A Nation of Nations: Prologue

The family farm sat on the edge of a pristine glacial lake in Norway’s fjord country, in a sparsely settled district known as Årdal, which was therefore the family name. Behind the barn, a dirt trail led up a valley into the mountains. The hillsides were steep and rocky, but the soil was fertile and well watered by glacial runoff. In the summer, cattle and sheep grazed on the verdant slopes. The Årdal family named it Søgnhildtunet—Søgnhild’s Place—after one of the early Årdal women. The property had been in the family as far back as 1759, passing from father to firstborn son according to the ancient primogeniture law that guaranteed continued family ownership of Norway’s farmland.

By 1864, Søgnhildtunet should rightfully have passed to Johannes. But he was just twenty-two and restless, and the prospect of following the familiar path of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather left little to his imagination. In Norway, he faced a predictable future, and not an easy one. For all its natural beauty, Søgnhildtunet would never be a farm that yielded abundance. The winter was long and dark and cold. To stay there would be to settle for the narrow nineteenth-century world of the Norwegian peasantry. His forefathers had no choice, but Johannes did.

The talk in Årdal in those days was of going to America, a country wide open to Norwegian immigrants. From towns on the west coast, ships were sailing daily to Bergen or Liverpool or other transatlantic embarkation points. For the equivalent of about thirty dollars, companies offered special “America” packages, covering steamship travel across the ocean plus rail transport into the U.S. interior. Large tracts of tillable land, so scarce in Norway, stood empty in Wisconsin and Minnesota and the Dakota Territory. Dreaming of new lives in a different land, Johannes and his twenty-year-old wife, Brite, said good-bye to their families and headed across the Atlantic.

With Johannes abandoning his claim, the farm in Årdal passed to the next oldest son, Ole. There were two other sons in the family, however—Samuel and a second Ole—and when they reached adulthood a few years later, they had no land of their own and nowhere to find work. Norway in the nineteenth century had one of the highest rates of population growth in Europe, but it still had a preindustrial agrarian economy that offered few employment opportunities. More than two thirds of the population lived in rural areas, the majority of them landless. The Årdal brothers knew what they needed to do, and in the spring of 1875, they sailed to Liverpool. From there, they booked passage to America on the Allan Steamship Line, a route favored in those years by tens of thousands of Norwegians.

In each decade from 1860 to 1910, the country lost about 5 percent (and sometimes more) of its population to emigration. Only Italy and Ireland lost proportionally more. The vast majority left rural Norway and made their way to the rural United States. The Norwegian American writer Ole Rölvaag called it “The Great Settling,” and in his novel Giants in the Earth he painted a vivid portrait of the Norwegian immigrants’ experience as they fanned across the upper Midwest. They traversed the plains in covered wagons, towed by oxen that would later be put to use plowing fields or hauling timber.The wagons were packed with the things they would need to start a frontier life—household utensils, farm implements, clothing, bedding.

Samuel and Ole made their way to western Minnesota, where their brother Johannes had homesteaded a decade earlier. By the time his younger brothers showed up in June of 1875, Johannes had an established farming operation, and he immediately put Samuel and Ole to work. After the harvest season, Samuel and Ole found work in the area as laborers, hiring out to whoever needed help. During the winter, when farmwork was scarce, they attended public school—grown men sitting alongside nine- and ten-year-olds—in order to learn English. Once they had saved enough money to buy some livestock and a wagon, Samuel and Ole moved on to look for land of their own. They headed first toward the Red River Valley in the northeast corner of Dakota Territory. It was a slow journey. The cattle they brought with them were constantly hungry and kept stopping to graze along the way. Nearing the Red River, they found the plain almost entirely flooded and had to wade through the water and muck. Mosquitoes tormented them.

Most of the land they crossed had already been settled, so they pressed on to the west, where there was still acreage free for the taking. The southern part of Dakota featured abundant grassland, but the Årdal brothers, having grown up among fjords and mountains, were not drawn to wide open spaces, so they stayed to the north. As they plodded on, they encountered fewer and fewer sod shacks, until at last they reached territory no one else had claimed. The land had not been surveyed yet, and Samuel and Ole could take it simply by driving stakes into the ground and declaring it theirs.

The terrain was somewhat reminiscent of rural Norway, but this was virgin land. Everything Samuel and Ole built, they built by hand. Most of the work they did, they did for the first time. Ingenuity and enterprise were key. For their first shelter, they turned their wagon box upside down and mounted it on four posts, laying the canvas over the top. Next, they built rudimentary log cabins. After stripping the logs, they stacked them one atop another, filling the spaces between with clay from the riverbed. The roof was made of bark and sod, laid carefully across pole rafters. In Norway, the farm life had been ritualized, consisting of chores done the same way, generation after generation. In America, the sod Samuel and Ole opened with their plows had never been broken before. The land had never been planted, the fields never fenced. The whole venture was exhilarating. This was the Norwegian immigrant experience that inspired Rölvaag: As Per Hansa lay there dreaming of the future it seemed to him that hidden springs of energy, hitherto unsuspected even by himself, were welling up in his heart. He felt as if his strength were inexhaustible.

Success in America for immigrants required looking ahead and focusing on what had been gained, not what was left behind. The Årdal brothers would never see Norway again. They had year-round farming responsibilities and soon were raising families. The “old country” was impossibly far away. Inevitably, the immigrant experience included periods of loneliness, especially acute there on the Great Plains. But Norwegians were known for their stoicism. Pious Lutherans and not given to frivolity, the brothers worked hard and skillfully and prospered in their new farming lives, cultivating wheat, oats, and potatoes. They dutifully came to see themselves as Americans, but it was not hard. No one marginalized them as newcomers, challenged their presence on the land, or questioned their loyalty, identity, or religion. With other local immigrants, they built schools and churches. As pioneers, they took that part of America as their own, and no one questioned their claim.

Back in Norway, the emigration continued. In 1883, Samuel and Ole’s sister Brita left with her husband, Tollef, and joined her brothers in North Dakota. In 1900, their nephew Nicolai followed, thirty-six years after his Uncle Johannes had blazed the trail. He had also lost the Søgnhildtunet inheritance to an older brother. Like the others, he headed to North Dakota and worked for his relatives, attending a one-room country school to learn English. But the farming life was not a good fit, and Nicolai opted for business school, eventually finding work at a bank in the town of Milton. There, he met and wed a young schoolteacher named Bessie, the daughter of an immigrant from England. Their marriage produced five children, among them my mother.

The country my ancestors chose as their new home had a political culture that grew largely from the pattern of its settlement. In Europe, the people came with the territory, but in America, the territory came first, and those arriving from other lands became American citizens by swearing allegiance to the new nation and the individualist ideology on which it was founded. “They must look forward to their posterity rather than backward to their ancestors,” John Quincy Adams said of the immigrants. By coming to America, they could assume a new national identity based on their adherence to a creed and a set of values.

To outsiders, the American character was shaped on the frontier, where rewards came in return for effort and enterprise. The French travel writer and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, having visited the United States in 1831, was struck by the egalitarianism of American life, which he largely attributed to the country being a “new and unbounded” place where people coming from foreign lands could start over, all on the same basis. It was a country “where the inhabitants arrived but as yesterday upon the soil which they now occupy, and brought neither customs nor traditions with them there.” As Adams had noted a decade earlier, the separate genealogies that had channeled people in the Old World into one or another future were irrelevant in America. Class differences mattered little, because the abundance of opportunity produced a degree of social mobility in America unmatched anywhere else in the world. Instead of deferring to authority, Americans learned to be self-reliant. “As no signs of incontestable greatness or superiority are perceived in anyone of them, they are constantly brought back to their own reason as the most obvious and proximate source of truth,” Tocqueville wrote. Comparing America to other countries he knew, he found it unique in almost every way. “The position of the Americans is quite exceptional,” he concluded.

Thus arose the American myth that would inspire people around the world desperate for a chance to prove themselves in a new land. “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger,” George Washington had famously declared, “but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.” No country on the planet would be as associated ideologically with immigration as the United States. The foreigners who broke ties with their old countries, pursued new opportunities in this different land, and were willing to be judged on their own merits and achievement personified the model American. This was said to be the nation of new beginnings, where people could be defined, in the words of immigration historian Oscar Handlin, “not by virtue of common descent but rather of common destiny.”

The experience of my own Norwegian relatives matched the idealized version of the immigrant story. America was indeed the place where their ambitions were limited only by their own talents, will, and discipline. After becoming a bank officer, my grandfather Nicolai lost almost everything in the 1930s, but his faith in his adopted nation and his pride in what he had become were unbroken. To the very end of his life, he wore a white shirt and necktie seven days a week, every day of the year. It was not some carryover of an Old World custom; in Norway, he was raised on a farm. If anything, his dress served to highlight his break from his own rural background. On a return visit to Søgnhildtunet at the age of eighty-four, his relatives took a picture of him sitting on a hay rake behind a horse, dressed even there in a shirt and tie. It was as if to show he belonged at a desk in his North Dakota bank, not in a hay field in Norway.

For most of the world’s population, however, the American immigrant promise was hollow. In reality, it was limited to people of the same skin color as my Scandinavian ancestors. Despite George Washington’s lofty declaration, the first immigration law passed by Congress in 1790 offered U.S. citizenship only to “free white persons.” The foreigners who settled in the United States over the first two hundred years of its history were from Europe and almost nowhere else, except for those Africans who came as slaves or were born into slave families, and they had to struggle mightily to gain membership in the nation. Almost everyone else was limited by poverty or circumstance from moving to the United States, or they were barred under U.S. law from coming at all. Thousands of Chinese, almost entirely men, were admitted in the middle years of the nineteenth century, but only as contract laborers, and with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, Chinese immigration was officially prohibited. The more people wanted to move to America, the more difficult it became to obtain American citizenship. Even those coming from southern and eastern Europe found they were unwelcome. The Harvard-trained lawyer Prescott Hall, cofounder of the influential Immigration Restriction League, posed the critical question in 1897: “Do we want this country to be peopled by British, German, and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin, and Asiatic races, historically downtrodden, atavistic, and stagnant?”

So much for the Tocquevillean idea that America’s immigrant history promoted an egalitarian and individualist political culture, supported creativity and enterprise, and produced this new nation where one’s ancestry did not matter. In the view of the immigration restrictionists, it was not the liberating and energizing experience of venturing across the ocean and into an unfamiliar environment that led my North Dakota forebears to prosper. Rather, they achieved what they did simply because they were Norwegian. That view was reflected in a 1924 law that allocated immigration slots on the basis of the candidates’ national origins and effectively excluded most Asians from citizenship.The thrust of the legislation was reinforced with the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952. Each of the Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries was allocated barely a hundred immigrant visas per year, while Germany, the United Kingdom, and other countries of northern and western Europe each received thousands of reserved slots. The evident premise of U.S. immigration law was that the explanation for America’s success in the world actually lay in its European heritage, not in its history as a country shaped by enterprising newcomers.

It was only after 1965 that the United States unconditionally embraced its immigrant character, and it did so unintentionally. The 1965 amendments to existing law effectively ended the allocation of immigrant visas on the basis of national origin, putting applicants from around the world on a mostly equal basis. The reforms coincided with dramatic changes in the global order. In newly prospering Europe, economic and social pressures were no longer pushing people to seek new opportunities abroad. At the same time, the developing countries were experiencing population growth, rising aspirations, and heightened conflict. In those regions, more and more people wanted to leave, and improved communication and transportation—across the whole world and not just the Atlantic Ocean—facilitated their migration.

So they came, in far greater numbers than the legislators of 1965 had anticipated. In the next fifty years, the percentage of the U.S. population born outside the country tripled and shifted dramatically in composition, with immigrants arriving from Vietnam, Korea, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Mexico, Central America, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and many other places previously unrepresented. Their experiences were not so different from those of my Norwegian ancestors. They came because opportunities were lacking in their own countries, and they were attracted by what America offered. Like the immigrants of a century earlier, they took risks and were rewarded for their perseverance and initiative. The obstacles they faced, on the other hand, were bigger than anything their predecessors encountered. These new immigrants could not disappear easily into a white Euro-American society, no matter how hard they tried. Language barriers sometimes kept them isolated; even their ideas about God, family, and work could set them apart. Devout Muslims stood out in particular. In this alien environment, some immigrants would experience rejection and a disappointment that cut even deeper than the pain that drove them to leave home in the first place; others discovered that hard work and ambition could actually lead somewhere in this country.

The immigrant influx set up a belated test of America’s character and identity. Was its strength and resilience a result of its formation as “not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations,” as Walt Whitman said? Or were its achievements actually due to its Anglo-Saxon heritage? That aspect of American society was fast diminishing in relative importance, replaced by unprecedented racial and ethnic diversity. The country had not yet dared to see whether it could live up to its motto, E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one” (an expression that referred originally to the thirteen colonies coming together as one state). At last, America could find out whether it was truly an exceptional nation and what it really meant to be American.

The story unfolded with particular drama in some communities, like one suburban county in northern Virginia that experienced a lifetime of change in a few short years, as immigrants arrived from all sides of the world, with experiences the local old-timers never could have imagined. Some were poor. Some came from professional families. All were enterprising, and together their lives represented the experience of a diversifying nation.

From A Nation of Nations by Tom Gjelten.