Understanding Ancestors: Swedish Edition

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I have always wanted to go to Sweden. Swedish has always been the part of my heritage I connected most with, despite only one of my great-grandparents being from Sweden. My mother’s maiden name was Granholm, a derivative of the Nordic surname Grönholm, and this was the branch of the family I grew up closest with. For a while, I even included “Granholm” in my name on school papers, despite it not being part of my legal name, because I so wanted people to see this part of my identity. I loved hearing about Knut, Emma, and Harald, my Swedish ancestors and learning about St. Lucia Day and Midsummer. I cherished my Kirsten doll, the Swedish immigrant from the American Girl collection, and I look forward to the day I pass it on to my daughter. I encourage you, if you’ve ever felt self-conscious about percentages and DNA, to embrace whatever you identify with and makes you feel good.

So, in this edition of Understanding Ancestors we’re going to dive into Swedish immigration to the United States. Like most other groups, the Swedes came over to North America since it was first colonized by Europeans. In fact, some might argue that the Swedish, as part of the Norse, were among the first Europeans to have contact with the Americas through their exploration and settlement of Greenland and northeastern Canada. Despite these early voyages and the continual trickle of Swedish immigration to North America, there were some distinct waves of Swedish migration.

Immigration to the U.S.

During the 1600s, Sweden undertook its own colonial enterprises, founding Fort Christina in present-day Delaware and the colony of “New Sweden” across Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania along the Delaware River. These colonies later were absorbed by Dutch and English settlements.

Probably more well-known is the mass migration of Swedish immigrants to the U.S. in the mid-1800s. Seeking farmland and economic opportunities, hundreds of thousands of Swedes poured into the Midwest, especially states like Minnesota and Illinois. In the late 1860s, crop failures set off a particularly high wave of migration. Most Swedish immigrants were farmers, but many others were industrial workers, choosing to settle in cities like New York and Chicago. My great-grandfather, Harald Grönholm, came to the U.S. as a child with his father, a tanner, and mother, a housewife and farmer’s daughter. The family moved to New York City in the 1880s, the peak of Swedish immigration to the United States.

Lappland Immigrants, Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Lappland Immigrants, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Swedish Culture in America

Many Swedes brought their Lutheran faith to the States, establishing branches in their new homes, while others joined “American” church denominations, like the Baptists and Methodists. Scandinavian festivals and societies are common the Great Lakes region and in other cities with large Scandinavian-American populations, like the town of New Sweden, Maine. Augustana College, founded in Rock Island, IL by the Swedish Lutherans in 1860, has deep Scandinavian roots as well. Minnesota, of course, has its “Vikings” football team, and there are dozens of IKEAs across the United States.

Though some surely faced difficulty and persecution, many Swedish-Americans found the transition to life in the United States a pleasant one. Compared to other immigrant groups, Swedes were more easily assimilated into American society. Some of this comes at a loss, as the Swedish language isn’t strongly represented in schools or media in the U.S., but several cultural museums and the Vasa Order of America, a Swedish-American fraternal organization, help to preserve the Swedish-American identity and legacy.

References: Library of Congress and Augustana College