Land of Their Choice

The Immigrants Write Home

Theodore C. Blegen, editor

This collection of “American letters” that immigrants wrote to friends and relatives in the lands they had left tells a little-known human story that is part of the larger saga of America. It constitutes a kind of composite diary of everyday people at the grass roots of American life.

The letters published here, written by Norwegian immigrants in the middle of the nineteenth century, are truly representative of a great body of historical material - literally millions of such letters that immigrants of every nationality wrote to the people back home. Describing their journeys, the new country, the problems and pleasures of daily life, the letters afford new insight into the American past and at the same time reflect the image of America that was projected into the minds of Europeans in an era when millions were crossing the seas and moving west.

The letters were written from many different parts of the United States. Many relate the experiences of settlers in the Middle West, particularly in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. But there are also accounts of pioneer life in Texas and as far away from the Atlantic crossing as California.

The story of Oleana, the ill-fated Utopian project established in Pennsylvania by the famous Norwegian violinist, Ole Bull, is revealed in a collection of letters written by settlers in this project. An English translation of the amusing ballad of Oleana adds verve to this section. Another fascinating portion of the volume is devoted to first-hand accounts of the transatlantic gold rush that drew Norwegians directly by ship from their native land to California in the 1850’s.

There are some letters written by leaders in Norwegian-American history, such as Johann R. Reiersen, who was a well-known newspaper editor in Christianssand, Norway, before he migrated to America, and the Rev. J.W. Dietrichson who sought to establish the Church of Norway on American soil and whose letters, now translated into English for the first time, relate his experiences in Wisconsin.

Theodore Blegen was born in 1891 in Minnesota. He was a professor of history and Dean of graduate school at the University of Minnesota.He was also a director of The Forest History Foundation until his death in 1969.

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