Of all the immigrants from Scandinavia, those from Sweden were the first to come to the U.S., and they came in the greatest numbers. In the early 17th century, the nation of Sweden had become a substantial power in Europe, and it joined with other powerful nations in launching colonial enterprises in the New World. In 1637, a group of Swedish speculators, together with German and Dutch investors, formed the New Sweden Company in order to send a trade expedition to North America. The next year, the Company's two ships, the Fågel Grip and the Kalmar Nickel, sailed into Delaware Bay, where the settlers founded the town of Fort Christina, now the city of Wilmington, Delaware.
Over the next two decades, the farms and villages of New Sweden spread out along both banks of the Delaware River, well into present-day New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, as more immigrants, mostly Swedes, arrived from Scandinavia. By 1657, though, the small colony was swallowed up by the larger New Netherlands, which was in turn subsumed by the massive English settlement founded by William Penn. The Swedish presence in the mid-Atlantic states continued for more than a century, though, and still survives in family names, churches, and in the distinctively Swedish notched-corner log cabins that became a staple of the European settlement throughout North America.
When Swedes returned to the United States in the 19th century, they came as part of a mass migration, not a colonial adventure. In the 1830s and 40s, small groups of farmers had begun to make the long voyage to the U.S. in search of more land or religious freedom. By the middle of the century, however, Sweden was in the throes of a national population crisis—the small country's population had doubled from 1750 to 1850, and was still growing. Tillable land became more and more scarce, and famine swept the nation, killing 22 out of every 1,000 Swedes. Emigration regulations were eased, and the 1860s saw a massive movement of Swedes fleeing their homeland; between 1861 and 1881, 150,000 traveled to the United States, 100,000 of whom came in just five years, between 1868 and 1873.
The majority of these immigrants, after arriving in East Coast port cities, quickly made their way to the new states and territories of the Midwest, drawn by the promise of open land and by the "America letters" of their compatriots. In addition, many immigrants were aggressively recruited by representatives of U.S. steamship lines and railroad companies, as well as by local governments seeking new settlers for remote parts of the country. Recruiters and correspondents alike extolled the bounties of the American landscape, and sometimes provided exaggerated accounts of the comfort and profitability of settler life. In 1850, the Swedish novelist and feminist Fredrika Bremer visited a group of Swedish farmers in Pine Lake, Wisconsin, and found their daily existence to be more difficult than some descriptions had promised.
It is lake scenery, and as lovely and romantic as any may be imagined--regular Swedish lake scenery; and one can understand how those first Swedish emigrants were enchanted, so that, without first examining the quality of the soil, they determined to found here a New Sweden and to build a New Uppsala! I spent the forenoon in visiting the various Swedish families. Nearly all live in log houses, and seem to be in somewhat low circumstances.
One farmer told her, "None who are not accustomed to hard, agricultural labor ought to become farmers in this country. No one who is in any other way well off in his native land ought to come hither. ."
Hard labor aside, by the end of the century Swedish immigrants had fanned out across the wheat belt of the United States, working largely as farmers, but also finding work in mining, railroad work, and urban trades and professions. In the 1910 census, nearly half of all Swedish immigrants and their descendants lived in three states: 1/5 lived in Minnesota, 1/6 in Illinois, and 1/14 in New York. Many others moved on to the Pacific Northwest states, where they found that the dense woods and rugged coastline reminded them of home, and where they could put their timbering skills to work. At the same time, more urban immigrants began arriving from Sweden, and these increasingly chose U.S. cities as their destination. In 1900, Chicago was home to 150,000 Swedes and Swedish Americans, and was widely considered the second-largest Swedish city in the world.
In 1924, Congress passed the Immigration Act, which set strict quotas on immigration to the U.S. and brought Scandinavian immigration to a virtual standstill. By this time, though, the Great Lakes states were major centers of Swedish culture, with Swedish politicians lobbying for Swedish votes at meetings of Swedish social clubs, while the members read Swedish newspapers. Meanwhile, other Scandinavian immigrants were arriving and building their own communities nearby—sometimes literally next door.