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Arland O. Fiske: The promise of America

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America has been the dream of many people. Scandinavians may have been the first Europeans to arrive, but later ones were slow to follow the voyages of Columbus. Many individual Norsemen came in pre-revolutionary times, but only the Swedes along the Delaware River formed an early colony (1638).

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Not until the wars of Napoleon did the Scandinavians look to America as a “land of promise.” It began with the “Sloopers” who sailed on the Restauration from Bergen in 1825. Letters reached the homeland and soon “America Fever” spread like wildfire.

The Norwegian immigration has been carefully documented and was made into an exhibit entitled “The Promise of America” first displayed in Oslo in 1984. We visited it and were highly impressed. Beginning in June 1985, the exhibit was at the Minnesota Historical Society, next to the state Capitol in St. Paul for a whole year. It attracted thousands of visitors.

Prof. Odd S. Lovoll of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., has written a book entitled “The Promise of America: A History of the Norwegian-American People,” published by the University of Minnesota Press (1984). It is a magnificent volume telling the story of the immigration years (1825-1925) and has some fascinating pictures. The book was sent to all members of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

What was the “promise” of America? To be sure, many stories that reached Norway were greatly exaggerated. But can you imagine how a landless young Norwegian felt when he came to America and claimed 160 acres of black soil, often free of rocks? That enabled him to ignore the obstacles: grasshoppers, prairie fires, rattlesnakes, three-day blizzards, droughts, sod shanties and long distances to market. It was worth the risks. In America, the peasant boy didn’t even have to take his hat for the sheriff or the pastor!

Wisconsin became the first major center of the “New Norway” followed by Iowa, Minnesota, The Dakotas, Montana and the Pacific Northwest. Brooklyn, Chicago, Minneapolis and Seattle still have large Norwegian populations. Pastors both ordained and lay persons, traveled tirelessly to every community where fellow countrymen were living.

They built academies and colleges that became famous for their excellence, because they didn’t want their children to be “second-class” citizens. They were forever reading. Their newspapers and publishing houses flourished. Augsburg Publishing House in Minneapolis became one of the largest in the land.

They organized ethnic organizations that are still vital today. Politics and debating were in their blood. They became governors, senators, Supreme Court justices and vice presidents. Fierce patriotism has been their trademark.

Today only a few speak their mother tongues, but most still hold deep feelings in their hearts for their ethnic homeland. At no time did I see this more vividly than in 1983 when Norway’s Princess Astrid visited the Norsk Høstfest in Minot, N.D. There were no dry eyes in the audience as they sang, “Ja, vi elsker dette landet” (“Yes, we love that land”). Would they return to Norway?  Most would say — “only for a visit.” They still believe in the “promise of America.”

Next Week: The Hans Christian Andersen House

ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.

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