Thursday, July 18, 2013

Ole Lasson, Sr. and 19th Century Sweden by Bob Lasson


contributed by Bob Lasson

OLE LASSON SR. and 19th CENTURY SWEDEN contributed by Bob Lasson


Ole Lasson Sr. was 65 years old he had spent his entire life in the southern county of Kristianstad. Born in the parish of Gualov, he married Sissa Jonsson of Lyngby,Bara, Malomohus, Sweden in Everod, Gard, Kristiantad, Sweden on 30 Dec 1840 at the age of 37 years. They lived in Lyngby for about 12 years. They had 4 children and had the last child (Nils) die as an infant while living in that location. The 5th child (Ole Jr.) was born in Ostra Nobbelov, Jarrestad, Sweden. The next three children (Pernilla, Nils and Margreta) were also born while living in Ostra Nobbelov. Margreta died at the age of 9 & half months. Ole had lost both of his parents and three of his children to death and yet, in 1868 Ole and Sissa were about to become pioneers, the first of our ancestors to emigrate to the United States of America, making the long and difficult passage from southern Sweden to the far western part of the United States. Why would they undertake such an arduous journey at their stage in life?

In the last half of the 19th century Sweden lost over 1 million people through migration. For a land with a population of only 6 million people, this was an enormous exodus. One in every seven people departed. Why did they leave, and, of more interest to us, why did our ancestors join this massive movement away from their homeland?

If we are to understand their motives and the forces that caused them to make such life-changing decisions, we need to look briefly at conditions in Sweden during the period and also a little at Swedish history.

Emigration had been characteristic of Scandinavians since time immemorial. During the Viking Age (800 a.d. to 1050 a.d.) Norsemen played a significant part in European and world history. Viking ships dominated the northern seas. Viking raiders had settled in England, Ireland, France, Iceland and Greenland, influencing their culture. Swedish Vikings looked eastward across the Baltic toward what is now Russia where they established extensive trade routes along the rivers to the Black Sea and eventually to Arabian lands. In these areas the Swedes became known as 'Rus,' a name that now lives in present day 'Russia.'

With the triumph of Christianity in 11th century Scandinavia, the Viking Age ended. At about the same time, Sweden began a period of expansion that would last for several centuries. King Olaf, who reigned from 993 to 1024, was the first Swedish monarch to become a Christian. In about 1157, a successor, King Eric, led a northern crusade across the Baltic into Finland, conquering that land and introducing Christianity to its inhabitants. Sweden then ruled in Finland for 600 years.

Sweden's greatest period of territorial expansion began during the reign of King Gustavus I in the 16th century. Poland and Estonia were subjugated by his forces. His son, Gustavus Adolphus (Gustavus II), Sweden's most outstanding king, continued to extend Sweden's boundaries far into Russia. For the next 200 years, Sweden was the dominant power in the Baltic area and all of Northern Europe. The Baltic Sea, for practical purposes, became a Swedish lake.

When Peter I (Peter the Great) became czar of Russia in the late 17th century, Russia turned its attention westward. Peter began a long campaign against the Swedish forces controlling the Baltic Sea. This Great Northern War was ended by a treaty in 1721 when Sweden ceded control of most of its German territory, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania to Russia. Russia thus became the foremost power in Northern Europe. Sweden's control over Finland remained until 1809, when that area, too, was ceded to Russia. This loss of Finland proved to be the most significant event leading up to the massive late 19th century migration to America. Prior to that time, Swedish colonies in Finland had been the outlet for any overpopula¬tion that might have occurred in Sweden. During the next few decades, after the loss of Finland, a period of repatriation occurred with Swedes returning to their homeland.

For the first 50 years following, however, emigration was insignificant. During that length of time a mere 26,600 people left the country. In fact, there was such a shortage of labor, especially in the rural areas, that laws were passed to restrict emigration. In the countryside the local parish pastor was required to attest to the request for a passport. In the cities, the magistrates were obliged to do the same. An emigrant was required to return to Sweden within two years or lose his inheritance and his citizenship. Anyone leaving without a passport not only lost his inheritance and citizenship, but was liable for punishment upon his return. These laws, however, were difficult to enforce and were finally repealed in 1860.

Unexpectedly, the last half of the 19th century saw the trickle of emigration turn into a torrent. We need to look at the social structure of Sweden during the time and at the land itself to understand the causes for this.

The Swedish peasant had always enjoyed freedom. The institution of serfdom which had been established in most of Europe as it emerged from the Dark Ages never existed in Scandinavia. This was probably due to the vast amounts of forested land available on which any man could carve out his own homestead. Early laws gave ownership of the soil to anyone who first placed it under cultivation. The peasant has always been a very important class in Sweden and is mentioned in earliest laws. The nobility, the clergy and the military aristocracy did not become important until centuries later.

To understand the stature of the peasant in Sweden, we need to look at the nature of the land. It is one of the most northerly countries in the world, lying in latitudes roughly equivalent to that of Hudson's Bay in Canada or of Alaska. Yet, it has one of the mildest of far northern climates because of the gentle winds of the Gulf Stream. It is a long, narrow country, stretching almost a thousand miles from north to south and experiences wide variations in climate within its boundaries. In the south, the climate can be quite mild and it is here that is located the largest population. In the far north, where winters are long and dark, the population is very sparse.

Even today, although Sweden's population is primarily involved in agricultural pursuits, only about 10% of its land area is under cultivation. Most of the nation has always been covered by dense forests (much of this is now government-owned, or 'Crown Lands'). Beginning with restrictions placed upon homesteading of free lands in the 18th century in order to protect the forests from wanton destruction, a static condition of land ownership emerged. This, together with the social custom of primogeniture (the estate being inherited in full by the eldest son with nothing left to other survivors) further diminished opportunities for peasant families. Thus, there became a large and growing class of people known as the 'landless agrarians,' people engaged in farming without the possibility of owning land.
The landless agrarians found it necessary to hire themselves out to other land-owning peasants with the hope of perhaps becoming, at best, tenant farmers or 'crofters. In addition to the plight of the landless agrarians, two other factors in Sweden eventually led to the large migrations of the middle-to-late 1800's. One was the institution of compulsory military service in 1860 and the other was religious dissention. It is logical to assume that in the lives of my emigrant 2nd great grandparents all three of these problems played a part.

There was considerable military turmoil in Europe during the period prior to the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Reacting to this, the Swedish government expressed an increasing need for military protection, a desire which was bitterly opposed by the agrarian classes. Prior to 1860, landowners were exempt from military service if they supported profes¬sional soldiers on their lands as crofters. The Defense Law of 1860 made it mandatory that all males between the ages of 20 and 32 complete a period of military service. Each man was to complete 42 days of training each year for a period of 6 years. The law also forbade the granting of a passport to any man who had not fulfilled his military obligations. This law was unpopular with those it impacted most, the young men of the country, and, of course, led to an increased desire to emigrate.

The local parish pastors were required by law to keep meticulous parish records. Births, marriages, baptisms, confirmations and deaths were accurately recorded as well as the movement of families in or out of the parish. (These records have been carefully preserved and anyone who is interested in family history with Swedish roots appreciates the service that was performed in preserving vital information. It has, in effect, made Swedish genealogy quite easy to follow). However, in the case of my ancestors there was a parish fire that destroyed many of the records in the area where they lived.

To understand the next subject: religious dissent, we must first examine theocracy, or the existence of a state church under government control, as it pertains to Sweden. Sweden was a country with remarkable religious homogeneity, over 97% of its population being members of the Lutheran Church. Everyone was legally born into the state church and could separate only by a formal application for separation. All inhabitants paid taxes for support of the Lutheran Church. Those who legally separated were required to pay only half the amount of church taxes required of members.
During the middle of the 19th century a period of increased dissention from the state church occurred. The most active groups were Methodists, Baptists, Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists. This was encouraged by the liberalism in religious thought that began sweeping across Europe in the latter part of the 18th century. Various religious organizations, both national and foreign began operating to awaken the religious zeal of the common people during this period. The first non-Lutheran church to become active was the Methodist in 1830, followed by the Baptists in 1848. It was in 1853 that the first Mormon missionaries arrived in Sweden.

Any church organization that encouraged dissent from the state church was subject to civil persecution. This was particularly true of the Mormon missionaries since they not only preached religious doctrine that was quite different from that of the state church, but also encouraged their converts to migrate to the United States. Groups of Swedish emigrants bound for Utah left three or four times a year via Liverpool, England.

Sweden enjoyed a period of agricultural economic prosperity from 1850 to 1864. Times in the land were good and this led to unprecedented speculation in farm land. When a sudden economic crisis gripped the country in 1864 followed by three years of crop failures, unemployment spread throughout the agricultural areas. There was also a simultaneous loss of the potato crop, not unlike the great potato famine that gripped Ireland at the same time. The northern counties felt the pinch of hunger first, during the winter of 1867-68. Hunger and the loss of jobs quickly spread south throughout the country.

The time was ripe for emigration to America. It was at this same time that America was rapidly expanding as railroad lines were being laid westward. New lands were being opened up and were readily available for homesteaders. Emigration agents from the United States were finding Sweden, caught up in economic crisis, a fertile source of labor. Steamship companies and American railroad companies established agencies in Sweden and advertised heavily in local newspapers. This resulted in an 'America Fever' that swept like an epidemic through rural Sweden.
Emigration from Sweden to the United States increased from a few thousand people in 1860 to over 30,000 in 1868. That was the year in which my 2nd great grandfather Ole Lasson Sr. our first ancestor to emigrate departed Sweden. The flood tide had begun and would swell to over a million people by the turn of the next century.

May 11, 2008 10:55 PM

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