The New York connection
Norwegians have been immigrating to New York ever since it was known as New Amsterdam and were an integral part of the early colony. Among the very first were the Bergen family, who have a thoroughfare named after them in Brooklyn, and Dirck the Norseman, who came in 1625 and settled in what is today Greenpoint. Still, the Norwegian population was sparse, and immigration was slim for more than 200 years.
However, by the mid-19th century, when Castle Garden was designated as America’s first Immigrant Processing Center under the purview of New York State, Norwegian immigration had grown. At that time, the 1855 Passenger Act was passed, regulating standards for the food, water, and space for voyagers heading to America.
Known by many names (including Fort Clinton and Castle Clinton), Castle Garden was constructed between 1808 and 1811, on what was once an island. The fort went through many incarnations until the U.S. Army felt that the site was no longer necessary, and in 1822, the land was given to New York City. New York, ever a promoter of spectacle and amusement, transformed the area into a theater and restaurant. And from 1896 to 1941, it even held an aquarium.
After its designation in 1855, it continued serve as an entry point until 1890, and 8 million immigrants were processed there. Eight European countries contributed to the majority of those who came, among them Sweden and Denmark, which would have included Norwegian immigrants, as Norway was then under Swedish rule.
In 1890, Castle Garden was closed as an immigration processing center and there was nearly a two-year gap until the opening of Ellis Island in 1892.
Ellis Island is just a short ferry ride away from Castle Clinton. And while many Americans imagine that their families entered the country through Ellis Island, in reality, immigrants only came through this point of entryif they were steerage ticket holders. First- and second-class passengers submitted to a brief shipboard inspection and then disembarked elsewhere at the piers in New York or New Jersey, where they passed through customs.
Many Scandinavians did not come through Ellis Island. As I learned from a researcher there, by the time it opened, many of them were able to purchase tickets in second, or sometimes first class. Even though relatively few Scandinavians came through Ellis Island, it is a place that impresses, and today, it is well worth a visit, even with its long lines. Just entering its grand hall, with its soaring, curvaceous ceiling and its tilework by Spanish building engineer Rafael Guastavino, is daunting. One can imagine how small, anxious, and excited each person who entered felt. The layers of souls who walked through these walls is palpable.
But Scandinavian immigration does have a presence here. There is a wonderful photograph that fills and entire wall of the Ellis Island Museum depicting a Norwegian family leaving their home on a majestic fjord in a rowboat, most likely never to return.
In another moving section of the museum, you’re asked to imagine leaving your home forever and you can only take one suitcase: what would you bring with you? You can see what these early immigrants chose. Scandinavia is well represented here, with fine crafted instruments and elaborately carved wooden pieces.
By the time Ellis Island closed in 1954, over 12 million immigrants had come through its doors.
But not all folks took the legitimate route to enter the United States: there was also a less orthodox way to enter the country: jumping ship. For Norwegians—with their large population that took to the sea—this would have been easy. Family and friends in American port towns offered support, especially in Brooklyn.
The website “Norway Heritage: Hands Across the Sea,” which provides information and passenger lists for emigrant ships departing Norway, substantiates this practice. It reports that “there were also many irregular migrants, such as sailors jumping ship. It is possible to find information about those in the Norwegian sailors records, they will not appear on any passenger lists.” (See www.norwayheritage.com/emigration-records.htm.)
Brooklyn’s 39th Street Pier
Ester Peeders, a Bay Ridge resident from Norway now deceased, once told me that she had first touched Brooklyn soil when she docked at the 39th Street Pier, probably sometime in the early 1950s, along the Bay Ridge Channel. Presumably, it was there that she finished her transatlantic journey and began the last leg. It is amazing to think that she could disembark at the 39th Street Pier and walk to the Norwegian community that once thrived there.
Later, in the 1960s, the pier became part of the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, which handled shipping containers, then break bulk cargo. Shortly after it was built, the majority of the shipping moved across the river to New Jersey, which was a huge blow to the livelihood of the Norwegian community that dominated those waterways.
The terminal was reactivated in May 2018 as a shipping hub, going back to the roots of Brooklyn’s harbor, one of the best natural ports in the world and the reason why so many Norwegians emigrated and settled there over the course of 350 years.
Waves of immigration and the winds of time
Immigration until the time the processing center opened at Castle Garden had little or no oversight. After that point, the U.S. government began to regulate immigration in response to various factors, such as wars, political upheavals, famines, other environmental disasters, and American leaders’ preferences for which populations they deemed desirable. During this period, steamship travel was also developed, cutting both the time and cost of passage to the United States. Over time, laws like the Immigration Act of 1924 that significantly restricted immigration quotas, made it more difficult for many, including Norwegians, to enter the country, and Norwegian immigration rates slowed to a few thousand a year—a rate that has remained largely unchanged to the present day.
By the 1970s, Norway had discovered offshore oil in the Norwegian Sea, changing its economy dramatically, so for Norwegians, there was, and of course still is, no longer much need for economic migration.
A new wave of entrepreneurs
Yet, in recent times, Norway has made a concerted effort to shift from an oil-based economy to one based on innovation and technology. This transition has been very successful within a relatively short time, and now the country is bursting at its seams with startups.
Today, many Norwegian startups wish to get into the American market and to gain access to American investors. Fortunately, the governments from both sides of the Atlantic have found ways beyond the regular immigration laws that allow Norwegian companies to do business in New York legally.
To everyone’s gain, many Norwegian companies have expanded their offices to set up shop in New York, such as well-known architectural firm Snøhetta, and Equinor (formerly Statoil), which is developing wind farms along New York’s shore. Due in part to these exchanges, purveyors of Nordic foods have taken New York by storm.
Looking ahead, one only hopes that the relationship between Norwegian startups and the United States will continue to be encouraged and fostered, as this will benefit both the American and Norwegian economies—as earlier Norwegian immigrants to this country have done.
Learn more about the Ellis Island Immigration Museum at www.libertyellisfoundation.org/immigration-museum.
This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.