Nils William Olsson - Revised Book

by Terry Hogan

If you are more than an infrequent reader of this column, you will likely recognize the name Nils William Olsson. He devoted many years of research to tracking down and carefully recording the names, birth dates, locations and stories of literally thousands of Swedes who left Sweden between 1820 and 1850 to settle in America. His book (1967) is entitled Swedish Passenger Arrivals in New York, 1820 - 1850. This book is particularly important to Illinois as a great number of these Swedes settled either in Bishop Hill or in the surrounding communities including Galesburg, Wataga, Galva, Knoxville, Rock Island, and so on.

Nils is the gentleman who has made it possible for numerous researchers to be able to open a book, go to the index and after wading through multiple listings of same names (but different folks), and find their ancestors. No need to translate Swedish to English. Not need to travel to Sweden. No need to hire a researcher in Sweden to comb the records. Nils Williams Olsson has probably done it for you, if your kin came over between 1820 and 1850.

I have relied upon his work not only in the research of my own Swedish lines, but also in several articles for this column over the years. This is especially true on the series about Bishop Hill.

Nils was born in America in 1909. He was the son of Swedish immigrants. He received a Ph.D from the University of Chicago in Scandinavian studies. He taught at the University for about 11 years and then joined the State Department. He served in three Scandinavian capitals, including Stockholm. In the 1960s, he was the director of the American Swedish Institute at Minneapolis.

According to the dust jacket of his 1967 book, Nils examined more than 33,000 ships’ manifests and was able to document the arrival of approximately 4,000 Swedes at the Port of New York (pre-Ellis Island days).

In one of those, "It's a small world" stories, I was contacted by a Williamson relative who I didn't know I had. He was off a branch of "my Williamsons" from Wataga who went west. He came across one of my articles on the Internet while doing genealogical research. He and his wife live in Florida. Recently, I was able to meet them in Galesburg, when he came back to trace family roots.

Jack Williamson has a neighbor and a friend in Florida. He is none other than Nils William Olsson. Nils is in his early 90's but doing pretty well. Jack brought me a copy of Nil's updated book on the Swedes that came to America. I didn't know the revised book existed. The book is great, but the best part of the story is that it was autographed by Nils. You just can't beat that.

The new version is dated 1995 and is in a green hardback cover. It is co-authored with Erik Wiken and was published in Sweden. If I have the story correct, there were only 1,000 copies printed. When we were visiting Bishop Hill, Jack and I encountered several copies of the revised book for sale at the Bishop Hill General Store. If you want your own copy for research, or if you want to preserve your own ancestors' stories that Nils has published in the book, you better not delay.

The format of the 1995 issue differs from the 1967 version. It also has lots of new information not found in the 1967 edition. There is nearly twice the number of pages in the 1995 update. If you had looked in the 1967 book and not found the ancestor you were looking for, perhaps it is worth checking out the 1995 version.

To give you an example, I will compare the 1967 and 1995 information on my Williamson line. The 1967 version (pages 232-233) lists the family members and the name of the ship and its arrival date in New York. In addition, as a footnote, it provides the following information:

Olof Olsson, farmer from Nybo in Jarvso Parish, b. there Aug. 8, 1808, s. Olof Jonsson, farmer, and Kerstin Hansdotter. He was m. to Margata Olsdotter, b. in Jarvso Nov. 23, 1813, dau. Olof Pehrsson, farmer (tilltradare), and Margit Olofsdotter. They had the following children, all b. in Jarvso- Olof, b. Oct. 10, 1833; Jonas, b. Jan.29, 1836; Pehr, b. Feb. 28, 1839; Hans, b. Aug. 20, 1841; Margta, b. Feb. 21, 1844 and Kerstin, b. Jan. 15, 1847. The family received pps. In Gavle June 10, 1850.

He also correctly lists "Magnus Olofsson, age 11/2 mos., son" which by age, it can be deduced that he was born on the ship on the way to America.

As any genealogist will see, this is just an absolute wealth of information to "fall into your lap" in one book. It is a great find, particularly if you are not fluent in Swedish and are faced with trying to make the jump to Swedish research. But to find it, you had to know that the Williamsons of Wataga were Olssons in Sweden. If you didn't it would be unlikely that you could have found this entry.

The 1995 version (pages 123-124; page 418) provides substantial new information on the Williamsons of Wataga. In addition the ship's name and date of arrival and family name listing on the manifest, it provides in a series of footnotes, the following information:

Olof Olofsson, farmer from Nybo, Jarvso, was b. there 8 Aug. 1808. s. Olof Jonsson, farmer, and Kerstin Hansdotter. He was m. to Margta Olsdotter, b. in Jarvso 23 Nov. 1813, dau Olof Pehrsson, farmer (tilltradare) and Margit Olofsdotter. They had the following children, all b. in Jarvso- Olof, Jonas, Pehr; Hans b. 20 Aug. 1841; Margta, b. 21 Feb. 1844 and Kerstin, b. 15 Jan. 1847. The family received pps. In Gavle 10 June 1850. A s. Magnus was b. on the ocean crossing. The Olofsson family, which called itself Williamson in the U. S., settled in Wataga, IL. The husband d. in 1855, but his widow lived until 1885. (footnote cross references deleted; bold emphasis added)

The next footnote in 1995 edition:

Olof Olofsson was b. in Jarvso 10 Oct. 1933, s. Olof Olofsson. He called himself William Williamson in the U.S, and m. in 1854 Catharina Olsson from Bollnas. He engaged in farming on a large scale and in 1880 owned 400 acres, a general merchandise store in Galesburg, IL as well as maintaining a large interest in the grocery store operated by Nelson Chester & Co. in Moline, IL. (footnote cross references deleted; bold emphasis added.)

The next footnote in 1995 edition:

Jonas Olofsson (Williamson) was b. in Jarvso 29 Jan. 1836, s. Olof Olofsson. He owned a farm in Wataga, IL (footnote cross references deleted; bold emphasis added.)

The next footnote in 1995 edition:

Pehr Olofsson (Williamson) was b. in Jarvso 28 Feb. 1839, s. Olof Olofsson. He owned a farm in Lucas County, IA. (footnote cross references deleted; bold emphasis added.)

The final footnote relevant to Williamsons in 1995 edition:

Magnus Olofsson, the youngest s. of Olof Olofsson was b. on the Atlantic Ocean 15 June 1850. In the U.S. he called himself Moses O. Williamson. He became a saddler and m. in 1871 an American woman. He d. in Galesburg, IL in 1935.

By comparing the two sets of information, as great as the 1967 version was, the 1995 edition does it even better. It allows the Williamson name in Wataga to be connected to the name in Sweden because the Williamson name is listed in the book's index. It is an index to be loved by any genealogical researcher.

If you have a story about finding Swedish relatives in using his book, please email me or write me at the Zephyr. They might end up in a Backtracking article.


Olsson, Nils William. 1967. Swedish Passenger Arrivals in New York, 1820-1850. The Swedish Pioneer Historical Society. Chicago, Illinois. 391 pages.

Olsson, Nils William and Erik Wiken. 1995. Swedish Passenger Arrivals in the United States. 1820-1850. Stockholm, Sweden. 628 pages.