Preserving an Important Legacy

More than 800,000 Norwegians left Norway during much of the 19th century and first part of the 20th century. Most of them sailed west, to America, searching to find a better future for themselves and their families. A few of them traveled farther than the others. In 1881, after voyages lasting several months, about 600 Norwegian emigrants aboard two ships dropped anchor at the Sandwich Islands, the very islands that would many years later become USA’s 50th state, Hawaii. Tempted by the promise of free passage, free room and board, plus additional wages, they had signed contracts obligating themselves to work for up to three years on sugar plantations.

They did not arrive at a vacation paradise. Hard labor and many disappointments awaited them. Even though the climate was different than that on the prairies of the American Midwest where many Norwegians had settled, the toil and the homesickness were the same. Life for these settlers was a daily struggle, whether it was in Minnesota or on Maui, in Iowa or on Oahu.

Those immigrants laid the foundation for the many strong family ties that bind Norwegians and Americans to each other today. As Norway’s Ambassador to the United States, I am pleased to see new documentation of ties that reach all the way to Hawaii.

More than 9,000 inhabitants of Hawaii claim to be of Norwegian ancestry according to the most recent U.S. census. Some of them are descendants of the plantation workers. Others have come later. Torbjørn Greipsland has tracked down many of them. He has listened to their stories, sought out old family photographs, and delved into archives. He has supplemented the accounts of the immigrants with comprehensive background information about Hawaii’s own culture and development. The result is an interesting glimpse into a segment of Norwegian American history previously unknown to many. It is important to preserve this legacy for coming generations.

Washington, D.C., June 2004

Knut Vollebæk