Ancestry, Part II: Olsen

Robert Stanger Contributing writer

In the 1880’s, my maternal grandmother, Johanna Jonsson, was one of five siblings who emigrated from the Malmo area of Sweden after the death of their parents, leaving behind only their oldest sister Gunhilde, who married there in 1885.

My wife and I have visited two of her descendants in southern Sweden. Gunhilde’s great-granddaughter, Margareta Olefeldt and her husband Sven, who now come to North America occasionally on visits since their son, who married a Canadian, works as an environmentalist and university professor in Edmonton, Alberta.

Sven, with whom we correspond online, gave me most of the following information about my Swedish grandmother and her four siblings, Anders, Karl, Jon, and Anna, who all of whom resided at one time in Pennsylvania. The information is from letters the immigrants sent back to Sweden which the family saved and Sven painstakingly translated.

The oldest brother Jons Jonnson, born in 1858, was the first to immigrate to America, prior to 1881. After working very briefly in New York City, he moved on to Kane in 1882.

Satisfied with work he found there, he sent his siblings in Scania glowing letters about his life in America: “I have been working on the railroad for a couple of months, but now I am working in the forest. We only work 10 hours a day. We are many Swedes here and we have formed a choir and we sing two evenings a week.

“Here there are no nobles, everyone is equal and you do not have to stand with your cap in your hand and bow. Here I give 10 kr (krona, a Swedish monetary unit) to Johanna and 10 kr to Anna and 10 kr to Anders and Karl to split, although it is not very much… You do not have to put stamps on the letters in the future, it is much cheaper if I do that here. (Recipients at that time paid postage on letters sent to them.) Dear brother Karl, write to me if you want to go to America, now it is the golden opportunity.”

In a somewhat later letter in 1882, Jons talked of the impending arrival in America of his brother Karl and his sister Johanna and their uncle, Bengt Jonsson: “Away from slavery and come over to the land of freedom because here we do not eat herring, we eat good food every day… this will be really exciting to see brother Karl and sister Johanna … Spring is around the corner and we will go out into the fields soon and the forest is starting to get green. I work with two horses at a farm and I earn 22 dollars a month plus everything free. It is the third month that I am here. Meet you in America.”

After not finding work immediately as a maid in an American home where she might learn English, Johanna chose in 1883 to move to Erie from Kane with another Swedish girl to work as maids.

After spending two years in Erie, Johanna writes her sister Anna in Sweden: “Erie is not like Kane where we first lived, just like a wild forest. You do not have to be afraid of the voyage. If the weather is nice you will not be seasick. I will send you a ticket on one of the slower ships from Copenhagen direct to New York, then you do not have to go by train in England.”

Anders, born in 1864, who had already worked as a baker in Sweden, was the last brother to arrive. He arrived in Kane the day after the two girls had left for Erie. He later worked as a baker in Minnesota and Canada.

Regarding his passage from Sweden to England in 1883, Anders wrote to Gunhilda… “You cannot believe how pleasant the voyage was over the North Sea. It was so calm weather that the whole North Sea was like a mirror. Nobody was seasick at any time during the voyage. We did not leave Malmö until 5 p.m. Thursday because they had not finished the loading earlier. We passed Helsingborg at 9 p.m. mostly on the Danish side so even if you had been waving to me, I could not have seen it. We came to Newcastle Saturday at 11 p.m. and we stayed there until 7.30 p.m. Sunday when we traveled with the railway over England to Liverpool. Imagine that the railroad is going over the rooftops of the houses in Newcastle!”

Anders later wrote of working briefly in Ohio: “We three (brothers) have moved a couple of hundred miles west to a place called Ohio. We work in the mining company here. (Brier Hill Mining Co.) We earn 1 dollar and 30 cents a day, but it is hard work, so we will not stay very long here.”

Karl had previously written differently to Anders from Liverpool about their passage out of Sweden: “Tomorrow we will try the blue waves of the Atlantic. With gods help, I think we shall come over to the other side of the Atlantic. We had a good storm on the North Sea, almost everyone got seasick, even Johanna and I. Uncle Bengt was the only one who got away without throwing up.”

The last of the five siblings to arrive in Pennsylvania was the youngest, Anna Jonsson, born in 1867. She emigrated in the spring of 1886 and joined her sister Johanna in Erie. Two years later, quite satisfied with her life in Erie, Anna wrote to her sister Gunhilde: “Please sister, what you asked of me (some money) I have sent the day after in a letter. When I sometime can help you with a tiny thing, please let me know. As long as I am on my own and have nobody else to think of, I can do it. I am very glad that I came over to this country, both for me and you. If I had stayed back in Sweden I would not have been able give you as much as I can.”

Like her sister Johanna, Anna found a Scandinavian husband in Erie, Otto Hjalmar Andersson, and remained an Erie resident the rest of her long life. If their three brothers (Anders, Karl and Jon) had chosen to find work in Erie, life may have been easier or better for at least two of them.

All three chose to seek their fortune in the West. Karl and Uncle Bengt worked a while together at a farm in Iowa near where Jons settled. Jons died in 1959 in Iowa where he apparently had been a successful farmer.

Having left the States, in 1902, a despondent Karl ended his own life in Manitoba.

Anders, who had two daughters and a son, did well financially, working as a baker primarily in Minnesota. However, Anders’ mentally unbalanced son, Harold, killed his 75-old-father in 1940 in a town near Duluth in a dispute over compensation for a forest fire which had damaged property Anders owned. The son received a three-year sentence.

The two brothers thus suffered real misfortunes. However, life was not easy for their sisters back in Erie, either, as both were widowed when their husbands were killed in railroad accidents.

Christian Olsen, Johanna’s husband, died in 1914 while working in an Erie railyard where he repaired freight cars. Johanna, mother of 3, was left a widow at 54.

Her oldest child, my mother Alma, had to help support the family. She met my father, Christian Stanger, when working at the Griswold factory. He was a widower with five children when they married in 1920.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River, and has the stories to tell about it.