…and live in that America

On June 30, 1891, my great-great-grandfather, Ole Olsen Kvalevaag, of Avaldsnes parish, Karmøy Island, Norway, wrote the following in a letter to his son, my great-grandfather, who’d emigrated to America and changed his name to John Walker (my translation):

I myself have been sick awhile, but now, thank God, I am better again; and it’s a good thing, because I haven’t had much of anyone to help me with the farm work this year…. I myself have plowed every furrow this year….

Ja, it is certainly hard to think that we, who have brought up so many as we have, are now alone in our old age. Ja, it is sorrowful to think of, that we should have two sons in America, and [they] go and work for day wages, with nothing of their own to hold on to, and will not be at home in their own home and country. Ja, it is amazing how a person can be, ja, I often wonder about it when I think of you, that you could forsake your dear home, and live in that America….

You, Jan, are scared to come home, you say, because you have to go to Madla [for military service], you say; ja, setting aside the fact that you have to, for you aren’t too good for that place, nor is anyone else; for as surely as you are, and want to be, a Christian, there is something the Lord has commanded, that we should submit to God and king. I ask you not to refuse this, for think how the Lord can lay upon you something that might be worse for you if you avoid this; for I can tell you that there are many who have been punished by God for it.

I don’t have John’s replies, but what I see in this letter (as well as the others in the collection) is the Declaration of Independence writ small (to an extent), in one family’s history. My great-grandfather resisted a lot of pressure and well-meaning warnings (not to mention guilt) in order to strike out on a new path in a new country. He left familiar things, and things that felt right, to try it the American way.

He ended up rich by the standards of his time and place, incidentally. The later letters make it clear that his father had borrowed money from him.

I’m grateful to be an American, grateful both to God and to my risk-taking ancestors.

Happy Fourth of July.

10 thoughts on “…and live in that America”

  1. Lars,

    Interestingly enough, my grandfather allegedly came to the US to avoid mandatory military service in Denmark. Small world, innit?

    I wonder how common that motive for immigrating was?

  2. Lars, in response to your comment (#2 above) – – isn’t there an anecdote about C. S. Lewis, something to the effect that due to anxieties about what might happen if someone was found with a gun in his possession, if the Germans conquered England, he tossed it off a bridge by one of the Oxford colleges?

    I realize that what we’d prefer to think is that he and Warnie would have started practicing their marksmanship in order to become civilian snipers…

  3. Thanks for that post Lars; my grandfather came to n. america in the early 1900’s. (Around ww 1. I believe.)He left with a lot of bitterness over the way things were in norway. (As I understand it things were set up to favor the upper classes exclusively.) He died when I was 8 so I don’t know much about his story. (This was the first year I would spend the summer fishing (commercially)with my father. My grandfather had planned to go out on his boat, and was looking forward to spending the summer with us. Alas, it wasn’t to be.)I wonder if you can recommend a book that would give me an idea of what life was like in norway circa 1900.

  4. Searider: The only book that comes to mind is one that’s particularly appropriate for you, a novel called DEN SISTE VIKING in Norwegian, (The Last of the Vikings in English: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0006BMK3S/sr=8-1/qid=1152236517/ref=sr_1_1/002-8918283-4755249?ie=UTF8. I can only find one copy of the translation, long out of print, on Amazon. The author was Johan Bojer, who has other books more readily available, but I have a particular fondness for this one. It’s not about Vikings, but about fishermen in the Lofoten islands.

  5. Thanks Lars; I’m not even sure but I think my grandfather came from that area. A friend of his had a boat called Lofoten.

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