Thursday, May 31, 2012

Swedish Immigration to Northeast Clay County

The Flag of Sweden
Have you ever counted the Griess’s in the Sutton phone book? Don’t bother. It’s way past several. That Griess list alone identifies Sutton a German community but there were other groups as populous.

The largest single group of settlers in and around Sutton was from “back East” from Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc. Germans were the most populous foreign group in Sutton but when the surrounding areas around Eldorado, Saronville and Verona are included we find that northeast Clay County was a significant Swedish settlement in Nebraska.

How did those Swedes get here?

The Swedes took an early stab at colonization when Queen Christina established New Sweden in the Delaware Valley in 1638. The colony was forcibly taken by the Dutch seventeen years later and in turn became an English colony when New Amsterdam was taken and became New York.

Historic Sweden and their Scandinavian neighbors have a rich history that gets little attention today. They were quite a belligerent bunch in sharp contrast to their current image. Sweden and Denmark played a role in the European wars through the time of Napoleon. Those wars and other hardships kept a firm cap on population levels in Northern Europe. But after 1814 the Swedes pulled back to within their borders isolating themselves from conflicts with an official policy of “nonalignment in peace aiming at neutrality in war.”

Infant mortality in Sweden dropped from 21% to 15% in the century prior to 1850 attributed to medical advances and improved diet. The country’s population rose steadily and quickly. Swedish historians joke that this population spike was due to peace, vaccination and potatoes. Then a series of poor harvests struck Sweden in the 1850’s coinciding with expansion of the western United States and the great Swedish migration was underway.
The Saronville Home Guard in formation before the Saronville Bank in 1917. The blacksmith ship is behind the bank, the General Dry Goods store to the left.

Larger farm families made it more and more difficult to subdivide the farm among the sons. Some young men left for the clergy or military but emigration became an attractive option.

One and a quarter million Swedes came to America between 1820 and 1930, three quarters of them from rural areas. By 1930, three million first, second and third generation Swedes lived in the United States. The population of Sweden was six million. Still, seldom did the emigration remove more than half the annual natural increase.

Families accounted for 60% of Swedish emigrants in the nineteenth century but only 30% in the twentieth. The rest were single men and women striking out on their own.

An exception was one large group’s migration. Pietist leader Eric Jansson led a band of 1500 followers seeking religious freedom to Henry County, Illinois in 1846. The group founded their communal town where they built two and three-story brick dormitories and civic buildings while surrounding settlers were living in soddies and clapboard houses. Their utopia did not last long but is worth a visit a few miles south of I-80 just east of the Quad Cities into Illinois. Bishop Hill is a fine museum town but don’t miss the Swedish meatballs and lingonberry pancakes.

Illinois was a popular first stop for Swedes arriving in the Midwest, especially Henry County and the Chicago North Side. Many moved on to Minnesota and the Dakotas from there.

The first Swedes in Nebraska arrived in Omaha in the 1860’s many working for the Union Pacific. The first settlements were just to the west around Wahoo in Mead, Malmo and Swedeburg. Soon Swedish communities appeared at Osceola, Stromsburg, Oakland, Gothenburg, etc.

The Swedish settlement of Stockholm was the first in Bryant Township, Fillmore County. Their church and cemetery is half way between Ong and Shickley.
Stockholm Church east of Ong

Establishing “firsts” is a challenge. Who was the first settler in northeast Clay County? Luther French’s homestead was the first Sutton settlement. Burr and Buck’s “History of Hamilton and Clay Counties” dates his homestead to March 14, 1870 and June 5th as the day he “located” to the site. That reference also mentions three Swedes, A. D. Peterson, Louis Peterson and Jonas Johnson as settling in Lewis Township in “the spring of 1870.” Two Swedish brothers named Norman settled in School Creek Township that same summer. Those six fellows were the first into northeast Clay County.

Nine “gottlandingar” (from the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea) arrived west of Sutton in 1871 after spending some time in Illinois. This group organized a Lutheran Church in 1872 in their original community of Huxley before moving the town west and renaming it Saronville. Another gottlandingar contingent arrived two years later, this time Methodists who started their own church. Their cemeteries are east of Saronville, the Lutheran on the south side of the old DLD highway; the Methodist is a quarter of a mile north of the road.

Further Swedish immigration from all parts of Sweden populated the countryside in all four townships of the northeast quadrant of the county from Eldorado in the north to south of Verona. Swedes shared Verona with a significant Danish population. Here the two ethnic communities shared a church but needed two cemeteries on opposite corners of the intersection a mile north of the town at the corner of Roads R and 316.

Perhaps the best description of Swedish migration comes from a set of four novels written in the mid-1900’s by Vilhelm Moberg. “The Emigrants”, “Unto a Good Land”, “The Settlers” and “Last Letter Home” describe the story of the Nilssons, why they left Sweden, how they came to Minnesota and how they adapted to the U. S. frontier in the 1850’s. This work is acclaimed as an accurate portrayal of the Swedish immigration story.

The German surnames are most common in the Sutton area but many of us use names such as Carlson, Nelson, Aspegren, Peterson, Johnson, Swanson, Israelson, Hultine, Ham or find those names on branches of our family trees. We share that connection to a picturesque land in Northern, very Northern Europe.
Saronville School, Clay County District #73 was a 10th grade school at its zenith.

This article first appeared in Sutton Life Magazine in March, 2012. For more information about that local Sutton publication contact Jarod Griess at or at 402-773-4203.

No comments: