The Midwest and Norway have strong ties largely due to the number of Norwegian-Americans in the area. To put it into perspective, more than 4.5 million people with Norwegian ancetry live in the United States today. Approximately 55 percent of those 4.5 million Norwegian- Americans live in the Midwest and 17 percent of South Dakota’s population claims to have Norwegian roots.
Like many Norwegians, Lars Stavig left his family in Norway to homestead on the prairies of Dakota Territory. Motivated by economic concerns, Lars, along with roughly one-third of Norway’s population, emigrated to America with hopes of prosperity between 1820-1920.
“Norwegian emigrants represented a relatively small segment (814,995) of the vast European migration (about 45 million) to the United States in the century between 1820-1920, but Norwegian migration remains significant in two distintive ways. First, a high percentage of Norway’s citizens migrated than that of any other European nation except Ireland until Italian emigrants replaced Norwegians in that ranking in 1890. Second, more than any other immigrant group, Norwegians sought land and pursued farming and agricultural work.”
In Dear Unforgettable Brother, Jane Torness Rasmussen, the great-granddaughter of Lars Stavig, introduces readers to the Stavig family letters.
These brothers grew up on the Norwegian west coast. Lars Stavig, born in 1844, emigrated to America with his wife and three sons in 1876, while Knut Stavig, born in 1851, decided to stay on the farm where they were raised.
Though their paths never cross again, Lars and his brother stayed in touch. While their correspondence reflects the challenges faced by familys in both Norway and America, it also is a testament to the persistence of their heirs in preserving the family letters and sharing their story.
Thoughout much of their early correspondence, Lars tried to convince Knut to emigrate to America.
White Bear Centre [Minn.]
January 24, 1881
Dear unforgettable brother, Knut A. Stavig,
…. America is good for everyone and especially for people that have small farms in Norway and then come here. We have not left much behind that we feel sorry about….
Dear brother, if you believe what I’m writing, you know my true feeling about America. In all sincerity, if you would lik to come, it is best to come before you have anything in Norway you desire. You can visit me next summer, and if you don’t like it, you can make enough money next summer to travel back and forth as you like… Don’t let the Devil rule over you. Find yourself a woman, K.A. Stavig….
Lars A. Stavig
White Bear Centre
November 21, 1881
Dear Brother Knudt Stavig,
….. I hear, dear brother, that you think it is not going well for me. I must answer you about that. I have none of the world’s riches which can be counted in so many thousand dollars in money. I have Maren and coffee for my house the whole year. I live in my kvitebrodsdager [“white bread days”]….
But if you want to stay home, don’t let me tear you away. If you don’t try anything, you will never know how it will work out. You must try it to find out.
From Lars Stavig
In letters from home, Knudt informed Lars of the large migration of people from Norway to America.
Many Norwegian writers and intellectuals denounced the emigration claiming it took away the best of the country’s youth and intellectual capacity. Those who left for America were accused of being adventurers and vagabonds looking for easy money.
While America was known as the land of opportunity, it did not necessarily come easily to all those who came here with hopes of prosperity.
Nutley Township, Day County [S.D.]
March 2, 1888
Dear Brother K. Stavig,
…. Wherever we go in the world, we are tested. Millions come to this country every year, but almost as when we hold a feather in the air to test the wind, so people will experience the sourness of life before the sweet. No one can expect to become independent in the first five years. First, you must work to pay for your ticket and for a place to stay and food. Then, for oxen, wagon and plow before you are ready to start on your own land.
Lars A. Stavig
Those who stayed in Norway found that, with time, they had better living conditions, more land and more jobs to share, but families were split up, parents never saw their children again, siblings and relatives never reunited and the story became one of loss and distance.
December 8, 1902
Dear brother and family,
…. The first thing I will say is that I wish you a merry Christmas and new year…. Old mother is still alive and lives with us. She talks about you often and says that when I write to you, I should greet you with: “You must meet us on the other side of the grave.” Yes, we must all wish that….
I will here bring you my heartfelt, innermost thanks, both for the one and the other thing which you have sent me. Thanks for thinking about me and mine. I have wished to get to talk with you, but that will never happen here in this world. But let us meet on the other side of the grave, up there in heaven, at the home of Jesus, who has promised us everlast salvation….
Nine months and five days before Lars’s death, Lars wrote one last letter to Knudt.
December 13, 1932
[Dear brother Knudt Stavig,]
I thought I would write a letter to you to thank you for the last letter you sent. I recieved it on the day I was 88 years old – the 21st of November.
(Hans Stavig finishes the letter for Lars, who was too weak to continue):
That was all he thought he could write. He has been bedridden for 18 months. He is not so sick, but he is not able to stand or walk. He has a good appetite….
He worked for 1/2 day to write those lines. He said to tell you he thinks these will be the last lines from him. My wife takes care of him….
I will tell you he has all his senses and lives in the Lord….
On a larger scale, Norwegian immigrants helped to shape the Midwestern-American culture.
“Perhaps the greatest legacy of pioneering immigrants like Lars Stavig was to give to their descendants the will to endure and the strength to overcome calamities like the Great Depression and World War II. Like the very lives their authors lived, the letters of Lars and Knut Stavig reflect the hardships faced by families in both Norway and America and give voice to the indomitable spririt of those who pioneer.”
Yet, Lars and Knudt share an even more important lesson to those who take the time to learn from their experiences. Their devotion to each other is a testament of love, loyalty and friendship.
Through it all, they supported one another and remained in touch until their dying days. They show us of the importance of staying connected with those we love even if we choose to follow our own path.
To read Lars and Knudt’s story in full, pick up a copy of Dear Unforgettable Brother here.1