Bishop Hill - Swedish Roots in Illinois Soil
by Terry Hogan
Bishop Hill was the creation of a Swedish religious sect that relocated to America in the mid-1840s. Its leader, Eric Jansson*, was unpopular in Sweden and he made the decision to uproot his followers and transplant them in America. Bishop Hill can be seen as one of those religious experiments that dotted America, usually being developed on the frontier of settlements where land was still cheap, and neighbors were few. But why, specifically, did Bishop Hill settle near Galesburg, and what caused its failure?
As might be expected, the story of Bishop Hill has to start in Sweden. Eric, as a young man, became devoted to the Bible. He was born in Biskopskulla Parish in Uppland Province. Believing that he had undergone a miracle cure, he became devoutly religious. But many of his beliefs and activities were in conflict with the Swedish Lutheran Church. Several book burnings by the Jansson followers did little to help their cause in Sweden. His followers also were known to gather outside the homes of pastors of the established church and pray for their salvation. Eric Jansson and his followers found themselves as unwanted troublemakers, subject to abuse and possible arrest.
On December 16, 1845, the sailing ship Neptunus arrived in New York Harbor. On board was Olof Olsson, a trusted follower of Jansson. Olof Olsson was on a mission. He was to investigate America as a possible site where Jansson and his followers could practice their religion without interference from others. Olsson encountered, in one of those history-making moments, Olof Gustaf Hedstrom. Olof Hedstrom, a countryman, had arrived in New York earlier and had established a Methodist Church on a ship- Bethel Ship, anchored in New York Harbor. He advised Olsson to travel west to Victoria, Illinois where Hedstrom's brother lived. Once there, Olsson could count on assistance from Hedstrom's brother.
Olsson took the advice and traveled to Victoria, Illinois. He met Jonas Hedstrom. He investigated the land and the opportunities to buy land. In 1846, Olof Olsson wrote back to Sweden, recommending that this was the place to buy land for the new colony. Olof bought 80 acres of land initially, and then bought additional land. Communal money was used. The colony was named "Bishop Hill", after Eric Jansson's birthplace, Biskopskulla.
It wasn't long before wooden sailing ships were leaving Swedish seaports carrying large numbers of rural Swedes from parishes like Alfta, Bollnas, Delsbo, Forssa, Ofvanaker, Soderla, and Voxna. They were devout Janssonists, who had sold all or left all behind, to come to America, following their religious leader's call. This Swedish emigration, driven by religious zeal, broke up families, divided friendships, and created a drain on the local populations of some small rural parishes.
The experiences of the emigrants crossing the Atlantic varied with the winds, the vessels, the time of year, and whether disease was an unmanifested passenger on board. Cholera was to become a willower of the young, the old, and the weak. Many emigrants left the Swedish soil never to touch land again. Conditions were crowded on the little sailing ships. Emigrants brought their own food. Sanitation was nearly nonexistent. If disease boarded the ship, it found ample conditions to flourish.
Cholera also followed the Swedes from New York to Bishop Hill. In 1849, many followers woke in the morning in good health, and were dead or dying by the time the sun set over the Illinois prairie. There are stories of immigrants who came to Illinois to be reunited with family members who either died in route, or arrived only to find that their loved ones had recently died.
The earliest followers who arrived at Bishop Hill had to live in crowded "dug outs." Mortality rates were high the first winter for the new settlement. Nearly one fourth of the immigrants died - 96 out of 400. Reportedly, 50 were buried in a mass grave in Red Oak Grove.
Despite hardship and death, the survivors performed hard labor in communal style. The prairie soil was tilled and buildings were constructed. Bricks were made by hand, one at a time. Humans, being humans, added a little relief to the repetitious toil of brick making by marking some of the bricks with names, initials. Some of these bricks can still be found at Bishop Hill.
The Colony initially flourished through communal work, and stark living conditions. In the mid 1850's the Central Military Tract Railroad (later to be part of the CB&Q) provided an opportunity for Bishop Hill. Its track was being built and Bishop Hill had a contract to perform some of the track bed construction. Bishop Hill needed the money. Bishop Hill also needed an outlet to ship the surplus goods that it was producing. The shipping point was to be Galva, Illinois. Galva was laid out along the railroad track, with the help of Bishop Hill trustees. Galva was named for the east coast Swedish seaport, Gavle (Gefle). Gavle was where many of the Bishop Hill residents had left Sweden. Bishop Hill invested heavily in Galva, at one time reportedly owning more than 70 lots. The colony also constructed a brick building along the south side of the railroad and at the west edge of the town square. It was used as Bishop Hill's warehouse. It is reported that this was Galva's first brick building, being built in 1854-1855.
In time, the colony fell on hard financial times. Eric Jansson handpicked nine of his most trusted followers and sent them off to California in early 1850. Their task was to find wealth for the Bishop Hill Colony. However, shortly after their departure, Eric Jansson would be dead.
Jansson was shot and killed by John Root. Root was a Swede who was reported to be the son of "well-to-do" Stockholm parents. He was well educated, refined, and apparently fell in love with Jansson's cousin, Charlotte. Root was a provisional member of the sect. Root married Charlotte in January 1849. However, it is reported that Eric Jansson made it a condition of the marriage that if John Root decided to leave the sect, Charlotte would remain. With the cholera outbreak at Bishop Hill in 1849, John Root wanted Charlotte to leave with him. She would not. He left. On October 25, 1849, Charlotte gave birth to a son, the first surviving newborn male of the settlement. On March 2, 1850, John Root returned to Bishop Hill and left with his wife and son. Colonists soon stopped him and Charlotte and their son were returned to the Colony.
John Root filed court papers against Jansson and others. While Charlotte was at the hearing, Root made off with her and took her to Chicago. The sect received word about her location and retrieved her again. This time, Eric Jansson sought help from the legal system. He had Charlotte sign an affidavit that she left her husband on account of ill treatment and abuse.
On May 13, 1850, both Eric Jansson and John Root were in Cambridge dealing with legal issues. Jansson was a defendant in several cases involving Bishop Hill finances. Root was a plaintiff in a trespass case. Although details vary, what is clear is that John Root shot and killed Jansson with a pistol at the courthouse.
Root was charged with manslaughter with a change of venue issued to Knox County. At the trial, Root was convicted of manslaughter. He only served one year before being pardoned. John Root died soon after his pardon.
The Janssonists waited for their dead prophet to rise after the third day. But he did not. The loss of their leader, hard financial times, and internal strife would bring an end to the Bishop Hill sect with a death spiral beginning in or near 1860. The court cases associated with the demise of the religious experiment continued until 1879.
However, Bishop Hill, with its successes and failures, was to leave a strong influence in this part of Illinois. Both through the direct relocation of Swedes leaving Bishop Hill, and by letters "back home" bringing more Swedes to settle, the culture of a number of towns was changed forever. Galva, at one point, was estimated to be about 1/6th Swedish. Galesburg also was the recipient of numerous Swedes. Swedish Lutheran and Swedish Methodist churches were established. Many of the merchants and stores along Galesburg's Main Street sported Swedish surnames. Galesburg's phone book still attests to the abundance of its citizens having Swedish ancestry.
Bishop Hill could have been about anywhere, but it was here. It was here largely because of the need to leave Sweden, and because of the chance meeting of Olsson and Hedstrom in New York Harbor. If Root had not shot Jansson, the Bishop Hill history may have been different. It would take a better historian than me to work that out. But it is clear that for many of us, we owe our own personal history directly or indirectly to the twists and turns of Bishop Hill.
Bishop Hill was instrumental in establishing Swedish roots in Illinois soil.
*There are a variety of spellings of his name. This is one.
Olsson, Nils. 1967. Swedish Passenger Arrivals in New York, 1820 - 1850. The Swedish Pioneer Historical Society. Chicago.
Swank, George. 1965. Bishop Hill, Swedish-American Showcase. Galva, Illinois.