Lately, my siblings and I have been doing research on family history. While I never met my maternal grandfather, I've gotten to know a bit about him. He left Sweden in 1880 as Per Carlsson and settled in Minnesota, where he became Peter Sandberg. Like many other immigrants, he changed his name when he came to America.
Some newly arrived Scandinavian immigrants changed names to avoid mix-ups of their mail. Some reasoned because they were in the New World, they needed a new name. Others from Scandinavia chose a name that reminded them of a place back in their homeland. Most kept their birth names.
Peter eventually made his way to the Lake Itasca area where he probably worked in a lumber camp, either as a lumberjack or a blacksmith. He spent most of his working years as a blacksmith in the mines on the Mesabi Iron Range in Virginia, Minn. That is where his daughter, my mother, was born.
I recently discovered that when the youthful Peter Sandberg came to America, he initially lived in the area around Wyoming, Minn. Not far from there, near the St. Croix River, is where Olaus and Johanna Soderberg lived with their children in a log cabin that Olaus had built. Olaus and Johanna were Peter’s aunt and uncle. It seems likely that they shared their home with Peter for a short time after his arrival. Whether or not he lived with them, he quite probably received their help on his journey from Sweden to Minnesota.
The reason Olaus left Sweden in 1869 was probably driven by the famine of 1867-68, the last major naturally caused famine in Europe. The intriguing part of the story involves Johanna.
Olaus had arrived in America two years before she did. Johanna left Europe in 1871, in either a sailing ship or a steamship. She traveled with her six children, ages 3-14. None of them knew English. They likely spent several weeks in steerage crossing the Atlantic. By the way, steerage is the lower deck of a ship, where the cargo is stored above the closed hold. Steerage was normally crowded, dark and damp. Limited sanitation and stormy seas often combined to make it dirty and foul-smelling. With limited privacy and security, inadequate sanitary conditions and poor food, steerage was often decried as inhumane and was eventually replaced on ocean liners with third-class cabins.
In New York, Johanna and her children would have boarded a westbound train. The final leg of their journey would likely have been by steamboat, traveling up the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers to the landing at either Stillwater or Taylors Falls.
When I hear people complain today about the would-be immigrants on our southern border, I think of my Swedish ancestors and their kin. They were poor, unskilled and didn’t know English. Differences? They weren’t placed in cages, and their children weren't separated from their parents. Yes, we need a coherent immigration policy. We really cannot have open borders, but the whole process involving immigrants and U.S. aid to struggling nations should be done in a humane manner. We can do better as a nation.
As Jesus once said, “What you do to the least among us, you also do to me.” Merry Christmas and best wishes for the new year.