Scandinavian immigrants

The large numbers of Scandinavians who immigrated to the United States during the nineteenth century were driven primarily by economic motives. Most settled in the upper Midwest as homesteaders, and many later moved to the Pacific Northwest. As northern European Protestants, they were readily accepted in America and assimilated easily. Scandinavian immigration was also a classic example of chain migration, as many immigrants were drawn to America by the enthusiastic letters they received from friends and relatives who preceded them to the New World.

The term “Scandinavian” has three different but overlapping meanings. In its narrowest, geographical sense, it applies to northern Europe’s Scandinavian Peninsula, which encompasses only Norway and Sweden. In a broader, primarily linguistic sense, it applies to the countries in which members of the Scandinavian language group are spoken–Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Iceland and the Faroe IslandsFaroe Islands are also sometimes included within this meaning of the term. Finally, in its broadest, cultural sense, it encompasses all those countries, plus Norway and Sweden’s eastern neighbor, Finland. Whereas the Scandinavian languages Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish are part of the Northern Germanic group, Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language closely related to Estonian and Hungarian. However, apart from their language, Finns are culturally closely allied with the speakers of Scandinavian languages and for that reason are commonly regarded as Scandinavians.Danish immigrantsFinnish immigrantsSwedish immigrantsNorwegian
Icelandic immigrantsScandinavian immigrantsChain migrationDanish immigrantsFinnish immigrantsSwedish immigrantsNorwegian immigrantsIcelandic immigrantsScandinavian immigrants[cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Scandinavian immigrants[cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Scandinavian immigrantsChain migration

History of Scandinavian Immigration

Scandinavians were probably the first Europeans to settle in the Western Hemisphere, but their earliest explorations and settlement attempts left few lasting traces. VikingsViking expeditions from Iceland reached eastern Canada as early as 1000 c.e., and some early Viking navigators may have reached as far south as what is now known as New England. After these early explorations failed to create permanent settlements, Scandinavians would not reappear in North America until the British began founding colonies. However, while small numbers of Scandinavians joined the British settlements, no substantial groups came. In 1638, Swedes participated in a trade expedition with Germany and the Netherlands that established a settlement called New Sweden at the mouth of the Delaware River. Afterward, however, few additional Swedes immigrated for more than a century because of Swedish laws restricting emigration.

Small numbers of Norwegians settled in Dutch American colonies during the seventeenth century because Holland had commercial ties with Norway. Some Norwegians also settled in colonial Pennsylvania;Scandinavian immigrantsPennsylvania. The first organized group of Norwegian immigrants was the Sloopers, a group of fifty Norwegians led by a Norwegian Quaker on the ship Restauration. This group settled in Kendall, New York, in 1825 but later many moved to Illinois;Scandinavian immigrantsIllinois, where they founded the Fox River settlement.

From the early nineteenth century through the first years of the twenty-first century, more than 2.5 million Danes, Finns, Icelanders, Norwegians, and Swedes immigrated to the United States. Most came between 1840 and 1924. Chain migration had a snowballing effect on their immigration: Early migrants actively encouraged and helped later migrants, and their numbers steadily increased. The help included not only practical advice and encouragement but also transatlantic steamer tickets. The largest influx of Scandinavians occurred during the 1880’s, but an economic downtown during the 1890’s caused a temporary decline.

During the late nineteenth century, the numbers of Scandinavian immigrants grew as whole families traveled together. The journeys of the earliest emigrants began in Scandinavian port cities, from which they sailed to other European ports in which they could find ships to carry them across the Atlantic. As Scandinavian migration increased, immigrants were able to sail directly to North America from their own countries. Voyages on sailing ships could take months, but as steamships replaced sailing vessels during the 1870’s, the lengths of the voyages dropped under two weeks. Many Scandinavians traveled by steerage class. Most immigrants arrived in New York City; others landed in Boston and Quebec City.

Most early nineteenth century Scandinavian immigrants were peasants. However, by 1900, wealthier urban Scandinavians were settling in U.S. cities. The rate of Scandinavian immigration picked up again during the early years of the twentieth century, but the onset of World War I in 1914 and more restrictive U.S. immigration laws passed during the 1920’s again slowed Scandinavian immigration.

Push-Pull Factors<index-term><primary>Push-pull factors[push pull factors];and Scandinavian immigrants[Scandinavian immigrants]</primary></index-term>

Economic problems, such as major crop failures, in the Scandinavian countries were the primary factors that pushed emigration to North America during the nineteenth century. Medical advances such as Smallpoxsmallpox vaccination helped populations to grow faster than food production could keep up. Many Scandinavian immigrants had been peasants in their homelands, working tiny plots of land whose small harvests they had to share with landlords. In their harsh northern climes, they struggled to grow crops on tired soil during short summer growing seasons and typically were only one harvest away from starvation. Other immigrants had been skilled craftsman who had insufficient markets for their goods. Many Scandinavians faced the additional burden of having to pay church ministers head taxes.

Elements of Scandinavian political systems also helped push people to emigrate. Some Scandinavians were denied the right to vote or wished to avoid compulsory military service. Many chafed under monarchic rule and yearned for democracy. Another source of grievance was the fact that both Sweden and Norway had state religions.

Meanwhile, the United States appeared to offer compelling economic opportunities that pulled immigrants already dissatisfied with their homelands. Peasants looked forward to abundant free, fertile land available under the federal [a]Homestead Act of 1862Homestead Act of 1862. This legislation allowed settlers to claim virtually free 160-acre parcels of land in return for living on the land and making modest improvements. Immigrants who were not farmers felt the pull of good jobs in many industries. The letters that immigrants sent home were circulated among family and friends and were sometimes published in newspapers. “America Fever” also spread via advertising by steamship companies.

Settlement Patterns

Some Scandinavian immigrants settled in eastern states, but most farmers chose to homestead in the upper Midwest, whose physical terrain of abundant lakes and verdant farmlands was similar to that of the Scandinavian countries. After arriving in eastern port cities, the immigrants took steamboats up the Hudson River, through the Erie CanalErie Canal, and across the Great Lakes Michigan;Scandinavian immigrantsto the Midwest. Some Scandinavians settled around Chicago;Scandinavian immigrantsChicago, but most continued farther west to Minnesota;Scandinavian immigrantsMinnesota, Iowa;Scandinavian immigrantsIowa, Wisconsin;Scandinavian immigrantsWisconsin, North Dakota;Scandinavian immigrantsNorth Dakota, and South Dakota;Scandinavian immigrantsSouth Dakota.

Meanwhile, Chicago;Swedish immigrantsChicago became such a popular Swedish destination that one of its neighborhoods was dubbed Swede Town. Swedes worked in lumber mills that manufactured building material for the growing city and were so important in the rebuilding of Chicago after the city’s great 1871 fire that observers said that Swedes built Chicago. Eventually, however, Minneapolis became a more popular urban destination for Swedish immigrants.

After establishing themselves firmly in the upper Midwest, many Scandinavians turned their sights still further west to Washington State;Scandinavian immigrantsWashington, Oregon;Scandinavian immigrantsOregon, and California;Scandinavian immigrantsCalifornia, where they took jobs in shipbuilding, lumber, salmon fisheries, and canning. So many western loggers were Swedish that “Swedish fiddle” became a nickname for the crosscut saw. Several western cities became Scandinavian centers, such as Tacoma and Seattle, Washington;Scandinavian immigrantsSeattle in Washington. Scandinavians participated in the major events of nineteenth century America, such as the gold rush and the building of the Transcontinental railroad;Scandinavian workerstranscontinental railroad. Civil War, U.S.;Scandinavians inThey fought on the Union side in the U.S. Civil War. While farmers predominated, many immigrants were craftsmen or in the maritime trades. Many were active in the labor union movement. Most first-generation immigrants
took blue-collar jobs, but many second- and third-generation family members held skilled blue-collar and white-collar positions.

Other Scandinavians, particularly Swedes, settled in eastern cities, such as Providence, Rhode Island, and Boston, Massachusetts, in which they found skilled industrial jobs. Worcester, Massachusetts, developed a Swedish enclave whose immigrants worked in factories making abrasives and wire. The immigrants’ influence on the neighborhood can still be seen in Swedish street names.

Acceptance and Assimilation

From its founding, the United States was dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants from northern and western Europe. It was thus comparatively easy for northern European Protestant Scandinavians to find acceptance. Moreover, as they came from countries in which the Lutheran Church demanded compulsory education, they arrived in the United States with literacy skills that gave them a competitive advantage over many other immigrants.

Scandinavians generally assimilated quickly. However, members of their various nationalities varied somewhat in the speed of blending. The Danes assimilated the fastest, followed by Swedes, Norwegians, and Finnish immigrantsFinns. The latter were probably slightly handicapped by speaking a language outside the Indo-European family of languages.

Despite their high degree of assimilation, Americans of Scandinavian heritage have retained some characteristics of their traditional cultures. For example, old cultural traditions can still be seen in Christmas cookie recipes and jokes about lutefisk, the codfish soaked in lye. Fraternal organizations such as the Sons of Norway (founded in 1895) and the Swedish Vasa Order of America (founded in 1896) remind members of the old ways. Scandinavian Americans are seen as celebrating symbolic ethnicity, in which they retain a few traditions but do not take them very seriously. They enjoy hyphenated identities such as “Swedish-Americans” and “Danish-Americans,” but these do not interfere with their more serious identities as Americans.

Swedish Immigrants<index-term><primary>Swedish immigrants</primary></index-term>

Sweden contributed the largest number of Scandinavian immigrants to America, with more than 1 million coming between 1851 and 1930. During the first years of the twenty-first century, slightly fewer than 5 percent of Americans claimed Swedish ancestry. The states with the largest Swedish American populations were Minnesota;Scandinavian immigrantsMinnesota, CaliforniaCalifornia;Scandinavian immigrants, Illinois;Scandinavian immigrantsIllinois, and WashingtonWashington State;Scandinavian immigrants.

Significant Swedish immigration began after 1840, when Sweden relaxed its restrictions on emigration. A group of religious dissenters known as JansonistsJansenists established a community in Illinois called Bishop Hill that lasted from the 1840’s into the 1860’s. Major Swedish immigration, however, did not begin until the late 1860’s, when a series of disasters in Sweden gave people new reasons to emigrate. Excessive rains in 1867 were combined with a destructive drought in 1868 that devastated agriculture. In 1869, epidemics caused the deaths of thousands of Swedes. In 1869 alone, thousands of desperate Swedes emigrated to America, in a smaller-scale version of the great surge of Irish immigration during the Great Irish Famine of the late 1840’s. Another development spurring Swedish emigration was an 1877 law raising the amount of property Swedes had to own to be eligible to vote.

By the 1920’s, the rate of Swedish immigration was beginning to drop. During the Great Depression years of the early 1930’s, more Swedes returned to their homeland than immigrated to the United States. Since that era, Swedish immigration to the United States has been modest. The small numbers of Swedes coming during the early twenty-first century tended to settle in the suburbs of New York City and Los Angeles.

Most Swedes adapted quickly to American ways. The homesteaders dressed much like American farmers, used similar dugouts and log cabins, and were quick to adopt American farming methods. In other respects, however, they were slower to assimilate. Some farm families remained paternalistic, retained the Swedish language in the home, preferred in-group marriage, and opposed such leisure pursuits as pool halls and movies. Even during the twenty-first century, some of these holdovers remain among older rural Swedes.

Norwegian Immigrants<index-term><primary>Norwegian immigrants</primary></index-term>

Among the Scandinavian countries, Sweden sent the largest number of immigrants to the United States, but Norway sent a larger proportion of its population. Among European countries, only Ireland lost a larger share of its population to emigration. By 1925, about 800,000 Norwegians had immigrated to the United States. The force pushing Norwegian emigration was economic. During the nineteenth century, Norway’s population growth outstripped its agricultural production, which was limited by the scarcity of tillable land. Another factor that attracted Norwegians to the United States was the 1839 publication of True Account of America for the Information and Help of Peasant and Commoner, A (Rynning)Rynning, OleOle Rynning’s A True Account of America for the Information and Help of Peasant and Commoner, which painted an enthusiastic picture of life in North America for immigrants.

Significant Norwegian immigration began around 1850. Early immigrant ships usually disembarked in New York City. Later, however, most Norwegians traveled Canada;as entry route to United Statesthrough Canada because transatlantic fares to Canada were cheaper, and British navigation permitted ships of all nationalities to land in Canadian ports. The most common route to the American Midwest began in Quebec City, from which immigrants went by ships to Toronto. From there, they traveled overland by rail to Collingwood, Ontario. Then they took steamers across Lake Huron and Lake Michigan to disembark in Green Bay or Milwaukee in Wisconsin or in Chicago, Illinois, from which they continued to the upper Midwest.

Norwegian immigration slowed temporarily during the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), then picked up again. As homesteaders, the Norwegians quickly adapted, changing from their crude ox-driven wagons with wheels made from tree trunk slices to modern horse-drawn wagons. Many Norwegian immigrants later moved to California, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. Not all followed this path, however. Some remained in the Canadian provinces. Others took Copper miningcopper and iron mining jobs in Michigan;Scandinavian immigrantsMichigan. Some Norwegians established a large ethnic enclave in New York City;Scandinavian immigrantsBrooklyn, New York, where they worked in shipbuilding trades and bridge construction. The Women;Scandinavianswomen ran rooming houses and worked in domestic service. Large numbers of single Norwegian women immigrated alone, settling in cities as Domestic workers;Scandinaviansdomestic workers.

Norwegians assimilated comparatively quickly. At first, many continued to speak Norwegian in their homes and churches, and dozens of Norwegian-language newspapers were published. However, the language usually was not passed on to the second and third generations. Norwegians also established colleges that have kept some of the culture alive, such as St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota;Scandinavian immigrantsMinnesota. Some celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day, or Syttende mai, each May 17, an instance of symbolic ethnicity.Danish immigrantsFinnish immigrantsSwedish immigrantsNorwegian immigrantsIcelandic immigrantsScandinavian immigrants

Further Reading

  • Gerber, David A., and Alan M. Kraut, eds. American Immigration and Ethnicity: A Reader. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Collection of articles on ethnic identity, many of which compare modern immigration with immigration in the past.
  • Gesme, Ann Urness. Between Rocks and Hard Places. Hastings, Minn.: Caragana Press, 1993. Describes living conditions and cultural practices in nineteenth century rural Norway.
  • Kivisto, Peter, and Wendy Ng. Americans All: Race and Ethnic Relations in Historical, Structural, and Comparative Perspectives. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Explores leading sociological perspectives on race and ethnic relations, with many Scandinavian examples.
  • Lewis, Anne Gillespie. Swedes in Minnesota: The People of Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004. Traces the founding of Swedish churches and other organizations in Minnesota.
  • Lovoll, Odd. The Promise of America: A History of the Norwegian American People. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Scholarly study of Norwegian immigration that examines the lives of immigrants in both their homeland and America.
  • Rasmussen, Janet E. New Land, New Lives: Scandinavian Immigrants to the Pacific Northwest. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993. Study drawing on oral histories collected around 1980. Emphasizes the lives of women immigrants.
  • Semmingsen, Ingrid. Norway to America: A History of Immigration. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1978. A Norwegian history professor describes how migration affected both Norway and America.

Chain migration


Economic opportunities

European immigrants

Homestead Act of 1862


Mormon immigrants

Push-pull factors

Settlement patterns

Westward expansion