Thursday, March 1, 2012

Nebraska Pioneers: Two Sisters Emigrate from Sweden in the 19th Century

In the second half of the 19th century, Swedish immigrants flooded into America. It has been estimated that one-fourth of Sweden’s population left home for the New World (see “Swedish Immigration to North America” p. 1, and “Swedish Americans” p.2). In fact, Sweden “had one of the highest rates of emigration of all of the European nations” (“Swedish Americans” p.2). Both sexes emigrated, primarily the “young and healthy” (“Swedish Immigration” p. 1). This article will examine the lives of two sisters, Amelia Bergman (1855-1934), and Augusta Person (1858- 1956), who came from Sweden to Nebraska in the last decades of the 19th century. Augusta traveled across Nebraska in a covered wagon, and she and Amelia spent their early years in a prairie sod house. The sisters left diaries and letters which document their experiences; in addition, family anecdotes and genealogical research will supplement this portrait of Amelia and Augusta. Their lives are emblematic of many Swedish immigrants at this time.

The total number of 19th century Swedish immigrants was less than Italians and Irish, and is perhaps the reason for the lack of knowledge about them; famine and population growth was the principal reason for the migration of all three groups. The Irish and Italians settled in large urban areas on the East Coast, while Swedes came to rural areas of the Midwest. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which reversed the U.S.’s previous pledge to native people, and the 1862 Homestead Act, promising free land for those who “developed” it, paved the way for Swedes to settle in Nebraska. This legislation, combined with poor soil for farming and economic stagnation in Sweden, proved an irresistible draw for many Swedes, including Amelia and Augusta.

Amelia was born Maja Greta Carlsdotter in Ostra Tollstad parish, Ostergotlands lan (county), Sweden. She changed her name to Amalia Carlson when she arrived in America; in later life, the spelling was regularized to Amelia. For the purposes of this brief study, she will be referred to as Amelia. Amelia and Augusta’s parents were Carl Persson, 11/11/1814 – 3/1/1889, and Margareta Jonsdotter 3/11/1821 – 9/2/1860.

Swedish surnames were not standardized until 1901 (see Hogman, “Swedish naming practices in earlier times,” p. 11). Before then, daughters took their father’s first name, the patronym, and added “dotter,” daughter. Sons took the patronym and added “son.” Amelia and Augusta’s surnames were Carlsdotter; while their brother’s surname was Carlsson. Scandinavian genealogy requires patience, since the surnames changed with each generation, and sisters’ and brothers’ surnames were not the same. I am indebted to Ms. Jean Bjork for her genealogical research on Amelia and Augusta.

Little is known about the sisters’ childhood. Their mother, Margareta Jonsdotter, died when they were children, and the father may have remarried. One of Amelia’s granddaughters recalls: “Grandmother told me that when she was a little girl, her family was rich, more or less. She and her younger sister [Augusta] used to sit on the top of the stairs and watch the big parties that her parents were having. But her father had a drinking problem, and one night when he was drunk he signed some notes for some friends, and the family lost all their money” (e-mail from Helen Bergman Hartman, 11/12/2000). Later she adds, “Grandmother never mentioned anything more about her mother and father.” Whatever the family’s circumstances, Amelia and Augusta remained in close contact with their three sisters and brother in Sweden and occasionally returned to visit.

In 1880, when she was 25, Amelia came to America. She was unmarried, and made the trip alone. According to notes from her son, David Bergman, the date of her arrival in Nebraska was April 1. Swedish records report the date of her departure as March 1, via Fredrikshamn, Denmark. She stayed with the C.B. Johnson family of Saronville, Nebraska, in Clay County. Saronville was a Swedish community; Swedish immigrants had begun to arrive in south central Nebraska in 1869.

Clay County is situated near the California-Oregon Trail; in 1864 it was the site of the Nebraska Territory’s last major Indian War along the Blue River. Nebraska was not uninhabited before the arrival of Europeans settlers; throughout the 19th century, native people were forced to cede land through treaties and wars. Saronville was founded on land that had previously belonged to the Pawnee, the “most populous tribe in Nebraska” (“The Pawnee, Omaha, and Oto-Missouria Tribes on the Nebraska frontier,” p. 1). Ough, the eventual home of Augusta in western Nebraska, had been home to the Arapaho and Cheyenne nations.

Saronville today has a population of just 54; like many agricultural towns in Nebraska, its peak population was in 1900, when it had 200 inhabitants. By 1870, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad started its westward line from Lincoln, and the little hamlets that sprung up along the way were named in alphabetical order (see “Saronville—Clay County” p. 1).

The Saronville Swedish Evangelical Lutheran church was built in 1881, though the town itself did not come into formal existence till 1882. The Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church was similar to the state church of Sweden. Sweden became officially Protestant in the 16th century (“History of Sweden” p. 1). While many Swedish communities in Nebraska stayed Lutheran, others reflected the schisms that were suppressed in their home country (see Lindell for a discussion of religious expression in Svenksamerika). Religion does not seem to have been the major reason for Amelia’s and Augusta’s emigration, though at the time of their immigration, Sweden recognized only the state church. Once in Nebraska, the sisters became involved with the Swedish Baptists.

Shortly after her arrival in Saronville, Amelia took up residence in the household of Andrew Fredrick Bergman, (1829-1924), his wife Anna Sophia Vester, or Wester (1825- date unknown) and their adult children. Andrew Bergman, born Anders, was the son of another Anders Bergman (1805-1846) and Maja Andersdotter (1804- 1856). The Bergmans were from Fellingsbro, near Orebro. According to Swedish records, Andrew’s father, Anders, was a carpenter turned soldier. The first Bergman ancestor in Sweden that can be found is Jonas Persson, (1772-?), Andrew Fredrick’s great-grandfather.

Andrew Bergman’s occupation is listed as a shoemaker and farm hand; the Bergmans moved from Westansjo to Vastra Skedvi, Vastmanland county, in 1861 (both villages are near Orebro). In 1873, at the age of 44, Andrew and his wife, Anna Sophia, who was 48, immigrated to America via England. Jean Bjork, a distant relative, wonders if Amelia and Augusta were acquainted with the Bergman family in Sweden: Ostergotlands and Vastmanland are close by. If so, that information was not recorded by Amelia or her descendants.

Andrew and Anna Bergman had four children, two sons, Andrew (Anders) and Carl Johan, and two daughters, Anna Lovisa and Sofia Amalia. Andrew and Anna, along with two of their adult children, Carl and Sofia, settled in Saronville in 1873. This was less than 10 years after the Indian War of 1864. Anna Lovisa emigrated in 1878, and Andrew in 1880. By 1886, the family was prospering; according to Clay County records, Andrew the father, and his sons, Carl and Andrew, all owned farms in the Saronville area (see Davy and Dunlap, “Clay County Plat Book – 1886). In terms of plots owned, if not acreage, the only family owning more land in Saronville at the time was the Israelsons.

Andrew and Anna Bergman’s religious tradition is unclear. In the first half of the 19th century, all Swedes were obliged to belong to the state church. Jean Bjork has found clues she thinks indicate the Bergmans were Swedish Baptists, but other family members believe they were Jewish. Little has been written about the emigration of Swedish Jews to Nebraska, and nothing about Jews in Clay County. Presumably the Israelsons were Jewish as well. As in most other European countries, Swedish Jews experienced discrimination, and could not become full citizens till 1870 (see Rebecca Weiner, p. 3). Vastmanland, the home county of Andrew F. Bergman, never had a synagogue or even a Jewish cemetery, making it difficult to verify any ties to Judaism. Still, the Bergmans belonged to a religious minority, either Jewish or Baptist, and that may have been the reason they left Sweden.

According to family accounts, Amelia came to work as a domestic at the Bergman farm near Saronville in payment for her passage. If so, why did Amelia go to the Johnson’s house first? As previously mentioned, it is possible Amelia’s family knew the Bergmans in Sweden. Less than four weeks after Amelia’s arrival in the household, she and Carl Bergman eloped. Amelia and Carl were wed on May 1, 1880, at the Clay County courthouse. They were both 25. The marriage was not approved by Andrew and Anna Sophia, Carl’s parents. According to a granddaughter, it was said that Amelia was pregnant. Amelia was never allowed back in the Bergman’s home.

In spite of his parents’ anger, Carl was given his own plot of land on his father’s farm just after his marriage, and he and Amelia moved into a sod- house, a dugout, on the property. Wood was scarce in central Nebraska, and it was 10 years before Carl and Amelia mortgaged the farm to begin construction of a frame house.

Amelia and Carl had eight children, three of whom, Jessie, Royal and Goldie, died in childhood. The five surviving children were Gunnard (1883-1957), David (1888-1972), Caleb (1891-1970), George (1893-1983), and Ellen (1896-1960). All were born in the sod dugout on the couple’s farm. According to family recollections, Carl “didn’t really like to farm. He would rather take his guitar and sing and play for the dances” (Helen Bergman Hartman, p. 2). In fact the “Bergmans were very musical. Father [Gunnard] and Uncle Caleb each had violins that they bought in a second hand store, and they played by ear” (Hartman, p. 2). Carl made violins and guitars for the family.
Amelia’s husband loved music and played guitar; Amelia expressed herself artistically and creatively through quilting. She set up a quilting frame in her dining room, and spent hours sewing elaborate quilts. She encouraged her grandchildren in this craft; Geraldine Bergman Carlson recalls being given a needle and thread when visiting. Ms. Carlson writes “I know now that after I left each time she would sit and patiently rip out my quilting” (letter from Geraldine Carlson to Helen Saylor). Some of Amelia’s quilts are still in her family’s possession.

In 1898, tragedy struck for Amelia. Carl died, at age 43. The youngest child, Ellen, was just two, and the farm had been mortgaged to begin construction of a frame house. Amelia had a keen business sense, and kept the place going. She even saved enough to put all the children, except Ellen, through college. Gunnard attended normal school, as did David. Caleb wanted to practice a trade, and chose not to attend college.

Amelia spoke little English. Since the children all learned English in school, Amelia used them as translators. According to Amelia’s diary, which she kept sporadically from 1908-1925 (translated by Mia Christina Devitt-Haggkvist in 2001), she supported her family by selling eggs and poultry. In 1915, she sold the farm and moved to Verona, Nebraska. Verona was also a Swedish community, originally named Sweden (see Aufdenkamp, “A Town Called Verona” p.1). This house, considered one of the finest in Verona, was later moved to Clay Center, where it remains.

In 1885, five years after Amelia’s immigration and hasty wedding, she convinced her younger sister, Augusta (1858-1956), to leave Sweden and come to Nebraska. Augusta came to Saronville and met her future husband, Hocan Person (1861-1904) shortly after her arrival, though the two married later. Hocan was also a Swedish immigrant. (Endogamy, marriage within ethnicity, was important for the newly arrived Swedes. Most of Amelia and Augusta’s children also married Swedish immigrants.) Augusta and Hocan had two daughters, Nanni and Ellen, and four sons, Jay, Phillip, Edward and Carl. Nanni died in infancy. Hocan, Augusta’s husband, died at age 43, the same age as Amelia’s spouse. Both sisters raised five young children as widows.

Between 1885 and 1895, Augusta wrote letters home to Sweden. By November of 1885, Augusta lived and worked in Lincoln, Nebraska. She states that she was earning $2.50 a week, presumably as a domestic. Augusta wrote to her father from the capital city, describing the marvels of the New World. She tells of a strange, new crop, corn: it “grows on tall stalks between 3 and 4 yards high; and on the stalks are large cones in the same fashion as pine cones” (“Wauneta Daily Breeze,” vol. 73, section 2, 8/4/1960, page 1, translated by Phil Person). More mysterious to Augusta is the skating rink: “They have here a large long house. The people who wish go there and go skating. The skates have four small wheels underneath and then they skate on the floor with music just like a dance” (W.D.B. p. 1).

In April of 1886, Augusta returned to Saronville, where she stayed with her sister Amelia and got married. Augusta’s husband, Hocan Person, writes that they were acquainted for a year and half, though during the 10 months Augusta worked in Lincoln, the couple did not see each other. After the wedding, Augusta and Hocan decided to settle near Ough, Nebraska, near the Colorado border, where they homesteaded. There were still native peoples living in western Nebraska through the mid-1870’s, and homesteading was not attempted before then (see “Who’s Who in Chase County, 1940, p. 1). Southwest Nebraska was the traditional home of Arapaho and Cheyenne, though the Lakota occasionally made incursions (see “Native Americans and the Settlers on the Nebraska Frontier,” p. 1). The Arapaho and Cheyenne were forced by an 1861 treaty to settle in Oklahoma, and the Lakota were removed to South Dakota in 1875.

Augusta was apprehensive about moving West, explaining to her family that they would farm “Out there on the wild prairies where until now only buffalo and Indians were found” (W.D.B. p. 1). Augusta was aware that an ecosystem as well as a civilization was destroyed to facilitate the arrival of settlers, though she expresses no emotion about it. From Saronville, Augusta and Hocan have “200 English miles to go with oxen.” She explains to her siblings that “it will take about two weeks before we arrive” on their future farm.

Augusta describes her trip in a covered wagon in a letter to her sisters and brothers in Sweden, dated May 16, 1886:

“I wish to tell you how our journey out here went. We had an ordinary farmer’s wagon, such as they use here. We had 5 bows over the wagon and canvas cloth stretched over the bows and then we had on oil cloth on top so rain could not come in and this was our home during the journey. We slept in the wagon each night. And then we dug a little hole in the ground where we stopped and grazed the animals, and there I cooked the food… Amelia gave me 3 hens, and I got a rooster from another lady. We kept them in a cage on the back of the wagon…. It went slowly but safely forward and now we are safely and happily here.”

It must have been difficult for Augusta to leave her sister Amelia in Saronville, and head again for the unknown. But she explains the necessity of homesteading: “he who is less well fixed must use this method if he wants to procure his own home. It is certainly tied-up with certain difficulties. But they are not always insurmountable” (W.D.B., p. 1).

Upon their arrival in Ough, Nebraska, Augusta writes: “We have built ourselves a sod-house which is 14 ft. long and 12 ft. wide. I have a bed and a table. Those Hocan has made. For chairs we use packing boxes” (W.D.B., p.2). Both Augusta and Amelia spent the first years of their married life in a sod dugout, and both gave birth to their children in such a dwelling.

Augusta’s letters to Sweden become increasingly laden with religious language. She writes: “We have here both English and Swedish neighbors. They live in sod-houses as we do. There are some Swedish Baptists, but if there can be enough for a congregation I do not know. I am so little acquainted I do not understand what the spiritual possibilities and circumstances may be…. But I will let that alone and instead thank our Heavenly Father for much aid and mercy and love which he gives us every day and hour” (W.D.B., p. 2). Religious life in Sweden was legally restricted to the state church, and Augusta was unclear about other kinds of spiritual expression.

In 1852, Gustaf Palmquist, a Swedish immigrant, established the first Swedish Baptist church in America. The denomination flourished in America years before it was legally recognized in Sweden. The Swedish Baptist General Conference of America was formed in 1879, and services were held in Swedish till 1945, when the church was reorganized as the Baptist General Conference. By then, only the oldest members were monolingual Swedish speakers.

The “English” Augusta refers to were English speakers, not settlers from Britain. For Augusta, the world was divided into two camps, the Swedes and the others. Lindell notes that Swedes were presumed to assimilate more thoroughly than they actually did (Lindell p.1). Swedish immigrants tended to be clannish, and avoided interaction with non-Swedes. The writings of Amelia and Augusta portray this distrust of non-Swedish outsiders. Even relations between Swedes and other Scandinavians were sometimes estranged: in Verona, Nebraska, where Amelia lived the final years of her life, the Swedes and Danes chose to be buried in separate cemeteries (see Mark Coddington, “Forgotten feud”).

Like her sister Augusta, Amelia left first-hand written material. She kept a diary, though she didn’t write daily, from 1908 to 1925. It was written in Swedish, like Augusta’s letters home. Neither sister learned to write English. If Amelia was overwrought with the pressure of raising five children by herself, she did not record it in her diary. Amelia’s journal was concerned with the daily tasks of her life, and financial transactions. It reads more like a business log than a diary, and is devoid of emotion. Her writing style is stark and dispassionate, almost as if she is observing someone else’s life rather than describing her own.

Amelia’s son, David Bergman, was disappointed when he first came across his mother’s writing after her death, and considered it too uninteresting to translate. For instance, on Wednesday, January 8, 1908, Amelia wrote: “Very windy the entire day. I went to Saronville in the afternoon.” On January 18th: “Warm and nice weather. Caleb and I went to Saronville. Caleb got shoes for $3.00, pants $1.00.” These are typical diary entries.

Even when noting significant family events, Amelia records no emotion. On October 21, 1912, she writes simply, “went to dinner. Caleb got married.” Caleb was her son (and this writer’s great-grandfather). Caleb’s wife, Nellie Schneller, wasn’t Swedish, and Amelia surely had an opinion about that. While the primary function of her diary might have been business accounting, she uses the same cold tone when she writes of her father-in-law’s funeral, a son’s marriage, the deaths of her close friends Mrs. Sundling and Mrs. Gustavson, who died just a day apart. The birth of a grandchild is as simply recorded as the entry, “painted the kitchen today.”

Sometimes Amelia’s entries are vague. For instance, on January 20th: “I went to Grandpa with the thing I borrowed.” The only “Grandpa” in the diary is the father-in-law with whom she had frosty relations. What did she borrow; what would he have lent? Although she was never allowed to enter her father-in-law’s home, she was in contact with him. Amelia was even able to rely on him for help. On January 29, 1908, she wrote: “I went to Grandpa’s with Ellen’s shoe.” Andrew was apparently still practicing his skills as a cobbler.

In later years, Caleb Bergman took his daughter, Viola, to see her great-grandfather. She remembers him as a man with a long white beard. Viola, the great-granddaughter, was not invited to enter his home, but spoke to him in the yard. When Andrew was dying, Amelia drove the children living in the area to see him and receive his blessing. At this time only, the children were allowed into the Bergman home, while Amelia waited in the car. “They don’t like me very much in that house,” Amelia reportedly said.

Though she had just the one daughter, Ellen, the child Amelia mentions the most was George, the youngest. When he came home from World War I, on October 21, 1919, she notes his return. Presumably she is glad to see him, but she doesn’t say so.

Amelia dutifully records all financial transactions. On February 2, 1908, she writes: “Caleb has borrowed 75 cents.” She frequently sells eggs, and kept a large number of chickens. From February 3, 1908: “I have been to Saronville with 24 dozen eggs. Got 18 cents a dozen.” Three days later, she was able to get 20 cents per dozen. She was a hard worker, and her activities include chopping wood, digging in the garden, going to auctions and buying hens.

Like her sister Augusta, Amelia took an interest in the Swedish Baptist movement, though it was short-lived. Verona had a Baptist church, which was built in 1890, though it never had a full time pastor. Attendance declined after the early 20th century, and the building was struck by lightning and burned, after it was sold for use as a dance hall (see “Only two families reside in Clay County community of Verona”). On August 11, 1918, Amelia notes “I went to the Baptist Church morning and afternoon.” Frequently on Sundays she writes that she “stayed home all day.” For Amelia, religion isn’t the all-consuming interest it is for her sister Augusta. Amelia was as matter-of-fact about church as she was about everything else, including her children and friends.

Augusta’s letters home to Sweden describe fervent religious activity in western Nebraska. In a letter written on New Year’s Day, 1890, she writes: “We have in the past year had inquiries of several preachers--- Baptists, Methodist, and Lutheran. The Methodist was American. The Lutherans had a big meeting here this spring when we got to be eye-witnesses when the preacher had 5 souls born again in water” (W.D.B., p. 2).

For Hocan Person, Augusta’s husband, religion was important, and colored the relations between Ough’s Swedes and its other settlers. He writes, in January of 1887: “The Swedes are few here as yet but we are awaiting several who are coming this spring, and then you can believe that there will be Swedish get-togethers. Until now, only the Americans have had meetings about 4 or 5 miles from here” (W.D.B., p. 2). Linguistic and cultural differences kept Swedes from attending English-speaking churches. As discussed earlier, most Swedish immigrants had little interest in spending time with non-Swedes.

In a letter from February of 1889, Augusta writes: “I will now tell you that we are continuing a congregation here consisting of 8 members. We come together on Sundays and read God’s word together and have Sunday school. The outsiders do not meet with us very much; but we try to keep spiritual unity with each other with bonds of peace and call on you and ask you to be united in God. Here in this country there is trouble among the Baptists concerning Unity” (W.D.B., p. 2).

By “outsiders” Augusta means non-Swedish. While eight may seem a small number for a church, the membership requirements were specific. Services were in Swedish; at this time, neither Augusta nor her sister spoke much English. Lindell writes that in the latter half of the 19th century, Svenskamerica “had a private world, bounded by church and family, where the Swedish language and heritage prevailed” (Lindell, p. 1).

For both Amelia and Augusta, church and family were indeed the closest social circles. Since they lived in Swedish communities, friends were also important. Amelia mentions numerous friends, and describes attending various parties and suppers at the homes of people with Swedish surnames. Augusta’s letters were written to her siblings back home, and after times were better for both of them, Augusta and Amelia made frequent trips back to Sweden. Both women’s primary identification was with Sweden, and Amelia, at least, was reluctant to become an American citizen. According to a granddaughter, Amelia considered moving back when her children were grown.

During their early years in America, times were difficult for the sisters. Both were widowed at age 43 and left to raise five children. Although living in the same state, Amelia and Augusta rarely saw each other, despite the eventual completion of train service between Ough and Saronville. In February, 1892, Augusta writes to her Swedish siblings: “I wish to tell you I have been out on a journey this year. I have been on a visit to Sister Malin [Amelia]. You can understand that it was precious for us to get to see each other. We had not seen each other for nearly 6 years…. We went with horses for 12 miles and took the train at noon. We arrived at Saronville at 4:00 in the morning…. Malin did not know about it (my coming) before she opened the door for me. Now I won’t try to describe our meeting. That you will have to imagine” (W.D.B. p. 2). The 200 mile journey took 16 hours.

According to Jay, Augusta’s oldest son, Hocan Person’s dying words were “Whatever else, see that our children get educations” (see Doris Minney, “Educator,” W.D.B). Augusta did so. Jay attended Kearney Normal College; Phil Person received his doctorate and became an instructor at the University of Wisconsin. Edward became a medical doctor; Ellen attended normal school and married a professor; Carl went to Harvard and became a lawyer in New York City. These were remarkable accomplishments for the children of immigrants. Amelia, too, insisted on education for her children, and was angry when her son Caleb refused to go to college, preferring trade school.

Amelia’s frequent observations about the weather display a farmer’s principal preoccupation. Her brief, unemotional diary entries frequently include “have done a little bit of everything” as she writes on March 26, 1908. On April 28, Amelia writes “I have been busy with digging and planting.” Poultry is her chief concern, though, and the price for which she can sell eggs. For Augusta, too, who increasingly turned to cattle ranching, livestock became a surer way of making a living than agriculture.

In 1893 and 1894 the crops in Nebraska failed, due to drought. By November of 1894, Augusta and Hocan were forced to leave their home in Ough and move to Kansas. She writes to her Swedish siblings: “I will tell you why we are in Kansas. 1893 was a very dry year…. This year we became so utterly dried out so that we got nothing of anything. And so on August 1 we made our way to Kansas in order to make it easier for us to get through the winter…. It certainly felt peculiar when our dear little congregation had to cut loose and one go here and the other there in order to search for a livelihood. But those who revere God feel everything is for the best.” Augusta adds that “We had a letter from Malin (Amelia). They have not had much of the earth’s fruit, either, this year” (W.D.B., p.2).

Through thrift and hard work, Amelia and Augusta prospered. Neither of the widows chose to remarry. After retiring, they moved to town. Amelia settled in Verona, near Saronville, and Augusta in Wauneta, near Ough. Augusta stayed active in the Baptist church, and was involved in that denomination’s Ladies’ Aid Society throughout her very long life--- she lived almost a century.

In addition to religion, Augusta had a lifelong passion for fishing. Until her later years, when she suffered a stroke, Augusta frequently took rod and reel to the Frenchman Creek. When she visited her sister Amelia, Augusta fished in the Little Blue. Once she was gone a very long time, and her nephew George Bergman went to look for her. According to George’s daughter, Geraldine “she was in the water up to her waist, stuck in brush with her long dress on. She just laughed. We got her out and she had caught some fish which she cleaned and we had for late breakfast” (letter from Geraldine Carlson to Helen Saylor).

Amelia’s interest in the Baptist movement waned. She is buried in the cemetery of the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church of Verona, the denomination closest to the state church of Sweden. Amelia’s grave is not far from her father-in-law, Andrew’s. The burial place of Amelia’s husband, Carl, is unknown. He may have been buried on the family farm, or alongside Amelia without a headstone.

By the end of World War I, Nebraska was no longer a frontier state. Most Swedish immigrants had begun to assimilate. While all of Amelia’s children spoke Swedish, none could write it. Exclusively Swedish- speaking churches were in decline. Automobiles and trains replaced covered wagons. Wood was plentiful and easily available: people no longer lived in sod-houses. The pioneer world of the two Swedish immigrant sisters vanished, as completely as the world of the Pawnee and buffalo had.

The writings of Amelia and Augusta can be read from a feminist perspective. Both sisters were literate (Sweden had compulsory primary education beginning in 1842), and left written accounts of their lives, which they lived on their own terms. They departed Sweden as young, single women, and were widowed relatively young. Amelia and Augusta each raised five children. They were successful farmers, and prospered.

Augusta’s letters are religious and sometimes exclusionary, and Amelia’s diary is concerned with accounting for every single cent. If their writings seem harsh, it might be due to the hardness of their lives. Amelia Bergman and Augusta Person were dedicated to their families and to their farms. They were not Florence Nightingale or Clara Barton; their writings are reminiscent of the memoir of Gluckel of Hameln, the 17th century Jewish mother who guided her children through their marriages and careers. Amelia and Augusta were practical and thrifty, mundane rather than heroic. They were clannish and non-assimilating, though they did send their children to public school.
The lives of Amelia and Augusta are a casebook study of Swedish immigration to Nebraska in the second half of the 19th century: they arrived healthy, young, single, and married fellow Swedish immigrants. Through hard work and thrift, they and their families prospered, and, like other European immigrants, wove their traditions into the pattern of American life.

I am indebted to Geraldine Bergman Carlson and Helen Howe Saylor for access to family records as well as personal recollections of Amelia Bergman. 


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