The Swedish Emigration to America by Ralf Stelander
Scandinavian Vikings discovered America in the tenth century, long before Christopher Columbus. The Swedish emigration to America started in 1638, just eighteen years after the landing of the "Mayflower." Mass emigration began after the 1860’s, when there was an agricultural crisis, crops failed and growing families provided for even greater poverty. Improved agricultural tools, vaccines and potatoes led to a population growth that made the countryside overpopulated. Some people left due to religious persecution and political discontent. Urbanization did not stop the emigration, since conditions in the cities were poor. Between 1840 and 1930 about 1,3 million Swedes emigrated, one fifth of the entire population. Of the European countries, only Great Britain and Norway surpassed Sweden’s emigration in proportion to the population of the home country.
After overcoming severe hardships, the immigrants adapted well to their new environment. A Swedish-American culture developed in the United States. The SwedishAmerican culture solemnly diminished, forged together with the mixed culture of the United States. The Swedes contributed to the development of the new nation. The emigration led to mutual benefits and understanding, for both the emigrants and the people that stayed, for both the United States and Sweden.
The immigrants had to overcome great hardships before becoming successful in America. This tells of commitment and a strong intention to work hard and adapt instead of repulsing the new country and culture. The journey to America was not easy; it could take months or weeks at sea. When they finally landed only half the route was completed, the trip continued westwards. The vast majority of Swedish immigrants had to start from the bottom level of American society. Even skilled artisans met severe difficulties because they could not speak English. In Chicago the men were hired as laborers while the girls became maids or seamstresses. These jobs were underpaid and exacting. But they did not give up.
The reality of the early immigrant’s life was not as utopian as an advertisement or letters sent to back to Sweden claimed. Their first home were simple and primitive cabins. The prairie was entirely different from the landscapes of Sweden. The Swedes used wood as principal material for the construction of tools, furniture, and houses, and for fuel. The vast unforested plains required a new manner of living. But the problems were overcome and they adapted to the new surroundings.
A Swedish-American culture began to form. The immigrants’ language and customs were different from those of America. Densely populated settlements, large Swedishdominated areas mainly in Chicago and Minnesota, became the birthplace of the Swedish-American culture, a mixture of traditions from both countries. There were Swedish churches, clubs, schools and newspapers. In the 1860s it was virtually possible to live in these areas without knowing any English at all. The churches integrated the immigrants with Americans. The Augustana Synod, founded by Swedish Lutherans, had 630,000 baptized members in 1962. Many were American. The Swedish newspaper "Hemlandet" started a wave of Swedish-American literature. Social clubs started in New York and Chicago were followed by thousands of clubs and orders, for community life, all over America. Churches and clubs started their own schools, hospitals and old-age homes. Chicago got its own Swede Town.
Swedish freedom fighters joined in the fight for independence, supporting the idea of democracy, one of modern US most important ideals. Breaking England’s supremacy was a crucial step in becoming democracy, and provided for a fast expansion of the economy. The first Swedish encounter with the United States was an organized colonization party, sent out by the Swedish government to establish a colony under the Swedish crown. Many of the settlement’s descendents became fighters for freedom in the war for independence with England 1776. New Sweden was lost to the Dutch in 1655, but the settlers remained and kept up their language and culture for a long time. The most freedom fighter among the Delaware Swedes was John Morton. He gave the decisive vote for independence at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
Swedes helped building the States’ fundamental infrastructure, like the railroad transportation system. President Lincoln’s Homestead Act of 1862, which gave people free land, and expanding industries of the North, were important "pull" factors. The Homestead Act designated immigrants to Minnesota, becoming the "Swede State of America". An immigration office was set up and a Swede, Hans Mattson, became its first director. In some counties, such as Chisago, Isanti and Kanabec in Minnesota, the land became almost completely owned by Swedes. Swedish settlements also grew up around the new railroads. Most unmarried men worked as lumberjacks or navvies. The group of Swedish immigrants was an important workforce for building the railroads. The railroad king James Hill is quoted:
"Give me snuff, whiskey and Swedes, and I will build a railroad to hell"
Swedes settled down in cities and helped developing the industry. They paled an important role in building certain cities, like Chicago, the Swedish center in the States. The population of Gothenburg, the second largest city in Sweden, was at the end of the 1800’s surpassed by Chicago’s population of first and second generation Swedes, about 150,000.
61 % of the Swedish-born Americans lived in cities in 1910. The labor market of the big city had more to offer the poor immigrants than the farm regions. A great number of them worked in the building industry. There is a saying that "the Swedes built Chicago".
Many Swedes contributed to the economic and political development of the United States with ideas and inventions. Most immigrants overcame their hardships and created a position in America; some made careers as businessmen, artists or politicians. A few are 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. Others are Glenn Seaburg, the Nobel Prize winner and John Ericson, the inventor of the propeller and the constructor of America’s first battleship the "Monitor" of the Civil War. Modern day Swedish inventors have for example invented the Liquid Crystal Display, the computermouse and the ball bearing. Their achievements are seen in behind great companies and inventions in America today.
The immigration led to mutual benefits and a good relationship between the States and Sweden. A famous decedent of the New Sweden settlers, John Hanson, was elected president over the United States in 1781. Influence by President Hanson made Sweden recognize the new nation and sign a peace and trade treaty in 1783. Both countries have contributed by this treaty, sharing ideas, impulses and inventions.
Even though not many signs of the rich Swedish-American culture can be seen today, except some churches, clubs and a few newspapers, the era of the Swedish emigration created a lasting mutual interest and understanding. The number of descendants of Swedish emigrants is about the same as the population of Sweden today, around nine million. To aid in the search of their roots, a house of Emigrants, with exhibitions, archives and a library, has been built in Småland, where most of the immigrants came from. Facts show that American descendents and Swedes still feel a strong relationship in that over a quarter of a million have visited, many of them Americans seeking their roots. They have been helped to re-establish connections with the Swedish branch of their family.
The Swedish emigration to America was one of the largest in Europe, one fifth of the entire population emigrated during a period of around 60 years. Not surprisingly, the immigrants were met by considerable difficulties, but these were overcome. A Swedish-American culture formed, with elements from both countries fused together. The immigrants integrated so well in the American society that the Swedish-American culture solemnly diminished. Both countries benefited from the emigration. America got a willing work force that helped building a transport system, cities and industries. Emigration led to a lively trade and exchange of ideas. One out of twenty-five Americans living today has Swedish ancestors.