1989 - Norwegian-American Studies, Volume 32

The following selection was printed in the "Norwegian-American Studies, Volume 32" which was published by NAHA in 1989. This volume is still available from NAHA (1999) for $15 plus $3 shipping and handling. Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA), St. Olaf College, 1510 St. Olaf Avenue, Northfield, MN 55057-1097. The book this selection is drawn from is under copyright and permission has been granted for educational purposes and is not to be used in any way for any commercial purpose. It has been made available on the web by Neil A. Hofland.


The letter herewith translated was written by Ole Olson Østerud to his brother in Norway in 1854, shortly after his arrival at the Muskego settlement in Wisconsin with a number of immigrants from Hurdalen, Norway. This letter was brought to America in 1871, and, since it was fading, was copied by Østerud himself. The following translation was made from the copy, but the original and the copy have been compared sufficiently to prove the accuracy of the. latter. These letters, together with miscellaneous writings of østerud, were carefully saved by Mrs. Lena Aurlie of Ostrander, Minnesota, and are now in the possession of Professor Rølvaag of St. Olaf College.

Ole Østerud was a keen observer and a good writer. Though he had had only three days of formal schooling, he had opportunities to learn from an uncle, who was a school-master, and in the household of Pastor Brun of Christiania, mentioned in the letter, for whom he worked as gaardsgut. That Østerud was of a somewhat more studious nature than the average immigrant may be inferred from the fact that he ranked first in his confirmation class of ninety members in the Feirings Church in Hurdalen. At the time of his emigration he was thirty-four years of age. He lived to be over ninety, and died in Fillmore County, Minnesota, where he had settled in 1856.

The following letter describes the journey from Christiania to Muskego and ends with a few comments on America. The letter is interesting not only because of the information which it contains but also because of what it reveals of the character, interests, and attitudes of the immigrants. Their dependence on nature and the elements is striking. The great distances were evidently impressive to them as well as to those for whom the letter was written. Their admiration for Captain Muller of their vessel, "Fædre Minde," is rather touching. Some interesting points are given about the hardships as well as about the pleasures of the journey. It is seen that the immigrants were deeply religious and, also, that they were fond of amusement. Not the least illuminating are the statements about conditions in America, which are better, it is implied, than the people at home may believe. The many details in this letter may be accounted for by the fact that Østerud kept a daybook on the trip.

Racine County, Wisconsin
June 21, 1854
Dear Brother,
Since we have arrived with good fortune at our destination, I must write you as I promised and tell you about our journey. We boarded the ship on the tenth of April. Pastor Bruun came and gave us a farewell sermon. At five o'clock in the morning of the eleventh we lifted anchor. The wind was favorable so that we passed Færder Lighthouse at five in the afternoon. We reached Arendal at four in the morning and Christiansand at four in the afternoon. Then we sailed north-ward toward Bergen, and on the afternoon of the fifteenth we saw the land of Norway the last time. The last we saw of Norway was high snow-capped mountains.

On the sixteenth a storm arose from the southeast, which lasted until the afternoon of the seventeenth, when we came within shelter of the Shetland Islands, which we passed on the north. We saw Feiril Lighthouse and at six o'clock in the morning we entered the Atlantic Ocean. After that we had a good wind until the twenty-third, so that we usually sailed eleven miles in a watch (a watch is four hours). We had clear weather until the twenty-second and then a little rain and later head wind until the thirtieth of April. On the first of May we had the most severe storm of the whole trip. It came from the northwest and later from the west, lasting until the fifth; then it was calm until evening, when a southwest wind arose, so that we made eleven miles in the watch. During the night before the sixth of May we crossed the outermost Newfoundland Bank. (1) The following night we almost ran into a floating iceberg, which was much higher than the ship's masts, and on the seventh we saw three large icebergs, which you can believe was a remarkable sight.

(1) This is apparently the eastern margin of the Grand Bank.

We reached the Grand Bank of Newfoundland on the eighth of May, and there we fished on the eighth, ninth, and eleventh. We got seventy cod. Our fishing lines were forty fathoms long, so they reached the bottom, and the hooks were large and strong. Those who fished pulled and pulled and jerked the lines till they felt they had caught something, and some found the hook caught in the belly of the fish, the tail, the back, or wherever it might happen. It mattered not whether one had bait, for few had bait on the hook. So the cod was really a fool. (2) There must have been an abundance of cod on the bottom. They weighed about one Bismer pound, (3) some more and some less. So we all had fish to eat a couple of times, and it was very good.

(2) The pun in the original is untranslatable: Torsken var rigtig en Tosk.
(3) A Bismer pound is the equivalent of thirteen and two-tenths pounds.

After that we had head winds until the fifteenth, when we had a favorable wind. About half past seven in the morning our captain saw America, but later the air became so dense that we could not see land even though we sailed terrifically until noon, when we ran into a lot of floating ice so we could go no farther. Some thirty-six ships lay cruising about here and there, unable to advance, and here we, too, had to lie, and because of ice and fog we could go no farther till the twenty-fourth. At ten o'clock of the forenoon of that day we saw America.

On the twenty-fifth we sailed past St. Paul, a light-house on a small island in the center of the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, 820 [ 1820?] sea miles from Christiania and 140 miles from Quebec (a sea mile is 11,862 alen (4)). Land, with forests and mountains as in Norway, could here be seen on both sides. There was still considerable snow on the right, but flatter land, quite uninhabited, on the left. We did not see land again before the morning of the twenty-seventh. At nine in the morning of the thirtieth we took a pilot on board ten miles from Quebec. Here we saw land on both sides, with smoke rising everywhere on the left where settlers were clearing and burning. A little farther on, the country was built up on the left; and still farther, on the right, also. In the afternoon of June first we reached an island where a doctor lived. We anchored at this point, and at nine in the morning of the second the doctor came on board. Fifteen minutes after eleven that evening we anchored in Quebec Harbor.

(4) An alen is a Norwegian measure of distance equivalent to two feet.

No one was allowed to land before a doctor had come on board and examined us. He came at nine the morning of the third. We were then allowed to land, and at twelve o'clock on the third of June we stepped onto American soil for the first time. Quebec is a large town with many beautiful churches and some sixty thousand inhabitants. On the fourth of June we were in several churches, both Catholic and others. The day after Pentecost, the fifth of June, was a working day here. The first man we talked with after landing was Elias Stangeland, who is agent for a transportation line running in-land. On this line the charge to Milwaukee was seven specie dollars, three marks, and eight shillings. (5) Our captain was to arrange for our transportation, however, and we finally went by the Holfeldt line. (6) On this line the charge was one specie dollar more and seventy-five cents for each hundred pounds of baggage above one hundred pounds, which were carried free of charge. On the sixth of June a small steam-boat came alongside our ship and took us to the pier. There we boarded a large steamboat with two engines.

{5} An amount equivalent in all to a little over nine dollars.
{6} Holfeldt seems to have represented steamboat companies and the Great Western Railroad in Canada and the Michigan Central from Detroit to Chicago.

We left Quebec at five in the afternoon. There were some eight hundred people on this boat, but it would have been permitted to carry fourteen hundred. There were Norwegians, Swedes, Irish, and German, black Negroes and brown Indians. The distance from Quebec to Montreal is 180 English miles. We arrived at Montreal at ten in the morning of the seventh. This is the most beautiful city we have seen and has the largest church, and many other large churches besides. At Montreal our baggage was hauled by horses and wagons up to a canal where we boarded a steamer again. This boat did not leave before nine in the morning of the eighth. We passed through a canal having twenty locks. We passed many stopping places and arrived in Kingston at eight o'clock in the evening of the ninth. Here we boarded a much larger boat, which left at once to cross Lake Ontario. We passed many ports and arrived at Hamilton at half past three in the afternoon of the tenth. The distance from Montreal to Hamilton is 410 English miles. At this place our baggage, was weighed and we took a train for Detroit. The train left Hamilton at twelve during the night and arrived at Detroit at ten the following morning. The distance from Hamilton to Detroit is 186 English miles. At Detroit we crossed the river by steamboat. We left, again, by train at one in the afternoon and arrived at Chicago at nine in the evening of the twelfth. From Detroit to Chicago is a distance of 278 English miles. We remained there till morning, when our baggage was transferred to the pier. We went by steamboat to Milwaukee, leaving at nine in the morning of the thirteenth. The distance from Chicago to Milwaukee is ninety English miles. We arrived in Milwaukee at four in the afternoon of the same day. We stayed there till nine in the evening of the fifteenth, when we hired a driver to take us to Tosten Søgaarden, a distance of twenty English miles, where we arrived at four in the morning of the sixteenth of June. And thus our journey was ended.

I might well have more to relate, but I cannot begin to tell of everything we saw. That would be too ambitious. I must tell you more, however, about our trip. After we had lifted anchor, our captain gave us a talk, explaining our duties, urging us to be cleanly, obedient, alert, and helpful to one another, and advising us to observe the rules posted in several places on the boat. He then asked God's blessing on us all. And so our journey was started in God's name.

Our captain was a fine man. He maintained strict discipline and kept everything clean and in as good order as it was possible for him to do. Because of this his passengers were always comfortable. He was like a father to us all. We had no sickness on the boat, except seasickness, which made it's appearance the very first evening. There were many, especially women, who had to keep to their berths during the entire trip. Gulbrand and I escaped fairly well. We did not throw up a single time. The weather was cold during the whole trip, but we had to dress well and stay on deck as much as possible when the weather permitted. We had a severe storm during which a wave tore away a long piece of the deck-bulwarks. We were all in pretty good spirits, however. We were not locked in and were allowed to go on deck as much as we wished. One had to be careful, though, to keep a firm hold so as not to be swept away. You may know the ship lurched a-plenty! When the weather was pleasant, we often had a good time, for all kinds of games and amusement were allowed. We frequently danced. Even the captain, himself, was often with us, entertaining us with adventure and hunting stories and the like. On the evening of the day after Pentecost we had a ball. We each gave twelve cents and the captain contributed the rest. (7) We had three musicians, and then we danced and drank till late in the night. We each contributed a little money and bought a gold watch chain for our captain. It cost fifteen dollars.

(7) According to the diary kept by Østerud, German Immigrants on another boat lying in Quebec Harbor were invited to this dance.

The charges for carrying our baggage inland were paid at Quebec, and it was agreed that we were to be free from all expenses, pier charges and everything, except to pay over-weight charges, until we reached Milwaukee. We paid seventy-five cents for overweight, but we also had to pay a pier charge of fifty-five cents. In Milwaukee we stopped at a Norwegian boarding house kept by a man named Claus Hanson. We paid one dollar to get our baggage hauled to Tosten Søgaarden's. Hence the entire transportation charge from Quebec to Tosten's was about eleven dollars. (8)

(8) Judging by the total cost, this must have been specie dollars, or a little more than thirteen American dollars.

There were no deaths on the whole trip, but a child was born while we lay in the Bay of St. Lawrence. Two days later the child was baptized by the captain. A woman from Gjærdrum gave birth to twins during the night when we were between Quebec and Montreal. Our captain baptized these babies, also, the next day in Montreal.

We parted with our captain in Montreal. We were comfortable while we were on the ocean compared with what we experienced going inland. There was always so much commotion, and there were so many transfers. And everything had to go in such a hurry as if life were at stake. If one were not on time, one would have to wait until the next day, which we surely learned in Chicago. When we had almost finished loading our baggage, the boat started, leaving several passengers, some of whose baggage was on the boat and some on the pier. They did not arrive in Milwaukee until the following day.

And so we have arrived in good condition. Lars Gullickson bought a farm for nine hundred dollars the first day we were here. I must tell you something about how things are here. The houses are generally not large, but the farms are beautiful. Tosten's circumstances are exactly as he has written. He has a large farm and much stock. I have not counted his cows, but I have seen that he has seven calves, two large oxen, twenty-three geese, and a lot of chickens. As far as food is concerned here in America, there is an abundance. Even though I tell you so, you will perhaps all think it a falsehood. Concerning wages, conditions are as you have heard before. Today I was offered twelve dollars a month and keep, but I did not accept, for I expect to get more. Another time I shall write you further about America. I must close for this time. At this very moment the rest of the people from Hurdalen are arriving here. All are well.

With friendly greetings to you all from yours,