Why bestemor never taught you Norwegian

Norwegian immigrants to the US had it easier than many from other countries, but still faced xenophobic pressure—and legislation—that forced assimilation

Photo: Public Domain
A five-cent stamp celebrating the Norse-American Centennial in 1925.

Terje Birkedal
Anchorage, Alaska

With so much recent talk of immigrants and their place in American society, I got to wondering about the reception that Norwegian immigrants received when they came to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. Between 1825 and 1925, over 850,000 Norwegians entered the United States. In those hundred years, around one-third of Norway’s population crossed the Atlantic. Other than Ireland no other European country lost a larger proportion of its population to out-migration.

On the whole early Norwegian immigrants appeared to have largely escaped overt discrimination. One reason they managed to avoid ridicule was their tendency to settle down in rural communities largely occupied or surrounded by other Norwegians or related recent immigrant groups like Swedes, Finns, or Germans. Also, many Norwegians served gallantly in the Civil War on the side of the victorious North, and therefore their patriotism could not be easily challenged. One new Norwegian immigrant of the period, Eling Haaland, wrote his relatives back in Norway saying, “of all Nations Norwegians are those who are most favored by Americans.”

Things began to change starting in the 1880s when the United States started experiencing a rising xenophobia as immigration by all groups, including Norwegians, was on a steep upswing. Suspicion of foreigners continued to increase into the 1890s and then grew to a feverish intensity in the first two decades of the 20th century. American xenophobic nativism reached its peak just after World War I and then began to slowly ebb during the rest of the century.

In the 1880s many states began passing laws that banned the use of foreign languages in the schools or even in places of worship. Norwegians and Germans joined their voices in protesting the Wisconsin Bennett Law of 1889, which required that courses in the schools could only be taught in English. Many Norwegian communities of the time had schools where Norwegian was the main language of instruction. In the late 19th century, Norwegian immigrants also found out they could not get some of the basic services that were offered to native-born Americans, like life insurance. This is one reason behind the founding of Sons of Norway in 1895. As a fraternal organization, Sons of Norway offered insurance and financial assistance in times of need to Norwegian immigrants who could not otherwise obtain protection.

Politicians and “yellow journalism” newspapers particularly attacked Norwegian-language newspapers and magazines as veiled engines of anti-Americanism. Once the United States entered into World War I, the attacks on Norwegian-language publications doubled down and many were outright censored. Some, like Gaa Paa, a left-leaning journal, were shut down permanently by the authorities. At the height of this anti-foreign mania, Governor William L. Harding of Iowa issued a proclamation that forbade the use of foreign languages in the schools, in public places, on the telephone, and in churches. To its credit Sons of Norway rose in official protest of the governor’s order, but it was ignored.

During this period many Norwegians changed their names to appear more American (for example, from “Thorstensen” to “Thompson”). A number of the Norwegian-language publications, if not shut down by the government, lost their readers and went out of business. Some Norwegians even went to the “dark side” and joined the Ku Klux Klan as it enjoyed an unparalleled ascendancy in the northern prairie states. As the great Norwegian-American historian, Odd S. Lovell, has written in his book, The Promise of America, the “prevailing fear in the American people of anything foreign allowed little room for argument.”

This xenophobic phase of American history swept away much of the original vibrancy of Norwegian-American culture and heritage in the United States. Nevertheless, Norwegians went on the offensive after the end of World War I in an effort to regain their standing in American life. They openly promoted the story of Leif Erikson as the “first American” to point out that Norwegians in North America pre-dated the Mayflower by some 600 years. Rebuilding their status soon converged around planning for the Norse-American Centennial in 1925, which was to celebrate the arrival of the first Norwegian immigrants to America on the ship Restauration in 1825. President Calvin Coolidge was persuaded to give the keynote address, and a hundred thousand people gathered at the State of Minnesota Fairgrounds to hear him and others openly celebrate Norwegian culture, history, and heritage. This event, which was highly publicized across the nation, allowed Norwegian Americans to again take open pride in their heritage.

However, the overall trend after 1925 was toward cultural assimilation and integration; the distinct language-bound Norwegian-American communities and neighborhoods that were so common at the beginning of the 20th century gradually disappeared one by one over the remainder of the century. Also, the flow of new Norwegian immigrants to the United States dropped radically after 1925 as living conditions and opportunities in Norway began to improve and restrictions were set on the number of immigrants that could enter the United States.

Terje “Ted” Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He grew up in Colorado and earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Colorado. He retired in 2012 but remains active in his field and has served as the President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage since 2012. He has conducted archeological fieldwork in the American South, the Great Plains, Norway, Canada, Guam, and Alaska. He has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory and history.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.