American Letters

After immigrants settled in Iowa, they often wrote glowing letters to relatives and friends in their homelands. 

“This is a great country and as you will have seen from the heading of this epistle I am now far beyond what a very few years ago was called the 'Far West.' My home at present is west of the Mississippi, 'The father of water.' I came to this state last June with the view of being more useful in the Church of God and obtaining a permanent home for my rapidly increasing family."

-Henry Allen, Iowa City, an immigrant from Ireland (1856)

"Samuel is not doing very well at farming. He is not more than making a livin."

-an English immigrant at Fairfield (1850)

"We live better than the people in Sweden and we are not wanting in spiritual food. When I compare conditions here with those in Sweden, we are fortunate. We have good bread and wheat flour and as much beef and pork as we desire for each meal. We have all the butter, eggs and milk we need… We have an abundance of various kinds of apples. In fact, we have so many things that make for comfort and happiness that, when I compare Sweden with this country, I have no desire to return."

-Mary Stephensen, New Sweden, a Swedish immigrant (1865)

"Freedom and equality are the fundamental principles of the Constitution of the United States. There is no such thing as class distinction here, no counts, barons, lords, or lordly estates. The one is as good as the other, and everyone lives in the unrestricted enjoyment of personal liberty."

-Peter Kassel, Jefferson County, a Swedish immigrant (1846)

"I am in good health… Do not worry too much about me. I got along well in Sweden, and this being a better country, I will do even better here. As my plans are now, I have no desire to be in Sweden. I never expect to speak with you again in this life… I am sending you my picture as a remembrance, and with it another picture which I am certain will be welcome, because it is the likeness of a man who is to become your son-in-law sometime this fall."

-Mary Jonson, Mount Pleasant, a Swedish immigrant (1859)

"Another matter has great influence on the entire social structure. It is not regarded beneath one's dignity to perform manual labor; but rather, it is considered good, even an honor, to be able to help oneself… The richest here is either a dairyman or farmer, and every dairyman and farmer is mister (sir or gentleman), and every woman is madam (lady)."

-Hendrick Peter Scholte, Pella,  a Dutch immigrant (1848)

"To conclude: I do not regret having come here, it is the country for a poor man; if he is able and willing to work he cannot starve. Labour here is no degradation, but on the contrary, the industrious man is respected; worth not riches is the standard of respectability, and magistrates and justices of the peace are only recognized by their superior knowledge and integrity."

-Joseph Buck,  an English immigrant in Maquoketa (1850)

"I am here, feeling fine, and getting along. However, the statement that one often finds in letters from America — that one wouldn't care to be back in Norway for all the world, or words to that effect to assure those at home that they like it here — such a statement I could never make as I should not be telling the truth."

-Gro Svendsen, Estherville,  an immigrant from Norway (1863)

Source:

  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “America Letters,” The Goldfinch 3, no. 2 (November 1981): 8-9.

Credit:

Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.

Pathways

What can you tell about the conditions these immigrants left in the old country? How do you know?

Media Artifacts

Investigation Tip:
Primary sources can have more information than just the words written. Look at how the information is presented. What does it tell you about the writer?

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