People, Races, Ethnicity in the U.S. Norwegian Americans

About the Norwegian Americans in the U.S. including where they are from, why they left, how many there are, famous Norwegian-Americans and more.


Where They Came From: During the period of large-scale immigration from the 1820s into the 1920s. Norwegians came to the U.S. from all sections of Norway. Most Norwegian immigrants came from the south-central farming areas near Oslo, from the southwestern coastal areas, and from North Trondelag County. Also, large numbers of immigrants came from the urban areas of Oslo, Bergen, and Trondheim.

Why They Left: The earliest factor contributing to Norwegian immigration was religion. The Lutheran religion was the official, state-supported church of Norway. For this reason, both Church and State discriminated against the small numbers of Norwegians who belonged to other denominations. In Norway, these religious minority groups included Quakers, Moravians, Haugeanists (evangelical Lutheran dissenters), and Mormons (who had been converted by American missionaries from Utah).

But economics was the major reason for the Norwegian mass migration to the U.S. During the 19th century, industrialization came to Norway slowly, at the same time that overpopulation became a reality. With few new jobs in industry and limited employment in commerce and fishing, the number of unemployed and underemployed Norwegians grew, as the population constantly expanded.

In agriculture, the effects of an increased population were felt most severely. Norway is a mountainous, forested country where only 12% of the land can be farmed. Norwegian law required that the eldest son inherit all of his father's land, while younger sons received nothing. Because of the scarcity of land, these younger sons could not buy farms and, therefore, were forced to join the ranks of the already numerous classes of sharecroppers and hired farm laborers. While Norway experienced a persistent agricultural depression and lack of land, the U.S. was involved in an agricultural boom and needed farmers to settle its underpopulated frontier. Learning that they could buy land in the U.S. for $1.25 an acre, younger sons, sharecroppers, and landless farmhands decided to leave Norway for America.

Where They Settled: The first Norwegian immigrants pioneered the upper Mississippi and Missouri river valleys, settling in rural areas in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. After the prime land was taken in the Midwest, later immigrants journeyed westward to California, Oregon, and especially to the Puget Sound region of Washington State. After 1895, Norwegians settled more in urban centers and formed distinct communities in Minneapolis, the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Humboldt Park section of Chicago, and the Ballard area of Seattle. Presently, many Norwegian Americans have left their farms for the cities, but basically they still live in the states where their ancestors settled.

Numbers: The first wave of immigration brought 70,000 Norwegians to the U.S. by 1860, but the greatest exodus occurred in the 1880s, when 11% of Norway's population immigrated to America. This mass migration, which ended in the 1920s, brought some 700,000 more immigrants. Today only about 500 Norwegians come to the U.S. each year to join the 613,000 first-and second-generation Norwegian Americans already here and the estimated 3 million Americans of Norwegian descent.

Their Story in America: Although Leif Ericson visited America in 1000 A.D., the first group of permanent Norwegian settlers came in 1825 seeking religious freedom. Most later Norwegian-American immigrants were to become farmers in the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, though some also worked as lumber-jacks and miners all the way from Minnesota to Washington. They were prominent in establishing the Pacific Coast fishing industry and were involved in the California and Alaska gold rushes. Arriving in the late 1800s, too, were skilled Norwegian glass workers and glassblowers, who settled in Corning, N.Y., and initiated the modern glass industry. As well as contributing to industrial development, Norwegian Americans have become involved in American education; they have founded 19 colleges in the U.S., including St. Olaf in Northfield, Minn.

Famous Norwegian Americans: Vice-Pres. Hubert H. Humphrey; hotel owner Conrad Hilton; social scientist Thorstein Veblen, who authored The Theory of the Leisure Class; Ole Evinrude, who invented the first commercially successful outboard motor; Notre Dame's football coach Knute Rockne; all-around sports great Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias; Nobel Prize-winning chemist Lars Onsager.

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