American History and Genealogy Project


The Story of New Sweden

Part I

If you would know the story of New Sweden from the beginning we must go back to the time of our great Civil War.
Early in that fateful struggle our grand President, Abraham Lincoln, appointed me, then but twenty-three years old, one of the thirty "War Consuls" of America, and sent me to represent our country at the port of Gothenburg on the west coast of Sweden. During a three years' residence there, I acquired the Swedish language, became familiar with the history, manners and customs of the people, and learned to know, respect and admire the manner of men and women they were. I had beheld also the thousands of sturdy Swedish farmers and workmen who every year came down from the interior to Gothenburg with their fair-haired wives and children and their ponderous chests of baggage, went on board the steamships in the harbor, and sailed away for America.

As a patriotic American I was proud of this emigration, but regretted that none of all these emigrants settled in Maine. All passed by our State and went to build up the states of the West and Northwest. Yet no state or territory in the Union is better adapted by nature to become the home of Swedes than the northern, wooded State of Maine.

Hon. W. W, Thomas

No better emigrants than the Swedes ever landed on American soil. Honest and industrious, law-abiding and God-fearing, polite and brave, hospitable and generous, of the same old northern stock as ourselves, no foreign speaking immigrants learn our language more quickly, and none become more speedily Americanized or make better citizens.
Maine is a state of great, but largely undeveloped resources. In the northwestern portion there was and still is, a wilderness domain, whereon is scarce a settler, larger in area than the state of Massachusetts, covered with a stately forest, possessing a soil of unusual depth and fertility, and watered by plentiful streams.

I resigned my consulship and returned to my native State at the close of 1865. I had become convinced that immigration of some sort was a necessity and that Swedish immigration would be the best. But how could Swedish emigrants be procured and how could they be retained within the limits of our State after they arrived here! I finally worked out a plan to found a Swedish Colony in Maine, and for three years after my return I preached in Maine the faith that was in me.

I presented a bill to carry out my plan to the Legislature of 1869. When the bill came before the House, a member arose and said: ''Mr. Speaker, we have paupers enough in Maine already, and now comes Thomas and proposes to bring over a whole shipload more of them." Need I add that my bill was unanimously voted down!

I did not lose courage, however. I appeared again before the Legislature of 1870 with my bill, and, on March 23d, the bill was passed and became law. Two days after, I was appointed Commissioner of Immigration and the fate of my plan was placed in my own hands.

Having successfully arranged all preliminaries in Maine, I sailed for Sweden, arriving on the 16th of May at my old post, Gothenburg. I at once traveled among the people and everywhere preached a crusade to Maine. But the crusade was a peaceful one, its weapons were those of husbandry and its object to recover the fertile lands of our State from the dominion of the forest.

To secure the right class of people seemed the most difficult part of the whole enterprise. I there-fore dwelt on the fact that, as only a limited number of families could be taken, none would be accepted unless they brought with them the highest testimonials as to character and proficiency in their callings.

The problem soon began to solve itself. Recruits for Maine began to appear. All bore certificates of character under the hand and seal of the pastor of their district, and all who had worked for others brought recommendations from their employers. No one was accepted unless it appeared clear that he would make a thrifty citizen of our good State of Maine. In this way a little colony of picked men with their wives and children was quickly gathered. The details of the movement, the arguments used, the objections made, the multitude of questions about our State asked and answered would fill a volume. I was repeatedly asked if Maine was one of the United States. One enquirer wished to know if Maine lay alongside Texas, and another wrote asking if there were to be found in Maine any wild horses or crocodiles.

On June 23d, the colonists, who had been recruited from nearly every province of Sweden, were assembled at Gothenburg, and on the evening of that day, midsummer's eve, a Swedish festival, I invited them and their friends to a collation at the Baptist Hall in that city.

Two days afterwards I sailed away from Sweden with the first Swedish colony of Maine.

The colony was composed of twenty-two men, eleven women, and eighteen children, fifty-one souls in all. All the men were farmers; in addition some were skilled in trades and professions, there being among them a lay pastor, a civil engineer, a black-smith, two carpenters, a basket-maker, a wheelwright, a baker, a tailor and a wooden-shoe maker. The women were tidy housewives and diligent workers at the spinning-wheel and loom. All were tall and stalwart, with blue eyes, blonde hair and cheerful, honest faces. With strong feelings of pride, T looked upon them as they were mustered on the deck of the steamship Orlando.

Part II

On July 13th we landed at Halifax. The next day we continued our journey across the peninsula of Nova Scotia and over the Bay of Fundy to the city of St. John. July 15th we ascended the St. John River by steamer to Fredericton. Here steam navigation ceased on account of low water, but two river flat-boats drawn by horses, were chartered. The colonists and their baggage were placed on board and at five o'clock the next morning our colony was on its way again up river.

Near Florenceville the first misfortune befell us. Here, on July 19th, died Hilma C. Clase, the little daughter of Capt. Nicholas P. Clase. Her body was properly embalmed, placed in a quickly constructed coffin and brought on with the Colony. "We cannot leave our little one by the way," said the sorrow-stricken parents, "we will carry her through to our new home.''

On the afternoon of Thursday, July 21st, the flat-boats reached Tobique landing. Six days had been spent in fowling up from Fredericton; the journey is now" accomplished by railroad in as many hours.

Friday morning, July 22d, I procured teams for the colonists and their baggage, and the Swedish immigrant train started for Maine. At the border, we were welcomed by the citizens of Fort Fairfield with a salute of cannon, with flags and flowers and with a sumptuous banquet in the Town Hall. Refreshed, we continued our way up the broad valley of the Aroostook, and were most hospitably received and provided with entertainment and lodging for the night by the people of Caribou.

Next morning the Swedish immigrant train was early in motion and soon passed the last clearing of the 'American pioneer and penetrated a forest which now for the first time was opened for the abode of man.

At twelve o'clock noon, Saturday, July 23, 1870, just four months from the passage of the act authorizing this enterprise, the first Swedish colony of our State arrived at its new home in the wilds of Maine. As the wagon train stopped in the woods, a little south of where the Swedish capitol now stands, the Swedes instinctively drew together in a little group around me, and here, in the shadow of the forest primeval we devoutly thanked God, who had led us safely on our long journey, and fervently prayed for His blessing and guidance in the great work that lay before us. Here, too, I baptized the town ''New Sweden," a name at once commemorative of the past and auspicious of the future. Here Swedes and Americans broke bread together, and the colonists ate their first meal on the township where they were to hew out of the forest homes for themselves.

The next day was the Sabbath. The first religious service in the township was a sad one, the funeral of Hilma C. Clase, the little Swedish girl who had died on the passage up the St. John River.

Monday the Swedes drew lots for their forest farms. Tuesday morning, July 26th, they commenced the great work of converting a forest into a home. Through summer and fall the primeval forest rang from morn till eve with the blows of the Swedish ax. The prattle of Swedish children and the song of Swedish mothers made unwonted music in the wilds of Maine. New clearings opened out and new log-houses were rolled up on every hand. Odd bits of board and the happily twisted branches of trees were quickly converted into furniture.

For myself it was a pleasure to share the toils and privations of our new settlers. Every day I was among them from dawn till dark. On foot or on horseback I visited them all.

On August 12th, a new immigrant arrived in the colony. He was a native American, a good-sized boy baby, born to Korno, wife of Nils Persson, the first child born in New Sweden. He is alive and well today, a man and voter. He rejoices in the name of William Widgery Thomas Persson.

Sunday afternoon, August 21st, occurred the first wedding. I then united in marriage Jons Persson to Hannah Persdotter. The marriage ceremony was conducted in the Swedish language but according to American forms. In the evening a wedding dinner was enjoyed at the Perssons'. All the spoons were of solid silver, heirlooms from Old Sweden.

Thus within the first month of the colony's existence, it experienced the three great events in the life of man, birth, marriage, death.

Many colonists whom I had recruited in Old Sweden could not get ready to sail with me in the Orlando. They promised to follow and kept their word. All through the fall these new immigrants came dropping into our settlement, until in December New Sweden had 114 Swedish settlers, a number larger than the original Plymouth Colony of 101 souls.

 Again, although nearly half of our brave Pilgrims died the first winter, there was not a death, nay, not even one single day's sickness of man, woman or child in New Sweden during the first year. For four years I remained with "my children in the woods" and superintended the development of the colony.

In the fall of 1873 the little settlement of fifty had increased to 600, and outside of New Sweden as many more Swedes were located in our State, drawn to us by our Swedish colony. The trees on 2200 acres had been felled; 1500 of these acres were cleared in a thorough and superior manner, of which 400 were laid down to grass.

I then felt that all the conditions of the plan on which this experiment had been made, were fulfilled. The colony had been recruited in Sweden, transplanted to Maine, fast rooted in our soil and made self-sustaining. The infant colony was now strong enough to go alone.

On Sunday forenoon, October 19th, 1873, I met the Swedes at the Capitol. Nearly all the settlers, men, women and children, were there. I recounted the history of the colony since the first adventurous little band had met together in Old Sweden, spoke such words of friendly counsel as the occasion suggested and justified, and then took leave.

In my annual report to the Legislature at the close of 1873, I recommended that all special State aid to New Sweden should cease. I further took pleasure in recommending that the office of commissioner of immigration, which I held, be abolished, since the accomplishment of the undertaking rendered the office no longer necessary; and thus I laid down the work which for four years had occupied the better portion of my life and endeavor. Though my official connection with New Sweden ceased with 1873, this colony has never ceased to occupy a large portion of my heart, my thoughts and my prayers.

Among the causes that have contributed to the success of New Sweden are the industry, the economy, the honesty, the temperance and the deep religious faith of the colonists themselves. There has never been a rum shop in New Sweden and her churches are filled with sincere worshipers every Sunday in the year. The Swedish women have ever rendered active help to their husbands. The Swedish wife not only did the housework but helped her husband in the clearings amid the blackened stumps and logs. Many of the Swedes cut their logs into lengths for piling with cross-cut saw's. Whenever this was the case, you would see that the Swedish wife had hold of one end of the saw.

Once, riding out of the woods, I met one of our Swedish women walking in with a heavy sack on her back. As she passed, I noticed a commotion inside the sack.

"What have you in there!" said I.

"Four nice pigs," she replied.

"Where did you get them.?"

"Down river, two miles beyond Caribou."

Two miles beyond Caribou was ten miles from New Sweden. So this good wife had walked that morning twenty miles; ten miles out, and ten miles home with four pigs on her back, smiling all the way, to think what nice pigs they were.
Another wife, Mrs. Kjersti Carlson, when her husband was ill and her children cried for bread, with her own hands felled some cedar trees, sawed them up into butts, and rifted out and shaved these butts into shingles, one bunch of which she carried five miles through the woods on her back, to barter at the corner store for medicine and food. By such toil was the wilderness settled.

The Swedish immigrants soon overflowed the boundaries of the township of New Sweden and settled in the adjoining American towns of Woodland, Caribou and Perham. They also pressed over the boundaries to the west and founded the daughter colony of Westmanland. To the north our Swedish settlers have founded the daughter colonies of Stockholm and Upsala.

New Sweden township today contains, in round numbers, 1,000 settlers. In the adjoining colonies there are at least 1,000 more. In the State at large there are more than 3,000 Swedes brought hither by the influence of our Swedish colony. The State of Maine contains today at least 5,000 Swedish inhabitants.

Our Swedish settlement today has three saw mills, two starch factories, five large stores, two blacksmith shops, a creamery, a fine Grange Hall, two post offices with rural delivery, four churches, an excellent band of musicians, a central telephone exchange with 250 telephones in use, and nine modern school-houses, where graded schools are taught by well-trained Swedish teachers.

Some of the inhabitants come to school five miles through the woods, slipping over the snow on skis, Swedish snowshoes.

As to crops raised, I am told that in the winter of 1913-14 there were exported from the railroad stations in New Sweden no less than 158,000 barrels of potatoes, 17,000 barrels also were consumed in the starch factories, making a total of 175,000 barrels of potatoes over and above her own consumption, produced by New Sweden in a single year.
New Sweden is the only successful agricultural colony founded in New England with foreigners from over the ocean, since the Revolutionary War. There is not in the United States a more orderly, prosperous, contented and happy agricultural community than the New Sweden of Maine.

William Widgery Thomas
Bethel, January, 1919

Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

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