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Immigration to the US during the Civil War Years

and the Impact of the Sioux Uprising of 1862

by Anders A. Svalestuen, excerpt of article published in Tinns Emigrasjons Historie, page 158

 

After 1861, the year emigration had reached its highest point, it once again diminished drastically. In 1863-64 no one from Tinn crossed the Atlantic, and it was not until 1866-67 that the lure of America started picking up again. Once again this may not have been due to improved conditions at home; rather, it may have been the situation in America that was the deciding factor. Already during the days when the great throngs of emigrants in 1861 flocked to the shipping harbors, the first shots were heard at Fort Sumter in the Charleston Bay, marking the start of the North American Civil War. Hans Christian Heg, later Colonel Heg, spearheaded and organized a Scandinavian Regiment for the purpose of fighting for the cause of the Union (the 15th Wisconsin Regiment). He distributed a passionate appeal to his compatriots, urging them to join the fight against the Confederated Southern States.

The north-western states, where most Norwegians had settled, were not directly affected by the war and its devastation. True enough, soldiers were recruited, but during the first period there was no mass conscription on a European scale.

Recruitment to the army was to a great extent a voluntary matter. No one who was not a naturalized American citizen was forced to become a soldier; according to the law, it took 5 years to become an American citizen.

The war had the customary inflationary effect. Prices rose sharply, but so did wages. The demand for workers was great since so many of the younger men were in the army. The Homestead Act took effect in 1862, tempting prospective farmers with offers of free land in the western part of the country. Accordingly, this might have given the impression that times were just right for immigrants to America during the Civil War. Ship's Captain Knud Skjelsvig, who left for the U.S.A. from Skien in 1862, sent a letter home which was published in Correspondenten. In this letter he says:

Now is a very favorable time to come to America for all kinds of immigrants since the Army has absorbed a considerable number the country's work force, and a foreigner is not forced into the Army until he has become an American citizen, and that takes a span of 5 years. And, in addition, the Homestead Act is, as you know, now in effect.

Nevertheless, the reports from the bloody battlefields, described in letters and newspapers, suppressed the emigration considerably; we notice that emigration picked up again considerably once the war activities had ceased. People in Tinn were advised not to go to America during that period of turmoil:

The war is continuing and will probably not be over for some time, but here where we live, we don't notice it, except for the fact that for more than a year they have been signing up soldiers. They are not conscribed, however, but those who want to, can join voluntarily. They get food, clothing, weapons, and $13.00 a month in wages, and if they are married, they get $5.00 more for the wife. Christen joined as a recruit 5 months ago and is now stationed in Missouri. -------- Right now there is a lot of illness here, and what we call hard times, since everything we have to sell is cheap and everything we he have to buy is expensive ---------------. There is no need for anyone to worry about us, but although we are doing well at present, I still don't want to encourage anyone to come over at this time. Next spring we are planning on going farther west in order to take government land ------ .

However, a greater deterrent than the war was no doubt caused by the Indian uprising in 1862/63, something that directly and brutally affected the north-western settlements more than the war in the south. Lead by their Chief Little Crow, the Sioux Indians attacked the white settlers in order to chase them away from their previous exclusive lands. The attacks created panic among the settlers. And a stream of people hurriedly fled eastward to find safety. A few Norwegians and Swedes were among those who were massacred.

The accounts of the Indian wars no doubt shocked many people here in Norway, people who had relatives or acquaintances in the exposed territories. The fantastic tales that previously had circulated about the "red devils" appeared to be verified by ugly reality. In a number of letters and newspaper accounts the Indians' brutality was depicted in the most macabre details. The two letters printed in Blegen's Amerikabrev (America letters) under the headlines, "The gun is always loaded" and "Axe and dagger have already claimed many victims", were printed in the Skien paper, Correspondenten in order to strike terror in people and to serve as a warning. This was powerful fare to offer the readers. This is an excerpt from the second letter, dated St. Peter, Minnesota, 9/9/1862:

In particular I should like to mention one of the most ghastly scenes. The Indians had captured about 30 women whom they used to drive cattle which they had seized, but immediately a small unit of the few soldiers that were around had been sent to rescue them; however, as soon as the Indians noticed that they were being pursued, they packed the women into a house and set the house on fire, burning the women alive.

 


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