A Letter Home to Norway, circa 1848

I was sorting through a cabinet I don’t normally sort (or look at for that matter), when I came across something I didn’t know I had. It’s a copy of the book, “Pioneer Memoirs and Stories of the Jacobson Immigration and Pioneer Life.”

You say you never heard of it? Well, that’s probably because it was something my family in South Dakota put together and published themselves. Using a copier, I think.

I leafed through the book and I must say, after the Norwegians totally crushed it at the Winter Olympics, leaving everyone wondering, “but whyyyy?!” and most people crediting their wealth, healthy lungs, and the fact their babies are born wearing skis, I found this publication interesting. It’s the story of my dad’s side of the family, how his great-grandparents left Norway to make a better life for themselves in “Amerika.” It even includes a picture of their place in Norway (please pardon the poor quality):

Norway homeSafe to say my family was not a wealthy one, but who knows? Had they stuck it out in Norway, maybe our lot would have improved and years later I would storm the winter Olympics and cross-countried my way to a gold medal or two.

I mean, that mountain right behind the shack? Looks like mighty fine training ground, don’t you think?

In any case, included in this “Pioneer Memoirs” is a letter my great-great-grandfather wrote to his family back home. A footnote says the original was typed out by someone in Norway, who sent it back to family in America and in 1974, my dad’s aunt Charlotte (aunt Lottie) translated it to English.

There are several items to make note of: 1) his listing of prices and wages show a clear head for business, 2) the gender wage gap; ah yes, we’ve come so far, but we’ve still a ways to go, 3) the formal way he addresses his family (no nicknames for this bunch) and, 4) as much as he praises “Amerika” he clearly misses his family very much.

Muskego in Wisconsin
the 27th August 1848

Dear father,

The 29th of May we left Norway; five weeks and three days over the ocean to New York and from there to Milwaukee two weeks. I went to Hans Thorgrimson Thveden who is doing well and is in good health. We were all well and healthy during the entire trip, both on the ocean and on the inland sea (Great Lakes).

I am sure I will never regret having made the trip here as we have not talked to anyone who has such regrets. We are all happy that we came. Here there is no lack of provisions for living, and there are good wages for both men and women. A man can earn one or two dollars a day, a girl five to six dollars a month. Pay for a man is from 17 to 25 dollars a month. A blacksmith like Niels Jermunsen Egerude could earn 30 or 40 dollars a month.

Living is cheaper than in Norway. A bushel of wheat costs 2 to 2½ dollars, rye 1 dollar a bushel, a pound of butter 1 dollar, and a pound of pork ½ dollar. A cow costs 14 or 15 dollars and usually a calf comes with it. I believe that if my brother Halvor Abrahamsen Krokanne could come over you could live better than you do in Norway.

My wife Gro Jermunsdatter is well, and we are happy that we have come over here. If my brothers could come they would live better than in Norway. Jakob Thorgrimson Biorktuft and your brother Niels would I think live much better here than they do in Norway and their brother Ole Thorgrimson also. There are good wages for tailors. A suit costs 3 dollars and so on for all tailoring.

I see that I have praised Amerika too much. I suppose things are about as usual in Norway. To Jermun Torjusen Stens… try to come to Amerika rather than to stay in Norway. Here there are good wages and living is cheaper. I ask that you will be so kind as to greet my brother Thomas Abrahamsen. Tell him that I am well, and happy that I came to Amerika. I wouldn’t wish myself back in Norway even if I could get the Norder Hadeland gaard (farm). I am sure I will live better in Amerika without a farm than I would in Norway with one of the largest farms. The 6 dollars I lent Mattis Helleksen Krokan at Milan I have been repaid by Kittil Thorsen.

I close my letter this time with warm greetings to you my old father and mother, to brothers, friends, relatives and all acquaintances. Also from my wife Gro warm greetings to everyone.

Jakob Abrahamsen Stenbøle

Jakob was 37 years old when he came to Amerika, his wife Gro (Lord, how I love that name) was 46, his oldest son, Abraham (Dad’s grandfather), was 12. After a short stint in Wisconsin, they settled on a farm near Decorah, Iowa. A good sized farm, larger than he could have gotten in Norway according to “Pioneer Memoirs.”

Decorah farm
I don’t know who took the photo, but I’m awfully glad they included the horses.

So although my Olympic chances were shot all to hell when they got on the boat, it looks like my family did okay coming to Amerika.

And let’s see, it’s now 3:00 pm on this 28th day of February and my outside temperature is… 65°F.

Current temperature in Oslo: 9°.

Great-Great-Grandpa: you win this round. No regrets.

23 thoughts on “A Letter Home to Norway, circa 1848

    1. Haha! My husband has a horse-thief in his past. The way the ancestral story was told, and given the fact they were in AZ, he’d been better regarded had he only murdered someone. 😉

  1. Wow, what a find. I can’t imagine how it must have been to leave a known country to go to the unknown. No different than when Mom and Dad went from South Dakota to Arizona. Strong people indeed!! Not sure if I could do it but sure glad they did.

    1. Right?! Somehow I had the idea he was a young man when he left Norway, come to find out he was married, about middle aged, and had three kids!
      We had some strong ancestors, that’s for sure.

  2. How I loved this. I read your great-great-grandaddy’s letter in my best Scandinavian accent which is always a treasure to behold. I read it this aloud to my daughter whose eyes rolled back in her head so powerfully that I thought she would flip herself over when we got to the bit about pay. As for your Olympic aspirations, what really stopped you …. haven’t you seen Cool Runnings? You could have trained for the Nordic Ski in the desert if you’d wanted to but you just wussed out. I’m a little disappointed, to be fair 😆 🎿 Seriously, thank you cupboard for offering up this prompt to another great piece of writing and absolutely fascinating.

    1. Oh, now bobsledding is fun and I would gladly have given it my all were it not for the pesky Gila monsters, rattlesnakes, and scorpions getting smooshed underneath. 😉
      I really must clean out cupboards more often, Lord only knows what’s hiding in them. And I simply long to hear your accent sometime, if only we could record a live reading. 😀

      1. Damn critters spoiling all your chances …. 🦎 🐍 🦂- my Scandi-accent is in great demand in my head but I do try to keep it there wink

  3. Wow, that was … different. Imagine having to write all those names! Actually really helpful for you if you want to follow up the family line 🙂 he sure did want everyone to come out to Amerika.
    Thanks for sharing,

    1. They are cumbersome names, to be sure. You have to wonder if they used them in everyday speech as well?
      “Brother Thomas Abrahamsen, can you pass the butter?”
      “Why certainly, Brother Jakob Abrahamsen, here you go!”

  4. This is just too cool. Such a telling of your ancestors in the first person. I wish i could uncover such a historical document… jc

  5. I was stunned by the price of butter as well, especially since one could get the whole cow (and a calf!) for 15 bucks and start making your own. That aside, this is a lovely treasure to run across, and I’m quite jealous. My father’s side of the family never kept records of anything (other than personal vendettas betwixt one another, being Italian and unforgiving) and I know nothing about my biological mother. Cherish the proffering of the cupboard!

    1. So perhaps the knowledge of your background is sketchy, but it sounds fascinating nonetheless. What matters most is the person you became, and from where I sit you did darn well.
      “The Proffering of the Cupboard” — sounds like a story in and of itself!

  6. How wonderful to have that history coming alive through his writing. The photographs are outstanding. Life was hard in historic Norway, but look at their lifestyle now!

  7. I’m jealous you have such cool pictures from your family! I love looking at old photos of my ancestors and knowing where I came from.

    My mom is more of a storyteller so I know more about her side of the family, but my dad’s side is interesting too. When I was a teenager I learned that we had sort of a cinderella story on my dad’s side. The eldest and only son of my great-great grandfather was mis-treated by his step-mother so he pretty much said “Bye Felicia” as an adult and made his own Speth unit.

    This drama happened in America on the other side of the state of Indiana. Since Speth is not too common of a last name when I come across another Speth a part of me wonders not only if we are related but if they are the good Speths or the evil stepmother Speths.

    Either way, they’re probably fine, but being a writer I like to conjure things. 😉

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