Millions of Americans can claim Swedish ancestry today. While most of us are aware of the large wave of immigrants that arrived in the U.S. in the late 1800s, many would be surprised to learn that Sweden was among the first European countries to establish a colony in the New World. New Sweden (Nya Sverige) sprung up on the banks of the Delaware River within a generation of the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, and from 1638 to 1655, around 600 Swedes and Finns settled in the colony. Within 20 years, the colony succumbed to the neighboring Dutch and English powers, and these immigrants assimilated into the surrounding culture of the new nation. These Swedes and Finns left their mark in the introduction of the log cabin to the American scene as well as in the fact that their blood flows in the veins of an estimated 20 million Americans today. They were the harbingers of a much larger wave of immigration to come.
For nearly two centuries after the founding of the New Sweden colony, very few Swedes immigrated to America. However, starting in the 1840s and 1850s, groups of immigrants seeking freedom of religion and thought arrived, settling in communities in the Midwest. Before the start of the Civil War, the number of immigrants grew to more than 10,000 as Swedes were being pushed to make the big move to America. While each of our Swedish ancestors had his or her own story, there were a number of key reasons that immigrants were willing to leave their homeland.
Sweden was experiencing unprecedented population growth in the mid 1800s. This was said to be caused by "the peace, the vaccinations, and the potatoes." Sweden had not been at war for decades, all children were vaccinated for smallpox, and potatoes had become a plentiful new staple of the Swedish diet since their introduction in the mid 18th century. Larger numbers of children were surviving to adulthood, but farms could only be subdivided so many times before they became too small to sustain a family. With limited farmland, the numbers of landless, poor people increased. While economic reasons were the chief motivation for emigration, others left due to the domination of the state church and the military draft. The prospect of starting a new life in America was tantalizing as Swedes learned of the many opportunities available. Perhaps the greatest draw was the prospect of free farmland promised by the 1862 Homestead Act. The chance to get a piece of land to call one's own was too great an opportunity to pass up. As immigrants settled, they naturally wrote back to the kin in Sweden telling them of their lives in the New World, often including tickets for their passage leading to "chain migration."
Following the Civil War, immigration grew dramatically with over 100,000 Swedes making the journey between 1868 and 1872. Aside from the return of peace to the United States and the Homestead act, a famine hit Sweden in the late 1860s leading more Swedes to leave their homeland. Moreover, previous to this time, sailing ships took around two months to cross the Atlantic. The journey was extremely uncomfortable and deaths onboard were not uncommon. After the war, steamships cut the travel time to about two weeks, making the journey much safer and more bearable.
In the mid 1870s, Swedish immigration again subsided as the U.S. economy went sour while Sweden experienced economic growth. However, this slump was short-lived and preceded the largest influx of Swedish immigrants to date. From 1879 to 1893 as the U.S. was again experiencing an economic upturn, nearly half a million Swedes crossed the ocean seeking new opportunities. In 1887 alone, over 45,000 Swedes made the journey. From the mid 1890s through the 1920s, the numbers of Swedish immigrants would rise and fall according to the performance of the Swedish and U.S. economies, until the Great Depression, at which time the number of immigrants became insignificant compared to the past numbers. All in all, more than 1,200,000 Swedes, or about one-fifth of the Swedish population emigrated from Sweden with the largest number settling in the United States. While about 20% would return to Sweden, the majority remained. Only Ireland and Norway lost larger percentages of their populations to emigration in the 1800s.
Although most Swedish immigrants arrived at East Coast ports, largely New York City, and some stayed in the Northeast, for the most part they moved on to the upper Midwest. Large numbers settled in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas. Whereas earlier immigrants were able to acquire farmland and established themselves in the countryside, towards the end of the century, more immigrants were settling in the cities and Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul boasted large Swedish communities. By 1900, only the city of Stockholm could claim more Swedish inhabitants than Chicago.
If you are just starting out on your search for your Swedish ancestors, as with any genealogical research, you want to start at home. Gather any family records, Bibles, certificates, or photographs that might give you clues in your research. Interview family members who might know family traditions. Then you want to do as much research as you can on this side of the ocean, looking up your family in U.S. vital records, census records, naturalizations, and other sources you would use to research your American ancestors. Once you've learned as much as you can in the U.S., it's time to make the jump to Swedish records, especially Sweden's fantastic church records which are all available on the Internet. While there are challenges in reading the records in the Swedish language and learning about Swedish naming practices, these obstacles are certainly not insurmountable. With some perseverance, you will be able to trace your immigrant ancestors back to their homeland.
Andersson, Kjell & Per Clemensson, Your Swedish Roots. Ancestry Publishing, Provo, UT, 2004.
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