In addition to the pioneers who began arriving as early as the 1830s in Wisconsin, there was considerable competition among the Midwestern states to attract immigrants. Wisconsin was one of those states, but it was located far from coastal ports and large commercial centers. It was at a bit of a disadvantage.

One way Wisconsin saw to invite immigrants to the state was to produce a booklet for potential emigrants called “Emigrants Handbook and Guide to Wisconsin.” The Wisconsin legislature also in 1852 created the office of Commissioner of Emigration, with the aims of recruiting immigrants as well as protecting them from swindlers and thieves.

“Wisconsin had more to offer to emigrants than any other state in the Union, and that foreigners brought with them their love for freedom, their ambition, industriousness and enterprising spirit, which all were needed to make the state flourish,” Wisconsin Gov. Leonard Farwell said.

The commissioner’s office was in New York City. He was charged with “giving to emigrants information regarding soil and climate of Wisconsin, together with information on the state and lines of business … which might be pursued with advantage; advising emigrants about the ‘cheapest and most expeditious route by which to reach Wisconsin’ (and) giving such further information as will protect emigrants against ‘the impositions often practiced upon them.’”

The office was open for less than three years, but its closing didn’t seem to slow the wave of immigrants pouring into Wisconsin.

Settlers themselves encouraged immigration as well, through enticing letters sent to friends and family back home. In January 1854 recent immigrants to Koshkonong in Jefferson County wrote a glowing account to their siblings still in Norway.

“We are firmly convinced that you have waited a long time for a writing and information from us in this, our foreign home … It is almost unbelievable how fortunate it has gone for us the whole time in the new world. There is no one of our ages here who have climbed upward as fast as we. Cattle is now high priced so the first thing each of us did was to sell cattle for 80 dollars each. We own 4 milk cows, 2 that are 2 years old, 2 that are 1 year old and 1 calf. 5 driving oxen, 10 hogs or swine, 20 chickens, 2 geese, and 5 sows. This fall we butchered 4 pretty big hogs.

“This fall we cut so much wood that we can sell a hundred dollars’ worth. We had a desirable and fruitful year. It is not often that we have this much wood and it also has a high price. There are several here who have cut a thousand bushels of wood … The price per bushel is a dollar, and that is expensive.

“I believe that I would advise you to come here to America and that you would find it better here when you shall acquire 100 dollars when you earn only 20 dollars in Norway.”

Other correspondents were more cautious in their recommendations. Norwegian immigrant Anders Jensen Stortroen settled in Martell Township in the northwestern corner of the state.

He advised his parents and siblings in September 1857 that, “The milk here is just as good as in Norway, and all kinds of foods are as good, there need be no doubt of it. By no means will we advise anyone to come over here, but you must advise yourselves concerning this, since there are many hard paths and many tribulations to endure that one cannot understand before he sets out.”

Excerpted from “Wisconsin Agriculture: A History,” Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2015. Visit for more information.

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Jerry Apps, born and raised on a central-Wisconsin farm, is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 40 books – most on rural history and country life. Visit for more information.