Swedish Roots, Illinois soil

by Terry Hogan

part I

There was a movie a number of years ago that had a line that became somewhat well known. But it has probably fallen on hard times, since Enron and its ilk. The line was "Greed is Good". And in at least one way, it did turn out to be good for genealogists interested in early Swedish migration to the U.S. Let me explain.

Captains of early sailing vessels discovered that profits could be substantially increased but stuffing "human cargo" on and around other cargo as they left the home ports, heading for America. America was the land of the opportunity for the poor of Europe. And the poor would travel in whatever conditions necessary. Overcrowding bred illness and death. Dreadful diseases came from Europe to America with the sick and the dying. Finally, many ships just became passenger ships and stuffed as many in as possible. Conditions were terrible in these former cargo ships. Water often was foul and sometimes insufficient. Usually the passengers had to bring their own food and cook their own meals. Cooking was often done on deck, so it was a good weather event.

Sanitation was not yet in its infancy. Crowded quarters below decks confounded the problem of poor air circulation. Death and disease were passengers on nearly every ship. In the late 1840s, disease often took the form of deadly cholera. People were healthy in the morning, and often dead by night. Many passengers left land in the hope of a new world only to find a watery grave.

As a result, the U.S. Congress passed a law in 1819 that limited the number of passengers that a ship could bring into American harbors. The law became effective on January 1, 1820. It specified that a ship could only carry two passengers for each five tons of said vessel. A portion of the Act that was passed in 1819 specified:

the captain or master of any ship or vessel arriving in the United States, or any of the territories thereof, from any foreign place whatever, at the same time as he delivers a manifest of the cargo, and if there be no cargo, then at the time of making report or entry of the ship or vessel, pursuant to the existing laws of the United States, shall also deliver and report, to the collector of the district in which such ship or vessel shall arrive, a list or manifest of all the passengers taken on board of the said ship or vessel at any foreign port of place, in which list or manifest it shall be the duty of the said master to designate, particularly, the age, sex, and occupation of the said passengers, respectively, the country to which they severally belong, and that of which it is their intention to become inhabitants; and shall further set forth whether any, and what number, have died on the voyage; which report and manifest shall be sworn to by the said master, in the same manner as is directed by the existing laws of the United States in relation to the manifest of the cargo

Thus, this act of Congress, in an effort to curb inhuman treatment, developed a "paper train" of the arrivals to America. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, these passenger manifests still exist in the files of the federal government. The National Archives in Washington, D.C. has preserved and microfilmed them.

As a result, diligent dedicated researchers, or those lucky enough to be researching ancestors who have already been "researched," can take advantage of these data. Thus, the greed of ship owners provoked a paper trail invaluable to genealogists. Greed is good.

For those of us who are researching Swedish ancestors, we are fortunate for the work of Nils William Olsson. His remarkable research of not only the passenger manifests, but often other American and Swedish documents, has made many researchers’ work much easier. Olsson’s book, "Swedish Passenger Arrivals in New York 1820 ó 1850" is an indispensable tool for anyone tracking Swedish ancestors who came to America during this period. Much of the information contained in this series of articles was gleaned from this reference.

Many of the ships that arrived in New York had passengers bound for Bishop Hill or other nearby Illinois communities. Many of these had left from the same Swedish seaport. The seaport city was Gavle (old references will show "Gefle"), located on the east coast of Sweden. Its name is strikingly similar to the Illinois town of Galva, and for good reason. Galva was named for Gavle. Gavle was important in Illinois history as many of the Swedes who came to Illinois in the 1830ó1850 period came from the rural areas around Gavle.

Mostly the poor left Sweden for America. This meant mostly the rural and small town Swedes. Farms were divided and divided again until they could no longer support the farmers who tilled them. So the farmers came to Illinois from Sweden. They came by small sailing ships that bobbed over the churning Atlantic.

The emigrants had the earth’s heaviness in their bodies; clay from the field clung to their feet. And their heavy footgear ñ their shoes of rough leather, their impressive big boots ñ were only a hindrance to them on the surface of a slippery deck. They had stood broad-legged and sure on firm land; there they ordered their own motions. But here on the vessel they stood on insecure and treacherous footing. (Vilhelm Moberg. 1951. "The Emigrants").

In this series of articles, I will present information about a number of ships that left Sweden for New York Harbor. There was no Ellis Island at this time. I will present the ships chronologically, but will bounce around a bit in time, while telling the story of Bishop Hill, or parts of it. I will also discuss Swedes who came to our part of Illinois about the same time as the settlement of Bishop Hill, but with no intent to join the sect. Maybe during this five-part series, you will find information on a relative. Or maybe you will find a better setting from which to understand the difficulties that your ancestors faced. Hopefully, you will find something of value, if nothing more than a renewed interest in backtracking your Swedish ancestors.

By way of preamble, the bold and italics names are the names of the ship. The date that follows is the date that the ship arrived in New York Harbor, not the date it left Sweden.

Minerva, October 17, 1833

Probably a good place to begin this tale of Swedes is on October 17, 1833. On that date, the sailing ship, Minerva, arrived in New York Harbor. It had sailed from Gavle. On board, and dutifully recorded on the passenger manifest, were three Swedes: Olof Gustaf, Hedstrom, Jonas J. Hedstrom, and Elias Hedstrom. They were brothers. Two of the three were to play an important role in Swedish-American history. And Illinois is indebted to their efforts.

Olof G. Hedstrom was the oldest of the three brothers, being 35 when he arrived in 1833. But this was not his first trip to America. He had arrived in America in 1826 as a Swedish sailor on board a Swedish warship that was to have been sold to the South American country, Colombia. The sale was not completed with Colombia. The ships were sold at auction in New York for a paltry sum. Most of the sailors returned to Sweden. However, Olof Hedstrom stayed behind and became a tailor in New York City. He returned to Sweden in 1833 and then returned to New York the same year with two younger brothers.

Olof Hedstrom joined the New York Methodist Conference and became a missionary for the church. His dominion was the newly arrived Swedes in New York Harbor. His floating chapel, Bethel Ship, served as his church. He greeted literally thousands of Swedes as they landed. A friendly face, a familiar language, a countryman ñ He must have been a reassuring encounter on this new shore, teaming with Americans. Olof preached. Olof advised. Olof sent. Many Swedes came to Illinois on no more of a reason than the advice of Olof, and the assurance that Olof’s brother, Jonas Hedstrom, would be waiting for them in Victoria, Ill.

Jonas Hedstrom was 19 when he arrived in New York in 1833. He too, became a Methodist. But Jonas traveled west to Illinois. He became a blacksmith in Victoria and then in 1839, he became a Methodist preacher. He established the first Methodist Church for the Swedish immigrants in Victoria in 1839. In this capacity, he helped many Swedish immigrants upon their arrival in the prairies of Illinois. They had much to learn ñ a new language, new farming techniques, and even new "miles" as they were measured differently. But they had a friendly and helpful Hedstrom in Illinois to help make their transition.

The third brother, Elias Hedstrom, age 17, traveled to Detroit. He became a cabinetmaker. He played no known role in Illinois Swedish history.

Neptunus, December 16, 1845

On December 16, 1845, the sailing ship, Neptunus, arrived in New York Harbor. Perhaps like a bad movie with too many coincidences, it had also sailed from the Swedish port of Gavle. The passenger manifest shows four Swedes as passengers: Olof Irstrael (38); A. M. Westman (36), his wife; Olof Westman (7), his son; and Begata Westman (9), his daughter. This would be unremarkable to the story, except for the diligent research of Nils Olsson. Nils found that the manifest was garbled. "Olof Irstrael" was actually, Olof Olsson. Olof Olsson was a farmer from Kinsta in Soderala Parish in Gavleborg lan ("lan" is something like a county). Both Olof and his wife, Anna Maria Westman were born in Soderala.

But the real importance of Olof Olsson was not that he was a farmer, or that his name had been confused. He was a "trusted lieutenant" of Erik Jansson. Jansson had sent Olof to America to investigate it as a possible place to relocate his followers. Erik Jansson hoped that he and his followers would be able to move to America and establish a colony where they could worship without the religious interference found in Sweden. Jansson and his followers were not well-received in Sweden.

In New York on a cold December day in 1845, Olof Olsson met Olof Gustaf Hedstrom. Hedstrom said, in effect, "Go west young man; go to Victoria, Illinois and meet my brother who will help you." Olsson went west. Olsson met Olof’s brother, Jonas. In 1846, Olof Olsson wrote back to Sweden, recommending that land be acquired for the purpose of establishing a colony for Jansson and his followers.

Olof Olsson purchased land ñ 80 acres in Weller Township of Henry County. Communal money was used for the property purchase. Subsequently, Olof bought additional property. After correspondence with Jansson, the colony was named "Bishop Hill" after Jansson’s home parish in Sweden ñ "Biskopskulla".

Thus through the circumstance of Olof Olsson meeting Hedstrom and heeding his advice, Illinois was to become home of Bishop Hill. The resulting Swedish influence on Illinois went far beyond those inhabitants of Bishop Hill. But more on that later.

Fanchon, December 20, 1845

At the risk of sounding like I’m making this up as I go, the sailing ship Fanchon arrived in New York Harbor on December 20, 1845. The Fanchon had sailed from Stockholm, just a mere five days after the arrival of Olof Olsson. On board the Fanchon were six Swedes, including three "spinsters" ranging in age from 10 to 32. But more important to our story, was one Pehr Wilhelm Wirstrom. Pehr was a sailor. He became a sailor on the Great Lakes. In 1846, however, he led a group of Swedish immigrants from Buffalo, New York to Bishop Hill. After a short stay in Bishop Hill, he moved to Andover, Ill., where he married Johanna Sophia Lundquvist. They lived in New Orleans and then went to try their luck in the California gold fields, but found more gold in owning a hotel. In ill health, he returned east and died at Bishop Hill on February 25, 1855.

Note: Given the limitations of my software or perhaps my use of the software, I cannot faithfully reproduce Swedish spellings. For example the Swedish name "Strom" would have two "dots" over the "o". For those seeking the correct Swedish version, refer to Nils Olsson’s book (see below). Most of the information for this article was gleamed from Olsson’s research, which was an extraordinary gift to genealogists.


Moberg, Vilhelm. 1951. The Emigrants. Simon and Schuster. New York.

Olsson, Nils. 1967. Swedish Passenger Arrivals in New York, 1820- 1850. Swedish 㖘eer Historical Society. Chicago.

Pinzke, Nancy Lindberg. 1982. Faces of Utopia, A Bishop Hill Family Album. Chicago.

Swank, George. 1965. Bishop Hill, Swedish-American Showcase.

Swank, George. 1976. Painter Krans of Bishop Hill. Galvaland Press, Galva, IL.