During the 19th century political and economic pressures drove thousands of Norwegians to move to the United States. Only three to four percent of the land in Norway could be farmed. As the population of the nation increased, thousands were forced to seek homes in new places.
Just Like Home
Norwegians began arriving in Iowa during the 1830s, first settling near Keokuk in Lee County. In the 1850s the number of Norwegians coming to Iowa increased dramatically, with many immigrants settling in northeastern Iowa, especially in Winneshiek County around the town of Decorah and in nearby Allamakee, Clayton and Fayette counties. Most of the early settlers did not come directly from Norway, but moved to Iowa from earlier settlements in Wisconsin and Illinois. Most of the Norwegian settlers became farmers, and it was often said they liked the area around Decorah because the hills and forests reminded them of Norway. In 1880 over 82 percent of the Norwegians living in Iowa were farmers.
Norwegians in Iowa often sent money back to Norway to help others emigrate to the United States. The Decorah Norwegians helped encourage more people to come to Iowa by publishing a newspaper called the Decorah Posten, which became the largest Norwegian language paper in the United States. Published for almost a century, the Posten was subscribed to by people in Norway as well as the United States. The Posten regularly published letters from people scattered in Norwegian settlements around the United States. The paper had a circulation of 46,000 readers at its peak.
A funny story told in Decorah concerns a young man who was an avid reader of the Posten who decided to come to the United States. When his ship passed the statue of Liberty and he saw New York City from the boat, he nudged a friend and said, “If this is New York, can you imagine how wonderful Decorah must be!” At least 50 other religious and secular Norwegian publications had existed in Iowa. But the Decorah Posten was by far the most successful and enduring.
Another interesting paper, Kvinden og Hjemmet (Woman and Home) was published for Norwegian and Danish American women by Ida Hansen and Mina Jensen of Cedar Rapids. The magazine was published until 1948, when it ceased publication after more than 60 years.
Famous Norwegian Iowans
Several Iowans of Norwegian ancestry have become prominent, including Gilbert N. Haugen of Northwood who served in Congress for 34 years beginning in 1898. Though never made law, Haugen is most famous for the landmark farm legislation, known as the McNary–Haugen bill that he sponsored in the 1920s. Norman Borlaug, who was raised on a Cresco farm, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in developing crops that would grow in famine plagued parts of the world.
Between 1852 and 1903 Iowa Norwegians founded ten schools, including a number of academies and two colleges. Luther Colleges is in Decorah and Waldorf College is in Forest City. The Decorah Norwegians were instrumental in founding Luther College in 1861 as a school to train ministers. During its early years most of the Luther faculty came from Norway and practically the only language spoke on campus was Norwegian.
Officials at Luther College began to collect historic materials as early as the 1890s leading ultimately to the formation of Vesterheim, an important museum dedicated to the history and culture of Norwegian immigrants. Vesterheim means "Western Home" in Norwegian. Vesterheim Museum contains exhibits about life in Norway and the experiences of Norwegian settlers in the United States. Located near the museum are several historic buildings including a grist mill, settlers' cabins and even a Norwegian farm home. Decorah commemorates its Norwegian heritage with its Nordic Fest, held each summer.
As land in eastern Iowa became scarce, Norwegian immigrants began settling farther west. Some of the more prominent of these later Norwegian settlements were near Story City and Huxley.
Written for Iowa Pathways by Peter Hoehnle.