Swedish emigration to America is rather typical for European emigration westward to America during the 19th century. Therefore, we have elected to present the background of the Swedish emigration at that time.
Painting "The Emigrants" by Swedish artist Knut Ekwall, (1843-1912). This painting depicts the artist's vision of what the Atlantic crossings could be like for the immigrants. Courtesy by Lena Björk Kaplan, President of the American Scandinavian Foundation in New York, owner of this beautiful work.
A Review of Swedish Emigration to America
The history of Swedish emigration to America goes further back in time than that of the United States. Swedes started to come in 1638, just eighteen years after the landing of the "MAYFLOWER."
Unlike the Pilgrim Fathers, the Swedes were not religious dissenters but rather an organized group of colonizers. They had been sent out by the government in Stockholm in order to establish a colony under the Swedish crown in Delaware. The era of NEW SWEDEN ended in 1655, when the colony was lost to the Dutch. But the original settlers remained and kept up their language and culture for a long time. Many of the descendants of the Delaware Swedes became distinguished fighters for freedom in the war against England in 1776. One of them was JOHN MORTON, who gave the decisive vote for independence at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. JOHN HANSON was the name of another Delaware Swede. In 1781 he was elected president of "the United States in Congress assembled" and thus preceded George Washington as the highest office holder of the new nation. Most likely these and other civil leaders and soldiers of Swedish descent, e.g. Count Axel von Fersen, influenced the Swedish decision to recognize the U.S. and to sign a peace and trade treaty with the new nation in 1783.
The tidal wave of Swedish emigration began in the mid 1840s, when the first organized emigrant groups started to arrive in New York. These farmers destined to Iowa and Illinois were followed during the period up to 1930 by almost 1.3 million countrymen. The Swedes still rank number seven among the European immigrant groups. In proportion to the population of their home countries, only the British Isles and Norway surpassed Sweden in the number of immigrants.
The effect of this exodus from Sweden reached its climax around 1910, when 1.4 million Swedish first and second generation immigrants were listed as living in the U.S. Compare this to Sweden's population at the time: 5.5 million. Roughly one fifth of all Swedes had their homes in America right before World War I !
Large families and generations of divided inheritances led to the fragmenting of farms into tiny land holdings. Poor soil was laid under the plow, and the cottages of tenant farmers and landless laborers multiplied. The population of some parishes doubled three times over. Some advanced landholders tried to reorganize agriculture through the state-supported enclosure movement, farm schools and refined methods of farming , but it was difficult to reform the thousand-year-old "Mother economy" on a wider scale. The liberals were disappointed, confronted as they were with stubborn ignorance and bureaucratic conservatism. Many of them, like "the father of Swedish emigration", Gustav Unonius, saw no future in Sweden and left for America. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Sweden was a land of poverty, want and social frustration.
PEACE, VACCINATION and POTATOES
Swedish emigration primarily had the same causes as the contemporary population surge from Northern and Western Europe: population pressure, economic and - above all - agricultural hardships, a profound social crisis, widespread political and religious discontent. The famous Swedish bishop and poet Esaias Tegne'r explained the population pressure in three words: "peace, vaccination and potatoes." He thereby referred to the fact that Sweden had not been in war since the fatal Russian war of 1809 and the successful Danish one of 1814. Smallpox vaccination had reduced the infant mortality from 21% in 1750 to 15% in 1850. Potatoes became a nutritious supplement to the poor man's bread. The combined affects of such benefits resulted in a growth in population which in turn produced other problems for society. The number of Swedes doubled between 1750 and 1850, and the growth continued. In a country with few industries and cities, the burden had to be carried by the primitive agricultural society.
A NEW ERA WAS DAWNING
Industry and communications were less developed in Sweden than in most other West European countries. The government was still mainly unaware of the dormant riches of the country's forests, mountains and rivers. But the industrial epoch was dawning and the migrations within Sweden from farm to town were symptoms of a new era. The second half of the nineteenth century experienced an increasing series of technical inventions and improvements, which quickly transformed small scale workshops into modern industries, or covered the country with a network of railroads. New industrial centers were created around the railroads and the mouths of the rivers, and the old cities developed faster than ever before. Compulsory elementary school, a modern welfare program and liberal economic reforms pointed toward a way out of poverty and distress. Day was breaking, although it was not yet felt by the people on the overcrowded farms, the crafters or the enormous agricultural proletariat. It is true that the industrial era seemed to promise a new future for most of them, but the frames around the splendid expectations proved to be cut too short. For instance, it was easy to buy a ticket to Stockholm, but where does one find housing and a job in a city suddenly over-crowded with job-hungry unskilled laborers? The labor market of the small, backward country was too limited. Many young people were therefore drawn down into the social swamp of Stockholm, ending up as beggars or prostitutes. Others read the advertisements about America. Beyond the Ocean a new chance awaited those who could save up or borrow some money, or get a prepaid ticket from a relative who was already lucky enough to live in "the Promised Land." Therefore, the urbanization process only temporarily slowed down the emigration. Approximately one fourth of the Swedish emigrants in 1850-1920 came from cities.
LITERACY and EMIGRATION
It is difficult to imagine overseas migration without common people being able to read and write. Thanks to the Lutheran Church the rate of illiteracy had always been relatively low in Sweden. The Elementary School Act of 1842 almost erased illiteracy among the younger generation, the one which was to read about America in newspapers, popular books or pamphlets. Like the first letters sent home by the pioneers in America, this literature was circulated from cottage to cottage. The America-letter brought strange news which seemed to prove that success lay before everyone who emigrated. From the end of the 1860s, a network of emigrant agents offered their services to people who had been convinced of the Promised Land.
The mass emigration was preceded by the emigration of the pioneers. The individuals, families or groups of families who left Sweden before the American Civil War did not have access to the modern Atlantic liner. They sailed "on top of the cargo" of a bark or a brig from a Swedish harbor, spending months on the sea and finally, more dead than alive, landing in New York. This was the case with the civil servant Gustav Unonius, who emigrated in 1841 and founded the first Swedish settlement in Wisconsin. This held true also for the farmer Peter Cassel and his group, who left in 1845 and landed in New Sweden, Iowa, or for the 1,500 religious dissenters who during 1846-1850 traveled from Central Sweden to their "Land of Canaan," Bishop Hill in Illinois. These sturdy pioneers were people of strength and conviction, willing to fight for their ideals and therefore surrounded by insurmountable obstacles in Sweden. But their conviction and energy became useful tools in America.
At the end of the 1860s, Sweden was struck by the last of a series of severe hunger catastrophes. The agriculture which was still only partially modernized had been struggling with difficult times. Now came a series of crop failures. 1867 thus became "the wet year" of rotting grain, 1868 became the "dry year" of burned fields, and 1869 became "the severe year" of epidemics and begging children. Sixty thousand people left Sweden during these three "starvation years". It was the beginning of the mass emigration which, with short intervals, was to continue up to World War I. During the era of mass emigration 1868-1914 more than a million Swedes emigrated, mostly to the U.S. The emigration resumed after the war, but on a more modest scale. It ceased completely during the depression at the end of the 1920s.
THE EMIGRATION MACHINERY
The Swedish mass emigration would not have been possible without the Swedish railroads and the organized passenger traffic over the Atlantic. At this time no Swedish line carried passengers directly from Gothenburg to New York. The Swedes therefore had to use British or German ships. The emigrant route started with the train ride to the big port of Gothenburg, where the complete passage, such as Gothenburg-Chicago, of the British Wilson Line, which brought the emigrants to Hull in England. A train took them across the country to Liverpool or Glasgow; from there the Inman Line or some other company's ships sailed them to New York. The whole voyage Gothenburg-New York need not take more than three weeks in 1870.
NEW YORK, THE GATEWAY TO AMERICA
New York met the newcomers with a forest of masts. The impression created by the big city must have been overwhelming for the children of the soil. Strange tongues and the busy activities of the "runners" were nerve-racking and bewildering. Many of the young girls had now reached their goal - work in an American household - but for most the seaport was only one step along the way, a place to change means of transportation for the journey inland.
THE JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICA
For most immigrants New York was just the half-way point. In the early days the journey continued by paddle steamer up the Hudson River to Albany. Before the railroads were built the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, served as the link between the Hudson River and the Great Lakes. From Buffalo the emigrants were taken by paddle steamer over the Lakes to Chicago, Milwaukee or Duluth. The last part of the 1-3 month long journey was spent on horse carts or walking through the bush. This itinerary was, of course, completely changed by the railroads, which from the 1850s brought the emigrants straight to Chicago. Modern communications made the overland route to the homestead region relatively simple from the beginning of the Swedish mass emigration.
President Lincoln's Homestead Act of 1862, the political stabilization after 1865, and the enormously expanding industries of the North represented three important drawing factors on Swedish emigration to the U.S. The generous offer of the Homestead Act became a powerful magnet on land-hungry farm people. This also destined them to the so-called Homestead Triangle, especially to Minnesota, which became the Swede State of America. This was in accordance with the politics of Minnesota, where in 1867 a state immigration office was established. The Swedish Civil War colonel Hans Mattson became its first director. The result of the Swedish land-hunger was that the area of Swedish-owned farmland in America of 1920 corresponded to 2/3 of all arable land in Sweden. In some counties, such as Chicago, Isanti and Kanabec in Minnesota, the land became almost totally owned by Swedes. A string of Swedish settlements also grew up around the new railroads. The possibility of combining farmwork with jobs for the railroad or a lumber company was important for the penniless Swedes. Most of the unmarried men worked as lumberjacks or on the railroads. The railroad king James Hill is quoted: "Give me snuff, whiskey and Swedes, and I will build a railroad to hell."
THE HOMES IN THE NEW WORLD
The everyday reality of the pioneer's life often replaced the glitter of the dream. But they did not give up. The first home was a cabin as simple and primitive as a poor "torpstuga" in Smaland, Sweden, but built on Minnesota's fertile soil. Clearing the ground of stones was replaced by the rooting out of stumps - it is hard to say which task was the more wearisome! The prairie was so different from the landscapes of Sweden that the emigrants hesitated to settle there. Since time immemorial the Swede has used wood as his principal material for the construction of tools, furniture, and buildings, and for fuel. The great unforested plains required a new way of living. But these difficulties were also overcome. The problems of work and everyday life were solved with great ingenuity.
MOST SWEDES STAYED IN THE CITIES
The popular picture of the Swedish immigrant is the hardworking farmer, something like Vilhelm Moberg's description in his emigrant novels. But reality looked otherwise. In 1910 no less than 61% of 665,000 Swedish-born Americans lived in cities. This was a much higher level of urbanization than in Sweden. It looks as if the Swedes combined the move to another country with the step from farm to town. To many this development had been prepared by the experience of one of Sweden's cities right before emigration. The wave of emigration passed through expanding cities like Chicago and Minneapolis. The labor market of the big city had more and better offers to cash-less immigrants than the farm regions. This was especially true for the unmarried women who had enough of their old lives as milkmaids. Therefore the industries of the cities absorbed more and more Swedish immigrants.
Chicago became the center of the urbanization process. The population figures for Gothenburg, Sweden's second largest city, were at the turn of the century surpassed by Chicago's Swedish population, which was then close to 150,000 of first and second generation. Sine 1870 Chicago had its own Swede Town with a "Swedish Snuff Street" as its main vein. The Swedish Chicagoans became prominent within all walks of life. They were especially important within the building industry, a fact which is reflected in the saying that "the Swedes built Chicago."
The emigrants from Sweden spoke their own language and were influenced by traditions quite different from the ones prevailing in the "adopted land." From the 1870s many were living in densely populated settlements which Chicago and Minnesota had melted together into vast Swedish-dominated areas. They became the cradles of Swedish-American culture with characteristics different from both America and Sweden. In the midst of such an enclave it was easy to believe that Swedish language and traditions would remain in the U.S.A. At that time the Swedes had long had their own churches, clubs, schools and newspapers. It was possible to live and die in Chicago or Minnesota without speaking anything but Swedish. The first Swedish church congregations were founded in the 1850s in Illinois. The Lutherans became the predominant group and in 1860 they had founded the Augustana Synod. When this church group in 1962 was merged with other Lutheran synods, it comprised 1,269 congregations with close to 630,000 baptized members. The first Swedish-language newspaper, HEMLANDET, was issued in Galesburg, Ill., in 1855. It attracted 1,500 followers, most of them published before World War I. No one has yet been able to measure the volume of literature published in " Swedish-America." The first Swedish social clubs were started in New York in 1836 and in Chicago in 1857. These trail blazers for Swedish-American community life were followed by thousands of clubs and fraternal orders all over the country. The churches and societies started their own schools, hospitals, and old-age homes. Such activities kept the Swedish-Americans together around an ethnocentric core.
Although ethnocentric activities absorbed quite a lot of energy, the main field of the Swedish activities was America. The overwhelming majority of Swedish immigrants had to start from the bottom level of society. Even skilled artisans met with severe problems when they did not speak the language. But the bulk of immigrants had very little professional experience. They had been expulsed from the rural society in Sweden. In Chicago the men got jobs as underpaid laborers, and the girls became maids in "American families" if they were not hired as seamstresses in the "sweat shops". Some of them could not stand the hardships. They returned to Sweden, or sank down in the big city's underworld.
THE SWEDISH HERITAGE IN AMERICA
The vast majority, however, overcame the difficulties and created a position in America. Some made careers as businessmen, professional men, artists or politicians. Their achievements are also present in America today. They can be sensed behind great companies or inventions. This is not the place to give a catalog of outstanding Swedes in America. A sampling of them is in the exhibition, men like Carl Sandburg, the Illinois poet, Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly across the Atlantic, Eric Wickman, the organizer of the Greyhound Company or Wendell Anderson, the contemporary representative of a long series of Swedish governors in Minnesota. Other names could be added, such as Glenn Seaburg, the Nobel Prize winner, or John Ericsson, the inventor of the propeller and the constructor of America's first battleship the "MONITOR" of the Civil War.
It is hard to imagine modern America without the influence of the Swedish immigrants, just as modern Sweden would have been different without impulses and innovations from America. This is our common heritage of the fantastic immigration era, a heritage which forever links our two countries together. The emigration divided the Swedish people into two branches, one in Sweden and one in America. About one fifth of all Swedes lived in America at the beginning of this century. It is an estimate that there are as many Americans of Swedish descent today as there are inhabitants in Sweden, or a little more than eight million. This gives us reason to celebrate the American Bicentennial also in Sweden.
THE HOUSE OF EMIGRANTS
In 1966 an Emigrant Institute was started in Sweden. Its purpose is to collect and register all kinds of source material dealing with the immigration period. The Emigrant Institute is also active in the U.S.A. where church records and other sources of Swedish background are systematically being microfilmed. In Smaland, the heartland of Swedish emigration history, a House of Emigrants has been built, where exhibitions, archives and a library serve anyone interested in Swedish emigration history. This unique institution has up until now received a quarter of a million visitors. Thousands of them have been Americans searching for their ethnic roots. Many have been helped to re-establish connections with the Swedish branch of their family. The House of Emigrants is willing to do its best to help others, even if they cannot come and see us. Just write to The House of Emigrants, P.O. Box 201, S-351 04 Växjö, Sweden.
Written by Ulf Beijbom.
Copyrights & All Rights Reserved 1996. Courtesy The House of Emigrants, Växjö, Sweden.
Special thanks to Mr. Yngve Turesson.
Other references to Swedish immigration can be found on this world-wide-web site under The Pony Express Trail, the Gothenburg (Nebraska) station.
Also, click under A Swedish Emigrant 100 years later.
Click here for our Emigration-related links.