Norwegians Make Up State’s Largest Ethnic Group

Scandinavians Dot Entire State
Bismarck, 1915

From Northern Europe, a flood of immigrants has streamed into North Dakota: Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Icelanders, and Finns. Today over 120,000 Norwegian immigrants and their American-born children are scattered across the state. Their numbers are greatest in the southern and central counties of the Red River Valley and in northwestern North Dakota (see map), but Norwegians live in all counties.

Swedes number 27,000 and are pretty well spread out although more live in Cass County than any other county. About 12,500 Danes now live here. Their greatest numbers are in Burke and Ward counties with Kenmare known as “Little Denmark.” Many fewer Icelanders (under 3,000) and Finns (under 2,500) live in North Dakota. The Wing area of Burleigh County and Rock Lake, Rolla, and Hansboro along the Canadian border are home to the majority of Finnish immigrants. Most Icelanders have settled in Pembina County around the town of Mountain.

The Scandinavian groups have much in common. They come from Europe’s northern climate, from countries where farms are small and available land is scarce. Some languages are similar, at least for the Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes. Icelandic and Finnish, however, are quite different from the others. Their most common bond is religion — almost all the Scandinavians are Lutheran.

Like the Germans from Russia and the other ethnic groups, the Scandinavians came to North Dakota because of the availability of land under the terms of the Homestead Act. Four or six acres in Iceland or Norway could not compare to 160 or 320 in North Dakota.

In 1914 people of Norwegian birth or descent owned one-fifth of all the land in North Dakota. Other Scandinavians also owned land so this map would be even blacker if the Swedes, Danes, Icelanders, and Finns were included. Source might be the book edited by Playford Thorson called “Ethnic Folks.”

The Scandinavians have been more active in civic affairs than most other immigrant groups. They have started newspapers, built hospitals, organized colleges, and count among their numbers several -authors. The Norwegians, especially, have -recently been active in good government -reform clubs.

Do You Know . . . ?
Which Scandinavian ethnic groups celebrated Midsummer’s Day with a big festival and party, built saunas outdoors, and jumped into the snow or cut a hole in the ice and jumped into the water after using their saunas in the winter?

Grandmother teaches younger women how to use an Icelandic spinning wheel. Most Icelanders settled in the northeastern corner of North Dakota. Courtesy of North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies.

Which Scandinavian group built windmills in North Dakota and spell the “son” names like Johnson and Jenson with “e’s,” as in Johnsen and Jensen?

Where in North Dakota did most Finns go to live? Where did Danes go?

A Swedish homesteader’s wife and children around 1900. John Talcott and his family lived near Westhope in Bottineau County. Courtesy of North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies.


By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Grade Level

2-6, 8-12

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

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