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Arland O. Fiske: Impressions of Native Americans by Swedish immigrants

 I grew up on a farm 10 miles west of Ft. Abercrombie in southeastern North Dakota. In the 1930s during the days of PWA, the fort was restored and there was a big 75th celebration in 1937 to remember the “massacre” of 1862. It was quite a party. Prof. Edward Milligan, Superintendent of Schools, in nearby Colfax, led the Indian dances.

By the time I was growing up, our contacts with Indians (or “Native Americans” as they are commonly referred to today) was on a very civil basis. I remember my father had a hired man one year whose mother was Sioux. He was accepted as one of our family. I still remember him with respect and as a friend.

Things were not that simple, however, when the first immigrants arrived. Sweden sent more of its people to America than any of the other Scandinavian countries — 1,200,000. Some of the Swedish impressions of the Indians are preserved in letters collected from immigrant the period (1840-1914).

Life in the New World was quite a shock to the highly civilized Swedes. American shysters and swindlers of every sort were set to pounce on unwary immigrants. They had already victimized many of the Native Americans and this caused the immigrants to be in double jeopardy as they traveled across the prairie trails. They also witnessed the savage reprisals against the Indians and the “trail of broken treaties.”

Prof. H. Arnold Barton of Southern Illinois University has written, “Though they sometimes feared the red man, there is little evidence that they hated or despised him. On the whole relations were peaceable and the Swedes tended both to respect the Indian and to sympathize with his lot.”

One young man, Carl Friman, wrote home to Sweden from Salem, Wisconsin, that the immigrants and the Indians used to hunt deer together. Another immigrant, Peter Cassel, wrote home that the government had purchased land from Indians south of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, where they intended to establish a Swedish colony. They did and I have driven through this well kept community many times while traveling to St. Louis.

Those who emigrated from both Sweden and Norway were warned, especially by the church authorities, that their trip would be full of danger. If they were not sold into slavery by the Turkish pirates or suffer shipwreck on the way over, the impenetrable forests of America would offer “ferocious wild beasts and bloodthirsty Indians” as their only neighbors.

Other pastors, however, left the security of the state church in Sweden and end endured frontier life. Sometimes they traveled for many days and over many trackless miles of territory to minister to scattered groups of immigrants. One of their anxieties in leaving home was the Indians who sometimes silently entered their houses wanting food. The pastor’s wife and children learned how to appear brave. More often than not, all they wanted was food and tobacco, with no intent to do harm.

But people traveling the 1,800 miles from Iowa to California for gold encountered thousands of warriors looking for scalps of lonely travelers. A poisoned arrow found many a mark and harnesses were cut away to steal horses. In 1867, August Andrean led a group of Scandinavians into western Nebraska to make railroad ties. At the first suspicious noise around the campfire at night, the order was given to put out the fire as well as their pipes. When no squaws or papooses were with the traveling Indians, the immigrants soon learned to beware. That might be a war party.

The same summer, the Indian pulled up the tracks and attacked a train when it derailed. Peter Nyman, writing home from Duluth, Minnesota, told how his Indian captors released him after turning over the supply of chewing tobacco that he had bought in town for the men in the logging camp. This did not make him a hero back in the camp.

George F. Erickson wrote back to Sweden in 1910 about a story he’d heard in America. A Yankee was boasting to a Swede about the greatness of America. No matter what he claimed, the Swede said, “We have exactly the same thing in Sweden. Finally, the American became angry and said, “I know one thing you don’t have in Sweden, you don’t have any Indians.”  Not to be outdone, the Swede replied, “We have Indians in Sweden too, but we call them Norwegians.”

Next week: The Historic Tingvoll Church

ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.