The Ones Left Behind

Scott and I recently spent two weeks in Norway (lucky us!) and I thought a lot about the conditions that prompted so many people to leave in the 1800s.

I also thought a lot about the people who did not emigrate—from Norway and elsewhere. How wrenching it must have been for parents or grandparents to watch their loved ones leave home for a distant continent.

The Emigrants by S. V. Helander (1839–1901): a young farmer bids a sober farewell to friends and relatives. (Swedish)

In The Emigrants, a young farmer says farewell to friends and relatives.  (painting by Swedish artist S. V. Helander.)

We heard a story of several men who left a rural Norwegian village, bound for America. Several years later, one returned to recruit more settlers. About two hundred people chose to follow him—leaving eight residents behind.

The youngest son's farewell - 1867

The Youngest Son’s Farewell. (Painting by Norwegian artist Adolf Tideland, 1867.)

Eight people left from a village of over two hundred! I imagine that most were elderly, too frail to face the arduous journey. How quiet and empty the days must have seemed.

One of the letter collections I mined while working on A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through the Seasons involved an extended German family, the Frank-Kerlers. Siblings began immigrating in 1848, settling in  Wisconsin and Michigan with the expectation that their parents, John and Auguste, would follow.

The absent children (and their own growing families) were never far from the parents’ minds. Plans to follow their children were thwarted in 1851, and again in 1852. That year John wrote, “Today is the 5th of July, a sorrowful day for us as you began you fateful trip…”

The Emigrants' Farewell

Abschied Der Auswanderer/The Emigrants’ Farewell (painting by L. Bokelmann,1883)

In February of 1853 their mother, Auguste Frank, provided a clear picture of her ambivalent feelings about the journey when she wrote, “You have no idea how often I long for you, but then comes the fear of the big trip. But if our dear God and Father wills it, it will be done and I must submit.”

In October of that year Henry Frank wrote to his parents, “So this longed-for joy of having my old parents around me to the end of their days will finally be fulfilled!” Despite delays and setbacks, plans to reunite the family continued.

Then in 1854 Mathilde, the only child remaining in Germany, got engaged—ending not only her own plans to leave Germany, but her parents’ as well. John broke the news in a letter:  “My dear sons and daughters, the thought will hardly become words, the words do not want to enter the pen…and yet the hard—I believe it is harder for me than for you–words must be spoken.  We are not coming.”

Auguste echoed, “You realize we cannot keep our promise and come now, for we must use our savings to prepare a dowry for Mathilde, our last child.”

Auguste was likely not comforted when one of the American children responded, “You have given up the decision to come to us.  …I must cry, always cry, when I think of it.”

When Auguste died in 1861, one of her children wrote, “…My grief is boundless that she never saw any of her children in America again.”

(All excerpts from German-American Pioneers in Wisconsin and Michigan:  The Frank-Kerler Letters, 1849-1864, collected by Dr. Louis F. Frank, Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1971)

immigrants leaving Ireland

Immigrants leaving Ireland.  In the British Isles, as elsewhere in the 19th century, most of those left behind never saw their loved ones again.  (Artist unknown.)

For many on either side of the Atlantic, only correspondence and a strong religious faith provided comfort. An 1854 letter from three Wisconsin settlers to loved ones in Norway ends with these words: “Live well and if we are not fortunate enough to see one another more in this world may we all meet and go forward with gladness in the next.”  (Gunleik Asmundson Bondal Collection, State Historical Society of WI)


The Lonely Old People, (Adolph Tidemand,1849. Norsk Folkmuseum)


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7 Responses to “The Ones Left Behind”

  1. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    I really enjoyed A Settlers Year, I think you captured the experiences of new immigrants. Marty would be proud!

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Oh Ruth, your kind words mean a lot. Thank you! That book came straight from the heart.

  3. w0rdtrix Says:

    A good post, Kathleen — although a little sad. We seldom do think of the ones left behind when speaking of immigration, do we? BTW, did you see the story on WKOW (Ch 27) on Oct 8 on “Norway Pavilion’s Dismantling” at Little Norway? Seemed like a story that would interest the historian in you.

  4. Melissa Middleswart Says:

    I recently read A Settler’s Year from our library and found it very interesting. This blog is thought provoking–what it must have been like on both sides of the ocean.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      So glad you enjoyed both the book and the blog, Melissa! I must admit that most of the time I think about what it was like for immigrants once they arrived, but it must have been wrenching for those left behind.

  5. Diana Agy Says:

    I love the images. I am working on a project with my students and I’d like to know if the images you have used are copyrighted or did you have to have permissions?
    Thank you for your help.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Diana – I’m glad you found the blog useful. My understanding is that due to the date the originals were created, they are in public domain (that does not constitute legal advice!) Some are in Wikimedia Commons. For some reason WordPress is not letting me import the links, but do a Google search on the name of the painting you want to use and you’ll find them.

      The Emigrants’ Farewell is in the Library of Congress collection, and OK to use.

      Hope this is helpful. Do check out Adolph Tidemand’s collection on WikiMedia – his work is fantastic, and they have quite a collection.

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