Jamestown, New York, is my home town. Although I went to college and moved away at the age of eighteen, my formative years were lived in Jamestown, and Jamestown will always be my home town. My mother’s family moved to Jamestown in 1925, and all of them lived the rest of their lives in Jamestown except for my mother who spent five years in West Newton, Pennsylvania.
I was born in West Newton, Pennsylvania, my father’s hometown, but my parents moved to Jamestown when my father bought his own grocery store in 1940. I’m certain that having been away for the first five years of her marriage, my mother wanted to live in Jamestown with the rest of her family. Some of our relatives already lived in Jamestown, and perhaps my grandfather had an opportunity to get away from the coal mines of Dagus Mines where he worked when he first arrived in America. Immigrant Swedes helped other Swedish relatives as much as possible to get ahead in their new land.
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The first Swedes came to Delaware in 1638, just eighteen years after the Pilgrims. They made real contributions to both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. The Swedes were the first to preach the Gospel to the American Indians, and Luther’s Small Catechism was translated into the Delaware Indian dialect. Many of the Swedes came for economic reasons. Much of the land in Sweden was not able to be farmed, and as the population grew and the small farms went to the eldest son, there was not much left for the remaining sons. Crop failures also contributed to their determination to go to America where it was reported that everyone was rich. In his book, Saga From the Hills, M. Lorimer Moe says: “In America there were only two classes: the rich and the newcomers who had not yet been in America long enough to become rich!” With that enticement and the encouragement of relatives who were already here, it did not take much for many of them to leave everything and travel to the “Promised Land.” Later, the Homestead Act of 1862 also promised free land in the Midwest.
There were reasons other than economic, however, for coming to America. There was a very sharp class distinction between the privileged and the non-privileged. Many wanted to avoid the required military service with its harsh discipline. Others came for political reasons. In Sweden the right to vote was based on how much land a person held, some having no right to vote at all. Many came because of a very serious problem with alcohol in Sweden, and some brought that problem with them. Many came for religious reasons. There was a State Church in Sweden supported by taxes, but there was indifference and cold formalism in many parishes. However, when they came to America, they realized that the churches were not supported by taxes, and people soon learned that if the church were to survive, they had to support it. This was a new concept for Swedish immigrants, but it quickly took hold, and the Swedes built over two thousand churches and several schools and colleges in America, many of which are still thriving today. Many Swedes were simply looking for adventure, and they certainly found it in this new world.
Many Swedish immigrants stopped and settled in Jamestown for several reasons, but perhaps the most important was that the trees, lakes, and hills reminded them of their homeland. Many were headed for the Midwest but upon finding the Jamestown area in Western New York, they didn’t go any farther. Most of them came in the 1850s. The earliest immigrants were farmers, but each one had a trade or skill that contributed a great deal to the success of the community. Swedish immigration was at its peak in 1882 when sixty-eight thousand Swedes came to America.
It’s interesting to note that of one million two hundred thousand immigrants during that period, at least one out of four, came from Sweden.