Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Colonial Ambitions and Log Cabins

by Anna Belfrage

Sweden hasn’t given American culture all that much: one very famous hymn (How Great Thou Art), one so-and-so famous revolutionary (Joe Hill), and one most emblematic building (the log cabin).  The log cabin? I see American readers wrinkling their brows. Isn’t the log cabin a home grown invention? Nope. It’s as Swedish as zippers (oh, yes) and dynamite (sadly, yes).

But let’s take it from the beginning, shall we?

In the 17th century, every country that aspired to greatness needed a colony. It all started in the 15th century. After years of vicious bickering between Spain and Portugal, in 1493 Pope Alexander IV decided enough was enough and divided up the world between these two countries by establishing a dividing meridian 100 leagues west of Cape Verde. Portugal wasn’t too happy with the pope (who was Spanish and therefore, as per Portugal, biased) and after a lot of noise, the Portuguese king and Their Most Catholic majesties of Spain signed the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.


"I hereby claim..."
As per this treaty, Spain and Portugal divided up the non-Christian world, establishing a separating meridian approximately 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands. Anything west of that line befell to the Spanish – should they want it. They most certainly did, blatantly claiming everything beyond as theirs. And it was so easy to claim, wasn’t it? They just planted a flag in the sand and said “this is ours” – a bit like Eddie Izzard does in that wonderful sketch of his “do you have a flag?”

What the original inhabitants might have thought of all this was neither here nor there – at least as per the Europeans. In fact, the Spanish argued they were doing these poor savages a favour by bringing them the word of God! With God came measles and smallpox and slavery, but hey, small price to save for eternal salvation, right?

While Spain was busy sinking teeth and claws into the newly discovered continents to the west, Portugal was hogging everything else, from Africa to the Far East.

However, claiming and holding on to are two very different things. The Dutch had no intention of leaving all of Asia or Africa to the Portuguese. After all, the Dutch were as great a  nation of seafarers and merchants as the Portuguese, and where they sailed, so did the Dutch. Nor did the Dutch intend to leave all of America to Spain and Portugal.

If the Dutch could do it, so could the English. Men like Raleigh and Drake set their eyes on North America, and with them came shiploads of their compatriots. Any self-respecting Frenchman knew that what the English could do, they could do better, so off they went to claim their share of this new continent.

By the first decades of the 17th century, that old Treaty of Tordesillas was a dead duck in the water. Yes, the Spanish still insisted all of America was theirs, but with French colonies here, English colonies there, the odd Dutch outpost somewhere else, it was apparent even to the Spaniards that they were fighting a losing battle in North America. Instead, the Spanish government decided to concentrate its resources on defending South America and Mexico (that was where the gold was).

Gustavus Adolphus
Some European countries felt very left out. Take Sweden, which at the time was suffering from severe megalomaniac delusions. Had not that magnificent Swedish warrior king, Gustavus Adolphus more or less singlehandedly conquered all of Europe? (No. But us Swedes like to think he did…) And yet, something was missing, a je-ne-sais-quoi to raise Sweden to a station equivalent to that of Spain or France.  After some consideration, it dawned on the Swedes that what they needed was a colony.

Now for those of you familiar with Swedes, you know we dither a long time over taking decisions (it’s called “creating consensus”) but are amazingly effective in implementing once the decision is taken. So once the Swedish Government had decided to go for a colony, off we went, and as Swedes can be quite pragmatic when necessary, in this case Sweden decided to hire a Dutch guy to find a colony for them.

Buying Manhattan
The Dutch guy in question was Peter Minuit, a true colonial veteran. This, after all, was the man credited with buying all of Manhattan from the natives for the equivalent of 60 Dutch guilders. Not only had he been governor of New Amsterdam, he had also been a director of the Dutch West India Company, and therefore very familiar with who was claiming what where.

After some consideration, Peter Minuit directed the two Swedish ships, Kalmar Nyckel and F├ągel Grip to the Delaware River, where they anchored just off present day Wilmington. Somewhat devious, as this effectively meant he was infringing on land claimed by the Dutch. Not that Peter Minuit cared; he had fish to fry with his former colleagues in the Dutch West India Company, still more than disgruntled at having been ousted from the job as governor. Besides, Minuit insisted the Dutch only had deeds to the eastern shore of the Delaware River, and upon arrival in March of 1638, Minuit immediately assembled the local Indian chiefs and had them sign deeds which effectively gave Sweden the western shore.

P. Minuit
The Dutch protested loudly. I dare say a bottle or two of genever must have been thrown to crash against a wall as angered Dutchmen cursed Minuit for his treachery. Minuit shrugged and went on with organising his little colony – at least until he drowned, a year or so later.

A fort was hastily constructed and named Fort Christina after Sweden’s twelve-year-old queen. I imagine Christina celebrated this event by exclaiming a rousing “huzzah!”  At last the young Swedish queen could hold her head up high among her royal peers; she too had a colony now.

Two years after that first landing, a further 600 immigrants arrived in New Sweden. Towns were established, an embryonic administration was created, and the little colony thrived. Although the Dutch continued to grumble and moan, they had other concerns, even if now and then they glanced at New Sweden with covetous eyes. The English were as irritated as the Dutch by these Nordic latecomers to the party, but England was engulfed by the initial stages of the Civil War, and so Sweden’s little piece of America was left alone. For now.

Swedish colonists
The Swedish colonists were used to living in dense forests. Most of them grew up with trees standing thick around them, and what land they cleared, they cleared by the slash-and-burn method – as effective in their new home as in their old. The trees they felled, they used to build log cabins in the tradition of their homelands, constructions where dovetailed logs were stacked into four walls, often topped by a shingle roof.


The benefit of the log cabin is that it is relatively quick to build and very robust. Chinks between the logs would generally be filled with moss or clay, and the resulting sturdy structure did as well in Delaware winters as it had done in Swedish winters – or should I say Scandinavian winters? This is probably an opportune moment to come clean. You see, a very large part of those Swedish immigrants who arrived in Delaware in the 1640’s were not really Swedish. They were Forest Finns, a derogatory word used by Swedes to describe the Finns that were forcibly transferred from Finland to Sweden to clear land in Western Sweden.

These Forest Finns leaped at the chance of going to the New World. Few of them had any warmer feelings for Sweden, where they were often treated with scorn. None of them remembered Finland – they were second or third generation poor immigrants by the 17th century – and all of them knew they would never be allowed to return to Finland. (Sweden was doing its own form of ethnic cleansing by moving stubborn Finns to Sweden, oppositional Danes to Finland, truly obstructive people to the Baltic States, Baltic people to Sweden – in brief, stirring the pot so that local loyalties were effectively disarmed) Having to settle for second best, the Forest Finns opted for New Sweden.

Lower Swedish Cabin, 1640s, PA
I suppose this means that the emblematic log cabin is as much a Finnish invention as a Swedish one. If you ask a Norwegian, he’ll tell you they’ve been building log cabins since the Ice Age. So maybe we should agree on the log cabin being a Scandinavian contribution to the American architecture – but introduced in the land of the free and brave by the colonial ambitions of Sweden.

Mijnheer Stuyvesant
Sweden’s forage into the world of colonial matters was destined to be brief. After some years of uneasy if not unfriendly cohabitation, the Dutch decided to build a fort of their own, Fort Casimir, uncomfortably close to Swedish land. In a rash act of daring, the dashing governor of New Sweden, Johan Rising captured Fort Casimir in 1654. In doing so, he inadvertently signed New Sweden’s death sentence. Enraged, the powerful Governor of New Netherlands, Peter Stuyvesant, attacked New Sweden in 1655. In a matter of weeks, the Swedish governor was forced to surrender, and with that the Swedish foothold on the American continent was gone.

Or was it? During the 17 years that Sweden had its colony, close to 1 000 settlers had come over from Sweden. No matter that the Dutch now controlled the area the settlers were still there, still speaking Swedish (or Finnish) to each other, still holding to customs and traditions. Their Dutch overlords didn’t mind, and everyone seems to have rubbed together quite happily for a decade or so. I guess the Dutch and the Swedes could meet over their common love of herring (and genever).

Dashing Duke of York
In the early 1660’s, the English were done with their Civil War. Peace was restored, the king was back on his throne, and the English government at last found the time to study the situation in America. What they saw, they did not like. Like a huge sore thumb between the northern English colonies such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island and present day Connecticut, and the southern colonies, Virginia and Maryland, was New Netherlands.

“Well, we can’t have that, can we?” uttered the Duke of York, and so the English set out in force to take control over “their” continent.

By 1664, Delaware – together with the rest of New Netherlands – was taken over by the English. With the English came new colonial administration, new laws – and a new, more practical language. (Already back then, Swedish suffered from being a language VERY few speak) The original settlers held on to their antiquated Swedish when at home or in church, but as the years passed their language and those traditions and customs they’d carried with them from their homeland faded into obscurity – except for one small and utilitarian building: the log cabin.

Nothnagle log house, Swedesboro ( lower part  fr 1640)
Over time, this ingenious and simple little piece of architecture would go walk-about all over the North American continent, home to an endless number of intrepid settlers who, just like the 17th century Swedes (and Finns) came to America in search of a better life. Not a bad contribution, all in all. On the other hand, neither is “How Great Thou Art” …


Anna Belfrage is the author of five published books, all of them part of The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, The Graham Saga is the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him. 
The next instalment in the series, Revenge and Retribution, is due for publication in June/July of 2014
For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website! If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog or on FB

2 comments:

  1. Fascinating post! Thanks so much for sharing this.

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  2. We live in an 1840's log cabin. I knew the idea came from Sweden, but it was nice to read a deeper history of this building style! Thank you!

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