Scandinavian Immigration

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Editors: Lawrence W. Baker , Sonia Benson , James L. Outman , Rebecca Valentine , and Roger Matuz
Date: 2004
From: U.S. Immigration and Migration Reference Library(Vol. 1: Vol. 1: Almanac. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Culture overview; Topic overview
Length: 8,489 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1230L

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Scandinavian Immigration

Scandinavia is a region in northern Europe composed of the countries Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Finland and Iceland are often included as part of the region as well, and immigration from these five countries will be discussed in this chapter. The Scandinavian Peninsula, on which Norway and Sweden are located, lies north of the Baltic Sea. Denmark is situated on the Jutland Peninsula, which is bordered on the south by Germany and by a group of islands in the Baltic Sea lying across a narrow strait from Sweden. To the west of Sweden and south of Norway lies Finland, which shares its eastern border with Russia. Iceland is an island nearly 600 miles west of Norway between the North Atlantic and the Arctic oceans. The northernmost portions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland are in the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle is a parallel of latitude at 66.5° north of the equator that marks the northern frigid zone.

In the 2000 U.S. Census, 10.5 million people claimed descent from one of the Scandinavian countries: approximately 4.5 million from Norway, 4 million from Sweden, 1.4 million from Denmark, 623,573 from Finland, and 42,716 from Iceland. MostPage 284  |  Top of Article of the emigration (leaving one's country to go to another country with the intention of living there) from the Scandinavian countries took place during the eighty-year period from 1840 to 1920. During that period of time, one-third of the total population of Scandinavia immigrated to the United States. In 2000 the number of people of Norwegian descent in the United States was greater than the total population of Norway.

The people of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark descended from the Nordic peoples who have lived in the region for at least ten thousand years. Each of these three countries has its own language, but the languages of the Danes and the Norwegians are similar enough that they can communicate with each other while speaking in their own languages. The ancestors of the Finns arrived in their country around the year 1 C.E. from the Ural Mountain region in Russia. They speak a language that is very different from the Scandinavian languages. In fact, their language is similar only to that of Estonia. Iceland was settled by the Norwegians in about 900 C.E. The official language of Iceland is Icelandic, which stems from the language of the Vikings who settled the island in the ninth century.

Historical background

For several centuries beginning about 700 C.E., the Swedes, the Norwegians, and the Danes became seafaring warriors who raided and conquered lands far and wide throughout Europe and into Russia and Asia. The kings of these nations became Christians in about 1000, and the Norwegians converted (changed someone from one set of beliefs to another) the people of Iceland to Christianity. In the thirteenth century the Swedes conquered Finland and converted its people to Christianity as well. In 1397 the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark formed a union (a political unit joined together by agreement). Their agreement actually created a union of five countries, since Finland remained under the rule of the Swedish, and Iceland was ruled by Norway. The five countries remained united until Sweden broke away in 1523. Norway and Denmark remained united until 1814, when Sweden conquered Norway. Norway was then ruled by Sweden until 1905. Finland became a part of the Russian empire in 1809, achieving its independence in 1917 during the Russian

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uimr_01_img0138 Scandinavian Immigration: Fact Focus

  • In 1638 Sweden attempted to establish a colony called New Sweden in the area around the Delaware Bay (presentday New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania). About one-third to one-half of the settlers in New Sweden were Finns.
  • In 1825 a group of fifty-two Norwegian religious dissenters pooled their resources to immigrate to America. By the years 1834 and 1835, the group had migrated west to Illinois. There they established the Fox River settlement, which became the base camp for future Norwegian immigrants to the United States.
  • The first large wave of Scandinavian immigration in the 1850s most often consisted of middle-class people moving to the Midwest to establish farms.
  • In the mid-1840s the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormons, sent three missionaries to Scandinavia. The missionaries were particularly successful in Denmark because the laws were lenient toward their work. About twenty thousand Danes were converted by Mormon missionaries and immigrated to the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century.
  • Unlike the Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns, the Danes did not establish many tightly knit Old World communities in the United States. Because fewer Danish women emigrated than Danish men, the young male immigrants often married women from other ancestries and after a few generations lost touch with their national roots.
  • The World War I era (1914–18) was a hard time in the United States for new immigrants, and Scandinavian Americans became targets of an anti-immigrant trend. During the excessive patriotic hysteria of these years, many Scandinavian Americans chose to hide their ethnicity and become as "American" as possible.
  • In 1980 almost 30 percent of Swedish Americans claimed pure Swedish ancestry, which is a very high percentage. Most Swedish Americans lived in relative isolation in Swedish American farming communities or urban enclaves (distinct cultural or nationality units within a foreign city or region). Because of their isolation, and the low rate of ethnic intermarriage, Swedish Americans retained their ethnic language longer than many other American immigrant groups.

Revolution. Iceland had remained in the union with Denmark but became a separate country within the union in 1918. It became an independent nation in 1944. All the Scandinavian

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uimr_01_img0139 Scandinavian Immigration: Words to Know

Arctic Circle:
A line of latitude at 66° 33' North that marks the northernmost point at which the sun is visible on the northern winter solstice and the southernmost point at which the midnight sun can be seen on the northern summer solstice. In the Arctic regions, the winters are continuously dark and the summers are continuously light.
The way that someone who comes from a foreign land or culture becomes absorbed into American culture and learns to blend into the ways of its predominant, or main, society.
Chain migration:
A pattern of immigration in which an individual (or group of individuals) immigrates to a new country. Once the first immigrant is settled and communicates to people back home about the new country, he or she is followed by family members and friends, who settle nearby in the new community. They are then followed by their family and friends, and soon there is a small community from a particular village or neighborhood in the homeland within the new community.
A group of people living as a political community in a land away from their home country but ruled by the home country.
Resisting change; staying with traditional values.
Unfair treatment based on racism or other prejudices.
Leaving one's country to go to another country with the intention of living there. "Emigrant" is used to describe departing from one's country—for example, "she emigrated from Ireland." "Immigrant" is used to describe coming to a new country—for example, "she immigrated to the United States."
A distinct cultural or nationality unit within a foreign city or region.
Relating to a group of people who are not from the majority culture in the country in which they live, and who keep their own culture, language, and institutions.
People who have been sent away from their homeland.
Great Depression (1929–41):
A period of economic hard times worldwide that began with the stock market crash of 1929 and continued through the 1930s.
To travel to a country of which one is not a native with the intention of settling there as a permanent resident. "Immigrant" is used to describe coming to a new country—for example, "she immigrated to the United States." "Emigrant" is used to describe departing from one's country—for example, "she emigrated from Ireland."
Indentured servants:
Servants who agreed to work for a colonist for a set period of time in exchange for payment of their passage from Europe to the New World. At the end of the service term (usually seven years), the indentured servant was given goods or a small piece of land to help set up a new life in the colony.
The historic change from a farm-based economy to an economic system based on the manufacturing of goods and the distribution of services on an organized and mass-produced basis.
People given to creative speculation and rational thought about life rather than accepting traditional values.
Labor unions:
Organizations that bring workers together to advance their interests in terms of getting better wages and working conditions.
Mass migration:
The movement of thousands—or even millions—of people from one country to another within a relatively short period of time.
To move from one place to another, not necessarily across national borders.
A view of the social world that embraces, or takes into account, the diversity of people and their cultures within the society.
A set of beliefs that centers around favoring the interests of people who are native-born to a country (though generally not concerning Native Americans) as opposed to its immigrants.
New World:
The Western Hemisphere, including North and South America.
Old World:
The regions of the world that were known to Europeans before they discovered the Americas, including all of the Eastern Hemisphere—Europe, Asia, and Africa—except Australia.
Abusive and oppressive treatment.
A member of the Society of Friends, a radical Protestant sect in England founded by George Fox (1624–1691) in the late 1640s.
Payments to the other side for damages and expenses attributed to the war.
Believing in a society in which no one owns private property, but rather, the government or public owns all goods and the means of distributing them among the people.
Temperance movement:
The drive to stop people from drinking alcohol.
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countries have had a central Lutheran (Protestant) Church, established in the sixteenth century.

Early migrations

There was not much emigration from any of the Scandinavian countries until the nineteenth century, with some very notable exceptions. Norway has claim to having been the first European nation to "discover" the New World. Legendary Norwegian explorer Leif Eriksson (c. 971–1015) is said to have set foot on the shores of North America, probably in Newfoundland, Canada, sometime around 1000 C.E. (for more information, see chapter 3 on pre-Columbian migrations.)

In 1639 Danish sea captain Jonas Bronck set out to establish a settlement in the New World. He brought his wife and a group of indentured servants (people who agree to work for a colonist for a set period of time in exchange for payment of their passage from Europe to the New World and at the end of their term are usually given land or goods) from Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands to a 500-acre parcel of land he had purchased between the present-day Bronx and Harlem Rivers in New York. The area was part of the Dutch New Netherlands colony (a group of people living together as a political community in a land away from their home country but still ruled by the home country), but the Dutch had not attempted to settle there. Bronck established a large farm and built an elegant home, stocked with a collection of about fifty books—an unusual luxury in colonial times. But his time in the New World was short: He was killed in Indian raids in 1643. The Bronck's (or Bronx) River was named after him.

In 1638 Sweden attempted to establish a colony called New Sweden in North America. At that time Sweden was a very powerful European kingdom that included Finland and portions of Norway, Russia, modern Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Germany. The first Swedish colonial expedition sailed up the Delaware Bay in 1638 and built Fort Christina at the site of present-day Wilmington, Delaware. It was the first permanent European settlement in the Delaware River Valley. Over the next two decades, twelve more expeditions arrived from Sweden with Finnish and Swedish settlers (in fact, about one-third to one-half of the settlers in New Sweden were

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A map of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and other countries in 1939. Reproduced by permission of the Gale Group. A map of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and other countries in 1939. Reproduced by permission of the Gale Group.

Finns). The colonists established farming communities in an area that included parts of present-day Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The Swedes might have maintained rule of the colony, but in the 1650s the governor of New Sweden attempted to take over a part of the Dutch New Netherland colony. The Dutch were stronger than the Swedes and responded by taking over all of New Sweden. This ended Swedish rule forever in the New World, but the Swedes and Finns stayed in the colony and maintained a Swedish culture there. Although other Scandinavians joined these early settlers from time to time in the Delaware Valley, there were no large migrations from Scandinavia for nearly two centuries.

Nineteenth-century migrations

During the nineteenth century, the population of the Scandinavian countries began to increase at a very rapid rate. The rise in population happened before the industrial revolutionPage 290  |  Top of Article (the historic change from a farm-based economy to an economic system based on the manufacturing of goods on an organized and mass-produced basis) could bring industry and new jobs into the cities. Many rural people took a severe financial hit, with no land to farm and no jobs available. As immigration to the United States began, according to Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler in The Scandinavian American Family Album, a case of "American fever" spread through Norway and then the other nations. Beginning about 1840, the first immigrants in North America had settled in and were able to write to family and friends in Scandinavia and describe their new homes. Then newspapers began to report on the wonders of the New World. They reported that the U.S. government was giving away land to farmers who promised to farm the land for several years. The promise of free land drew large groups of immigrants. Recruiters looking for laborers in mines and logging camps drew more.

With the exception of the Danes, most Scandinavian immigrants formed communities in the United States in which they could continue to speak their own language, practice their own customs, and educate their children as they chose. After the first few families from a village or a town in the old country had become established in the United States, more families from the same village would immigrate and settle near them. Many Scandinavian American communities were made up almost entirely of people who had known each other and lived near one another in the old country.

As a general rule, the further north Scandinavian Americans lived in their native country, the further north they tended to live within the United States. Many Scandinavian immigrants were drawn to the United States by the availability of farmland, and they tended to move to the Midwest and, later on, to the Pacific Northwest. Others came for jobs, to work as shipbuilders, miners, and lumbermen.

On farms, Scandinavian women shared almost all aspects of the work, raising animals and tending crops. In many cases, farmers would go off to work at a job in a logging camp or elsewhere during the winter, leaving their wives and children to take care of the farm. Because of their self-sufficiency and ability to work hard, Scandinavian American women were sought after as domestic (housekeeping) servantsPage 291  |  Top of Article in U.S. homes. By the turn of the twentieth century, single Scandinavian women were immigrating to the United States and finding work—many as domestic servants, but others in factories and textile mills.

Norwegian immigration

In the early 1800s Norway's population increased by 50 percent. The country had relatively little land that was good for farming. When the population soared, more than half the people owned no land and there were no jobs for them.

The first expedition of Norwegian settlers to immigrate to the United States in the beginning of the nineteenth century consisted of fifty-two religious dissenters, people who chose to practice their religion in a way that the official Lutheran church did not approve. Some were Haugeans, followers of the teachings of peasant preacher Hans Nielsen Hauge. Starting in about 1796, Hauge traveled throughout Norway preaching in the homes of farmers and distributing his intense and homespun devotional literature. Another group that experienced oppression in Norway were the Quakers, members of the Society of Friends, a radical Protestant sect that rejected formal methods of worship because they believed that the Holy Spirit dwells within each person and that a person who yields to the prompting of their own "inner light" will be saved. Because the Lutheran church would not accept the Haugeans and the Quakers, some of these believers chose to emigrate. Norway was fairly isolated from the rest of the world, and not much was known there about the United States. Knowing little about what to expect in the New World, the first group of dissenters seeking to emigrate sent its leader, Cleng Peerson (1782–1865), ahead to see if the United States would be a good place to establish a new colony.

After Peerson had returned with an encouraging report, the group of dissenters pooled their resources to outfit a small sloop (a boat with sails) called the Restauration to take them to America in 1825. They came to be known as the "Sloopers." When they arrived in the United States, the Sloopers first settled in New York, near Lake Ontario. The land was difficult to farm there, though, so in 1834 and 1835, they moved west to Illinois, where land was cheaper

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The sod roofs of old houses in Roros, Norway, a mining town founded in 1646. Reproduced by permission of © Richard T. Nowitz/Corbis. The sod roofs of old houses in Roros, Norway, a mining town founded in 1646. Reproduced by permission of © Richard T. Nowitz/Corbis.

and easier to till. There they began the Fox River settlement, which became the base camp for future Norwegian immigrants to the United States.

A second group of Norwegian immigrants came to America in 1836, settling in Fox River and Chicago. Norwegian immigrants came yearly after that, settling first in Illinois, then spreading north and west to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota, and eventually to the Pacific Northwest. A few settled in Texas, and some stayed in New York, near where they first landed, rather than traveling west. Most Norwegians were deeply opposed to slavery, which discouraged them from settling in the South. Some of those Norwegians in Texas did own slaves, but for the most part, Norwegian Americans opposed slavery and fought on the side of the Union Army in the American Civil War (1861–65).

Norwegian immigration to the United States peaked between 1866 and 1914. Over six hundred thousand NorwegainsPage 293  |  Top of Article came to America during these years. In contrast to earlier Norwegian immigrants who came to America with the intention of settling permanently, many of the immigrants of the peak years were single young men hoping to earn enough money to return to Norway in better circumstances. As many as 25 percent did return, but the rest stayed. Norwegian immigrants continued to come to the United States after World War I (1914–18; a war in which Germany fought against many other countries, including the United States), but their numbers have declined steadily since that time.

In 2000 about 4.5 million people in the United States claimed Norwegian ancestry, in addition to 425,099 people who simply claimed Scandinavian ancestry. The states with the largest populations of Norwegian Americans are Minnesota, Wisconsin, California, Washington, and North Dakota. North Dakota is by far the most "Norwegian" state in the United States, with Norwegian Americans making up 29 percent of the total state population.

Swedish immigration

Between 1851 and 1929, 1.2 million Swedish immigrants entered the United States. Only Ireland and Norway (and perhaps Iceland) lost a higher percentage of their populations to North America. Several factors in Sweden encouraged emigration. Like Norway, Sweden had experienced a population explosion, mainly in its rural areas. It is estimated that the population of Sweden had more than doubled in the century before the emigration. Industrialization had not yet taken hold, so there were few jobs to be found off the farm, even in the capital city of Stockholm. A series of droughts and floods created a famine during the 1860s, and soaring prices made what little cash people had worth less and less. Political upheavals, a cruel government, religious oppression, a rigid class system, and mandatory military service made life uneasy for some in Sweden. It was illegal to belong to any but the official Lutheran church. Because the Lutheran church in Sweden was very strict and conservative (staying with traditional values), there were often conflicts between the church and political reformers or intellectual groups (people given to creative speculation and differentPage 294  |  Top of Article thoughts about life rather than acceptance of traditional values). Many immigrated seeking more freedom, but most were seeking economic opportunity.

In 1846 a Swedish religious dissenter named Eric Janson (1808-1850) brought a group of 148 religious immigrants to the New World, seeking to set up a religious society there. By the time Janson and his followers arrived at the port in New York, troubles had already started among them. Janson claimed to be a prophet (someone who has a special spiritual gift or has obtained knowledge directly from God) and had told the group that they would not get sick on the trip across the Atlantic. He had also said that as soon as they landed in New York they would instantly know the English language. He was wrong on both counts, and several people abandoned the expedition upon landing. Janson's troop set up a colony in Illinois, naming it Bishop Hill. They faced many hardships as they struggled to make shelter before the winter set in. An infectious disease, cholera, caused an epidemic that killed a large portion of the new settlers. More settlers kept arriving, however, and the colony grew in area and population. Bishop Hill was a communal colony—that is, all its people owned the land in common and worked it together. Janson was an extraordinarily rigid ruler who believed that anyone who contradicted him was led by the devil. He was murdered in 1850. After his death, Bishop Hill continued to function as a communal society until 1861, when it collapsed because of financial problems. Some of Bishop Hill's residents stayed, working their own farms there, and others moved on. Most Jansonists later became Methodists, a Protestant denomination characterized by a concern for high moral standards and social justice. The town continued to serve as an important gateway for other Swedish immigrants moving into the Midwest.

The first big wave of Swedish immigration to the United States began in the 1850s. It was largely middle class and consisted of entire farming families. They settled in the Midwest, where the terrain (land) was much like what they had known in Sweden. At that time, the United States was expanding westward and promoted settlement by offering acreage at low prices. The Homestead Act of 1862, which offered free land to those willing to farm it for a certain number of years, drew huge numbers of Swedes to the UnitedPage 295  |  Top of Article States. The descendants of some of the original Swedish American homesteaders continue to work those farms today.

A second major wave of Swedish immigrants from the late 1870s to early 1890s included many more urban Swedes who settled in cities and industrial areas of New York and New England. Others joined earlier immigrants in Chicago. Swedish farmers continued to immigrate as well and began spreading westward, all the way to California. A number of Swedish Mormons, who had been converted in Sweden by Mormon missionaries, settled in Utah, the center of the Mormon community. The Mormons, members of the Church of the Latter-day Saints, had been founded by Joseph Smith Jr. (1805–1844) in the 1830s. Smith had experienced revelations from God, which he transcribed (wrote down what was said to him) into the Book of Mormon and then set out with his followers to found "Zion," a place where true believers would all gather one day. After being evicted from Ohio and Missouri, the Mormons settled in Utah in 1847.

The last major wave of Swedish immigration to the United States began in the early 1900s and lasted until 1929. With the onset of the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression (1929–41; a period of economic hard times worldwide) that followed, economic opportunities were no better in the United States than in Sweden. Many of Sweden's repressive government measures had been lifted by this time. There was no longer any compelling reason to leave Sweden, and emigration virtually ceased. Since 1930, only a very small number of Swedes have immigrated to the United States.

In 2000 the U.S. Census reported 4.3 million Americans who claimed Swedish ancestry. There were also about a half million who simply claimed Scandinavian ancestry. The states with the largest Swedish American populations were Minnesota, California, Illinois, Washington, and Michigan.

Danish immigration

In Denmark there was relatively little religious or political repression compared with Sweden and Norway. One of the motivations for Danish emigration in the nineteenth century was the prodding of the Church of the Latter-day

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Mormon family assembled in front of a log cabin, spinning wheel to the left, in Utah, in 1875. Reproduced by permission of © Bettmann/Corbis. Mormon family assembled in front of a log cabin, spinning wheel to the left, in Utah, in 1875. Reproduced by permission of © Bettmann/Corbis.

Saints, or the Mormons. When the Mormons sent missionaries to Europe in the mid-1840s and 1850s, they sent three to Scandinavia. The missionaries had an easier time in Denmark than in other countries because its government had a relaxed attitude about their work. Their recruitment was highly successful: The Mormons drew about twenty thousand Danish converts to their center in Utah in the second half of the nineteenth century. The church had an emigration fund, which paid for the passage of many Danes who would not otherwise have been able to go.

Even before the Danish Mormon converts immigrated to the United States, about two thousand Danes had arrived between 1820 and 1850. The Danish immigrants were composed mainly of middle-class families who could pay their way to the United States. But like Sweden and Norway, by 1859 Denmark was experiencing the economic strain of sudden overpopulation. Tales of fertile lands and plenty of job opportunities in the United States brought hope to manyPage 297  |  Top of Article in the old country. Three hundred thousand Danes had emigrated by 1920. In the year 1900, one-tenth of Denmark's total population immigrated to the United States. Most of these immigrants were young and male and came from the lower economic classes.

The 2000 United States Census lists 1,430,897 persons of Danish ancestry. The states with the largest Danish American communities include California, Utah, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Washington. Unlike Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns, the Danes did not establish many tightly knit Old World communities in the United States. Because fewer Danish women emigrated than Danish men, the young male immigrants often married women from other ancestries and were quickly assimilated into (blended into) the American culture. While Swedes and Norwegians maintained strong cultural communities in areas where their populations were concentrated, Danes tended to scatter around the nation.

Finnish immigration

Mass migrations from Finland to the United States took place a little later than those of the other Scandinavian countries, in the early years of the twentieth century. Small numbers of Finns had been coming over since the colonial days. Finland, which had been ruled by Sweden until 1809 (when Sweden ceded it, or gave it up, to Russia), had been well represented among the Swedes who had settled New Sweden. Some say as many as half the settlers sent to the colony by Sweden were Finnish. After coming under Russian rule, a small population of Finns immigrated to Alaska, which was being managed by the Russian American Fur Company. Some of the Finns who worked there under the Russians married native Aleut women and stayed there even after the United States bought Alaska in 1867.

Before 1850 the majority of Finnish immigrants to the United States were sailors who left their ships and either joined the rush to California in search of gold or found a home in one of the big eastern cities. Then, in the 1860s, mining companies began recruiting among the Finns, particularly those who were living in northern Norway, to come to work in the copper mines in northern Michigan. After thePage 298  |  Top of Article first Finns had made the trip, found work, and reported home about it, more of their countrymen followed, especially when farming conditions deteriorated in Finland in the 1870s. Between 1870 and 1920, about 340,000 Finns immigrated to the United States. They primarily went to Michigan, Minnesota, and New York, and many lived in predominantly Finnish communities where they could preserve their language and customs. The last large migration of about twelve thousand Finns occurred in 1923.

Today, Michigan still has a high percentage of Finnish Americans. They came originally to mine copper in northern Michigan, but they soon spread out throughout the state. In 1990 about 40 percent of the population of the Copper Country in the north was Finnish American. Other Finns were recruited to be lumbermen in Michigan. Many of the miners and lumbermen eventually saved some money and purchased small farms. A significant number of Finns moved south to work in the automobile industry as it grew in Detroit.

In 2000 the U.S. Census reported 623,573 persons of Finnish ancestry. The states with the largest Finnish American populations were Michigan, Minnesota, California, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Icelandic immigration

Iceland experienced a series of disasters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including disastrous volcanic eruptions, widespread disease, a sheep epidemic, and widespread starvation. At a time when the other Scandinavian countries were experiencing population explosions, Iceland's population was decreasing because many people had not survived the catastrophes. The country was still part of a union with Denmark, but when Icelanders emigrated, most preferred to go to Canada and the United States. About 15,000 came to the United States between 1855 and 1914—a huge proportion of Iceland's total population, which was 78,000 people in 1900. Most Icelanders in the United States settled in North Dakota and Washington, or in New York and Los Angeles.

In 1855 the Mormons established a city at Spanish Fork, Utah, and for the next five years Icelandic Mormons

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Icelandic women in North Dakota. Reproduced by permission of Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection, NDIRS-NDSU, Fargo. Icelandic women in North Dakota. Reproduced by permission of Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection, NDIRS-NDSU, Fargo.

flowed into the new settlement, making it the first Icelandic settlement in the United States. Many of the city's current population are of Icelandic descent. In 1918 Iceland won its independence from Denmark. Since that time, there has been little immigration to the United States from Iceland.

There were 42,716 persons claiming Icelandic ancestry in the United States in 2000. The states with the largest Icelander populations include Washington, California, Utah, Minnesota, and North Dakota. One Icelander settlement was founded on Washington Island in Lake Michigan in Wisconsin in 1870. Another settlement was then established in North Dakota.


Most Scandinavian Americans had little when they entered the country. Like many newly arriving immigrants,Page 300  |  Top of Article they worked very hard as farmers, laborers, miners, lumbermen, domestic servants, factory workers, or craftsmen. Unskilled workers earned a meager living even though their work was exhausting and dangerous and the hours were long. Many Scandinavian Americans, wanting to fight for a better and more fair work life, became actively involved in labor unions (organizations that bring workers together to advance their interests in terms of getting better wages and working conditions). One famous example was labor-union activist Joe (Häglund) Hill (1879–1915). Hill was a Swedish immigrant who wrote popular songs for one of the most radical unions, the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, nicknamed the Wobblies), which sought to unite all workers in one union. Some of the big U.S. businesses felt threatened by the radicals and exerted pressure on important politicians and law enforcers to apply pressure to political activists. Hill was convicted of murder and executed in 1915, and many believed he was framed because of his political activities and beliefs. By that time, the American public was lashing out at people it viewed as subversive (intending to overthrow the establishment). When the IWW helped Finnish American miners in the iron mines of Minnesota organize a strike, Americans began to associate Finns, and Scandinavian Americans in general, with radical causes.

The World War I (1914–18) era was a hard time in the United States for most people who were viewed as foreign. As the nation was drawn into World War I, a wave of anti-immigrant prejudice swept the country. German Americans took the brunt of it, but even though the Scandinavian countries remained neutral in the war, Scandinavian Americans also became targets. The use of their own languages, for some reason, made them the target of angry native-born Americans. During the excessive displays of patriotism during these years, many Scandinavian Americans chose to hide their ethnicity and become as "American" as possible. Parents spoke only English with their children at home. They Americanized their names: Svenson became Swanson, Nilsson became Nelson, and Bengtson became Benson.

When the war was over, the United States entered into a period known as the first "Red Scare" of 1919 and 1920, when the American people became convinced that communists were secretly conspiring to take over the UnitedPage 301  |  Top of Article States. Many Scandinavian Americans—particularly those who were actually involved in political activism, but also many who were simply viewed as foreign and therefore suspicious—were made the target of this hysteria. By the time the mania had subsided, some of the culture and language that Scandinavian Americans had hoped to maintain in the United States was lost to them.

Scandinavian American culture

In the early twenty-first century most Scandinavian Americans have assimilated into U.S. culture. Millions of the Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns are several generations removed from the U.S. communities established by their ancestors in which their native language was spoken and their customs practiced. They have married people from other national backgrounds and lost touch with their roots. Millions of other Scandinavians, though, have remained in the areas in which their ancestors settled, especially in parts of Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and North and South Dakota. Although the native languages are generally not spoken today, the foods, holiday traditions, religion, and many other aspects of the culture have been retained and have mixed with other traditions to form unique Scandinavian American traditions. At the same time, the mainstream of American culture today has been firmly imprinted by the Scandinavian influences.

Norwegian American culture

Norway is divided into bygds, or districts, each of which has developed its own culture with distinctive clothing, customs, folk songs and dances, stories, and language dialect. Immigrants to America tended to settle among others from the same bygd, creating small cultural enclaves. In 1902 Norwegian Americans who wanted to maintain their ethnic identity began to form bygdelags, or district societies. Within twenty years, fifty bygdelags had been established, with a total of more than seventy-five thousand people involved. Many urbanized Norwegian Americans chose not to participate in the societies, believing Norwegian Americans wouldPage 302  |  Top of Article be more successful in their home if they blended into mainstream society. There was some tension over this issue within the Norwegian American community.

Most Norwegian Americans were rural in the early days of immigration. They came from peasant farming families in Norway and clung to what they knew, recreating their old environment in their new home. Most Norwegian Americans have continued to resist urbanization (becoming citified, or part of the city), right up through the present. Many of the old family farms are still run by descendants of the original settlers.

Because Norwegian and English are both in the Germanic family of languages, Norwegian immigrants to the United States found English relatively easy to learn. Early immigrants added many English words into their spoken language so that later immigrants, even those who spoke the same original dialect, often could not understand them. Because Norwegian Americans tended to live in isolated farming communities surrounded by other Norwegian speakers, they retained their native ethnic language longer than many other U.S. immigrants. Even third-generation Norwegian Americans were often fluent in Norwegian. In recent years, however, only a very few elderly folks in the Norwegian American communities still speak in the Norwegian tongue.

The Norwegian Lutheran Church in America was formed in 1917 when the three major Norwegian American churches—the Norwegian Synod, the Haugean Synod, and the United Norwegian Lutheran Church (NLCA)—merged. Many Norwegian Americans were outraged when the NLCA decided to hold its services in English rather than in Norwegian, but the new, merged church recognized that later generations of Norwegian Americans had become more American and chose to minister to their needs. In 1946 the NLCA further enraged conservative Norwegian Americans by dropping "Norwegian" from the church name, becoming the Lutheran Church in America (LCA). The LCA absorbed German and Danish Lutherans in 1960 and recently united with the American Lutheran Church to become the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Two Norwegian-speaking congregations still exist in the early twenty-first century, both named "Minnekirken"Page 303  |  Top of Article (meaning "Memorial Church"), in Chicago and Minneapolis.

The Norwegian Lutheran Church tended to be fairly conservative. Many Norwegian Americans supported the temperance movement (the drive to stop people from drinking alcohol). U.S. Congressman Andrew Volstead (1860–1947), the son of Norwegian immigrants, introduced the Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act, to Congress in 1919. The act prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating beverages.

The first Norwegian American writer to become well known in the United States was Ole E. Rölvaag (1876–1931), who had been a fisherman in Norway before immigrating in 1896. Rölvaag worked as a farmhand in the United States before entering college. He received a graduate degree from St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where he became a professor of Norwegian. Rölvaag wrote several novels dealing with Norwegian settlers in South Dakota. His novels took a very grim view of the immigration process, but they were highly acclaimed and widely read. The book Giants in the Earth (1927) was selected by the Book of the Month Club and sold almost 80,000 copies by the end of its first year in print. A critic for the Nation called the book "the fullest, finest and most powerful novel that has been written about pioneer life in America." Rölvaag dedicated the book "To Those of My People Who Took Part in the Great Settling, To Them and Their Generation."

Norwegian Americans have made significant contributions to the music world. Early Norwegian Americans founded many choral societies, some of which still exist today. The St. Olaf College Choir of Northfield, Minnesota, has achieved international renown since its beginnings in the early 1900s. Founding director F. Melius Christiansen (1871–1955) wanted to develop a cappella singing (singing without accompaniment by musical instruments). Christiansen created the first chorus of its kind in the United States. Norwegian folk dances are still performed by Norwegian American dance groups around the country.

Skiing was relatively unknown in the United States in the 1800s. When Norwegians immigrated, they brought with them their love of skiing, both as a sport and as a mode of transportationPage 304  |  Top of Article during the long, snowy winters. Cross-country skiing and skijumping were Norwegian American specialties. Telemarking (named after a district of Norway), involving a particular way of turning, later became popular.

Swedish American culture

For many years Swedish Americans rarely intermarried with people of other ethnic backgrounds. In 1980 almost 30 percent of Swedish Americans claimed pure Swedish ancestry, which is a very high percentage considering how few new immigrants had arrived since 1930. Because of their relative isolation in Swedish American farming communities or city enclaves, and the low rate of ethnic intermarriage, Swedish Americans retained their ethnic language longer than many other American immigrant groups. However, in 1925 the Augustana Synod, the largest Lutheran denomination among Swedish Americans, began conducting its church services in English. Although this angered conservative Swedish Americans, by 1935 all Swedish American Lutheran church services were in English. Americanization eventually took its toll: fluency in Swedish was largely lost in the United States.

The Swedish Lutheran Church, in Sweden and in the United States as well, was known to be quite conservative, urging people to lead very disciplined and serious lives. Like Norwegian Lutherans, the Swedish Lutherans were active in championing temperance, or self-control. But certainly not all Swedish Americans were church oriented. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century they tended to split between two camps: one church oriented and usually fairly conservative and the other more politically active and freethinking.

Chicago had a very large Swedish American enclave. In an area of the city known as Andersonville, there were about 150,000 Swedish immigrants by 1900. In Andersonville the Swedish language was spoken, the stores and restaurants were owned and operated by Swedes, and many of the goods sold came from Sweden. In their book The Scandinavian American Family Album, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler quote Swedish American journalist Isador Kjellberg. Kjellberg described Andersonville in 1890: "The liveliest section of the busy Chicago Avenue shows, its entire length, a large mass of exclusively Swedish signs, that Anderson, Petterson, and Lundstrom were here conducting a Swedish general store, aPage 305  |  Top of Article Swedish bookshop, a Swedish beer saloon.… And wherever one goes one hears Swedish sounds generally, and if one's thoughts are somewhat occupied, one can believe one has been quickly transported back to Sweden."

A girl and boy, dressed in traditional Swedish-style outfits, stand together at a festival. Reproduced by permission of © Raymond Gehman/Corbis. A girl and boy, dressed in traditional Swedish-style outfits, stand together at a festival. Reproduced by permission of © Raymond Gehman/Corbis.

A famous cycle of novels on Swedish immigration to the United States was written not by an immigrant at all but rather by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg (1898–1973). As a child growing up in the Swedish province of Smaaland, Moberg was aware that many people were leaving his country for the New World. Before he had even started school, he was eagerly reading the weekly newspaper stories about the New World and the Swedes who had gone there. He became utterly fascinated with the idea of America. Through the years his curiosity grew. He gathered information concerning the Swedish people who had departed for America wherever he could find it—from parish registers, contemporary diaries, brochures, newspaper articles, letters from emigrants in America, and his communications with his own relatives. Ultimately he decided to experience the trip himself. In 1948 Moberg made his first visit to the United States. There he continued his search for the fates of those who came before, piecing together information from diaries and tombstones.

The result of Moberg's years of toil was a four-volume work of historical fiction that has come to be known as the Emigrant novels (in translation, they are: The Emigrants [published in Swedish, 1949; English translation, 1950], Unto a Good Land [Swedish, 1952; English, 1953], The Last Letter Home [volumes 3 and 4, Swedish, 1956 and 1959; English, 1961]. The cycle chronicles the nineteenth-century immigration of Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson to America. The Nilssons settle on a small farm in Minnesota, where Karl Oskar works very hard to survive, but finds the life as a pioneer farmer satisfying and independent. Kristina never stops missing her home. TheyPage 306  |  Top of Article live among fellow Swedish emigrants in Minnesota who experience different levels of success and despair, the results—shown in individual human lives—of the mass migration from Sweden in the late nineteenth century. The novels were very popular in the United States and in Sweden. In fact, several members of the Swedish rock band ABBA created a musical called Kristina from Duvemåla from Moberg's novels. The musical was performed in Sweden in 1998 and 1999. Moberg, who was a successful journalist, playwright, and novelist in Sweden, came back to the theme of emigration in his later novel A Time on Earth (Swedish, 1962; English, 1965), in which an aging Swedish American man lives out the later years of his life in a California hotel room, lonely and unfulfilled. A play based on this novel was very popular in Sweden.

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uimr_01_img0145 The Smorgasbord

All Scandinavian countries have a tradition of the "cold table"—a buffet from which diners may pick and choose the dishes they wish to eat. The Danish and Norwegians call it a koldt bord and the Finnish call it voileipäpöytä. The Swedish call it smorgasbord.

In Swedish, the word "smorgasbord" means "bread-and-butter table," which sounds simple but is in fact a great feast. The smorgasbord is a buffet that is sometimes served in several courses and sometimes put out all at once. It consists of many small dishes from which you can pick and choose the ones you want. The first two courses are made up of cold foods: the main one is herring prepared in a variety of ways—pickled, baked, jellied, and stewed—and served with onions, potatoes, or dill. There may also be rye bread and butter, hard-boiled eggs, caviar (eggs from a sturgeon, a cold-water fish), cheeses, pickles, sausages, and cold meats. Next come hot meats, such as Swedish meatballs in lingonberry (also called mountain cranberry) sauce, ham, pickled cabbage, boiled potatoes with dill and onions, beets, salads, and many other dishes. Ginger snaps and other cookies are favorite sweets.

Danish American culture

Denmark's official national church was the Evangelical Lutheran Church, usually known as the Danish National Church. In 1849 Denmark created a constitutional, democraticPage 307  |  Top of Article government that advocated freedom of religion. But even after the new constitution, Danish Baptists and Mormons wanted the freedom of religion they believed America would provide. A significant number of Danes who immigrated to the United States did not belong to a church.

Even among Danish Lutheran immigrants there were divisions. One group of Danish Lutherans known as the Grundtvig faction called for Danish communities and schools to preserve the Danish language and culture in the United States. Opposing the Grundtvigs were the Inner Mission, another Lutheran group that advocated assimilating (blending) into the American culture quickly in order to be able to compete and succeed in the New World.

Danish immigrants brought several innovations in science to U.S. farming. One Danish immigrant brought an egg incubator with him when he established a farm in California. (An egg incubator is an apparatus that allows for hatching eggs artificially.) Another Danish immigrant started the use of a milk separator, which separated the cream from the milk, in Iowa in 1882.

A Danish American changed the American perception of the role of photography. Jacob Riis (1849–1914) became a celebrated journalist and a reformer of the terrible urban slum conditions to which many immigrants were subjected. Riis was born and grew up in Denmark, the son of a teacher. When he was thirteen years old, he discovered in his native town a tenement house (an apartment building that is below normal standards and is usually found in a city neighborhood) that had been built over a sewer and was infested with rats. Horrified by the terrible conditions the inhabitants of the building had to live with, the boy began his own program of killing the rats and washing the building to bring some cleanliness and decency to the homes of the poor.

Riis immigrated to the United States in 1870. He eventually found work at the New York Tribune, where he was assigned to the police beat. The building in which he worked was surrounded by tenements, and Riis translated the miserable scenes he witnessed there into human-interest stories. He chose to make it his life's work to clean up New York's slums and help the people in them; from then on he worked at this mission tirelessly. In newspaper and magazine articles,Page 308  |  Top of Article lectures, and books, he described and photographed the life of the poor, especially the children. His illustrated articles brought unceasing publicity to the plight of the poor on the Lower East Side of New York and crusaded for school playgrounds, better working conditions, and restrictions on the sale of liquor. Frequently it was the pictures of human misery that did the job, where words had not been effective. His illustrated book How the Other Half Lives (1890) caused a tremendous public outcry and motivated people to action. In a culture that was still oriented to the printed word, Riis showed in this book the power of the documentary photograph in shaping public opinion. The book also brought Riis to the attention of up-and-coming reform politician (and future U.S. president) Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). Riis became Roosevelt's good friend and later his biographer.

Finnish American culture

The Finnish language has no relation to the English language, and many Finnish immigrants did not know English when they arrived in the United States. Because the two languages were so different, it often took longer for Finns to become comfortable with English than for people from Norway or Denmark, whose languages had Germanic roots, like English. Thus many Finns settled into communities with other Finns. Within these communities, they spoke Finnish and maintained a strongly Finnish culture. Over time, a new language called "fingliska," part Finnish and part English, developed within the Finnish American communities. Two important centers of many of the Finnish communities were the Lutheran church and Finnish societies.

Like most immigrant groups, Finnish Americans gradually stopped speaking Finnish, but there are places in the United States where the Finnish language and traditions are being revived. For example, in a high school in Hancock, Michigan, in the heart of Copper Country in Michigan's Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the curriculum includes courses in the Finnish language and culture. All students are taught about the experiences of Finnish immigrants. Hancock was settled by Finns and continues to have a very large population of Finnish ancestry. The town is the site of Suomi University, which was founded in

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A group of immigrants made up mostly of women and children. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. A group of immigrants made up mostly of women and children. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

1896 by Finnish immigrants. A Hancock city government committee was established in the 1980s to preserve and increase the Finnish presence within the city landscape.

The Lutheran Suomi (Finland) Synod was founded in 1890 as the Finnish American church. It maintained strong ties to the Finnish Lutheran Church. In 1962 the Suomi Synod merged into the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), signaling the Americanization of the church and of Finnish Americans. While many Finnish immigrants were deeply religious Lutherans, others arrived with a more political perspective and they did not necessarily belong to a church. Those with a more conservative, religious orientation were often at odds with those with a more leftist (advocating political reform and change) and labor-oriented focus. Finns interested in the politics of reform and the labor movement often met in "halls." In Brooklyn's "Finn Town," for example, there were a variety of Finnish activities ongoing at Imatra Hall.

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Finland has a distinctive tradition in architecture. During the early part of the twentieth century Finnish architecture profoundly influenced American buildings. Two immigrants from Finland who had a tremendous impact on architecture in the United States and worldwide were Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950) and his son Eero Saarinen (1910–1961). Eliel Saarinen first received international attention when he and his partners designed the Finnish pavilion for the Paris Exposition of 1900. Drawing upon the theories and designs of several architectural movements, Saarinen and his partners used the forms of Finnish medieval castles, stone churches, and log structures. Their style has come to be called Finnish National Romanticism. In the pavilion, the form recalled Finnish medieval churches while the interior of the central hall was dominated by frescoes (paintings on plaster) illustrating the mythical events portrayed in Finland's national epic, the Kalevala. (The Kalevala, an ancient Finnish oral [spoken] tradition, was transcribed in the Finnish language and published in the nineteenth century.) The pavilion reflects the desire in Finland for an independent national identity, after centuries of Swedish rule, but it also incorporates great architectural movements from around the world.

In 1922 Eliel Saarinen won the second prize in the Chicago Tribune Tower competition, and that year he moved to the United States. He taught for a short while at the University of Michigan and then built the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. At Cranbrook, he headed the Department of Architecture and City Planning. Eliel's son Eero won the competition for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, which was built in the early 1960s. The memorial is a stainless-steel arch in St. Louis. Eero designed the Kresge Auditorium and Chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. The auditorium was the first major shell construction in the United States. (This auditorium contains a little theater, a concert hall, and rehearsal rooms. It is noted for its graceful white dome: one-eighth of a sphere anchored on hidden abutments at three points. On the three faces between, glass walls arch upward to meet its thin concrete shell.) He also designed the Trans World Airlines terminal at Kennedy Airport, New York, and many other large projects. Though very different, both Saarinens produced designs that were customized to express somethingPage 311  |  Top of Article about the culture. Eliel's graduate program at Cranbrook has a continuing impact on the architecture of the United States.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Finnish entertainment troupes (companies) were very popular in Finnish American communities, performing plays and music that provided much-needed recreation and entertainment. One of the most renowned performers of the 1920s and 1930s was the Finnish American accordionist Viola Turpeinen (1909–1958). She began her career playing for dances and local celebrations with a male violinist, but by the end of the 1920s she and another female accordionist Sylvia Pölsö toured the Midwest, drawing eager audiences.

The United States has received many cultural contributions from the Finns. One favorite is the sauna, a steam bath, often created by throwing water on hot stones, an invention that is more than a thousand years old in Finland. In areas where Finnish Americans congregate in the United States, eating customs have been inspired by Finnish cookery, including the "cold table," or voileipäpöytä, a buffet of fish, meat, cheeses, and fresh vegetables eaten with bread and butter. Hot dishes include kalakukko, a pie made with small fish and pork; Karelian rye pastries stuffed with potatoes or rice; and reindeer stew. A popular delicacy is viili, similar to yogurt.

Icelandic American culture

In 1885, the Icelandic Lutheran Synod was established. Icelanders also joined other Protestant churches, such as the Unitarian Church and the Mormons.

Icelanders in the United States usually try to preserve their native identity. Many Icelanders have a strong sense of the Icelandic heritage and look upon the Vikings as pioneering heroes who originally settled Iceland and became the first Europeans in America. This aspect of American history has long been ignored and is only slowly entering into the U.S. school curriculum.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879–1962), the son of Icelandic immigrants, was an influential and highly acclaimed Arctic explorer. Among his many accomplishments, he was the last explorer to discover new lands in the Arctic. He advanced

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Many states have an annual Norwegian parade on May 17th, commemorating the signing of the Norwegian Constitution in 1814. Reproduced by permission of the Norwegian Tourist Board. Many states have an annual Norwegian parade on May 17th, commemorating the signing of the Norwegian Constitution in 1814. Reproduced by permission of the Norwegian Tourist Board.

the study and appreciation of cultures other than one's own, and above all, in his books and works, he educated the world about the Arctic.

Icelanders brought a very simple diet to North America—basically meat and potatoes, since the cold climate of their native land made it difficult to grow most vegetables or fruit. The Icelanders did keep cows for dairy products, and their milk was used to make skyr, a smooth, nonfat creamy curd that looks like yogurt but is really a form of cheese. Skyr has been one of Iceland's national foods since the days of the Vikings. It is very popular in Iceland today because it is known as a health food.

Scandinavian American holidays

Many Swedish Americans continue to celebrate the traditional twenty days of Swedish Christmas, beginning onPage 313  |  Top of Article December 13 with St. Lucia's Day. On Christmas Eve, they serve the traditional foods of lutefisk, dried cod soaked in lye, and rice porridge. Another traditional Swedish food still enjoyed by Swedish Americans is limpa, a type of rye bread.

For a time in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Norwegian Americans celebrated syttende mai, or May 17, commemorating the signing of the Norwegian Constitution in 1814. Huge centennial celebrations were held in 1914, but then the anti-immigrant hysteria of the World War I years suppressed ethnic festivities. The multicultural movement that began in the 1960s, however, allowed syttende mai to reemerge for its sesquicentennial in 1964. Today, many Norwegian American communities hold parades and other cultural festivities on May 17 each year. Two of the traditional Norwegian foods served at these feasts and on other special occasions are lutefisk, made from specially prepared cod, and lefse (pronounced LEF-suh), a flatbread usually made from potatoes and rolled out paper-thin with a grooved rolling pin.

For More Information


Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. The Scandinavian American Family Album. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

McDonald, Julie. Definitely Danish. Iowa City, IA: Penfield Books, 1992.

Melchisedech Olson, Kay. Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish Immigrants, 1820–1920. Mankato, MN: Blue Earth Books, an imprint of Capstone Press, 2002.

Web Sites

Spiegel, Taru. "The Finns in America." Library of Congress: European Reading Room. (accessed on February 26, 2004).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3436800020