Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Anderson, Rasmus Bjorn (1846-1936)

Author, Diplomat, Editor and Professor

Anderson, Rasmus Born 1846-1936 | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeRasmus Anderson seated in his study and taking notes from a book.

Rasmus B. Anderson in His Study

Madison, Wisconsin. View the original source document: WHI 52288

Dictionary of Wisconsin History.
b. Albion, Wisconsin, 1846
d. Madison, Wisconsin, March 2, 1936

Professor Rasmus Bjorn Anderson was an American author, diplomat and editor. He brought popular attention to the idea that Viking explorers discovered the New World. He also originated Leif Erikson Day.

Education

He was born in Albion, Wisconsin, in 1846 to parents who were immigrants from Norway. His parents were part of a small band of Quaker sympathizers who organized the first Norwegian emigration to America in the early 1820s.

Anderson grew up in the Quaker movement and inherited a spirit of independence and a tradition of dissent from his father. He was sent to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where he led a student mutiny that resulted in his expulsion in 1865. He was later given a degree and listed among those in the first graduating class.

Professor

In 1866, he became an instructor at Albion Academy. In 1869, he accepted an appointment as instructor in modern languages at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he persuaded the administration to let him include a course in Norwegian in his program. He was appointed as the first professor of Scandinavian language in the University in 1875. He later became the founder and head of the Department of Scandinavian Studies — the first ever in an American university.

Legacy

He lectured and wrote extensively on Scandinavian topics. His works include the widely read books "America Not Discovered by Columbus" (1874) and "Norse Mythology" (1875). These books helped popularize the now familiar idea that Vikings were the first Europeans in the New World. Anderson was the originator of the movement to honor Leif Erikson with a holiday in the United States. Through efforts he started and led, Leif Erikson Day became an official observance in his native Wisconsin and other U. S. states. Decades after Anderson's death, it first became a federal observance by Presidential proclamation in 1964.

Anderson also translated a number of works from Scandinavian languages, especially the writings of the Norwegian novelist Bjornson, usually with the aid of Mrs. Aubertine Woodward Moore. In 1883, he resigned his post at the University and engaged in the insurance business. In 1885, he was appointed American Minister to Denmark.

After his return to the U.S. in 1889, he engaged in various commercial enterprises. His chief contributions were as editor from 1898 to 1922 to the pugnacious Norwegian language weekly "Amerika." His important publications from this later period were "The First Chapter of Norwegian Immigration" (1895) and his sparkling autobiography, "Life Story of Rasmus B. Anderson" (1915).

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[Sources: R. B. Anderson, Life Story of R. B. Anderson (Madison, 1915); Wis. Magi Hist., 20, 34; M. M. Quaife, Wis. (4 vols., Chicago, 1924); R. B. Anderson Papers. Dictionary of Wisconsin biography]