The Swedish Immigrant – a question of
(Original article by James Pat Johnson –
The Vasa Star “Vasastjärnan)
(reprinted from the Texas
Posten – 15 October, 1981)
As Americans and Canadians of Swedish
descent we have all been told, at one time or another, of the hardships under
which our pioneering forefathers struggled to begin their new lives on this
great continent. Indeed, could there be
among us even one who has not heard the history of a Swede who tilled the
parched Illinois prairie, felled
the giant timber of Minnesota, or
endured the barren winters in Alberta? But perhaps fewer of us have heard why such
hardships were willingly chosen. The
history of how the Swedish community contributed to the growth of North
America is important; but the history of why our forefathers chose
to contribute, why they chose to become, as we are now, citizens of the United
States and Canada,
should not, therefore, be forgotten.
In 1840, the
Swedish Parliament (Riksdag) enacted legislation which effectively removed the
legal barriers to immigration, and thus the “First Great Wave” of Swedish
immigration into North America began. Yet, it was not this legislation which gave
impetus to emigration; previous law had only suppressed a genuine desire of
many to leave. Two reasons stand above
all for this aspiration: the economic
conditions of Sweden,
particularly of the rural areas, and religious persecution.
It is perhaps
exaggerating to state that Swedish farmers of the early nineteenth century
farmed as their ancestors had done five centuries before. But it is clear that rural Sweden
had not, as yet, experienced the great leap in agricultural productivity which
was necessary if output and standards of living were to keep abreast of the
rapidly rising population. As demand for
land increased, those with money fought for the privileges of owning a few
costly acres of soil. Those without
money fought for the privilege of working.
But emigration was
not an easy talk in 1840. One traveled
by horse, or more often by foot, to the post cities of Sweden,
then my ship for up to eleven weeks to America
and finally by whatever means available to one’s “new home”. Moreover, it was expensive. As such, it was more often the small
independent farmers (bönder) who, fearing the possibility of one day losing
their property in Sweden,
chose to challenge the North American continent with its free but hostile land.
The second reason
for emigration was, as with people from so many nations at that time, the quest
for religious freedom. Sweden,
as did most European countries during this period, professed a “true” state
religion, in this case the Lutheran faith.
Any attempt to renounce this compulsory doctrine resulted in the
confiscation of all one’s property. In
addition, the “Conventicle Edict” forbade Swedes from congregating in private
homes for prayer and Bible reading (and thus began the dissident “Reading
Movement” or “Lutherläsare” of the mid-nineteenth century). Emigration, then, provided the twin desires
of many Swedes: land and religious freedom.
Emigration did not
reach great proportions during this first “Great Wave”. Indeed, between 1841 to 1860 perhaps 15,000
made the journey. This is not to suggest
only 19,000 Swedes felt a desire to emigrate, but the high costs of ocean
travel and especially the lack of knowledge, at least initially, of this vast new
continent proved prohibitive to the less determined.
population in America
did grow however, and their constant barrage of optimistic letters homeward
helped to reduce the cautiousness of the potential emigrant. They also provided the newly emigrated with a
solid base from which to begin his new life in American. Both the religious organizations and later
the fraternal lodges (of which our own Vasa Order of America is best known)
were active in this assistance to newcomers.
With the lowering of transatlantic fares and the passage of the
Homestead Act in 1862 ensuring free land, the era of mass emigration became a
The “Second Great Wave” of emigration was much
more clearly a response to economic conditions.
The liberalization of both church doctrine and state-church laws after
1860 ensured that religion would not play a vital role in this later
emigration. High population growth rates
continued to characterize the Swedish economy, and the crop failures of 1868
and 1869 only served to augment “American Fever”. Over 70,000 people fled the old county at
In the seventh
decade a new force emerged which had profound effects on the pattern of
emigration – industrialization. The
growing demand for labor and the resultant high wages in the cities provided an
alternative escape for the rural laborer.
Yet, industrial expansion, however great, was still not capable of
absorbing all who wished to flee the countryside. But now the emigrant flow stemmed more and
more from the burgeoning cities. Having once
uprooted himself to migrate, the newly urbanized worker found emigration a
clear alternative should life prove economically unsatisfactory in his native
Thus, it is not
surprising that the exodus to America
became increasingly correlated with the fluctuations of the Swedish industrial
economy. Expansionary booms meant low
unemployment and high expectations for the future: periods of high unemployment encourage the
search for better opportunities aboard.
During the recession-plagued 1880’s (the original “Great Depression”),
over 300,000 Swedes left for America.
Not all rang badly
for the Swedish economy. The high birth
rates of previous years fell drastically after 1880, thus allowing Sweden’s
infant but expanding industrial complex to absorb a much greater proportion of
new workers than before. The rise in
living standards brought about by industrialization, together with the
decreasing possibility of acquiring cheap land in the United
States, reduce the incentive to leave. Those who did were more often skilled tradesmen,
taking relatively high paying employment in the established cities and towns of
the eastern states.
There were, of
course, those who wished to begin anew despite the inherent risks, but increasingly
a more northern climate was chose. With
their abundance of free land, the Canadian prairies soon became, as was the United
States between 1840 and 1870, the focus of
the pioneer spirit. Yet, with the future
appearing far brighter by the early twentieth century than it had some sixty
years previous, fewer and fewer chose to leave.
By 1924, the year the U.S.
government imposed country quota restrictions on immigration,
it was already evident that the era of mass Swedish immigration was ending.
both the United States
continued after 1924 of course. And
those who did come have contributed greatly to the cultural heritage of both
countries. But the roots of that
cultural heritage lie with those who chose to leave a profoundly different Sweden. It is their history and the history of that Sweden
that must not be forgotten.