On a spring day in May 1875, Maria Nilsdotter, age twenty-one, embarked on the biggest adventure of her life. She began a journey that would take her over 4000 miles from the small farming village of Skällarbyn, Sweden, to the rural town of Clinton, Iowa. The month-long trip included travel by train and steamship, transportation that would have been an exciting yet intimidating experience for a village farm girl.
In a previous blog, I told the story of the discovery of Maria Nilsdotter’s origins in Sweden. I know Maria as Mary Nelson Nichols, my 2x-great grandmother. I uncovered her past by following the paper trail in Swedish Archival records. Maria did not leave a diary nor letters, which I would have appreciated. However, many other Swedish emigrants wrote accounts of their travels to America that enabled me to reconstruct a likely account of Maria’s emigration story.
Piecing together the travel route is only one part of the story. Another aspect is to understand what prompted Maria to leave everything that was familiar. She knew she might never see her birthplace nor her family again. She turned her back on the life she knew. Was it the strict Swedish class system, the intolerant religious domination, or a lack of job and marriage opportunities that compelled Maria to emigrate?
Motivated by a desire for change and the promise of a brighter future in America, Maria’s decision altered her life and made mine possible.
SKÄLLARBYN, VÄRMLAND, SWEDEN – The Present
The picturesque province of Värmland, Sweden is a land of bright blue lakes and rivers surrounded by dense, dark, deep forests. Set in the middle western portion of the province on the edge of Lake Ränken, Skällarbyn today consists of about ten homes, most painted in the traditional Falun Red.
Although I lived in Europe for 20 years and visited Sweden and Norway, Maria’s origins were a mystery to me at the time. If only I had known when I visited Oslo that Maria’s village was just 56 miles away. Skällarbyn is a short distance from the Norwegian-Swedish border – 18 miles.
While searching the internet for images of Skällarbyn, I came across a youtube video taken by a paraglider sailing over Lake Ränken. I have no idea what the paraglider is saying in Swedish. If any of my readers can tranlate, please let me know.
SKÄLLARBYN – The Past
For more than four generations, Maria’s ancestors lived in Skällarbyn and the surrounding area. I can trace Maria’s maternal line in Skällarbyn back to the birth of her great-great-grandfather, Anders Jonsson (1714-1799), a tenant farmer. At some point, the family became landowners, a position that offered more security and social status. The farm prospered and eventually passed down to Maria’s mother, Karin Olsdotter, and her maternal uncle, Anders Olsson.
Click here MAP to view the area where Maria, her family and ancestors lived for generations.
- Karin Olsdotter (1822-1896) & Nils Persson (1824-1909) – Maria’s parents
- Olof Andersson (1796-1881) & Karin Andersdotter (1793-1867) Maternal grandparents
- Anders Andersson (1752-1835) & Karin Bengtsdotter (1762-1833) Maternal great-grandparents
- Anders Jonsson (1714-1799) & Kerstji Örjansdotter (1720-1773) Maternal 2x great-grandparents
The earliest records for the Skällarbyn farm date to 1631. Formerly spelled Skålaby, the name means “barking dog.” The legend is that a village dog barked incessantly.
An individual farm, such as Skällarbyn, consisted of several families rather than a single family. I examined the Swedish Household Examination Records (Husförhörslängd) for the period 1856-1916. The Skällarbyn households included immediate and extended family members as well as “live-in-laborers,” journeymen, tenant farmers, and boarders.
”Piga” was the term used for a female employee. Her tasks included indoor and outdoor chores. A “Drang,” a male farmhand, performed more burdensome duties on the farm, such as tilling the fields.
Six of the Skällarbyn households were farm landowners (hemmansegare), including Maria’s father, Nils Persson, and her uncle, Anders Olsson. In addition to landowners, tenant farmers, and laborers, the Skällarbyn community included one miller and one soldier, plus their respective families. The village population fluctuated over the years from a low of 98 (1866-1870) to a high of 139 (1871-1875).
The average Swedish rural dwelling ranged from a tiny one-room cottage to a tenant cottage (a kitchen and a combination living room/bedroom)to a two-story landowners home. The probate records for Nils Persson, Maria’s father, stated that the family owned a large house, garden, and approximately eighty acres. The large two-story home was probably a pine or spruce log building. If they were fortunate, they had two chimneys to warm the house during the long cold dark winter.
The household inventories for Maria’s parents and grandparents provided a glimpse into their home. Two sofas offered a place to sit and relax. The larger one had cushions covered in a higher quality fabric, the smaller a more casual gingham. Spread around the room were drop-leaf tables with brass candlesticks and candle snuffers. A dresser with locks contained half a dozen (Dräll) tablecloths (a traditional Swedish two-block weave), and assorted napkins.
Lined skin rugs warmed the floors. Three dozen wooden chairs spread throughout the house offered enough seating for family and guests. Some had gingham cushions, some were painted, and others were plain. A hymnal, Bible, and textbooks filled a small bookshelf. Curtains covered the windows – thirteen pairs.
The women in the family probably spent a lot of time in the kitchen preparing meals. Was the (Ligg Soffa) laying sofa, a place to rest as well as an extra bed for guests? Kitchen supplies could be found in a large wooden food cabinet.
The table was covered with a yellow checkered cloth and set with blue striped dishes. The corner cabinet contained an assortment of kitchenwares: pressed glass bowl, finer and plainer dishes, pastry forms, soup tureen, stoneware platters, salt shakers, even schnapps glasses. The kitchen wall clock reminded the family to take time for the afternoon (fika) (coffee/tea break). The family prepared coffee in the old roaster and served it from the coffee kettle they poured into a dozen blue coffee mugs. The creamer jug, sugar bowl, and silver spoons were laid out on the tea tray. Perhaps Maria’s mother baked traditional Kanelbulle (cinnamon rolls) for (fika.)
The upstairs rooms had clothes-cabinets, two yellow-painted tables, a mirror, pull out beds, and boot beds. Some of the bedframes were painted brown others blue. All of the beds were piled high with feather mattresses and pillows and covered with quilts.
Despite the large home, conditions were probably still crowded with multiple family members who shared bedrooms. The household records indicate that Maria lived with her parents, eight siblings, a nephew, and her maternal grandparents. Nearby, a second household included Karin’s younger brother, Anders, his wife Anna, and their nine children. Six of the cousins shared the same names as Maria and her siblings. It must have been confusing when the families mingled for work or pleasure.
Skällarbyn reflected a typical rural Swedish community of the late 1800’s – steeped in tradition and peppered with superstition, myths, and lore. Rigid class society and social conservatism limited and dictated choices for everyone.
CUSTOMS AND CULTURE
When Maria Nilsdotter was born on August 31, 1854, her 29-year old father, Nils Persson, and her 32-year old mother, Karin Olsdotter, already had five children. Over the next 12 years, Karin gave birth to three more children.
Until 1864 the law dictated that a child be baptized within eight days after their birth. Aside from the law, superstition compelled parents to baptize their children as quickly as possible. Reverend Begnsson baptized Maria 4 days after her birth at the local parish church, Kölakyrka.
“A child that was not christened was a danger both to itself and to others; it was e.g. believed that trolls were on the lookout for pretty little human babies – they were thought capable of changing their own ugly, stupid and wayward brat for the cute little child…For the protection of the child, different things were put in the cradle: it could be a small pouch of spices (e.g.caraway), a steel knife or a silver coin.”
[The only memento remaining in our family from Maria is a Swedish coin, dated 1846. Could this (copper) coin have been placed in her cradle and later given to her as a good luck talisman when she emigrated to America? I’d like to think so.]
Dressed in as beautiful a baptismal dress as possible, Maria’s godmother carried her during the ceremony. Maria’s mother, Karin, remained at home until she could be “churched” (kyrktagen). The churching ceremony usually took place on the fourth Sunday after the birth of the child.
For a description of Swedish customs, I turned to articles by the ethnologist Ingela Martenius, “Rites of Passage in Sweden.”
“A mother not yet churched was according to popular belief thought ‘unclean’ and on par with a heathen, and both she and the farm with all who lived there, both human and animal, were in danger. Churching originated within the Jewish faith, and there was regarded as a purification.”
“The churching ritual was very simple: before the regular church service began, the woman about to be churched kneeled before the altar and the vicar read a short prayer expressing thankfulness. The woman rose, and the vicar shook her hand, at the same time saying, ‘The Lord guide you in His truth and fear, now and unto eternity. Amen’The woman then returned to her pew.”
A married woman knelt on a plush and decorated stool. An unmarried woman first had to confess to the vicar. Then she could be “churched” while kneeling on the bare floor or an uncovered stool. The vicar did not shake her hand after the ceremony. Maria’s eldest sister, Christina, who had an illegitimate child, probably experienced the harsher method of “churching.”
According to Ingela Martenius, another superstition surrounding the care of babies required that they be swaddled; it guarded them against evil spirits. A more practical reason was it protected them from cold floors and kept them away from open fires.
“Children until the age of 5-7 wore a smock-frock (kolt),” a sort of dress that went down to the middle of the calf, differently cut for boys and girls and often made from yellow (simplest color to dye) wool or linsey-woolsey and worn over a linen shift/shirt. On top of the smock-frock an apron was worn, a bib apron for boys and a waist apron for girls. Both boys and girls wore a cap at all times.”
After the age of 5-7 years, children dressed in simpler versions of adult clothing. After they were confirmed and considered adults, they had the right to wear adult clothing, long pants for boys, and floor-length dresses for girls.
Confirmation marked the coming of age in old agrarian societies, a rite of passage into adulthood. Maria passed her confirmation exam in 1869 at age 15. Confirmation instruction took place at the local parish and required weeks or months of preparation. After her confirmation, Maria probably continued to live at home for a few years. At some point she worked as a (piga) in the nearby community of Växvik, less than one mile away from Skällarbyn.
What did confirmation lessons comprise?
“Well, there was the reading of various texts in the Bible, but above all learning by heart Luther’s Small Catechism – mostly the Ten Commandments, the Confession and the Lord’s Prayer – including the difficult explanations. The confirmation lessons ended with the much-feared examination in church, before the entire congregation…Once you were confirmed you were examined together with all the (confirmed) people living at your farm once a year by the vicar, on exactly the same subjects as at confirmation.”
Ecnomic factors were a driving force behind Swedish mass emigration, dissatisfaction with the intolerant and dominant state-run Lutheran church was a contributing factor.
The parish clergy who served the state completed the Household Examination Rolls (husförhörslängder). These records included detailed information about each person listed.
- Name of place, such as farm, village, or address in the city
- Names of all members of the household
- Birthdate and birthplace for each individual
- Occupation for the head of household
- Marriage date
- Vaccination information (after 1800 – smallpox)
- Religious examination results – pastor checked parishioners ability to read,
- Write and understand their catechism. Notations made if the parishioner
- Received communion
- Death date
- Moving in and out of the area
- Notes in the special remarks column
Maria’s family received acceptable marks in the Household Records and passed their parish exams. However, noted twice in the special remarks column, Karin and Nils received a reprimand for “disagreements,” (Varnade för oenighet), once in 1865 and again in 1877.
According to a London Times article written in 1879, a British reporter noted, with surprise, that 90% of the population could read and write. The reporter was impressed with the value Swedes placed on education which began long before the 1842 Swedish law that mandated a public 4-year primary school education for all children. They learned to read sometime between the age of 7-10. In some parishes, there was an actual schoolmaster; in others, the sacristan taught the students, and sometimes the children learned to read at home.
Like my 2x great-grandmother, Maria Nilsdotter, I grew up on a farm. I know how much hard work is involved. Every day.Day after day.Year after year.
Farm life in a remote rural Scandinavian community taught self-reliance. The farmers had to depend on what they could produce locally. The short and fast-growing season made this more challenging. It was impossible to grow more than one crop a year. Although the summer months boasted long nights and the midnight sun, winter was long, harsh, and cold.
Everyone in the family had to pitch in and do their share of the work. The tasks assigned to each member depended on their age and gender. The division of chores probably began at an early age. Small children could gather firewood for fuel, fetch water, pick wild berries, and perform household chores and gardening.
Nils and Karin had six daughters and three sons. The household records show that Nils only required additional help on the farm during the period 1856-1860 when his children were too young to be of much assistance. He hired three local women. Perhaps they were hired during the summer months to assist with the animals.
Although they worked hard, Maria and her siblings probably participated in fun outdoor activities. In the summer they could swim in the lake or fish, build forts in the woods, and make toys out of pinecones and sticks. In the winter they could sled or maybe even ski.
Young women and children had the responsibility of herding livestock to the summer pastures. Most farmers didn’t have enough cleared land to support cattle over the long winter months. They relied on summer pastures located nearby or some distance away. Several families from the same village shared the summer pasture (fäbod). It consisted of several simple buildings, such as cottages, cattle houses, and cookhouses.
The women usually milked the cows; twice a day, once in the morning and again in the evening. After the milking, the chore of separating the milk had to be done while the milk was warm and fresh. The farmer’s family rarely consumed the milk fresh. Instead, they preserved it in the form of cheese and butter or fermented milk (filmjölk). The butter and cheese were usually sold to pay for land taxes and church tithes.
The boys/men in the family performed the barn chores, feeding the animals, and cleaning the stalls. They tilled the soil and planted crops.
Based on the probate records, I know Maria’s family planted the following crops: hay, rye, wheat, and oats, potatoes, vetch (a type of pea), and flax.
Nils had a meager probate record, probably because he shared his house and property with his son and daughter-in-law after his wife’s death in 1896. The extensive inventory for Maria’s grandparents provided a broader picture of life on the farm.
The grandparent’s livestock list included: 31 sheep,19 lambs, three horses,14 cows, two calves, and a 3-year old bull. Many of the cows had names: Rödgas, Fruka, Böja, Docka, Hjertros, Sommargas, Frögas, Bjorna, Lillja, Grefwinna, and Molik. I imagine they became fond of the cows as we did on my father’s farm.
A few of the items listed for farm equipment included:
- – Work carts, travel cart, carriage, and sleighs for transportation.
- – Plows, threshing machine, harrows, timber sledges and a sleigh to spread manure
- Scythes, planes, handsaw, hammer, anvil, workbench, axes, drills, timber hooks, sledgehammer, sharpening stones, shovels, sheep shears, buckets, milk pails, troughs, water, and schnapps barrels, and lynx traps.
The probate for Maria’s paternal grandmother also included a boat, nets, fishing line, and hook. The family took advantage of the bountiful fishing in nearby Lake Ränken. It was a privilege that belonged to landowners with land surrounding a lake; others had to seek their permission.
Lake Ränken provided a variety of fish: pike,perch,eel,burbot,bream,bleak,smelt,carp,and vendace.The fresh fish offered a change from what was otherwise a monotonous diet of porridge, potatoes, cabbage, turnips, dried peas, and salted or fermented herring.
Another dietary staple was bread: the inventory noted bread troughs, bread baskets, and winnowing trays for sifting grain. If the farm had a windmill to grind the grain, then bread could be made every 2-4 weeks. The household examination records for Skällarbyn listed a miller. Perhaps the farm had a windmill.
If not, then the village relied on a watermill, and bread would have been baked only a few times a year in the form of (knäckebrod). The rye bread is made quite thin, baked, and then dried. It can last for months.
[I discovered how delicious (knäckebrod) is when we lived overseas.I’m fortunate to live near a European delicatessen and can still enjoy the pleasure.]
Besides kitchen tasks, Maria and her sisters would have been taught to knit, spin, and weave. The probate inventory for Maria’s mother, Karin, in 1896, listed one spinning wheel, one ball of yarn, one needle, one ring, and one frame. In contrast, Maria’s paternal grandmother, Kerstin Jonsdotter, owned numerous handwork tools: five spinning wheels, skein-winder, winder chair, yarn winder, one weaving loom, weaving reeds, accessories, heckling combs (for flax), and one heckling machine(used to prepare flax to spin the fibers.) Never-ending tasks kept the woman busy every waking hour. Handwork could be done after dinner and especially during the winter months.
During the 19th century, Sweden had a large population growth. However, there wasn’t sufficient farmland for the growing numbers of landless farm laborers and the poor. Mass emigration to America began when crop failures and famine struck the country between 1866-1868. Maria was 12-years old at the time, it may have left a lasting impression. Enticed by free land and prosperity, three-hundred thousand Swedes left for America in five years.
Although Sweden is a large country, only about 10% could be considered good arable land. For farmers who owned property, there wasn’t enough land to divide amongst the children once they reached adulthood. Traditionally young adults left home to work on nearby farms as laborers. It provided job opportunities and an opportunity to meet eligible partners. Another alternative was to seek work in nearby towns or cities.
As a young woman in Sweden in 1875, Maria had few options for her future. With so many siblings, including brothers, it was unlikely that she would inherit the family farm. If she was fortunate, she might marry a local landowning farmer; if she was unlucky, then a tenant farmer, or laborer. The pool of eligible men shrunk as large numbers chose to emigrate. Her chances of maintaining her social and economic position through marriage or employment were limited. If she didn’t find a husband, she would work the remainder of her life as a servant (piga). Working as a laborer meant long hours, hard work, small wages, and lower social status.
A more enticing option was emigration, an infectious disease known as “America Fever” swept through Sweden. Spread through newspaper articles, emigration guidebooks, and letters from early emigrants, Swedish families and single adults flocked to the United States with high expectations. They anticipated a better life in “the promised land.”
The emigrants wrote letters home with great pride extolling their new life in America. The book From the Promised Land provided numerous examples.
“The country is beautiful if any land on earth deserves to be called so. And if you compare conditions here with Sweden’s, there is no similarity at all….one can get such land as a gift or for an insignificant sum compared with its natural value. You soon have an idea why America is truly undeniably better than old Sweden.Lower taxes than in Sweden, no expensive royal house, no inactive armies. Hundreds of thousands of persons have found here the happiness they vainly sought in Europe’s lands…” [C.F. Larson 1880 writing about Nebraska]
Most emigrants painted the American Midwest as an earthly paradise. Once they had committed themselves to the new life, they were anxious to justify themselves.
Why did Maria to choose Clinton, Iowa? The answer – chain migration. Early Swedish pioneer colonies settled in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Texas, and Wisconsin. Their glowing letters home focused on employment, views of American society, increased personal freedoms, religious freedom, and social status. Members of a community or family then followed their lead and went to those areas in America. Maria followed her trailblazing eldest sister, Christina, who emigrated in 1872. (Two younger siblings followed several years after Maria. Anna emigrated in 1880, Per Axel in 1888.)
Christina, a 27-year old mother with an illegitimate child, had even fewer options in Sweden than Maria. She must have heard about the opportunities in America by word of mouth or through a letter. The arrival of a letter from America in rural Sweden aroused the curiosity of the entire community. It would be read aloud for all to hear. Several neighbors had already emigrated, including the 49-year old widower Olof Nilsson from nearby Växvik. Olof departed in July 1870 and settled in Clinton, Iowa, with his children. One of the daughters, similar in age to Christina, may have sent a letter encouraging her friend to emigrate. A couple of years after Christina settled in Clinton, she married Olof Nilsson.
Letters from Christina in Iowa made their way back to the family in Skällarbyn. How many did it take to entice Maria? Perhaps she received one similar to those I found in “I go to America: Swedish Women and the Life of Mina Anderson.”
In 1855, the Swedish immigrant Maria Janson wrote to her family:
“My employers are excellent and kind people”. Several months later, she reflected on her immigration: “I have not worked outside a single day; it is not common for women to work outside here in this country…Here [there]are absolute equal rights for all and no difference of respect for other persons. After having absorbed the free atmosphere of life in America, I believe I would not be happy in Sweden.”
“Another young woman stated: We girls travel to America because our working time is so horribly long and our wages so small in relation to what everything costs, and we get no respect – a servant is worth nothing [in Sweden].”
It was the era of the Swedish maid in America. Middle-class town families required maids, and young Swedish women were in demand. Generally, they were treated like members of the family by their employers. Not only did they not have to do outdoor work, but they had certain hours of the day and days of the week free. They had their own room and were paid weekly. If they were unsatisfied, they could quit whenever they wanted and quickly find jobs elsewhere. In Sweden, they were bound to a year’s contract. An average Swedish maid in America, even with basic knowledge, could expect better wages, hours of work, and benefits than in Sweden. A maid could also dress as fancy as her mistress, and American men treated her like a “lady.”
Opportunity and personal freedom awaited Maria in America. Convinced of a better life, she planned her trip to America.
Adjö Mor och Far – Goodbye Mother and Father
Hejdå Sverige – Goodbye Sweden
(To be continued – Maria’s travel by steamship and train to reach Clinton, Iowa.)
© 2020 copyright -Kendra Hopp Schmidt. All rights reserved.
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