In 1638 the Swedish government employed the experience Dutch explorer, Peter Minuit, to help them establish a colony in America. Soon afterwards two vessels owned by the Swedish West India Company arrived with 50 colonists and established a small settlement in Delaware Bay. They named the town Christina in honor of Sweden's young queen.
The Swedes became involved in the fur and tobacco trades and this brought them into conflict with Dutch and English settlers. Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of the New Netherland colony arrived in 1655 with a formidable armada and took the Swedish settlement by force.
It was not until the 19th century that Swedes began to think again about settling in America. In Sweden there had always been a shortage of good land to farm. It was estimated that over 40 per cent of Swedish soil was unproductive. This situation was made worse by an increase in population. One of the main reasons for this was a fall in infant mortality from 21% in 1750 to 15% in 1850.
The situation grew worse in the 1850s when Sweden suffered a succession of poor harvests. Unemployment grew and wages fell. This led to a increase in the numbers of people wishing to emigrate. Most of these were bankrupted farmers and out of work agricultural labourers. Only about a quarter of all Swedish emigrants came from towns and cities.
The first Swedish colony was established by Gustav Unonius in New Upsala, Wisconsin in 1841. The following year Peter Cassel founded New Sweden in Jefferson County. Within a few years there were over 500 Swedish immigrants living in this settlement. Other Swedish colonies were also formed in Swede Point, Iowa (1846) and Andover, Illinois (1849). Minnesota was another popular place to settle and there are over 400 place names of Scandinavian origin in the state.
Organizations based in New York such as the American Emigrant Company and the Columbia Emigration Company, placed advertisements in newspapers encouraging people to settle in the United States. These companies bought and sold land and also arranged loans. Agents from these companies also visited Swedish villages and county fairs where they gave talk on the advantages of emigrating to the United States.
Swedish immigrants often went to America in ships carrying cargoes of iron to New York. These ships provided cheap passage and would charge only about $12 per person for a trip that usually took about seven weeks.
Swedish emigration to the United States was well organised. At New York Harbour the ship was likely to be met by a representative of the Bethel Ship Mission, an organization which helped arrange people to travel west. A report in the New York Times in July, 1851, described immigrants carrying Swedish and American flags, while marching in military fashion to the railroad station.
In his book, Reminiscences: The Story of an Emigrant (1892), Hans Mattsontells how he travelled from New York to Buffalo by rail, took the lake boat to Toledo, where he caught a train to Chicago. After a short stay in the city he went by canal to LaSelle and then by wagon to Galesburg. Now out of money, Mattson worked as a railroad labourer for a $1 a day. After two years Mattson had saved enough money to buy land in Minnesota.
Some of the emigrants found permanent work in the first city they arrived at. Others worked on the railroads until they had enough capital to purchase land close to the track. For example, large numbers of Swedish labourers helped build the Yellowstone division of the Northern Pacific and then became farmers in the area.
Virtually all the Swedes who arrived in the United States were members of the Lutheran Church. Swedes were legally born into the State Church and could only leave it by taking formal action. It is therefore not surprising that early settlers in the United States soon began building Lutheran churches. Lars Paul Esbjorn, who arrived in 1841, started congregations in Illinois at Andover, Galesburg, Princeton and Moline.
By 1858 the Swedish Lutheran Church had 13 ministers and 28 congregations. The most important religious figure was Tufve Nilsson Hasselquist. In 1855 he established the religious journal, Hemlandet. Four years later he founded the Swedish Publication Society in Chicago and supplied Lutheran churches with religious works and school textbooks in the Swedish language.
Jons Jonsson, a Baptist who was in conflict with the Swedish Lutheran Church, decided to emigrate to America in 1865. He joined with other Swedish dissenters to establish a settlement in Crawford County. In 1872 this settlement was given the name Stockholm.
The Swedish settlers tended to be very opposed to slavery and were strong supporters of the Republican Party. The Swedes religious leader, Tufve Nilsson Hasselquist, was active in the campaign against slavery and during the Civil War an estimated 4,000 Swedes fought in the Union Army. Hans Mattson had a successful career as a colonel in the Union Army and later became Secretary of State for Minnesota (1870-1872).
A survey carried out in 1890 revealled that one in four Swedes in the United States were engaged in farming. It was estimated that by the 20th century they owned over 12,000,000 acres in the United States. This was a much higher figure that most other immigrant groups. However, large numbers lived in cities and by 1900 there were 150,000 first or second generation Swedes living in Chicago. This was a larger figure than any other town or city in Sweden except Stockholm.
In 1890 there were large numbers of Swedish born immigrants in the states of Illinois (87,000) and Minnesota (100,000). There were also significant communities in Chicago (43,000) and Minneapolis (19,000).
During the period 1820 and 1920 over 1,000,000 from Sweden emigrated to the United States. Only Germany (5,500,000), Ireland (4,400,000), Italy (4,190,000), Austria-Hungary (3,700,000), Russia (3,250,000) and England (2,500,000) had higher-rates of immigration. Swedish immigrants who made an important impact on America include John Ericsson, Birger Sandzen, Carl Eric Wickman, Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Swan Turnblad, Olof Krans and Nils Johansson.
An investigation carried out in 1978 revealled that since 1820 over 1,272,000 people emigrated to the United States from Sweden. This amounted to 2.6 per cent of the total foreign immigration during this period.