Scandinavian Migration to the Canadian Prairie Provinces
Skrivet av Kenneth O.Bjork   
2005-09-04 09:45

Scandinavian Migration to the Canadian Prairie Provinces, 1893-1914
    by Kenneth O. Bjork

Skandinaven of Chicago, then the leading Norwegian newspaper in America, carried in its issue of December 19, 1894, an article with the subtitle "C. P. Railway Lures Norwegian Farmers Out into the Wilderness." Its position was that the Canadian Pacific, associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company, two years earlier had sent agents around in Minnesota and the Dakotas to entice farmers into going to Canada; there both companies owned vast tracts of land. They had pictured Alberta in particular as superior to the prairie states. Some Norwegians, subscribers to Skandinaven, had migrated as a result of the agents’ activities; they Were persons who had been unfortunate in the United States and were "in debt over their ears." The Canadians had been generous to them, had paid off the mortgages on their chattels so that the "fugitives" could take their livestock and other movables with them, and had even provided transportation for some.

In this way, Canadians "got settlers in their power. They then took over the mortgages to the immigrants’ land—and to everything else that they owned and had." Why, the paper asked, concentrate on newcomers and other poor folk in Minnesota and Dakota, which had become debt prisons? The promises of the agents had been glowing, and the poor people had felt that they could hardly be worse off than they were. But they had gone so far north that they found tundra instead of grass, and were so distant from railroads and markets that, "if by chance they got a crop, there was no one to buy it." Skandinaven also bitterly criticized the Canadian Pacific for its alleged role in 1894 in enticing a group of Minnesota Norwegians to Bella Coola, far up the coast of the British Columbia mainland. {1}

However distorted the Skandinaven article—and the paper was quickly set to rights by experienced settlers—it contained certain elements of truth. Minnesota, the Dakotas, and indeed all of what John D. Hicks has called the "western Middle West" constituted a debt prison of sorts. Karel Denis Bicha speaks of two decades of agricultural depression before 1896 and of the "deplorable economic position of farm laborers and tenant operators in the states which contributed the settlers to the prairie provinces." Bicha estimates that by 1910 over half of the farms in North Dakota, for example, were mortgaged and that credit in the western states was hopelessly inadequate and expensive. Farm laborers, who in 1900 comprised something like a third of the population in the farm states, received a mere subsistence wage. Tenants—operating about half of the farms in the Red River Valley, in Iowa, and in eastern South Dakota and Nebraska by 1910—paid high rentals and faced increasing costs of production, a shortage of capital, rapidly rising land prices, and the likelihood of remaining renters for the remainder of their lives. High land values were, of course, a boon to owners; the situation also offered a fine chance to sell farms and to purchase equally good land elsewhere at much lower prices. Thus hired hands, tenants, and later farm owners alike found an unusual opportunity to better their lot in Canada. {2}

For the Scandinavians, heavily concentrated in those states faced by rural depression and agricultural crisis after 1893, the prairie provinces seemed the best, perhaps the last, great source of free or cheap land. By the late nineteenth century, the main hope for many young men in large families living in the established settlements of the Midwest lay in working on farms belonging to others, in renting land under conditions that made farm ownership increasingly difficult— or in migrating to cities, to cut-over areas in the Great Lakes region, to semi-arid or heavily forested regions in the American West, or to highly advertised locations in the South. Before and even during the rush to Canada after 1896, a goodly number of such persons made the move to the Pacific coast or to mountain states like Montana and Idaho. {3} But far more went to the Canadian Northwest. To a people accustomed to farming in the Upper Midwest, the prairie provinces, almost within arm’s reach, exerted an almost irresistible appeal—a means of breaking out of a social and economic trap.

The chief barrier to joining the migration to Canada was ignorance of conditions and opportunities in that country. This ignorance was overcome by a vigorous advertising campaign in which Dominion authorities did indeed work closely with the Canadian Pacific and other railways, set up many agencies in the Upper Midwest, and made a special effort to attract Scandinavian immigrants. Simultaneously, continuing activities begun much earlier in cooperation with railways and steamship companies, they sought to draw Scandinavians directly from Europe. Although the government representatives slowly came to learn that the best results could be obtained south of the border, their work in the Scandinavian countries significantly added to the flow of immigrants into Canada in the years before 1915—and after.


Dominion officials regarded Scandinavians, together with persons of British and German origin, as "desirable" settlers and workers, and their view was shared by promoters of immigration in the provinces. Yet until the 1870s there were few Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians in the country—largely because of the greater attraction of the United States and because of adverse publicity that had been given to such early settlement projects as the Norwegian venture at Gaspé. The incorporation of British Columbia in 1870 and the first steps toward realizing a transcontinental railroad, however, led Canadian agents to work closely with the Allan Steamship Line in stimulating emigration from the Scandinavian countries.

Immediately following the Dominion Land Act of 1872, with its liberal homesteading provisions for individual settlers in the West, the government reduced the cost of transportation to Quebec by means of the passenger warrant system. In 1873 it appointed Colonel Hans Mattson and William MacDougall as special emigration agents in Scandinavia. Mattson, an aggressive person of Swedish origin, had previously served the railroads of Minnesota in a similar capacity. Simultaneously, the Allan Line made him their general representative for the three Scandinavian countries; in this capacity he supervised the work of agents in Copenhagen, Gothenburg, and Christiania. During a period of depression, both in the United States and in Europe, MacDougall, Mattson, their agents and subagents—aided by subsidized passage overseas—were perhaps largely responsible for such migration to Canada as occurred in the 1870s and 1880s. {4}

A reserve of land embracing 80,000 acres was made for Scandinavian settlement at Otter Lake in the Riding Mountain district near Minnedosa, Manitoba. Lying on the route of the Manitoba and Northwestern Railway and named New Scandinavia, it attracted a few settlers from Europe after a vigorous circulation of maps of the Northwest, the insertion of advertisements in newspapers, and the distribution by steamship companies of regular emigration pamphlets in translation. A Swedish delegate was brought to the Canadian West in 1884 at government expense, and two years later a Scandinavian printing press was established in Winnipeg. In 1887 the Dominion government subsidized a Swedish newspaper, Den Skandinaviske Canadiensaren, which strongly supported immigration by giving information about unsettled lands and by printing statements from satisfied pioneers.

By 1891, some 77 families were living in New Scandinavia, cultivating crops and raising cattle. New Stockholm was the first Scandinavian colony in what was to become Saskatchewan. Founded in 1886 under the sponsorship of the Scandinavian Union of Winnipeg and with the assistance of Sir George Stephen, it lay some 250 miles west of Winnipeg on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Like New Scandinavia, it enjoyed a soil suited to wheat raising, was well supplied with timber and grazing land, and, according to Norman Macdonald, was well on its way to economic independence by 1892. {5}


Den Skandinaviske Canadiensaren, a monthly publication, was a perfect tool for the promotion of immigration. It called attention to the Hendrickson and Wahlberg Scandinavian Land, Emigration and Labor office in Winnipeg, to land being offered for sale by the Hudson’s Bay Company in Manitoba and the Northwest Territory, and to homesteading opportunities that would be explained by H. H. Smith, Dominion land commissioner. But its focus at first was on New Scandinavia and the Manitoba and Northwestern Railway, the transportation company that had laid out the settlement north of Minnedosa. {6}

As if to make it clear that New Scandinavia was not exclusively a Swedish community, the paper printed a letter written in Norwegian by Marianne Stein. A widow, she had come to Winnipeg with a son in June, 1886. There she had met a number of Scandinavians who advised her to go to the new settlement and to take a homestead. This she did and was joined by other Norwegians and by her own family, with whom she possessed a total of 640 acres. She never doubted the wisdom of her move: timber was plentiful and excellent water was readily available; the level land, free of tree roots, was easy to cultivate, and there was excellent natural grazing land for cattle.

In subsequent issues, the paper continued to advertise for the Manitoba and Northwestern, informing readers that the railroad still had some land for sale north of Minnedosa, and also to point to homesteading opportunities in both Manitoba and the Northwest. It also carried advertisements for the Canada Northwest Land Company, which would transport passengers from Brandon westward. John William Wendelbo, a Dane who was to serve for many years as interpreter and correspondent in the Winnipeg immigration office, wrote enthusiastically about New Scandinavia. L. Stavenheim, a Norwegian, had only good words for New Stockholm, which he described as the most promising Scandinavian colony in western Canada.

In 1890 the newspaper called attention to another Scandinavian settlement, New Denmark, about 50 miles northwest of Saltcoats on the Manitoba and Northwestern Railway. It carried notices for the Canadian Pacific offering land at $3 an acre, with payment over ten years at 6 percent interest. The railroad said that letters written to its land office would be answered in the appropriate Scandinavian languages. The Calgary and Edmonton Railway and the Qu’Appelle, Long Lake and Saskatchewan Railway and Steamship Company also advertised farm acreage at cheap prices and spoke of free government land only short distances from railroad stations.

By the summer of 1892, Den Skandinaviske Canadiensaren could quote Wendelbo to the effect that in the previous year 297 Scandinavians had arrived in Winnipeg—146 Swedes, 125 Danes, and 26 Norwegians. Of this number, 210 were destined for Manitoba, 76 for the Northwest Territory, and 11 for British Columbia. A Danish colony at Carberry in Manitoba was growing, and settlers had found the land at New Denmark excellent. A total of 26 new immigrants had gone to New Scandinavia. C. K. Hendrickson, immigration agent at Whitewood, stated that there were about 250 people, mostly Swedes, in New Stockholm, and that they had raised, per acre, 25 to 30 bushels of wheat, 50 of oats, and 40 of corn.

In 1892 the paper changed its name slightly to Skandinaviske Canadiensaren and described itself, oddly, as "a religious weekly journal." It is true that it now had more room for stories about social and cultural activities in Winnipeg. Among other things, it reported the completion in 1893 of a Scandinavian reading room in the MacDougall Mission, directly opposite the C. P. R. station; the room provided an opportunity, free of charge, to read Scandinavian-language publications, especially newspapers, from Europe and the United States. But, as before, Skandinaviske Canadiensaren was primarily concerned with immigration and settlement. It announced in 1893 that Fleming was the name given to a small station on the Canadian Pacific 210 miles west of Winnipeg in Assiniboia. Just north of the station was the nucleus of a new Swedish colony.

Beginning November 9, 1893, the paper became Skandinaviske Canadiensaren, Veckotidning for Skandinaverna i Canada (The Scandinavian Canadian, Weekly Journal for the Scandinavians in Canada), but its message remained the same. It reverted to monthly publication in April, 1895, after the briefest competition from Väktaren, another Swedish promotional publication. It continued under the English title Canada, The Swedish Weekly, although it used Swedish in its columns. This paper, together with Dannebrog, a Danish journal published in Ottawa, was to be used extensively by Canadian agents, both in Europe and in the States, as an instrument for encouraging emigration. Although totally uncritical of government actions or of conditions in the West, it is an invaluable source for the comings and goings of Wendelbo and others, of the movement of immigrants through Winnipeg, and of life in the Scandinavian settlements.


On December 16, 1893, C. O. Swanson, special Scandinavian agent in the New England states, wrote from his base of operations at Waterville, Quebec, to A. M. Burgess, deputy minister of the interior in Ottawa. He revealed that he had made three trips to the Canadian Northwest during the past year, each time taking with him a number of delegates. These men had been impressed by what they had seen there, had taken homesteads for themselves and for the parties they represented, and would return the following spring. Swanson added that "the prospect looks fair for a large Scandinavian immigration from the United States . . . in the future," but that much would depend on the success of the settlers already there. {7}

Two weeks later, C. A. L. Akerlindh, of the immigration branch of the department of the interior, reported that he had distributed pamphlets, leaflets, and Scandinavian-language newspapers describing the Northwest to thousands of immigrants who had disembarked from steamers in Canada, but who were destined mainly for the American West. He said that a considerable amount of literature was also being sent to their homelands as well as to the United States.

These reports indicate that to 1894 officials still thought basically of attracting Scandinavians from Europe and from the American East, or of diverting as many as possible from the stream of immigrants flowing through Canada but emptying into the states south of the border. A changing view is reflected in a letter written by Swanson from Wetaskiwin, Alberta, in October, 1895. Now special Scandinavian agent in the United States, he said he had taken 239 immigrants to Canada during the year, 105 of them from bordering American states. On his return from a tour to the Northwest in August, he had visited the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. "I don’t know why we should not get a large Scandinavian immigration from the United States," he reasoned, "but, of course, there are drawbacks, as there is a very small percentage of the people wanting to go that can do so . . . and we cannot invite people without means."

Swanson made two trips in 1896 to the north-central states, and had, as he put it, "very good results." The volume of his correspondence had increased greatly; he had sent out many kits of printed information about the Canadian Northwest, and had begun to advertise in Scandinavian-language newspapers in Minneapolis, Chicago, and Boston. He was convinced early in 1897 that the Dominion would "soon have an increased immigration of Scandinavians." The spirit of the settlers in Alberta had improved greatly and Wetaskiwin was "making good progress," building schoolhouses and a church, and was using considerable farm machinery. A new Scandinavian settlement, established in 1895 west of Leduc, was also in good health, and the same was true of the communities at Lacombe and Red Deer.

A stepped-up recruitment of immigrants is evidenced in the reports for 1897. Swanson visited the Scandinavian countries, where he became convinced that the most effective propaganda device was the short statement of the contented settler in the Northwest. "The work we are doing . . . in the United States," he said, "is all right but we should do more of it." As for Europe, Swanson thought a commissioner of emigration should be appointed in Sweden. He should open an office in Gothenburg, engage in a vigorous advertising program, and visit places in the country likely to yield results. The letters of settlers were much more effective than the remarks of agents, who were suspect. Even so, he thought local agents working on commission might be appointed to distribute materials prepared by the Dominion government. He warned against using steamship representatives for this work, but deemed it advisable to cooperate with the Canadian Pacific Railway. The government should pay the costs of advertising, the C. P. R., the postage on maps and other materials. A good man in Gothenburg, he thought, could oversee the work of agents in all of the Scandinavian countries.

Dr. H. Walton Jones, writing from Christiania in October, 1897, took a dim view of the literature thus far distributed in Norway and Sweden. He called for materials in Norwegian, written with the "crispness and pointedness of the press" and emphasizing the "picturesque more than the academic." He thought Norway a more fertile field than Sweden, as a foreign agent was freer to work there; indeed, Norway could be used to "tap" Sweden. In neither country was Canada well known. Jones wisely suggested a special appeal to the Norwegian cotters (husmenn), whom he described as a hard-working and desirable rural class lacking only sufficient land to maintain itself in the homeland. He thought that all advertising material should be put before the country folk, "the people we want," and he recommended for this purpose exploiting the great fairs held in various towns and cities.

The year 1897 also marked the opening of an office in St. Paul under the agent Benjamin Davies, whose territory included the Dakotas as well as Minnesota. He utilized the standard literature written in English, Swedish, and Norwegian. He also attended state and county fairs, where he exhibited sample packages of grain and circulated copies of newspapers containing letters from settlers, and visited potential emigrants whose names he had secured from county auditors, at fairs, or from correspondents. Davies also made use of interested persons as subagents, held meetings at schoolhouses, and loaned out to churches and schools the products he had shown at the fairs.

Swanson made extensive trips to the western states, concentrating on the Scandinavians living there. The results of his efforts were at first somewhat disappointing, but a fair start had been made earlier, and he expected a large emigration in 1898, in part because persons wishing to move were finding an improved market for their property. He had brought with him from Sweden only 23 immigrants. Swanson was encouraged, he told Clifford Sifton, minister of the interior, by the general satisfaction of the Scandinavians in Alberta, whose number he placed at 3,000, most of them from the States. He expressed gratitude for assistance given him by officials of the Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk railways.

The high hopes for 1898 were to be realized only in part. Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, Canadian high commissioner in London, observed in 1899: "We have not had so many Germans and Scandinavians as we would like." He attributed this fact to governmental opposition as well as to relative prosperity in the countries under consideration. The commissioner of immigration, however, noted that migration into the West was three times greater than in 1897. Settlers had arrived by various routes—wagon trails, the Soo Line, the Great Northern, and the Northern Pacific. Thanks largely to the Canadian Pacific and other railway lines, a total of 209 American delegates had visited western Canada.

As for the Scandinavians, "this excellent class of immigrants" had been coming slowly into the country over a ten-year period and had formed "some twenty small settlements numbering about 3,400 souls." Swanson reiterated his conviction that the future looked "very encouraging, as many letters show." He had taken some parties of colonists to the Northwest from the States, mostly to central Alberta, with 17 carloads of livestock and other possessions; only 71 persons, on the other hand, had come directly from Norway and Sweden, and 17 of these were domestics with prepaid tickets. Wendelbo, who had assisted Davies during the winter by working among Scandinavians from the St. Paul office, returned to Winnipeg to meet all incoming trains. He recorded a total of over 500 Scandinavians passing through the city. Of those making homesteading entries, a considerable number had gone to Lethbridge, in southwestern Alberta, and had tended to settle among Canadians. Wendelbo was still eager to see more energetic efforts made to stimulate emigration from the Scandinavian countries. Agents in St. Paul and Grafton, North Dakota, were more encouraged by the prospects in the States.

In the closing year of the century, 764 Scandinavians were officially recorded as having immigrated, 473 of them from the United States. This figure compares with a total of 532 in the previous year. Some Norwegians were said to have crossed the border without being processed; in addition, 183 Finns had arrived from Europe. Wendelbo, who joined immigrants coming through North Portal, traveled with many of them on colonist trains to Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan during March and April. Returning to Winnipeg, he met trains from the east and south at the Canadian Pacific station. Scandinavians coming from Europe, he observed, still thought in terms of starting colonies or of settling in established ones.


From 1900 to the First World War, increased efforts on the part of the Dominion were accompanied by a considerable increase in immigration. C. O. Swanson’s trips to the States resulted in many carloads of delegates and settlers who claimed homesteads or bought quarter sections of Canadian Pacific land. The emigration of Scandinavians from across the boundary, he observed, was doubling, and the settlements in central Alberta were prospering.

Swanson reported in 1902 that Scandinavians were "coming into Canada from the western states in large numbers, and they are increasing every year." He had found it unnecessary to do a great amount of advertising in the American Scandinavian press in the spring of 1901, as he had had all he "could manage in the way of correspondence from what had been done." A. Hallonquist, who had succeeded Wendelbo as interpreter for the department of immigration, revealed that in the year ending June 30, 1902, 2,253 Norwegians, 1,858 Swedes, and 351 Danes had arrived in western Canada. He stated, however, that about 10 percent of the immigrants from Europe moved on to the States. Of those who remained in Canada, about 50 percent took land immediately; others found work on farms or in railroad construction.

It is clear from Swanson’s reports that most of the Scandinavians he escorted to the Northwest were from Minnesota and the Dakotas, and that they remained in Assiniboia and Alberta. He emphasized the fact that, as a group, they preferred to settle in colonies. In making inquiries about Canada, he said, "one of their questions is, what are the chances for schools, churches, etc.?" Most delegates purchased Canadian Pacific land, selling in 1902 at from $5 to $10 per acre; those who refused to buy gave as their reason that they would have to settle at great distances from a railroad. His latest party had bought land or taken homesteads 60 to 70 miles from the nearest line. He stressed the need for railroads "through the vacant lands of Assiniboia and Alberta, north of the mainline of the Canadian Pacific," so that he could "go into the large Scandinavian settlements in the different states and tell [the people] they could get land within a reasonable distance from a railroad."

Swanson also maintained that American Scandinavians of ample means were now interested in investing their money in large tracts of land. "I don’t think that I would be far out of the way in saying that half of the names booked by some of the English agents . . . are Scandinavians." He noted, too, that immigration from Norway and Sweden had doubled over the past year.

In the spring of 1903 the influx of settlers was so great that for a time transportation companies were unable to cope properly with it. All immigrant trains were accompanied by officials who met the needs of the travelers and aided them in settling. Not all arrivals came in this manner, however: the commissioner of immigration estimated that 25 percent simply crossed the border in their own wagons at remote spots—or otherwise remained unrecorded. He noted that of the total number of Scandinavians—11,751—no less than 7,982 were from the States. "It is gratifying to observe," he remarked, "the very improved character of the people comprising this nationality"; often they had as much as $12,000 to $15,000 in cash, together with their effects. Most of the Scandinavians from across the boundary line were experienced farmers who were doing well on their Canadian acreage. Others, of more limited means, now had no difficulty in finding work on farms or railroads. The commissioner conceded, however, that his office had had little success in detaining Scandinavians passing through Canada to the United States.

Swanson, while noting that the fiscal year 1903—1904 had been a good period for Scandinavian immigration, also remarked that real estate was not as salable in the western states as it had been earlier; as a result many farmers were unable to migrate. In addition, reserves of land had been opened for settlement in the United States. But the greatest obstacle remained ignorance of Canada. Nevertheless, he expected an increased flow of immigrants, a movement that would be aided by new railroads in the prairie provinces. His hopes were justified and his efforts great. In 1904—1905, he made ten excursions on the Soo Line from the Twin Cities, and sent many other Scandinavians via Emerson over the Canadian Northern Railway. The majority of the Scandinavian settlers took one or two carloads each of effects and equipment. The most recent parties had settled as far as 100 miles from a railroad, hoping that rail construction would come their way.

The number of Scandinavians arriving in the fiscal year 1904—1905 was 4,118, exclusive of 1,323 Finns; for 1905— 1906, the figure was 3,859, not counting 1,103 Finns. No less than 75 percent of these immigrants settled on the land, and many bought quarter sections to add to their homesteads. In the nine months ending March 31, 1907, the flow of Scandinavians had "kept up fairly well," in the words of the commissioner, "but the increased cost of transportation is likely to militate against an increased immigration from Europe." The flow fell off somewhat during the fiscal years ending March 31, 1907, and March 31, 1908, but the deputy minister of the interior noted an increase in the number of free land entries in 1908—1909. The government had opened to preemption and homesteading all available odd-numbered sections of land in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta on September 1, 1908, and by then the administration of land within the department of the interior had been simplified.

After 1907 there was less mention of the Scandinavians as a separate group in the reports of the department. We learn from them, however, that 3,976 Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes arrived during the fiscal year 1907—1908, and 2,047 in 1908—1909. (In these years Finns numbered 1,212 and 669, respectively.) Comments made about settlers in general, however, applied also to the Scandinavians. They were bringing increased amounts of machinery and other property; many lived 60, 70, even 100 miles from a railroad, and they introduced into the provinces farming techniques learned in the States. People were timing their arrival carefully, usually securing a crop—often flax—the first year. They built houses, sent for their families, became Canadian citizens. The farmer from Minnesota was followed by a merchant or tradesman. In time manufacturing would begin—pork-packing, brick and tile production, mill operations, and the like.

The agents continued as before to attract Scandinavian immigrants, and in 1909 Danes numbered 116, Icelanders 231, Swedes 596, Norwegians 656. In 1910 the figures were 130 Icelanders, 147 Danes, 818 Swedes, and 843 Norwegians. The majority of Scandinavians were by that time clearly being listed as Americans: most of them had come from North Dakota, Minnesota, and South Dakota—and in that order, if homestead entries give a clear picture.

As late as June, 1910, W. J. White, inspector of the many immigration agencies in the United States, observed that Americans were still quite ignorant of conditions in Canada. He pointed out significantly that among the recruits were many mature Sons of farmers who sought to establish homes in the North. The family farms in the States would still be worked by the fathers and younger sons. In some cases, however, the fathers had sold out, either to neighbors seeking more acres or to persons from the East desiring larger farms. Others opting for Canada were city people eager to return to country living. In any event, no American land was made vacant by the migration.

The year ending March 31, 1911, broke all records for immigration from the United States, mostly from western areas. Even so, the arrivals from Europe were still more numerous. As for the Scandinavian countries, F. Fredrickson of Winnipeg and J. E. Kringen of Viking, Alberta, themselves immigrants, were by then agents in Europe. In addition to the Swedish newspaper in Winnipeg and Dannebrog—which had been utilized for a long time in promotional work—Norrøna, a new Norwegian publication in Winnipeg, was now being used as a propaganda vehicle.

People continued to move into the wheat districts in 1912; those buying land were paying $13.70 per acre on the average—a procedure that many preferred to homesteading. Scandinavian immigration in 1910—1911 included 3,213 Swedes, 2,169 Norwegians, 535 Danes, and 250 Icelanders. In 1911— 1912 it was 2,394 Swedes, 1,692 Norwegians, 628 Danes, and 205 Icelanders. Finns numbered 2,132 in 1910—1911 and 1,646 in the following year. In summer it was not unusual for as many as 1,000 to 1,500 new settlers to detrain daily in Winnipeg, and 40 immigration halls were scattered about in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Immigration continued its increase in 1912—1913, but dropped off slightly in 1913—1914 from the United States. In that year, the Scandinavians included 2,435 Swedes, 1,647 Norwegians, 871 Danes, and 292 Icelanders.

Promotional activity in the Scandinavian countries during the years immediately preceding the First World War was obviously great. Carl Krag, who took charge of an agency in Copenhagen on January 1, 1914, felt, however, that Canadian solicitation there was not adequately understood and was "somewhat hampered, in that the authorities in Denmark as well as in Norway and Sweden, do not allow an open propaganda for emigration even by licensed steamship agents, who are under supervision of the local police authorities." He tried to keep in touch with shipping companies catering to migration to Canada, and to offer advice of a "protective" nature to emigrants.

Noting the fall-off of migration from the States, White referred to rising land prices in the prairie provinces. He believed that they were not too high for Americans, but granted that inflation in city and town properties, together with losses by speculators, had had a negative effect on migration to Canada. An American making a living from land costing $150 per acre, however, could obviously do much better on a farm costing $15 to $30 per acre, or on free land, in western Canada. He repeated what had been said often by Canadian agents: that federal officials, as well as land agents, opposed emigration. In addition, the United States had revised its laws, giving settlers larger holdings and granting easier terms than before.

Immigration to Canada not surprisingly dropped to 85,010 from Europe and 59,779 from the States in the fiscal year 1914—1915. In addition, whereas the strength of the Dominion’s prairie provinces in the war effort impressed Americans, excellent crops below the border were matched by near failure in some parts of Canada. Furthermore, because of foot-and-mouth disease, an embargo had been placed on the livestock settlers had intended to take with them. Canada also suffered from a general trade depression, and the war cut off the normal flow of capital. Scandinavian immigration dropped in 1914—1915 to 916 Swedes, 788 Norwegians, 326 Danes, and 145 Icelanders.


It is impossible to determine the number of Scandinavians who took part in the land rush to the prairie provinces before 1914, but Canadian census population tabulations are of some help. In 1911, there were 33,991 residents of Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish "racial origin" in Saskatchewan, 28,046 in Alberta, and 16,421 in Manitoba. By 1921, the numbers had increased to 58,382 in Saskatchewan, 44,545 in Alberta, and 26,698 in Manitoba—a total of 129,625.

Broken down by nationalities, the figures for 1921 reveal that in that year there were 31,438 persons of Norwegian origin in Saskatchewan, 21,323 in Alberta, and 4,203 in Manitoba, or a total of 56,964 in the prairie provinces. In the same count, there were 19,064 Swedes in Saskatchewan, 15,943 in Alberta, and 8,023 in Manitoba, or a total of 43,030. Residents of Danish origin numbered 6,772 in Alberta, 4,287 in Saskatchewan, and 3,429 in Manitoba—or 14,488 in the three provinces. Those of Icelandic origin added up to 11,043 in Manitoba, 3,593 in Saskatchewan, and 507 in Alberta—a total of 15,143.

The census records also reveal a great numerical superiority of males over females. As late as 1911, of the residents born in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, there were roughly twice as many males as females in Saskatchewan and Alberta. In Manitoba, too, males were more numerous but by a smaller margin than in the provinces to the west.

The official population listings, even if accurate, do not, of course, indicate the number of persons who participated in the land rush. Karel Bicha observes that 560,389 settlers arriving from the United States between 1901 and 1914 gave Saskatchewan and Alberta as their destination. The 1916 Canadian census, however, gives a figure of 179,581 American-born residents in those provinces. Bicha explains the great discrepancy in numbers by concluding that nearly two thirds of the land-seekers quickly returned to the States. {8} The same must have been true of a majority of the Scandinavians who crossed the border. Many who arrived in Canada directly from Europe soon moved on to the United States. Robert England, dealing with colonization in western Canada to 1934, estimates that the number of persons of Norwegian ancestry in Alberta was more than double the census figures. He also points out what the census of 1931 reveals very clearly: that Scandinavians commonly intermarried among themselves and also outside their ethnic group. For this and other reasons, they were rapidly assimilated into Canadian society.{9}

In attempting to determine the number of Scandinavians in the land rush—using the 1921 census figures—one must keep in mind that 23,568 Canadian-born residents were of Norwegian racial origin, most of them in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The corresponding figure for the Swedes was 21,727, for the Danes 8,910, and for the Icelanders 8,741. Canadians of Swedish origin were more numerous than their Norwegian counterparts in Manitoba; the majority of Icelandic descent resided in that province.

By a conservative count, it is reasonable to estimate that something like 98,000 persons of Scandinavian origin moved into the prairie provinces between 1893 and 1914: 55,000 Norwegians, 40,000 Swedes, 7,000 Danes, and 3,000 Icelanders.


A feeling for the human factor in the settlement of the prairie provinces is found in the hundreds of letters written by immigrants to the Scandinavian-language newspapers of the American Middle West. Those printed in Skandinaven of Chicago and Decorah-Posten of Decorah, Iowa, two popular Norwegian journals, serve to illustrate the tone and content of such communications. It should be kept in mind that wherever Scandinavians settled in North America, they wrote to papers widely read in the older settlements, and in this manner retained contact with their countrymen. Although frequently filled with trivia and devoting too much space to "wind and weather," their letters nevertheless constitute a remarkable record of migration and frontier experience. During the period of immigration, they served as a public forum for discussion largely uninfluenced by self-interest. No doubt they also determined to a considerable extent the pattern of settlement in Canada.

Having made the move to a foreign country, the correspondents justified their action by praising the fertility of the soil in Alberta and Saskatchewan, claiming large yields per acre of wheat, oats, and other crops. They called attention to the prevalence of wood for fuel and buildings, of great quantities of wild hay for livestock, and of adequate supplies of water. While admitting the danger of early frost and the sometimes bitter cold of winter, they defended the weather of the provinces against the exaggerated attacks of the English-language press in the States. They noted the general absence of tornadoes and blizzards of the kind they had known in the Upper Midwest. These pioneer farmers made much, for example, of the fact that livestock could be left outside all winter with, at most, only straw sheds as a refuge. They admitted having to clear poplars and willows from their land, but insisted that this task was not a great one. Nor did the rocks in Saskatchewan present a serious obstacle.

More important for persons of limited means was the high price of farm machinery, livestock, and other necessities purchased in Canada. Those who brought horses and cattle with them to Alberta lost a good many to "climate" or "swamp" fever. Mosquitoes and grasshoppers were often a plague and prairie fires were a menace. Life in a primitive shack or sod house was trying indeed, especially for the many bachelors who claimed homesteads, and social life was limited in the early years of settlement. Roads were all but nonexistent in most places, making the 30-to-100-mile trip to market an ordeal requiring days of absence from home. But these problems, together with drought, summer heat, and winter cold, Were a part of the immigrant experience—and letter writers spent little time dwelling on them.

As Swanson remarked in his reports, the Scandinavians preferred to settle among their own kind and tended to do so whenever possible. But free or cheap land was their primary consideration, and the very speed of land-taking, especially in the years after 1900, forced them to live among persons of Canadian, British, old-stock American, German, Ukrainian, and other origins. Religious and purely social thoughts lay behind the consistent urgings of settlers that fellow countrymen join them in Canada. Mission and pioneer resident pastors from the States added their voices to the many who wrote to the American immigrant press. And well they might, for it was not at all unusual for a minister to serve as many as four or five widely scattered congregations and at the same time to visit as often as possible additional places with too few Scandinavians to permit church communities.

The question of whether or not immigrants were to settle in colonies was actually determined to a large extent by the manner in which land was acquired during the great rush to the provinces, as B. J. Frostad wrote from Pinto Creek, Saskatchewan, in the early summer of 1911. His post office was about 50 miles from the Montana line; his district had been opened for homesteading in December, 1908. Before the end of May, 1909, all free land was gone. The hunger for land revealed in this isolated situation explained, he reasoned, why Norwegians lived so scattered among people of other origins. It was impossible to move slowly from an old settlement to a new one, as had been done earlier in the States. People rushed in, each man for himself. At the land office in Moose Jaw, an incredible number of land-seekers "stood in line far out into the street day after day." Quite simply, it was impossible to meet with others of one’s ethnic group in time to arrange to settle together in a particular place. Even so, because many Norwegians were among the immigrants, quite a few—mostly bachelors—lived in Frostad’s township, but they had neither church nor school. {10} Certain correspondents, writing even from substantial Scandinavian settlements, complained that while their readers to the south deliberated over migrating to Canada, others moved in to claim the remaining free or railway land.

One significant result of the lack of heavy Scandinavian concentrations in the prairie provinces expressed itself in religious life. Among the Norwegians in the Upper Midwest after 1897, there were four major competing Lutheran synods in strained relations with one another—the Norwegian Synod, Hauge’s Synod, the United Norwegian Lutheran Church, and the Lutheran Free Church. These organizations carried on mission work among Norwegians in Canada, and their emissaries were warmly received in the isolated communities. But they learned very early that the pioneer settlements were often Scandinavian rather than distinctly Norwegian, and that rarely did persons of one church body dominate to the point where strict synodical organization was possible. Consequently, the newly organized congregations, even those that identified formally with specific American synods, were pointedly Scandinavian and independent in character. Many Norwegians obviously joined Swedish or other congregations—especially those of the Augustana Lutheran Synod—and Danes and Swedes affiliated with the Norwegians in similar fashion. It was clear from the start that the immigrants had little desire to continue or to revive the theological disputes that had divided them in the States.

Even in modified form, Lutheranism was both an American influence and a bond, together with the newspapers, uniting the Scandinavians in Canada. In politics, the situation was necessarily different. Overwhelmingly if somewhat casually, the immigrants accepted the inevitability of change to British citizenship, a prerequisite for securing title to their homesteads. Occasionally they referred to living well under Edward VII; often they spoke with approval of the Canadian Liberal party. There is no evidence in the letters to the Scandinavian press of sentiment in favor of American annexation of the prairie provinces. These new Canadians were keenly aware, however, that they were regarded as ingrates, if not traitors, by a considerable section of the English-language press in the States.

A settler in a solidly Norwegian community in central Alberta, calling himself "Max McOle," gave vent to his irritation at a statement frequently made in American newspapers— that the immigrants would have to submit to an "English tyranny" in the Canadian Northwest. People, he argued, tended to identify all that was most desirable with their own institutions and were blind to the good qualities of others. Nothing, it was now being said, could compare with the United States, especially in matters having to do with government—not even in the countries of Europe that, after centuries of struggle, had brought into being the world of 1905. He, too, loved the republic to the south, having lived there for many years; perhaps he loved even more his native Norway. But Max McOle had become a British subject, and it was his moral duty to be loyal to a new flag and government. In culture and in political institutions, Britain was second to none—certainly not in the area of personal freedom. He would like, he said, to see "complete understanding with one another, whether we live on Alberta’s or on Dakota’s prairies." It might be agreeable to some people if Canada were to become a part of a larger American Union, "but this situation will never come about. Anyone who has traveled a bit in the Dominion and has had a chance to observe and study its situation knows that it has three choices: complete independence, annexation to the United States, or autonomy within the British Empire. Canada long ago made its decision—in favor of the last." Except among some newly arrived Americans, there was no real sentiment either for annexation or for absolute political independence. {11}

To persons who know the Dominion well, another letter reads, the belittling of British institutions and politics sounds foolish indeed. If these were so bad, it asked, why were the Canadians able to manage their domestic affairs so well and with such low taxes? And, for that matter, why were New Zealand and Australia regarded everywhere as being perhaps the most democratic lands in the world—and at the same time the most loyal countries under King Edward? Precisely how could British politics be said to stand in the way of the development of these countries, or that of Canada. {12} Max McOle later gave evidence that he had made strong efforts to understand the changes taking place in the British Empire before 1910, from representative to responsible government in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. {13}

Whereas most letter writers spoke of the friendly hospitality shown them by Canadian, British, and other neighbors, a few remarked that the Canadians received them with a mixture of suspicion and dislike. In at least one instance, in 1911, there was some justification for the charge. Donalda, lying in the center of a large area of Scandinavian settlement in central Alberta, for a time was called Eidsvold after the birthplace of the Norwegian constitution of 1814, and this name was formally proposed by a group of about 113 petitioners. The board of trade, however, rejected the petition in favor of "Donalda." According to one correspondent, the board was anti-Scandinavian in sentiment and easily influenced by a handful of persons to whom the word "Norwegian" was like a red flag. {14}

B. L. Wick of Cedar Falls, Iowa, wrote a well-researched report on Canada for Skandinaven in late 1911 after extensive trips about the country. In it he raised the question, "What part will Scandinavians play in Canada’s government in the next 20 years?" They had settled everywhere in the prairie provinces, but were not as concentrated there as in the States. "Here they are not numerous enough to make themselves independent as in Dakota or Minnesota. . . . Overall, I got the impression that the Scandinavians were hard-working farmers and capable business people and enjoyed the confidence of their neighbors. They have not yet, with the exception of the Icelanders, been active in politics. . . . I learned from old residents that, although the Canadian people want to have foreigners settle down on their land, they are not so ready to permit them to lead. Everywhere one hears that ‘the Anglo-Saxons are born to rule.’ On this point they stand fast. . . . The English and the Scots hold the cards in Canada. . . . Scandinavians will not stand out as politicians, as they have done in the States."

In part, Wick’s conclusions were shaped by conversations with many Icelanders, who had gone to Canada as poor immigrants in the 1870s and 1880s and had settled in Manitoba. He had also met more of them at Esterhazy, Sandhurst, and other places in Saskatchewan. They thought in British fashion and were fluent in English. One of their leaders had expressed the view that, had they gone to the States, they would have emerged as a Scandinavian force in public life. Northwestern Canada, Wick added, "would become home for many of our people." They would prosper in an economic sense and the law would protect them in their rights. But they would not develop as Scandinavians or play a leading role in political life. {15}

In the final analysis, of course, the greatest gifts of Scandinavian immigrants were their willingness to work and persevere under pioneer conditions, their youth, and their experience as farmers. To a lesser extent, they were business and professional people accustomed to American life and generally proficient in English. Nor did they come with empty hands: the machinery, livestock, cash, and other possessions that they took with them constituted a vast capital investment in Canada’s future—a factor favorably commented on by agents everywhere. Although the immigrants coming directly from Europe as a rule possessed fewer worldly goods and had a language problem, their economic situation tended to improve in the years after 1900, and a majority of them were quickly absorbed in predominantly Scandinavian communities.

Neither those from the States nor those from northern Europe were merely hewers of wood and drawers of water. Wherever they settled, they supported schools and gave of their limited means to build and maintain churches. In small congregations and even outside them, they organized literary, social, and temperance societies. They celebrated—in an impartial fashion—Canadian, American, and Scandinavian holidays. They had Canadian newspapers in their native languages, and in April, 1913, Edmonton’s Lodge North Pole was solemnly "confirmed" by a representative of the Minneapolis-based Sons of Norway.

One of the first major Norwegian contributions was Cam-rose Lutheran College in Alberta. Considerable attention was given to the fact that in 1910 the United Norwegian Lutheran Church was planning to start such an institution, and that the Reverend Johan P. Tandberg was in the area during the summer of that year making the necessary arrangements. The school was to receive 20 acres of land, free of charge, from Camrose. We learn from the letters of immigrants that, during the winter of 1911—1912, the college conducted classes in a hotel building and in two local Norwegian churches, but also that a regular building had been started on the campus. Some 60 or more students were enrolled the first winter. Like most of the academies established earlier by Scandinavian Lutheran groups in the States, the Camrose institution, a preparatory or high school rather than a college in the modern sense, served not only the children of nearby settlers, but also offered a great deal to adult newcomers, whether from Europe or from the Middle West. One immigrant reported that he had entered the school after New Year’s 1912, when heavy snow prevented continued work in the woods. His purpose, he said, was to learn some English. {16} Camrose, now a junior college, has become a recognized part of the Alberta educational system. In 1915, Outlook College in Saskatchewan, also in a center of Norwegian settlement, was established after the pattern of the Camrose school and by the same Lutheran synod.

The Scandinavians who migrated to the Canadian Northwest were not the victims of a ruthless propaganda, but representatives of the classes—especially rural—that felt most keenly the economic and social squeeze of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both in northern Europe and in the States. They were stimulated and influenced by an aggressive advertising campaign in which government agents, railroads, steamship and land companies cooperated in distributing information about free or cheap land and, to a lesser degree, about well-paid labor in the western provinces. They found, on their arrival, not tundra but fertile land requiring only strength, experience, some capital, and great effort to be transformed into one of the leading "bread baskets" of the world. Like their kinsmen who had gone earlier to the American Middle West, they were linked to their homelands by ties that led to material and cultural contributions. But they identified themselves fully with their adopted country, were influenced by it, and remained as a significant part of the ethnic mosaic that was emerging in the prairie provinces.


<1> The writer has described the founding of Bella Coola in Americana Norvegica, 3:195—222 (Oslo, 1971), and that of a similar Norwegian planned colony at Quatsino on Vancouver Island in Norwegian-American Studies, 25:80—104 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1972).

<2> For an excellent discussion of the farm situation in the States, see Karel Deals Bicha, The American Farmer and the Canadian West, 1 896—1914, 10— 31 (Lawrence, Kansas, 1968).

<3> An account of Norwegian migration to the American Far West before 1893 is in Kenneth O. Bjork, West of the Great Divide: Norwegian Migration to the Pacific Coast, 1847—1893 (Northfield, 1958).

<4> Kristian Hvidt, in Flugten til Amerika: Drivkrwfter I masseud vandringen fra Danmark 1868—1914 (Aarhus, Denmark, 1971), gives an interesting analysis of the part played by steamship, railroad, and governmental agents in promoting emigration from Denmark. For specifically Canadian activities, see pages 384—90.

<5> Norman Macdonald, Canada: Immigration and Colonization, 1841—1903, 202—13 (Toronto, 1966). This volume also provides a comprehensive review of Canadian land and immigration policies after 1867 in pages 90—180. The following are also useful: Marcus Lee Hansen and John Bartlett Brebner, The Mingling of the Canadian and American Peoples, Vol. 1 (New Haven, 1940); Robert England, The Colonization of Western Canada: A Study of Contemporary Land Settlement (1896—1934), 254—63 (London, 1936); and Vols. 2, 3, and 7 of W. A. Mackintosh and W. L. G. Joerg, eds., Canadian Frontiers of Settlement (Toronto, 1936).

<6> The writer has made use of the files of Den Skandinavieke Canadiensaren under its several titles, Väktaren, and Canada, The Swedish Weekly in the provincial archives of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

<7> This and the following section are based largely on the annual reports of the Canadian department of the interior for the years 1893—1915. They are contained in the sessional papers of the parliament of the Dominion of Canada (Ottawa), Vols. 10—19.

<8> Bicha, The American Farmer and the Canadian West, 140-41.

<9> England, The Colonization of Western Canada, 147, 258, 262-63.

<10> Decorah-Posten, June 9, 1911.

<11> Decorah-Posten, July 7, 1905.

<12> Decorah-Posten, June 28, 1907.

<13> Decorah-Posten, December 17, 1909.

<14> Decorah-Posten, December 1, 1911.

<15> Skandinaven, January, 19, 1912.

<16> Decorah-Posten, August 12, 1910, May 17, 1912.

From: NAHA publications

Senast uppdaterad 2005-09-20 10:52
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