Swedish Americans

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Swedish Americans
Total population
(Swedish descent
1.4% of the US population (2009)
Regions with significant populations
Midwestern United States, especially Minnesota
American English, Swedish
Predominantly Lutheranism, Church of Sweden, Protestantism, Catholicism, Atheism, Mormonism.
Related ethnic groups
Swedes, Swedish Britons, Swedish Canadians, Swedish Australians, Scandinavian Americans, Finnish Americans, Danish Americans, Norwegian Americans, Icelandic Americans

Swedish Americans (Swedish: Svenskamerikaner) comprise Americans who have ancestral roots from Sweden, most of whom have been the about 1.2 million Swedish immigrants during 1885–1915 and their descendants. They formed tight-knit communities, primarily in the American Midwest, and intermarried with other Swedish-Americans. Most were Lutheran Christians who were affiliated with predecessor bodies of what are now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) or Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod or North American Lutheran Church (NALC); some were Methodists.[2]

Historically, Swedish Americans have been concentrated in the Midwest, roughly in the area west and northwest of Chicago. Many of them came to Minnesota. A contingent also settled in the woods of northern Maine.



The C. A. Nothnagle Log House (ca. 1638) in New Jersey is one of the oldest surviving houses from the New Sweden colony and is one of the oldest log cabins and houses in the U.S.

The first Swedish Americans were the settlers of New Sweden. A colony established by Queen Christina of Sweden in 1638, it centered around the Delaware Valley including parts of the present-day states of Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. New Sweden was incorporated into New Netherland in 1655 and ceased to be an official territory of the Realm of Sweden. However, many Swedish and Finnish colonists remained and were allowed some political and cultural autonomy.

Present day reminders of the history of New Sweden are reflected in the presence of the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia, Fort Christina State Park in Wilmington, Delaware, Governor Printz Park and The Printzhof in Essington, Pennsylvania.[3]


Swedish emigration to the United States had reached new heights in 1896, and it was in this year that the Vasa Order of America, a Swedish American fraternal organization, was founded to help immigrants, who often lacked an adequate network of social services. Swedish Americans usually came through New York City and subsequently settled in the upper Midwest. Most were Lutheran and belonged to synods now associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, including the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church. Theologically, they were pietistic;[citation needed] politically they often supported progressive causes and prohibition.[citation needed]

In the year 1900, Chicago was the city with the second highest number of Swedes after Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. By then, Swedes in Chicago had founded the Evangelical Covenant Church and established such enduring institutions as Swedish Covenant Hospital and North Park University. Many others settled in Minnesota in particular, followed by Wisconsin; as well as New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois.[4] Like their Norwegian American and Danish American brethren, many Swedes sought out the agrarian lifestyle they had left behind in Sweden, as many immigrants settled on farms throughout the Midwest.

New England

The passport of Hilmer Emmanuel Salomonsson, 1921 From Guldsmedshyttan, Sweden to Worcester, MA

In the east, New England became a destination for many skilled industrial workers and Swedish centers developed in areas such as Jamestown, New York; Providence, Rhode Island, and Boston. A small Swedish settlement was also begun in New Sweden, Maine. 51 Swedish settlers came to the wooded area, led by W.W. Thomas, who called them "mina barn i skogen" (my children in the woods). Upon arrival, they knelt in prayer and thanksgiving to God. This area soon expanded and other settlements were named Stockholm, Jemptland, and Westmanland, in honor of their Swedish heritage. (Stockholm is the capital of Sweden, while Jämtland and Västmanland are Swedish provinces.)

The town of New Sweden, Maine celebrates St. Lucia, Midsummer, and Founders Day (July 23). It is a Swedish-American community that continues to honor traditions of the old country. Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church was served by a native of Sweden as recently as 1979-1985 (The Rev. Hans Olof Andræ b. 1933 Vimmerby, Sweden) who was known to occasionally conduct special worship services in Swedish.

The largest settlement in New England was Worcester, Massachusetts. Here, Swedes were drawn to the city's wire and abrasive industries. By the early 20th century numerous churches, organizations, businesses, and benevolent associations had been organized. Among them, the Swedish Cemetery Corporation (1885), the Swedish Lutheran Old People's Home(1920), Fairlawn Hospital (1921), and the Scandinavian Athletic Club (1923). These institutions survive today, although some have mainstreamed their names.

Numerous local lodges of national Swedish American organizations also flourished and a few remain solvent as of 2008. Within the city's largest historic "Swedish" neighborhood-Quinsigamond Village—street signs read like a map of Sweden: Stockholm Street, Halmstad Street, and Malmo Street among others. Worcester's Swedes were historically staunch Republicans and this political loyalty is behind why Worcester remained a Republican stronghold in an otherwise Democratic state well into the 1950s.

West Coast

Many Swedes also came to the Pacific Northwest during the turn of the twentieth century, along with Norwegians. Notable influence can be felt in the neighborhood of Ballard in Seattle, and by the Swedish Medical Center, a major hospital also in Seattle.


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 to 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. Blanck (2006) argues that 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.[5]

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 (Swedish for "The Homeland"), 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.[6]

Swedes, moreover, were among the first founders of America with their New Sweden colony in Delaware. 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 culture to stress its position as loyal adherents to the larger Protestant American society.[7]

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.[8]


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.[9] 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.[10]

The community produced numerous writers and journalists, of whom the most famous was poet-historian Carl Sandburg from Illinois.[11] 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, which were translated in the 1950s and 1960s.[12]

Socioeconomic mobility

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 difficult living and working conditions rather than move on or return to Sweden where good jobs were scarce 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.[13] Swedish Americans formed their own social identity within the U.S. during the period through their memberships of social clubs and their deliberate membership or non-membership in different ethnically-based institutions.[14]

The story of A. V. Swanson, who in 1911 left Bjuv at age 20 and settled in Ames, Iowa eight years later is a case study in farming and business success.[15]

Working class Swedes

The Swedish group was, as many other emigrant groups, highly differentiated. There still is a lot of research waiting to be done on the more urban and working-class parts of the Swedish immigrant group, where some ended up in slums like Swede Hollow outside St Paul, Minnesota, which had a population of about roughly 1,000 squatters around 1890 (slightly less in 1900, according to the census carried out that year). Child mortality was high and diphtheria and pertussis common. Many also died in work related accidents. Drunkenness and wife beatings were also common.[16]


The Swedes were during the first waves of migration also subject to certain racial stereotypes and prejudices. The expression "the dumb Swede" was established as they had problems learning English. The immigrant historian Rudolph Vecoli has pointed out [17] that they were not initially always recognized as "whites" in the Anglo-Saxon or German sense, but after the wave of Polish immigration this attitude shifted. Many also complained about the smell of the Swedes that was considered to smell like herring. Towards the end of the 19th century the attitudes shifted and the Swedes were considered cleanlier than more newly arrived, and the "Swedish maid" became highly popular, not least because of the notion that they were clean and orderly.[18]

Swedish Americans opposed entry into World War I, in which Sweden was neutral. Political pressures during the war encouraged 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.

By the 1930s, assimilation into American life styles was almost complete, with few experiences of hostility or discrimination.[19]

Preserving Swedish cultural heritage (1940-present)

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.[20] 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.[21]

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.[22]

Organizations preserving Swedish Culture

Cities preserving Swedish Culture

  • Bishop Hill, IL
  • Kingsburg, CA
  • Lindsborg, KS
  • Scandia, MN
  • St. Peter, MN

Cities built with Swedish labor

  • Scotia, CA - Humboldt County
  • Astoria, OR

Swedish American of the Year

Annually a Swedish American of the Year is awarded through Vasa Order of America District Lodges 19 and 20 in Sweden.

Swedish American Business Owners

  • Nordstrom stores - John W. Nordstrom
  • South Coast Plaza, South Coast Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Concert Hall, Segerstrom High School, Costa Mesa, CA - Henry Segerstrom and family business C.J. Segerstrom & Sons [4]


Formal church membership in 1936 was reported as:[23]

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

Other churches

  • Swedish Seaman's Church - located in many states in the USA
  • Church of Sweden, Los Angeles - Svenska kyrkan
  • Swedenborgian Church
  • Danish Church [5]

The Church of Sweden was supported by Sweden but they are now ran independently (2015).


A few small towns in the U.S. have retained a few visible Swedish characteristics. Some examples include Silverhill, Alabama; Cambridge, Minnesota; Lindstrom, Minnesota; Karlstad, Minnesota; Lindsborg, Kansas; Gothenburg, Nebraska; Oakland, Nebraska; Andover, Illinois; Kingsburg, California; Bishop Hill, Illinois; Jamestown, New York; and Westby, Wisconsin, as well as significant areas of central Texas, including New Sweden and Georgetown, and areas in northern Maine: New Sweden, Stockholm, Jemptland, and Westmanland.[24]

Around 3.9% of the U.S. population is said to have Scandinavian ancestry (which also includes Norwegian Americans, Danish Americans, Finnish Americans, and Icelandic Americans). At present, according to the 2005 American Community Survey, only 56,324 Americans continue to speak the Swedish language at home, which is down from 67,655 in 2000.[25] Most of them being recent immigrants. Swedish American communities typically switched to English by 1920. Swedish is rarely taught in high schools or colleges, and Swedish language newspapers or magazines are rare.

Swedish Americans by State

The ten states with the most Swedish Americans

1. Minnesota Minnesota 586,517 2. California California 559,897 3. Illinois Illinois 303,044 4. Washington (state) Washington 213,134 5. Michigan Michigan 161,301 6. Florida Florida 155,010 7. Wisconsin Wisconsin 149,977 8. New York New York 133,788 9. Texas Texas 127,871 10. Massachusetts Massachusetts 119,267

The ten states with the most Swedish Americans in their populations (by percentage)

1. Minnesota Minnesota 9.9% 2. North Dakota North Dakota 5.0% 3. Nebraska Nebraska 4.9% 4. Utah Utah 4.3% 5. South Dakota South Dakota 3.9% 6. Washington (state) Washington 3.6% 7. Idaho Idaho 3.5% 8. Wyoming Wyoming 3.5% 9. Montana Montana 3.4% 10. Iowa Iowa 3.3%

See also


  1. "Census 2008 Community Survey"
  2. Barton, H. Arnold 1994; A Folk Divided: Homeland Swedes and Swedish-Americans, 1840-1940. (Southern Illinois University Press)
  3. Lazzerini, Rickie Where Did The Swedes Go? The Causes of Swedish Immigration and Settlement Patterns in America (University of California, Santa Barbara. 2005) http://www.kindredtrails.com/Where-Did-The-Swedes-Go.html
  4. "The Undeveloped West or, Five Years in the Territories" Page 39, 1873
  5. Dag Blanck, The Creation of an Ethnic Identity: Being Swedish American in the Augustana Synod, 1860–1917 (2006)
  6. Dag Blanck, The Creation of an Ethnic Identity: Being Swedish American in the Augustana Synod, 1860–1917 (2006)
  7. Dag Blanck, The Creation of an Ethnic Identity: Being Swedish American in the Augustana Synod, 1860–1917 (2006)
  8. H. Arnold Barton, The Last Chieftains: Johannes and Helga Hoving (Swedish-American Historical Quarterly. 1997 48(1): 5-25.)
  9. Björk (2000)
  10. Gunnar Thander, "Cultural Components in Valkyrian's Construct of Ethnicity." Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 2001 52(1): 27-64.
  11. 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.
  12. Carl Isaacson, The American Moberg: Lillian Budd's Swedish American Trilogy (Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 2003 54(2): 111-132)
  13. Baigent (2000)
  14. Elizabeth Baigent, "'Very Useful to Young Men in the Mills?' Christian Youth Movements and Swedish Migrants in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, 1880-1930," (Journal of American Ethnic History, Winter 2010, Vol. 29#2 pp 5-41)
  15. Cain, Betty Swanson. An American from Sweden: The Story of A. V. Swanson. Carbondale, University of Southern Illinois Press, 1987. ISBN 0-8093-1362-6
  16. David Lanegran: Swedish Neighborhoods of the twin cities - from Swede Hollow to Arlington Hills, in Anderson & Blanck: Swedes in the twin cities, Minnesota Historical Press 2001.
  17. Anderson & Blanck, p. 17
  18. DN: Välkommen till Swede Hollow: en svensk slum
  19. Chris Susag, "Retaining Modern Nordic-American Identity Amongst Diversity in the United States Today." Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 2002 53(1): 6-29.
  20. For example Silverhill, Alabama; Lindstrom, Minnesota; Karlstad, Minnesota; Gothenburg, Nebraska; Andover, Illinois; Kingsburg, California; and Bishop Hill, Illinois.
  21. Steven M. Schnell, The Making of Little Sweden, USA (Great Plains Quarterly 2002 22(1): 3-21) Issn: 0275-7664
  22. Steven M. Schnell, The Making of Little Sweden, USA (Great Plains Quarterly 2002 22(1): 3-21) Issn: 0275-7664
  23. Benson and Hedin, (1938) p. 150, based on U.S. Census of Religion.
  24. New Sweden Historical Society
  25. "Data Center Results - Compare". Mla.org. 2010-01-18. Retrieved 2012-01-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Scholarly secondary sources

  • Akenson, Donald Harman. Ireland, Sweden, and the Great European Migration, 1815-1914 (McGill-Queen's University Press; 2011) 304 pages; compares the Irish and Swedish emigration
  • 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., "From Compulsion to Persuasion: Voluntary Religion and the Swedish Immigrant Experience," Swedish-American Historical Quarterly, 66#1 (Jan. 2015), 3-23.
  • 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)
  • 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 pp 3–13
  • Barton, H. Arnold. The Old Country and the New: Essays on Swedes and America (2007) 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 (Yale University Press. 1938) ISBN 978-0-8383-0326-9
  • Björk, Ulf Jonas. "The Swedish-American Press as an Immigrant Institution," Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 2000 51(4): 268-282
  • Blanck, Dag. Becoming Swedish-American: The Construction of an Ethnic Identity in the Augustana Synod, 1860-1917. (Uppsala, 1997)
  • 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).
  • Johnson, Amandus. The Swedish Settlements on the Delaware, 1638-1664 (Two Volumes. International Printing Company, Philadelphia. 1911-1927)
  • 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. (University of Illinois Press, 1990)
  • Lovoll, Odd S. ed., Nordics in America: The Future of Their Past (Northfield, Minn., Norwegian American Historic Association. 1993)
  • Ljungmark, Lars. Swedish Exodus. (1996).
  • 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)
  • Norman, Hans, and Harald Runblom. Transatlantic Connections: Nordic Migration to the New World After 1800 (1988).
  • Ostergren, R. C. 1988. A Community Transplanted: The Trans-Atlantic Experience of a Swedish Immigrant Settlement in the Upper Middle West, 1835-1915. (University of Wisconsin Press).
  • Pearson, D. M. The Americanization of Carl Aaron Swensson. (Rock Island, Ill.: Augustana Historical Society, 1977)
  • Pihlblad, C. T. "The Kansas Swedes," Southwestern Social Science Quarterly 1932. 13#1 pp 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, (2003) Vol. 93,
  • Stephenson, George M. The Religious Aspects of Swedish Immigration (1932).
  • Swanson, Alan. Literature and the Immigrant Community: The Case of Arthur Landfors (Southern Illinois University Press, 1990)
  • Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (1980) [6]
  • Vecoli, Rudolph J. "'Over the Years I Have Encountered the Hazards and Rewards that Await the Historian of Immigration,' George M. Stephenson and the Swedish American Community," Swedish American Historical Quarterly 51 (April 2000): 130-49.
  • 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

  • Barton, H. Arnold, ed. Letters from the Promised Land: Swedes in America, 1840-1914. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press for the Swedish Pioneer Historical Society, 1975.)
  • Lintelman, Joy K. ed. I Go to America: Swedish American Women and the Life of Mina Anderson (2009)

External links

Media, Publications, Education

Organizations and Associations

Museums and Research Centers

Festivals, Music, Points of Interest

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