By Earl Johnson Jr.

Earl Johnson Jr. -- aside from being a former president of the Half Norwegian (on the Mother's Side) American Bar Assn. -- is a justice of California's Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles. The following is a letter he sent to association founder Roger M. Grace.)

Running the risk of getting too serious about what I consider a wonderful lark, the Half Norwegian on the Mother's Side/American Bar Association, I thought you might have a personal interest in a few things I learned over the last decade about the Norwegian migration to the United States. (You may be aware of all or most of this information, but it came as news to me.)

It all started a few years ago when I was about to visit Chicago. Until that time all I knew was my Grandfather had homesteaded in South Dakota in the early 1880's. However, family folklore said he had been born in Norway and raised on a farm near Morris, Illinois. This surprised me because I never thought of Illinois as Scandinavian country. But since Morris is only about 40 miles from Chicago I decided to pay a visit. A letter to the Morris historical society really paid off. The immediate past president wrote back she had located quite a bit of information about my Great-grandfather. When I drove over from Chicago to Morris, she spent the entire day leading me on a little tour -- the original farm and farm house, my great-grandfather's grave (a special headstone because he had been a soldier in the Grand Army of the Republic), the Norwegian American Church he helped build, his eldest son's (my Grandfather) original Illinois farm before he homesteaded in South Dakota, etc. She also showed me the plat map for the north half of the county for the year 1880. Almost all the farms were owned by people with Norwegian names.

But that's all Johnson family history and of no relevance to you. What you may find interesting is the rest of the tour which answered my question about what Illinois and Norwegian Americans have to do with each other. She took me to a small town of 300 or 400 people about 15 miles from Morris. It is Norway, Illinois. Just on the edge of town is a large historical marker, a small clearing and the ruins of some small wooden houses. The Norwegian King dedicated this marker a couple of decades ago recognizing this as the location of the first Norwegian-American settlement in the United States.

From that marker and an unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in the library in Aurora, Illinois I learned a bit about that first settlement and the settlers. They are called "The Sloopers" because they all came over from Norway in the same vessel, obviously a sloop.

It was 1833. There were about 30 families and a number of single men. They were led by a charismatic religious visionary named Cleng Peerson. (From what I later read at a museum in San Antonio, Texas, Cleng had visited North America a year or so earlier and scouted around.) In any event, the sloop arrived in Canada and Cleng led his followers to their first promised land, northern New York near Buffalo, etc. They arrived in midwinter. That proved too harsh even for Norwegians and they refused to settle there. So Cleng had another vision about verdant farmlands in Illinois. All but a couple members of the group headed out with Cleng for the area near Morris. Most of them built houses in the little settlement which much later became the town of Norway.

Evidently this was not an entirely happy group. Cleng either was ousted or became dissatisfied. Within a few years he took off for Texas, this time by himself (From what I saw and read in Illinois I gained the impression he fell off the end of the Earth, either dying on the way to Texas or disappearing into obscurity. I learned otherwise in San Antonio, however.)

A couple of other things I learned in Illinois seem interesting in retrospect. My great-grandfather immigrated to the Morris area about 20 years after "the Sloopers" set down roots there, arriving in 1854 with a wife and a couple of children, including my Grandfather, the first born. So he was in a second wave of migration. He and his countrymen built a Norwegian American Church and a Norwegian-American school. Services in the church were conducted in Norwegian, and the same was true of the school. Once suspects Norwegian also was the language within the family and the language of social discourse among the Norwegian-American families who populated all the farms for scores of miles around. They only needed English when it came time to go to town for groceries or to sell their farm products. My great-grandmother died never having learned English. In that day and age, it was much easier to make a living and to survive generally without learning English than it is today.

My Grandfather and Grandmother were bilingual, but my Father and as far as I know his brothers and sisters only knew maybe a hundred Norwegian words and expressions and I only know a couple.

The next place I learned something about our joint roots was the Nordic-American Heritage Museum in the Ballard area of Seattle. If you haven't seen this museum and get to Seattle for some reason, I highly recommend a visit to this museum. A most interesting place. It occupies all three stories of a converted grade school. On the top floor there are individual rooms about each of the Scandinavian countries. But the bottom floor is dedicated to the immigration and the immigrant experience -- especially those who came to the Seattle area, of course. One interesting fact -- a higher percentage of Norwegians (almost forty percent) emigrated to the United States than any other European country, with the sole exception of Ireland.

Then in 1997, [wife] Barb and I attended the ABA [American Bar Assn.] mid-year meetings in San Antonio. While there we did a little sight-seeing and visited the Texas Cultural Museum. (When I told my colleague, Fred Woods, we had visited the Texas Cultural Museum, he said that was an oxymoron. As a Texan, I guess he can say that.) Anyway this museum contains displays featuring each of the many ethnic groups which settled Texas -- including the Norwegian-Americans. So guess who reappears on the scene. Ol' Cleng Peerson. It turns out he did make it all the way down to Texas and became quite an important figure in the Norwegian-Texan and later Norwegian-American community.

According to the display about the Norwegian-Americans they didn't use slaves or like slavery. Most of them lived in their own farming communities -- of which there were only a couple or three, since there were fewer than 1000 Norwegian-Americans in the entire state at the time of the Civil War. As a newspaperman you would be interested in an editorial they include in the display. It was written by a Norwegian woman who published a newspaper for her fellow Norwegians. (Evidently she was a pre-cursor of the feminists. She divorced her husband and had her own business, the newspaper.) The featured editorial was on the topic of slavery. It was published in the mid-1850's as I recall. You can easily guess the argument to which she was responding in the editorial. She writes that she would prefer her child not marry a Negro, but better that than the continued survival of the abominable institution of slavery. A gutsy thing to utter -- to say nothing of print -- one would suspect, in the state of Texas at that time. After all, only a few years later that state seceded from the Union in an attempt to save the institution she wrote was "abominable."

I hope you find the above of some interest. If you have some other or different background you have picked up on the Norwegian-American immigration I would like to hear about it. It seems to be a little known history, at least in this area of the country.

For a biography of Justice Johnson, CLICK HERE