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Subject: 29-08-Emigration From Dovre - 1 of 5
Date: Sun, 4 Feb 2001 09:45:20 -0800

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The following selection is taken from "Norwegian-American Studies, Volume
29" published by the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA) in
1983. The volume is still available from NAHA for $15 plus shipping and
handling. This chapter is published with the kind permission of NAHA. The
book this selection is drawn from is under copyright and permission has
been granted for educational purposes and it is not to be used in any way
for any commercial venture.

translated by C. A. CLAUSEN

8 Emigration from Dovre, 1865 -1914 *
* This article is adapted from a thesis, entitled "Opphrot og omlegging.
Utvandring og økonomisk utvikling i Dovre på 1800-talet," presented to
the Department of History at the University of Oslo, 1973. Parts of the
thesis have been printed as articles in Arnfinn Engen, ed., Utvandringa —
det store oppbrotet (Oslo, 1978).

THIS ARTICLE is an attempt to record the emigration to America from
Dovre, a mountain community located in the northern part of
Gudbrandsdalen, Norway, and to analyze the background of this movement.
By limiting the research to one community it is possible to delve more
deeply into the sources than can be done by scholars who deal with larger
areas. At the same time it may be possible to broaden the perspective
beyond the purely local by casting light on emigration questions of a
more general nature, since Dovre is to a degree representative of just
those regions which sent the largest percentage of their population to
America. Mountain communities throughout Norway were heavily drained of
manpower through emigration; furthermore, Dovre was a part of the former
Kristians amt —present-day Oppland fylke — the county which for a long
time had the highest rate of emigration in Norway.
The principal questions discussed in this article are the nature and the
causes of the emigration movement from Dovre. The problem of causes can
be presented under two main headings: (1) why do people decide to
emigrate, and (2) why do they leave at some specific time? Therefore, the
first concern will be to determine the fundamental developments which
could induce people to forsake their homes; and the second to analyze the
factors which caused certain groups to leave in one year rather than
another. It is primarily conditions in Norway which will be studied.
Population changes and economic conditions in a given area are closely
connected. Good or bad times are soon reflected in population increase or
decrease; and the size of the population in turn has a definite influence
on the economy. Economic conditions in Dovre before emigration set in
will be examined first.
Table 1: Population, excess of births over deaths, and migration from
Dovre, 1801-1865 {1}

Years 1801 1815 1825 1835 1845 1855 1865
Population 1301 1342 1632 1975 1829 1982 2204
Population change +41+290+343-146+153+222
Excess of births over deaths since previous census 191 349 442 187 352
Net out-migration since previous census 150 59 99 333 199 205

Looking first at population developments, one finds a pattern which
closely resembles developments in the country at large, with slow growth
until 1815 followed by a rapid increase up to 1865. An exception is the
decade following 1835, when there was a decrease; but still the
population shows an increase of about 70 percent during the
sixty-five-year period.
Next, with the aid of church records, one can calculate the excess of
births over deaths and so estimate the relationship between in-migration
and out-migration during the decades separating the various censuses.
Then the interesting fact appears that there was a great migration out of
Dovre during the whole period under discussion. Actually there was a net
out-migration of more than 1,000 persons between 1801 and 1865 — as many
as emigrated to the United States up to the First World War.
If the great migration from Dovre before the overseas emigration began is
to be explained one must take a look at economic conditions in the
community. As was true of most regions in eastern Norway (Østlandet) in
the early nineteenth century, the greater part of the population drew its
sustenance from the soil. Some 70 or 80 percent of the families engaged
in farming either as landowners or as cotters, while most of the others
also had some connection with agriculture as laborers or servants. When
the rapid population increase began after the end of the Napoleonic Wars,
attempts were made to provide for ever more people by subdividing farms.
The number of farm units rose from 74 in 1801 to 155 in 1865. But this,
of necessity, meant that the farms became smaller and brought in less
income. Attempts were then made to remedy this defect by clearing new
homesteads. The amount of new land which could be put under the plow was,
however, very restricted and it usually proved to be less fertile than
the old farms.
Another method of providing a living for more people in the community was
to establish new crofts (husmannsplasser). But because of the limited
area available, the increase in the number of crofts during the first
half of the nineteenth century was not as great as in communities with
larger farms and greater demands for labor. {2} Agricultural pursuits in
one form or another were, never-the-less, the only form of livelihood
available for most of the people in Dovre. If crops failed, then want was
not far behind, and crops might fail very seriously in a mountain region.
Frost was a particular problem. There was good reason why 45 of the 162
farms (bruk) in Dovre were characterized as "subject to frost"
(frostlændte) in the tax rolls of 1866. {3}
The question then arises: how were crops in Dovre during this period? The
years 1801—1815 are known to have been trying ones for the whole country.
Ivar Kleiven, a local historian, reports that grain froze in Dovre and
the neighboring community of Lesja in both 1800 and 1801. 1806 and 1807
were poor years, and frost struck the whole country in 1812. {4} In a
diary from Lesja occurs this entry concerning the fall of 1812: "Frost
destroyed the entire grain crop throughout the community and in most of
the whole country." {5} Want was so great that a full-grown cow would
bring in trade only about four bushels of grain. The very small
population gain in Dovre between 1801 and 1815 can undoubtedly be
ascribed to the hard times during this period which led to a low
birthrate, a high mortality rate, and a heavy migration from the
After 1814 the crops were more normal, with some rather good years toward
1830. But a turn for the worse came in 1834 when a period of bad years
began. A diary from 1834 speaks as follows: "Our grain was extremely
poor. The field crops on this farm were stunted and sparse. We had to
pick by hand in many places because it was so extremely dry during the
haying season." {6} Again in 1836 poor harvests are reported, and in 1837
water froze in the irrigation pipes on July 12. Similar reports about
frost and drought occur for practically every year until 1843.
Such a series of poor years naturally created hard times in a community
largely dependent on agriculture. Not surprisingly, Lesja parish, of
which Dovre then formed a part, was characterized as "the parish in
Gudbrandsdalen deepest sunk in poverty." {7} Undoubtedly this succession
of bad years was the main cause of the heavy out-migration during the
decade 1835—1845. After 1845 there was no serious crop failure until late
in the 1860s. People continued to leave the community, but the relative
numbers were not as great as in the late 1830s.
Two important factors bearing on emigration emerge from this brief survey
of economic and demographic developments in Dovre: (1) The population
increased rapidly toward 1865. A great majority of the people were
dependent upon agriculture, which still employed traditional methods. As
a result the resources within the system were taxed to their limits by
1860. The slightest variation, such as, for instance, a crop failure,
would throw it out of balance. (2) Migration out of the community was a
well-known phenomenon long before emigration to America began. Leaving
the old home district was not a new experience — only the destination
differed when the America fever broke out.
These two factors, then, should at least partly answer the first
question: why do people decide to emigrate?

In 1866 the first emigrants to America left Dovre and from then on
scarcely a year passed without a group departing from the community. But
emigration from other districts in the Gudbrandsdal valley had started
much earlier. Already in 1832 the first emigrant had left the valley for
America: Jehans Persson Nordbu (Johannes Nordboe) from Venabygd. {8} He
did not have any immediate followers, but in 1839 a family left from
Fåberg and during the 1840s there was increasing emigration from the
The emigration movement seems to have spread northward from the southern
communities. In 1845 thirty people left from Gausdal, Øyer, and Ringebu,
after which departures occurred as follows: from Sør-Fron in 1849, from
Vågå in 1853, from Lom in 1854, and from Skjåk in 1857. {9} Two people
are said to have left Lesja in 1853 but emigration from there did not
really begin until1864 — two years earlier than from Dovre. A total of
346 persons emigrated from Gudbrandsdalen during the years 1851—1855, and
during the next ten years 1,569 emigrants left Gudbrandsdalen as a whole.
Why did the movement strike the northern communities of Lesja and Dovre
so late? Prior to 1866 a total of about 2,000 persons had left the rest
of Gudbrandsdalen while the emigrants from Lesja and Dovre during the
same period can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Why were these two
communities — which were no strangers to migration — struck by the
America fever so much later than the neighboring communities to the
south? The population increase in Lesja and Dovre had been just as great
as in other parts of Gudbrandsdalen and the economy was not such that it
could very well provide a livelihood for more people. One would think
that such conditions would drive the young people away from their home
Undoubtedly this did happen — only at first people did not go to America.
If the young could not find employment at home they would leave for other
places. This they had done for at least a generation. The migratory
tradition was an old one, and there were several choices as to where they
might go. There had long been road connections between Dovre and other
regions: eastward through Folldalen to Østerdalen; northward, over the
mountains, to Trøndelag and northern Norway; and westward to Romsdalen
and Møre. There was also a good road to Ottadalen and thence to western
Norway (Vestlandet). These roads were familiar and well trodden, while
the routes that led to America were strange and unknown. And a ticket to
America was a costly affair. As yet there were no relatives there who
could help defray expenses. Dovre was not a wealthy community and there
were some bad agricultural years around 1860. The lack of relatives and
acquaintances in America could also act as a psychological barrier. The
decision to break loose was more serious when there was no one a person
could go to. And then came the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865,
which discouraged emigration during those years.
Collectively these factors might explain in part why no one from Dovre is
known to have found his way to America before 1866. But from then on the
thought of going to America was alive in the community; the road had been
discovered and there were many to take it.
The question of how the idea of emigrating first arose is not as relevant
for Dovre as for districts where the movement began earlier. There was
much mobility in the community and it was undoubtedly common knowledge
that people from communities farther south and elsewhere in the country
were leaving for America. Furthermore, local newspapers contained much
material about the New World. Few issues failed to offer articles under
such titles as "American Conditions" and "Oil Wells in America and
Canada," or simply letters from emigrants. {11} Even though Lillehammer
Tilskuer (Lillehammer Observer), which was then the only newspaper in
Gudbrandsdalen, tried to discourage emigration, it did print information
about the western continent. Whether this particular material reached the
people of Dovre is not known, since the subscription lists from those
years are missing.
In 1862 the United States Congress passed the Homestead Act, which
granted settlers 160 acres practically free; this promise of land
undoubtedly sounded attractive to people living on skimpy soil in narrow
mountain valleys. And after the Civil War the construction of great
railroad systems began, which created countless jobs for skilled and
unskilled laborers. With such allurements one could expect that some
young men would make up their minds to leave. This happened in 1866 when
the brothers Johannes and Niels Taarud and Johan Larsen Haugen set off
for America. The two brothers from Taarud were horse traders who
undoubtedly had traveled widely and could thus have caught the America
fever in communities farther south. Now when someone had led the way it
was easier for others to follow, and at least fifty years were to elapse
before the people of Dovre — young and old — lost their desire to embark
for America.
One may ask: what was the nature of this mass emigration? How many and
how large a percentage of the population left? And who was it that
emigrated? More men than women, young or old, singly or in groups? What
were their occupations in Norway and what social groups did they
represent? How many left and how large a percentage of the population
they constituted will be shown in the following table:

Table 2: Emigrants from Dovre in absolute numbers, and emigrants
per 1000 of the median population, 1866—1914 {12}
YearsAbsolute number Per 1000 of median population
1866—1870 100 8.1
1871—1875 21 1.7
1876—1880 95 8.2
1881—18852 131 8.8
1886—1890 156 13.7
1891—1895 123 11.3
1896—1900 43 3.8
1901—1905 155 12.8
1906—1910 41 2.8
1911—1914 19
1866—1914 966

By studying the table one finds that the emigration movement during the
period covered divides into three quite well-defined waves or periods:
1866—1875, 1876—1895, and 1896—1914. The crests of the waves were reached
in 1869, 1881, and 1903, respectively, while the low points came near
1875 and 1895. Similar wavelike movements appear in emigration figures
for Norway as a whole, with high and low points generally falling during
the same years in all areas. But the size of the waves naturally varies
from district to district.
Until about 1890 Kristians amt was the county with the highest emigration
rate in Norway. {13} Within this county the southern part of
Gudbrandsdalen had more emigration than the northern part until 1895 or
so, presumably because the movement began earlier there. After 1885
emigration from the north increased, but the rate for Dovre is lower than
for northern Gudbrandsdalen as a whole during the period studied, even
though it is higher than the national average. The rate for Dovre is
especially low during the first wave of emigration — only about half as
high as in the whole district and barely one-third of the rate in
southern Gudbrandsdalen. This can undoubtedly be explained in part by the
factors discussed above: other outlets were temporarily more attractive,
and emigration may have been too costly a venture at the time.

<1> The sources for these figures are the Norwegian national census
reports and the church records for Dovre.
<2> Information concerning economic conditions was gathered from the
Norwegian census reports covering the period 180 1—1865, in the National
Archives in Oslo.
<3> Herredsbeskrivelse 68. Forslag til skytdlægning for Dovre herred,
november, 1866, in the National Archives, Oslo.
<4> Ivar Kleiven, Lesja og Dovre (Kristiania, 1923), 78.
<5> Årbok for Gudbrandsdalen 1952 (Lillehammer, 1952), 62.
<6> Årbok for Gudbrandsdalen 1952, 62.
<7> Oplands-Tidende, May 8, 1839.
<8> Arne Odd Johnsen, "Johannes Nordboe and Norwegian Immigration, an
‘America Letter’ of 1837," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 8
(Northfield, Minnesota 1934), 23—38.
<9> Årbok for Gudbrandsdalen 1959 (Lillehammer, 1959), 170.
<10> NOS (Central Bureau of Statistics), Folkemengdens bevegelse
1856—1865 (Christiania, 1868—1869).
<11> Lillehammer Tilskuer, no. 34/1861 and no. 27/1862.
<12> These figures are drawn primarily from emigrant protocols for Oslo
and Trondheim.
<13> The Valdres district had the highest emigration rate in the county
of Oppland.
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