Norwegian immigrant letters donated to Luther College by Nelson family

Elisabeth Koren, Norwegian immigrant, pioneer woman, pastor's wife, and mother of nine, was also a dedicated letter-writer. The recent discovery of 156 of her letters, which have been donated to Luther College, sheds light not only on her life of reflection, motherhood, immigration and faith, but also on the larger history of Norwegians in America.

In 1853, when Elisabeth and her husband, Ulrik Vilhelm "U.V." Koren, left Norway, they traveled across the rough Atlantic by masted ship. They crossed a new country by dugout canoe, by snow-hampered wagon, and over an ice-covered Mississippi River on a journey from Europe to Iowa that took more than three months. And every letter Elisabeth wrote to family back home had to make that laborious journey in reverse.   

The Koren letters came to light this winter during a bout of housekeeping, said Betty Nelson, wife of the late David Nelson, Koren's great-grandson. They'd been stored at the bottom of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, along with Betty's annuals (she is class agent for Luther's class of 1957). Because she needed to access the annuals regularly, she decided to reorganize—and voila! The letters were tucked in a bundle with U.V.'s sermons. While Betty doesn't know exactly how they ended up back in Decorah, her brother-in-law John Nelson has speculated that they may have traded hands during an ancestor's visit to Norway.

In donating the 156 letters to Luther, Betty gifted the college with a large and distinctive collection of America letters, correspondence new immigrants wrote to those in the homeland they left behind. America letters can be found as early as the 1820s, but they really flourished in the 1850s with the introduction of the postage stamp. The Koren letters, which range from 1853 to 1867 and which were sent to Koren's father, stepmother and uncle, are written in a flawless, miniscule hand on paper as thin and yellowed as onionskin.

Øyvind Gulliksen, a retired professor of American literature and culture who splits his residence between Decorah and Norway, has offered to work with the letters. He concedes their beauty but jokes, "Sometimes I sit there with a magnifying glass—I look like something out of a Dickens novel!" To improve their readability, the Luther College Archives staff has scanned the letters and digitally enhanced the scans, which will allow students and others to easily interact with the materials.

Many America letters originated in rural farming communities, and they typically described conditions in the new country, including the state of the farmland, crops and cattle, as well as the births of children. "Of course," Gulliksen said, "the farm letters are very short, and once the information is said, it's said. What Elisabeth does is meditate on the information she gives. She asks her mother in an 1861 letter, 'When do think it’s time for me to stop breastfeeding my child?' She's worried because she's heard it's not a good idea to stop breastfeeding in the summer, so she writes about the weening of her child." Gulliksen continued, "After she has given birth to her third or fourth child, she's weak, and she describes how her body is coming back. This is in the springtime, and she notices if there are dimples in her baby's cheek. It's so colloquial and so much about family life. It's a woman's world from that time, from the early days of Norwegian settlement."

While Koren kept a diary, which was published in 1955, it covers only three years, 1853-55. The letters span 14 years, beginning with the couple's first year in America; following them as they set up a parsonage on Washington Prairie, about seven miles southeast of Decorah; and venturing far into Elisabeth's motherhood. During a time when the Midwest constituted America's unpredictable frontier and a few miles was no small distance, U.V. often left Elisabeth and the children alone for weeks or even months while he tended to his parsonage and helped secure land to found Luther College.

Elisabeth faced pioneer, log-cabin life with courage, humor, faith and full engagement. Gulliksen said, "She writes so much as a woman who is sensing life out there on the parsonage. And she's a good writer of details. She's walking out in the garden in the spring of '61 and she says, 'The gooseberries are turning green.' Even that—it's just a detail from her garden, and she writes it to her parents."

She also documented the games her children play, and dictates things they say. "She even mimics their Norwegian," Gulliksen marveled, "because of course her children spoke in Norwegian," as opposed to Dano-Norwegian, which Elisabeth and her parents spoke.

At this point, Gulliksen has sampled only about 10 of the 156 letters, but he plans to comb through the collection in more depth this fall. He will first transcribe the letters onto the screen in their native Dano-Norwegian, taking care, he said, "to be as true as possible to every punctuation mark, every comma, every capital letter, every mistake. I'm not altering anything." After that, they will be translated into both English and Norwegian.

"It's a lived life out there very early," Gulliksen said. "It will be interesting to see how American she becomes, how she assimilates. The letters I've read so far are of one obviously living in the diaspora. She is living in Washington Prairie, but her mind works in this Dano-Norwegian setup that she's used to. How that changes over a long life in Iowa will be interesting to see."

Gulliksen speculates that readers in Norway will also be interested in the letters. "This is an early immigrant woman, and this is her voice. And it's fascinating."

Elisabeth Koren, Norwegian immigrant, pioneer woman, pastor's wife, and mother of nine, was also a dedicated letter-writer.
Elisabeth Koren