Gavle to Wataga: one way ticket

The early Swedish immigrants in Knox County faced risks of death by drowning or disease, robbery and the problems of a foreign land with a foreign language. The adventure began at home, with the decision to leave family, friends, neighbors to go to a new world of promised economic opportunities. Sweden offered no such promise for the small farmer. It was a decision in favor of the dangers of the unknown and against the certainty of the bleak life in rural Sweden. If the unknown had been know, perhaps the Swedish population in Knox County would have been much less.

The trip started from the relatively bleak security of home. Essential goods, to the extent that could be anticipated, were packed, loaded and hauled to the nearest Swedish seaport. What little guidance for packing came from letters sent from America ''back home'' telling of the trip, the land, what was needed to be brought and what should be left behind. As sometimes happens, these early travel writers stressed the positive sides and downplayed or ignored the risks and hardships they faced. Why worry the relatives back home.

In the case of my Swedish ancestors, and many of those who settled in Knox County, these early Swedish rural farmers first travelled to the town of Gavle (Gafle), located on the east central coast of Sweden. It is this town, the launching pad for so many Illinois Swedes, for which Galva was named. It was the beginning of the unknown for many of the Swedish settlers of Knox County.

Swedes, sometimes whole families, sometimes just young males or young married couples, would board a sailing ship to head for America. For most, it was their first time on such a ship. Living quarters and storage was below deck. It was dark, crowded, with little privacy. Disease ran among the crowded passengers without inhibition. Cooking was usually done on the deck, along with whatever efforts were available for washing and general sanitation. Death paced the small decks, harvesting these dirt farmers among the crew. It paid no respect to age or sex. Men, women and children, formed from the substance of Swedish soil, were buried at sea. Burial was one at a time or by the shipload, as some ships just failed to arrive. In 1854, they were mowed down in mass by the scythe called ''Cholera'' that reaped its path along the immigrants' trail-- Chicago, Rock Island, and Moline. Even Galesburg and Knoxville did not escape its edge.

These early sailing ships that carried our ancestors were not designed to carry passengers. Passengers were an add-on, something to make the trip more profitable. Passengers carried their own food supplies, did their own cooking, and tended to their own sick and dying. Most of these sailing ships arrived with fewer passengers than they sailed with. A few ships, however, were hosts to births.

On such birth was Moses Ocean Olson (later to be Williamson), born on the Atlantic Ocean on July 14, 1850 aboard the Swedish bark, Marie (Maria). He was the youngest son of the Olson family that decided to leave Jerfso, Sweden in 1850, via Gavle seaport, to New York and then to Wataga, Illinois. M. O. Williamson, as he was later to be known, was only 6-weeks-old upon arriving in New York. The duration of the sea voyage is reported to have been 10 weeks. Oral history records that the ship's captain, M. Asander, offered to adopt the baby as he and his wife had no children. The offer was declined. M.O. survived the passage across the ocean, up the Hudson River, the immigrant train, the steamer along the Great Lakes, and the overland haul to Wataga. This was all before he reached the age of 6 months. His father, Per Olson, unfortunately, died in Wataga in 1853.

Such extensive trips were strenuous even for the most fit. It is difficult for us to speculate on the actual personal level of difficulties of this trip. Luckily, Eric Norelius recorded his trip to America in 1850 and published a summary of if in 1890. Many of those on this voyage with Eric settled in Henry or Knox County.

Eric's travel story begins on August 17, 1850 in Gavle , Sweden and ends in Andover, Ill. in November. The ship was the Swedish sailing vessel, Oden, commanded by Captain Norberg. The voyage took 11 weeks. He reports that cooking was done on the deck and ''many a time a great wave swept you off your feet and the contents of pots and pans washed into the ocean.'' Eleven weeks was reported to be about a typical duration, with some lasting substantially longer, causing a shortage of food and water among the passengers. Many upon the Oden became sick during the crossing, with nine passengers dying at sea, along with two sailors who died by accident during the crossing.

The Oden arrived in New York City on October 31, 1850. The Oden passengers left New York City on November 4th after paying $8 for the trip to Chicago. The route that was taken by the Oden passengers is typical for our Swedish ancestors. They left New York City on the Hudson River steamer, Isaak Newton, with their baggage and themselves on the deck. They spent the night on the deck, without sleep, traveling up the deep Hudson River, arriving at Albany at 5 in the morning. It was a cold, dark foggy arrival at Albany. No mention is made of the mountains that bordered the lower Hudson River. It may have been due to darkness or perhaps they were simply too tired to care.

On noon of November 5th, they boarded a special immigrant train that carried them from Albany to Buffalo. It was described as having little or no difference from cattle cars. Despite this humble transport, it was undoubtedly an awesome and perhaps frightful trip as they had never seen a train before and had no idea what was the normal way to ride on a train. It was also probably a better transport that the canal boats that earlier immigrants had relied upon for this leg of the trip. After a second sleepless night, they arrive at Buffalo at 2pm on November 6th.

They were dropped off the train with their baggage and left on their own to find the steamer that was to take them across the Great Lakes. Nobody in the group spoke English. They could find nobody outside their party who spoke Swedish. Finally they found some Germans who understood enough that they took Eric and his travel companions to the steamship office. Eric describes the scene as the stood by the train: ''No one paid any attention to us. There we stood in a cold and drenching rain on a dirt street, like a flock of sheep. It was especially hard for the children and poor women.''

The steamer was not scheduled to depart until November 8th so they had to find temporary housing. A portion of the group was charged an excessive price for the lodging. On the evening of the 8th, they boarded the Great Lakes steamer ship, Sultana. The immigrant quarters were overcrowded with Irish, leaving no room for the Swedes. Many Swedes were forced to stay on the deck in the wet, cold of a Great Lakes' November for the entire trip from Buffalo to Chicago. Some of the party rented two ordinary passenger rooms for $40 and as many of the Swedes as possible occupied the two rooms to seek shelter from the weather. The Sultana was overloaded, elderly, and reported to be in poor condition. She ran aground on Lake St. Clair. The passengers were put ashore on the Canadian side until the ship was lightened by transferring a portion of its load to another vessel. They were then reloaded, suffering from cold and lack of food.

On November 14, 1850, late at night, they arrived in Chicago. Eric describes it as a ''veritable swamp with small frame houses scattered about.'' They stayed only until the morning of November 16th in Chicago, using the time to make arrangements for the next leg of the journey - to Peru, Ill. by canal from Chicago. It snowed as they boarded the canal boat on the 16th. The party completely filled the hold of the boat. There was insufficient room to lay down to sleep. As a result, a small area was cleared and napping was done, two people at a time, in an orderly 10-minute cycle. At the conclusion of 10 minutes, they were wakened and two others took their turn. Pancakes, their only food on the boat, was baked on the top of a small cook-stove that the travelers had bought and brought on board as a heat source. They arrived in Peru on the evening of November 19th after a trip of about 100 miles on the canal boat that took over three days to complete.

In Peru, the group took their separate ways to get to Andover. Some walked. Some, who still had money remaining, hired wagons and drivers. The trip was about 60 miles over land. Those hiking had problems finding directions to Andover as they could find no one who understood Swedish. Those who hired wagons found the drivers to be reckless. One passenger was killed in a wagon accident. Eric was with the group that walked and spent a night in an abandoned school house. The door and windows were broken. They cooked porridge, made from flour and water over an old stove, and had milk that was purchased from a nearby farmer, who after observing mush gesturing figured out what these tired, dirty Swedes wanted.

Some folks, heading for Andover, decided to stay at Princeton, having enough of traveling. They became the first Swedish inhabitants of that town. Eric reports those staying in Princeton included Hans Smitt, Olof Nilson, Anders Larson, Anders Nord, Olof Janson, Stefan Berglof, Hans Kamel and their families. By this time, it was already November 25th. The wife of Anders Arsine from Gnarl, Sweden, gave birth outside of Princeton overnight. On the next morning, she continued the trip to Andover with her child riding on a wagon.

Eric mentions another group of Swedes that left the Northern districts in the early summer of 1850 upon the ship Marie. It sailed, according to Eric, with 111 emigrants, landing in New York. This group followed the same path from New York City to Andover. However, some of these folks decided to settle elsewhere. Lars Olson (who took the name Williams) and his family from Ramsjo, moved to Henderson, then Wataga, and later to Vasa, Minn. The Rehnstrom family from Jerfso (Jarvso) Parish settled in Victoria. Eric mentions the Olson family from Jerfso who moved to Wataga, taking the name Williamson, and Per Olson, the father, who died in Wataga in 1854. Per Olson (Williamson) was my great, great, great grandfather and the father of M.O. Olson (Williamson), the first child to be born on the ship Marie.


Clark, S. J Publishing Co. 1912. History of Knox County, page 1115.

French, Verda. undated. Williamson genealogy.

Norelius, Eric. 1890. The Pioneer Swedish Settlements and Swedish Lutheran Churches in America, 1845-1860, translated by Conrad Bergendoff (1984). Augustana Historical Society. Rock Island, Ill.

Olsson, Nils. 1990. Swedes in the Naturalization Index- A Sampling. In Swedish American Genealogist, Vol. X (No. 4), December, 1990, pages 170-177.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website July 7, 1999

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