We were immigrants. High on hope and strong on expectations.
A barren prairie just waiting for the rails and the plow.
So we came. All immigrants.
The first of us were Yankees, Scots and Irish.
Then the Germans and the Scandinavians poured in. There were Black Sea Germans, Hutterites, Volga Germans, Galician Germans, Bohemian Germans, German Hungarians, German Mennonites and Volhynian Germans.
While German immigrants were spread throughout the state, concentrations could be found along the southern North Dakota counties –Kidder, Sheridan, Emmons, Logan, McIntosh, LaMoure, Dickey and Richland among others. With around 6,800,000 since 1841, they constituted the largest number of immigrants.
Coming from Scandinavia were the Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Finns and Icelanders; among the Slavic immigrants were Ukrainians, Poles, Czechs (Bohemians, Moravians and Slovaks) and Bulgarians.
Seasoning the Mix
Less numerous were Italians, Armenians, Greeks, Lebanese, Dutch, French, Jews, Japanese, Chinese, Spaniards and Mexicans.
This was the North Dakota melting pot, documented by six distinguished scholars in 450 pages of “Plains Folk, North Dakota’s Ethnic History” published in 1988 by the ND Institute for Regional Studies at NDSU.
(The ethnic researchers included NDSU Sociologist Father William Sherman, UND Historians Playford Thorson and Robert P Wilkins, Bismarck State College Historian Warren Henke, UND Political Scientist Theodore P. Pedeliski and NDSU Anthropologist Timothy Kloberdanz.)
Immigrants with Dreams
Every immigrant family came with a dream for which they were willing to work from dawn to dusk, endure the biting cold winters, and bear the loneliness of the flat barren land. Yes, our immigrant families settled the land and launched a state. Gratitude for cheap land and the chance to begin anew flowed from the many ethnic immigrants who prospered in North Dakota.
Starting from sod huts two or three generations ago, we immigrants laid the foundation for Twenty-first Century prosperity. Many of us are more than half as old as the 1889 founding of the state. Grandparents can still relate stories about their own personal experiences and hardships encountered in the settling process.
Gratitude Turned Cold
Even though this generation is still close to the founding, the gratitude of our immigrant settlers has dwindled and our sympathy for newcomers has grown cold. In two generations, we have forgotten the free land and cordial spirit that welcomed us.
In North Dakota, we have a troublesome undercurrent of opposition to the kind of immigrants that want the opportunity for a new beginning – the same kind of opportunity initially provided to us by free or cheap land. And the new immigrants aren’t asking for free land – they are willing to work hard and add to the prosperity of the state.
When the children of immigrants came to public schools, many could not speak or understand English so school boards needed bilingual teachers able to bridge the language gap.
On the streets of Pisek, Czech was the common language; in Tagus, it was Norwegian; in Wishek, it was German. Today, we make a federal case out of immigrants bringing their languages and using them until they can make the transition to English.
If the hopeful immigrants of today had shown up in our frontier days, they would have been welcomed with open arms by our grateful grandparents. In fact, North Dakota had an immigration bureau to invite and welcome immigrants for the 13 years between 1919-1933.
Looking back, the skills and hard work of immigrants made North Dakota the “land of opportunity” we claim it is. We can still gain from more skills and more hard work. Or have we become a generation of selfish ingrates after only two generations?
Lloyd Omdahl is a former state lieutenant governor and professor at UND.