin, where ethnic Scandinavian goods from both sides of the Atlantic are sold. They are often a source for area events as well. One can also attend the Syttende Mai celebrations in towns like Westby and Stoughton. This is not a complete listing, but the abundance of heritage centers and events bears witness to the appreciation Norwegian-Americans have for their heritage.

It is apparent that these people who originally came from the north and western lands of Scandinavia have a tradition of greatly valuing their heritage. Norwegian Americans continue to show pride and acknowledge their heritage to the present day and their presence is apparent throughout the communities they first settled and founded all over Wisconsin.

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April 22, 2001