Swedes in Minnesota (The People of Minnesota Series)


No ethnic group is so identified with a single state as the Swedes are with Minnesota. From before statehood, Swedish immigrants flooded into the small frontier towns of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Encouraged by agents who promised inexpensive and fertile farmland, they came by the thousands. By the turn of the twentieth century, over 126,000 Swedes lived in Minnesota--d their impact on everything in the state continues to today. In this concise history of Swedes in Minnesota, the newest addition to The People of ...
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Swedes in Minnesota

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No ethnic group is so identified with a single state as the Swedes are with Minnesota. From before statehood, Swedish immigrants flooded into the small frontier towns of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Encouraged by agents who promised inexpensive and fertile farmland, they came by the thousands. By the turn of the twentieth century, over 126,000 Swedes lived in Minnesota--d their impact on everything in the state continues to today. In this concise history of Swedes in Minnesota, the newest addition to The People of Minnesota series, Anne Gillespie Lewis tells the rich history of this ethnic group in the state they would make their own. Swedes in Minnesota recounts the story of the great Swedish migration through numbers-- the census reports and settlement patterns. It also tells the story through the cultural institutions Swedes founded--e churches, schools, and lodges, the Swedish-language newspapers and businesses, the neighborhoods and the associations. But mostly this book tells the story through the people: the anecdotes, letters, and interviews from the immigrants themselves and from their grandchildren. For the many Minnesotans of Swedish ancestry, Lewis provides a remarkably concise portrait of an ethnic group striving to become American while struggling to maintain its ties to tradition.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780873514781
  • Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press
  • Publication date: 4/15/2004
  • Series: People of Minnesota Series
  • Pages: 93
  • Sales rank: 1,379,158
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Anne Gillespie Lewis is a freelance writer and author of five books including So Far Away in the World: Stories from the Swedish Twin Cities and The Minnesota Guide.
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Read an Excerpt


By Anne Gillespie Lewis
Copyright © 2004

Minnesota Historical Society
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87351-478-1

Chapter One Why do we only eat this weird food on Christmas Eve?" the teenager asked, gazing at a table bearing Swedish potato sausage, meatballs, rice pudding, lingon-berries, herring, rye and cardamom breads, fruit soup, pepparkakor, and spritz. The answer was simple. His family, like hundreds of thousands of other people in Minnesota, is now several generations removed from the old homeland of Sweden. Yet many of them still feel the need to preserve this link with their ancestors.

This ancestral fare, dutifully replicated down through the generations, continues to evoke deep feelings. To start a virtual food fight in a gathering of Minnesota Swedes, ask for recipes for the old standards such as meatballs, rice pudding, cardamom bread, and limpa (Swedish rye bread). Someone in the crowd will be sure to shout out "lutfisk" and there will be both cheers and groans in response. Lutfisk is dried fish reconstituted in a lye solution, rinsed copiously in water and sometimes whitened with bleach, and finally presented to the family or other eager and not-so-eager eaters during the Christmas season. The Norwegians claim lutefisk (note the difference in spelling) as their own, but Swedes eat it, too, sometimes when they do not even like it. Churches and other Swedish-flavored institutions, such as the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, hold lutfisk/lutefisk suppers starting as early as September and continuing until spring.

Although a few Minnesota Swedes still make treasured family recipes from scratch, most buy their lutfisk in supermarkets or drive to the Day Fish Company in Isanti County for it. Likewise, they buy potato sausage and meatball mix for their Christmas Eve smörgåsbord at the dwindling number of shops that carry them, including Ingebretsen's and Ready Meats, both in Minneapolis.

There are many enthusiastic Minnesota Swedes who have an intense interest in their history and culture as well as the food, but they are few compared to the majority of those whose roots are in Sweden. With most of Minnesota's Swedish Americans-even among some who say they are "one hundred percent Swedish"-the actual memories of Sweden are gone, the language has largely disappeared, and there is little communication with relatives in the technologically advanced land that is 21st-century Sweden. Only the food and some community celebrations tie the majority of them to a country many of them have never seen.

Whatever their level of interest in and knowledge about Sweden, those who declare themselves Swedish by ancestry, according to the 2000 census, make Minnesota the most Swedish state in the United States both in percentage and numbers. In 2000, 9.9% of Minnesotans said their ancestry was Swedish, nearly double the percentage in second-place North Dakota (5.0%). The actual number of Minnesotans-486,507-who said their ancestry was Swedish was higher than in California, where 459,897 declared they were of Swedish ancestry.

The "most Swedish" statistics can go on and on. Seven of the ten counties in the U.S. with the highest percent of Swedes are in Minnesota, with Kittson County, in the northwest corner of the state, on top at nearly 34%. Gloria Swanson, a Hallock resident and Norwegian American whose husband Leonard was Swedish, answered the question of whether she had ever visited Sweden with a droll response: "Why would I need to go there? I always felt I was in Sweden here."

Cambridge leads the nation in places of more than 5,000 residents in percentage of Swedish ancestry (27%). Even the Twin Cities, which have had great influxes of immigrants from non-European countries in recent years, are still marked with a Swedish stamp-7.9% for Minneapolis and 6.4% for St. Paul. Compare those numbers to Chicago, whose Swedish-speaking population by the end of the 19th century was second only to Stockholm, Sweden; in the 2000 census, less than 1% of Chicagoans claimed Swedish ancestry. Even so, the number of those who declare themselves Swedes in Minnesota is shrinking. In the 1990 census, when the state's overall population was half a million less (4.4 million versus 4.9 million in 2000), the same question regarding ancestry was asked and 536,203 respondents said they were of Swedish ancestry.

From 1845 when the mass movement of people from Sweden to North America began to 1930 when it ended, about 1,250,000 Swedes left their homes to settle in the New World. Only Ireland, Norway, and Iceland lost a greater percentage of their population during these years. By 1920, after which immigration slowed greatly, 23% of the state's foreign-born white residents were Swedes, with about half of them living in the Twin Cities.

Early Immigration

Swedes have gravitated to Minnesota for more than 150 years. Jacob Falström, who found his way to what is now Minnesota about 1810, is generally regarded as the first Swede in the area. He married a Dakota woman, raised a family, and pursued a varied career as a fur trader and farmer in Washington County.

Although Minnesota Territory, organized in 1849, had a few Swedish residents before 1850, it was in that year that the first Swedes seeking land arrived in what is now Scandia in Washington County. This settlement did not succeed, however, and the earliest lasting settlements were begun several years later.

The first pioneers, despite being widely dispersed in Minnesota, often knew or knew of each other. Eric Norelius, a Lutheran pastor who settled in Vasa in Goodhue County, came to the United States with Joris Per Andersson, who is regarded as the founder of the Chisago Lakes settlement. Norelius wrote about his decision to join the Andersson group in his autobiography: "During the winter of 1850 an epidemic of 'America-Fever' began to spread in Hassela parish and the surrounding region, as a result of letters from friends and acquaintances who had gone to America. Early in the spring it became known that a rather wealthy farmer, Joris Per Anderson ... in the western part of Hassela parish, had decided to go to America. Soon other people, old and young, married and unmarried, wanted to go with him." Norelius and his brother, Anders, decided to accompany Andersson. They left Hassela in Hälsingland on July 18, 1850, finally arrived in New York on October 31, and continued on to Illinois. The following year Andersson and some others journeyed from Illinois to start the Chisago County settlement. Unlike Andersson, most of the early Chisago County immigrants were from Småland, while the later arrivals, who settled in the northern part of the county, came from other places in Sweden. The stream of Swedes flowing into the region continued well into the 1880s.

Norelius maintained close ties with Andersson, but he did not join him in Chisago County. Instead he went to Vasa, Minnesota, where he became acquainted with another giant of Minnesota Swedish history, Hans Mattson. A native of Skåne, Mattson fits the stereotype of the immigrant who made good. He arrived in St. Paul in September 1853 with a group of immigrants and was advised that good land could be obtained near the new city of Red Wing in Goodhue County. Guided by a man who knew the area, the party searched the deep valleys of the Cannon River for a suitable location. "[We] were not satisfied," Mattson wrote, "until we came upon the large prairie where Vasa is now situated. On this prairie we found the best soil and saw good oak woods in all directions." By the summer of 1854 at least ten Swedish families were living in the Vasa colony.

Norelius arrived two years after the little settlement was founded. In his autobiography, which provides a glimpse of frontier life, he told of how he and his wife set to work making a home in Vasa: "As soon as the walls were up, we moved into our palace, without roof, floor, door, or window. The mattress was filled with hay and laid on a pile of shavings, and there we slept peacefully the first night, under the protecting hand of almighty God. When my wife shook out the mattress the next morning she found a snake in the hay; there were plenty of snakes in those days. The next day we made both ceiling and roof by stretching cloth over the house. On the plain board walls we put wall paper, and on the floor, which was a patchwork of odds and ends of lumber, we laid a cheap carpet that we had brought from Indiana. Thus we had a splendid house which had only one fault. It did not keep out the rain. Therefore we had to sleep under an umbrella on rainy nights."

Another settlement was begun in 1854 near the Minnesota River four miles from the town of Carver. Originally called Oscar's Settlement, it became known as the Union Colony and in 1858 was divided into the East and West Union Lutheran congregations. Many of the settlers, who were from the province of Västergötland, were drawn to the area by the so-called America letters, many of which praised the new homeland. These letters were important in creating similar concentrations of Swedes throughout the region. The son of one of the colony's founders wrote: "In our community ... nearly all had come from the same district in Sweden. So completely had they transplanted a piece of Sweden to America that the names given to groves of trees and farmsteads were largely identical with those in the home district. This great emigration had been set in motion by a few personal letters." Other settlements soon followed. Vista, named for the Småland parish from which most of its residents came, was settled in eastern Waseca County in 1857. Four groups of immigrants founded settlements north and south of Carver: Scandia (now Waconia); Götaholm on Swede Lake two miles south of Watertown; Scandia Grove (also known as the Lake Prairie Township) seven miles north-west of St. Peter; and New Sweden, later known as Bernadotte. Although Scandia Grove was on the edge of the prairie, early settlers emphasized the forest in their descriptions. One wrote: "There are about 1,200 acres of forest in our colony.... Four miles west of this forest are several thousand acres of prairie land at the congressional price ($1.25 per acre). This prairie has between one and two feet of black loam on a clay base, is free of stones, and is bordered on the south by large forests."

Religious conflict was sometimes responsible for both emigration and the establishment of secondary settlements in Minnesota. Many nonconformist ideas had come to Sweden in the mid-19th century, and the state church tried to protect itself against such deviant doctrines by forbidding any private gathering for religious purposes. Offenders were punished by fines and prison sentences. Not surprisingly, many nonconformists were among the earliest emigrants from Sweden.

The intolerance of the Swedish church toward these groups sometimes survived the journey across the Atlantic. In 1856,for example, emigrants from Hälsingland started a Swedish Baptist congregation at Center City in Chisago County, which did not please the Swedish Lutheran majority. Before the year passed the Hälsingland congregation told the Minnesota Baptist Convention that it was "surrounded with a great number of our own nation who are all greatly opposed to our principles." Reluctant to stay in such a hostile environment, members moved to the Cambridge area in Isanti County. By 1860 the Center City Baptist Church was closed, and a new congregation, later known as the North Isanti Baptist Church, had been organized by 14 Hälsingland Baptists. In the late 1860s, large numbers of Lutherans settled in Isanti County. The first Swedish Lutheran church was built in Cambridge in 1866.

More important than religious conflict in opening up new areas in this period was a provision in the Pre-emption Act of 1841 stipulating that an individual could stake a claim on government land before it was offered for sale. This meant that payment could be delayed until the government placed the land on the market. Many immigrants who arrived with little or no money saw this farm now-pay later opportunity as the best way to get started. Several small Swedish settlements established in 1856 and 1857 on the edge of the Minnesota prairies-including Litchfield and Swede Grove Townships in Meeker County and Kandiyohi and Eagle Lake in Kandiyohi County-are examples.

Some of the wilderness settlements beyond the settled edge of the frontier were short-lived because the Dakota Indians living on reservations along the Minnesota River began a war in August 1862 that caught the settlers completely off guard. Swedish settlers were among those killed in the Dakota Conflict. Those fortunate enough to escape fled eastward to safer areas behind the frontier. The fighting was quickly ended, but people were slow to return. Some never did; others, joined by later emigrants, decided to try again.

Rural Settlements

The flood of Swedish immigrants did not start until the mid-1860s, when conditions in Sweden and Minnesota worked together to stimulate the great outpouring of Swedes. Almost 135,000 Swedes left their homes for the United States between 1863 and 1877, nearly 40% of them leaving in 1868 and 1869 after severe crop failures brought widespread hunger.

Families were still prominent in the emigration, but more young, single people joined the outflow. Large group migration was far less common, and economic motivations completely overshadowed religious ones. A majority of the emigrants were from rural areas, and they were still looking for land. Many were poor, however, and had little money with which to make a start.

Part of the lure was free land. Starting in 1862, millions of acres became available free to settlers under the Homestead Act, which guaranteed 160 acres to a settler or family who met certain conditions, including living on the land for five years. The railroads, which were rapidly reaching out from the Twin Cities, sold millions more acres at reasonable prices.

Many descendants of Swedish immigrants believe that their ancestors settled in Minnesota because it looked like Sweden, and many parts of the state do resemble it. Other parts-especially the prairie-certainly do not. Instead, the attraction of Minnesota initially may have been the transportation routes. From their arrival points of Montreal and New York City, immigrants could travel to Chicago by train and boat and then on to Minnesota, via the Mississippi River at first and later by rail. No other land on the frontier was so accessible from Chicago.

Railroads were the key to the location of new Swedish settlements, such as Sveadahl in Watonwan County (1868), Comfrey in Brown County, Dunnell in Martin County, Louriston in Chippewa County (all in 1869), Balaton in Lyon County, and Worthington in Nobles County (both in 1871). In addition to offering easy access to unsettled prairie, the railroads provided employment for newly arrived immigrants.

The pastor of the Swedish Baptist Church recalled the birth of such a Swedish cluster at Worthington when he wrote: "In 1871, when the railroad was projected through the regions, several Swedish railroad workers who observed the fertility of the country and heard that there was land to be gotten took the opportunity to file for homesteads. ... Others who had been made destitute by Indian raids farther North, came here to file on the land the same year."

Like most settlers, the Swedes had no experience with the prairie, but they accepted its challenges. A man who grew up near Sveadahl during the 1870s and 1880s remembered that "The snowstorms of the winter, which usually lasted three days in succession, were a deadly peril. Our first winter in Sveadahl was 'the terrible snowwinter,' when the snowdrifts reached as high as the roofs of the houses and stables."

The main thrust of Swedish settlement, however, was along the principal line of the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. Many Swedish and other Scandinavian settlements that sprang up along this line-including Cokato, Dassel, Litchfield, Swede Grove (now Grove City), Atwater, Lake Elizabeth, New London, and Mamre-owed their beginnings to Hans Mattson, a promoter of immigration for the state of Minnesota and a land agent for the railroad from 1866 to 1871. Swedes also settled in great numbers along the St. Paul and Pacific branch line, which ran northwest through St. Cloud and Alexandria to Moorhead.


Excerpted from Swedes IN MINNESOTA by Anne Gillespie Lewis
Copyright © 2004 by Minnesota Historical Society. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Swedes in Minnesota 1
Early immigration 6
Rural settlements 14
Swedes in the Twin Cities 26
From Swedish to American 37
Churches 48
Civic assimilation 54
Swedish-oriented organizations 60
Personal account : memories of a stay in the United States 73
For further reading 79
Notes 81
Index 87
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