Norwegian Ohioans

From Ohio History Central

Numerous Ohioans are descended from Norwegian ancestors. Today, Norwegian Ohioans continue to enhance Ohio's cultural and social landscape.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, millions of immigrants migrated to the United States of America, hoping to live the American Dream. Before the American Civil War, most immigrants arrived in the United States from Great Britain, Germany, and Ireland. By the 1880s, the home countries of immigrants began to change. Many of the new immigrants to arrive in the United States came from Eastern or Northern European countries, like Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, and Czechoslovakia, rather than from Western European countries, like Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany.

In 1860, 328,249 immigrants lived in Ohio. These people accounted for fourteen percent of the state's population. By 1900, the number of immigrants in Ohio rose to 458,734, but the percentage of the population that was foreign-born declined to eleven percent. Most of these immigrants in 1900 came from Germany, Great Britain, and Ireland, yet a growing number of Eastern and Northern Europeans were also migrating to the state.

In 1900, approximately one thousand Norwegian immigrants resided in Ohio. Most of these Norwegians settled along Lake Erie, especially in Cleveland and Ashtabula, where they found low-paying jobs in factories or worked as day laborers. Many Norwegians also worked as sailors or fishermen. Immigrants who were more successful established businesses that supplied their fellow migrants with traditional Norwegian products. In 1930, approximately seven hundred Norwegians lived in Cleveland alone. At first, the Norwegian immigrants tended to settle in their own communities, preferring to live among people who shared similar cultural beliefs and spoke the same language as they did.

Norwegian immigrants congregated together partly out of camaraderie but also out of fear. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many native-born Americans feared outsiders. Some of these people objected to the immigrants' religious and cultural beliefs, while others believed that the foreigners would corrupt the morals of United States citizens. These people also contended that the quality of life within the United States would decline, as there were not enough jobs to employ the millions of people migrating to America. Many native-born Americans hoped either to limit immigration or to force foreigners to convert to American customs and beliefs. The leaders of this movement were the Progressives of the late 1800s and the early 1900s. To accomplish their goals, the Progressives implemented numerous reforms, including settlement houses, which taught foreigners American practices. The Progressives also called for laws that would either limit or ban the cultural practices of recently arrived immigrants. It would take several generations before the immigrants became truly accepted by the vast majority of white Ohioans.

Most Norwegian immigrants arrived in the United States prior to World War II. Over the succeeding decades, Ohio's traditional Norwegian communities began to lose their cohesiveness. As other Ohioans became more tolerant of the Norwegians, many Norwegian communities began to disintegrate. Many Norwegians moved into other communities, while non-Norwegians began to infiltrate the traditionally Norwegian neighborhoods. Second and third generation Norwegians also preferred the more open and free lifestyle of Americans, causing these Norwegians to reject their traditional and more conservative customs and beliefs. By the 1930s, the Norwegian language was no longer used in the various Norwegian churches established in northeastern Ohio. Despite this rejection, several organizations have sought to maintain a Norwegian identity in Ohio.

See Also


  1. Van Tassel, David D., and John J. Grabowski, eds. The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.