Nordic Heritage in Seattle
Photo by Holly Taylor
Immigrants from Nordic countries – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland – settled in large numbers in the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century, drawn to a landscape of saltwater fjords, farmland, forests and mountains that reminded them of home. By 1910, Scandinavians were the largest ethnic group in Washington State, comprising over 30 percent of the foreign-born population.
Letters from immigrants to their friends and family back home described economic opportunities around Seattle, and these letters were supplemented by pamphlets in Swedish and Norwegian from transcontinental railroads promoting lands available for settlement.
Many Nordic immigrants worked as fishermen and in canneries, as loggers and in mills, and as farmers, miners and boat builders. In rural communities, settlers constructed hand-hewn log houses with notched corners reflecting Old World craftsmanship, and farmers worked together to form cooperatives that reflected traditional social values.
In urban settings such as Seattle and Tacoma, Swedish and Norwegian language newspapers thrived, and numerous churches and social organizations were established to provide a safety net and sense of community for the region’s Nordic population. Many iconic local businesses were established by Nordic immigrants and their descendents, including Nordstrom, now one of the largest department stores in the country, and Ivar’s Seafood Restaurants founded by Ivar Haglund, a local character known as the “King of the Waterfront.”
Today, Seattle’s Nordic heritage is celebrated through traditional festivals, exhibits, and performances open to the public. Numerous community organizations offer instruction in Nordic languages, sponsor choruses and dance groups, and teach traditional folks arts such as rosemaling, a Norwegian technique of decorative painting on wood. Several churches in the Ballard neighborhood and beyond continue to offer some services in Nordic languages.
Organizations such as the Sons of Norway, the Daughters of Norway, the Swedish Cultural Center, the Northwest Danish Association, the Icelandic Club, the Finlandia Foundation and the Swedish Finn Historical Society document genealogy and community history, and sponsor special events throughout the year.
- The terms Nordic and Scandinavian are often used interchangeably. Traditionally, Scandinavia refers to the countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, while the list of Nordic countries also includes Iceland and Finland. The term Nordic is generally preferred in the community, as it is more inclusive.
- The Scandinavian Hour, a fixture on Seattle radio for more than half a century, is currently heard on radio KKNW 1150 AM on Saturday mornings, and features interviews, announcements about community events, and accordion, fiddle and dance music.
- Bergen, Norway became Seattle’s second sister city in 1967, and Reykjavik, Iceland became a sister city in 1986.
- The University of Washington’s Scandinavian Studies Department, which celebrated its centennial in 2009, is one of the largest in the U.S.