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Spotlight on Culture

People that call this area Home:

European cultures and the people that emigrated

looking for a better life in a continent across the Atlantic

Norwegian Dakotans

A Norwegian Dakotan is a Norwegian American (a person with Norwegian ancestry) in the U. S. states of North and South Dakota. One in three of all North Dakotans is of Norwegian heritage, which is the highest among all U.S. states. South Dakota is number three, behind Minnesota. The immigrants settled primarily between 1870 and 1920.

As of 2009, 312,697 Dakotans claim Norwegian ancestry, 21.4% of the region's population (30.8% of North Dakota's population and 14.0% of South Dakota's population), or 6.7% of the total Norwegian American population.

The first Norwegians arrived in the Dakotas as early as 1859, shortly after the treaty with the Yankton Sioux, which was signed July 10, 1859. It took another ten years before the greater influx of Norwegians took place.

For more info on this image, visit this page

Norwegian immigrants began arriving in North Dakota in the 1870s. They settled mainly in the eastern and northern parts of the state, but today they live most everywhere in the state. Because of the lack of farmland in Norway, the Norwegian immigrants sought the wonderful fertile farmland of North Dakota. Some of the immigrants had spent a few years in other states before they finally arrived in North Dakota. In 1880 the census recorded 8,814 Norwegians in North Dakota, and by 1900 there were 73,744.

The towns of Columbus and Larson are approximately 100% Norwegian, founded by Columbus Larsson in 1906 and 1907. Columbus had 672 inhabitants in 1960, while it has just 133 in 2010. Although these towns have a strong Norwegian heritage, none of the inhabitants speak Norwegian. Like the trend for the rest of North Dakotans, Norwegians are moving out of the rural areas. There are several examples of Norwegian ghost towns in North Dakota, especially in the northwestern part of the state.

Because of this mass migration more than 100 years ago, around 11 million Americans claim Scandinavian ancestry today, which includes people from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. That's approximately 3.3% of the population of the USA. It's quite a remarkable number when you consider that the combined population of the Scandinavian countries amounts to just over 21 million people.

Settlers from Telemark

Telemark settlers found their way to most of the major settlements in North Dakota in the late 1870s and early 1880s. In 1880, a band of people from Telemark, settled in the area of what is now Bue (named for the settlers' Norwegian home in Bø, Telemark) in Nelson County. Their main cash crop was wheat, and they soon found that raising cattle was also quite lucrative. The main markets were in Valley City and Grand Forks.

Sondre Norheim, Father of Modern Skiing, immigrated to North Dakota. On May 30, 1884 Sondre and Rannei left Norway together with three of their children– Anne (21), Åmund (14) and Talleiv (12). Their son Olav and daughter Hæge had left home previously, and their eldest daughter Ingerid, decided to stay back home. Norheim followed in the footsteps of many of his neighbors in Morgedal and immigrated to the United States. After having first settled in Minnesota, they moved to North Dakota, near Villard in McHenry County. He continued to ski when he could, though the climate and flat topography of the Dakota prairie offered few opportunities for downhill skiing. It was said he always had a pair of skis placed outside his door. Norheim grew more religious with age and helped build a Lutheran church in Villard. He died in 1897 and was buried in Denbigh, McHenry County, North Dakota.


The immigrants from Norway (and the rest of Scandinavia) in the Dakotas and Minnesota have played an extremely important role in the development of the region. Few places in the United States have been so influenced by one ethnic group, and because Norwegians is a relatively small ethnic group, it makes it even more clear.

For more information on these people, and other Scandinavian settlers, visit this page.


All of the Norwegians who came to the Dakotas spoke Norwegian, and the number of speakers grew with the immigration. Most either learned English, or their children did. There were several Norwegian-language newspapers in the United States. But when the largest waves of immigration ended in the 1920s, the number of speakers of their language decreased, as the second and third generation immigrants didn't learn it as a primary language; it wasn't necessary for them any more, everyone spoke English by then.

However, some words and phrases survived, such as Uff da (sometimes also spelled oof-da, oofda, oofala, oof-dah, oofdah, huffda, uff-da, uffda, uff-dah, ufda, ufdah, or uf daa- is an exclamation or interjection used to express dismay, typically upon hearing bad news or feeling frustrated. Uff da is a general purpose expression of surprise, astonishment, exhaustion, relief and sometimes dismay. It can therefore be a substitute for common obscenities. Within Scandinavian-American culture it frequently translates to "I am overwhelmed", somewhat similar to the Yiddish phrase oy vey). Other words, related to their cuisine, have also become part of our vernacular.

As of 2005, 1,743 spoke Norwegian as their primary language in North Dakota, which is only 0.2% of the population, and 1,097 were older than 65 years old. In South Dakota, 256 people spoke Norwegian, and all of them were older than 65 years. These numbers are just for those who speak Norwegian as their primary language. The number who understand basic Norwegian is higher.

Next week we'll continue this series with more information on the Norwegian Dakotan people, their culture and way of living, and how they impacted the culture in the Prairie.

Stay tuned for more information on more cultures in future posts. Our area is blessed to be called home by many people of many cultures, and they deserve to be acknowledged.


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