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Nordic and Scandinavian Emigration to the United States

Sweden Emigration

Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. The flag of Sweden flies outside a financial-services office in Lindsborg, Kansas, which the locals are fond of calling "Little Sweden, U.S.A." 2021. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Swedish American studies, including local history and genealogy, are among the best-documented immigrant studies in the United States. This is the result of the Swedish tradition for documenting many often overlooked aspects of life from birth to death. Existing documents include certifications of change of employment, changes of address, and even military records relating to whether a soldier's horse was equipped properly. Records also include common events such as marriage, emigration, and death.

Many Swedes emigrated to the United States in search of religious freedom. Until 1951, when the Law of Religious Freedom was passed, it was hard to leave the Church of Sweden which was modeled on Lutheranism. In the United States, traditions of the Church of Sweden splintered into many denominations emphasizing different aspects of culture and religion. Some required children to study the mother tongue in Saturday classes, others did not. Amidst all these schisms, the Augustana Synod (now merged with the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church), in Rock Island, Illinois, remained the largest and most influential. The church produced many books and founded Augustana College in the same city. The Swenson Center, located in the college, is a repository of Swedish culture in America and a source of documents for genealogists.

An interesting phenomenon that arose during the height of Swedish immigration was the creation of communities around the nation often referred to as "Swedish America." These communities were characterized by societies designed to keep immigrants together, and sometimes to isolate them from American influence. Swedish-language magazines and books were published, and people were encouraged to live in communities with other Swedish immigrants, partly to form mutual-aid societies, and partly to prevent assimilation. A literary genre expressing distaste for the new country was published in Sweden by immigrants and lasted until the 1990s. Articles published presented the United States as inhospitable and discouraged emigration. These "Swedish-America" areas arose in places such as Lindsborg, Kansas; Bishop Hills, Illinois; and Chisago Lake, Minnesota. During the 1871 Great Chicago Fire in Illinois, the area of the southern part of the city, referred to as "Swedentown," was the first to burn. Approximately 200,000 Swedish immigrants were rendered homeless. These communities generated many written records of value to the genealogist. As early as the 1840s, Swedish journalists and writers toured "Swedish America" communities to gauge the extent to which the mother culture was being preserved. Some were sympathetic, others were critical, but all of their writings shed light on Swedish American local history.

Genealogy Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.