From Rättvik to Isanti County

by Karl Nelson

A Community Transplanted: The Trans-Atlantic Experience of a Swedish Immigrant Settlement in the Upper Middle West, 1835-1915 by Robert Ostergren. University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

My grandfather, Curtiss D. Johnson, had a deep interest in his Swedish heritage. Many years ago, he gave me a coin that depicted immigrants landing in New York with the Statute of Liberty in the background. The coin reminds me that my ancestors arrived in America in that same fashion. Many of Pietisten’s readers share this same heritage, but even those non-Swedes among us would enjoy reading Robert Ostergren’s history of the emigration of a Swedish community.

Ostergren traced the emigration of a community from Rättvik parish in Dalarna, in central Sweden to Isanti County, Minnesota. Sweden is particularly fertile ground for this type of migration research, largely because of the systematic records maintained by the Swedish state church. Once in America, the immigrant churches often continued keeping detailed records in the same manner as in the home country. Ostergren, who considers this work to be "historical geography," makes excellent use of the resources at hand, providing the reader with detailed charts, maps, and diagrams relating to parish life and migration.

Ostergren begins with a rich description of Rättvik parish: its history, economy, geography, geology, and culture. Nineteenth century Sweden was overwhelmingly rural. At the middle of the nineteenth century, more than three-quarters of the population worked in agriculture. The percentage was even higher in Rättvik. Socially, the Rättvik Swedes concentrated on kinship networks, village ties, and the church.

The first emigrant family left Rättvik in 1864. Between that date and 1889, nearly one thousand people emigrated from Rättvik. Of these, nearly half settled in either Isanti County or Clay County, Dakota Territory. Ostergren attributes the motivation for emigration to the "classic ‘push and pull’ factors," especially crop failures during the late 1860s and early 1880s and other economic changes. Most of the emigrants traveled in family groups, and kinship and village ties pulled them to Isanti County.

Once in Minnesota, the Rättvik immigrants generally divided themselves in much the same way they had in Rättvik. Neighbors in Sweden remained neighbors in America, as they settled in the same parish subdivisions that existed in the old country. Swedish immigrants soon dominated Isanti County. By 1880, Swedes owned four-fifths of the farms in the county (the remainder were owned by Germans and Americans). They quickly took up farming, primarily producing wheat. In the winter, many supplemented their income by working in lumber camps. The church, which had been an important center of community life in Sweden, took on an even more important role in America, acting as the primary social organization, "the site of picnics, socials, and meetings."

Ostergren argues that, in many ways, this was indeed a community transplanted from Sweden. Farms were laid out in much the same manner as they had been in Rättvik. Men and women performed the same traditional jobs. Ostergren notes that two churches, one in America and the other in Rättvik, are strikingly similar, both inside and out. Isanti county Swedes were able to maintain the traditional life-style, even as Rättvik began to change in latter decades of the twentieth century. Ostergren ends his study with an examination of how the Rättvik community changed throughout the emigration period. While the church in America took on a greater role, changes in Swedish civil administration introduced in 1862 resulted in a decline in the influence of the church in Sweden. Despite crop failures, Rättvik citizens opened up more land for production. At the same time, increasing industrialization brought more opportunities for non-agricultural work.

The reader should be warned that this is not a page-turner. For that, look to Vilhelm Moberg’s four novels on Swedish emigration. But, this work is rich and well-researched. Thanks to his focus on both sides of the Atlantic, Ostergren stands out among scholars writing on Swedish-American immigration. We see not only the "New World," but also the world they left behind.