The Emigration Story
From Sweden to America
(revised: March 4, 2011)
The first Swedes came to America around 1638 when the Swedish government started a colony, New Sweden, in Delaware. Around 1655, Sweden sold it to Holland and most of the Swedes returned to Sweden. It wasn't until around 1840 that small numbers of Swedes emigrated, with the first more organized group leaving from Kisa in Östergötland in 1845. Large-scale Swedish emigration to the United States began in the mid 1800's. There were several factors that led to the high numbers of Swedes leaving their homeland, called "push" and "pull" factors.
One of the "push" factors was poverty due to an increase in population which put a strain on available land, especially for farming. In addition, there were repeated crop failures which made it difficult for those engaged in farming. Work also became scarce due to the invention and improvements in labor-saving machinery. Another "push" factor that led some Swedes to leave their homeland was religious persecution. The State Church of Sweden was the Lutheran Church. Until 1858, only the priests were allowed to lead religious meetings. There were some groups of people who had differences of opinion in Biblical interpretation. This resulted in a wave of emigration mainly from Hälsingland. These first organized groups emigrated around 1846 to 1855, and headed for Bishop Hill in Illinois. * Another reason that some left their homeland was to avoid the mandatory military service which was required by the government. Young men were required to train in the Swedish military for 30 days out of the year. Swedish conscription laws became increasingly strict and demanding, and many men decided to leave the country rather than face this conscription.
Among the "pull" factors were the promises of a better life in America by the emigration agents, and the availability of free land, as well as encouragement by other family members in the new land. Recruitment by manufacturing companies also encouraged emigration. It is estimated that around 1,300,000 people left Sweden between 1850 and 1920, approximately 20 percent of the Swedish population. Large numbers emigrated from Småland and Värmland. Most of them were farmers, but some were iron workers, craftsmen and other professionals.
Emigration from around 1845 to 1870 was mostly poor families searching for new land for farming. The later emigrants, in the late 1800's and early 1900's, were mostly single people who were searching for the possiblity of adventure and better income.
The journey to America was difficult. Families left their homes, and for many, said good-bye to other family members and friends they would never see again. From 1845 to 1855, crossing the ocean aboard a sailing ship took about 6 to 8 weeks, and the conditions were bad. After 1855, there was a steamer shuttle line from Göteborg to Hull. The passengers would then take a train to Liverpool, where they would board a steam ship to America. The journey across the Atlantic at that time took about 10 to 14 days.
Conditions aboard the ships made the journey difficult for the passengers. Many immigrants were booked into the less expensive steerage class, which was located in the lower deck where the steering controls and engines were housed. The compartments were generally over-crowded and infectious diseases could easily spread among those on board. Many passengers stayed in their bunks for much of the journey, suffering from sea-sickness, as they crossed the rough ocean. As time went on, the ship owners saw an opportunity to make money on the mass emigration, which resulted in lower prices and eventually better conditions for the passengers.
Many of those who emigrated from Sweden to America after 1892 passed through Ellis Island in New York City. Prior to that date, Castle Garden in the Battery served as the immigration station in New York.
Once they arrived at port in America, the immigrants would have to pass through an inspection. If their papers were in order and they showed no obvious signs of physical ailment, the process would last about three to five hours. If a medical examination revealed illness, the immigrant would be held in a detention area and be subjected to a more detailed medical exam. In some instances, depending on the findings, this would result in quarantine or deportation.
Many of those who emigrated from Sweden headed for the rich and fertile lands of the Midwest to take up farming, while another group came to New England for the wire mills and the manufacturing and ceramics industries. Worcester, Massachusetts had the largest settlement of Swedish immigrants due to the large number of industries employing the various skills that they had developed in the "old country." The Yankee and Swedish manufacturers openly recruited Swedes to come to America to fill the vacancies within their companies. In some instances there would be assistance with passage fare if they would come to Worcester.
American Steel and Wire, Southworks Plant in Quinsigamond Village, Worcester, was one of the largest employers of Swedes. By 1900. the largest concentration of Swedish-Americans lived within walking distance of this mill in Quinsigamond Village.
When many of the Swedish women came to America, they found jobs as domestic helpers readily available and they were valued by their employers for their hard work and honesty. The women were skilled in the art of food preparation, sewing and knitting. These skills were developed in Sweden, where, as young girls, they were required to take classes in culinary arts and home economics.
The first Swedes in Worcester came in 1868. Worcester was home to the largest percentage of Swedish immigrants to America, based on city size, in the mid 1800's. In the federal census in 1900, there were 9,916 people in Worcester who were born in Sweden. By 1930, it has been estimated that one in five people in Worcester were Swedish-American.
(from my book, Treasures From the Past: Tracing My Swedish Heritage)