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Where Did The Swedes Go?
The Causes of Swedish Immigration and
Settlement Patterns in America

© 2005 Rickie Lazzerini

Page 3

Historical Review 2.1   
     In short, most Swedes went to the Mid-West. The abundance and availability of land in the expanding western states attracted the most Swedish immigrants, especially Minnesota and Illinois. Swedish settlement can generally be described as a western movement. At first, the immigrants took up available land in Illinois and Minnesota, creating bases of Swedish settlement. As the immigration continued, land became available further west, causing the Swedes to settle in Kansas, the Dakotas, and beyond. The growth of Swedish population in the western states can be seen [see Table 1] around the turn of the century and into the 1930s. Also near the turn of the century, a general disbursement of Swedes took place as they immigrated to industrial cities throughout the United States. A more specific analysis of the settlement patterns can be done by dividing the country into sections; New England, the Mid-West, the South, and the Pacific.

     Settlement patterns of New England Swedes were much different than their counterparts in the Mid-West. In New England, Swedes mainly concentrated in the cities and industrial centers. Only in Maine did the majority of Swedes live in rural areas. The population of Swedes in New England grew dramatically during the 1880s and 1890s as they came in search of factory jobs. In Massachusetts, Swedes were scattered throughout the cities, but Worcester served as their nucleus. By 1930, over eight percent of Worcester was either first or second generation Swede.(10) The Swedes came to Worcester relatively late. In 1870 there were only 19 Swedish immigrants, but by 1930, the combined population of Swedish born residents and their American-born offspring rose to over 16,000. They were attracted to the area because of an abundance of manufacturing jobs. Nearly 50% of the Norton Company's grinding and emery factory employees were Swedish. There were also significant numbers of Swedes in New York. This is not surprising because New York was the main port of entry for immigrants, and many simply stayed. New York was very important because it was the first experience of America for the new immigrants. In the 1830s, the Swedish Society of New York was founded to provide help for Swedish arrivals. There were also a number of men who offered their assistance to the new immigrants for a price. These people, called runners or agents, often swindled new arrivals out of money or stole their luggage. "Hardly a ship with immigrants on board had a chance to enter New York harbor before a flock of these persons, known as runners, put in their appearance,"(11) said one immigrant. Once past the initial bombardment of agents, the immigrants either made plans to travel west, or settled in New York. Initially, many Swedes settled in Manhattan, but migrated to Brooklyn as Manhattan became more business oriented.

     As mentioned earlier, the majority of Swedish immigrants settled in the Mid-West. Illinois and Minnesota boasted the highest numbers of Swedes, but large number also went to Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, and Wisconsin as land in Illinois and Minnesota was already claimed. In Illinois, Chicago became the choice destination for many Swedes because, from Chicago, they could gain access to available farmland elsewhere in the state. Many arrived in Chicago before migrating to the prairie land because transportation between New York and Chicago was already established. The journey to Illinois is described by H. Arnold Barton as taking two to six weeks. "Most, arriving in New York, traveled by river and lake steamer and horse-drawn canal boat, sometimes with short connections by railroad, up the Hudson River to Albany, through the Erie Canal to Buffalo, on the Great Lakes to Chicago…"(12) The Swedish immigrant, Gustaf Unonius, described his ship ride west as "A disorderly mess," where everyone was "crowding and pushing as if his life depended on it."(13) Illinois drew early immigrants and became a "home base" for newly arriving Swedes and those looking for land further west. The impact of the western movement can be seen on Illinois towns such as Jolliet and Lockport. At one time, Lockport had a large Swedish population but it diminished over time as the Swedes moved westward. The Grand Prairie District of the state, consisting of towns such as Rankin, Gibson City, Beaverville, and Wenona, also drew many Swedes. After the turn of the century, people in these settlements moved to larger towns such as Aurora and Elgin. Winnebago County boasted the highest Swedish population in all of Illinois. Swedes centered in the town of Rockford because of the industrial opportunities offered in the local furniture making factories. Many Swedes worked in factories making furniture, while others established their own companies, such as the Rockford Chair and Furniture Company founded in 1882 by a Swedish immigrant named Peterson.

     Minnesota's Swedish population rivaled that of Illinois. Immigrants were drawn to the state's vast farmland and as well as it's industrialized cities. Swedes were the most numerous of all foreign born in the state. Chisago and Isanti counties had the largest concentration of Swedes in America.(14) Swedes were attracted to Chisago County because it's forested lands were reminescent of the wooded areas of Sweden. The first Swedes, arriving in 1851, decided to stay because they preferred the forested area to the prairie land available in other counties. The population of the county increased dramatically in the late 19th century, and by 1910, 75% of the inhabitants of the county were of Swedish decent.(15) Immigrants were also attracted to the sister cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. These cities had burgeoning industries that attracted Swedes in search of factory jobs. The cities were located near many agricultural centers with large populations of Swedes, so when agriculture was unable to sustain the settlers, they moved to the cities in search of work. Swedes went from comprising 6.8 % of Minneapolis in 1880, to 15.8 % in 1890.

     Other Mid-Western states, such as Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Michigan received large numbers of Swedes as well. These states drew settlers from older Swedish settlements in Illinois and Minnesota as well as new immigrants coming directly from Sweden. Iowa's New Sweden is the first permanent settlement of Swedes in the 19th century. In 1869, Swedes in search of religious freedom, founded the Lindsborg Settlement. Lumbering and iron mines drew many Swedes into Michigan. The settlement of Swedes in Michigan was different than in other Mid-West states. Instead of mostly settling on farms, 65.7% of Michigan Swedes lived in cities.(16) Although the majority of Swedes who came to the Mid-West did so in search of cheap land, the region also drew many Swedes who were looking for industrial opportunities. The cities in the Mid-West offered a place to find work when the farms were no longer able to sustain their inhabitants.

     The southern region of the United States drew the least amount of Swedish immigrants. Depression, lack of industrialization, and the Civil War repelled millions of European immigrants who arrived in the 19th century. Only Florida and Texas drew significant numbers of Swedes. It seems that Florida's mild climate was appealing to some Swedes who settled throughout the state. Most of the Swedes lived in cities; only 15% were rural farm workers.(17) Alabama had one Swedish colony, Silverhill, which was founded in the 1890s. By 1910, Silverhill had 252 Swedish-born residents and 202 American-born children.(18) Besides Florida and Texas, Oklahoma drew more Swedes because it was the most industrially developed state in the South. Generally speaking, Swedes in the South were more likely to spread out. Also, second-generation Swedes were more numerous because they spread out from their original settlements in the north. Texas stands out from the rest of the southern states because of immigration stimulated by assisted passage. Sven Magnus Swenson, a Swede who arrived in Texas in 1838, established a Swedish presence by founding a hotel and a grocery store. His establishment attracted some Swedes, as well as the assisted passage scheme set up by one of his relatives. Despite the Swedes who settled in Florida and Texas, the South failed to draw a significant number of Swedes during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

     The American West also failed to draw as many Swedes as the Mid-West, but as the homestead land of the Mid-West became exhausted, westward expansion brought more and more swedes to the region. The Gold Rush of the 1850s attracted some Swedes creating a Swedish base in the west. One Swedish immigrant described the situation in a letter; "Up to now the others [Swedish gold-seekers] have stayed in the area around here, so that we are presently a large number of Swedes and Norwegians, including those who were here before and have come after us; we meet together in friendship and harmony, and help each other with digging and washing gold."(19) In 1850, there were 162 Swedes in California. Ten years later there were more than 1,400, which was the fifth highest in the nation. At the turn of the century the westward movement was well underway and many Swedes who previously settled in the east or Mid-West migrated to California. In 1900, 5.6% of all Swedish-born immigrants in America were in California, and by 1910, that number rose to 10.3%.

     Swedish immigration to America was a significantly large movement that began in the 17th century and was dramatically amplified in the 19th century. The search for economic opportunity by way of trade, land, or jobs drew over one million Swedes to America. Swedes have contributed greatly to this country, including early colonization in the 17th century that played a critical role in the creation of America as we know it today. Swedes helped settle the western lands of the United States by fighting the elements on rural homesteads far away from civilization. One Swedish pioneer in Kansas wrote this to her mother; "It was so cold, so cold, the week before Christmas, that we never felt the likes of it in Sweden. We have a thermometer with us from Sweden which cannot show anything lower than minus twenty-five degrees, but it was below that; we don't know how many degrees, but Gustaf's watch, which was in his vest pocket in among his clothes, stopped one night from the cold…it was terrible."(20) Despite the difficult journeys, the Swedes persevered and established themselves and their culture throughout the country. In Canada and the United States, there are over 300 Swedish place names that will forever mark the impact of the Swedish-Americans.

By Rickie Lazzerini
Historian

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Index of Historical Reviews

© 2005 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
This page may be freely linked to but may not be reproduced
in any form without prior written consent from the author.


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