The House of Emigrants
#1 post on a series on Sweden
This post is part of a series on a two-week long journey to Sweden in May 2017. My husband and I started in Gothenburg the fourth largest city in Sweden. I attended the world’s largest Half Marathon for the 12th time.
We wanted to visit our son and family 800 km away in Uppland north of Stockholm, and before arriving there, we spent time in Smaaland. On future posts, I will show you glimpses of Gothenburg, Linné the famous botanist from the Age of Enlightenment and on houses and nature in Sweden, the Ikea Museum in their first Ikea store.
When my children and I lived in Sweden in the 1990s, they had to learn by heart the names of these landscapes in their fourth grade.
Once Smaaland was at the border to Denmark as we had three so-called landscapes Skaane, Halland and Blekinge. Our kings were good at building projects but bad at war, so we lost those areas in the 1600s.
Smaaland in southern Sweden is an area where the farmers had a hard job to cultivate the soil due to stony and rocky ground. In 1869 the potato harvest failed, and starvation forced many people to emigrate. Some villages were empty of people because of emigration.
From 1849-1890 one million people emigrated from Sweden to the United States. Most left Sweden of economic reasons and had their small stony lots exchanged in their new homeland with larger pieces of soil until 1890 they had to pay for the land. Then they tried to become employed in the new promised land.
At a particular time, the American authorities wanted the immigrants to come only one from a family to prove that they were able to support their family later. I guess that many tragedies had happened with whole families arriving and then not being able to manage to make a living in the new country.
We have heard of people who left Denmark, and the family never heard a word about their destiny.
In Vaexsjoe in Smaaland a museum called “The Emigrants’ House” is placed close to a lake. The permanent exhibition is called “The American Dream”. It’s shown how they got to the States. Some of the ships wrecked on their way like “Titanic” and ended tragically for many.
Pictures from Ellis Island show the humiliating ways by which they were selected. Those with an “X” written with chalk on their jackets were regarded as having mental defects. The lucky ones succeeded to get to cities like Brooklyn and Chicago and many other places. They kept together in “colonies” where the Scandinavian languages were spoken as very few had any knowledge of English.
From the book “I krig for Lincoln” in Danish “Fighting for Lincoln in the Civil War” by Anders Bo Rasmussen you can read that many of the newcomers from Scandinavia took part in the Civil War, mostly on the part of the Northern States. The author spent ten years researching the book in archives in the States. In the book, you follow certain Danish immigrants through the Civil War via their letters to their families.
Imagine having survived hunger and lack while living in Sweden, having started their own farming and then having to enrol in the army where thousands lost their lives in the horrible battlefields. Many died due to their wounds that couldn’t be adequately treated.
The young newcomers were afraid to go to war that those who survived were so much more integrated into their new country afterwards. They didn’t starve in Denmark but as only one son could inherit the farm the rest had to leave to find a job.
A Swedish genius engineer John Ericsson invented a panzer boat “USS Monitor” that came to rescue the rest of the Northern naval fleet which had been nearly destroyed by the Southern panzer boat “CSS Virginia” close to Fort Monroe in Eastern Virginia on 8 March 1862. In that way, he helped the government in winning the war.
The weather was warm and sunny the day we visited the museum. A famous Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg has his statue outside. He traced family stories in the States in the 1930s, and his novel “The Emigrants” became a bestseller, and a TV series in Scandinavia in the 1970s and the hard life is vividly described. (The movie has English subtitles).
The Swedish text in the picture says that in rainy Seattle one in ten inhabitants are of Scandinavian origin.
My friend through blogging Paula Pederson has written a book on her father’s life. Hans Pederson was a very successful contractor in Seattle and in Tacoma. I recommend her book on her search for her then famous but later forgotten father. Her story is touching as she only learnt about her biological father later in life and had to put her story together with small puzzle parts of the sparse words her mother had spoken about him along with the few items that had belonged to him.
Our visit to the “Emigrant House” was the end of nearly two weeks’ tour in Sweden. We were glad a group of Americans had found the place and made it a more vivid experience. The museum has an archive with original and copies of diaries and letters from the emigrated families. Some of those who managed well in life even went back to Sweden at the end of their lives.
A few pictures from the exhibition
The texts on the wall sheets were both in Swedish and in English. Many interesting photos can be seen but in my opinion, too much text to grasp the stories of many people and places.
The exhibition would benefit from a revision of the material and focus on fewer persons and their stories in different parts of the United States and why they left their home country.