Sorry, Donald: Minnesota's Norwegian immigrants fled a shithole too

19th century Norwegian immigrants suffered shipwrecks, illness, and poverty to become American because things weren't going so swimmingly back home.

19th century Norwegian immigrants suffered shipwrecks, illness, and poverty to become American because things weren't going so swimmingly back home. Wikimedia

We learned recently that our dear leader's chosen people are Norwegians.

He'd really like to see more immigrants from Norway, President Trump recently announced to fellow lawmakers, and fewer guys from "shithole countries" like Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa (a continent).

There's a small problem with his logic. People usually don't uproot themselves from their homelands, cross oceans carrying all their worldly possessions, and resettle in a strange land if they're not trying to leave behind something shitty.

For the ancestors of Minnesota's large Norwegian population, it was the old country's total dearth of land and opportunity.

A common fable tells that in the mid-19th century, women's rights were so evolved that instead of the inheritance going to the eldest son, family farms were divided evenly among all the children. If you were one of a dozen kids, you might just get left with three rocks and a tree.

That's actually the romantic revisioning. The real story's way shittier, says St. Olaf Professor Emeritus Odd Lovoll, retired editor of the Norwegian-American Historical Association in Northfield.

The eldest son alone would inherit the farm; all his younger siblings got screwed. They'd work their impoverished, single lives as hired hands for the landed brother because they could never earn enough money to get married and have families of their own. Those who owned land had status and the right to vote. Those who didn't looked to America.

Migrants heard the government was practically giving land away under homesteading laws. They intended to find money in America's harsh and godless forests, then eventually return to Norway. But most ended up staying. Men dominated immigration, but single Norwegian women who made the trip were more likely to remain. In the 19th century, Norwegian husbands could still spank their wives, and women couldn't attend university. In America, they could become doctors.

"They were foreigners," Lovoll says. "They were pushed aside, not considered welcome in good company."

At the same time, they were appreciated for pushing west and developing the land, escaping the brunt of discrimination in part by settling down with their countrymen in the middle of nowhere and putting off assimilation as long as they could. Lovoll has interviewed older folks who retained their Norwegian dialects and continue to speak English with a Norwegian accent.

In World War II, when Nazi Germany occupied Norway, Norwegians laid low, looking for a way out, as Lovoll's family did. Those were shitty years, he recalls. Throughout the war his mother raised three children by herself while his father, who'd escaped before the occupation, worked in America. They barely had food and clothing.

"It took a long time, my goodness yes, but now they are fifth-, sixth-generation Norwegian Americans who have attained the American dream by achieving the middle class," Lovoll says. "But they were immigrants that we may get from African countries today or from Mexico ... who were economic immigrants, looking for an opportunity to do well."