Scandinavian Immigration and Influence in Minnesota

Scandinavian Immigration and Influence in Minnesota

by Hannah King, Curator

More Norwegians live in Minnesota than any other state in the U.S. Just over 20% of people in Stevens County have Scandinavian ancestry. Many of us grew up with Johnsons, Andersons, and Olsons and came to love treats like sandbakkel and krumkakke. How did the Midwest, and Minnesota specifically, come to be the center of Scandinavian American culture?

Minnesota has been an immigration destination since the early 1800s. Norwegians began to flee overpopulation and poor farming conditions in the mid-1800s. They first settled in Wisconsin and Illinois, both of which had rich and plentiful farmland. From there, they moved west into Minnesota and the Dakotas. Other Scandinavians and Nordic immigrants followed suit. In 1850, Swedish writer Fredrika Bremer wrote, “What a glorious new Scandinavia might not Minnesota become.” That dream essentially came true, with many important historical figures, cultural practices, and even regional dialects influenced by Scandinavian immigrants.

Governors Knute Nelson, John A. Johnson, Floyd B. Olson, John Lind, and Adolph O. Eberhart were all of Scandinavian descent. The strong presence of cooperatives for everything from fuel to telephone services is largely due to Scandinavian influences. The same can be said for the widespread nature Lutheranism, agricultural communities, and hotdishes.

Even the way people speak in the Upper Midwest has been affected by all those Scandinavians. Linguists have given the regional accent that you hear in Minnesota, eastern North and South Dakota, western Wisconsin, and northern Iowa its own name – Upper Midwestern English. Most residents in these areas know that things like the long ‘o’ (such as in Minnesooota) and the phrase ‘uff da’ aren’t something you hear elsewhere. However, even our phrasing is different. The Upper Midwest is the only area in the U.S. where people say ‘come with.’ John M. Spartz, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the “come with” construction, said the phrase is basically a direct translation from the German and Scandinavian languages — languages once spoken frequently in states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin during a period of heavy German and Scandinavian immigration. “I would say, ‘Come with,’ and people would look at me like I’m crazy,” Spartz said. He added that it sounded to the person like he had not finished his sentence. People in Minnesota and Wisconsin also sometimes use the word “borrow” when they mean “lend.”

It turns that all Midwesterners, even those who don’t have a drop of Norwegian blood, still carry the mark of Scandinavian immigrants who started to arrive over 150 years ago. Throughout this newsletter and upcoming exhibit, we’ll be exploring Scandinavian culture and heritage. We hope you come with.