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.