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

© 2005 Rickie Lazzerini

Page 1

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     "Day is finally breaking. We see land - we see America! I seem to understand the feeling of Columbus when he saw before him the hoped-for western land."(1) This was the joy of one Swedish immigrant as he arrived in America in 1858. Many thousands more would share his excitement as they landed in New York in hopes of a better future in the New World. Swedish immigration reached its peak in the late 19th century, but these Swedes were by no means the first from their country to arrive in America. The Swedes, along with the English and the Dutch, were among the first to attempt colonization of America in the 17th century. New Sweden was founded on the west bank of the Delaware River in 1638. The colony was short-lived, lasting only until 1655 before being conquered by the neighboring Dutch of New Netherland, but it marks the first substantial wave of Swedish immigration to America. The 17th century Swedish colonists and the 19th century Swedish immigrants have something in common; they both left their homeland in search of new opportunities for prosperity. Economic gain was the foremost reason that both sets of immigrants left their homeland. The New Swedish colonists pursued economic gain through trade, and the 19th century immigrants sought economic gain through homesteads and higher factory wages. The economic goals of the immigrants dictated their settlement patterns. Those who came in search of land tended to settle in the Mid-West on homesteads attained from the government or from the railroads, and those who sought higher wages settled in the industrial cities with high demands for labor. This essay examines the Swedes of New Sweden and the Swedes of the 19th and early 20th centuries in order to explore the reasons why they came to America and how those reasons dictated their settlement patterns.

     The colony of New Sweden came into existence in order to help Sweden stimulate trade in non-European areas. For this reason a Swedish colony was also created on the Gold Coast of Africa, and ironically it too was conquered by the Dutch. In 1624, the King of Sweden assigned William Usselinx, founder of the Dutch East India Company, to create a Swedish trading company. With the Thirty Years War raging in Europe, the company struggled to gain capital. Samuel Blommaert, a merchant from Amsterdam who was involved with New Netherland, suggested that a colony in America could help stimulate trade. In The Rise and Fall of New Sweden, Stellen Dahlgren and Hanz Norman state that "It was a combination of the desire to expand trade into new markets, and Dutch experience that stimulated the start of the New Sweden Company."(2) It was apparent that New Sweden was made possible because of help from the Dutch. This made the Dutch believe that the colony was essentially theirs, foreshadowing the eventual Dutch takeover.

     A region of land near the Delaware River was acquired from Native Americans by a series of land transactions, and the first colonists of New Sweden arrived in 1638. Half of the colonists were Swedish and half were Dutch. These twenty men protected the colony, which was not difficult because the nearby Native Americans were friendly. They also hunted, fished, attempted to grow crops, built structures and made contacts with merchants in other colonies. The second shipload of colonists did not arrive for over two years. When the ship returned to Sweden, it took an equal number of original colonists back, so the colonial population remained the same. A shipload of new colonists arrived in 1641, helping the colony expand in acreage and development. Trade flourished, houses, a windmill, and a church were built, and crops thrived. Despite the new developments, the colony began to see a decline in the late 1640s because of the disbursement of the small population. In 1647 there were only 183 colonists. Ships arrived less frequently and the colony became more vulnerable to the Dutch. A mutiny broke out between the colonists and their leader, Johan Printz, forcing Printz to leave in 1653. The new leader, Johan Rising, helped the colony get back on its feet. Fort Casimir was taken from the Dutch, and the Dutch living in New Sweden were persuaded to sign loyalty oaths. The colony seemed to prosper once again, however, during the winter of 1655 a crop failure demoralized many of the colonists. With little hope of relief from Sweden, the colonists wanted to leave. The Dutch of New Netherland decided to take advantage of New Sweden's bad luck and made their move to take control of the colony. A Dutch army invaded New Sweden on August 27, 1655, and took the New Swedish Fort Trinity peacefully. Remaining in the fort for several weeks, they ravaged the colony while waiting for the Swedes to surrender, which they finally did on September 15, 1655. Only one death occurred during the takeover. Although the Swedish colony did not persevere, a small group of Swedish colonists did. This colony marked the beginning of the Swedish presence in America.

     Over 300 people remained in New Sweden after the Dutch took control. The population was further augmented by 100 Finns who arrived on the ship Mercurius in 1656. Adjusting for natural increase and the Finnish arrival, the population of the former Swedish colony reached between 500 and 600 by the time of the British takeover in 1664.(3) Despite the influx of British colonists and Quakers, the Swedes and Finns that remained in New Sweden were able to maintain their ethnic identity. The Swedes retained their language and Lutheran beliefs, allowing their culture to persist among the growing population of English immigrants. The Swedes eventually intermarried and dispersed, causing a decline of their identity and presence in America that would not be fully restored until the mass immigration of Swedes in the 19th century.

      The 17th century Swedes and the 19th century Swedes had many differences, one difference being that the 19th century Swedes immigrated to a place where the English language was already established. Carl Johan Hoflund, who emigrated from Sweden in 1850, recognized this quickly; "When we came into port we began to realize that we were in a country where our language was no good to us."(4) The 19th century Swedish immigrants were pressured to learn English upon arrival, where the 17th century Swedes had isolated themselves making it possible to maintain their language, and consequently, their identity. Although there were differences in the nature of the two movements, one thing remained the same; their desire to take advantage of what America had to offer for economical advancement.

     There were a number of "push" and "pull" factors that led Swedes to the United States. It has already been mentioned that economic issues attracted Swedish immigration, but the specifics are more complex. There were a number of reasons why the Swedes were looking for new economic opportunities in America, and to a lesser extent, Canada and Australia. There were also significant religious and political motivations behind their immigration, but they were not as powerful as the economic factors. One of the first factors that stimulated immigration from Sweden was overpopulation. The early 19th century brought an era of peace to Sweden. Peacetime combined with the introduction of the potato and the smallpox vaccine led to a lower death rate and increased population growth. Overpopulation worsened an already problematic lack of fertile agricultural land, which hurt small farmers putting their farmhands out of work. The poor agricultural class grew rapidly, leaving them the option of migrating to industrial centers within the country, or leaving the country altogether. The crop failures that existed between 1866 and 1888 were a direct factor in the first wave of mass immigration to America between 1888 and 1899.(5) Shrinking of agricultural land and the threat of continued crop failure created fear among the rural Swedes and prompted them to move to the United States where land was plentiful.

     The hope of increased economic opportunity was the central factor in Swedish immigration, but there were less significant factors that played a part as well. Religious intolerance, class disparity, and politics indirectly induced emigration. The Lutheran church dominated the religious sphere of Sweden. People could be fined, exiled, or arrested for conducting non-sanctioned services. In 1858, all religions were deemed equal in Sweden, but non-Lutherans were still pressured by the established church. This pressure alone rarely caused people to emigrate, it was usually combined with the need for greater economic opportunities, but there were some instances where Swedes were driven from their country solely because of religious intolerance. The settlement at Bishop Hill, Illinois is a good example of Swedish immigration due to religious persecution. This group, led by Erik Jansson, founded the Bishop Hill settlement in 1846. Their belief in religious simplicity and the Bible being the only true book of God angered the Lutheran Church leading to the imprisonment of Jansson. The small group pulled their resources and immigrated to the United States where they were allowed freedom to practice their religion. The colony gained over 1,000 immigrants within a year and became a destination for future Swedish immigrants.

     In addition to the push-factors for emigration from Sweden, there were a number of American pull-factors. Land, higher wages, and availability of jobs were the biggest pull factors, but the discovery of gold and assisted passage also played a role. The availability of cheap, arable land west of the Mississippi had more appeal to immigrants than any other factor. The Homestead Act of 1862 made the lands of the west available to anyone who was willing to live and work the land for five years. Even before the Homestead Act, western land could be obtained at a low cost. In 1841, Congress passed the Pre-Emption Act that allowed settlers to purchase land at $1.25 an acre.(6) Land was also available from the railroad companies. Congress allotted railroad companies huge tracts of land that were in excess of what they needed. Any land that went unused was sold for about $2.50 per acre.(7) The availability of Homestead land coincided with the largest movement of Swedes to America; from the late 1860s to 1890.

      In the 1890s, the reasoning behind Swedish immigration began to change. The homesteading of American prairie farmland was nearing completion, so Swedish farmers were less likely to immigrate. Emigration shifted to an urban movement of Swedes in search of jobs. American wages were higher, pulling Swedish craftsmen and factory workers to industrial cities. Swedish immigration near the turn of the century had changed from the mass immigration of rural farmers to urbanites in search of industrial jobs. By settling in industrial centers instead of the Mid-West homesteads, the Swedes became more dispersed throughout America.

     The California Gold Rush and assisted passage, also known as contract labor, had small, yet significant roles in pulling Swedish immigrants to America. The first decade of the Gold Rush showed a significant rise of Swedes in California, from 162 in 1850, to 1,405 in 1860. The Gold Rush itself drew only small numbers of Swedes, but the event heightened the dream of opportunity in America that was on the minds of immigrants for decades to come. Contract labor also played a small role in early immigration from Sweden. Within these contracts, the travel expenses of the immigrant were paid upfront by the employer. The immigrant then had to pay back the expenses by working for the employer. This was not a common practice among Swedes, and was forbidden in Sweden, but still it happened on occasions. Most notable was the export of Swedes from Smaland to Texas during the 1850s and 1860s. These immigrants formed a Swedish community near Austin.

     Advertisement had an indirect, but important role in helping Swedes make the decision to emigrate. The combination of organized promotion and letters from friends and family already in America influenced the decisions of many would be emigrants. Some state governments in the Mid-West led propaganda campaigns through their immigration boards in order to boost immigration. English and American ship companies had much to gain with increased passage from Europe to America, so they employed agents in Sweden to advertise. Through the disbursement of pamphlets and booklets, these agents indirectly affected the minds of immigrants by offering them a way to get to America. The steamships advertised themselves as the means to the immigrant's end.

By Rickie Lazzerini

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.

The Swedes and the Swedish Settlements in North America

GenLine: Swedish-English Dictionary & Abbreviations

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