Swedish americans

by Mark A. Granquist


The Kingdom of Sweden is a constitutional monarchy that is located on the eastern half of the Scandinavian peninsula in Northern Europe. It measures 173,648 square miles (449,750 square kilometers), sharing the Scandinavian peninsula with Norway to the west and north. Across the Baltic Sea, Sweden borders Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the East, Poland, Germany, and Denmark to the south.

As of 1992, Sweden had a population of 8,602,000. The vast majority are ethnic Swedes, with minorities of Laplanders (Sami), Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Norwegians, and Danes, and, in the late twentieth century, immigrants from southeastern Europe and the Middle East. Virtually all Swedes officially belong to the Lutheran State Church of Sweden; there are smaller groups of Pentecostalists, Methodists, Covenant, Baptists, and Roman Catholics. The country's official language is Swedish, and the capital is Stockholm. The Swedish flag is a yellow cross on a medium blue field.


The Swedes are descended from the Gothic tribes that moved into Sweden following the melting glaciers, probably during the Neolithic period. The various Gothic settlements were centered in eastern Sweden and the island of Gotland in the Baltic. During the Viking period (800-1050 A.D. ) the Swedes pushed eastward into Russia, and were trading as far south as the Black Sea. In Russia, the Swedes (labeled by the Slavs as the "Rus") ruled many areas, especially in the trading town of Novgorod. By about 1000, most of central and eastern Sweden was united in the kingdom of the Svear, although this was disputed by their powerful neighbors, the Danes and the Norwegians. Christianity was introduced to the Swedes by St. Ansgar in 829, although it was slow to take hold and was not fully established until the late twelfth century, under the rule of King Eric IX. Medieval Sweden was slowly incorporated into the European world, and began to form the political and social structures characteristic to its society even up to this day. King Magnus VII was able to unite Norway and Sweden under his rule in 1319, but the arrangement was unstable and did not last. In 1397 Norway and Sweden were united with Denmark, under the rule of the Danish Queen Margaret in the Union of Kalmar. Sweden felt slighted in the Danish-dominated Union, however, and after a Danish massacre of Swedish nobles in 1520, the Swedes rose against the Danes and, led by King Gustav Vasa, freed themselves from Danish rule in 1523. King Gustavus Adolphus fought for the Protestants during the 30 Years War (1618-1648), and gained possessions for Sweden in northern Germany; King Charles X gained further territory in Poland and the Baltic States. Sweden's age of glory ended with the rise of Russia, which defeated the Swedes in the Northern War (1700-1721). Sweden lost Finland to Russia in 1809, but received Norway in compensation in 1814 (a union that lasted until 1905). During the nineteenth century, Sweden underwent economic, social, and political transformation that only partially offset a large-scale immigration to North America. In the twentieth century, Sweden has maintained its political and military neutrality, and has become one of the most highly developed industrialized countries in the world, with stable politics and an extensive social welfare system.


In 1638, during Sweden's era as a European power, a Swedish merchant company founded the colony of New Sweden in Delaware. This became an official Swedish colony under the leadership of Governor Johan Printz, but struggled because of indifference from the Swedish government; the colony never prospered, reaching a total of only about 500 inhabitants. In 1655 the Dutch took the colony by force; the Dutch were in turn defeated by the English 11 years later. A Swedish-speaking enclave existed in the Delaware River valley until the nineteenth century, however. Swedes played a role in early U.S. history. They were a force in the Revolutionary War. John Hanson of Maryland was the first president of the United States Congress from 1781-1782. Trade and adventure brought a number of Swedes to America in the early national period, but this immigration was rather limited.

Serious emigration from Sweden to America began after 1840, and this flow became a torrent after 1860. From 1851 to 1930, more than 1.2 million Swedes immigrated to America, a number that represented perhaps 25 percent of the total population of Sweden during this period. The country had one of the highest rates of emigration of all of the European nations. The rates of immigration to America fluctuated from year to year, however, reflecting economic conditions in both Sweden and America. The first great wave arrived between 1868 and 1873, as famine in Sweden and opportunity for land in America drove 100,000 Swedes, mainly farm families, from their homeland. They relocated primarily in the upper Midwest. The largest wave of immigrants, approximately 475,000, arrived between 1880 and 1893, again due to economic conditions. This time not only farm families emigrated, but also loggers, miners, and factory workers from the cities. The American Depression of 1893 slowed Swedish immigration until the first decade of the twentieth century, when 220,000 Swedes came to America. World War I halted emigration, and improved economic conditions in Sweden kept it to a trickle after 1920.

The immigration of Swedes to America during the nineteenth century was a movement of youth—young Swedes leaving their homeland for improved economic opportunity in America. The first waves of immigration were more rural and family oriented, but as the immigration progressed this pattern changed; young single men (and later women) left Sweden to find employment in American cities. Economic advancement was the primary reason they emigrated. There were those who resented the political, social, and religious confinement of nineteenth-century Sweden, of course, but research has shown that the overwhelming motivation driving the emigrants westward over the Atlantic was economic.


The patterns of Swedish immigrant settlement changed during the course of the nineteenth century, varying with economic conditions and opportunities. The initial wave of immigration in the 1840s and 1850s was directed toward rural areas of Illinois and Iowa, especially the Mississippi River valley and Chicago. In the 1860s and 1870s immigration shifted toward Minnesota and the upper Midwest, and the Swedish population of Minneapolis grew substantially. In the 1880s rural migration spread to Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. With the changing complexion of immigration later in the century (more single youth heading toward urban areas) came the growth of immigration to the East and West Coasts. Significant Swedish-American centers were established in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine in the East, and Washington and California in the West, along with a Swedish colony in Texas. By the turn of the century, Swedish Americans were about 60 percent urban; Chicago was the second largest Swedish city in the world, followed by Minneapolis, New York City, Seattle/Tacoma, Omaha, and San Francisco. Smaller cities with a concentration of Swedes included Worchester, Massachusetts, Jamestown, New York, and Rockford, Illinois. By 1930 Swedish America (first and second-generation Swedish Americans) had peaked at 1.5 million people; secondary internal migrations had dispersed the Swedes around the country. The 1990 census reported that almost 4.7 million Americans claimed some Swedish ancestry (making it the thirteenth largest ethnic group), with almost 40 percent in the Midwest, 30 percent in the West, and 15 percent each in the South and Northeast. California leads all states with 590,000 Swedish Americans, followed by Minnesota (535,000), Illinois (374,000), Washington (258,000), and Michigan (194,000).


Swedish immigrants were generally well accepted by mainstream America and tended to blend in easily with their neighbors, especially in the Midwest. Coming from a Protestant, northern European country, the Swedes were seen as desirable immigrants. Overall, they were a literate, skilled, and hard-working group, and found employment on farms and in mines and factories. Young Swedish women were especially sought as domestic servants in American homes. In many areas, especially in the upper Midwest, Swedes settled in close proximity to other Scandinavian and German immigrants. Despite some ethnic frictions, these European immigrants had a dominant influence on the culture and society of the region.

Acculturation and Assimilation

In general, Swedish immigrants made a fairly quick and smooth transition to life in their new country and most became quickly Americanized. As a northern European people, the Swedes shared with Americans a common religious and social heritage, and a common linguistic base. Swedish immigrants settled over a wide range of areas. Because they were drawn mostly to cities, rather than tight-knit rural settlements, they were immersed immediately in American culture. In addition, there was a growing interest in, and influence from, America in nineteenth-century Sweden. During the years prior to 1914, the Swedish American community was continually replenished by newcomers; however, World War I brought with it anti-foreign attitudes, which resulted in a drastic drop in emigration and forced the Swedish American community to Americanize rapidly.

The concept of Swedish America furthered the acculturation process. In an essay in The Immigration of Ideas, Conrad Bergendoff described the community as "a state of thinking and feeling that bridged the Atlantic." In this enclave, which existed from the Civil War until the Great Depression, first and second-generation immigrants created their own society, helping one another make the transition to a new culture. After World War I this community was rapidly integrated into the larger American society. The most telling indicator of this was the transition from the use of Swedish to English. By 1935 the majority of Swedish Americans primarily spoke the language of their new home.

With assimilation and acculturation, though, came a renewed interest in Swedish history and culture as children and grandchildren of immigrants sought to preserve some of the traditions of their homeland. Many institutions dedicated to this preservation were established: historical and fraternal societies, museums, and foundations. It was this dynamic that historian Marcus Hansen observed in his own generation, and which prompted his famous axiom, "What the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember." (Marcus Lee Hansen, The Problem of the Third Generation Immigrant, Rock Island, Illinois: Augustana Historical Society, 1938; p. 9).


The Swedish immigrants interacted most readily with other Nordic-American groups, namely Danes, Norwegians, and Finns. There was a close affinity with the Finns, many of whom were Swedish-speaking settlers from western Finland (Sweden had ruled Finland from the Middle Ages until 1809). There was a special, good-natured rivalry between the Swedes and the Norwegians in America, which still results in quite a few "Swede" and "Norwegian" jokes. Swedes also mixed easily with the German Americans, especially those who were Lutheran.

These Swedish American children are dressed in traditional costume for a fair.
These Swedish American children are dressed in traditional costume for a fair.


Swedish American cooking is quite ordinary; traditional dishes represent the cooking of the Swedish countryside, which is heavily weighted toward meat, fish, potatoes, and other starches. In the area of baked goods, however, Swedish American cooks produce delicious breads, cookies, and other delights. The holiday seasons, especially Christmas, are times for special ethnic dishes such as lutefisk (baked cod), meatballs, and ham, which are arranged on a buffet-style Smorgasbord table, surrounded by mountains of baked goods, and washed down with gallons of strong, thick Swedish coffee.


The immigrants did not have a particularly distinctive way of dressing, and generally adopted the clothing styles of their new homeland. Some brought with them the colorful, festive clothing representative of their region of Sweden, but such ethnic costumes were not worn often. The distinctive regional festive dress of nineteenth-century Sweden has, however, been revived by some Americans of Swedish descent, seeking to get in touch with their roots. This dress is sometimes worn for ethnic celebrations or dance competitions.


Along with the traditional holidays celebrated by Americans, many Swedish Americans celebrate two additional holidays. Along with other Scandinavians, Swedes celebrate the summer solstice, or Midsummer's Day, on June 21. This is a time for feasting and outdoor activities. In many areas of Swedish America this day is celebrated as "Svenskarnas dag" (Swedes' Day), a special festival of Swedish American culture and solidarity, with picnics, parades, and ethnic activities. December 13 is Saint Lucia Day. Remembering an early Christian saint who brought light in the darkness of the world, a young woman is selected to be the "Lucia bride." Dressed in a white gown with a wreath of candles on her head, she leads a procession through town and serves special breads and sweet rolls. The Luciafest is an important holiday leading into the celebration of Christmas.


America in the nineteenth century was often a dangerous place for immigrants; many worked hazardous jobs, and health care was frequently lacking. As the Swedish American community began to form, various immigrant groups, especially the churches, established medical and other types of organizations to care for the arriving Swedes. Hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, sanitariums, and orphanages were all a part of the network of care for the immigrants. Especially in the urban centers of the Midwest, Swedish American medical institutions remain in operation to this day.

Some Swedish immigrants and their Swedish American descendants sought medical careers, receiving their training mainly in the United States. After completing their education, some returned to Sweden to practice there. The only significant Swedish influence on American medicine was in the field of physical therapy, where techniques from Sweden were introduced into American medical centers.

There are few diseases or conditions that seem to be specific to the Swedish American community; problems that are prominent in Sweden, such as heart disease, depression, and alcoholism, are also seen within the Swedish American community, as well as in the rest of the United States.


Swedish is a North Germanic language, related to Norwegian, Danish, and German. There are no significant linguistic minorities in Sweden. Into the modern period there were some dialects present in various regions of the country, but by the twentieth century these variations had largely disappeared. Swedish uses the standard Roman alphabet, along with the additional vowels "ä," "ö", and "å." The language is pronounced with a particular "sing-song" lilt, and in areas of heavy Scandinavian settlement in the United States (especially the upper Midwest) this lilt is apparent among English-speaking descendants of the Scandinavian immigrants.

For the immigrants in America, Swedish remained the standard language, especially at home and at church, but the settlers soon learned enough English to manage their affairs. Some picked up a fractured combination of English and Swedish, which was derisively called "Swinglish." As the cultural world of Swedish America developed, English words and expressions crept into the community and a distinctive form of American Swedish developed that maintained older linguistic traditions of the Sweden of the 1860s and 1870s. The immigrant community was divided over the question of language, with some urging the retention of Swedish, and others seeking a rapid transition to English. For many older immigrants, especially of the first generation, English remained a very foreign language with which they were not comfortable. Swedish remained the language of the churches and social organizations, but the transition to English was rapid especially among the children of the immigrants. By 1920 English was beginning to replace Swedish in the immigrant community. Bilingual approaches were a temporary measure in many immigrant organizations, in order to meet the needs of both younger and older members of the immigrant community.


Common Swedish greeting and other expressions include: God morgon ("goo mor-on")—Good morning; God dag ("goo dahg")—Good day, or good afternoon; God afton ("goo ahf-ton")—Good evening; God natt ("goo naht")—Good night; På återseende ("poh oh-ter-seh-en-deh")—I'll be seeing you; Adjö ("ah-yoe")—Good-bye; Hur står det till? ("hewr stohr deh teel")—How are you?; Tak ("tahk")—Thanks!; Förlåt ("foer-loht")—Excuse me; Var så god ("vahr soh goo")—You're welcome; Lycka till ! ("leuk-kah teel")—Good luck; Vi ses i morgon ("vee sehs ee mor-on")—See you tomorrow.

Family and Community Dynamics

When the first wave of immigrants came from Sweden to America in the 1840s and 1850s, the settlers traveled in large groups composed of entire families and led by a pastor or other community leader. These groups established the beginnings of the ethnic communities that are still today identifiably Swedish American. Family and social structures became the bedrock of the larger community, and often these communal settlements maintained the characteristics and customs of the areas in Sweden from which the immigrants had come.

Swedish America was thus founded on a tight communal and familial structure, and these characteristics were present both in rural and urban settlements. But this pattern was soon altered by a number of factors, including the increased immigration of single young people, the geographical dispersion of the Swedish immigrants, and secondary migrations within the United States. Although Swedish Americans rarely inter-married (and then usually

"M ost dear to me are the shoes my mother wore when she first set foot on the soil of America. You must see these shoes to appreciate the courage my parents had and the sacrifices they made giving up family and security to try for a better life, but not knowing what lay ahead. We came to this country as many others did, POOR! My mother's shoes tell a whole story."

Birgitta Hedman Fichter, 1924, cited in Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the Immigrant Experience, edited by Ivan Chermayeff et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1991).

only with other Scandinavian American groups), Swedes assimilated rapidly into American society, and by the second or third generation were indistinguishable from the general Anglo-American population. Their family patterns and social organization also became indistinct from that of the wider populations.


Because of widespread literacy in nineteenth-century Sweden, Swedish immigrants were almost universally literate (at least in Swedish), and education was of primary importance to them. They eagerly embraced the American public school system, enrolling their children and organizing their own public schools wherever they were lacking. Swedish immigrants saw education as the primary means for their children to advance in America. Besides participating in the formation of public institutions of higher education (the University of Minnesota is one good example), Swedish Americans also formed their own private colleges; many remain

Four-year-old Astrid and one-year-old Ingrid Sjdbeck immigrated to the United States from Sweden with their parents in 1949. The family settled in Pontiac, Michigan.
Four-year-old Astrid and one-year-old Ingrid Sjdbeck immigrated to the United States from Sweden with their parents in 1949. The family settled in Pontiac, Michigan.
today, including Augustana College (Rock Island, Illinois), Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, Minnesota), Bethany College (Lindsborg, Kansas), Uppsala College (East Orange, New Jersey), North Park College (Chicago, Illinois), and Bethel College (St. Paul, Minnesota). Other colleges and secondary schools operated for a time in the immigrant community, but many of these did not survive. Swedish American churches founded most of these schools, along with theological seminaries to train their own pastors. Literary and publishing activities were strong in the immigrant communities; presses brought forth streams of newspapers, journals, and books representing a broad spectrum of Swedish American opinions.


The Church of Sweden, the official state church of the country, is a part of the Lutheran family of Protestant Christianity and is by far the largest religious institution in Sweden. Having converted to Christianity rather late in the medieval period, Sweden early on joined the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Under the direction of King Gustav Vasa the Catholic church organization in Sweden was transformed to Lutheranism, which became the official religion of the state. In fact, until the mid-nineteenth century it was illegal for Swedes to be anything but Lutheran, or to engage in private religious devotions or study outside of Church sponsorship. The priests of the Church of Sweden were civil servants. Besides their religious duties these priests kept the citizenship and tax records, and functioned as the local representatives of governmental power. This state church system was prone to abuse and stagnation, and many Swedes, both clergy and laity, sought to reform and renew the church.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a movement called Pietism made its way from Germany into Scandinavia, seeking to reform the church and the lives of individual believers. Stressing personal conversion and morality, the Pietists were critical of the State Church and pressed for reform of both the church and the government. They also sought a change in governmental policy to allow for more freedom of religious expression in Sweden, including religious practice outside the Church of Sweden. Over the course of the century many of the changes proposed by the Pietists were enacted by the church and the government.

It is from this religious background that Swedish immigrants came to America. They were officially Lutheran, but many were unhappy with state church Christianity in Sweden and sought different forms of religious expression. A few early immigrants came to America to escape religious persecution. For the vast majority, however, the motivation for emigration was economic, although they welcomed the chance to worship in their own way. Some found other forms of Protestantism were more to their liking, and they formed Swedish Baptist and Swedish Methodist groups, which in turn exported these movements back to Sweden.

In the 1840s and 1850s various Swedish Americans began religious activities among their fellow immigrants. Notable names include: Gustav Unonius (Episcopalian); Olof and Jonas Hedstrom (Methodist); Gustaf Palmquist and F. O. Nilsson (Baptist); and L. P. Esbjörn, T. N. Hasselquist, Erland Carlsson, and Eric Norelius (Lutherans). In 1851 the Swedish American Lutherans organized as part of an American Lutheran denomination, but they later broke away to form the independent Augustana Synod, the largest religious group in Swedish America. The Baptists and Methodists also formed their own denominational groups, related to their American counterparts. The growth of these groups was fueled by the waves of immigrants after 1865, and the denominations struggled to keep up with the demand for pastors and congregations.

The Augustana Synod practiced a Lutheranism influenced by Pietism. Other immigrants thought that Augustana was still too Lutheran, and sought a freer type of Christian organization that relied more heavily on Pietist traditions. Both within and outside Augustana congregations these immigrants formed Mission Societies that were the core of future congregations. During the 1870s and 1880s, despite the wishes of Augustana leaders, this movement broke away from Augustana and Lutheranism, forming independent congregations. The movement eventually yielded two other Swedish American denominations, the Swedish Mission Covenant Church (1885) and the Swedish Evangelical Free Church (1884). These two groups, along with the Lutherans, Methodists, and Baptists were the largest religious groups in the Swedish American community.

The immigrant religious denominations were easily the largest and most influential organizations within Swedish America. These groups soon began to form congregations, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, and seminaries to serve the needs of their community. Much of the cultural and social life of the immigrant communities was channeled through the churches. Still, these religious groups only formally enrolled about 20 percent of all immigrants with 70 percent in Augustana and the remaining 30 percent in the other denominations. The churches reached out beyond their membership to serve many others in the immigrant community, but some Swedes chose to join American churches or to join no church at all. It was a tremendous change for these immigrants, leaving the state church for a system where they had to intentionally join and financially support a specific congregation.

These immigrant churches weathered acculturation and assimilation better than other immigrant institutions. Most churches made the transition to English during the 1920s and 1930s and continued to grow in the twentieth century. Augustana joined with other American Lutherans in 1962, the Methodists merged into American Methodism in 1942, and the Evangelical Free Church began to encompass other Scandinavian free church movements in 1950. The Baptist General Conference and the Evangelical Covenant Church remain independent organizations. Many of the congregations and colleges of these immigrant religious groups retain a strong interest in their ethnic heritage.

Employment and Economic Traditions

A common stereotype of nineteenth-century Swedish immigrants was that they were either farmers and agricultural laborers in the rural areas, or domestic servants in urban areas. There was a grain of truth in this stereotype since such occupations were often filled by newly arrived immigrants. For the most part, Swedish immigrants were literate, skilled, and ambitious, quickly moving up the employment ladder into skilled positions or even white-collar jobs. Many Swedes exhibit a streak of stubborn independence and, accordingly, most sought economic activities that would allow them to work with their own talents and skills. For some this meant work within the Swedish American community, serving the needs of the immigrants. For others this meant independent work in the larger American community as skilled workers or independent businesspeople in low-capital, high-labor fields such as wood and metal work, printing, and building contracting.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Swedish American men were employed in agriculture (33 percent), industry (35 percent), business and communication (14 percent), and as servants and laborers (16 percent). Among women, common occupations included servants and waitresses (56 percent), and seamstresses or laundresses (13 percent), with smaller groups of laborers and factory workers. As the Swedes adapted to American society, their employment patterns began to emulate that of the society as a whole, and they moved into educated positions in teaching, business, and industry.

Coming from a country that in the nineteenth century was largely rural, many Swedish immigrants were attracted to America by the prospect of free or cheap agricultural land, mainly in the upper Midwest or Great Plains states. By 1920 there were over 60,000 Swedish American farmers in the United State on more than 11 million cultivated acres, and five out of six of these farmers owned their land. Swedish American farmers were industrious and intelligent and soon picked up American agricultural methods for use on their farms. For the most part, the older agricultural techniques from Sweden were not applicable to American farms, and Swedish Americans made few unique contributions to American agriculture. Later immigrants often headed to the forests and mines of the upper Midwest and increasingly to the Pacific Northwest. Here they worked as lumberjacks and miners, two professions that were common in Sweden.

In the urban areas, Swedish Americans were best known for their skilled work in construction trades, and in the wood and metal-working industries. Swedish contractors dominated the construction business in the Midwest; at one point it was estimated that 80 percent of the construction in Minneapolis and 35 percent in Chicago was carried out by Swedes. The Swedish contractors also employed many of their fellow immigrants as carpenters, plumbers, masons, and painters, providing vital employment for new arrivals. Over half the Swedish American industrial workers in 1900 were occupied in wood and metal working. In addition, Swedes were represented in the printing and graphics, as well as the design industries.

Swedes were also employed in the engineering and architecture fields, with many designing industrial and military machinery. Two Swedish Americans, Captain John Ericsson and Admiral John Dahlgren, revolutionized American naval power during the Civil War with their invention of the iron-clad warship and the modern naval cannon, respectively. Other technical achievements and inventions of Swedish Americans include an improved zipper (Peter Aronsson and Gideon Sundback), the Bendix drive (Vincent Bendix), an improved disc clutch (George William Borg), and xerographic dry-copying (Chester Carlson). Swedish Americans have also made notable contributions in publishing, art, acting, writing, education, ministry, and politics.

Politics and Government

Sweden has a long history of representative government, with the nobles, the clergy, and the peasants all represented in the Swedish Parliament. This tradition was never overcome, even by the most autocratic of Swedish kings. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the voting franchise in Sweden was rather limited, although this changed drastically toward the end of the century.

One of the reasons Swedes came to America was to experience greater political freedom and to help shape their local communities. Swedish Americans from the old Delaware colony were active in the politics of colonial America, and were elected to the legislatures of Delaware and Pennsylvania. The Swedes were also generally on the American side of the Revolutionary War and remained politically active when it ended. John Morton (1724-1777) of Pennsylvania was a delegate to the Continental Congress, and voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. John Hanson (1715-1783) of Maryland was one the leading political figures of that state, and was elected to the Continental Congress three times. In 1781 Hanson was elected by Congress as the first president of the United States in Congress Assembled, or the chief executive of Congress, before the office of the presidency was established.

Through the early national period Swedish Americans usually favored the Democrats over the Whigs, but later they broke with the Democrats over the issue of slavery. Swedish Americans became enthusiastic supporters of the newly rising Republican party and of Abraham Lincoln. The Swedes' relationship with the Republican party became so firm and widespread as to be axiomatic; it was said that the average Swedish American believed in three things: the Swedish culture, the Lutheran church, and the Republican party. In the late nineteenth century Swedes became a powerful force in local Republican politics in the upper Midwest, especially in Minnesota and Illinois. In 1886 John Lind (1854-1930) of Minnesota became the first Swedish American elected to Congress. Lind uncharacteristically switched to the Democratic party, and was then elected the first Swedish American governor of Minnesota in 1898.

Not all Swedish Americans subscribed to the Republican philosophy, of course. Many immigrants, especially those who arrived in the later waves, were strongly influenced by socialism in Sweden, and brought this philosophy with them to America. Swedish American socialists founded their own organizations and newspapers, and became active within the American socialist community. Most of this socialistic activity was local in nature, but some Swedes became involved on a national level. Joe Hill (Joel Hägglund) was a celebrated leader in the Industrial Workers of the World, but was accused of murder and executed in Utah in 1915.

Although socialism was a minority movement among the Swedish Americans, it did reflect many of their concerns. Swedes tended to be progressives within their parties. They believed strongly in the right of the individual, were deeply suspicious of big business and foreign entanglements, and pushed progressive social legislation and reforms. One of the early leaders in this movement was Charles Lindbergh, Sr. (1859-1924), father of the aviator, who was elected as a Republican to Congress from Minnesota in 1906. In Congress he espoused midwestern Populist ideals, opposed big business interests, and spoke forcefully against American involvement in World War I. After the war, many Scandinavians in Minnesota left the Republican party for the new Farmer Labor party, which adopted many of the Populist ideals common among the Swedes. Magnus Johnson was elected as a Farmer Labor senator from Minnesota in 1923, and Floyd Olson served that party as governor of Minnesota from 1931 to 1936. Many Swedes left the Republican party in 1932 to vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt in the presidential election, and some remained in the Democratic party. A split occurred within the Swedish American community after Roosevelt's presidency, and that division exists to this day. Urban Swedish Americans are evenly divided between the Democratic and Republican parties, while rural Swedish Americans remain overwhelmingly Republican.

As with many ethnic immigrant groups, Swedish Americans have been under-represented in national politics, with about 13 senators and 50 representatives, mainly from the Midwest. On the state level there have been at least 28 governors (10 in Minnesota), and many state and local officials. Modern Swedish American politicians have included Governors Orville Freeman (Minnesota), James Thompson (Illinois), and Kay Orr (Nebraska), Senator Warren Magnusson (Washington), and Representative John B. Anderson (Illinois). Swedish Americans have achieved notable success on the Supreme Court, including the appointment of two chief justices, Earl Warren and William Rehnquist.


As small independent farmers and business owners, Swedish Americans have not been overwhelmingly involved in American union activities. Many in skilled professions in the wood and metal industries were involved in the formation of craft unions. In addition, given the Swedish domination of the building trades in the Midwest, there were many who became involved with the construction trade unions, most notably Lawrence Lindelof, president of the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades from 1929 to 1952. Some Swedish American women were involved in the garment and textile unions; Mary Anderson joined a trade union as a shoe stitcher in Chicago, was hired by the International Boot and Show Workers Union, and eventually was appointed director of the U.S. Department of Labor's Women's Bureau.


Swedish Americans have fought for America in all of its wars, from the Revolution to the present day. During the Revolutionary War, Swedes from Maryland and Delaware fought, for the most part, on the revolutionary side, some in the Army, but many more in the new American Navy. About 90 Army and Navy officers from Sweden came over temporarily to fight on the American side, either directly with American troops, or more typically, with French forces (Sweden was allied with France at the time). One of these officers, Baron von Stedingk, who would become a field marshall in the Swedish Army and Ambassador to Russia.

At the start of the Civil War the Swedish American population numbered about 20,000, and their enthusiasm for Lincoln and the northern cause is seen in the fact that at least 3,000 Swedes served in the Union army, mainly in Illinois and Minnesota regiments. A number of others served in the Union navy, and it was here that Swedish Americans were best known. Admiral John Dahlgren was in command of a fleet blockading southern ports, and introduced a number of modern advances in the area of naval weaponry. Captain John Ericsson, a naval engineer, developed the North's first practical ironclad ships, which fought with great effectiveness and revolutionized naval architecture. The Swedish-American population in the South at the time was concentrated mainly in Texas, and their numbers were small, although some did enlist to fight for the Confederacy.

Leading up to World War I, Swedish American sympathies were typically with Germany, although the strongest sentiments were toward neutrality and isolationism, as espoused by Charles Lindbergh, Sr. When the United States did enter the war on the Allied side in 1917, however, many Swedish Americans rushed to show their patriotism by enlisting in the Army and by buying war bonds. In the 1920s and 1930s, Swedes generally returned to their isolationist and neutralist ways, and Charles Lindberg, Jr. took up this cause where his father left off. However, another famous Swedish American, writer Carl Sandburg, forcefully urged American intervention in Europe against the Nazis, writing many articles and works opposing the German regime. In both World Wars many Swedish Americans served with great distinction, including Major Richard Bong, who received the Medal of Honor in 1944 for destroying 36 Japanese planes in combat. Given their general engineering and technical expertise, many Swedish Americans rose to positions of importance in command, such as John Dahlquist, deputy chief of staff to General Eisenhower, and Arleigh Burke and Theodore Lonnquest, who eventually rose to the rank of admiral in the Navy. Many other Swedish Americans rose to prominence in the defense industry, especially Philip Johnson who headed Boeing Aircraft Company during World War II.


Swedish Americans have historically been very interested in the development of Sweden, and a lively correspondence is still maintained between Swedes on both sides of the Atlantic. Modern Sweden is a dramatically different country than the one the immigrants left; while Swedish Americans often have a hazy impression of a backward, rural country, reality is quite different. The Sweden of the twentieth century has often been characterized as taking the "middle way," a neutral, socialist country between the capitalist West and the communist East, ruled for most of 50 years by the Social Democratic party. Some Swedish Americans have applauded the changes that have occurred in modern Sweden, while others have deplored them. During the Vietnam era of the 1960s and 1970s relations between Sweden and the United States were somewhat strained, but the rapport between the two nations has improved significantly since then.

Individual and Group Contributions

Even though Swedish Americans represent only a small fraction of the total American population, many have made notable contributions to American life and culture.


Many Swedish Americans have made names for themselves in American business. Eric Wickman (1887-1954) founded Greyhound Corporation and built it into a national enterprise. Charles R. Walgreen (1873-1939) started the national chain of drugstores, and Curtis Carlson parlayed business and service sectors into the Carlson Companies, which operates hotels (Marriot), restaurants, and travel agencies. John W. Nordstrom of Seattle founded the department store chain that bears his name. Some Swedish Americans rose through the ranks to become leaders in American industry, including Eric Mattson (Midland National Bank), Robert O. Anderson (Atlantic Richfield), Rudolph Peterson (Bank of America), Philip G. Johnson (Boeing), and Rand V. Araskog (ITT).


One of the best known of all Swedish Americans is the aviator Charles Lindbergh, Jr. (1902-1974); his father and namesake was a congressman and politician, but the younger Lindbergh is known for the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927; a national hero, Lindberg served as a civilian employee of the War Department. Another famous explorer was Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin (1930– ), the Apollo 11 astronaut who in 1969 was the second person to step on the moon.


The most famous Swedish immigrant in this field was Greta Garbo (1905-1990) who was born in Sweden and came to the United States in 1925; enigmatic, Garbo made 24 films in the United States, after which she abruptly retired and sought seclusion from public view. Other Swedish American actresses have included Viveca Lindfors, Ann-Margaret (Olson), Gloria Swanson, and Candace Bergen—the daughter of Edgar Bergen (1903-1978), well known for his ventriloquism on television. Other Swedish American actors have included Werner Oland and Richard Widmark.


Although Swedish Americans produced a vast quantity of written literature, some of it was written in Swedish and is unknown outside the immigrant community. With the coming of the second and third generations, however, Swedish Americans have produced a number of writers in English who have earned national reputations. The most famous of these authors was Carl Sandberg (1878-1967), who produced nationally known poetry and novels, but whose most famous work is his four-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, a work which won Sandberg a Pulitzer prize. Another contemporary Swedish American writer in Nelson Algren (1909-1981), who has written extensively about the hard realities of urban and working class life.


The most famous Swedish American composer is Howard Hanson (1896-1981) who grew up in the immigrant community of Wahoo, Nebraska; for many years Hanson was director of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and he is one of the best known twentieth-century American composers of serious classical music. A number of immigrants from Sweden have become important singers of classical music and opera. Best known of all of was Jenny Lind (1820-1887), referred to as the "Swedish Nightingale," she was already famous in Europe when P. T. Barnum brought her to America in 1850 for the first of over 90 concerts in three years; Lind took America by storm; eventually she returned to Europe, but gave generously in support of charities within the Swedish American community. Following Lind to America were such singers as Christiana Nilsson, lyric tenor Jussi Björling, and soprano Birgit Nilsson.


Many Swedish Americans have become distinguished in the field of science, especially in chemistry and physics. Carl David Anderson (1905–) won a Nobel prize in Physics for his discovery of positronic particles. Another Nobel prize winner is Glenn Seaborg (1912–), who in 1951 won in chemistry for his work with transuranium elements.


The most widely known Swedish American painter is Birger Sandzén (1871-1945), who lived and worked in the rolling prairies of central Kansas around Lindsborg; his works are found in many museums in Europe and America. A more recent artist, known for his "Pop" art, is Claes Oldenburg (1929–). Other notable artists have included Henry Mattson, John F. Carlson, and Bror Julius Nordfeldt. In sculpture, the best known Swedish American is Carl Milles (1875-1955), who has achieved international fame for his work, especially for his outdoor sculpture; Milles studied with August Rodin in Paris, and went on to be artist-in-residence at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.



Norden News.

Newspaper in Finnish and Swedish.

Contact: Erik R. Hermans, Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 2143, New York, New York 10185-0018.

Telephone: (212) 753-0880.

Fax: (212) 944-0763.

Nordenstjernan Svea.

Established in 1872, this weekly is one of the few remaining Swedish American newspapers, printed in English and Swedish.

Contact: Alvalene Karlsson, Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 4587, New York, New York 10163-4587.

Telephone: (212) 490-3900.

Fax: (212) 490-5979.

E-mail: ed@nordstjernan.com.

Svenska Amerikanaren Tribunen.

Established in 1876, this newspaper is published in Swedish and English.

Contact: Jane Hendricks, Editor.

Address: 10921 Paramount Boulevard, Downey, California 90241.

Sweden and America.

Published by the Swedish Council of America, this quarterly contains general news and articles about Swedish Americans and about developments in Sweden, and is the most widely circulated periodical about Swedish Americans.

Contact: Teresa Scalzo, Editor.

Address: 2600 Park Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55407.

Telephone: (612) 871-0593.

Fax: (612) 871-8682.

Swedish-American Genealogist.

This quarterly is published by the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center and contains articles on genealogical research, local and family history.

Contact: Dr. James E. Erickson, Editor.

Address: 7008 Bristol Boulevard, Edina, Minnesota 55435-4108.

Telephone: (309) 794-7204.

E-mail: j.erickson@nr.cc.mn.us.

Swedish-American Historical Quarterly.

Published by the Swedish-American Historical Society, this periodical contains articles on the history and culture of Swedish Americans.

Contact: Byron Nordstrom, Editor.

Address: Gustav Adolphus College, Department of History, St. Peter, Minnesota 56082.

Telephone: (507) 933-7435.

Fax: (507) 933-7041.


Ethnic newspaper in Swedish and English.

Contact: Bridget Stromberg-Brink, Managing Editor.

Address: 237 Ricardo Road, Mill Valley, California 94941-2517.

Telephone: (415) 381-5149.

Fax: (415) 381-9664.

E-mail: vestkust@well.com.

Organizations and Associations

American Swedish Historical Foundation.

Founded in 1926, this group maintains a museum, library, and archives on Swedish American culture and history, and sponsors exchange programs and cultural events. It also publishes an annual Yearbook, and other occasional publications.

Contact: Birgitta W. Davis, Acting Director.

Address: 1900 Pattison Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19145-5901.

Telephone: (215) 389-1776.

Fax: (215) 389-7701.

E-mail: ashm@libertynet.org.

Online: http://www.libertynet.org/ashm/ .

American Swedish Institute.

Founded in 1929, the American Swedish Institute seeks to preserve the Swedish cultural heritage in America. The institute, housed in the mansion of a former Swedish American journalist, offers classes, activities, exhibits, concerts and workshops, along with a library and archives.

Contact: Bruce N. Karlstadt, Director.

Address: 2600 Park Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55407.

Telephone: (612) 871-4907.

Fax: (612) 871-8682.

Online: http://www.americanswedishinst.org/ .

Swedish-American Historical Society.

Founded in 1950, the society is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of the heritage of Swedish Americans. Publishes a quarterly journal, Swedish-American Historical Quarterly and Pioneer Newsletter as well as books in this area.

Contact: Timothy J. Johnson.

Address: 5125 North Spaulding Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60625.

Telephone: (773) 583-5722.

E-mail: kanders3@northpark.edu.

Swedish Council of America.

Formed in 1973, the Swedish Council of America is a cooperative agency that coordinates the efforts of over 100 different Swedish American historical, cultural, and fraternal organizations. The Swedish Council publishes a monthly magazine called Sweden and America, which is a useful forum for current Swedish American activities.

Contact: Roger Baumann, Exec.Dir.

Address: 2600 Park Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55407.

Telephone: (612) 871-0593.

Fax: (612) 871-8682.

E-mail: swedcoun@swedishcouncil.org.

Online: http://www.swedishcouncil.org/ .

United Swedish Societies/Svenska Central Forbundet.

Federation of 50 Swedish American organizations.

Contact: Harry Hedin, President.

Address: 20 Bristol Avenue, Staten Island, New York 10301.

Telephone: (718) 442-1096.

Fax: (718) 442-5376.

Vasa Order of America.

Founded in 1896, it is the largest Swedish American fraternal organization in America with over 31,000 members in 326 lodges nationwide.

Contact: Gladys Birtwistle.

Address: 43 Holden Street, Warwick, Rhode Island 02889.

Telephone: (401) 739-3530.

Museums and Research Centers

American Swedish Historical Museum.

This museum collects and displays artifacts and documents of Swedish Americans to preserve the Swedish American culture. The building is modeled after a seventeenth-century Swedish manor house.

Contact: Birgitta W. Davis, Acting Director.

Address: 1900 Pattison Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19145-5901.

Telephone: (215) 389-1776.

Fax: (215) 389-7701.

E-Mail: ashm@libertynet.org.

Online: http://www.libertynet.org/ashm .

American Swedish Institute Museum.

This museum provides exhibits and activities for and about Swedish Americans, including displays of the Institute's collections, as well as traveling exhibits.

Contact: Bruce Karlstadt, Director.

Address: 2600 Park Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55407.

Telephone: (612) 871-4907.

Fax: (612) 871-8682.

Online: http://www.americanswedishinst.org .

Augustana Historical Society.

Preservation of both literary and non-literary materials relating to Swedish immigration to the United States, the history of Augustana College and its relation to the Lutheran Church, and cultural exchange between the campus and Sweden.

Address: Augustana College Library, 639 Thirty-Eighth Street, Rock Island, Illinois 61201.

Contact: Harold Sundelius, President.

Telephone: (309) 794-7317.

Fax: (309) 794-7230.

Bishop Hill.

Located in Western Illinois, this is a fully preserved folk museum, dedicated to preserving the life of the pioneer Swedish immigrants in America. Founded in 1846, Bishop Hill was the home of a religious communal settlement organized by Erik Jansson; though the communal settlement collapsed after Jansson's death, a community remained. In the twentieth century the Bishop Hill Heritage Association began restoring the settlement to its original condition.

Contact: Morris Nelson, President.

Address: P.O. Box 1853, Bishop Hill, Illinois 61419-0092.

Telephone: (309) 927-3899.

Fax: (309) 927-3010.

Swedish American Museum Center of Chicago.

Located in Andersonville, an area of historical immigrant settlement, this museum collects and displays artifacts and documents of Swedish immigration, maintains an archives, and sponsors special exhibits and activities.

Contact: Kerstin Lane, Executive Director.

Address: 5211 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois 60640.

Telephone: (312) 728-8111.

Swenson Immigrant Research Center.

Situated on the campus of Augustana College, this center has a large collection of historical documents, records, and artifacts on Swedish Americans in the country. The Swenson center is especially good for genealogical and historical study.

Contact: Dag Blanck, Director.

Address: Augustana College, Box 175, Rock Island, Illinois 61201.

Telephone: (309) 794-7204.

Sources for Additional Study

American-Swedish Handbook, eleventh edition, edited by Christopher Olsson and Ruth McLaughlin. Minneapolis: Swedish Council of America, 1992.

Barton, H. Arnold. A Folk Divided: Homeland Swedes and Swedish Americans, 1840-1940. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.

Bergendoff, Conrad. "The Role of Augustana in Transplanting of a Culture Across the Atlantic," in The Immigration of Ideas: Studies in the North Atlantic Community, edited by J. Iverne Dowie and J. Thomas Tredway. Rock Island, Illinois: Augustana Historical Society, 1968.

Carlsson, Sten. Swedes in North America 1638-1988: Technical, Cultural, and Political Achievements. Stockholm: Streiffert and Co., 1988.

From Sweden to America: A History of the Migration, edited by Harald Rundblom and Hans Norman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976.

Hasselmo, Nils. Swedish America: An Introduction. Minneapolis: Brings Press, 1976.

Kastrup, Allan. The Swedish Heritage in America. St. Paul, Minnesota: Swedish Council of America, 1975.

Letters from the Promised Land: Swedes in America, 1840-1914, edited by H. Arnold Barton. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975.

Ljungmark, Lars. Swedish Exodus, translated by Kermit Westerberg. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979.

Scott, Franklin. Sweden: The Nation's History, revised edition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.

Scott, Larry E. The Swedish Texans. University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio, 1990.

Swedish Life in American Cities, edited by Dag Blanck and Harald Runblom. Uppsala: Centre for Multiethnic Research, Uppsala University, 1991.

User Contributions:

Dana Larsen
Great informative, interesting and inspiring article. Thanks, D. Larsen
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It would be really helpful if you added in what Swedish Americans traded in the 16-1700's.
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Jeanne Crawford
Enjoyed reading this article. Good information. I do have a question I hope someone can help me with. My great grandparents left Sweden around 1893. They settled in the Baja peninsula in Mexico. I have been trying to find some historical information that would help me understand why they chose to go there and how they may have gotten there. Thanks for any help you can provide.

My name is Andrea Murray I am a student at University of Phoenix I am doing research on immigrates to the United States that I most relate to or want to learn more about. I choose Sweden and Swedish American Immigrants because my grandfather is from Sweden and I want to learn more about Sweden and the background from religion, foods, and others. Eventually, our family would like to take a trip to Sweden and see if we have any relatives who still live there. I am taking a new interest in this because I want to know more about my family and share this with my daughters.

I have been to Sweden personally, and you captured it perfectly. The culture and history matches with all I know, and I learned more than I already had. This is probably the best article about an ethnic group that I have ever seen on the Internet. Great job!
Loved the article. thanks a lot!! this really helped me for my food fair project!!

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Karen Lenz
Excellent thorough article! Loved it! My sister and Aunt went to Sweden May of 2012 and learned about Sweden and this article was very helpful!
K. Gustafson
Great articles. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lots of good information and resources.
Tarja Volotinen
Is there any Swedish society in Massachusetts, close to Southbridge. I recently moved from Sweden to live here MA-US to work for an international company. However, I wish to have some contacts with local Swedish people, if possible. Can You help me to find them?
Alexandra Farmer
I'm using this for my Swedish project and it is the best resource ever it as everything i need i could partly copy this with a citation. (i didn't) but its so helpful i love who ever invented this is super duper awesome i love it!
I am a first generation Swedish-American. My mother who is a Swedish Immigrant married a German-Romainian, and here I am. My family has always been as traditional with Swedish culture as possible. However, it seems there is so much I did not know about my ancestry, the culture and the history of The Swedes. I do know however, that my great uncles were Swedish fishermen during the WW2. They were some of the fishermen who were rescuing the German Jews and the other European Jews from death under the Nazi rule. They went and picked up the Jewish families for free from coasts that were reachable by fishing boats, and smuggled them into Sweden and arranged them temporary shelter. My mother has many stories she tells to us. Thanks for all of the very in depth information.
I thoroughly enjoyed your article. You did however misspell Worcester, Massachusetts.
Lloyd F.Thompson
Interesting overview of the history. You may want to include a local history co-authored by Lloyd F. Thompson and the late James E. Benson, "The Swedes of Greater Brockton"
Kendall Svengalis
Move over Nancy Drew, Ellen Anderson, the 17-year-old Swedish-American girl detective is on the case. "Conspiracy on the Housatonic" and "The Great Emerson Art Heist" are unique, illustrated SAT vocabulary-building historical novels set in 1942. These espionage thrillers are set in Stratford, CT and Gary, IN. They include numerous references to life in the Swedish-American communities of Stratford and Gary. All the SAT words are bolded with a glossary in the back. Each novel also includes cultural literacy references, also accompanied by a glossary. These are great reads and an effective way to grow vocabulary, particularly for high school students preparing for the SAT exams. Visit Duneland Press for further information.

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