Social Essays

From Norway to Wisconsin

In 1825, Norwegians began to arrive in large numbers in the United States. For the next 40 years, Wisconsin was their main focus. Thirty thousand settled here.

Pictured here is an original room of a Norwegian homestead in Wisconsin. The trunk would have held all the possessions of one family as they made the 6 to 12 week voyage along the Atlantic Ocean. Conditions aboard ship were primitive and uncomfortable. Many died on board from cholera, smallpox, typhoid fever and measles.

These first ships landed in New York. The Norwegians then went by steamboat up the Hudson River to Albany where they transferred to canal boats bound for Buffalo. They booked passage on Great Lakes sailing vessels for Chicago or Milwaukee, and then made their way by wagon, and in later years by train, to Wisconsin.

Some of the original Norwegians first settled in Kendall, New York, but most of them moved on to the Midwest as well. It is said that farmland along the eastern seaboard was unable to support the influx of Norwegians, and so they sought greener pastures.

Farms back in Norway were struggling. They were often small and unable to support a family. Added to that was the lack of other means of employment to help augment the family income.

Arriving in Wisconsin, however, didn't offer the Norwegian farmers immediate relief. Time was needed to clear land, cut down trees and carve logs for their future cabins. Often, Norwegian families would dig a hovel down into the ground at the base of a hill, support the earth with logged beams, and live there for the first year of their arrival.