Reasons for Emigration

The first Swedish emigrants were sent by their government in Stockholm to America in 1638, just 18 years after the arrival of the Mayflower. Their goal was to establish a Swedish colony in Delaware. This endeavour ended just 17 years later in 1655 when this colony was lost to the Dutch. Nevertheless, the Swedish settlers stayed and kept up their traditions and language.

The first significant phase of Swedish emigration began in the mid 1840s when the first organized groups started their journey to the United States. Like many other European emigrant groups, they had similar reasons for leaving: From 1750 to 1850 the population almost doubled. The introduction of potatoes increased the food supply and the introduction of vaccinations increased life expectancy, both of which led to a population increase. This increase had to be supported entirely by an agricultural society and economy, since Sweden had few cities and developed industries at that time.

Due to the divided inheritance of land, farms were fragmented into small plots, which could no longer feed the families. Poor soil, increased population and land mismanagement led to poverty among Swedish farmers. Attempts to reform the agricultural system in Sweden failed which, resulting in frustration and hopelessness.

These first emigrants can be considered “pioneers”. Civil servant Gustav Unonius, also known as “father of Swedish emigration”, emigrated in 1841 and founded the first Swedish settlement in Wisconsin. In this early stage of emigration the passengers travelled in the steerage category of the cargo ships, which were barks or brigs. Sailing from a Swedish port to to America could take several months since the ships lacked engines. Following in his footsteps was the farmer Peter Cassel and his group who left in 1845 and settled in New Sweden, Iowa. Noteworthy is also the group of 1,500 religious nonconformists, who came from Central Sweden to Bishop Hill, Illinois from 1846 to1850. It required a great deal of strength, courage and conviction to leave their homes behind for a strenuous voyage, many monthes on the sea and an uncertain future in a foreign country.

Gothenburg Market, ca. 1906 Gothenburg Market, ca. 1906
Library of Congress

During the second half of the 19th century the rural population began to move into the towns as industrialization arrived in Sweden. This migration pattern was supported by the development of new industries as well as the introduction of the railroads. The old cities grew faster than ever before. Compulsory school education, a welfare system and economic reforms promised to end poverty. The poor farmers were drawn to the cities. But they were often disappointed. As unskilled workers they found themselves homeless and sometimes ended up as beggars or prostitutes. During this second massive emigration wave, about a fourth of all Swedish emigrants came from cities.

More emigration. In 1867, 1868 and 1869 followed a series of catastrophic famines during the 1860s, caused first by too much rain, then drought and finally epidemics led to crop failures and even more misery among the poor farming population. Some sixty thousand Swedes left the country during these three years of starvation alone. This was the beginning of a mass emigration wave mainly to the United States from 1868 to 1914. After World War I the emigration picked up again but came to a halt again during the depression in the 1920s.

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