Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Swedes settled the U.S. Great Plains and Canadian Prairies as a part of their mass migration to North America from the 1860s on, many coming via settlements in Illinois, then the cradle of Swedish America. They followed the river valleys and railways, many enticed by propaganda from the states, railroads, and steamship companies, or by the individual efforts of ethnic colonizers and churchmen. Old established settlements in the eastern Plains and Prairies gave birth to new colonies farther to the west; in addition, many immigrants settled directly from Sweden.

The Swedish-born population peaked in the period 1890 to 1910, with most subsequent migration flowing from farming communities to urban areas such as Winnipeg, Fargo, Omaha, and Kansas City. In 1930 the Swedish-born population was most apparent in Nebraska (12 percent of the foreign-born), Kansas (10.5 percent), South Dakota (10 percent), North Dakota (8 percent), and Texas (4.1 percent). At that time, the Swedes outnumbered all other Scandinavian groups in Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. Swedes operated mixed grain, livestock, and wheat farms, worked as contractors and builders, and quickly became upwardly mobile in the professions, especially the second generation. Swedes established many ethnic institutions such as hospitals, schools, clubs, and newspapers. Of those who had a religious a.liation, most were Augustana Lutheran, Mission Covenant, Methodist, or Baptist. At present, Texas leads the Plains states in the absolute number of persons of Swedish heritage, though most Swedes in Texas are outside the Plains, followed by Nebraska and Kansas. Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota have the highest percentage of Swedes compared to other ethnic groups. Traditional ethnic festivals such as Midsommar and Santa Lucia are celebrated at various places throughout the region.

Sven Magnus Swenson, leader of a contingent from Nassjo, Sweden, established a colony of Swedes on the fertile, waxy prairies of eastern Texas in the 1860s. Blanketing Travis and Williamson Counties, the Swenson settlement today is the largest contiguous Swedish settlement in Texas. Wheat farming, cattle breeding, and cotton production were the early pursuits. The old settlements of East Texas generated offshoots elsewhere, and today people of Swedish heritage are found in most Texas counties. Their urban presence is greatest in Austin, Houston, and Galveston. Swedish Lutherans founded Trinity College at Round Rock, and Swedish Methodists founded Texas Wesleyan College at Austin. Swedes in Oklahoma have been relatively few in number, with the overwhelming share of them in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Swedish settlers in Kansas mainly followed the Kansas, Big Blue, and Republican River valleys west. Today, persons of Swedish ancestry are in nearly all Kansas counties, with the greatest concentrations in McPherson, Saline, Wyandotte, Shawnee, Osage, Republic, and Riley Counties. Mariadahl, the oldest Swedish enclave, was established in the Big Blue Valley in the 1850s. The First Swedish Colonization Company, founded in Chicago in 1868, was instrumental in establishing the Lindsborg Colony (Saline and McPherson Counties), today the largest rural concentration of Swedes in Kansas. The largest urban concentrations are in Kansas City, Topeka, and Salina, all important transit cities in the early phases of Swedish migration. From eastern Kansas and Lindsborg the Swedes dispersed westward, establishing Swedesburg and Walsby on the Republican River, as well as a spattering of settlements elsewhere identified by names like Stockholm. Bethany College, founded in 1881 in Lindsborg, is one of the Swedes' most notable and enduring contributions.

Swedish Americans are found throughout Nebraska, but the heaviest concentrations are in the eastern urban centers of Omaha and Lincoln. In 1930 more than 10 percent of the population of Omaha was Swedish-born. Large rural settlements coalesced at Wahoo, Malmo, and Swedeburg in Saunders County, just west of Omaha; Oakland in Burt County; Polk, Swedehome, and Stromsburg in Polk County; and Axtell and Holdrege in Kearney and Phelps Counties, respectively. The Swedes founded Lutheran College at Wahoo, Immanuel Deaconess Institute in Omaha, Bethphage Mission for tuberculosis patients at Axtell, a children's home at Holdrege, and hospital facilities sponsored by the Swedish Covenant Church and Augustana Synod.

Swedish migration into the Dakotas was primarily individual, not group, so extensive colonies like those in Kansas and Nebraska were never formed. Swedes followed the Northern Pacific and Great Northern Railroads and settled in farm and small-town settings among the more numerous Norwegians. Harwood, dating from 1870–71, is the oldest Swedish settlement in North Dakota. Swedes have a notable presence in Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot, Bismarck, and Williston, as well as in smaller places like Finley, Prosper, Sheyenne, and Kenmore. In South Dakota the Swedes are most numerous in Sioux Falls and elsewhere in Minnehaha County. Swedes also settled in considerable numbers in the Dalsburg and Komstad districts in Clay County near Vermillion; Alcester and Big Springs in adjacent Union County; and in other eastern districts.

Most Swedes migrated to the Canadian Prairies via the northern United States. They followed the tracks of the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways, mostly westward from Winnipeg, and took up residence alongside other Nordic migrants, especially the Norwegians. They avoided the dry prairies, settling the parklands of mixed grass-woodlands, and established themselves as lumbermen and agriculturists in mostly mixed farm and wheat operations. The Swedish element gravitated toward the professions in Prairie towns and cities. In 1930, 40 percent of the Swedes in Manitoba lived in Winnipeg and its suburbs, most of them employed as industrial, craft, and railroad workers. Logan Avenue emerged as the hub of the Swedish enclave in Winnipeg. Sizable rural enclaves emerged at Lac du Bonnet and Teulon–Norris Lake near Winnipeg; Eriksdale, Lillesve, and Erickson-Scandinavia north of Winnipeg; and Stockholm and Percival in Saskatchewan. In 1930 Swedes constituted 0.8 percent of the foreign-born population of the Canadian Prairies. Their largest absolute numbers were in Saskatchewan and Alberta. In recent years Swedish Canadians, like other Canadians, have been drawn to the oil industries in the Calgary and Edmonton regions.

See also: ARCHITECTURE: Swedish Architecture.

Ann M. Legreid Central Missouri State University

Benson, Adolph B., and Naboth Hedin. Americans from Sweden. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1950.

Kastrup, Allen. The Swedish Heritage in America. St. Paul MN: North Central Publishing Company, 1975.

Nelson, Helge. The Swedes and Swedish Settlements in North America. New York: Bonnier, 1943.

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