The great emigration
Migration started early in Sweden. During the Middle Ages, Germans from merchant trading communities were the largest immigrant group. Roma people started immigrating as early as the 1500s, while Walloons – French-speaking people from Belgium – came to Sweden in the late 1600s as the country’s iron industry began to develop.
Other key immigrant groups were Jews, who started arriving in the 1700s, alongside French artists and intellectuals. Once brick buildings started popping up all over the country, Italian workers skilled in bricklaying and stuccowork also started moving in.
But no migration event has left a bigger mark on Sweden’s cultural landscape than the huge emigration of Swedes to the Americas and Australia from 1850 up until the 1930s. As many as 1.5 million native Swedes left the country to escape poverty and religious persecution, and to seek a better life for themselves and their families. That figure equals 20 per cent of the men and 15 per cent of the women born at the end of the 1800s.
Top reasons for leaving Sweden during the great emigration:
- religious persecution
- a lack of belief in the future
- political constraints
- a longing for adventure and ’gold fever’
The peak year of the great emigration was 1887, when more than 50,000 people left Sweden – most of them to the Americas. This record was only broken in 2011, when more than 51,000 emigrated from the country – but this time mostly to other European countries and some to the US and China. It’s also worth noting that in 1887 the emigrants made up 1 per cent of the population, in 2011 only 0.5 per cent.
Carl Emanuel Anell, Swedish emigrant
Before the young man left for the US, he visited Frida Welin’s photography studio to have one last picture taken for his family. In this faded sepia photograph is a serious young man with a cap, as well as a cane that he doesn’t need. His name is Carl Emanuel Anell, he’s twenty years old and comes from Asker in the Swedish province of Närke.
In 1908, he was one of 20,000 young Swedes leaving the country that year. They were working class rather than farmers like earlier emigrants, and they ended up in large cities, such as Chicago – and Seattle.
At the end of 1908, Carl stepped onto the train to Copenhagen. From there, he travelled to Liverpool, where he boarded the Campania, an emigrant ship of the Cunard Line. He travelled steerage class, the cheapest ticket available. On 9 January 1909, Carl arrived in New York. He was probably an ideal immigrant: young, healthy and he had $50 in his pocket, as well as an address to an acquaintance in Seattle, where he intended to find a job in the timber industry.
From lumber camps to Cuba
When Carl arrived in Seattle, there were already 20,000 Scandinavians, half of them Swedes, making up about 10 per cent of the city’s population. Some worked in the fishing industry, while others, like Carl, found work in the burgeoning timber industry.
He wrote home from the logging camp at Eagle Gorge in August 1909:
Dear brother David!
Thank you for your dearly welcome letter. Good to hear that you and your family are healthy… It’s been a difficult time at first, as there were no Swedes here, but now things are fine. I like this work much better. At first I handled the axe and the saw, but now I am hauling lumber. It uses machinery so one does not need to work so hard. Now I receive $2.75 a day.
Here there are the biggest tree trunks in the world, I believe. Trunks nine to ten feet in diameter are not uncommon…I can read a little English, but it is still halting… perhaps I will be sending home some money if you would put it in a bank for me. I have some savings in the American–Scandinavian bank, but as I intend to return to Sweden, if I have anything left over, I will send it to you…
Life in the lumber camps was extremely hierarchical. Carl was called a swamper, which meant he was far down the totem pole and worked clearing a road through the forest for the timber industry’s various vehicles, from steam locomotives to gas-driven trucks.
‘It’s been a difficult time at first, as there were no Swedes here, but now things are fine.’
Seattle, 29 August 1910
Dear brother David,
Thank you for your letter I received some time ago. I am sending you the power of attorney on the form you’d sent me. I am in the city now, as the forest is burning almost everywhere so I might try to find some other work for a while. When I arrive in Cuba, I will write and inform you if I will be part of a land deal or not. Perhaps I will not require all the money we will see. We will probably start our journey in Oct. Have nothing more to write this time.
Carl, with $200 in the bank, had apparently been tempted to take part in a colony project of Swedes in Cuba. For a number of years, there was a kind of ‘Cuba Fever’ among Swedish Americans. Carl decided to try his luck. He intended to work in the sugar cane fields until he had saved enough to buy his own plot of land in the Swedish Colony of Palmarito, Bayate (near the American military base at Guantánamo).
At its height, a few hundred Swedes lived in Bayate. Soon, the Swedes were caught between rebelling farmers and a corrupt, US-backed regime. Violence erupted and two Swedes were shot. Carl had realised his mistake and was long gone by then.
Palmarito, 3 March 1911
Dear brother David,
Thank you for your last two letters and for the money I finally received and for all the trouble you’ve had… instead of raising sugar cane, I’ve put everything into the land, as I plan to leave this place soon. I am still working at the sugar factory. You ask about the climate: it is as warm in winter as July in Sw[eden]…
See in your letter that many important people in Sw[eden] have finished their fight on life’s threadbare carpet and died…when I come to the United States I will send my addr[ess]… I will probably start my journey at the beginning of next month. Enclosed a special rct. for the money. Must end for this time.
Joined the Marines
He returned to Seattle and again worked in the forest. In the US census he was listed as a ‘logger’ and his addresses were always simple boarding houses near Seattle’s waterfront.
It appears he might still have been writing to his brother David, now a grocer in the village of Sköllersta near Örebro (about 200 kilometers from the Swedish capital of Stockholm, editor’s note) even if the letters are no longer preserved. David was aware that his brother had been inducted into the Marines when the US had entered World War I.
Carl’s induction took place in February 1918. His English is still rather ‘halting’; he filled in his profession as ‘lager’ – the Swedish word for warehouse – and his nationality as ‘alien’. In the line for his family, he wrote ‘no one to support’. He landed in the Spruce Squadron’s 119th Company, and his Swedish relatives never heard from him again.
According to the archives of the Marine Corps, private Carl Emanuel Anell was honourably discharged in January 1919, without ever being in combat. Like many others in the Spruce Squad, he’d been looking for lumber in the forests of Washington State. The US had decided to build an air force – and the planes of that era were biplanes made of spruce wood.
After the war, Carl’s life returned to what it had been before: simple bachelor rooms, jobs in the forest. Then the catastrophe hit.
The bank where he kept his savings (or what was left of them after the Cuban misadventure), the Scandinavian–American Bank, went bankrupt in 1921. Eight years later, on Black Tuesday in 1929, the American and world economies were shattered. The Great Depression hit timber workers especially hard. Up to 50 per cent lost their jobs and those who were working lost wages.
On 23 December 1930, the Seattle Daily Times published the following notice:
‘Second attempt to end his life
Whenever Carl Anell tries suicide, somebody smells the gas. He was back at City Hospital again today after his second unsuccessful attempt this year. A fire department inhalator crew was called to Anell’s room in a hotel at 518 Dearborn St. early this morning. The proprietor had detected the odor of gas escaping from the room and when the firemen burst in they found the same man whose life they had saved in a similar situation last February. Again they revived him and sent him to the hospital, where it was ascertained that he had been drinking prior to turning on the gas. He will make a full recovery.’
When Franklin D. Roosevelt had won the presidential election defeating Herbert Hoover (who was blamed for the financial crisis), the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of more than hundred departments initiated to create more jobs. Founded in 1934, it employed over three million unemployed men and women, often those with no education, to build bridges and roads, and to create parks.
In Carl’s death certificate, the WPA was listed as his last employer. Perhaps he worked on the Grand Coulee Dam in Seattle, perhaps on a road. His hands are among those that literally built America.
On 14 December 1940, Police Constable Ghiglione is called to a flophouse on 2701 6th Avenue South. It’s not far from where Carl had attempted to take his life a decade earlier. The coroner’s report reads:
‘The police report that there was a deceased man at the above address. The inspection of the premises revealed seven empty whiskey and wine bottles near the deceased. The neighbors report that the deceased had been intoxicated the entire week. He apparently died of natural causes.
Carl’s death certificate lists ‘chronic alcoholism’ as a contributing factor to his death. He was determined to have died at 52 years, 9 months and 26 days of age.
Every other trace of his existence has been literally swept away. The logging camps are overgrown. The simple flophouses are torn down. His ashes have been spread into the wind.
In the harbour of Ballard, Seattle, there is a ‘Runestone monument’ with hundreds of names of otherwise unknown immigrants from Scandinavia. All of these people had found new homes in Seattle. One of the inscriptions reads:
‘Carl Emanuel Anell, Immigrated from Asker, Sweden in 1909.’
This is a translated and edited version of an original article by Ola Larsmo for Swedish daily DN.
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