Restrictive Laws Bring Norway Immigrants to Land of Opportunity

As eldest son inherited farms, younger sons sought occupations in land of opportunity.

Content Tools

Times were hard in Norway. Down through the generations the farms had been divided and subdivided. A son of the family may have gone higher up on the mountain, cut down some trees, built a house, cleared a little plot of land and eked out a living. But that could not go on forever. The oldest son inherited the farm. His siblings had to go out to work for others. By the 1830s, there was little work to be had and wages were very low. Because of restrictive laws they could not change their occupations. The children had very little education. They read well enough to read the Bible and be confirmed. Some boys were taught writing and arithmetic. The girls did not learn those things because women had no need for them. In Norway, when people moved from farm to farm they changed their name to the name of the farm. Some people had several names in their lifetime. In 1838, a pamphlet, "True Account of America," was published in Christiania (Oslo). It was written in America by Ole Rynning and described the country in such glowing terms that many got "America fever." They sold their possessions and scraped together enough money to go to the wonderful Land of Opportunity.

The usual route was by sailboat to New York, by steamer up the Hudson River to Albany, by canal boat to Buffalo and by steamer on the Great Lakes to Milwaukee or Chicago. From New York to Buffalo, it cost from $3 to $4, and from Buffalo to Chicago, $9 to $12. Children from 2 to 12 went for half price, and infants were free. Freight wagons to their destination usually cost about $1 per 100 pounds. Another immigrant route, by way of New Orleans, went up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and by canal boat to Chicago. Later, some came by way of Quebec.

Ole Aslesen was born in 1813 on the Myran farm in Sigdal, Norway. This farm was on fairly level land at the upper end of Lake Soneran, along the banks of the river that fed the lake. When Ole was 3 years old his father, Asle, drowned. His mother, Kari, remarried. Her new husband, Nils, moved to her farm and, as was the custom, took the Myran name. Kari had three more children. When Ole was 16 years old, his stepfather died. After his military obligation was taken care of, Ole bought the farm. He was 23 years old.

Ole got America fever and sold the farm. On May 17, 1840, at the age of 27, he left Drammen on the Emily, a creaky old sailing ship. The captain had said that the bottom of the ship was 150 years old. During a bad storm the timbers that supported the upper berths gave way, dropping the upper berths down on the lower ones. The passage from Drammen to New York cost 33 Norwegian speciedalers for adults and 25 speciedalers for children. Meals cost 12 speciedalers.

Ole settled in southern Wisconsin. He wrote a letter home advising his family to come to America. The next year, 50-year-old Kari Myran and her youngest son, 15-year-old Helge Nilsen Myran, set sail for America.

Ole's other half-brother, Asle Nilsen Myran, came to Wisconsin in 1843. He worked in the lead mines for a while. He returned to Norway and was married there.

Before the arrival of a minister, the settlers held lay services in a barn. Ole donated logs and helped to build the Muskego Church. He was a member of the church board. The church was dedicated in 1845. It was the first Norwegian Lutheran church in America. This building has been moved to the grounds of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Ole Myran used the name Ole M. Aslesen when he first came to America. He was among the signers of a document called "An American Manifesto," also called "The Muskego Manifesto." It was written in response to articles that were published in Norwegian newspapers trying to discourage emigration. The following is a partial quote: "We have no expectation of gaining riches. But we live under a liberal government in a fruitful land, where freedom and equality are the rule in religious as in civil matters, and where each one of us is at liberty to earn his living practically as he chooses ... We have no reason to regret the decision that brought us to this country."

But this new land was not the land of milk and honey that they had been promised. For many, it was the land of death and despair.

In 1848, cholera appeared at the same time in New York and New Orleans, carried on two shiploads of immigrants from a cholera-infested region in Germany. They spread the disease along both immigrant routes. In 1849, Norwegian immigrants contracted the disease and brought it to the settlements in southern Wisconsin. The established settlers had to make room for the newcomers in their tiny log cabins, sod huts and dugouts. They knew nothing about sanitation or how diseases were spread. The sick and well occupied the same beds and ate from the same spoons and dishes.

A hospital was established in a large barn by Big Muskego Lake, where many people died. Graves were dug, ready for the next burial.

The settlers also suffered with malaria, dysentery, typhoid fever and "summer complaint." In Norway, they had pure water that they took from the brooks running down from the snow-capped mountains. In America, they hauled water from springs and stored it in barrels. Soon the water would be covered in green scum and mosquito pupae. They strained it through a cloth before they drank it. If they didn't have a spring, they dug a shallow hole near a standing pool and dipped up the water that seeped in. Their wells were so shallow that they became contaminated by surface water. They had no outhouses. The swill pail was used as a chamber pot. The pails were dumped on the ground, where the chickens scratched, the hogs rooted and the flies swarmed. They had no refrigeration. Their food sat on open shelves.

During the cholera epidemic of 1849, Ole tended the sick, made coffins and helped bury the dead. Those who became sick usually died within six hours. Every day he wondered if he would be alive the following morning. We do not know if Ole's house and living conditions were more sanitary than the average, but neither he nor Kari or Helge caught the disease.

Ole married Turi, a widow with three children, whose husband had died of cholera just after they arrived in America in 1849. Her husband, Petter Blekeberg, had been Ole's neighbor in Norway.

By now, Iowa Territory had been opened for settlement. Ole went on foot to look for better land. He pitched his tent on a high hill about eight miles west of Decorah, Iowa. He chose land in the valley to the north of the hill. In 1851, he paid $50 for 40 acres of land. He built a log cabin and brought his new family to their new home. At the time he settled there he knew of no other white man to the west of his farm.

After Ole had cut down trees to build his cabin, he planted corn between the stumps. To plant corn in sod, he used an ax to cut a gash. Then he dropped three or four kernels into the slit. When he had managed to break ground with a plow, he used a hoe to plant his corn. He marked an ‘x’ with the hoe, dropped the corn in, covered it and tamped it down. The corn was carried in a bag strapped to the planter's chest. For faster germination the corn was soaked overnight.

Several times Ole and his family were frightened by Indians. One time they heard of a band of Indians coming their way and fled, leaving the farm in the charge of a hired man. He was willing to stay and take care of the stock because he had found a good hiding place. The rampaging Indians had been turned back in Minnesota, so the family returned to the farm.

Turi had a son, Asle, in 1852. In 1854, she died of childbed fever. Her baby daughter was buried in her arms. Ole was left with three stepchildren and a 2-year-old son. In 1856, he married Ingri Skare. She had come from Eggedal, Norway, in 1852, along with her sister, Mari. Ole and Ingri had six children.

During the Civil War, Ole's stepson enlisted in the Norwegian Regiment, the Wisconsin 15th Infantry, on January 25, 1862. He used the name Sever Pederson. He was 15 years and 4 months old. Other young men left at the same time. As they walked down the road they shouted "Hurrah" with their caps, as a family member later related. On his 16th birthday, Sever was on a forced march somewhere between Nashville and Louisville. The Battle of Stone River started on December 30, 1862. The next day the regiment was almost surrounded. The troops scattered and the Rebel cavalry took many captives. A Rebel cavalryman ordered Sever to surrender. When he saw Union cavalrymen coming out of the woods, he killed the Rebel, saving himself and many of his comrades. On January 2, 1863, they drove the Rebels back 2 miles. They had no tents, fires or food, and it was raining. They were knee-deep in mud and soaked to the skin. On his 17th birthday, Sever was crossing Lookout Mountain. Seven days later, on September 20, 1863, he was taken prisoner at the Battle of Chickamauga.

He was taken to Andersonville Prison, where he died of exposure and starvation on September 5, 1864, eight days before his 18th birthday. He was buried in grave number 7,893. He was posthumously given the rank of Brevet Captain because of his bravery during the Stone River Battle.

Ole became a United States citizen on July 11, 1852. After he had lived in Iowa a few years he used the name Ole A. Myran. He gradually broke ground and increased the size of his fields. He bought more land and sold some of it later. He had good crops and bad; he was in debt now and then. He may not always have had milk and honey, but I think he was satisfied with his life in the Promised Land. He died in 1894 at the age of 81.

This man was my great-grandfather.

Rosella Goettelman
Decorah, Iowa

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.