The Great Scandinavian Exodus


The 19th century witnessed a mass exodus of Scandinavians in search of a better life in the New World.

“Potatoes, peace and vaccination” were blamed for a population explosion at home which contributed to an outflow of 300,000 Danes (1820–1920) 800,000 Norwegians (1825–1925) and one million Swedish emigrants (1868–1914) – a quarter of the Swedish population.

The new settlers sent back glowing accounts of their lives in America, and money to support those left behind. These signs of prosperity and other factors such as The United States Homestead Act of 1862, which promised land almost free to settlers who dared to travel west, encouraged others to follow.

Sweden was, for example, struck by crop failures and famines in the late 1860s that stimulated ro massive emigration. High unemployment and a lack of open land for new farms caused increasing numbers of Norwegian and Danes to emigrate to the US.

Scandinavian immigrants settled primarily in the Midwest. Norwegians favored Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota. Danes settled primarily in the agricultural regions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas, while Swedes settled across the entire upper Midwest. Few Scandinavians made their way to the West Coast.

While approximately 125,000 Scandinavians came to the United States before the Civil War, the majority arrived between 1865 and World War I. Many Scandinavians were lured to the United States after receiving “American letters” from friends and family that described fruitful land and employment opportunities. Prepaid transportation tickets from relatives and friends often helped finance the trip to the New World.

One survey reported 65 Norwegians in Washington Territory and 47 in Oregon in 1870. By the 1880s, however, the railroads had reached the Pacific Northwest and within a decade, a significant number of Scandinavian organizations and churches had been established in Tacoma, Astoria, the Yakima Valley, and other areas environmentally familiar to the Nordic immigrants.  Evidence suggests that Scandinavians felt a kinship with the natural surroundings and economic opportunities in the Pacific Northwest. More than 150,000 Scandinavians settled in the region between 1890 and 1910 ― many attracted to the fishing, logging, and farming industries.
The Great Scandinavian Exodus, written by Tor Kjolberg

All images, family photos, courtesy Lars Andersen