Scandinavian Immigration
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Chances are that your Scandinavian ancestors came to America in one of the great waves of immigration from roughly the 1840s to the 1920s. When (as a Swedish poet put it) "peace, vaccination and potatoes" caused the population of the mostly rural Scandinavian countries to explode—unchecked by war, smallpox and malnutrition—the boundless frontiers of America beckoned. Governments encouraged emigration, and the United States was depicted as a land of milk and honey—as the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen described it in 1836: "Ducks and chickens raining down, geese land on the table."

Pushed by subsequent crop failures and pulled by the Gold Rush of 1849 and the Homestead Act of 1862, the trickle of Scandinavians to America became a flood. Jobs laying railroads across the growing nation also beckoned. US railroad tycoon James J. Hill once boasted, "Give me snuff, whiskey and Swedes, and I'll build a railroad to hell."

Some historians have characterized this 19th-century immigration era as the dividing of the Scandinavian people into two branches—one in Europe, one in America. Today, for example, the number of Americans of Norwegian descent almost equals the population of Norway.

Peak periods for US immigration varied by country:

  • Sweden, 1850-1920
  • Norway, 1836-1920
  • Denmark, 1870-1905
  • Finland, 1899-1914
  • Iceland, 1874-1914

Passenger lists for these periods are housed at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The archives also has 13 regional offices.

You can rent microfilmed records from more than 6,000 libraries nationwide or directly from the archives. Canadian passenger lists from 1865 on are available through Library and Archives of Canada.

Scandinavian emigration records were typically kept by the police. You can search Denmark's archives online in English. Norwegian police emigration records date from 1867, and these are being computerized by the Norwegian Emigration Center in Stavanger and the Digital Archive of Norway.

Records of passports and passenger lists from Finland are being computerized by the Institute of Migration.

In Sweden, parish ministers were required to report annually on emigrants. These records, along with passenger lists, can be accessed on microfilm through your Family History Center.