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?
|"I hereby claim..."|
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.
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).
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.
After some consideration, Peter Minuit directed the two Swedish ships, Kalmar Nyckel and Fågel 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.
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.
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|
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|
“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)|
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