Reasons for Leaving Norway

Generally speaking, many Norwegians emigrated for economic reasons. Only the oldest son would inherit land; younger siblings would be landless – and with that came poverty. So at the very time Norway had too many people, America wanted more to settle the expanse of the Great West (never mind that native Americans were there).

Semmingsen’s book Norway to America tells that Norway’s growing population in the first half of the 1800s put pressure on the country’s resources. Only when the “golden prosperity” of the 1850s gave way to poor crops and falling prices in the sixties, however, was the pressure felt throughout the land. In this economic crisis many adults could not find productive work. Among the poor, the pressure was even greater.

Semmingsen writes, “A pastor in Solor [many Blair, Wis. immigrants came from Solor] reported in the spring of 1870 that well-to-do farmers were feeding thirty to fifty people every day and that small farmers had difficulty getting along because their grain and potatoes had frozen” (104).

At the same time, Norwegians were hearing of the American Homestead Act of 1862, whereby a settler could claim 160 acres for working the land. That must have seemed too good to be true. In fact, the Norwegian newspaper first learning of this opportunity was certain it was false. Surely our ancestors heard this news too, and likely it was the talk of many.

Perhaps these were the motivations that led the Borresons and Estensons to leave Norway about this time. Elias and Kari Borreson departed in 1869; Bertinus Estensen in 1875 with his wife Maria joining him the following year. Three of these four (all but Bertinus) had their roots in inland Norway, a steady source of emigration for a century but especially the years 1865-1884 (cf. Semmingsen’s maps).


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Potatoes and Herring

Have you ever wondered about all those white Norwegian foods? Lefse, flatbread, rommegrot, krumkake,¬† fattigman, sandbakkels, rosettes, to name a few. On the meat side, there’s lutefisk and herring. I think about this sometimes. Even now, when the food on our dinner plates lacks color, we tease ourselves about having a “Norwegian meal.”

As I was reading Ingrid Semmingsen’s, Norway to America: A History of the Migration, I noted her words about 19th century peasant life in Norway. After 1814, the population began to grow in Norway again, partly because the resistance to disease was increasing. This in turn was due to the food supply which had become better and more reliable.

Semmingsen lists two food staples, especially for the poor, that made a dramatic difference: potatoes and herring. This is the period when potatoes began to be raised in Norway, and production increased sixfold from 1809 to 1835. Every cottage had a small potato patch for home use. For folks living along the coast (not the Borreson/Estenson ancestors) herring returned after being gone for many years. This fish was rich in protein, a nutrient much absent from potatoes. (She doesn’t mention other fish such as cod.) Semmingsen adds that this is a reason many Norwegians had a better diet that the Irish who depended more exclusively on the potato. So the Norwegian diet may have been monotonous, but it was healthier.

That emphasis on the potato may explain a few more white foods on the Norwegian table too, such as lefse. And white there has been! Think how may Norwegian foods we’ve enjoyed made with little more than flour, eggs, sugar, butter, milk/cream – and potatoes. Of course, to add fish to the plate doesn’t do much to change the color either! On the other hand, I’m not complaining – I love them all!

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Pine Tree Milker ad from 1920

While I was reviewing old copies of the Whitehall Times-Banner on microfilm at the La Crosse Public Library, I came across this photo as part of Pine Tree Milker ad on page 4 of the June 29, 1920 edition of the paper.

Pine Tree Milker adOur grandfather Emil was using the Pine Tree milker before his son Sidney was born in 1923, and so perhaps Emil himself even read this ad by “F. A. Caswell, Whitehall, Wis.” Maybe this supplier was the source of Emil’s machines at a time when farmers were giving up hand milking.

The rest of the ad didn’t copy well, so I’ll provide the script myself here:

Why Do You Milk By Hand? If you milk by hand, your milking is costing you double what it should. Let us show you how the Pine Tree Milker will save you 50% of time and labor, how it will increase your profits. The Pine Tree milks in a natural way that is good for the cows. Many cows give more milk when milked by the Pine Tree than when milked by hand.

Special Offer¬† We are making an attractive offer on the Pine Tree right now – an offer so liberal that the milker will easily pay for itself from day to day. Come in – let us show you the Pine Tree and tell you about this offer. Don’t be too late. Take advantage of our offer while it lasts. Begin milking the easy, safe and economical way at once. Call, write or phone now.”

In the 1930s, Pine Tree Milkers became Surge, a major force in the dairy industry and the maker of machines some of us grandchildren of Emil remember using.

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Our Ancestors’ Stop in Londonderry

Our ancestors Elias and Kari Borreson made a ship change in Ireland on their way to America. They had boarded the Scandinavia from Norway and then, stopping in Londonderry, switched to the Britainia for the ocean voyage to New York and America.

I figure here’s my lame claim to being Irish on St. Patrick’s Day: my ancestors breathed Irish air in Derry (as it’s called today) on their way to America!

So when our son Erik and his bride Monica took their wedding trip to Ireland recently, I asked him for just one thing: a photo of the harbor in Derry. I confess I’m a bit envious of his being able to walk where his three-greats-grandparents may have been walked 145 years ago, but happy for him too.

Happily for me, he sent me at photo he took the very day they were there this month, and told me they were spending the night in Derry as well. So I share the photo with you, too, with my wishes that you enjoy the family connection as well.

Derry Ireland2I said that our ancestors’ stop here in Derry was the most Irish I could claim. On the other hand, several towns in Ireland were founded by the Vikings (among them, Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Wexford, and Limerick) when they decided to stay rather than just raid and run. Our own DNA and that of today’s Irish would reveal ancestors in common.

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1880s Farming Changes

The Elias and Kari Borreson family arrived in Fitch Coulee in 1874 and Bertinus Estenson the year after. This was just in time for great farming changes occurring in Wisconsin. For several decades, wheat farming had been the rage, until depleted soils and cinch bugs did it in.

In 1869 the wheat yield in the state was 2,778 bushels per square mile; twenty years later it was down by almost 75 per cent to 764 bushels. Farmers were in the serious position of looking for alternative sources of income. At the same time, dairying was emerging as a serious option.

Wheat was still hanging on in Trempealeau County in the early years of our grandparents’ farming in Fitch Coulee. In 1880 the greatest concentration of wheat in the state was in the counties of St. Croix, Buffalo, Pierce, and Trempealeau – all western counties. The rest of the state was pretty well tapped out. If I recall correctly, wheat farming hung around for more time in Trempealeau County, and in 1917 the county was the state’s leader.

Dairying seemed to catch on quickly in Trempealeau County. The 1890s was referred to as “the creamery decade” because of the expansion of these operations. In fact, the counties of Vernon, La Crosse, Monroe, and Trempealeau (all western Wis.) each produced over a million pounds of creamery butter in 1895. Trempealeau led the pack with over two million pounds, competitive in price and quality with butter from the southeastern part of the state. As an aside, the cheesemaking that emerged in other parts of Wisconsin did not succeed in Trempealeau County. (I think there was an early brief attempt in Arcadia.)

At same time, the number of marketing cooperatives was growing dramatically, a movement that would have been familiar to many immigrants from developments in 19th century Norway. A creamery cooperative was formed in Pigeon Falls, but it was lost in a fire a short time later. Fortunately, the community had the trusted leader Peder Ekern who rebuilt the creamery as a private enterprise, a move acceptable to his fellow Norwegians.

It would have been interesting to know how the Borresons and Estensons adapted to these changes in farming. Did they grow wheat, and if so, for how long? When did they make the change to real dairy farming, rather than just a cow or two for family needs? What did they think about the local cooperatives?

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More About Norwegian Names

As I continued to read A Handbook of Scandinavian Names, it was fun to see the names in our own family, especially a few that I have questions about.

The name “Borre,” for example, is not common as a given name, at least not here in the USA, and I never have been able to learn much about it. This book groups it with Borge, Borje (with / through the o), and Byrge, and then desribes them as “younger forms of Birger.” Birger is described as Swedish, but common in all the Scandinavian countries. Its meaning in Old Norse is “helpful” or “helper, ally.”

The “Esten” as in Estenson is listed as a variant Oystein (/ through the o). This latter was a very popular name in Norway, and in the Old Norse is a compound of two words meaning “luck” and “stone.”

Another name I wondered about was “Gina.” The name appears in America from other traditions with a soft “g.” This book finally verifies Gine as a Norwegian name – the “e” and “a” ending are interchangeable in the language (“e” is usually more Danish, such as Ole vs. Ola). Still, the book does not provide separate information on the name. My guess, however, is that Gina is a shortened form of Jorgine or Jorgina (/ through the o again). Among boys’ names, Jorgen’s English form is George. So maybe that’s it.

When you see Anne in one of its many forms in Norwegian, know that you are looking at the most popular girl’s name in all of Scandinavia since 1500. It derives from the Hebrew name Hannah, and is a reference to the mother of the Virgin Mary.

Ole, the name of Norwegian caricature, was Ola until, under Danish rule, the Danish pastors spelled it Ole. Ola or Ole has a noble heritage: it comes from Olaf, the name of the king or saint of Norway of the same name.

So, there are just a few examples from a book that’s fun to peruse. I haven’t seen a better source for learning about Norwegian names.

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Norwegian Naming Practices in Our Family

My current reading is A Handbook of Scandinavian Names (Coleman and Veka, 2010) published by the University of Wisconsin Press. I thought I’d share with you how traditional naming practices worked out in our family.

Scandinavian Names book cover0001In Norway the first son born in a family was typically named for the paternal grandfather, the first daughter for the paternal grandmother. The second son was named for the maternal grandfather, and the second daughter for the maternal grandmother. Within this pattern there were variations, of course, some necessitated by the number and gender of the children, for example.

1. In Borre Anderson’s family, that pattern worked with a few not unusual variations. Son #1 Andreas was named after his paternal grandfather, Anders Pederson, but daughter #1 Bertha was named after her maternal grandmother, Berte Pedersdatter. Son #2 Elias is one for whom I don’t know the naming reason, but daughter #2 Anne was named after her paternal grandmother, Anne Pedersdatter. Daughter #3 Bertha Marie appears to be named for her maternal grandmother and her mother. Son #3 Bernt may be named after his maternal grandmother too – just my guess.

2. In the next generation in America, the practices already are losing their grip. In Elias and Kari Borreson’s family, daughter #1 Syverine Marie appears to be named after both her grandmothers, Sigri Johnsdatter and Maria Andersdatter. Son #1 Emil likely was named after his father. Continuing the first letter of the name, in this case “E,” was a common practice among immigrants. Son #2 Bernt may be named for Elias’ brother by that name. But Selma, Emma, and Charlie? I don’t know who, if anyone, they were named for. Charlie apparently became an American favorite, as was Ed (Eddie, Edward, etc.) in its variations.

3. In the third generation, the naming practices from Norway are even less apparent. Son #1 Edwin is likely name for his father and grandfather. The continued letter “E” is the clue. Daughter #1 Mabel may be named for her mother and grandmother – the continued first letter “M.” But after that, I have only guesses. Gilbert is an American name, Clara was very popular among immigrants around 1900, and Ben(nie) is an American substitute for Bjarne. But for these and the other names I am guessing. However, if Ed was an American favorite, the Borresons were truly Americanized with their “Ed trifecta” of Edwin, Ednar, and Edgar!

Actually, these three generations match amazingly well the three stages the book describes on pages 98-99, based on a theory by Einar Haugen. Basically, Stage 1 has the practices of the old country, Stage 2 is a transition, and Stage 3 is becoming Americanized. I find it interesting how the Borreson family naming fit Haugen’s theory. As I looked at the Estenson names, the pattern was less obvious and more complex.


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