Swedish Americans

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Swedish Americans are Americans with Swedish heritage, primarily derived from the 1.2 million immigrants who left Sweden in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. About 3 million Americans (1%) claim some Swedish ancestry. Most Swedish Americans are Lutherans affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or Methodists. They are mostly concentrated in the Midwest, Mountain states, parts of the Northeast (especially Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, and southern New Jersey), and to a lesser extent in the South (mainly Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia).


The few inhabitants of the Swedish colony of New Sweden (in existence 1638-1655) intermarried with other colonists. The seven Lutheran churches became Episcopalian and the group largely abandoned any Swedish heritage by 1800.[1]

Swedes started immigrating in numbers after 1840, coming through New York City; most settled in the Midwest. The largest numbers arrived during the 1850s-1880s, settled in core areas after migrating in steps, and stayed in geographic clusters based on their home provinces and parishes in Sweden (a phenomenon called "chain migration"). Religion played a part among those immigrants encouraged by the Methodist minister Olof Hedström and his brother Jonas. In New York, Olof met and directed Swedish immigrants westward to Illinois, where Jonas had settled in Knox County. While the Norwegian settlements continued to be centered in Wisconsin, the steady stream of immigrants influenced by the Hedströms established the state of Illinois as a favored destination .

Barton (1994) and Barton (2001) contrasts the generally positive views held by Swedes in American during the 1845-1900 era and the generally negative views held by native who remained in Sweden. Barton suggests three reasons for this difference: homeland perceptions of emigration as the leaving behind of everything and emigrant views of emigration as the most rational response to the terrible living conditions in the homeland; advertisements and propaganda for and against emigration distributed by both American companies and Swedish critics of emigration; and pathetic and tragic emigration tales written and published in Sweden that contrast sharply with the poems, short stories, and history written in America that convey a sense of pride, confidence, and satisfaction with life in the new country.

Several all-Swedish-American units fought in the Civil War; historians have made detailed studies of Company C of the 43d Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Company D of the 57th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, and Company H of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery.[2]

The Swedes and Norwegians, although they had little contact in Europe, migrated to the same areas in the U.S. and had quite similar, but separate, experiences in terms of lifestyles, religion, politics and community building. The Swedes were more open to collaboration with outside religious groups, such as the Episcopal Church, while the Norwegians looked inward.[3]

In the year 1900, Chicago was the city with the second highest number of Swedes after Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. Swedes were attracted to the rich farmlands of the upper Midwest in Minnesota in particular as well as Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois and the Dakotas. Rockford, Illinois, was a major center. In the east, New England became a destination for many skilled industrial workers and Swedish centers developed in areas such as Jamestown, NY; Providence, RI, and Boston, MA. The largest settlement in New England was Worcester, MA.[4] Here, Swedes were drawn to the city's wire and abrasive industries. By 1900 numerous churches, organizations, businesses, and benevolent associations had been organized. Many Swedes also came to the Pacific Northwest during the turn of the twentieth century.

Some 1.3 million Swedes moved there during the century of migration ending in 1924. Western railroads had land to sell and needed farmers to buy it and generate outbound traffic, so they aggressively advertised in the United States and abroad. Agents such as Minnesota's Swedish American secretary of state, Hans Mattson, placed advertisements in Swedish- and Norwegian-language papers encouraging settlers to come to western Michigan. In his work for the Lake Superior Railroad, Mattson traveled in 1871 to Sweden, where he emphasized not the quality of land or the wages paid in sawmills, but the positive experience of earlier immigrants. Returning American cousins came back with cash in their pockets and stories of success, encouraging those considering emigration. Swedish data show that the practice of returning home increased over the period of mass emigration. Only about 6% of Swedish emigrants returned home before 1890, but as the stream matured, over 20% returned between 1890 and 1910. By the 1920s over 40% of emigrants went back to Sweden.

Politically the Swedes voted overwhelmingly were Republicans, giving strong support for prohibiition and for progressive causes during the Progressive Era.


By the 1930s assimilation into American life was been almost complete, with few experiences of hostility or discrimination.[5]

In the 1860-1890 era. there was little assimilation into American society, and little outmarriage with other groups. The Swedish Americans attached relatively little significance and the American dimension of their ethnicity; instead they relied on an extant Swedish literature. There was a relatively weak Swedish American institutional structure before 1890, and Swedish Americans were somewhat insecure in their social-economic status in America.

An increasingly large Swedish American community fostered the growth of an institutional structure—a Swedish-language press, churches and colleges, and ethnic organizations—that placed a premium on sponsoring a sense of Swedishness in the United States. After 1890 there emerged a self-confident Americanized generation. At prestigious Augustana College, for example, American-born students began to predominate after 1890. The students mostly had white-collar or professional backgrounds; few were the sons and daughters of farmers and laborers. These students developed an idealized view of Sweden, characterized by romanticism, patriotism, and idealism, just like their counterparts across the Atlantic. The new generation was especially proud of the Swedish contributions to American democracy and the creation of a republic that promised liberty and destroyed the menace of slavery. A key spokesman was Johan Alfred Enander, longtime editor of Hemlandet, the Swedish newspaper in Chicago. Enander argued that the Vikings were instrumental in enabling the "freedom" that spread not only throughout the British Isles, but America as well. Swedes, moreover, were among the first founders of America with their New Sweden colony in Delaware and they were more honest than the cynical and avaricious Dutch and English. Swedish America was present in Congress under the Articles of Confederation period, and its role was momentous in fighting the war against slavery. As a paragon of freedom and the struggle against unfreedom, and as an exemplar of the courage of the Vikings in contrast to the papist Columbus, Swedish America could use its myth to stress its position as loyal adherents to the larger Protestant American myth.[6]

In 1896 the Vasa Order of America, a Swedish-American fraternal organization, was founded to provide ethnic identity and social services such as health insurance and death subsidies, operates numerous social and recreational opportunities, and maintains contact with fellow lodges in Sweden. Johannes and Helga Hoving were its leaders, calling for the maintenance of the Swedish language and culture among Swedish Americans, especially the younger generation. However they returned to Sweden in 1934 and Vasa itself became Americanized.[7]

As a highly literate population, their output of print media was even more remarkable, and cultural leadership was exerted by numerous magazine and newspaper editors more so than by churchmen. The Swedish American press was the second largest foreign-language press in the United States (after German language imprints) in 1910. By 1910 about 1200 Swedish periodicals had been started in several states.[8] Valkyrian, a magazine based in New York City, helped fashion a distinct Swedish American culture between 1897 and 1909. The Valkyrian helped strengthen ethnicity by drawing on collective memory and religion, mythicizing of Swedish and Swedish American history, describing American history, politics, and current events in a matter-of-fact way, publishing Swedish American literature, and presenting articles on science, technology, and industry in the United States.[9] The community produced numerous writers and journalists, of whom the most famous was poet-historian Carl Sandburg from Illinois.[10] The harsh experiences of the frontier were subjects for novelists and story tellers, Of interest revealing the immigrant experience are the novels of Lillian Budd (1897-1989), especially April Snow (1951), Land of Strangers (1953), and April Harvest (1959). Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, whose novel The Emigrants (1949) was made into a movie, wrote a series of four other books were translated in the 1950s and 1960s.[11]

Baigent (2000) explores the dynamics of economic and cultural assimilation and the "American Dream" in one small city. Most Swedes in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, between 1880 and 1920 were permanent settlers rather than temporary migrants. Many ended up comfortably off and a few became prosperous. They judged their success against Swedes in Sweden, not McKeesporters of other nationalities. They had no illusions about American life but they chose to stay and confront diffuicult living and working conditions rather than move on or return top Sweden where good jobs wwere scare and paid much less. Many of their children were upwardly socially mobile, and America offered girls in particular greater opportunities than Sweden did. The immigrants greatly valued the religious freedom that America offered, but their political freedoms were heavily circumscribed by McKeesport's "booze interest" and iron and steel bosses. Swedes dominated the prohibition movement in the town, but this did not open the door to a wider political stage. The dreams of many individual Swedes came true, but the dream of creating a permanent Swedish community in McKeesport was not realized, since individual Swedes moved on within the United States in pursuit of continued economic success.

Swedish Americans opposed entry into World War I, in which Sweden was neutral. Political pressures during the war encouiraged a rapid switch from Swedish to English in church services—the older generation was bilingual by now and the youth could hardly understand the old language. Swedish language newspapers lost circulation. Most communities typically switched to English by 1920.

After 1940 Swedish was rarely taught in high schools or colleges, and Swedish language newspapers or magazines nearly all closed. A few small towns in the U.S. have retained a few visible Swedish characteristics.[12] Lindsborg, Kansas is representative. It was founded by Lutheran pietists in 1869 on land purchased from the Kansas Pacific Railroad; the First Swedish Agricultural Company of Chicago spearheaded the colonization. Known today as Little Sweden, Lindsborg is the economic and spiritual center of the Smoky Valley. The rise of agribusiness, the decline of the family farm, the arrival of nearby discount stores, and the "economic bypass" of the new interstate system wrought economic havoc on this community. By the 1970s Lindsborg residents pulled together a unique combination of musical, artistic, intellectual, and ethnic strengths to reinvent their town. The Sandzén Gallery, Runbeck Mill, Swedish Pavilion, historical museum at Bethany College, and Messiah Festival were among the activities and attractions used to enhance the Swedish image. The Lindsborg plan is representative of growing national interest in ethnic heritage, historic preservation, and small-town nostalgia in the late 20th century.[13]


The Swedes were not highly religious. In 1910 fewer than one-fourth of first- and second-generation immigrant Swedes belonged to the Augustana Synod. The next three leading denominations comprised little more than 3% of the Swedish American population.

One small but famous religious settlement was the Bishop Hill Colony in Henry County, Illinois, created by pietist Erik Jansson. He was a layman who began preaching in Sweden in the 1830s against the formalism of the established Swedish Lutheran Church. He removed his group to the U.S. and established his own colony in 1846. The colony experimented with communal forms of living and ownership. In 1850 Jansson was killed by a non-Janssonist resident of Bishop Hill. The leaderless colony suffered mismanagement and economic failure of its industries and by 1861 all property was converted to individual ownership.[14]

A representative 20th century leader was Conrad J. I. Bergendoff (1895-1997), who served as president of Augustana College and Seminary and was a longtime theological leader of the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church (now part of ELCA). Central to his mission was the Lutheran church's bridging of the cultures of immigrant Swedes, with American culture. Bergendoff also embraced ecumenical relations and was equally critical of social liberalism and fundamentalism. Allegiance to a living Christ was fundamental to his theology.[15] Religiosity declined sharply in Sweden in the 20th century but remained vital to the Swedish Americans. The authoritarian features of the established church in Sweden, controlled by the upper class, combined with the rigidities of social hierarchy, alienated most people. By contrast emigrants regarded their language and the Lutheran pietistic tradition as fundamental elements in their heritage and this combined with the freedom to pursue their religious beliefs without governmental interference strengthened Swedish Lutheranism.

Pilgrim Evangelical Lutheran Church was a 20th-century church of Swedish immigrants from Finland in New York City that served as a center for a variety of activities, including many not directly of a religious nature. The church was founded in 1919 and remained active until 1977. In 1935 it changed its Swedish name to English. There were different activity groups in the church, such as a sewing circle, a youth group, the Luther League, and the Girls Aid. The church also had an adult choir, a children's choir, a string band, and a concert band. During the 1920s, luncheons, bazaars, and banquets were regular parts of the church's activities. There were also festivities with a more culturally bound background, in particular, festivities originating from the native country. Immigrant churches, with a broad range of contacts, became important cultural centers that reinforced the immigrants' cultural heritage. Many of the church's fund-raising social events were essential to maintaining a balanced budget. Another important factor was that most of the members of the church lived in so-called bolagshus (three apartment buildings purchased together by the community) very close by. Consequently, the church became a natural gathering place for members on Sundays and most weekdays. These factors united church members in the spiritual and cultural heritage they tried to protect and preserve in a new environment.[16]

Most Swedes were Lutheran and belonged to synods now associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, especially the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church. Their ministers trained at Augustana College and Theological Seminary in Rock Island, Illinois. Theologically, they were pietistic; politically, they supported progressive causes, and prohibition. Two small spin-off group were the Swedish Evangelical Free Church of America, and the Swedish Covenant Church, both based in Chicago. The Swedish Baptists wet up small colonies in the Midwest.[17]

A significant fraction were Mormon converts who settled in Utah.[18]

Reactions in Sweden

By 1900, three distinctive schools of thought had crystallized inside Sweden regarding the heavy stream of outmigration to America. One group denounced it and formed the Nationalföreningen mot emigrationen (National Society against Emigration), a conservative group which encouraged a remigration back to Sweden, that, it believed, would nurture a stable rural population and strengthen Sweden by forestalling the temptation of the city and internationalist social movements. A second group studied the issue of emigration with a multivolume study aimed at fostering social reform in Sweden as befitted an industrializing society. Finally, those who celebrated the emigration established Riksföreningen för svenskhetens bevarande i utlandet (The National Society for the Preservation of Swedish Culture in Foreign Lands), a group that aimed at seizing the opportunity of "overseas Swedes" to enrich and empower Sweden. Each of these groups lost strength as world war and reduced emigration streams diminished the emigrant problem, but each had reflected an important element in Swedish society. The National Society against Emigration reflected a romantic and bucolic view of Sweden. The scholars, who studied the emigrant in the context of an industrializing society, provided a blueprint for the evolution of Sweden's response to industrialization and its social welfare system. And those who looked to overseas Sweden reflected a transnational perspective that is so common today in national communities in many nation-states.[19]


In 1990 2.9 million Americans claimed Swedish ancestry.[20] At present, around 160,000 residents speak a Scandinavian language at home, most of them being recent arrivals from Sweden in the suburbs of New York and Los Angeles.[21]

Minnesota is 9.9% Swedish; other states with 3-5% are North Dakota, Nebraska, Utah, South Dakota, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Iowa.

Church membership in 1936 was reported as:[22]

  • Augustana Synod 1,203 churches, 254,677 members
  • Baptist 300 churches 36,820 members
  • Evangelical Free 150 churches 9,000 members
  • Swedish Methodist 175 churches 19,441 members
  • Mission Covenant 441 churches 45,000 members

The affiliated membership of a church is usually much larged than the formal membership.


Scholarly secondary sources

  • Andersen, Arlow W. The Salt of the Earth: A History of Norwegian-Danish Methodism in America (1962).
  • Anderson, Philip J. and Dag Blanck, eds. Swedish-American Life in Chicago: Cultural and Urban Aspects of an Immigrant People, 1850-1930 (1992)
  • Anderson, Philip J. and Blanck, Dag, ed. Swedes in the Twin Cities: Immigrant Life and Minnesota's Urban Frontier. (2001). 367 pp.
  • Babcock, Kendric Charles. The Scandinavian Element in the United States (1914)
  • Baigent, Elizabeth. "Swedish Immigrants in Mckeesport, Pennsylvania: Did the Great American Dream Come True?" Journal of Historical Geography 2000 26(2): 239-272. Issn: 0305-7488 Fulltext: in Swetswise and Ingenta
  • Barton; H. Arnold, A Folk Divided: Homeland Swedes and Swedish-Americans, 1840-1940. (1994) online edition
  • Barton, H. Arnold. "Emigrants Versus Immigrants: Contrasting Views." Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 2001 52(1): 3-13.
  • Barton, H. Arnold. The Old Country and the New: Essays on Swedes and America. (2007) 311 pp. ISBN 978-0-8093-2714-0
  • Beijbom, Ulf. "The Historiography of Swedish America," Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 31 (1980): 257-85;
  • Beijbom, Ulf, ed. Swedes in America: Intercultural and Interethnic Perspectives on Contemporary Research. Växjö, Sweden: Emigrant-Inst. Väers Förlag, 1993. 224 pp.
  • Benson, Adolph B. and Naboth Hedin, eds. Swedes in America, 1638-1938. (1938) online edition
  • Blanck, Dag. Becoming Swedish-American: The Construction of an Ethnic Identity in the Augustana Synod, 1860-1917. Uppsala, 1997. 240 pp.
  • Björk, Ulf Jonas. "The Swedish-American Press as an Immigrant Institution." Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 2000 51(4): 268-282.
  • Blanck, Dag. The Creation of an Ethnic Identity: Being Swedish American in the Augustana Synod, 1860-1917, (2007) 256 pp isbn 978-0-8093-2715-7.
  • Hale, Frederick. Swedes in Wisconsin. Wisconsin State Historical Society (1983). 72 pp.
  • Hasselmo, Nils. Perspectives on Swedish Immigration (1978).
  • Kastrup, Allan. The Swedish Heritage in America (1975).
  • Kvisto, P., and D. Blanck, eds. American Immigrants and Their Generations: Studies and Commentaries on the Hansen Thesis after Fifty Years. (1990).
  • Lovoll, Odd S. ed., Nordics in America: The Future of Their Past (Northfield, Minn., 1993),
  • Ljungmark, Lars. Swedish Exodus. (1979). 165 pp.
  • Ljungmark, Lars. For Sale: Minnesota. Organized Promotion of Scandinavian Immigration, 1866-1873 (1971).
  • Magocsi, Paul Robert. Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples (1999), pp 1218–33
  • Nelson, Helge. The Swedes and the Swedish Settlements in North America 2 vols. (Lund, 1943)
  • Nelson, Robert J. If We Could Only Come to America . . . A Story of Swedish Immigrants in the Midwest. Sunflower U. Press, 2004. 166 pp.
  • Norman, Hans, and Harald Runblom. Transatlantic Connections: Nordic Migration to the New World After 1800 (1988).
  • Ostergren, R. C. A Community Transplanted: The Trans-Atlantic Experience of a Swedish Immigrant Settlement in the Upper Middle West, 1835-1915. (1988)
  • Pearson, D. M. The Americanization of Carl Aaron Swensson. Augustana Historical Society, 1977.
  • Pihlblad, C. T. "The Kansas Swedes". Southwestern Social Science Quarterly (1932) 13: 34-47.
  • Runblom, Harald and Hans Norman. From Sweden to America: A History of the Migration (Uppsala and Minneapolis, 1976)
  • Schnell; Steven M. "Creating Narratives of Place and Identity in 'Little Sweden, U.S.A.'" The Geographical Review, Vol. 93, 2003
  • Stephenson, George M. The Religious Aspects of Swedish Immigration (1932).
  • Swanson; Alan. Literature and the Immigrant Community: The Case of Arthur Landfors (1990)
  • Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (1980) excerpt and text search
  • Whyman, Henry C. The Hedstroms and the Bethel Ship Saga: Methodist Influence on Swedish Religious Life. (1992). 183 pp. online edition
  • Wittke, carl. We Who Built America: The Saga of the Immigrant (1939), 552pp good older history pp 260–77 online edition

Primary sources

See also

External links


  1. John Albin Stabb, "Why Did the Colonial Swedish Lutheran Congregations Become Episcopalian?" Anglican and Episcopal History 1992 61(4): 419-431. Issn: 0896-8039
  2. Roger Kvist, "A Social History of the Swedish Ethnic Units from Illinois in the Civil War." Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 1999 50(1): 20-42.
  3. H. Arnold Barton, "Partners and Rivals: Norwegian and Swedish Emigration and Immigrants." Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 2003 54(2): 83-110.
  4. Charles W. Estus, Sr. and McClymer, John F., eds. Gå till Amerika: The Swedish Creation of an Ethnic Identity for Worcester, Massachusetts. Worcester Historical Museum 1994. 162 pp.; Harald Runblom, "Leaving Sweden, Entering Worcester." Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 1995 46(1): pp 8-21, one of several articles in the issue on Worcester
  5. Chris Susag, "Retaining Modern Nordic-American Identity Amongst Diversity in the United States Today." Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 2002 53(1): 6-29.
  6. Dag Blanck, The Creation of an Ethnic Identity: Being Swedish American in the Augustana Synod, 1860–1917 (2006)
  7. H. Arnold Barton, "The Last Chieftains: Johannes and Helga Hoving." Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 1997 48(1): 5-25.
  8. Björk (2000)
  9. Gunnar Thander, "Cultural Components in Valkyrian's Construct of Ethnicity." Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 2001 52(1): 27-64.
  10. Penelope Niven, Carl Sandburg: A Biography (1991). Eric Johannesson examines the background of 72 writers in "Crofters' Boys and Black Sheep: on the Social Background of Swedish-American Writers." Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 1992 43(3): 170-178.
  11. Carl Isaacson, "The American Mo berg: Lillian Budd's Swedish American Trilogy." Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 2003 54(2): 111-132.
  12. For example Silverhill, Alabama; Lindstrom, Minnesota; Karlstad, Minnesota; Gothenburg, Nebraska; Andover, Illinois; Kingsburg, California; and Bishop Hill, Illinois.
  13. Steven M. Schnell, "The Making of Little Sweden, USA." Great Plains Quarterly 2002 22(1): 3-21. Issn: 0275-7664
  14. Mark L. Johnson, et al, "Accounts of Conditions at Bishop Hill, 1847-1850." Journal of Illinois History 2002 5(3): 213-236. Issn: 1522-0532
  15. Mark A. Granquist, "Conrad J. I. Bergendoff (1895-1997)." Lutheran Quarterly 2005 19(2): 167-184. Issn: 0024-7499
  16. Ingvar Dahlbacka, "Emigrantförsamlingen Som Allaktivitetscentrum," ["The Immigrant Congregation as an All-activity Center"]. Kyrkohistorisk Årsskrift [Sweden] 1999: 61-69. Issn: 0085-2619
  17. Hans Norman, "From Nerike to Wisconsin: Emigration of Baptists, Their Settlements and Congregations from 1868 to the 1920s." Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 1998 49(3): 195-209.
  18. William Mulder, "Willem Jacobus Debry and De Utah Nederlander, 1914-1935." Utah Historical Quarterly 2004 72(2): 100-118. Issn: 0042-143x
  19. H. Arnold Barton, The Old Country and the New: Essays on Swedes and America (2007)
  20. See Census report at
  21. David E. O'Connor, "Who Are We? The Swedish-Americans and the 1990 U.S. Census." Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 1997 48(2): 69-90 summarizes the demographic patterns.
  22. Benson and Hedin, (1938) p. 150, based on U.S. Census of Religion.