Why They Came to Wisconsin

Did you ever wonder why our ancestors came to Wisconsin – or specifically Trempealeau County or Fitch Coulee? The answer is usually found in who came before they did. But first, let me back up a step.

In the 1850s and 1860s, the states encouraged – and even competed for – immigrants, Wisconsin included (statehood came in 1848). In 1852 in New York the office the Commissioner for Emigration printed pamphlets about opportunities and resources in Wisconsin, five of those pamphlets being in Norwegian. These were often handed to besieged immigrants when they arrived on U.S. soil. Immigration numbers dropped sharply in 1855, but in 1867, Wisconsin resumed a Board of Immigration that arranged to get pamphlets sent directly to people in Europe.

A prominent Wisconsin scientist by the name of Increase Lapham prepared an official pamphlet in 1867, “Statistics, Exhibiting the History, Climate and Production of the State of Wisconsin.” Despite its bland title, the pamphlet teemed with information immigrants desired: topography, water power, animals, fish, forests, farm products, occupations, newspapers, churches, the Homestead Law, wages, and more.

Increase Lapham

We can wonder if our Borreson and Estenson ancestors might have seen the pamphlet by Lapham or others in their home areas back in Norway. Clearly a powerful inducement to come to America was the land policy of the state, and this included low prices. By 1871 the commissioner of immigration even arranged for reduced railroad fares for immigrants. After all, the object was to attract immigrants.

Another key motivation to come to America was found in the letters that earlier immigrants mailed back home. I have read that often when a letter from America arrived back in Norway, reading it became a social occasion in the home or community. Such letters meant, of course, that the earlier immigration of friends or relatives often influenced other family members to follow, and the places where they might settle.

According to Merle Curti’s book, The Making of American Community (page 98), many people from Biri settled in Trempealeau County’s Hardie’s Creek Valley (south of Ettrick) after 1860. Biri was home to the Thorson family. First Johannes and his wife Ingebor homesteaded in Steig Coulee near Pigeon Falls in 1868. (Was it further north because the southern part of the county was too populated?) Then Torger came in 1875, and the following year, with money earned from working at the Ekern Company in Pigeon Falls, he brought his wife Regine and their six children, plus our great-grandmother Maria Thorson. In any case, many folks from Biri ended up in Trempealeau County.

Curti told of an Arcadia Leader article, June 28, 1877, that a large group of Biri men and women were traveling together for Blair, Wisconsin: “they are just the class of which the Northwest needs thousands more.” By this date, of course, our ancestors were already farming in the county.

Among the Estensons, our great-grandfather Bertinus, his brother Peder, and their parents immigrated in 1875. Their reasons for choosing Pigeon surely must have included the fact that their sister Anne and her husband Ole Iverson Hofstad had immigrated to America nine years earlier, becoming the first settlers in Fitch Coulee (Clara Cook, Homestead, page 4). Clara makes a point that Anne was to first in her family to come to America.

Among the Borresons, our grandparents Elias and Kari emigrated in May 1869, residing with friends and relatives in Onalaska, Wisconsin, before making their way to Pigeon and Fitch Coulee four years later. It seems reasonable to believe that there may have been folks from their home area of Loten, Norway, drawing them to each of these communities in turn.

As a postscript, I find it interesting that most of our ancestors began their lives in America at an economic low point – and at a time when immigration numbers were low. Curti wrote that between “1873 and 1880 immigration … was comparatively slight,” partly due to a depression in 1873. Nevetheless our ancestors came. They must have been very motivated, convinced that life in America would still be better than what they had in Norway.

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