The emigration from Sweden to America

"This is the story of a group of people who in 1850 left their homes in Ljuder parish, in the province of Småland, Sweden, and emigrated to North America. They were the first of many to leave their village. They came from a land of small cottages and large families. They were the people of the soil, and they came of a stock which thousands of years had tilled the ground they were leaving"

The first words of Vilhelm Moberg´s novel trilogy The Emigrants give a detailed picture of the conditions prevailing at the time of the first emigration in 1850. It is a picture of a static society, but it is also a picture with explosive colors in the background. The century-old harmony of Ljuder parish in Småland is disrupted radically on the next pages in Moberg´s story. In fact, Sweden of 1850 was a society caught up in fundamental changes. A long series of evolutionary factors threatened to become revolutionary. Therefore, it is not correct to say that a backward and isolated place like Ljuder in Kronoberg County was an immovable community. How could that be when Ljuder was to become a part of Sweden´s most emigration-plagued area in the most eventful century in the country´s history?

Delayed industrialization
The industrial revolution affected Sweden later than it did most other western European countries. Consequently, the cities remained few and small. Over 90 percent of the poulation lived in the countryside in the beginning and about 75 percent at the end of the nineteenth century. The country had, however, vast resources in its technically talented people, mountains of ore, enormous forests, and powerful rivers. The breakthrough of the timber industry in the 1850s suddenly made the wilderness valuable. 

Steam power and intensive railroad building freed the sawmill from its dependence on rapids and shortened the large distances between the Lapland ore mines and the export harbors. Huge sawmill districts grew up around river outlets, namely, the Sundsvall District and the Ådalen District in Norrland. These and other industrial zones generated large internal migration, which during long periods overshadowed the "America fewer". The timber and pulp industry transformed Norrland into an America inside Sweden. 

In 1870, 15 percent of Sweden´s population had it´s income from mining, manufacturing, construction, etc., compared to 28 percent at the turn of the century. Such figures illustrate a powerful industrialization progress which, however, never was strong enough to offer a fully convincing alternative to America. Therefore, an average of two men emitrated for each man occupied by the industry.

An overpopulated countryside
In spite of Sweden having the world´s oldest statistical bureau (established in 1749), older estimates for professions and trades in Sweden are very unreliable. This is not so much because of faulty statistics but because the principles behind the definition of the different social groups often changed. From 1870, however,we can count on fairly satisfactory professional statistics. At that time 72 percent of the total population was engaged in agriculture, compared to 55 percent in 1900. Agriculture and ancillary trades had, in other words, no competition as the "mother trade" of nineteenth century Sweden. Even small changes within agriculture affected the whole country, including the dynamic industrial zones.

The many births in preindustrial Sweden was in 1833 characterized by the Cathedral Chapter of Växjö in following sarcastic manner: "With the assistance of peace, vaccination, and potatoes the population has increased considerably. But since this development is not matched by new jobs the result is one-side and a badly planned system has come forth all over the society. The land is filled with dugouts inhabited by people with no other capital than their hands".

The shift reforms
The earlier indivisible Swedish homestad (mantal) was in these days dividable into smaller and smaller shares.

Karl Oskar Nilsson in Moberg´s emigrant novel inherited 1/16 of a mantal, which was considered enough for a smallholder in stony Småland. Karl Oskar´s heirs were designated to inherit 1/32 of a homestead if not less.

If they could not clear out more land, they would have to sell and move to Stockholm or America. Still, Karl Oskar and his family at the Korpamoen farm were wealthy compared to "the people in the forest", the crofters (torpare) and the dugout settlers (backstugusittare), who either squatted or just had enough land to feed a cow and some goats. In most cases, they originated from independent farm families, but the "backward social trend" in an overpoulated rural society had brought them to the lowest rung of the social ladder. The Cathedral Chapter of Växjö had said that the only capital of these people was their hands. The large number of children could also have been mentioned.

The division of homesteads among the many children also dramatically increased the number of farmhands of both sexes. It was not a coincidence that the emigration districts were located in areas where the division of homesteads had reached its highest degree. It has been estimated that the agrarian proletarization process of 1750-1850 increased the number of dugout settlers, maids, hired men, dependent poors, and old people three times. The division of the rural population in two halves, one landowning and one landless, was completed in the beginning of the emigration era. It is, however, a misconception to regard the "mother trade" in nineteenth century Sweden as an economy in deep stagnation. 

The social and economic changes described above gave birth to a long series of inventions and innovations. Had the industrialization progress come a few decades earlier, there would have been fewer reasons to speak about rural Sweden as a society in severe trouble. The population pressure on the countryside would then have been absorbed by the industrial areas.

When the "People of the forest" lit up the landscape
The population growth brought with it intensive use of all available land in central and southern Sweden. The woods were cleared of trees and underbrush to give a few new furrows to the plow and more pasture land to the animals. The landscape obtained a light and open complexion when the "people of the forest" took over. Hay, mosses, herbs, and berries were harvested from the ground while bark for bread and leafy branches for animal feed were collected from the trees. The axe was in constant work since nearly all basic commodities were based on wood: the fuel in the stoves, the logs in the buildings, the furniture, tools, kitchen utensils, and even the plattes one ate from. 

The axe roamed the forest and produced raw material for an extraordinary degree of wood craftmanship, a skill which through the emigrants influenced America as well. At a time when everything given by nature had to be used, open fields and meadows dominated areas which today are shaded by dark, coniferous forests. The "dark Småland" was the "light Småland" during the early emigration period. Nineteenth century agriculture in Sweden balanced on a sharp edge between wellbeing and starvation. If nature failed, the catastrophe was inevitable in spite of community grain magazines, relief committees, and country "household societies".

This was the case in the late 1860s, when there was a series of crop failures due to extreme weather conditions. These famine years demonstrated how vulnerable agriculture still was. The last countrywide harvest failure in Swedish history provoked the first mass emigration - over 100 000 emigrated from 1868 to 1873.

From pioneer to mass emigration
The individuals, families or emigrant parties who left Sweden before the Civil War did not have access to the modern Atlantic liners. They sailed "on top of the cargo" from a Swedish harbor, spending months on the sea.

This was the case with the civil servant Gustaf 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 founded New Sweden, Iowa, or for the 1 200 religious dissenters who during 1846-1850 travelled 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.

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, was bought. The next step was to embark one of the vessels of the Wilson Line, which brought the emigrants to Hull in England. A train took them across the country to Liverpool; from there the Inman Line or some other company´s ship sailed them to New York. The whole voyage Gothenburg - New York need not take more than three weeks in 1870.

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. For most immigrants New York was just the halfway 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 immigrants were taken by paddle steamer over the Lakes to Chicago, Milwaukee or Duluth. 

The last part of the 1-3 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 immigrants straight to Chicago. Modern communications made the overland route to the homestead

Free land in Minnesota
President Lincoln´s Homestead Act of 1862 and the enormously expanding industries of the North after the Civil war represented two important drawing factors of Swedish emigration to the US. The offer of free land in the Homestead Act became a powerful magnet on landhungry 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 landhunger 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 Chisago, 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. Many 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 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 Småland, 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 landscape of Sweden that the emigrants hesitated to settle there. Since time immemorial the Swede has used wood as his principle 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 in Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska.

Swedes in the cities
The popular picture of the established Swedish immigrant is a prosperous farmer, something like Karl Oskar in Vilhelm Moberg´s emigrant novels. But reality looked otherwise. In 1910 no less than 61 percent of 665 000 Swedish-born Americans lived in cities. 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 Swedens´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 farm regions. This was especially true for the unmarried women who had 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. Since 1870 Chicago had its own Sede Town with a "Swedish Snuff Street" as its main vein. The Swedish Chicagoans became prominent within all walks of life. Thet were especially important within the building industry, a fact which is reflected in the saying that "the Swedes built Chicago".

Swedish-American life style
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 in Chicago and Minnesota had melted together into vast Swedish-dominated areas. They became the cradles of Swedish-American culture, which 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 US. 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, it comprised 1 269 congregations with close to 630 000 baptized members.

The first Swedish-language newspaper in the Mid-West, Hemlandet, was issued in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1855. It attracted almost 1 000 followers, most of them published before World War I.

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 oldage homes. Such activites kept the Swedish-Americans together around an ethnocentric core.

Swedes become Americans
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 lowpaid 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 vast majority, however, overcome 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. A catalog of outstanding Swedes in America would be very long. 

For sure it would contain names such as Carl Sandburg, the Illinois poet, Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly across the Atlantic, Eric Wickman, the organizer of Greyhound Company, Wendell Anderson, the last representative of a long series of Swedish governors of Minnesota, Curtis L Carlson, one of Minnesota´s most successful businessmen in our time, Glenn Seaburg, the Nobel Prize winner in physics, 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 its 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 for ever links our two countries together. The emigration divided the Swedish people in two branches, one in Sweden and one in America. About one sixth of alla 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 more than eight million.