VAXJO, SWEDEN, March 10, 2018 — Travel trivia question: Which city had the largest Swedish population outside of Stockholm at the turn of the 20th century? ( The answer will surprise you, but it will appear a bit later in this article.) Right now, let’s take a look at a remarkable Swedish institute, located in the Swedish town of Vaxjo that can help researchers research this and other related questions.
An added plus: Visitors here can learn a whole lot more about the breadth and scope of Swedish emigration in the process.
Third world immigration to the West has been a hotly debated global topic in recent years. But the Scandinavian country of Sweden has taken the subject of 19th and 20th century Swedish emigration to an entirely new level.
The Swedish Emigrant Institute opens its doors in Vaxjo
Gunnar Helen, then a newly-elected governor of Kronoberg, championed and eventually opened the Swedish Emigrant Institute on September 11, 1965. Thanks to Helen’s vision and the support of Swedish author-researcher Vilhelm Moberg, the Swedish Emigrant Institute is one of the finest genealogical research facilities in the world. Moberg had spent 12 years writing a trilogy about the great Swedish migration between 1843 and 1930.
Situated in the town of Vaxjo in the province of Smaland, the Institute today features thousands of papers, books, photos and other materials. The Institute’s treasure trove documents the story of Swedish emigration and life abroad during this 150 year exodus. Today in Vaxjo, people of Swedish descent all over the world have the best genealogical resource on the planet.
The beginnings of Swedish emigration to America
The seeds of the grand Swedish migration began in the Smaland region as early as 1638. That year, Swedish settlers boarded an armed Dutch-built merchant ship called the Kalmar Nyckel (Key of Kalmar). The Kalmar Nyckel became famous for carrying Swedes to North America, where they first established the colony of New Sweden.
200 years later, America witnessed one of the greatest transoceanic Europan emigrations in history. It brought over 1.2 million Swedes to North America. By 1900 one out of every six Swedish-born people lived in the United States. Only Ireland and Norway had larger migratory populations than Sweden.
Only 40 Swedes lived in Chicago in 1848. The dramatic growth in Chicago’s Swedish population is one example of the migration explosion before the turn of the century. Many of the earliest settlers followed what became known as “The Dream of America” to work on the Illinois & Michigan Canal.
By 1870, the Swedish settlement in Chicago had been divided into three distinct ethnic enclaves. The largest, situated north of the Chicago River, was known as Swede Town.
After 1880, the Swedish population exploded in Chicago. Thousands of immigrants to the city were attracted to its expanding economy. The City of Big Shoulders also boasted a climate with which Swedes were already familiar with back home.
What can you discover in the Institute’s House of Emigrants?
Today, the Institute’s House of Emigrants is the best resource in Sweden to locate materials and information about the epic emigration to the New World and its complex history. It provides superb geneological records for anyone of Swedish heritage to track their roots.
Also a fine museum, the “Dream of America,” the Institute’s oldest permanent exhibition, is divided into five “themes.” One of these, entitled “The Background,” looks at life in the country during the period of famine and industrialization that occured during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Other exhbition themes include “The Decision,” which focuses on how Swedish emigrants made the choice to leave; “The Voyage,” which covers emigrant life aboard ship; “Dream & Reality,” which looks at life in North America and Minnesota; and “The Cultural Frontier,” which highlights the Bishop Hill neighborhood in northern Illinois, Swedish American church life and the fine arts.
A replica of Vilhelm Moberg’s house and the “Writer’s Studio” are also major parts of the exhibition experience. A cutaway view of Moberg’s room features the desk. It was here, in July 1959, that he completed his 12-year literary journey into one Sweden’s most remarkable historical highlights. Resting on the desk is Moberg’s original manuscript.
“The Footsteps of the Emigrants,” is one of the lesser known activities for visitors to this facility. This exhibit lets visitors travel the backroads and countryside trails the Swedish emigrants followed en route to boarding the ship to their “brave new world.”
The main collections in the Swedish Emigrant Institute include:
- Swedish parish records
- Passport journals
- Summary census reports from various parish offices
- Swedish passenger lists
- Swedish American church archives
- Emigrant organizational archives such as the Swedish Ladies Society in New York, the Orders of Vikings, Svithiod, and Vasa which had lodges in most sizable Swedish settlements and mutual aid societies
- America letters and diaries
- Printed source materials dealing with emigration and Swedish pioneer settlers
These extensive collections explain why this venerable Vaxjo institute is such an invaluable resource for people of Swedish heritage all over the world.
In addition to the House of the Emigrants, Sweden’s glass district known as the “Kingdom of Crystal” is another attractive destination. It’s located in the heart of Smaland. It is easy to take a break from Vaxjo to visit Kosta Boda, Orrefors or any one of several other small family operated glass blowers in the town’s environs..
As for the answer to that trivia question: If you answered Chicago you’d be right on the money. After all, it took the Swedes less time to get to Chicago than for the Cubs to win the World Series.
About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com). His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime