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Asking ‘why they came’ can lead to interesting path

Updated Saturday, July 18, 2009 | 1:19 p.m.

Why do people go where they go?

As we follow an ancestor across an ocean, a continent, a state, or a town we need to ask two questions. Why did our ancestor leave the first place, and why did he settle in the other? Solving only one of the puzzles does not do justice to our ancestor’s life. My husband’s great-grandfather Johannes Petersson illustrates why.

Petersson left Torskinge, Jönköpings Län, Sweden, in 1887, and settled in Polk County, Minn. Why did he leave Sweden, and why did he settle in Polk County? According to Louise Bergström in “Nation formation and global migration - Sweden around 1900,” (

Petersson was part of one of the largest out-migrations in Swedish history that began in the 1860s, peaked in the 1880s, and began to dwindle by 1900.

What “pushed” so many Swedes like Petersson from their homeland in the last decades of the nineteenth century? Bergström explains that two events likely precipitated their leave-taking. First, many farmers were forced from their properties during a mid-century land redistribution and population boom that left many small yeoman farmers without means to earn a living or maintain their land. Second, the decline in the price of rye by more than 50% between 1881 and 1887 swept many remaining Swedish farmers into bankruptcy.

The second son of his family, Johannes purchased a farm in 1878 in Gummarp Norregård, Torskinge, for 600 kronor. In 1887, after a bad growing year and at the height of the price depression of rye, 33-year-old Johannes sold his farm and his sister’s farm in order to emigrate. The no-longer-young bachelor farmer likely saw no scenario in which he might earn a living and support a family in his native country. Bergström writes that most of Sweden’s late-nineteenth-century emigrants made their way to North America, where, by 1900, “it was said that every fifth Swede lived.”

What “pulled” Petersson and other immigrants to America in the late 1800s? American immigration from Europe spiked to record highs beginning in the 1880s. Public sentiment and the law welcomed (white) European immigrants as a means to populate and settle the West (even as Congress banned Chinese immigration in 1882). The Statue of Liberty, unveiled in 1886, beckoned European incomers like Johannes; later, Ellis Island welcomed them from 1892. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed grants of 160 acres (1/4 section) to 640 acres (1 section) of land to those who had never borne arms against the United States. Likely Johannes was especially attracted by the offer of farmland because his farming prospects in Sweden were so bleak.

Why did Petersson settle in Polk County? Johannes joined his younger brother, Enock, a bachelor who immigrated to Canada in 1878 to work on the railroad. Enock reached Winnipeg after three years and removed south to Polk County to take up a homestead. Six years later Johannes arrived in time to claim the last available Polk County homestead of160 hilly, wooded, boulder-studded acres near Enock. Johannes asked his Swedish relatives to find a Torskinge woman who would immigrate to Minnesota, marry him, and set up his household. Petronella Magnusdotter packed her Bible and her clothing and joined the Swedish wave of immigration to America in about 1892 to marry Johannes and turn his poor homestead into a farm.

Like many Swedish farmers in the 1880s Johannes Petersson could not sustain a living in his native land; Sweden’s economic situation “pushed” him out as America welcomed him and offered him free farmland near his brother in Polk County, Minn. When we explore what might “push” an individual from his home place, the “pull” of another place becomes clearer.

With gratitude to Sören Olsson of Borås, Sweden, for sharing his Torskinge research.

Stefani Evans is a Board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News 2275 Corporate Circle, Suite 300, Henderson, NV 89074, or [email protected].

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