It’s always timing and chance

An article in the Star-Tribune caught my eye: Why did Scandinavian immigrants choose Minnesota? Even before I read it, I could guess why. I could also guess what other people would say.

Minnesota’s Scandinavian roots are a big part of the state’s national identity, from the Vikings football team to the Norwegian bachelor farmers of Lake Wobegon.

That Scandinavian stereotype harks back to an era when thousands of Swedish and Norwegian people traveled across the globe to establish thriving enclaves in the burgeoning frontier of Minnesota. But why Minnesota?

“When I ask anyone just in casual conversation, they all just say, ‘Well, because it’s cold here too!'” said reader Terri Stough, who moved to Minnesota in 2018. “And that kind of indicates to me that nobody knows the real reason.”

Right, it’s because Minnesota is like Norway and Sweden. Wrong. I’ve been to Norway, and there’s no way anyone could confuse Minnesota with Norway. One is flat, the other is mountainous; one is near the ocean, with deep fjords, the other is mostly landlocked, with one shore on a huge freshwater lake; one is prairie, the other is pine forest. They’re both in northern regions, with cold winters, but that’s about it.

The better answer is that it was all about the timing.

The abridged explanation is that America’s westward expansion — and the displacement of Native people that accompanied it — reached Minnesota around the same time that Swedes and Norwegians were fleeing bad conditions in their home countries. Aided by free land from the federal government, new immigrants formed settlements and encouraged friends and family back home to join them.

Another contributor is 19th century propaganda.

Prominent Swedish author Fredrika Bremer helped establish the area’s reputation as a hub for Scandinavians. Bremer journeyed to the Minnesota Territory in 1850 and wrote letters home that were later published into a Swedish book.

“This Minnesota is a glorious country, and just the country for northern emigrants,” Bremer wrote. “Just the country for a new Scandinavia.”

Minnesota is a fine place, good farmland, the weather isn’t as bad as its reputation would imply. The bandwagon effect also helped, with the early Scandinavian settlers writing home to tell everyone that they should join them. They were probably desperately lonely.

Among those letters was one sent by Norwegian immigrant Jens Grønbek, who wrote to his brother-in-law in Norway in 1867 trumpeting, among other things, the free land available through the Homestead Act.

“If you find farming in Norway unrewarding and your earnings at sea are poor, I advise you … to abandon everything, and — if you can raise $600 — to come to Minnesota,” Grønbek wrote, according to the book.

Grønbek told his friend that he should not worry about the voyage, adding this racist assessment: “Neither should you be alarmed about Indians or other trolls in America, for the former are now chased away,” Grønbek wrote.

There’s always racism, too.

Minnesota’s majority population is of German descent, though. So why doesn’t the state have a reputation as a Little Germany? Again, history.

But that German culture was suppressed for a number of reasons, Bredemus explained. Many people did not trust Germans as a result of World War I. Germans also organized unions, which were controversial. And drinking is a part of German culture, a practice that was demonized by puritanical groups during Prohibition.

During the war, statues were torn down, streets and buildings were renamed, and a new Minnesota Commission of Public Safety harassed the state’s German population while trying to root out unpatriotic sentiments, Bredemus said.

Meanwhile, next door in Wisconsin, Bratwurst und Bier are staples. It’s probably why the University of Wisconsin has a magnificent beer hall in the student union, while the University of Minnesota is dry. I really wouldn’t mind more beer and labor unions here.

But then, I’m descended from Scandinavians who first settled in Minnesota, and then flocked to Washington state around WWII, discovering then that that was the place more like Norway, only a bit warmer, so I knew all that. Paradise!


  1. ealloc says

    Reminds me of Sondre Norheim, the “father of modern day skiing” who helped invent many modern olympic skiing sports on the mountains and hills of Norway. Of all the places a master downhill skier could end up, it was Minnesota and North Dakota, permanently. Wikpedia says, “He continued to ski when he could, though the climate and flat topography of the Dakota prairie offered few opportunities for downhill skiing.”

  2. says

    “When I ask anyone just in casual conversation, they all just say, ‘Well, because it’s cold here too!’” said reader Terri Stough, who moved to Minnesota in 2018.

    I wonder how they’d explain the choice of so many people from Somalia to live there.

  3. lumipuna says

    But why did the first Swedes and Norwegians in the mid 19th century concentrate in Minnesota and Iowa, as opposed to more southern parts of the contemporary farming frontier?

    Finnish emigration only really started after the famine of the late 1860s. Most Finns who went to the USA concentrated in the northern parts of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. That area was apparently part of the farming frontier in the 1870s and 1880s. It’s also quite similar to Finland: flat or mildly hilly, conifer and birch forests, bogs, lakes, marginally arable land. Frankly, I don’t know if that’s enough to explain the concentration.

  4. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    I wonder how they’d explain the choice of so many people from Somalia to live there.

    Minnesota and Somalia contain many of the same letters? Even two in the same order.. SO!

  5. silvrhalide says

    There isn’t a “little Germany” anywhere in the US because Germans as a cultural group are extremely quick to assimilate. Paul Theroux called them “the mutable Germans” for a reason. That said, German culture did become a larger part of the American culture. Christmas, as we know it in the US, is largely a German Christmas. Christmas tree? German. Christmas presents under the (German) Christmas tree? Also German. (As opposed to leaving them in shoes [Dutch] or in stockings [English], among other seasonal holiday gift giving.) Easter, as the US knows it, is also largely German. (From Eostre or Ostara.) Octoberfest, German. Pretzels, hot dogs, hamburgers–all quintessentially “American” are really German. Heck, people are really starting to (finally) love bratwurst in this country, to the point of having them generally available in supermarkets across the country and to the point where they are being Americanized (cheese bratwurst, an abomination.) Language elements have crept into American English as well, notably the (usually mispronounced) angst and schadenfreude.

    Possibly the reason that there are no German enclaves, or at least not the way most major cities have a Chinatown and/or Little Italy, is because there is no monolithic unified German culture. Germany, as a nation, was largely a collection of associated states which were really mini-kingdoms, dukedoms and the like held together by shared cultural elements and trade agreements. Standard High German is now the de facto language of the unified Germany but for a long time there were dozens of regional German dialects that made it difficult to communicate from one end of (ostensible) Germany to the other. There are further regional differences because German is also an official language of Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, etc. and a common language in other countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium.

    When large numbers of Germans started emigrating to the US around the time of the potato famine (did not just affect the Irish), there were the standard prejudices against them, (they’re dirty, they allow their dogs to sleep in their homes and therefore bring fleas inside, coarse, crude and of course, the drinking thing) just like US nativists proclaimed against the Irish, the Italians and more recently, the Mexicans (and other Meso- and South Americans) and the Chinese. Shared cultural similarities between the German and (dominant) English cultures (the two languages have a common language root) may have eased the transition though.

    The trade unions and guilds may have been another reason that German immigrants never created cultural institutions similar to Hibernean Hall, etc. Why do you need a cultural association when you can already chat and plan with your fellow Germans at work and at the union meetings?

    We definitely could have done with more unions and beer halls though.

  6. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Heck, people are really starting to (finally) love bratwurst in this country

    There is, however, still a maddening lack of currywurst in the Americas. And Spezi.

  7. silvrhalide says

    @6 Why do we have gnocchi but not spaezle in this country? Clearly it is a conspiracy and/or prejudice against foods of Germanic origin! :P

    Also needed: more weisswurst, knackwurst, etc.
    And Konditerei. Bad enough that our version of the Autobahn wound up being the interstate but most delicatessen and bakeries aren’t even worth the name. Boar’s Head does not a REAL delicatessen make!!

  8. Walter Solomon says

    There is, however, still a maddening lack of currywurst in the Americas.

    I saw that on Bourdain. It looks like sausage bits covered in catsup. Catsup was apparently brought to Germany by Americans during WWII. Anyway, it didn’t look very appetizing.

  9. consciousness razor says

    There isn’t a “little Germany” anywhere in the US because Germans as a cultural group are extremely quick to assimilate.

    Eh…. I bet it’s mainly because there have been so many immigrating from there going all the way back to the colonial period, much like the British, French, etc. So it’s similar to the reason why there aren’t many instances of something like “little France” or “little Britain” which would be analogous to Little Italy or Chinatown: they were already all over the place and had no real use for a distinct enclave that they could call their own.

    Heck, people are really starting to (finally) love bratwurst in this country, to the point of having them generally available in supermarkets across the country and to the point where they are being Americanized (cheese bratwurst, an abomination.)

    “Finally”? I’m not sure about other parts of the country, but for at least my whole life (if not longer), people in the Midwest and South have been grilling brats.

    It had never occurred to me, but … did we start a trend, for once? Maybe the trend was just barbecuing in general, and the brats came along for the ride. That actually seems fairly likely.

    I suppose BBQ is not the traditional German cooking technique, so there is that. But Germany is sort of close to the Caribbean, on cosmic scales, if you think about it.

    I guess maybe the cheesy ones in particular might be a fairly new innovation. They sound pretty gross, though I’ve never had one, so as a good empiricist I’ll withhold judgement.

  10. silvrhalide says

    @9 From about the 1840-1920s or so, Germans were THE largest immigrant group. It’s one of the reasons I don’t exactly agonize when people (bigots) start wailing about “our way of life”. The American way of life is a moving target and subject to continual change. The current influx of New World Latinos will give us a really cool revamped version of Halloween, they’ve already given us some excellent cuisine and life will go on.

    The reasons why Germans weren’t swept up with the Japanese for relocation to concentrations camps are because 1) there were too many of them–they were the largest ethnic group at the time; 2) they blend in with other white populations and 3) they were too well connected–all those unions, guilds, etc. and other civic organizations. You could get your ass kicked individually for being German or American of Germanic descent but you weren’t in danger of being rounded up and interred in a concentration camp the way the Japanese were. In some ways, the Germans were the model minority before the Asians were.

    Not sure how old you are when you say “your entire life” re: grilling brats. I live in a region where you can get pretty much any kind of food you want, regardless of how obscure. Brats were always available but for a long time you had to buy them in specialty shops (ethnic butcher, German food specialty stores, etc.). Now you can get them in Shop Rites, Stop & Shops and other supermarket chains. The quality is variable, to say the least.

    Trader Joe’s regularly stocks the detestable cheese brats and has for approximately the last 20 years or so. I ate one once in the spirit of open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity; if you like junk food for the cheap synthetic flavors, (in the same way that some people love Cheez-Wiz or Velveeta or Pringles), then this one’s for you. I found them appalling. I offer you this knowledge so you can save yourself. In retrospect, I should have asked to try a bite of someone else’s cheese brat before committing to the whole brat. A mistake on my part.

  11. springa73 says

    I think that German immigrants and the first couple of generations of their descendants in the USA often did still speak German within their own families and communities, like many other immigrant groups. There were also quite a few German cultural organizations and German language newspapers, especially in parts of the midwest. Anti-German bigotry during the US involvement in World War I reduced the number of German speaking organizations and newspapers, but there were still some until at least the mid-20th century. In my own family, my late grandmother who was born in 1917 grew up in a town in Wisconsin that had been settled in the late 19th century by mainly German immigrants, and where German was still commonly spoken in the 1920s and 30s.

  12. jacksprocket says

    Don’t forget the combination of railway construction and immigration agents. Many 19th century railways were financed by grants of “federal” (i.e. stolen Native American) land along the route, and the railways used these to generate traffic, by settling farmers on the grants at attractive rates, and offering them transportation deals for their produce. It made sense to recruit farmers with experience of a similar type of climate, and immigration agents abroad would advertise for such. I don’t know about Sweden, but I once saw a presentation showing how whole Norwegian villages, including the pastor, were shipped together and resettled as a community. See Dee Brown’s “Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow”.

    Incidentally, the land grants were typically 10 mile square blocks, alternating one side of the track and the other. The “official” immigrants would be on the company side, the (alien) independents on the federal side, poorer, and operating without community or company support- they were on the wrong side of the track.

  13. birgerjohansson says

    So people in Israel are the new Minnesotans. And so are the german-speaking farmers in Namibia.(Haifishinsel at the coast was BTW the first German concentration camp, for the original population). The Provence was created by a medieval genocide.
    An unpleasant thought: apart from peoples like the sami and the inuit, we are all living on farmland that was “won” by displacement or massacres (ask archaeologists about the many old mass graves they find).

  14. steve1 says

    I am Scandinavian American, I guess. When my sister’s Italian American boyfriend was asked to describe our family to his parents, he said we were very America. I too thought the reason Scandinavians moved to Minnesota was because it was cold. Then I did some genealogy and learned the real reason was when the Scandinavians were immigrated to America the land that was becoming available was in Minnesota. I even have a great+ grandpa that earned his 160 acres from his service in the civil war. He got shot in the leg and shook President Lincoln’s hand when he visited the hospital.
    Another strange fact I learned from my genealogy studies was. I have relatives that helped settle Winona Minnesota. I read somewhere that the elementary kids in Winona put on a play about the founding of Winona and some of the kids were cast as my long dead relatives.
    My family is a mix of mostly Norwegian, German, and English. Somehow, I ended up with an English surname. There is really very little English influence in my family the English part of my family emigrated to America in 1630. The Norwegian part of my family was always celebrated. My grandfather taught me how to count to 10 in Norwegian. My parents are from Wisconsin and my mother had long soured on what she called the German attitude or mentality. I remember my mom telling my dad to quit thinking and acting like a German. All I could gather what a German attitude was, is being very stubborn.
    I asked my mom why we don’t eat Norwegian food? My mom said because it was mostly bad. I remember eating Lefse during Christmas and my dad would eat lutefisk. Why I don’t know I remember him eating so much he got sick. I was at times threatened with lutefisk. I eat bratwursts not lutefisk.

  15. whheydt says

    When my grandparents from Denmark arrived (one each in 1906 and 1907), they settled in…Connecticut.

    As for food, medical issues preclude eating it these days (way too much sugar), but if you can find a recipe for citroenfromage, try it. (Despite the name, there is no cheese in it. It’s eggs, sugar, and lemon.)

  16. silvrhalide says

    @ 14 Best way I can explain the German attitude is that they really are the Sprockets* people. I loved going to Germany, loved the food and the people but really, they will be a much happier people once they realize that there are some decaf coffees that really are as good as the real thing. (* old SNL skit)

    When German businesses say they close at 5pm, they don’t mean 4:59 and they don’t mean 5:01. They are a nation of human alarm clocks. It’s a little unnerving until you get used to it.

    The food is excellent. My host family was slightly puzzled by the concept of chocolate chips but loved chocolate chip cookies. Fruit leather, not so much. Germans consider Americans sort of garbage-eating people and honestly? They’re kind of right about that. On the other hand, their Riesling wine is, for the most part, a tragedy of sugar shock for alcoholics. (Liebesfraumilsch indeed. It’s alcoholic Kool-Aid.)

    They’re not necessarily big on the idea of new. Anything new must be tested for all variables and performance of the new idea/thing/device must be meticulously documented before anyone can decide whether or not to use the idea/thing going forward.

    They’re not the most spontaneous people. They’re really big on planning and preparation. Winging it is not a concept that translates well.

    Lutefisk, IIRC, is fish preserved in lye. In Norway, it’s illegal to open lutefisk indoors. Why, exactly, did your dad eat this willingly?