In 1879, Hans Gunther Magelssen approached a jeweler in Oslo, Norway to have him make a gift for his granddaughter-in-law, Sara Magelssen. Into the backside of a 9.5” diameter wooden plaque the jeweler inset a 5 Øre coin. While beautiful, what sets this object apart is what is inscribed on the back of the plaque around the coin – the Magelssen family genealogy.
In eighteen concentric circles, the family’s history is handwritten in Norwegian, noting births, deaths, and marriages as it traces their journey from Germany to Norway. For Sara and her husband Kristian, their journey, like thousands of other Norwegians in the mid-19th century, brought them to the United States. Their story, including their immigration to Wisconsin in the 1860s, is written on the 12th and 13th lines of the object.
Alice Alderman, a librarian at the Wisconsin Historical Society, translated Magelssen’s writing. Kristian was born “27 April 1839, baptized 30 June. Went to America 6 May 1864, came back to Norway 6 July 1868, married 29 October 1868 and went with his wife Sara Magelssen back to America 5 December 1868.” Upon returning to America, Kristian became a pastor in Highland, Minnesota, and their family had 2 sons and 1 daughter.
This disk and the history of immigration to Wisconsin and resettlement within the region illustrate some important features of Wisconsin’s Norwegian community. Norwegian immigrants established communities in Wisconsin’s southeast and south-central regions beginning in the 1830s and 1840s. By 1850, Wisconsin was home to 9,467 Norwegians, and by 1870, as they settled further west, the number reached 59,619 individuals. Approximately 41% of all Norwegian immigrants in the United States were women.
Written by Jared Lee Schmidt
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Themes in Wisconsin History
Arts & Leisure
Can you think of a time when someone wanted you to eat something new? Did you eat it? For many people, if they saw lefse on a plate, they would not know what it was. Lefse looks like a tortilla, but it tastes like potato! Lefse is a traditional Norwegian food that is still special…
When Norwegian immigrants like Kristian Magelssen came to Wisconsin in the 1860s, they found an incredibly active Norwegian Lutheran Church. Comprised of fourteen distinct synods often divided by theology, these institutions provided a foundational compass …
Norwegian women played a vital role in the agricultural and social lives of rural communities. Spurred by a cultural acceptance of work, women on the farm took on both domestic chores and contributed to the family’s economy through production of food and material goods.
Throughout the 19th century, Wisconsin was home to dozens of foreign-language newspapers representing cultures from throughout Europe. These papers provided opportunities to create connections in America, maintain homeland networks, and keep current with news in their native language.
Object history created July 2019
 Marcia C. Carmichael, Putting Down Roots: Gardening Insights from Wisconsin’s Early Settlers (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2011), 87; James P. Leary, “Norwegian Communities,” in Encyclopedia of American Folklife Vol. 3, edited by Simon J. Bronner, (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2006), 892-896; Odd S. Lovoll, introduction to Wisconsin My Home: As told to her Daughter Erna Oleson Xan, 2nd Ed. by Thurine Olseson, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), xii-xiii.
 Lovoll. xiii.
 Odd S. Lovoll, “Norwegian Immigration and Women,” in Norwegian American Women: Migration, Communities, and Identities, edited by Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011), 51.