Everyone knows the stereotypical Minnesota accent, performed to excess in the movie Fargo. (A movie I don't particularly like. For a better movie, see Drop Dead Gorgeous. It's another dark comedy set in Minnesota–a mockumentary of beauty pageants.) While some people in out-state Minnesota do talk similar to that, very few people in the Twin Cities area sound anything like it. But the essence of the accent is found here, due to the mix of immigrants to the state.
|Americans with German ancestry (2000 US Census)|
The next highest ethnicity in Minnesota is an anomaly from the rest of the country. While less than 2% of Americans report Norwegian ancestry, almost 14% of Minnesotans are part Norwegian. There are many counties with Norwegian majorities; a few in southern and western Minnesota, and the entire Red River valley along the border with North Dakota. I don't have any Norwegian ancestors, but they've contributed much to our common Minnesota culture. You can often tell when someone has Norwegian ancestry if they have a patronymic surname. If it ends in -son, they could be Swedish, English, etc. but a -sen ending usually indicates a Norwegian background. This doesn't always work, because many families Anglicized the spelling to the more familiar -son. (In fact, while Smith is the most common surname in America, it's not even in the top five in Minnesota. According to this interactive National Geographic map, it's beat out by Johnson, Anderson, Nelson, Olson, Peterson...)
The percentage of Minnesotans who claim Irish descent is a bit less than the rest of Americans (8.9% vs. 10.6%). They settled in several areas around the state, but nowhere form even a plurality of the population. However, the fightin' Irish have been punching above their weight for a long time. Despite their small numbers, the Irish have wielded a disproportionate amount of influence in our capital city, St Paul. From the ginormous St Paul Cathedral on John Ireland Blvd (named after a Roman Catholic archbishop), to the lively Irish cultural life, celebrated at the large, annual Irish fair, and passed on by organizations like the Center for Irish Music. The Irish Genealogical Society International (IGSI) is headquartered in St Paul.
I do have Scandinavian ancestors, from Sweden. Compared to just over 1% of Americans with Swedish ancestry, we have almost 8% here. Minneapolis is home to the American Swedish Institute. Swedes tended to settle in different areas than Norwegians, particularly in east central Minnesota. Vilhelm Moberg wrote a series of four novels about Swedish immigrants to Minnesota in the 1850s. Apparently they're quite well-regarded in Sweden. The English translations help understand the life of 19th century immigrants here. He also wrote a book of essays about his research for writing the novels (with an afterword in the current edition–he'd soured on America over Vietnam). For readers in a different target market [young girls], there's a set of books in the American Girl series on the same subject. However, I can't vouch for them, never having been a member of said demographic.
Minnesotans who claim English ancestry are lower than the national average, 5% vs. 8.5%. I suspect that's under reported, in both cases. The reason few people report English ancestry is probably because it was much easier for them to adapt to life in America. Without any real language barrier, it wouldn't take three generations to assimilate. They were some of the first European settlers in Minnesota, after the French-Canadian Voyageurs in the fur trade. Like much of America, many of the prominent citizens and civic leaders among early settlers had English (or more generally British) ancestry. My ancestor Isaac Parks, whom I've written about before, opened a brickyard in St Cloud the same year Minnesota became a state.
settled in central Minnesota, including my ancestors in Benton county. There, they lived intermixed with German immigrants of the same origin, namely East Prussia and other German provinces now part of Poland. Census records from the area can be confusing for that reason. For example, the 1900 US Census lists the origin of one of my great-grandfathers as Prussia. Then in 1910, it says Ger[many]-Polish, as opposed to the family next door, which said Ger[many]-German. In 1920 and 1930, he's also listed as a German speaker from Germany. Granted, he spoke both languages, but identified more as Polish. There was also significant Polish settlement in northeast Minneapolis, along with other east Slavic immigrants. "Nordeast" Minneapolis today still retains its East European character.
French ancestry is even closer to the national average in Minnesota (2.9% vs. 3.3%). The census has a separate category for French Canadian, but I'm guessing those are more recent immigrants, and I wouldn't know how to differentiate them, without asking. As I alluded to earlier, the first Europeans in Minnesota were the Voyageurs, who traded with the Native Americans for fur. As a result, many place names in Minnesota are French, and our state motto is also French: "L'Étoile du Nord."
Italian immigrants to Minnesota were far fewer than elsewhere in America (1.8% vs. 5.5%). Some settled in northeast Minnesota to work in the mines on the Iron Range, along with many other smaller ethnic groups. They also settled in St Paul with their fellow Roman Catholics. Now, there are many good Italian restaurants in St Paul.
That rounds out the top ten, except the 9th place entry of "United States or American." I suppose some people don't actually know their ethnic background. I've known mine in general since I was a child, but my research is revealing parts I didn't know, nor did my parents. It's exciting when you break through those brick walls, and discover another generation of your ancestors. I think it's even more so when they came from somewhere I didn't know much about previously.
The University of Minnesota library has some useful maps where people of different ethnic groups live in Minnesota, based on 1990 US Census data. Unfortunately, the site is a bit difficult to navigate, and some maps are missing, but they're useful. To see them, click on one of the listed ethnic groups. Then, click on the link to maps of America, Minnesota, or several regions within Minnesota.