My friend Paul Settergren stopped by for a visit before he moved to Jamestown, N.Y. He brought a book for me to read titled “Saga from the Hills: A History of the Swedes of Jamestown.” Its 700 pages offers insight on all Swedes in America.
Sweden was generous to the New World, as 1.2 million Swedes (25 percent of the population) came to America. The earliest Swedish communities began on the Delaware River, near Philadelphia, in 1638. They were not, however, allowed to live in peace. The Dutch and then the English grabbed their territory, and they did not continue to expand as a Swedish colony.
Two hundred years later, beginning in the 1840s, when the large movement of immigrants were arriving, the Swedes were determined to remember their culture and heritage. They began coming to Jamestown in 1850. Wilton E. Bergstrand offered five reasons for this choice: the natural beauty, healthful climate, fresh water; valuable forests and good farmland.
But why did they leave their homeland?
First, the upper classes (nobility, gentry and government officials) had most of the privileges. They could vote in America.
Second, military duty was required for men at age 19, and Sweden was involved in many continental wars. But they weren’t cowards. More than 3,000 Swedish immigrants fought to free the slaves in America’s Civil War.
Third, many wanted to get away from the state church system.
Though there were many faithful and effective clergy in the Swedish State Church, the men of the cloth were seen as a class aligned with the nobility and opposed to social change. While the immigrants loved their native land, America meant a new start for them in a world of freedom and opportunity.
The Swedes were welcomed in Jamestown because they brought needed skills in wood and metalworking. Soon they became executives and owners of businesses. They had a reputation for great physical strength. One Swedish immigrant bought a stove, had it strapped on his back and carried the 250-pound load to his house on top of Swede Hill.
I asked Settergren, himself a Swede, how many Swedish people lived in the Jamestown area. He estimated about 35,000. That rivals Rockford, Ill., another strong Swedish-American community
The Swedes were considered desirable settlers because they had a reputation for honesty. They were noted for being hard workers and having respect for law. They were also strong community builders. Karl Peterson, one of the Jamestown settlers, invented the Crescent line of tools.
Christian faith was important to Swedish immigrants. They have built more than 2,000 churches in America; the largest in Jamestown is First Lutheran. Mount Olivet in Minneapolis, where Dr. Reuben Youngdahl was pastor, is the largest Lutheran church in America, with more than 15,000 members. It was a part of the former Swedish Augustana Lutheran Synod.
One Swedish farmer came to pay his bill at the store after harvest and was asked by the storekeeper if he wanted a receipt. “No, God knows I have paid my bill,” he replied. The storekeeper sneered, “Do you still believe in God?” Confessing to be a Christian, the farmer asked, “Don’t you?” The storekeeper replied “Naw!” The farmer replied, “Then you better give me a receipt.” He wasn’t taking any chances.
A few years ago, my wife, Gerda, and I were invited by the Jamestown Swedes to be guests at the nearby Chautauqua Institution, where I gave the address on their Scandinavian Day. We stayed in a quaint old house. The guest book stated that Barbara Bush had also been a guest in that same house. The Swedes of Jamestown showed us a great time.
Next week: Gutzon Borglum – sculptor of presidents.
ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister, formerly of Laporte, lives in Texas. He is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes, including “Sermons and Songs,” published in 2012.