09 February 2017

From illegal immigrants to American citizens

Many of the Swedes who settled in our area entered the United States unlawfully.1  These immigrants were not approved for entry, held no visas permitting them access to the country and arrived without sufficient financial resources to be independent.  Despite their unassured circumstances, they came and created a new community in our area. As we recount the stories of these ancestors who survived and prospered here, we should not lose sight of all of the other immigrants who died of hunger and sickness, undocumented along the way.

The story of Germund and Catherine Johnson, the founders of the Swedish community in our region (Sugar Grove/Chandlers Valley) recounts the events surrounding a shipload of Swedes who did not meet the financial qualifications for legal entry in the port of New York.  Unable to travel to their destination (Iowa), these Swedes had to depend on American goodwill in their newly adopted land just to survive.  Through the assistance of a charity, Louisa and Josephine (Sara Sophia) Johnson were taken in by American families and as a result of that kindness, Swedes ended up settling in northwestern Pennsylvania and western New York.2  

Citizenship and Land Ownership in Pennsylvania

One of the major factors pushing our Swedish ancestors from their homeland was their inability to own land. The limitations built into Sweden's class structure meant that an increasing part of the population did not have the prospect of owning their own farm.  America pulled these Swedish emigrants to our shore with the enticement of land.  Although the issues of citizenship and land ownership were interconnected for this history, in practice it usually took Swedes many years to become land owners  – usually sufficient time for them to also become citizens.

Arriving Swedes were not required to be citizens to own land in Pennsylvania. The legal basis for Swedish settlers to purchase land in Pennsylvania was established in the Commonwealth’s first constitution in 1776 – this incentive for immigration was built into the law from the beginning. The success of Pennsylvania in extending rights to new immigrants influenced other states and the national government in its policies.

The “progressive” granting of property rights prior to naturalization was unobjectionable in part because a few states had already granted property rights to foreigners. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, for example, granted property rights to aliens who had declared their allegiance to the state and allowed them to be elected to state office after two years as “free denizen[s].”
PENN. CONST. of 1776, § 42. The Constitution stated: Every foreigner of good character who comes to settle in this state, having first taken an oath or affirmation of allegiance to the same, may purchase, or by other just means acquire, hold, and transfer land or other real estate; and after one year’s residence, shall be deemed a free denizen thereof, and entitled to all the rights of a natural born subject of this state, except that he shall not be capable of being elected a representative until after two years residence

Source:  Allison Brownell Tirres. “Ownership Without Citizenship: The Creation of Noncitizen Property Rights.” Michigan Journal of Race and Law, Volume 19, Issue 1, p 18.

Citizenship and Land Ownership in New York

There were legal restrictions in New York State for alien ownership of land.  These restrictions were eased in 1825, however, in principal, land ownership was to be limited to American citizens.3  This issue of foreign ownership was especially relevant in our region.

Nearly all of the land in western New York had been owned by non-citizens: the Holland Land Company.4  The legal basis for the Holland Land Company remained complicated during the first decades of land settlement in Chautauqua County.  The Holland Land Company employed various advocates and lobbyists in Albany to fight for their interests, including both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.  In 1836 setbacks in Albany resulted in new taxation and the Dutch investors sold their remaining interests in Chautauqua County to an investment group of Trumbull Cary, George Lay and others from Batavia, New York.5  This group brought in William Seward as land agent, who worked in the county from 1836 to 1838 (he ran for Governor and was elected in November 1838).  His brother, Benjamin J. Seward, then replaced him as land agent.   Payment of William Seward with land resulted in Seward being the grantor of the land title registered to the first Swedish family in Chautauqua County  – Isaac and Christina Been.

Land Title registered 17 June 1852, Grantor: William Seward, Grantee: Isaac Killian Been.  Although Isaac and Christina Been immigrated here on 25 March 1844, they only became naturalized citizens on 15 June 1863.


Naturalization and Land Contracts

Conditional land sales had been used by the Holland Land Company since the earliest settlements in Chautauqua and Warren County.  These conditional sales required new settlers to begin making improvements during a grace period and then make a down payment.  After the down payment, a land contract was signed that guaranteed the land to the settler once they had completed payments. Time limits set by the land contracts were not usually strictly enforced.  When the land contract was fully paid the title was transferred at Mayville or Warren.  These conditional sales continued as a practice with the new group represented by Seward that succeeded the Holland Land Company in Chautauqua County and likely by Harm Jan Huidekoper of Meadville who succeeded the Holland Land Company in Warren County.  Because this process could take many years, we don’t find a large number of land titles granted to Swedes prior to the Civil War.

This extended purchase time for land coincided with the time required by immigrants to become citizens.


The law for becoming a citizen of the United States for the early Swedish immigrants was the Naturalization Law of 1802 signed on April 14, 1802.  The law allowed naturalization after five years of residence in the United States and three years after making a declaration of intent to become a citizen.  This process was handled at the county courts in Mayville (Chautauqua County) and Warren (Warren County).  The process was quite simple, aside from various restrictions that usually didn’t apply to these early Swedish settlers:  
  1. they had to be white6 and over twenty-one;
  2. they had to be free -- if they were “held in service” then their master had to apply;
  3. they had to reside in the county for a year prior to application;
  4. they required proof that they had resided for the required time, usually provided by a witness or affidavit;
  5. they had to be of good moral character;
  6. they could not be native citizens of a belligerent country (the United States has never been at war with Sweden); and,
  7. they had to renounce any noble title.7 

The court in Warren charged for registering the petition of intent ($1.00) and naturalization ($1.50). There were significantly fewer applications in Warren County than there were in Chautauqua County.
The children of naturalized citizens were made citizens of the United States under the statute.  Women were not excluded, however, very few applicants were women, and no Swedish women were applicants.  Wives of natural citizens were extended citizenship by an amendment in 1855 (see 
Wikipedia article).

A list of naturalized Swedish immigrants in Warren and Chautauqua County has been added to this website (community lists > naturalized citizen lists). The earliest possible date for becoming a citizen was 25 March 1849 in Chautauqua County and 5 August 1851 in Warren County. On 7 October 1852 in Warren, the first Swedes in our area became naturalized citizens: Germund Johnson [1846.007], Charles M. Johnson [1846.006], and Frederick J. Johnson [1846.003]. The earliest Swedes to become naturalized citizens in Chautauqua County were Otto Peterson [1850.003] and Samuel Johnson [1849.026] on 25 July 1856.


  1. It is not without merit to argue that many Swedish immigrants did not meet the lawful requirements of aliens wishing to enter the United States through the port of New York, although technically the ship owners were bonded to prevent entry of immigrants without means.  Paupers were restricted from entry into the port of New York under the New York State Passenger Act of 1824 .  Similar laws applied in Massachusetts for the port of Boston. These laws were weak, poorly enforced and ineffective.  There was no equivalent measure preventing entrance into the United States of America.

    New York State's restrictions on the entry of sick or indigent immigrants was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1837 case New York v. Miln.  The decision of this case, between the Mayor of New York City (authorized by New York State) and the owner of a ship that transported immigrants, upheld an 1824 New York State law that in effect denied entry of immigrants at the port of New York if they did not have sufficient means.

    This 1837 decision was limited by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1849 in its ruling Smith v. Turner that a New York per capita charge to ship owners based on the number of immigrants transported was unconstitutional because it was in effect a tax, a power exclusive to the federal government.  This decision did not restrict New York's limits on immigration based on quarantine or indigence and did not prevent the state from recouping costs from ship owners.  See the Passenger Cases (Wikipedia)

    New York State laws limiting immigration were later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1875 Henderson v. Mayor of New York decision.  

  2. For this reason, it is likely that the temperature of the earth is warmer this winter in the burial ground of these first immigrants (Hessel Valley Lutheran Cemetery) as all of those dead Swedes are surely spinning in their graves.  Their descendants, in both Chautauqua County (58%) and Warren County (68%), voted for Donald J. Trump who ran on an anti-immigration platform in November 2016.

  3. "Between 1825 and 1913 a simpler, alternate proceeding was available to enable aliens to acquire, own, and dispose of real property: the alien made a deposition of intent to become a citizen and filed it in the Secretary of State's office in Albany. The alien's rights in regard to real property expired six years after filing the deposition. The so-called alien depositions, now in the State Archives, typically give name of alien, date and place of deposition, and sometimes the country of origin. A few of the earlier depositions give additional information, such as place of residence in New York, date of entry into the United States, and marital status of a woman (married, single, or widowed). After the mid-nineteenth century many of the alien depositions (up to one third of the total) were made by women. (Statutes passed between 1848 and 1862 allowed married women in New York to own real property in their own names.)"  Source:  Records of Aliens Enabled to Own Real Property

  4. Reed Library of the State University of New York at Fredonia has an important collection of materials related to the Holland Land Company.

  5. Interests:  Cary, Schemerhorn and Rathbone, each 22% and Lay 11%; William Seward received 22% for his work. See lecture by G.P. Crandall  “Recalling William Seward” at the Chautauqua County Historical Society, 7 Oct 1939.

  6.  It's our own unChristian history, own it.  Americans of African descent became citizens in 1870, Americans of Asian descent would not be recognized until the end of the nineteenth century.

  7. Although there are various family stories of Swedes who were illegitimate children of royalty or nobility, there are no known residents of this class in our area. This noble claim occurs quite frequently among Swedish immigrants. The nearest real case of noblese was Isaac Been.  His parents were from two important families of Helsingborg, connected to shipping, trade and the Swedish East India Company.  His brother, Peter von Möller, was knighted by King Karl XV in 1860. Isaac and Christina Beén named their only child Peter Möller Beén, later shortened and translated as P. Miller Been.