Ellis Island has wonderful displays about immigration to America going back to the land bridge; even though it itself was only used from 1892- 1924. Although it did not close until 1954, in those later years it was only used for exceptional cases, since screening was done at the other end. This came about due to the increased restrictions on immigration (see list at the end of this article), most importantly the National Origins Act of 1924. Click here for the history of Ellis Island and click here for the BBC series of articles “The Open Door policy and immigration to 1928.”
The displays at Ellis Island have photos and letters and recorded voices but what struck me the most was the fact that there were so many anti-immigrant demonstrations back in the 19th century. I learned about them from an exhibit on the 2nd floor and thus learned that that sort of sentiment is not new. First it was the Irish immigrants, then the Chinese, then the Southern Europeans, and so on. There was the No Nothing party and the Nativists in the mid 1800s (click here for an article on the Know Nothings). I don’t remember much of this from my high school American history classes. Was it even covered to the extent shown on those walls?
My mother arriving in America in 1935
My mother was born in Munich to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother so I know perfectly well why they moved to Boston in 1935. He was “retired” in the early 1930s, from his professorship at the University of Freiburg Faculty of Medicine for being jewish. However he still had an extensive private medical practice and would have stayed in Germany had my Oma not insisted that they leave. Thankfully my Opa was a prominent scientist and had many offers from different universities around the world. Happily for my existence, my Oma chose Boston over Ankara.
But why did my Norwegian ancestors come to this country? I recently started reading a book, Between Rocks and Hard Places (love that title!) by Ann Urness Gesme that answers some of those questions and describes life in Norway in the 1800s in much detail. So I wanted to share this find with all of you other Norwegian Americans and Norwegians. Many of you may have already read the wonderful article Peace, Potatoes and Pox which summarizes the reasons for the population explosion in Norway such that there were too many people on too little land, the main impetus behind emigration. He wrote that article after reading Norway to America A History of the Migration by Ingrid Semmingsen, a detailed and carefully researched book. [n.b. these book titles include my affiliate links]
My paternal grandfather was born in Kristiansand, Norway’s southernmost city, and came here when he was six years old with his family. He later married the daughter of Norwegian immigrants, one from near Drammen and the other from Etne, Hordaland. This gives me the pleasure of three different places in Norway to research for my family history.
I am fortunate to have the letters that grandfather wrote to my Dad during WWII which include a description of leaving Kristiansand in 1884: “… my grandfather brought us out in a row boat to the steamer lying out in the harbor all ready to leave for America” and “What America was I did not know, but I had imbibed enough of family talk to realize it was a land of plenty and an interesting place to go to.” Followed by a description of the crossing: “Well the Atlantic was rough and wild at times during July 1884 and our boat rolled and pitched in the heavy seas. I was tremendously impressed by the huge waves, which seemed like mountains to me.”