Emigration from Norway, 1830-1920

800,000 Norwegians left their homes and moved to other countries between the years of 1830 and 1920. The majority went to North America, but others travelled to other continents, including Australia and New Zealand, to South America, to the rest of Europe, and even to Africa as missionaries. Others took up residence elsewhere in Norway, and a large number of people from Sweden and elsewhere in Europe moved to Norway. However, by far the most visible and well-known type of migration during this period was emigration from Norway. The reasons were manifold, but included employment opportunities elsewhere as well as the lure of America.

2021.06.10 | Jan Eivind Myhre

Paul Petter Waldenström (1838 – 1917) preaching a sermon on board S/S Hellig Olav in 1905.

The first migrants to America

The emigration to America began in 1825 with a group of Quakers, led by Cleng Peerson. They wanted to escape a law called the ‘konventikkelplakaten’ which prohibited them from meeting as a congregation or religious community. Apart from some followers of Marcus Thrane, who emigrated in the 1850s, other Norwegians did not emigrate due to religious or political beliefs.

The first major wave of emigration came at the same time as the development of steamships in the 1860s. With sailing ships, the passage, which was dangerous and sometimes fatal, could take over two months. But the steamers crossed the Atlantic in just over a week, and deaths were a rarity. But, even with the steamers, conditions could be cramped.

PICTURE: The picture shows immigrants from Norway photographed aboard the steamer ‘Hellig Olav’ in 1904. Photo: Anders Beer Wilse/ Norwegian Folk Museum.

Three waves of Norwegian immigration to America 

From the 1830s, emigration became quite commonplace, and from the mid-1860s decidedly prolific. There were three major waves:

  • from 1866 to 1873;
  • from the late 1870s to the early 1890s; and,
  • from 1903 to around 1910.

In the peak year of 1882, 28,000 people emigrated from the country. In the years up until the 1920s, about 800,000 people emigrated in total. A quarter of the emigrants eventually returned home. However, that was of course not only a Norwegian phenomenon.

Even if emigration varied greatly over time, it does not mean that certain cohorts (born in the same year) migrated more than others, only that emigration was postponed when times were good at home. it can be calculated that about one-third of the population left the country during the heyday of emigration, between the 1860s and 1910.

Emigration began from the villages

Emigration began from the inner fjords in Western Norway and the upper valleys in Eastern Norway. Afterwards, it spread to the lowlands and the coast. Many emigrants left the Southern counties during the shipping crisis around the year 1880. Later on, as many people emigrated from the city as from the villages. Northern Norway had relatively little emigration but received a large number of immigrants from the rest of the country.

Norwegians did not migrate due to poverty

The Norwegian emigration, which lasted until World War I, was Europe's second largest, seen in terms of the proportion of the population. Does this mean that people were particularly poverty-stricken in Norway? There is no doubt that the relative overpopulation in the Norwegian countryside played an important role. Economic crises, such as the one from the late 1870s, were important factors. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasise that the level of need was not any worse in Norway than in other countries. Norway had strong economic growth and a relatively high standard of living.

PICTURE: A poster of the Shaw, Savill & Albion Line promoting Immigration to New Zealand in the 1850s, featuring the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

The lure of America

Instead, it must have been the lure of America that drew people, and its appeal appeared to be greater for Norwegians than for most other Europeans. This is likely connected to Norway's greater contact with the outside world through shipping and due to its population’s high standard of reading and writing skills. Once emigration had begun, contact with the home country ensured that it was maintained. Norwegian-American Immigrant Letters, money and tickets for the trip were sent and received.

Click here to listen to a letter describing the meeting with a new society. From the NRK program Norgesglasset (04:54) (In Norwegian)

Furher reading:

  • Ingrid Semmingsen, Veien mot vest I-II, Oslo 1941/1950.
  • Nils Olav Østrem, Norsk utvandringshistorie, Oslo 2006