THE IMMIGRATION EXPERIENCE
Day County pioneers were often motivated as much by what they left behind as they were by the opportunities they found in the new land. The following excerpt, from James Kjorsvig’s "Fran Fran Kristmenn Krossman," briefly describes the Norwegian immigration experience:
In the 1800’s, conditions in Norway were poor. Social, economic, and religious reforms were causing confusion and bad times, and it was obvious that the surplus population was going to be a problem. Two-thirds of the Norwegian people were still going into farming for a living. Life was pretty well laid-out for a boy who grew up in Norway during the 1800’s. If he was a peasant’s son, which the majority were, he would be a farm laborer. And if he wasn’t the oldest, he would inherit nothing. He would then have no place of his own and nowhere to raise a family. The Norwegian peasant farmer established an identity with the land. He felt that only if he owned land could he be a free man.
The bad times were caused by an overcrowded farm area. There was hardly any available land, and unemployment abounded. The farmer felt as if he were in bondage. He wanted to be free. To own his own land and be able to work it as he pleased, this was the dream of the Norwegian peasant. The answer was to get out, to get a new chance at life. This was the incentive for the Norwegian migration to America. To get some of that "free land" in the American west where he could raise a family.
A few Norwegians who went to America in the early 1800’s wrote home telling how wonderful the new world was. They wrote telling of how plentiful the food and land was, and how the hardships and burdens of back home were completely unknown here. These types of letters were a great influence on other Norwegians, persuading some of them to come to America, the land of opportunity.
The major obstacles in deciding to journey to the New World were having to leave parents, and the cost. The first cost was that of the sea passage. This became less of a problem during the 1800’s, when the trans-Atlantic shipping companies offered a better price, bringing the rate of travel from Norway to New York down to $18.00.
The ships were crowded and dirty, and it took six to eight weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean. When the Norwegian immigrant did get to New York, the most common landing point, he would have to be careful that he didn’t get cheated because he didn’t know the language. His next biggest task was to travel from New York to the plains of the upper midwest where he could get free land.
The number of Norwegian immigrants to America was quite large, in fact, 750,000. This number was topped only by the Irish, who settled all over the United States.
Unlike the Irish, the Norwegians settled mostly in one place, the plains of the upper midwest. Although early settlements founded by Glens Pearson in 1835,only went as far as Illinois, news of successful settlement started a movement of Norwegians to the great plains. The area of the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin was sometimes called "New Norway," since 80 percent and maybe more of the total Norwegian immigration settled there. The settling of the Dakotas started after the signing of a treaty with the Yankton Sioux on July 10, 1859. Norwegians appeared in Dakota as early as 1859, but the real settlement in that territory didn’t come for another decade. In fact, according to the 1860 census, there were only 129 Norwegians in South Dakota at that time. Many more were on their way. As early as 1880, one-tenth of the population was Norwegian. At the time of statehood for South Dakota in 1889, one-third of the state’s population was of Scandinavian background. Because of their social solidarity, as well as their numbers, the Norwegians exerted a strong influence upon the development of community life in the region.
Lutheranism was the religion of the Norwegian immigrants. They were devout worshippers of their God, and the church was an important social institution on the pioneer prairie.
Next to the church, the immigrant press was the most influential force in the Norwegian farm communities. These papers shaped the political views of a large portion of the state’s population. The Norwegian is by nature a politician. In the very gray of dawn of Northern history, he appears as a sovereign freeman with a full share in the management of local concerns. Norwegians helped to mold South Dakota’s political structure into an agrarian radicalism and popular democracy.
Proportionately, the Norwegians have shown a greater attraction to farm life than any other immigrant group. The next largest placement of Norwegians in occupations was in the crafts and building trades, and then came lumbering, fishing, and sailing. Later, during the industrial boom, the Norwegians proved to be skilled toolmakers and excellent machinists.
The Norwegians hung onto their language, customs, and traditions for a longer period than most. The main reason was their grouping in isolation from others. The Norwegian immigrants grouped together from fear of foreigners cheating them, and for practical means of communicating. This situation was prolonged in the rural areas, but eventually the public schools broke the barrier.
The Norwegian foods are still a part of the upper midwest traditions. There are foods such as lutefisk (dried cod preserved in lye), lefse (unleavened potato cake roll), flat-bread (crisp, unleavened bread), and many more.
In conclusion, I would like to quote the novelist Arne Gaborg’s description of the Norwegian pioneer settlers in the Dakota Territory: "They are a strong, stubborn folk who dig their way through life, of brooding and care, putter with the soil and search the Scriptures, force a little corn from the earth and hopes from their dreams, put their faith in the penny and their trust in God." This statement puts most of the important points together; the Norwegian immigrants’ hopes and dreams of building homes, their steadiness in time of hardships, the way of life from the soil, and their faith in God. The title from Ole Rolvaag’s epic novel of the Norwegian immigrant, "Giants in the Earth," puts it quite well too. Indeed, the ones who turned the soil for a living were giants. Without these Norwegian pioneers, the prairie lands of the upper Midwest would not be the same as they are today.
by LaVonne Helmer
Fort Wadsworth was established as a military post in July of 1864. It was said that at first all roads led to the fort, and that it was the first center of civilization for this area. It is in Marshall County, and is now called Fort Sisseton. The Indian Trail leading to the fort passed through Sections 31, 32, 29, 28, 22, 23, and 13 of Scotland Township, Day County, and through Sections 18, 17, 16, 10, 11, 15, 1, 6, 5, 4, and 33 of Bristol Township, Day County, and then bordered the railroad to Webster and went north of Webster to the fort. There was also a trail from south of the border of Waubay Lake to the north of Lake Parker, or Pickerel Lake. Another trail ran from Pickerel Lake to Fort Sisseton.
Many wagon trains went through this area. On July 28, 1864, according to a 1956 issue of the Reporter and Farmer, a son was born to Mrs. Murphy in Day County. Captain Fiske halted the wagons for a day and gave up his tent for the sick woman. The train then stopped at Fort Wadsworth on its way to Fort Rice, south of Bismarck, Dakota Territory. Many of the pioneers in that group went on to Montana, and some lost their lives in Indian attacks.
A large party of Indians passed through Webster on September 22, 1898, according to the Reporter and Farmer. The procession lasted from 10:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. The Indians were on their way from the west to collect supplies from Fort Sisseton.
by LaVonne Helmer
Most of the Indians of the county lived around the larger lakes in the Waubay area. They had come from the east.
Many white settlers moved to Day County from eastern states, and many came from foreign countries. The towns of Webster, Waubay, and Andover were mostly settled by Scandinavians and Germans, along with some easterners. Roslyn and Pierpont were originally almost 100 percent Norwegian. South of Webster and around Butler, many Germans settled. Holmquist had an area called New Sweden because of the settlers’ origin. Kosciusko,
Wheatland, Morton, Racine, and Grenville had Polish settlers, along with Germans and Scandinavians. Most of the Polish people came to Day County as a result of the third partition of Poland in 1795.
Many Civil War veterans settled in Oak Gulch. Other war veterans settled throughout the county. Scottish people settled in western Scotland Township. Many Irish people came into the county as railroad workers. Descendants of the English, Welsh, and French were also represented.
Today the descendants of these people still remember their origins. Together we are all Americans.