Thursday, April 4, 2013

Swedes in the Midwest: Chicago

By Jeanne Rollberg

By 1900, no city in the world but Stockholm could boast more Swedes than Chicago, Illinois!  Ja! Chicago was a growing gateway to the farming areas of the Midwest that were hospitable to Scandinavians who sought their own piece of the American Dream. And the city itself was attractive to urban Swedes, so Chicago presented a win/win opportunity for Swedish immigration and entrepreneurship.

Finding our Swedes

Today, Chicago still has much to offer related to Swedish research and sightseeing. If you know or believe that your Swedish ancestors have Chicago connections, for research there is the Swedish-American Historical Society at 3225 W. Foster Avenue.  The Swedish American Archives of Greater Chicago is located there, too. The e-mail address for the archives is

If you’re curious, you may want to start with the overview entry about Swedes in the Encyclopedia of Chicago:  Encyclopedia of Chicago History  

Of course, you also will want to remember that there are numerous Chicago “categories” listed in the card catalog at These include the requisite census documents for the State of Illinois as well as Chicago voter registrations, newspapers with obituary indices, and a Chicago and Cook County Guide to Research. Some of these documents may also be found elsewhere in books and on the Web. 

The Andersonville Swedish Dala Horse

Experiencing Swedish culture
For a “taste of Sweden” and a glimpse of what it may have been like when your ancestors were in Chicago, there is the former suburb of Andersonville, where many Swedes who could not afford to live in the city proper moved.  History of Andersonville

The Swedish-American Museum there is a “must see” for those of us who are either documenting our Swedes for SweAme or who just want to understand Swedish influence on Chicago and the Midwest. Located at 5211 N. Clark Street near Swedish bakeries and restaurants, the museum gives us a delightful look at Swedish memorabilia, organizations, businesses begun in Chicago such as Walgreens, and educational and cultural contributions.

The First Walgreen Drug Store
The museum poses the central question that our Swedes faced as they made the decision to come to America: “Would you leave home today in search of a better tomorrow?”
And speaking of that better tomorrow, what would we do if we were faced with seeing everything we had worked for and owned destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871?  Books on the era describe the churches, newspapers and other culturally important aspects of Chicago that the Swedes who had built there lost. But they had great experience in construction, and sought money from Sweden in some cases to rebuild parts of Chicago.
Whether we think our particular Swedes came through Chicago or not, Chicago Swedish history tells us about Swedes in the Midwest as we continue on our fascinating Scandinavian journey. Some other branch of our Swedish family likely has Swedish connections to Chicago that we just haven’t discovered yet.
Jeanne Rollberg
April, 2013

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