12 January 2023

Finding Your Roots and Later Migration

I am a fan of Dr. Gates and his program Finding Your Roots.   I contributed research for an earlier program about Gretchen Carlson, see "Anchored to the Past," Finding Your Roots, Season 7 Episode 10 (4 May 2021).  Most of my research and her ancestors' connection to the Jamestown Swedes didn't end up in the show and  I was disappointed by the superficiality of that episode - sometimes conversations just aren't very interesting (no matter how you edit them).  However, that is the nature of the discussion format of Finding Your Roots which relies on unrehearsed conversations. 

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. "Hidden Kin (Julia Roberts)," Finding Your Roots, 3 January 2023.

This last episode (Season 9 Episode 1) of Finding Your Roots included a conversation with Julia Roberts that was more interesting.  Dr. Gates tackled the story of a Sweden that doesn't align with our contemporary view.  During most of the 1800s, Sweden was (using our former President's expression) a sh*thole.  The misery in Sweden was one of the main reasons our antecedents left. There are economic studies that suggest that Sweden and Sicily were the two most impoverished areas in Europe during the mid-1800s. Aside from the famine of 1867-69, the misery in Sweden was not from the lack of resources but from their distribution. 

America became part of the solution for Sweden.  Emigration to America took the pressure off society and its politics.  Swedes accepted that there were people who were not content with their lot in life at home (and implicitly that those malcontents had reason).  Importantly, America soon became the origin of ideas about how Sweden could be different.  This reverse current that was a consequence of the tidal wave of emigration brought back efforts to change religious practice in Sweden and the development of the Free Church movement.  Later, Swedish efforts at better representation and democracy were reinforced by the American experiences of Swedish emigrants.  Then, workers' rights and unionism were bolstered by American examples. Important parts of what we admire about contemporary Sweden were gained by reference to Amerika.

So it was helpful for our general understanding of Swedish emigration to have Dr. Gates discuss the underclass of Värmland. The description quickly became imprecise and overly dramatic.  But that is a difficulty of this interview format - Dr. Gates has to have all the details in hand to respond to whatever his guest might say.  

GATES: Statares were essentially their own class within Swedish society, existing at the very bottom of the social ladder. Typically they lived in barrack-style dorms where multiple families would be housed together. Rooms were damp and crowded, rife with rats and other vermin, as well as tuberculosis and dysentery. Children like Elin were poorly educated, if they were educated at all.

ROBERTS: It sounds horrible. And to have a baby in a place that has rats and cockroaches and rampant tuberculosis. 

GATES: Mm, and to be all crowded in with people. 


GATES:  No privacy. No sanitation. 

So, here Dr. Gates did not interject with specific farm conditions.  Both he and Ms. Roberts seem to describe our notion of urban tenements rather than farm life in Värmland.  None of this passage was helpful to the audience nor to Ms. Roberts in learning about the conditions of her ancestors. 

Ramstad farm (in the distance) from the main road. Source: Google Earth/Google Maps.

In contrast to this overly general history, we have genealogy - learning the specifics about one particular family and adding it to the stories of others to develop an understanding of a community's history. So, what were the conditions like in Lungsund and By (later By-Säffle parish) parish?  Were the rooms really damp and crowded? Were these places filled with vermin?  Were TB and dysentery common? 

Ms. Roberts's great-grandparents likely met when both worked on the Ramstad farm in Södra Ny parish in southern Värmland near Lake Värnen. Johan Jansson Brandin had been bouncing from farm to farm since he was twenty when he lived with his widowed mother in assisted housing in Ölserud parish.  He arrived at Ramstad farm in 1882 at age 33.  Emma Kristina Carlsdotter left her family at age 15 and worked locally until going off to Kristinehamn in 1876 (age 18).  She also arrived at Ramstad in 1882.  Ramstad was a large farm with eight different buildings.  Satellite images suggest that a couple of those buildings still exist in the modernized farm operating today.  

Detail from Karta ofver all ågorna till bolbyn 1 mantal Ramstad. 1907. Södra Ny Ramstad 1:1, Värmlands län, Lantmäteriet historiskakartor. Digital link.

The buildings for the servants may have been like the description in the show, although they probably were not damp if they were of wood construction.  It is likely that there were rats and mice - it was a farm and that is why we have had barn cats.  I read through the previous ten years of death records in the parish (By-Säffle parish 1877-1887) and did not find any deaths attributed specifically to tuberculosis or dysentery.  Education in Sweden was poor, but the level of reading was one of the better in Europe and by the 1880s many of the reforms had actually gotten into the countryside. So what were the actual conditions for Julia's great-grandparents?  We are left without any real stories.

Dr. Gates had earlier presented Ms. Roberts with a transcript of her great-grandmother's baptismal record. 

ROBERTS:  Name, Elin Maria. Birth April 30th. Christening, May 18th. Johan Jansson and Emma Cristina Carlsdotter married for six months.

GATES: Mm-hmm. And Carlsdotter…

ROBERTS: Wait, they were only married for six months?

GATES: Mm-hmm.Yeah. You did the math.


GATES: Mm-hmm.

ROBERTS: People.

While this information is correct, the couple had married in the nearby parish of Södra Ny and their marriage record notes that they had announced their intention to marry (wedding banns) on 10 August (about when Emma Kristina Carlsdotter became pregnant).  Rather than joke about the pregnancy, the moment could have dealt with more substantial issues in Swedish culture.  

For example, a generation earlier (in the area where Jamestown Swedes originated) there were many marriages that awaited the second child.  This was likely a reaction to the high infant mortality during this period.  The penalty of the descriptor oäkta, still used by the Swedish Lutheran Church, seems to have been weighed against the normalcy of losing the first child and the nature of the couple's relationship.  Many of our ancestors chafed under the Church's rules and restrictions.

Also, this moment could have allowed a discussion of the role of the State Church in day-to-day life of Swedes.  Permission of the church to marry and the necessity of meeting the requirements of confirmation, paying fees, etc. engendered resentment.  This was changing by the 1880s, but the State Church was still a factor in pushing Swedes from their homeland towards the freedom in America. 

Finally, there was a description of the emigrant/immigrant experience.

GATES: … This is a list of passengers leaving the port of Göteborg, Sweden, on April 1, 1887, nearly three years after your great-grandmother's birth. Would you please read who was on that ship? … You're looking at the record that records the moment your ancestors left Sweden for the United States of America. 

ROBERTS: Amazing. I mean, it just makes me think that they were very brave. 

GATES:  Mm-hmm.

ROBERTS: To go off with two little children. 

GATES:  Mm-hmm.

ROBERTS: To a whole other land, a whole other language. It's very brave. 

GATES: Mm. They rolled the dice.

ROBERTS: I mean to get off this boat, and you're standing on a dock. And where do you go?

GATES: Yeah.

ROBERTS: How do you know where to go?

GATES:  Right.

ROBERTS: You can't even read a sign. Oh my gosh. 

GATES: Julia's ancestors were fortunate in one regard; they were not alone. During the 1880s, over 300,000 of their fellow Swedes migrated to the United States.  Many settled in the Midwest, drawn by economic opportunities not available in their homeland. So, Johan and Emma became part of a community of immigrants and in this supportive environment, they found a way to thrive.

Here Dr. Gates did not steer the conversation into the normalcy of leaving rural Sweden for America that had developed after the American Civil War. During the same year that her great-grandmother's family left By parish, there were 35 others who emigrated to America.  That compares to only 8 who left for Göteborg and 13 who left for the capital Stockholm.  

We know from the emigration document discussed that the Jansson family left Göteborg on the Wilson line steamship ORLANDO that took 641 other Swedish emigrants to Hull, England.  But from there, where? Did they leave by Liverpool or Glasgow?  Did they arrive in Canada or the United States?  Which port?   The program did not provide Ms. Roberts with information about the ship on which her ancestors arrived in America. I also did not locate that documentation and that suggests to me a discussion about the sophistication of the transportation possibilities in this era. In the 1880s emigrants often purchased a ticket from an agent who bundled both ship and rail transport.  

The discussion with Julia Roberts did not note that Carl Carlsson, the grandfather of Elin Maria and the father of Emma Kristina Carlsdotter, had left for Minnesota two years earlier in 1885. His emigration record from Göteborg identified the same specific destination: Gull River, Minn.  I have not found his immigration entry either. This suggests to me that both emigrations used the same travel agent and followed the same route (likely through Canada). It also brings up the possibility of a discussion about chain migration.  Anders Carlsson, Emma Kristina's brother, had emigrated from Lungsund parish in 1882 and was listed as Andrew Colson in the lumber mill town of Gull River, Cass County, Minnesota in 1885.

In this era, it was quite normal for rural Swedes to leave for America.  Although daunting, I'm not sure that the description as "brave" works here.  A fair response to Ms. Roberts would be that her own move to New York City at age seventeen was likely comparable to the experience of her immigrant ancestors. Not easy, but not the same as the Swedish immigrants to our area who arrived aboard sailing ships a generation earlier.

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