Bishop Hill- A Failed Utopia
by Terry Hogan
Bishop Hill, as we know it today, is a small town north of Galesburg. It lives two lives. It is a living town, with live residents doing pretty much what we all do. Its second life is one of a living relic of a Swedish utopian or religious experiment. Bishop Hill is part small Midwestern town and part living museum. It is complete with visitor center and a small, but hopeful entrepreneur tourism base. It grew out of a religious leader named Erik Jansson, (different spellings can be found for his name), who preached views contrary to the Swedish Lutheran Church in Sweden. Intolerance to one anothers views reached a peak with book burnings by Jansson's followers. Followers left Sweden and moved to Illinois in the 1840s and established a commune named Bishop Hill. It was named for Janssons birthplace.
The details of the migration and the establishment and growth of Bishop Hill have been discussed in previous Backtracking articles1. But the series stopped short of trying to relate the reasons for its failure. History can be a tricky thing, full of thorns, waiting for the unwary to pick it up and give it a try. Reasons are as abundant as perceptions. Perceptions are only limited by the numbers who observe or think they observed. That's my disclaimer.
Bishop Hill was set up in a communal system where all worked for the common good. The system was under the direct control of Erik Jansson. It worked with reasonable success until Jansson's murder in Cambridge, Illinois in 1850. That's not to say that this was where the problems for Bishop Hill began. Problems were lurking before that - economic hard times were already challenging Bishop Hill. The death of a great number of the Swedes from cholera in 1849 cut down the workforce and reduced the skilled labor reserves. There was also dissent within the ranks on various decisions made by Jansson. But he was still the religious leader and was, arguably, the glue that held early Bishop Hill together.
By 1847, disenchantment among followers was not unknown. Perhaps an extreme example can be found in a letter published in Gavle, Sweden in 1847. Gavle is an eastern seaport town where many of the Janssonists departed (and is also the source of the town named "Galva" near Bishop Hill). An excerpt from the published letter provides a flavor:
Our great teacher and, by his misled followers, worshipped Erik Jansson I have left for ever. He is now my sworn enemy, and more than one hundred have awakened from their bad dreams. Almost two hundred and fifty have died of maltreatment and neglect, and many more than one hundred died at sea and are buried in the waves of the bottomless ocean.
Many of his followers lie ill without care. I myself often saw how my countrymen were buried like animals. They were loaded on a cart, as many as it would hold, without shrouds and without coffins, and a man drove into the forest with them, where they were thrown in the grave like evil-doers.2
But perceptions, being perceptions, there are other contemporary accounts that can be found with differing assessments. Another version of Bishop Hill in 1846 and 1847 was written (July 1847) by an ex-follower of Jansson:
It was said that everything is owned in common, and no one had more than another. If anyone needs clothes, he has only to go to the committee, and then to the stores for what is needed. No one works more than he wishes to, but all live in the belief that the more diligent one is the greater will be each person's share.2
However, there is little doubt that by the time of Jansson's death in May 1850, Bishop Hill was suffering hard financial times. By 1850, it had suffered the wrath of cholera introduced into the colony in 1849, reported to have come with some Norwegians. It has been reported that the disease took nearly 150 of the inhabitants, leaving Bishop Hill with slightly in excess of 400 residents by 1850. However, new followers arrived in 1850, and a new influx of money from Sweden helped. But the colony remained in debt.
Shortly before Jansson's death, he traveled to St. Louis to deal with the colony's growing debt. By 1850, it amounted to $8,000. It appears that he was not optimistic about the ability of paying this debt, or perhaps he had decided simply not to. In a letter to his followers, he wrote It may seem wrong of us not to pay our debts, but my conscience is clean.2
Jonas Olsson, a trusted follower of Jansson, had been sent west, with eight other colonists, to seek a fortune in the California gold mines. It was hoped that riches from gold would save Bishop Hill from its financial difficulties. Fortunes were not made. Jonas Olsson was in California when Jansson was killed. He returned with a meager $500 to the colony to reshape its leadership and its future.
With the loss of Jansson, a more democratic system was put in place, with elected supervisors. Bishop Hill had a temporary return of good times. With improving national economy and $6,000 from Sweden, debts were paid. A large construction program was undertaken, resulting in many of the large buildings still standing at Bishop Hill. Bishop Hill was on a promising path, it seemed.
Anders Winberg reported what he saw and heard of Bishop Hill in 1852- 1853, which may have been the economic high times for the colony. He reported the presence of a sawmill, a line mill and a water-powered mill under construction. There was a coal mine, a lime quarry and lime ovens. Natural and planted fruit trees were abundantly seen. Livestock was reported as 400 cattle, 25 oxen teams, 50 horses, 600 to 700 hogs, and 1,000 fowl. The property was estimated at a worth of $300,000, with only $6,000 debt.3
However, with greater investments being made outside of Bishop Hill, in such places as Chicago and Galva, Bishop Hill's non-entity legal status became troublesome. The colony could not enter into contracts. Only individuals from the colony could. Bishop Hill, a religious experiment, a commune, became an economic corporation, registered by state legislation. Bishop Hill was now a corporation, run by a Board of Trustees. The stated business of this new corporation was manufacturing, milling and all kinds of mechanical business, agriculture and merchanting (sic).2
This new Board of Trustees had a great deal of power, and controlled all the property at Bishop Hill. The Board had the authority to enter into contracts, to buy and sell property, to create debt, and to determine who could join the community and who would be expelled. The Board exercised nearly absolute authority.
The Board, under Jonas Olsson's leadership, invested heavily outside of Bishop Hill. Bishop Hill found itself forming banks and speculating in the growth of the new railroad industry. Bishop Hill was heavily invested in Galva, where the railroad passed through. Galva was the shipping and receiving point that the new economically-driven Bishop Hill needed. A railroad was needed for Bishop Hill to compete. Galva had the railroad. The trustees held a $6,000 contract to help grade the railroad right of way. The colony bought town lots from the Galva founders. It built a brick warehouse beside the tracks. It opened a general store and opened up temporary lodging for newly arrived Swedes.4 It even had a weekly Swedish newspaper, Den svenske republikanen. Good times followed with the good national economy and slumped with its decline in 1857. Economic dissatisfaction and the change in the colony were probably exacerbated by unusual actions announced by the Trustees. Perhaps the best example was the forced introduction of celibacy in 1854.
The trustees lost the faith and trust of the members of the colony. The colony went into great debt and was facing legal action by creditors. The property began to be divided up in 1860 and protracted and expensive law suits continued until 1879. By then, Bishop Hill's debts exceeded $500,000.
The religious experiment was over. But it is hard to pinpoint its moment of death. Perhaps it was with the murder of Jansson, although economic problems and internal dissent were already active. Perhaps it was later when the colony seemed to forget about the religious aspect and became a corporation. What is clear is that the religious commune experiment died more like a lingering cancer than from a sudden fatal accident.
Bishop Hill, as envisioned by Jansson, failed. But Bishop Hills Swedish influence continues to be seen and felt. It became, directly and indirectly, a magnet that attracted many Swedes to leave the known poverty of rural Sweden for the possible opportunity of rich, cheap land in Illinois. The experiment gave Illinois not only the remnants of Bishop Hill, but also the Swedish influence found in Galva, Wataga, Galesburg, Knoxville, Rock Island and other nearby towns.
1. Bishop Hill. 2003. A Backtracking five part series published in The Zephyr. Galesburg, Illinois.
2. Olov Isaksson. 1969. Bishop Hill, A Utopia on the Prairie. L.T. Publishing House. Stockholm Sweden.
3. John Norton. 1978. Anders Wiberg's Account of a Trip to the United States in 1852-1853. Translated and edited by John Norton. Reprint from The Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly, 1978.
4. George Swank. 1976. Painter Krans of Bishop Hill Colony. Galvaland Press. Galva. Illinois.