Nordic and Scandinavian Americans
3.5% of U.S. population (2010)
|Regions with significant populations|
22% Roman Catholic, 14% other (no religion, Mormonism, etc.)
|Related ethnic groups|
|Scandinavians, Scandinavian Canadians|
Nordic and Scandinavian Americans are Americans of Scandinavian and/or Nordic ancestry, including Danish Americans (estimate: 1,453,897), Finnish Americans (estimate: 653,222), Icelandic Americans (estimate: 49,442) Norwegian Americans (estimate: 4,602,337), and Swedish Americans (estimate: 4,293,208). Also included are persons who reported 'Scandinavian' ancestry (estimate: 582,549) on their census. According to 2010 census data, there are approximately 10,931,991 people of Scandinavian ancestry in the United States.
The terms Scandinavian and Nordic are closely related and often erroneously used interchangeably. The Nordic countries are a geographic region which consists of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Finland, and the Åland Islands. Though these regions have a shared cultural history, they contain culturally distinct historical populations, including the Sámi people and the Norse people. By contrast, the term Scandinavia more selectively refers to just Denmark, Norway and Sweden, although other nordic counties are sometimes included within this definition. The joint ruling of Denmark and Norway from the mid-14th century until 1814, and then the joint rule of Sweden and Norway until 1905, have contributed towards a closely allied culture. These three countries also share mutually intelligible languages, as they are all descended from Old Norse. Faroese and Icelandic are also descendent of Old Norse, though they have kept more of the old Norse grammar and spelling, while the Scandinavian languages have undergone more or less the same simplifications and are mutually intelligible and readable. The degree of ease with which people understand each other, however, varies depending on country and region of origin.
Norsemen had explored the eastern coast of North America as early as the 11th century, though they created no lasting settlements. Later, a Swedish colony briefly existed on the Delaware River during the 17th century, however, the vast majority of Americans of Nordic or Scandinavian ancestry are descendant of immigrants of the 19th century. This era saw mass emigration from Scandinavia following a population increase that the region's existing infrastructure could not support. Many prevailing traditions observed by Nordic and Scandinavian Americans are from this era, and are reflective of the lifestyle of rural immigrant communities during the late 19th century.
By the 11th century, Norsemen had established a presence in Iceland and Greenland, in close proximity to continental North America. Several expeditions were made to what they called Vinland, near Newfoundland and Labrador. Although this was the most significant pre-columbian contact with North America by Europeans, no lasting settlements were made.
During the mid 17th century, Sweden established a short-lived colony along the Delaware River called New Sweden. Despite its short history, the Nordic settlers are credited with having a lasting impact on colonial practice in the region. Swedish colonists likely introduced the construction of log cabins to North America, although some historians argue they were of later German or Swiss origin. Additionally, it has been proposed that Finnish colonists had a lasting impact on the region's use of forested areas. The colony was conquered by the Dutch in 1655 and subsequently dismantled. Despite its dissolution, Swedish and Finnish colonists remained the majority European population in the area. Swedish authorities retained some autonomy under the Dutch administration. By the mid-1660s however, the English outnumbered both the Dutch and Swedish, eventually becoming the dominant force in the area. The fate of the original Swedish and Finnish colonists is largely lost to history. It is believed that some moved west and settled among native populations, while others assimilated within the English regime.
Early groups of Scandinavian immigrants to the United States had been motivated by religious factors, namely small communities of religious minorities who left to break from Lutheran state churches. Although small numbers of Scandinavian immigrants had already established themselves in the United States, the largest number immigrated during the 19th century in response to population increases across Scandinavia. During the 19th century, the population of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden collectively tripled. This increase was likely caused by improved medical and agricultural practices, and the unusually peaceful era in the region which followed the Napoleonic Wars. As a result, mortality rates dropped, while the birth rate continued to be high. The region’s existing infrastructure could not support such extreme growth. In particular, population growth strained the resources of rural populations, where usable land was already limited. With more children to support, farms were successively split into smaller plots to be divided among descendants, and families were increasingly unable to sustain themselves from their own land. This forced many people in rural communities into poverty. Some chose to migrate to urban areas, in turn increasing unemployment. A later recession during the 1860s and famine further drove Scandinavians to emigrate. Although immigration to the United States decreased during the American Civil War, a significant wave again left during the 1880s. By the 1920s, the number of Scandinavian immigrants had decreased greatly, stopping almost entirely during the Great Depression.
Between 1825 and 1930, approximately three million Scandinavians emigrated, over 95 percent of which moved to the United States. It is estimated that this group comprised 1.2 million Swedes, 850,000 Norwegians, and 300,000 Danes. Initially, it was common for families to relocate as a whole unit and settle in the rural areas, most often in the Midwest. This shifted by the late 1800s, which saw more unmarried individuals immigrate to urban areas. They were often followed by other members of their family once they had financially established themselves. Similarly through chain migration, immigrants often settled near those they already knew from their country of origin. This led to distinct communities of Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians that expressed regional differences.
While some immigrants quickly assimilated, many of the resulting insular rural communities remained culturally distinct. They established their own churches, newspapers, and schools in their native language and in accordance to their traditions. Institutions like these helped preserve their cultural identity, though over time these communities began to assimilate. Their identity came to be more homogeneously Scandinavian, rather than defined exclusively by their ancestral country. This paralleled global conceptions of Scandinavism, as different nationalities were led to work together by proximity.
Following World War II, there was an increase in interest in ethnic origins in the United States, which saw more Scandinavian Americans refer to themselves as Norwegian-American, Danish-American, etc. Remaining communities became concerned with cultural activism and preservationism. These efforts often centered around church congregations and societies, such as the Sons of Norway and the Swedish–American Historical Society. Although use of Scandinavian languages has largely died out among descendants of the 19th century, Scandinavian identity has been maintained, especially in rural communities. This identity of Americans descendant from Scandinavian and/or Nordic immigrants is distinct from modern-day Scandinavians, as the region evolved greatly in the past century. As a result, the traditions practiced by Scandinavian Americans are reflective of a unique time period and circumstance which no longer exists in those countries.
Following the purchase of Alaska in 1867, the United States government sought to introduce reindeer to Alaska and teach Alaska Natives to become herders, rather than continuing to sustain their communities on marine life, as it been annihilated by new and profitable fishing activity. Initially, Chukchi herders were brought over from the Russian Chukchi Peninsula to teach their trade. Beginning in 1892, approximately 1,300 reindeer were imported, but long standing cultural animosity between the Chukchi and the Iñupiat stalled the effort entirely. In a second attempt, the Alaskan Commissioner of Education, Sheldon Jackson, then sought to recruit Sámi to take their place. Sámi reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia had gradually been pushed out of their traditional lands in Sápmi, which were mainly used for nomadic pastoralism. In 1894, six families and a lone man made a three month journey across North America, from Finnmarksvidda to Teller Reindeer Station. The majority of these families returned to Sápmi after successfully passing on their trade to the Iñupiat, although some elected to stay and established their own herds. Following the dramatic increase of immigrants to Alaska from within the continental United States during the gold rush, the government was tasked with finding ways to sustain a population which was unprepared for the harshness of the climate. As a result, they once again recruited more Sámi and purchased herding supplies to support the increase in population. As the Commissioner of Education, Jackson’s policies also sought to repress the culture of Alaskan natives through re-education, policies which came to apply to Sámi immigrants.
The Reindeer Act of 1937 made ownership of Reindeer by non-Alaskan Natives illegal. Some Sámi who had married Iñupiat were allowed to retain their herds, but the vast majority were forced to sell them off to the government at $3 a head for redistribution. Remaining Sámi were obligated to find work in other industries, and many spread out across North America in search of work. As a result of this diaspora, in addition to cultural repression and assimilation, many Sámi Americans are unaware of their specific ancestry. This lack of information is exacerbated by the fact that when migrating to the United States, immigrants were only asked to declare their nationality, which provides no record of Sámi ethnicity to their descendants. Statistically, Sámi immigrants are counted among the 3 million Scandinavians who migrated to the United States prior to 1920. The exact number of Sámi immigrants during that crucial era is unknown. It is estimated that approximately 30,000 people of Sami ancestry live in North America. A small Sámi community on the Kitsap Peninsula near Seattle continues to preserve Sámi-American culture.
Leif Erikson Day, Leif Erikson is celebrated as the first European to land a voyage in North America.
Oleanna is an Scandinavian-American folk song
|State Rank||State||Scandinavian Americans||Percent Scandinavian Americans|
|31||Georgia (U.S. state)||97,209||1.0%|
|-||District of Columbia||7,523||1.3%|
|State Rank||State||Total||Percent|
- Scandinavian immigration to the Americas
- Scandinavian diaspora
- Danish Americans
- Finnish Americans
- Icelandic Americans
- Norwegian Americans
- Swedish Americans
- Sami Americans
- Bergman, Klas. Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017) online review.
- Brøndal, Jørn. Ethnic Leadership and Midwestern Politics: Scandinavian Americans and the Progressive Movement in Wisconsin, 1890-1914 (University of Illinois Press, 2004).
- Brøndal, Jørn. "'The Fairest among the So-Called White Races': Portrayals of Scandinavian Americans in the Filiopietistic and Nativist Literature of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries." Journal of American Ethnic History 33.3 (2014): 5-36. in JSTOR
- Evjen, John O. Scandinavian Immigrants in New York 1630-1674 (Genealogical Pub. Co., Baltimore, 1972)
- Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. The Scandinavian American Family Album (Oxford University Press, 1997).
- Jackson, Erika K. Scandinavians in Chicago: The Origins of White Privilege in Modern America (University of Illinois Press, 2019) online review
- Lovoll, Odd S. ed., Nordics in America: The Future of Their Past (Northfield, Minn., Norwegian American Historic Association. 1993)
- Norman, Hans, and Harald Runblom. Transatlantic Connections: Nordic Migration to the New World After 1800 (1988).
- Sverdljuk, Jana, et al., eds. Nordic Whiteness and Migration to the USA: A Historical Exploration of Identity (Routledge, 2020).
- Thernstrom, Stephan; Orlov, Ann; Handlin, Oscar, eds. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674375122, (1980) online; scholarly coverage of all groups
- Wisby, Hrolf. "The Scandinavian-American: His Status." The North American Review 183.597 (1906): 213–223. online