The last half of the nineteenth century experienced a level of immigration unprecedented in American history. America at the time was a land of opportunities for everyone, immigrants included. Per capita gross national product rose at an average annual rate of 2%. Real gross national product grew at an annual average rate of 4%.1 To illustrate the dramatic increase, historian Robert Higgs compared America's progress to other advanced industrial nations: "In 1870, after several decades of industrial growth, the United States had a manufacturing output equal to that of France and Germany combined, but only about three fourths as large as that of the United Kingdom; by 1913 the American manufacturing output equaled that of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined!"2 A total of more than 28 million immigrants made the trip to America between 1865 and 1915 in order to participate in this economic prosperity.3
Much of this fantastic growth came about because of the railroads. This half century saw the rise of four transcontinental railroads where none had existed previously.4 Total mileage expanded from 52,922 in 1870 to 166,703 in 1890.5 Passenger and freight traffic reached ever-climbing heights: 7.7 billion passenger miles in 1882 and 12.5 billion passenger miles by 1890; 39.3 billion and 79.2 billion ton-miles in 1882 and 1890, respectively.6 These numbers indicate a significant infusion of the railroads into American life. They also hint at the transformation of American life by the railroads. With the huge increase in passenger and freight traffic, the country got smaller—people could travel readily and goods could be shipped over great distances. The railroads' growth also presented a serious problem for the railroads: their tracks stretched across vast expanses of unsettled country, an area that generated no traffic.
To that end, the railroads expended tremendous energy in an attempt to settle the lands adjacent to their tracks. Most of the transcontinentals enjoyed significant land holdings granted to them by the federal government. The smaller railroads, both regional and local, also received land grants from the states. In addition to all this government-granted land, this was also an era of government sales of land to private citizens. The railroads attempted to facilitate settlement of all of these types of land grants. Previous settlers had to travel to these lands by ox and cart. Settlers of this period could count on railroad transportation to get them to this cheap land. The frontier of America was drawn closer for the immigrants by the railroads, thus attracting a more diverse group of settlers who had a greater chance of successfully arriving than the previous settlers.
This, then, is the background in which we find ourselves. It is my contention that the railroads contributed to the increased immigration of the time both through the direct actions of the roads' immigration bureaus as well as the indirect benefits of cheap land and transportation. This essay will examine the efforts of two transcontinental railroads, the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern, to attract and settle both immigrants and migrants in the American Northwest during the last three decades of the nineteenth century. We will primarily examine immigrants of German and Scandinavian descent, since those are the two dominant groups that came to that region. This essay will also integrate the views and perspectives of some important immigration historians with the subject of immigration and the railroads. There are some underlying problems with this subject. First, there has been very little written on this topic. There have been plenty of brief mentions in books on the railroads, but nothing done in a systematic fashion—examining railroad records, Census data, and other contemporary sources—and nothing written since 1956. Second, this is a huge subject. The scope of this topic could easily be expanded by including more railroads, more immigrant groups, and more regions. This essay will not provide that systematic examination of the issue, but it will compile the available information into a summary presentation about one particular railroad in one particular region.
The Northern Pacific, which was chartered in 1864 to build a line from Lake Superior to the Puget Sound (completing it in 1883), received a very generous land grant from Congress in order to complete its mission.7 It was given every other section within twenty miles of its tracks in states and within forty miles of its tracks in the territories. With the addition of an indemnity limit of ten additional miles on each side to account for already-granted or state lands, this meant that the Northern Pacific owned substantial land holdings in a strip of land that varied from sixty to one hundred miles wide across the northern part of the country.8 It was with this land that the Northern Pacific hoped to attract settlers from around the world, since its officers knew that, as historian Mark Wyman put it, "on land rested status; from land came dignity."9
Although the Northern Pacific did not take possession of its government-granted lands until 1872, plans were well underway by 1871.10 A Land Committee was formed with the Northern Pacific's future president, Frederick Billings, as its chairman. The Land Committee then selected as Land Commissioner (head of the Land Department) John S. Loomis, who was then president of another land development company. The Land Department was headquartered in New York—in the headquarters of the Northern Pacific—and St. Paul, and it had district offices throughout the land it would eventually help to populate. In February of 1871, Loomis drew up a plan for the operations of the Land Department at the behest of the Land Committee.11
The Land Department as envisioned by Loomis chiefly promulgated publicity. They developed maps and materials about the Northern Pacific (NP) in many different languages for distribution throughout the world by NP agents and United States consulates. The department also sought to cultivate relationships with the domestic and foreign press in an effort to develop outlets for distributing friendly publicity (or at least keep out negative publicity). It fostered good relations with professional, religious, and fraternal organizations in both America and Europe to enlist the support of those organizations' leaders in promoting the settlement of the northwestern United States.12 Through these means, it sought to establish a continuous flow of immigrants and migrants across its territory. Shortly after the establishment of the Land Department, the Northern Pacific set up an Immigration Department. It had as its head Major George B. Hibbard, a colorful figure of tireless energy, and its European headquarters in London, with branches in Liverpool, Germany, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries.13
Foreign promotion skyrocketed after Henry Villard took control of the Northern Pacific in 1881. In addition to the branch offices, there were hundreds of NP agents throughout Europe. By 1882. there were 83 local agents throughout Great Britain disseminating NP pamphlets and marketing materials. That number had risen to 831 by 1883! There were an additional 124 agents spread throughout Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Switzerland, and Germany.14 These foreign NP agents acted in much the same manner as the steamship agents mentioned by Mark Wyman in his book Round-Trip to America. As with the steamship company agents he cites, the Northern Pacific's men used their personal and professional contacts to encourage immigration. They answered their countrymen's anxious questions, distributed literature, and arranged transportation for the long journey abroad.
Because the journey was so long and complicated, these agents worked closely with the steamship companies. Competition among the railroads was intense and local agents were not above "redirecting" immigrant parties to other railroads.15 By maintaining friendly relations with the steamship companies, the Northern Pacific could insure that the immigrant families, once put on the right ship, would be directed to the NP agent at the end of the journey. The steamship companies, for their part, wanted to remain cordial because they sought to avoid the Northern Pacific from aligning itself too closely with rival lines. The Cunard lines, for example, offered to distribute NP literature through its agents in exchange for its non-alignment.16 Occasionally, the Northern Pacific used steamship company agents as its own local agents. The Immigration Bureau used the National Steamship Company's agent in Norway and the Allan Company's agents in Sweden and Denmark.17 There were no conflicts of interest because all parties wanted immigrants to cross the Atlantic—the Northern Pacific could not transport them over the water and the steamship companies could not transport them over land.
The railway's foreign agents were very active in organizing immigration colonies. A Scandinavian minister by the name of Tustin traveled throughout Scandinavia in 1872 for the Northern Pacific. He persuaded ministers in the Church of Sweden and the Swedish Baptists to lead groups of immigrants to Minnesota as well as several other clergymen in Norway and Denmark to do the same.18 The Northern Pacific in 1872 selected as its agent for Hereford, England the organizer of a farm labor movement which resulted rapidly in almost a hundred new immigrants.19 Another important NP agent around this time was Colonel Hans Mattson, who had written a book in Swedish about Minnesota's opportunities. In 1873, he acted as the NP agent in Norway and Sweden—a great coup for the Northern Pacific, given his knowledge of the area and his patent boosterism—until he led a party of 200 from Sweden bound for Minnesota.20 O.J. Johnson, agent for Norway and Sweden, in 1880 distributed over 40,000 pamphlets about North Dakota's wonders and circulars numbering in the hundreds of thousands, before leading a group of over three hundred Scandinavians to North Dakota.21
Interregional migration was important to the Northern Pacific as well. It focused efforts towards attracting veterans of the Civil War. Major Hibbard, himself a veteran, traveled across New England promoting the NP's colonization agenda to Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) posts. His efforts paid off. In addition to increased veteran migration, Congress in 1872 passed legislation increasing the amount of government land within the railroad grant that a Civil War veteran could purchase from 80 to 160 acres and counting the veteran's service time towards the five-year residency requirement, a move encouraged by Hibbard through the circulation of a petition among every GAR post in the country.22 Hibbard also organized the New England Military and Naval Bureau of Migration in Boston. That organization advertised in thirty different journals and circulated five thousand copies of the Homestead Journal, its publication. These efforts were not unique to the Northern Pacific, since the veterans represented an ideal demographic for colonization efforts, but none were as active as the NP.23
Another means by which the railroad promoted settlement was the rewarding of third parties for their efforts towards the same end. The Land Commissioner in 1881 suggested that the Northern Pacific could greatly supplement it efforts by paying commissions to anyone who would help sell company land. The company agreed and authorized the payment of a 5% commission on sales up to 160 acres with the condition that the purchaser had to settle on the land and farm twenty acres each year for two years—a provision added to discourage speculation, a rampant problem for the railroads. In 1883, commissions were liberalized somewhat so that they were paid on purchases up to 640 acres.24 These commissions enlisted thousands of private citizens towards the cause of settlement of NP lands through the use of the profit motive as an incentive and it paid off.
In order to encourage the immigrants and migrants to use its trains and to purchase lands adjacent to its tracks, the Northern Pacific enacted special fares and promotions. It sold exploration tickets at full fare, but credited the price of the fare towards the purchase price of land bought from the company within sixty days at up to forty acres. Once they purchased the land, the Northern Pacific provided free transportation for them, their families, and their belongings. Finally, parties of five or more received reduced fares when traveling to purchase company or government land.25 The Northern Pacific also extended special accommodations to land purchasers. Settlers could purchase land on credit, paying an additional 7% in interest annually over a period of seven years. Or, settlers could improve on the land before it was available for sale and purchase it at the original price once it became available.26
The Northern Pacific also built facilities to house the settlers while they surveyed available land. In Minnesota, these houses were equipped to comfortably shelter several hundred people. They offered health care through a company hospital, foodstuffs at cost, and beds for free.27 In Spokane Falls, Washington, the town built a large house along similar lines with company help and instructed the citizens to brush up on facts about the area in order to further town development.28
The other northern transcontinental railroad, the Great Northern Railway, was built north of the Northern Pacific, sandwiched between the latter's tracks and the Canadian border. Its path was started in 1878 in St. Paul, Minnesota and finished in 1893 in Seattle, Washington.29 The principal architect of the Great Northern was its president, James J. Hill. Hill recognized the need for a railroad in that part of Minnesota while he was owner of a steamboat company: "More than anything else … it was the growing stream of immigrants to the Red River country, which seemed to almost ready to back up all the way to the East Coast for want of adequate transportation to the valley, that caught Hill's imagination." Hill was prescient in his dreams, perceiving what "few others were aware of and none articulated: a railroad into the valley could save settlers not just a few months, but virtually an entire year."30
Unfortunately, the Great Northern Railway lacked the Northern Pacific's substantial land grants. Its predecessor company, the St. Paul & Pacific, had been given a state land grant of 2.46 million acres wholly within the state of Minnesota—relatively small when compared to the Northern Pacific's 47 million acres.31 Fortunately, the lands were in the very fertile Red River Valley and directly adjacent to the tracks. That meant that in its base state of operations—Minnesota—the company would be able to sell huge tracts of land and promote farming through cheap land prices, but in the rest of the territory it traversed—the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon—it would have to employ other means to encourage settlement and create traffic.
Hill and company were up to the task. It was certainly going to have to accomplish a momentous feat:
With only slight exaggeration, Northwest Magazine reported that the new transcontinental ran 1,500 miles through a wild country with only three "important" freight-producing centers—Kalispell, Bonners Ferry, and Spokane. A few branch lines in North Dakota were generating traffic, but the task of attracting settlers to much of that state and to Montana remained; Idaho was lightly populated, and except for the coastal areas, Washington was pretty much an open opportunity. If the GN were to prosper, millions of acres of land would have to be occupied and businesses of all kinds would have to be established.32
In 1882, the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba (StPM&M)—the immediate predecessor to the Great Northern—published its first newsletter touting the advantages of the Northwest and distributed 100,000 copies in North America and northern Europe. He also enlisted an agent in Norway and Sweden, countries which dispatched immigrants by the tens of thousands.33 At the turn of the century, the Great Northern offered immigrants low transatlantic fares through special deals with the shipping lines and special fares so that they could bring their families and belongings—rates ranging from $22.50 to $50 to rent a part or all of a boxcar. Historians have estimated that over 250,000 people poured into North Dakota during the last decade of the nineteenth century.34 His and the Northern Pacific's efforts were so successful that the first North Dakota census in 1890 showed that 43% of the population were foreign-born!35
By 1894, the Great Northern had a little over one million acres of grant land to be sold. It began advertising the federal and state land adjoining its tracks, as well as some private lands owned by cattlemen and others.36 The Great Northern's General Immigration Agent Max Bass was very aggressive in marketing these lands: advertising in all manners of periodicals, talking up the prospects to farmers at fairs and exhibitions, and attending church meetings to drum up interest.This last effort was successful: he had settled almost 11,000 German Baptists in North Dakota by 1900.37 The Great Northern's successes in North Dakota were duplicated across the rest of its line.
Colonization by the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads have, as mentioned earlier, received scant attention by historians—at least relative to their importance in the development of the Northwest. The overall field of immigration history is, on the other hand, prodigious in scope and detail. In an effort to bridge some of the gap, let us look at the history of these two railroads influence on immigration from the perspective of these immigration historians by applying their questions and findings to the present subject. For each historian, I will briefly summarize his or her main line of argument and then integrate that with the information presented in this paper.
The first historian under consideration is Mark Wyman, whose 1993 book Round-Trip to America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880-1930 has a direct bearing on our subject matter. In that book, Wyman argues that immigration to America was really a "two-way migration" in that millions of immigrants never intended to permanently stay in the United States. They came to America because of its heightened economic opportunities, and they left as soon as they had collected enough money to achieve whatever goals with which they set out. However, those that settled in northwestern America tended to remain for the long haul. They purchased land here, rather than working to purchase land in their homeland. Remigration from the Northwest probably amounted to little—data is not available—due to the nature of the economic opportunities in that region of America: farming is not rewarding in the short-term, which is the type of opportunity immigrants intent on returning to their countries sought.
Jose Moya's Cousins and Strangers: Spanish Immigrants in Buenos Aires, 1850-1930 also has some relevance to our subject. His 1998 book is a weighty examination of the chain migration from Spain to Buenos Aires, Argentina that took place during an eighty-year period, a migration which he contends was mightily influenced by global forces.38 The chain migration, he writes, "resembled more webs or unending branches than a chain."For Moya, this chain or web that influenced migration was paramount, becoming "autonomous" and "self-perpetuating."39 While there were certainly elements of chain migration occurring in the settlement of the Northwest, the immigration was much more pronounced. Rather than a stream of immigrants pouring into the Northwest on the recommendations of those already settled, significant chunks of foreign communities were persuaded to transport themselves en masse to the New World. Efforts by the railroads' immigration agents were far more important than missives sent to relatives back home—as far as is known today.
Rudolph Vecoli's influential 1964 article "The Contadini in Chicago: A Critique of The Uprooted looked at Italian immigrants in Chicago during the late nineteenth century. On the face of it, a study of Italians in Chicago seems to have nothing in common with a study of Scandinavians in the rural Northwest. However, the contadini were agricultural peasants in Italy and the Scandinavian immigrants tended to be of that makeup as well. His central argument is that "the contadini of the Mezzogiorno … came to terms with life in Chicago within the framework of their traditional pattern of thought and behavior."40 The Scandinavian settlers tended to cluster with their fellow countrymen. It is unclear whether they faced the same external impetuses to assimilate as did the contadini, but their clustering did engender retention of traditional elements of their culture, such as language and dress.
Russell Kazal's 1995 review of the evolving definition of assimilation illustrates another area that merits future attention by scholars. In "Revisiting Assimilation: The Rise, Fall, and Reappraisal of a Concept in American Ethnic History," Kazal opines that it is "most useful to define assimilation in the immigrant context as referring to processes that generate homogeneity beyond the ethnic-group level."41 This is an intriguing notion since, as mentioned previously, new immigrants tended to cluster in ethnic enclaves with those of similar stock. Unfortunately, it was well beyond the scope this inquiry to examine the history of relations among the peoples of this region. Given the remoteness and wide dispersion of the region's inhabitants, a study of the interaction between the different groups as well as with society-at-large would be difficult yet extremely interesting.
Another work with similar applicability that suffers from unavailable data is James Gregory's American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. The Okies migrated to California from Oklahoma because of the latter's dwindling economic opportunities. Once there, the Okies faced discrimination and economic hardship from the native Californians. Many of the native-born American migrants moved to the Northwest for its abundant land and agricultural opportunities. It is doubtful that they experienced much, if any, discrimination, though, because of the prevalent boosterism of the times. Incoming migrants and immigrants were welcomed by the innumerable towns of the interior since they represented progress and prosperity.
Ewa Morawska's article "In Defense of the Assimilation Model" issues a call for the historicization of the assimilation model—moving away from the universal model of assimilation to one that separates assimilation by time and place. She argues that the classical assimilation model espoused by Milton Gordon should be recast into three stages: "integration into primary social relations with the dominant group … ; the disappearance of a collective (group) identity; and finally, concluding the process, the extinction of individual or subjective ethnic identification."42 Her staging schema certainly provides an interesting renovation of the assimilation model and I would second her urging of scholars to periodicize this new model—noting that this period and this region would make an excellent starting point.
There have also been a number of studies on the subject of the children of immigrants. Herbert Gans works on second-generation decline and symbolic ethnicity, Alejandro Portes and Miz Zhou's article on segmented assimilation and the second generation, and Junot Díaz's novel about his experiences as a second-generation Dominican immigrant all are important works in immigration history. Unfortunately, they deal almost exclusively with the second generation of immigrants—a subject beyond the purview of this summary presentation. They raise interesting considerations for those who would study the progeny of immigrants that settled the Northwest.
As noted in earlier comments, this time and place in American history bears further scrutiny. Efforts have been made to understand the region's history of immigration, but they are incomplete in many areas. The railroad, though largely outdated as a means of transportation and hidden in the shadows of America's economy, still offers many lessons about America's past, present, and future. It is a shame that it goes unexplored while historians turn their attention to minutiae and trivia.
1 This meant a threefold increase in per capita GNP between the Civil War and World War I and an eightfold increase in real GNP. Robert Higgs, The Transformation of the American Economy, 1865-1914: An Essay in Interpretation, Wiley Series in American Economic History (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1971), 19.
2 Ibid., 48.
3 Ibid., 24.
6 Ibid., 14. By 1890, railroads carried twice as much freight as all other means of transportation combined. Mansel G. Blackford and K. Austin Kerr, Business Enterprise in American History, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 162.
7 James B. Hedges, "The Colonization Work of the Northern Pacific Railroad," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 13:3 (December, 1926), 313. Morris, 612.
8 Hedges, "Colonization," 313.
9 Mark Wyman, Round-Trip to America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880-1930, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 129.
10 Robert L. Frey, "Jay Cooke," in Railroads in the Nineteenth Century, Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography, Robert L. Frey, ed., (New York: Bruccoli Clark Layman, Facts on File, 1988), 62.
11 Hedges, "Colonization," 314.
12 Ibid., 315.
13 Ibid., 315.
14 Ibid., 330.
15 Ibid., 318.
16 Ibid., 318.
17 Ibid., 319.
18 Ibid., 316.
19 Ibid., 317-8.
20 Ibid., 317, 323.
21 Ibid., 338.
22 Ibid., 319.
23 Ibid., 320.
24 Ibid., 332.
25 Ibid., 320-1.
26 Ibid., 321.
27 Ibid., 320.
28 James B. Hedges, "Promotion of Immigration to the Pacific Northwest by the Railroads," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 15:2 (September 1928), 200.
29 Don L. Hofsommer, "Great Northern Railway," in Railroads in the Nineteenth Century, Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography, Robert L. Frey, ed., (New York: Bruccoli Clark Layman, Facts on File, 1988), 152.
31 Ralph W. Hidy and others, The Great Northern Railway: A History, (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1988), 3. Michael P. Malone, James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 35.
32 Hidy, 99.
33 Malone, 91.
34 Ibid. 261.
35 Ibid. 113.
36 Hidy, 100.
37 Ibid., 101.
38 Jose C. Moya, Cousins and Strangers: Spanish Immigrants in Buenos Aires, 1850-1930, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), 13-43.
39 Ibid., 392.
40 Rudolph J. Vecoli, "Contadini in Chicago: A Critique of The Uprooted," Journal of American History 51 (December 1964), 417.
41 Russell A. Kazal, "Revisiting Assimilation: The Rise, Fall, and Reappraisal of a Concept in American Ethnic History," American Historical Review 100 (April 1995), 439. Emphasis in original.
42 Ewa Morawska, "In Defense of the Assimilation Model," Journal of American Ethnic History 13:2 (Winter 1994), 76+.