The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 5, Number 2, Pages 11-17
Spring, 1980

Scandinavians in the Northwest

By Ray E. Osterberg

RAY E. OSTERBERG is a retired U.S. Air Force man. He recently completed his BA degree at Eastern and is presently working on an MA in History. This essay was written under the direction of Professor Claude Nichols in the Department of History.

I. Introduction:

America has often been called "The Melting Pot" of the world. The Pacific Northwest is certainly no exception. Among those "foreigners" who flocked to the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho during the closing decades of the 1800's and early 1900's were first and second generation immigrants from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. "The Norwegians and Swedes have shaped thousands of frontier homes from rough lands of the Northwest; Finns are leaders in the fishing industry of the Pacific Northwest ... "(1) "Until the 1890's the majority (of immigrants) were peasants in search of land, and realized that to find cheap and good farms they would have to go west. Family groups in particular were apt to have a specific destination in the Middle West. The moves of Scandinavians still further west into Colorado, Montana and the Pacific states seem to have been secondary removals of dissatisfied settlers or their children from the Middle Border more than primary settlements immigrants fresh from Europe."(2) "They came west with the railroads to find land or jobs. "Most Scandinavians were engaged in agriculture, the woods industry, and fishing, with perhaps the majority on the farms."(3) By 1910 nearly 25 per cent of all residents of the State of Washington who were of foreign extraction were either Danes, Swedes or Norwegians. This amounted to more than 12 per cent of the state's population. Nearly one-fourth of them had come directly from Europe while the rest were "second stage" immigrants from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa.

II. Immigration Whys and Trends:

The mountains, lakes, rivers, ocean shores, and farmlands did a great deal to attract the Scandinavians to the Pacific Northwest. Here they found similarities with their home lands, not only in appearance and occupation, but also in climate. But, that is not the reason most of them left their homes in Europe. Using Sweden, the country of the greatest exodus, as an example, it is found that the years 1860-1865 were years of excellent economic conditions and high birth rates. This was followed by three years of exceptionally poor crops during which a famine struck the nation. A lack of food led many of the people to look elsewhere for their livelihood. Meanwhile in America, the Civil War had ended and the movement west was begun in earnest. Since 1862 land had been available for the asking in the Midwest and Old Northwest. While the number of immigrants from Sweden to the United States had been 10,429 during 1861-1865, the numbers rose to 80,491 during 1866-1870.

By 1879 the emigration had slowed down and then in the 1880's an economic depression struck. Sixty-seven per cent of Sweden's population was still involved in agriculture. It was a period of good harvests and low prices. This, combined with the numbers of young people seeking employment as a result of the birth rates of the early 1860's, led to another and even greater exodus. During the period 1881-1890, 347,285 people left Sweden. 324,285 of those came to the United States.(4)

While the departure was not as great in the other Scandinavian countries the numbers were impressive. Departures from Norway, for example, were 256,068 for the years 1879-1893(5) and Finland emigrated 257,382 from July 1883 through June 1920.(6)

This chart shows generally where the Scandinavians settled in the United States according to the appropriate census.(7)


Old Northwestern









Of the 232,152 Scandinavians in the West in 1910, 123,890 were in Washington State. 75,627 of them arrived during the 1880-1910 period. "The Washington bound immigrants definitely preferred certain locations and occupations. In 1910 nine counties - Chehalis, Island, King, Kitsap, Pierce, Skagit, Snohomish, Spokane and Whatcom - accounted for 75 per cent of all the Scandinavians in the state. The comparative density of Scandinavians in the total population ranged from a low of 10 per cent in Spokane County to a high of 25 per cent in Kitsap County."(3)

III. Industries and Occupations:

Whether they came directly from the "old country" or after spending a few months, or years, in the Midwest, the Scandinavians came west, to a great extent, with the railroads.


"Give me Swedes, snuff and whiskey, and I'll build a railroad through hell." - J. J. Hill


Railroading. "On the railroad construction in the Middle West and Northwest the immigrant Swedes did a tremendous amount of work. When the late J. J. Hill started to build the Great Northern he is supposed to have said: 'Give me Swedes, snuff and whiskey, and I'll build a railroad through hell.'"(8) Another version is that Hill boasted, "Give me enough Swedes and whiskey and I'll build a railroad to Hell."(9) Whichever version is correct, or if neither is correct, there is little question but what Swedish labor played a great roll in the building of the railroad to and through the Northwest.

"'During the railroad building boom in the early years of this century,' writes Svante J. Lofgren in the 1947 Year Book of the American Swedish Historical Foundation in Philadelphia, 'when the eastern railroads were racing to reach tide water on the Pacific Coast, thousands of Swedes were employed by Swedish contractors, such as Axel Holman, who with the help of 5,000 men built the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad across the Cascade Mountains. Another contractor was Charles J. Johnson, who had started as a 'pick and shovel' man and then worked himself up to be one of America's leading railroad builders. Alone or in partnership with others, Johnson constructed over three hundred miles of railroads. During the building of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad he had the biggest contract to be let up to that time to any contractor in the state of Washington. It included eighty miles of road through the Cascade Mountains, two-thirds of which had to be built through rock, involving the blasting of four tunnels, measuring together three thousand feet, as well as the construction of all bridges on 110 miles of the route.'

'Another of the early railroad contractors,' continues Mr. Lofgren, 'was P. P. Johnson who came to the State of Washington in 1889 and there started to work for the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company. Later he went into partnership with another Swede, Martin Nelson, and together they too built many miles of railroad for the Great Northern and other railroad companies. One of these included the construction of a tunnel, a half mile long, at the Devil's Canyon. (Perhaps this was what J. J. Hill had in mind.) It was completed without a single accident.'"(8)

Farming. Many of the 'pick and shovel' men of the railroads found cheap land along the way and settled down to develop farms. One such Swede was N. A. "Gust" Nelson who left the island of Oland, part of Sweden, around 1884, made his way west and got a job in the Spokane Falls area working in railroad construction. After a little experience he was given the contract to do the grading and leveling necessary to prepare the way for the Northern Pacific Railroad line from Spokane to Juliaetta, Idaho Territory. After completing the job he, and his brother, bought 240 acres of land, at $6 an acre, near Paradise Valley (now Moscow). He married a young lady, also a Swedish immigrant, and settled down to a life of farming.(10)

"Nicholas Olson was born in Norway in 1852. He lived in Norway for twenty years on a farm with his parents. Then he bade farewell to the homeland, friends and relatives and embarked for America. He labored in the lumber woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin until 1879 when he came to Latah county in search of a homestead. Mr. Olson had an orchard of thirty acres and five hundred acres in all. It never became a part of Mr. Olson's conquests to sail the matrimonial seas."(11) It was on Driscoll Ridge, south of Troy, where Nick and his brother, John, settled. "They were the second pioneers to arrive on the ridge. They wished to live together, yet they had to follow the rules of the homestead law by each one living on the land he had filed on; so they built their hand-hewn house on the dividing line of their property. It is said that in each brother's section of the house he had a stove, bed and table so that it could be considered legal."(12)

Western Washington too attracted many Scandinavian families who sought new opportunities on the land. "Ander Victor Nylund, a stocky Finn, was born in 1854 in Helsinki: he was a ceramist by trade. He married Johanna Erickson, a young Swedish girl."(13) They arrived in Seattle in 1895, traveled to Neah Bay by steamer and then hired the Makah Indians to take them, and their two daughters, by canoe to Cape Alava, the most westerly part of the U. S. They walked three miles to Lake Ozette where they acquired a forty acre homestead. There, they were among other Scandinavians. "Among the homesteaders who lived around Lake Ozette were the Palmquists, Borseths, Ericsons, Jersteds, Aleens, two families of Pedersons, Solbergs, four families of Westons, Benson, Holdens, Farleys, Borgens, Pearsons, two families of Jacobsens, Petersons, two families of Olsons, Chilbergs, Shafer, Christiansens, Samuelsons, Sischmeyer and 'Tivoli' Nielson."(13)

Amund Ingebritsen Hagen was born in Norway in 1835. He married Brida Margreda Sandquist, who was born in Finland, and due to the hardships and low pay in the mines of Norway decided to come to the U.S. They spent ten years in Michigan copper mines before being attracted west in 1878 by the news of good land in Eastern Oregon. "Because no railroad then reached Oregon, the family was routed to San Francisco on the Union Pacific via Omaha, Nebraska and Ogden, Utah, then by coastal steamer to Astoria, Oregon. River steamers brought them up the Columbia river to Umatilla."(14) With some difficulty, including an Indian scare, the family settled in the Pendleton-Umatilla area to a life of wheat farming and cattle ranching.

In 1902, A. C. Nielsen founded Junction City, Oregon, as a Danish agricultural community. He encouraged Danish immigrants in the Midwest to come to the rich Willamette Valley. Old customs and traditions were followed. It wasn't until 1965, for example, that the local church received a non-Danish pastor. Today 20 percent of the city's population is still of that Danish origin. In 1961 Junction City held its first annual Scandinavian Festival. "Through agricultural tours, Scandinavian food concessions and meals, local and regional folk dancing groups, theatrical productions, exhibits and parades, a sense of Scandinavia permeates the four day Festival period."(15)

Lumbering. "The legendary 'big Swede' or 'terrible Swede' type, probably stems from the physical size and strength of many of the pioneers, especially those working in the forests of the Northwest. Some of the mythical Paul Bunyan feats are supposed to have been first attributed to them."(8) In 1900, it has been estimated that 10,000 Scandinavians were employed in the Washington lumbering industry. This was about 25 per cent of the total number employed.(3)

"Among the many people of European stock who followed the American frontier across the continent were a number of Scandinavians who made their homes on the shores of Hood Canal during the latter part of the 19th century. Some of the earlier compatriots had stopped on the Minnesota and Dakota lands, but by the 1880's the trend was toward the Pacific Coast and, more particularly, northwestward to the fish and lumber rich areas of the Olympic Peninsula. Guided frequently by letters from countrymen already in the Northwest, many of these Swedish and Norwegian immigrants settled near the coves and lumber camps of Hood Canal." "Timber has always been one of the more lucrative resources of the area. The homesteaders kept themselves through the lean years by selling their trees to the highest bidders among the lumber companies."(16)


"They were so kind, generous and friendly that it was a wonder my partner and I ever got through our milk delivery
routes on time. Many would have hot coffee and cookies waiting for us, especially on sub-zero days."


As the lumber industry boomed and larger mills were established the Scandinavians continued to provide a large portion of the manpower. Potlach, Idaho, was established in 1906 by the Potlach Lumber Company as a company town. "There was no private housing, not even squater's shacks to buy or rent."(17) Gambling, the sale of liquor and prostitution were banned. The company employed 1,500 men and the population of Potlach in the early 1900's was around 2,000. "By far the greatest proportion of the common laborers the Company hired were Scandinavians. Many had come from mills of the Midwest, but more came directly from Norway and Sweden. What wonderful memories all of us Potlachers have of these fine people! They were so kind, generous and friendly that it was a wonder my partner and I ever got through our milk delivery routes on time. Many would have hot coffee and cookies waiting for us, especially on sub-zero days."(17)

Fishing. The settlement of Silver Lake, Washington, was started in 1870 by Swedes and Finns. They cleared the forests southeast of Vancouver and also earned money from the salmon fisheries.(4) "A few Norwegians came to Washington before the Civil War and settled on Puget Sound, but not until the period of the 1890's to the 1920's did they, as well as Swedes, swarm into the state. The Puget Sound region attracted The bulk of them, particularly Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, Bellingham."(5)

"The Norwegians, although not the founders of the fishing industry of the Pacific Northwest, have, since 1900, come to play a dominant role both as fishermen and entrepreneurs in the field. The halibut and herring industries are principally in the hands of Norwegian fishermen; they number about ninety per cent of the Pudget Sound salmon trollers. Norwegians dominate the dogfish and soup finshark fisheries of Washington and Oregon, form the bulk of the tuna and small sardine fishermen of the Northwest. In the higher brackets they own and manage packing companies, salmon salteries and canneries, codfish stations ashore, and many large fishing vessels and steamers on the sea."(5) Of the 6,775 members of the Fisherman's Protection Union in 1908, nearly 3,000 were Scandinavians.(3)

"Aside from their activities as fisherman and as entrepreneurs in the Pacific Coast fisheries, the Norwegians have been engaged both as workers and as employers in allied industries: chandlers, boat builders and inventors of fishing gear and canning machinery. They have been marine architects, fish brokers and financial backers of fishermen who acquire their own boats and gear. They have been actively interested in all legislation that has affected the fishing industry, and they have aided the work of the Halibut and Sockeye commissions. They have held important positions in both employers' and workers' organizations, such as the Association of Pacific Fisheries, the halibut Vessel Owners' Associations of Seattle and Ketchikan, among others, the various Fishermen's co-operatives, and the trade unions of fishermen, the cannery workers, etc."(18)

Shipbuilding. "Another kind of construction in which the Swedes have participated is shipbuilding, ranging from warships and large freighters to racing yachts. The leading contractor for many years on the Pacific Northwest,' writes Mr. Lofgren, 'was Charles J. Erickson. He erected buildings of all kinds, including lighthouses and churches, and a $2,000,000 dry dock for the United States Navy at the Bremerton yard near Seattle; he graded or re-graded miles of streets in Seattle, laid sewers and water mains, built railroads and sawmills, and during the First World War constructed the ten largest steel ships built in the Northwest during the war period.'"(8)

"Another early Swedish shipbuilder in the Northwest, was the late John Lindstrom. Born at Ockelbo in the northern province of Gastrikland in 1867, he landed in New York when he was twenty, and then found his way to Eureka, California, the westernmost city in the United States, and there got work as a laborer and general helper in a shipyard. A few years later he went up the coast to Aberdeen, Washington, where two Nelson brothers, also Swedes, had already founded a shipyard. In a few years Lindstrom had a yard of his own and began doing repair work, as well as 'constructing sailing ships with three, four and five masts, steam schooners, steamers, tug boats and other deepwater craft. For many years the steam-schooners he had originated were the most popular lumber carriers on the west coast.' He also took part in the government of his city and once served a term as Mayor. In 1908 he was killed in an accident. Lindstrom Street in Aberdeen was named in his honor."(8)


"The Wild Wests had no such luck. They had needed all day to break through the
Spitals Wood looming a few hundred yards ahead of their jump-off lines."


Military. Perhaps the Scandinavian immigrants had little concern for wars, battles and military service, but their sons and grandsons did. World War I brought many of the young men off the farms and out of the woods into the army. One of the divisions that were formed at Fort Lewis, Washington was the 91st Division, the pine tree division. "The 91st called itself the Wild West Division, and its Doughboys spoke almost as many languages as the Bowery Backwoodsmen. A wild, broad-shouldered lot were they - so the enemy routed from the woods around Montfaucaon had discovered in the first two days of fighting the Westerners."(19) The 91st was one of the two divisions pulled out of the fighting in the Argonne Forest and sent to the Belgium front. The 91st didn't have it easy and the grave markers at Flanders Field Cemetery attest to that difficulty. Many Scandinavian names are engraved on the white crosses seen there. As a result of the difficult fighting, the 91st fell behind the other American division, the 33rd, because the Buckeyes found the going quite easy. "The Wild Wests had no such luck. They had needed all day to break through the Spitals Wood looming a few hundred yards ahead of their jump-off lines; for the stalled French on their right had no intention of moving until these tricky forests were captured by the Yanks. There was a great deal of cursing in the 91st ranks, oaths in Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, German, Portuguese, Basque, Spanish, and just plain 'podner' profanity, not all of them directed at the men in feldgrau." "The following day the Wild Wests caught up with the Buckeyes and together they raced six miles due east toward Brussels killing rearguards as marching outposts seized the railroad, arriving at the Scheidt River around nightfall beside such weird little Gothic towns as Eyne, Heurne, and Audenarde."(19) The 91st had pressed beyond Audenarde before the war ended and then returned home victoriously. Subsequent wars have also resulted in brave and proud service for the adopted country of their Scandinavian ancestors.

IV. Some Better Known Scandinavians:

While the average Scandinavian attained little more than a reputation as a hard working laborer, some have made it big. Simon Benson was born in Norway and came to Oregon in 1879. He went broke three times in the logging business but made it the fourth time. He became a millionaire; "studded downtown Portland with ornamental bronze drinking fountains;" built the Benson and Columbia Gorge Hotels; and "gave $100,000 to a Portland school district, making possible the construction of Benson Polytechnical School." He served as chairman of the state highway commission and even loaned the state money to build roads. "At the Pan American Fair in San Francisco in 1915 he was honored as Oregon's first citizen..."(5)

Enoch Engdahl was born in Sweden, worked as a carpenter in Minneapolis, served in the Spanish-American War, and then settled in Spokane in 1902. He formed a sash and door company, an investment firm, an apartment complex and a hotel business.(3)

Sven Anderson was born and educated in Sweden before coming to the West. "He worked as a mule skinner, ox driver, cowboy, mill hand, prospector, mason, and blacksmith. He served a term in the Idaho legislature and worked as a cashier for the First Bank of Troy before moving to Spokane. By 1910 he was a senior officer in the Scandinavian American Bank of Spokane."(3)

Ernst Toefil Skarstedt was born in Solberga, Sweden, on April 14, 1857. The son of a university professor and academically talented, he faced a promising career in Sweden. "Ernst had achieved good marks (in a student examination) in various subjects including the following: cum laude in Swedish, German, French, Latin, Greek, mathematics, and natural science, approbatur in Christianity, English and philosophy, together with improbatur in history."(20) In December 1878 he left Sweden, much to the chagrin of his family, and came to America. He had several jobs, including that of a newspaper writer for Swedish language newspapers in Chicago, San Francisco and New York, but his real ambition was to be close to nature in the State of Washington. "Writing about his fellow immigrants in 1908, Skarstedt documented the biographies of 372 prominent Swedes in Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane."(3) He died in 1929 after authoring, editoring or translating thirteen volumes as well as having been a "vagabond, sailor, farmer, photographer, musician, poet, philosopher, lover of nature, champion of freedom for the human spirit."(20)

V. Conclusion:

All of the pioneer stories, successes and failures, cannot be told here. Countless others exist. But, it can be concluded that the immigrant Scandinavians who settled in the Pacific Northwest for one reason or another, and their descendents, have done a great deal to contribute to the population and economy of the region. The original immigrants retained much of their culture and many never learned the English language. The second generation was bi-lingual and began to adopt the American ways. The third, and subsequent, generations have lost the old customs and language and have intermarried with other nationalities to become a part of that giant "melting pot."

Index to References and Bibliography

(1) Eaton, Allen H. Immigrant Gifts to American Life. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1932.

(2) Skardal, Dorothy Burton. The Divided Heart. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974.

(3) Dahlie, Jorgen. "Old World Paths in the New: Scandinavians Find Familiar Homes in Washington." Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 61. No.2, April 1970.

(4) Janson, Florence Edith. The Background of Swedish Immigration I840-1930. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1931.

(5) Bergman, Leola Nelson. Americans from Norway. Philadelphia/New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1950.

(6) Hoglund, A. William. Finnish Immigrants in America 1880-1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 1960.

(7) Fonkalsrud, Aigred O. and Stevenson, Beatrice. The Scandinavian-American. Minneapolis: K. C. Holter Publishing Co., 1915.

(8) Benson, Adolph B. and Hedin, Naboth. Americans from Sweden. Philadelphia/New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1949.

(9) Beal, Merrill D. Intermountain Railroads. Caldwell: The Caston Printers. Ltd., 1962.

(10) Nelson, Elsie Mary. Today is Ours: Saga of a Pioneer Family.

(11) History of Idaho. San Francisco: Western Historical Publishing Co., 1903.

(12) Driscoll, Ann Nilsson. They Came to a Ridge. Moscow: The News Review Publishing Co., Inc., 1970.

(13) Alcorn, Rowena L. and Gordon, D. "The Nylund Family, Pioneers of Old Ozette." Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 53, No.4, October 1962.

(14) Hagen. Cecil. "Grandfather Sought Opportunity." The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 5, Spring 1961.

(15) Olson, John Alden. The Danish Settlement of Junction City, Oregon. R and E Research Associates, 1975.

(16) Hanley. Patricia J. "Anderson's Landing." Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. I, January 1957.

(17) Harris, Ray K. "Life in Potlach was Different." The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 20, Winter 1976.

(18) Arestad, Sverre. "Norwegians in Pacific Coast Fisheries." Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1, January 1943.

(19) Stallings, Laurence. The Doughboys: The Story of the AEF, 1917-1918. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Incorporated, 1963.

(20) Lindquist, Emory. An Immigrant's American Odyssey, A Biography of Ernst Skarstedt. Davenport, Iowa: Wagners Printers, 1974.