Celebrating the Slooper Voyage, Norway to Kendall

by William G. Andrews*

Published in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, September 2000

Reprinted in abbreviated form in 8 Oct. 2000 program for commemorative service held at the Concordia Lutheran Church, Kendall, New York.


New York Governor DeWitt Clinton and his fellow dignitaries, traveling east on the newly-opened Erie Canal in late October 1825, met a motley band of 50 impoverished immigrants.  Some “were dressed in coarse cloths of domestic manufacture”. Others “wear calico, ginghams, and gay shawls”.  However quaint their attire, they were the first ripple of a tidal wave of Europeans who traveled that waterway in the next century to reach their “promised land” in the American Midwest and West.

The Rochester area has celebrated magnificently the 175th anniversary of the opening of the Erie Canal.  However, the same anniversary of the arrival in Kendall, Orleans County, of the first group of Norwegian immigrants to North America since the Vikings also deserves notice.  To that end, the local Sons of Norway lodge has organized a commemoration, October 6-8.  Lodge members will be joined by 20 descendants of those “Sloopers” from Illinois and New Jersey, members of the Rochester Society of Friends (Quakers), and history buffs from Orleans County.

They will honor a group of extraordinarily brave and determined people.  The Sloopers were Quakers or their friends who left Norway because they were forbidden to practice their religion freely.  They sold their possessions to buy a 38-ton, 54-foot sloop for $1,800.  Fifty-two passengers jammed 480 square feet of deck, only 40 percent as much space per person as the Pilgrims on the Mayflower!

They sailed July 4, 1825.  At Cornwall, England, they were offered much-needed food for brandy.  But after they delivered the liquor, the Norwegians learned that the transaction was illegal and fled without receiving the food. 

When they reached the Madeira Islands on August 1, the crew retrieved a wine cask from the sea and enjoyed its contents so much they forgot to fly a flag.  Madeirans feared the strange vessel was a plague ship and prepared to shell it.  Warned by sailors on a nearby ship, the Norwegians hoisted their flag in a nick of time.

Their tiny craft bobbed like a cork in the high seas of the North Atlantic, averaging only 2.7 miles an hour.  It required 64 days from Madeira to New York and 98 days from Norway.

As a child was born on board, 53 passengers landed in New York October 9.  This was 37 more for a vessel that size than allowed by U. S. law, which called for a $5,500 fine.  The sloop was seized and the captain jailed.  The Sloopers had planned to sell it in New York to finance their further travel and the start up costs in Kendall.

New York City Quakers came to the rescue.  They sheltered and fed the beleaguered Norwegians and helped solve their legal problems, eventually securing a Presidential pardon and release of the vessel.  Meanwhile, most of the immigrants left for Kendall, so they could travel on the Erie Canal before it closed for the season.

Lars Larsen, later a noted boat builder in Rochester, stayed behind until the boat was released in mid-November and sold it for $400, a loss of $1,400 and $3,600 less than had been expected.  When Larsen reached Albany, the canal was closed. So he skated its 290-mile length to Holley, reputedly the longest ice-skating trip in history.

Thus began the modern saga of Norwegian immigration to North America.  Some four million of their compatriots followed.  Only Ireland sent a larger proportion of its citizens to America.  

During the 19th century, the canal was the cheapest way to reach the favored destinations of the Norwegians in the Midwest.  So they may well have been its best customers, contributing significantly to its spectacular financial success.

A dinner in Gaines Saturday evening, October 7, and a worship service at Concordia Lutheran Church in Kendall Sunday morning will honor the Sloopers.  Also, they will continue the celebration of the anniversary of the opening of the canal, the first means of transportation that made overland immigrant travel possible.  Beyond that, however, they will recognize the wondrous phenomenon of immigration from all over the world that began with the Vikings in 1000 AD, was resumed by the English in the 17th century, continues full force today, and that has made this nation great.

*W. G. Andrews is President of Grieg/Odin Lodge of the Sons of Norway, Rochester, New York. This Internet publication is with the permission of the author on Jan. 1, 2004.

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