The Great 19th Century Migration of Norwegians

Norwegian settlers in front of their sod house in North Dakota in 1898.

As the 21st century dawned, there were more people of Norwegian descent in the United States (5.5 million) than were in Norway (4.5 million).

The Great Migration of Norwegians to America began as a trickle in 1825 when 52 Norwegians braved the tempestuous voyage across the Atlantic aboard the little sloop Restoration. More than 1 million were to follow.The Great Migration from Norway in the 19th Century.

The first to come were mostly Quakers hoping to find religious freedom in America. The “New World” was about their only choice, as fellow Quakers at the time were persecuted throughout Europe. The Restoration was just 26 feet wide and 90 feet long, and foot-for-foot, it was more crowded than the more famous Mayflower. There were other similarities as well, and the Restoration is sometimes referred to as “the Norwegian Mayflower.” It left Stavanger on July 4, coincidently American Independence Day, equipped with food for three months.

All aboard intended to stay in America, including the crew. They had planned to sell the sloop and its cargo in America. Most aboard were families, one of which included five children as well as the father and mother. Most of the 12 unmarried men were in their 20s, but the youngest, Jakob Slogvik, was a crew member only 15 years of age. The Restoration and its crew were at sea three months before landing in New York on Oct. 9, 1825. They were met there by, among others, Cleng Peerson, who was to become a major figure in the later immigration of hundreds of Norwegians.

Emigration on a larger scale began earlier in Norway than in other Nordic countries, perhaps because of its geographical location and the circumstance of its seafaring tradition. The hundreds of thousands of Norwegians that came to the U.S. in the 19th century came to stay. They lived out their lives in America, raised large families, created institutions, and experienced the sometimes rocky process of adaptation, assimilation and acculturation. By 1900 more than 1 million Norwegians had left their Scandinavian homes for the uncertainly that was America.

Causes of the Great Migration from Norway to America

Improvements in transportation after the Industrial Revolution enabled long-distance migration to increase in the 19th century, especially from Europe to the so-called “New World” of North and South America. Spanish and Portuguese accounted for the bulk of those settling in South America, but most other nations of Europe sent thousands to North America. Chief among them percentage wise were Norway and Ireland.

While religious choice continued to be a moving force for many, economic freedom and the dream to own land impelled many, many more. For the first wave of immigrants, America was a land of hard work as farmers, fishermen, longshoremen, domestic servants and odd jobs. Circumstances were extremely difficult and fraught with great stress.

Norway is a land of mountains, fiords and even glaciers, and only about 5 percent of its land is arable. The growing 19th century population, a century of bad weather now called “the little ice age,” and the universal desire of mankind to own land, drove most of them from their homes. In addition, newly invented labor-saving machinery resulted in a surplus of labor in Scandinavia. Heavy promotion of America in Norway and other northern European nations was also a major factor influencing emigration from Norway. Emigration agents, chief among them was Cleng Peerson, recruited actively. Newspapers, writers, and earlier settlers combined to promote America among Norwegians. Many American states, the church, passenger ships and railway companies had their own emigration agents. Handbooks were published and circulated in Norway praising the climate and condition of the United States. An early example was Ole Rynning’s Sandfaerdige Beretning om Amerika (True Account of America), which was published in Norway in 1838.

‘Letters From America” Were the Best Advertising

But probably the most effective promotion came in the form of “letters from America.” Norwegians already in the U.S. penned a non-ending flow of letters to relatives still in “the old country”. Such letters were passed from home-to-home and from family to family throughout Norway, and they were read and re-read. They extolled the benefits of the United States to relatives, its economic freedom, employment opportunities and egalitarianism in an unique way. And the letters came from people they knew, people they believed.

The near eradication of Native Americans made the frontier appear safe. The Homestead Act of 1862 opened up land to immigrant settlers and spurred the flow of Norwegians. The Act gave land at little or no cost to families to farm and live on. Most of the Norwegian immigrants ended up in the Midwest, especially Minnesota and North Dakota, and on the West Coast, primarily the state of Washington. Today, of the 1 million Americans of Norwegian descent have multiplied to 5.5 million. They have joined the American Middle Class, and are proud contributors to the American way of life. And they remain fiercely proud also of their Norwegian heritage..


  1. Norway to America, by Ingrid Semmingsen translated by Einar Haugen, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1978.
  2. News of Norway, Vol. 2, 2009, quarterly publication of the Royal Norwegian Embassy, Washington, D.C. Fall 2009.
  3. Cohn, Raymond. “Immigration to the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples.