Book review: Lovoll’s deep blue sea
Gary G. Erickson
Social historian Professor Odd S. Lovoll’s latest book is a jewel, teased from between the crevices of time and space lying amidst the years of published research done by earlier Norwegian American historians. The story of 900,000-plus Norwegian emigrants coming to America between 1825 and 1920 is a well-known saga. The arrival port of New York is clearly and often read as a major part of the liturgy. Lovoll, however, recognized an emigrational anomaly. With four years of discovery and revelation, he created a book of interest not only for historical academicians but home-grown genealogists as well.
Lovoll describes the anomaly best in his introduction: “Across the Deep Blue Sea takes a new look at an early chapter in Norwegian emigration history and expands its focus to include historical developments in the Norwegian homeland, the United States, and Canada. From 1850 and for some twenty years, Quebec, Montreal and other Canadian port cities became the gateway for Norwegian emigrants to North America, replacing New York as the main destination.” For more than ten years, Lovoll reports, from 1854 to 1865, 94 percent of all Norwegian immigrants to North America, 44,100, entered through the port of Quebec. During the same years, only 520 entered through the port of New York.
Lovoll describes the unfolding of events to this period of time, with its unintended and intended consequences, in a manner not like a watercolorist laying down a transparent background, foreground and sky, but rather more like a prosecuting attorney producing stark fact upon fact, in a deductive manner, creating parts of immigrant history which ultimately give the reader a big-picture comprehension of that which took place during these ten years of inspection.
Within four chapters Lovoll provides an extensive historical review of French and British involvement in the development of that part of North America, Canada, and the area of the Quebec province. He describes Norway’s relationship to the Great Powers, the European wars, and the evolution of free trade laws between Canada and Europe allowing Norwegian sailing ships to bring lumber from Canada to Great Britain. At the same time, realization took place that the shipping industry could bring paying Norwegian emigrants to Canada on the initial trip over. It created a wonderfully profitable tour/retour trading route for Norwegian sailing ships, leading to one of the largest maritime fleets in Europe.
Canada, a burgeoning nation itself and not yet a single nation until 1867, did recognize the invaluable human capital coming to its doorstep which was so necessary for the development of its geographical content.
Lovoll describes the activities within the province of Quebec to establish a hold on this Norwegian resource. He describes the largesse of the Canadian government in supporting these emigrants in their travel, substance, and land needs, and the competition between emigrant recruitment companies as they, on one hand, are accused of “capturing their souls,” and on the other simply “diffusing a knowledge of Canada” to Norwegian citizenry. Norwegian settlements were begun in a fit-and-start manner and with time, most disappeared. Lovoll summarizes, “The early official plans and efforts for Norwegian colonization in Canada largely failed. The Canadian land system was less liberal than the American land system.” America had size, scope, and greater economic opportunity and the Canadian route through Quebec became a gateway to the west and the United States.
Professor Lovoll’s sixteen pages of citations and notes of resources speak to the forensic quality of the data used to memorialize this event in time. His empathy for those whose history he undertook to describe was reflected in his observation and recognition of the names of so many Norwegians portrayed on a monument at a cemetery at Grosse Ile, Canada: “They all awaken a deep and moving sense of the human sacrifice exacted of people who long ago sought a better life somewhere else.”
This article originally appeared in the May 8, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.