Swedish Immigration to North America
Permanent exhibit on view in reading room, May 2018–Present
The Journey to America
Between 1850 and 1930, over 1.2 million Swedes immigrated to the United States, while over 50 million Europeans left Europe. Several factors “pushed” Swedes to leave their homeland while others “pulled" them to America. Population growth and crop failures in Sweden led to a desire to leave, while cheap land, the Homestead Act of 1862, and growing American cities drew many Swedes to the United States. Swedish immigrants wrote letters back home describing their experiences, often in overly positive terms. These “America letters” helped establish migration channels for new immigrants to come and join family and friends in America. Religion and politics played a much smaller role for the move to America, although it was critical in some cases.
This mass exodus was one of the major events in Swedish history during the 19th and 20th centuries. This vast network across the Atlantic has influenced the ways in which Swedish society then and now views the United States.
“Dear Little Sigrid, Yes, at last I have arrived in America after a lot of fuss. I think it is amazing, and I can hardly believe it. Let me start from the beginning to tell you about my journey. We had beautiful weather over the North Sea. I wasn’t too sad either, but it was difficult, when the ship left the harbor and you standing there waving to me…” –Letter written by Anna Persson to her sister, Sigrid, in Sweden, October 10, 1907.
Background image: Photograph of Arthur Swan aboard a boat, waving his hat, 1909. From MSS P:5 Arthur Helge Swan papers ph 51.
Letter: From MSS P:329 Anna Persson Cave family papers.
Route: Travel route map of Swedish emigrants. Most left from the port of Gothenburg and arrived in New York City. From Your Swedish Roots: a step by step handbook by Per Clemensson & Kjell Andersson, published by Ancestry, 2004.
Image: Justina Lofgren aboard the Gripsholm, 1950. From MSS P:335 Justina Lofgren family papers, ph 290.
Chronology & Numbers
Swedes came to North America in several major waves. Thanks to “peace, vaccination, and potatoes” (according to Swedish bishop Esaias Tegnér), Sweden’s population had doubled between 1750 and 1850. The first wave of immigrants (1840-1864) came seeking land they were unable to purchase in Sweden. Some came seeking religious freedom. This pioneer period ended when the American Civil War broke out. At that time, the Census recorded some 18,000 Swedes in the U.S.
Swedish immigration rapidly increased due to new hardships in Sweden. The next wave of immigrants (1865-1889) were fleeing crop failures and famine. Transportation to the United States was now faster and more affordable. Swedish farmers settled in the Midwest and continued farming, while laborers went to large cities and found jobs in factories. Single women also moved to cities and worked, often as maids and sometimes nurses. By 1890, roughly 478,000 Swedes lived in the U.S.
The third wave of immigrants (1890-1914) saw many single young men and women. Young men were often fleeing military service in Sweden. Some wanted the higher wages offered by American cities.
As the decades progressed, a second generation entered the scene. For the first time, the 1890 Census classified 250,000 people as second-generation Swedish Americans. During the next decades, this figure increased quickly and by 1910, the second generation outnumbered the first at 700,000.
Did the Swedish Americans succeed in their new land? There are examples of both success stories and failures. Some did well as farmers or found jobs in the cities. Others ended up in poverty in urban slums. In comparison with other groups, Swedish Americans often benefited from being white, Protestant, and Northern European.
Return migration was also a part of the migration patterns. Roughly one-fifth of the immigrants returned to Sweden. Re-migration was strongest toward the end of the 1920s, especially among men, urbanites, and persons active in the American industrial sector.
Background image: Passengers playing games aboard the Gripsholm, 1929. From MSS P:335 Justina Lofgren family papers, ph 77.
Nurse: Photograph of Euphemia Peterson in her nursing uniform during her junior year at the Augustana Hospital School of Nursing, Chicago, 1910. From MSS P:344 Euphemia Peterson nursing papers, ph 1.
Chart: Number of Swedish immigrants to America. Data from Swedish Exodus by Lars Ljungmark, translated by Kermit Westerberg, 1979.
Swedish Settlements in America
Farming areas in the Midwest formed the heart of Swedish settlements. Migration chains were quickly established between many places in the Midwest and Sweden, encouraging further movement across the Atlantic. After the Civil War, Swedish settlements spread further west to Kansas and Nebraska. The 1870 Census found almost 75% of Swedish immigrants in Illinois, Minnesota, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Nebraska.
Minnesota became the most Swedish state, with Swedish Americans making up over 12% of its population in 1910. While Minnesota became the most Swedish state, the city of Chicago became the capital of Swedish America. At the turn of the 20th century, only Stockholm had more Swedish inhabitants than Chicago.
By 1910, the Midwest was still a strong place of residence for Swedish immigrants and their children, but had dropped to 54% of the total Swedish-American population. The East hosted 15% of these immigrants who were drawn to industrial areas in New England like New York City and Worcester, Massachusetts. The West Coast saw 10%, with Seattle, Washington and California having the largest Swedish-American communities.
Swedish immigrants were part of the general westward movement in American history, often reliant on the removal of American Indians. In the cities, Swedish Americans lived in multiethnic environments with other ethnic groups. Both conflicts and cooperation occurred with, for example, other Scandinavians, Germans, and Irish.
Background image: Photograph of Swedish Hospital Nurses' Home, Kansas City, Missouri with 26 nurses. From I/O:23 Augustana Book Concern (Rock Island, Ill.) photographs, ph 68.
Cabin image: Heden Logging Camp, Ogema, Wisconsin. From MSS P:289 Col. Robert E. Swanson family papers, ph 275.
Hay image: Photograph of S. A. Swanson bringing in a load of hay on his farm in Ogema, Wisconsin, 1938. From MSS P:289 Col. Robert E. Swanson family papers, ph 7.
Swedish Settlements Map
Rock Island & Moline, Illinois
In 1870, Swedes were the largest ethnic group in Moline, at nearly 50% of the population. John Deere located its plow factory in Moline in 1847 and many Swedish immigrants came to the Quad Cities for this manufacturing work. In fact, many blacksmiths were recruited from Sweden to come work in Moline. The railroad came to Moline in 1854 and legend states that the conductor would yell “John Deere” as the train pulled into Moline so the immigrants knew they were in the right place.
In 1875, Augustana College and Theological Seminary relocated to Rock Island. Swedish immigrants founded Augustana College, which served as the training school of the Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Augustana Synod. In the late 1880s, the majority of students were either born in Sweden or had Swedish ancestry.
Andover is the oldest town in Henry County and the first Swede came in 1840. In 1849, Lars Paul Esbjörn, a Swedish Lutheran minister, and a group of immigrants came and established the Jenny Lind Chapel. The early years were tough for these immigrants and many died during the cholera epidemic of the 1850s. Nevertheless, the congregation survived and eventually grew. The Chapel became the “mother church” of the Swedish-American Lutherans and the Augustana Synod. Esbjörn became the first president of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. The Chapel is on the National Register of Historic Places and hosts special events throughout the year.
Bishop Hill, Illinois
The Bishop Hill colony in Henry County, Illinois is one of the oldest Swedish settlements. In 1846, Erik Jansson and a group of Swedish religious dissenters organized the communal society. They lived communally--worshiping together, farming together, and eating together. In 1850 Erik Jansson was murdered, yet the colony continued on, briefly, without him. The colony broke up in 1860 for economic and social reasons. Today, Bishop Hill is a popular tourist destination.
In 1869, Pastor Olof Olsson and nearly 250 Swedes left their homes in Värmland bound for Kansas. These pietistic immigrants were dissatisfied with the State Church of Sweden and sought religious freedom in the Smoky Valley region of Kansas.
In 1881, Bethany College was established in the Bethany Lutheran Church with 10 students under the guidance of Rev. Dr. Carl Aaron Swensson. This Swedish-American college had the mascot of the “Terrible Swedes.”
The Northern Pacific railway was finished in 1883 and made northwest cities such as Seattle and Tacoma into “boom towns.” The fjords around Puget Sound reminded many Swedes of their home countries, and the fishing and logging industries provided familiar job opportunities.
The Swedes in the Pacific Northwest often did not gather in close communities. Typically, they had lived elsewhere in the U.S. before moving west and were already assimilated. The Ballard community in northern Seattle was an exception, with many Swedes settling in this neighborhood.
Swen Magnus Swenson is often cited as the first Swede who settled in Texas, as early as 1838. His uncle, Swante Palm, joined him in 1844 and was the first Swede to immigrate to America with Texas as his destination. Swenson paid many Swedish families’ passage to Texas, who then went to work for him on his farm in the Austin area. Thanks to these men, Swedish immigration to Texas began in earnest in 1848.
Some Swedes owned slaves and took a favorable view of slavery, in opposition to the Swedes of the North. After slavery was abolished, many more Swedes came to Texas to work the land. The Texas Swedes often farmed or cattle-ranched.
Relatively few Swedes settled as far south as Texas. Still, at its peak in 1918, first and second generation Swedes in Texas numbered 11,000. This put Texas at 26th out of the 48 states at that time for Swedish inhabitants.
Jamestown, New York
Most Swedish immigrants came through the ports of New York. While many continued westward, some only went as far as Jamestown, New York. In the 1940s, about half of all Jamestown residents had some Swedish ancestry.
Jamestown was known for its furniture and metalwares manufacturing. Swedish immigrant Charles P. Dahlstrom founded the Dahlstrom Metallic Door Company in 1904 and invented the fireproof metal door. Over 40 furniture establishments have been headed by Swedish Americans. Jamestown has also seen 8 mayors of Swedish ancestry.
Minnesota became the most Swedish of all states. Swedish Americans made up more than 12% of Minnesota's population in 1910. In the countryside beyond Minneapolis, such as Chisago or Isanti counties, Swedish Americans made up close to 70% of the population.
The Twin Cities—Minneapolis and St. Paul—saw the largest population of Swedish immigrants. In 1910, a quarter of the population of Minneapolis was Swedish. Today, Minneapolis is home to the American Swedish Institute, a museum and gathering space documenting themes of migration.
“What a glorious new Scandinavia might not Minnesota become! Here would the Swede find again his clear, romantic lakes, the plains of Scania rich in corn, and the valleys of Norrland…” –Fredricka Bremer, The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America, Vol. 2, 1853
By 1910, more than 100,000 Swedish Americans resided in Chicago, which meant that about 10% of all Swedish Americans lived there. Only Stockholm had more Swedish inhabitants than Chicago.
Andersonville is the best-known Swedish Chicago neighborhood. After the Great Fire of 1871, wooden homes were outlawed within Chicago city limits. Swedish immigrants could not afford to build brick or stone homes, so they moved outside of the city’s limits. When Swedes began to move to the suburbs, neighborhood officials grew concerned and renamed the neighborhood Andersonville to show commitment to the Swedish community.
Map image: Map of Swedish population in North America, 1921, from The Swedes and the Swedish settlements in North America by Helge Nelson, 1943.
The Swedish-American Community
Svenskamerika or “Swedish America,” is a term used to describe the cultural and religious traditions brought by Swedish immigrants. These traditions have been both preserved and changed through interaction with American society.
Experiences differed, of course. Swedish America consisted of many different churches, organizations, associations, and clubs, the largest being the various religious denominations. The Lutheran Augustana Synod was by far the largest Swedish-American organization, with total membership estimated at 365,000 in 1920. About a fourth of Swedish Americans were members of one of these churches. The larger denominations not only served the religious needs of their members, but also educational, health, and social needs. These denominations founded colleges, hospitals, orphanages, and old people's homes.
Higher education became particularly important, and today a group of colleges and universities can trace their origins to Swedish immigrants, including Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois; Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas; Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota; California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California; Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota; and North Park University in Chicago.
The secular organizations attracted fewer members. These included mutual-aid societies such as the Vasa Order, the Svithiod Order, the Viking Order, and the Scandinavian Fraternity of America. There were also numerous smaller musical, theatrical, educational, and political groups. A small, but vocal labor movement also developed, mainly in the urban areas.
The organizations evolved into places where members could meet fellow Swedes, speak Swedish, and participate in their various social activities.
Background image: 25th anniversary meeting of Augustana Synod in Rockford (Ill.), 1885. From MSS P:339 Scandinavian American Portrait Collection, ph 57.
Sorority image: Group photograph of 6 freshman sorority sisters of Upsala College, 1930. From I/O:58 Upsala College (East Orange, N.J.) records, ph 175.
Hotel image: John Ericsson Republican League of Illinois meeting in Galesburg, 1957. From I/O:21 John Ericsson Republican League of Illinois records, ph 36.
Singers image: The Scandia Chorus from the Swedish Club in Farmington, Michigan. From I/O:61 American Union of Swedish Singers records, ph 433.
A cultural life quickly developed within Swedish-American communities, mostly centered on the Swedish language. The Swedish-language press played an important role in this respect. An estimated 600 newspapers were published in Swedish in the United States. The Swedish-American press was the second largest foreign-language press in the U.S., after German.
Besides reading Swedish-American newspapers, numerous books, journals, and other types of publications circulated in Swedish America. Bookstores in many major urban areas imported books from Sweden. A group of Swedish-American authors emerged, including Jakob Bonggren, Johan Enander, G.N. Malm, and Anna Olsson.
Theater and song were also an important part of the culture. Theater productions ranged from Swedish elite drama in Chicago to the vaudeville or bondkomik productions of the Olle i Skratthult traveling comedic troupe. There was even a Swedish-American opera, Fritiof and Ingeborg by C.F. Hanson. Numerous choirs and choruses also existed in Swedish America, many of which joined to form the American Union of Swedish Singers.
Swedish Americans have also gathered in different ways to affirm their ethnicity. Midsummer celebrations sprung up as early as the 1870s and often filled the function of a Swedish-American national day. Swedish Americans have commemorated their own history several times at both the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the beginnings of Swedish mass immigration to the United States.
Background image: Photograph from theatre performance during the Swedish Pioneer Centennial, 1948. From MSS P:308 Allan Kastrup collection, ph 142.
Bindery image: Bookbindery at the Augustana Book Concern showing workers, circa 1910. From MSS P:283 Gustaf Adolf Magnusson photographs (Augustana Book Concern), ph 18.
Sandburg image: Carl Sandburg, poet and historian, playing guitar on his 75th birthday, Chicago, 1953. From MSS P:308 Allan Kastrup collection, ph 144.
Truck image: Augustana Book Concern truck loaded with sacks of mail or books outside Augustana Book Concern building, late 1920s. From MSS P:283 Gustaf Adolf Magnusson photographs (Augustana Book Concern), ph 19.
Car image: Centennial Parade for the Swedish Pioneer Centennial in Des Moines, Iowa, 1948. From MSS P:308 Allan Kastrup collection, ph 61.
Swedish America Today
Even though Swedish mass migration came to a halt in the 1920s, nearly four million people still answered "Swedish" when asked their ancestry in the 2000 U.S. Census. Swedish America today overwhelmingly consists of descendants of Swedish immigrants, many of whom are in the third generation and beyond. Their integration into American society has continued. Today, the group is a part of the larger community of European Americans.
Current expressions of Swedishness often focus on family history, foods, and festivities. Swedish meatballs, potatiskorv, lutfisk, and pepparkakor are typical foods in Swedish America. Festivities including Lucia around Christmastime and Midsummer maypole raising in the summer continue today in many Swedish-American communities.
Often thanks to genealogy research, many Swedish Americans take an interest in traveling to Sweden and learning about modern Sweden, including music, film, TV, and fashion. There is also a growing interest in the Nordic ideas of sustainability and equality.
Hundreds of Swedish-American organizations exist, including museums in Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle. The Swedish Council of America functions as an umbrella group for Swedish-American organizations today.
The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center continues to provide assistance and information for those who wish to pursue research in the field of Swedish-American studies.
Background image: American Scandinavian Association at Augustana’s annual Midsummer celebration. Photograph courtesy of Vicki Peterson, 2016.
Children image: Young girl and boy portraying Sankta Lucia and a Star Boy, 1974. From the MSS P:308 Allan Kastrup collection, ph 163.
Lucia image: Sankta Lucia performance at Gustav Adolf Church in New York City. From MSS P:335 Justina Lofgren family papers, ph 545.
Lecture image: Genealogists studying Swedish handwriting in Salt Lake City, 2013. Photograph courtesy of Dave Garner.
1638 First Swedish Colony in America
Settlers from Finland and Sweden established New Sweden, a short-lived colony along the southern part of the Delaware River, in existence from 1638-1655.
1841 Gustaf Unonius
Gustaf Unonius established the New Upsala colony in Pine Lake near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He wrote many letters back to Sweden describing his experience. The Swedish press published these letters, which encouraged thousands of new immigrants to make the journey.
1846 Bishop Hill
Erik Jansson and 1,200 religious followers established the Bishop Hill colony in Henry County, Illinois. Swedish immigrants could freely practice their faith and communal living at this “Utopia on the Prairie.”
1849 Lars Paul Esbjörn & Jenny Lind Chapel
Lars Paul Esbjörn, a Lutheran pastor, and 146 Swedish pioneers immigrated to Andover, Illinois and established the Jenny Lind Chapel, the “mother church” of the Augustana Lutheran Synod.
1855 Castle Garden
Castle Garden opened as America’s first immigration station, predating Ellis Island. More than 8 million people arriving to the United States passed through this New York station from 1855 to 1890.
1860 Augustana College
Augustana College and Theological Seminary opened in 1860 in Chicago as the training school of the Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Augustana Synod. In 1863, the school moved to Paxton, Illinois and then to Rock Island, Illinois in 1875, where it remains today. Lars Paul Esbjörn was the first president.
1862 Homestead Act
Congress passed the Homestead Act, which offered 160 acres of land to anyone willing to settle and tend it for 5 years. This offer attracted many Scandinavian immigrants to the Midwest.
1866-1868 Famine in Sweden
Widespread crop failures and famine in Sweden caused many Swedes to seek opportunities elsewhere.
1889 Augustana Book Concern
Augustana Book Concern, a major Swedish-language publishing house, opened as the official printing outfit of the Augustana Lutheran Church.
1892 Ellis Island
Over 12 million immigrants passed through this busy inspection station for over sixty years, from 1892 until 1954.
1910 Peak of Swedish-born population in America
In 1910, 1.4 million Swedes were U.S. citizens. Sweden’s population at the time was 5.5 million; meaning about 1/5 of all Swedes lived in the United States.
1914-1918 World War I
The use of Swedish language faded during WWI, when nativism and xenophobia spread across America. Many Swedish Americans stopped using the Swedish language and cultural Swedish America declined.
1924 Immigration Act of 1924
United States federal law limited the number of immigrants admitted from any country to just 2% of the people from that country already in the U.S. as of 1890. The law’s intent was to limit immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and completely exclude immigrants from Asia.
1927 Charles Lindbergh’s Flight
Charles Lindbergh, a Swedish American, became the first person to make a solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
1948 Swedish Pioneer Centennial
Swedish Americans throughout the country celebrated the 100th anniversary of Swedish immigration to North America. Celebrations took place across the Midwest, with an official delegation from Sweden headed by H.R.H. Prince Bertil. President Harry Truman, churches, and cultural groups participated in many events.
1949 The Emigrants
Vilhelm Moberg wrote his popular novel, The Emigrants, which follows Swedish emigrants Karl Oskar and Kristina in their decision to leave Sweden. This is the first in Moberg’s The Emigrants series.
1981 Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center
The Swenson Center opened at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.
“Swedish Immigration to North America,” Dag Blanck. Swenson Center’s website, 2009.
MSS P:5 Arthur Helge Swan papers
MSS P:329 Anna Persson Cave family papers
“Your Swedish Roots: a step by step handbook,” Per Clemensson & Kjell Andersson, published by Ancestry, 2004.
MSS P:335 Justina Lofgren family papers
MSS P:344 Euphemia Peterson nursing papers
“Swedish Exodus,” Lars Ljungmark, translated by Kermit Westerberg, 1979.
I/O:23 Augustana Book Concern (Rock Island, Ill.) photographs
MSS P:289 Col. Robert E. Swanson family papers
“The Swedes and the Swedish settlements in North America,” Helge Nelson, 1943.
MSS P:339 Scandinavian American Portrait Collection
I/O:58 Upsala College (East Orange, N.J.) records
I/O:21 John Ericsson Republican League of Illinois records
I/O:61 American Union of Swedish Singers records
MSS P:308 Allan Kastrup collection
MSS P:283 Gustaf Adolf Magnusson photographs (Augustana Book Concern)
Funding for this exhibit was provided by the Swedish Council of America.