[ End of article ]

Finns in the New Sweden Colony

Reino Kero

The Delaware Colony as Part of Sweden's Aspirations to be a World Power

At the beginning of the 1600s Sweden was a world power whose troops fought successfully in Germany, Poland, the Baltic, Russia, and Denmark. Sweden's land holdings grew noticeably at the expense of her neighbors. In addition to the pursuit of power in Europe, Sweden like many other European countries established trading companies that specialized in forging avenues of trade to Africa, Asia, and America. It was the responsibility of the companies to fill the royal treasury riches from beyond the Atlantic. The initial plans to establish trading companies had begun by the mid 1620s. These plans began to materialize when the Swedes, in collaboration with the Dutch, established a trading company which was to do business in the West. With the help of the Dutch and above all, a man named Peter Minuit, the company gained a foothold on the lower Delaware River. The trading post was named New Sweden and the first colonists arrived from Sweden in 1638.

New Sweden did not remain Sweden's only colonial venture. In 1649 the Swedes established their African Company, whose base of operations was located on the Gold Coast in West Africa, and which sought to export slaves, gold, and ivory from the African continent.

The New Sweden colony was situated along the Delaware River in an area made up of portions of present day Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey. The first Swedish ship arrived only 18 years after the famous Mayflower had landed in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, the Swedes were latecomers to the Delaware region. The English and Dutch had already made territorial claims to the area ever since the 1610s. In fact, the Dutch themselves had attempted the settlement of the Delaware River valley. When the Swedes arrived on the Delaware, the Dutch West Indies Trading Company considered the region to be their own.1

The Dutch provided half of the funding as well as the direction for the first expedition sent from Sweden to the Delaware region. The leader was a Dutchman named Peter Minuit, who had long been active in New Holland before the founding of New Sweden. In 1642 the New Sweden Trading Company was reorganized when the Dutch found the company to be a bad investment and withdrew from the venture. After this, the trading company was almost entirely Swedish and the Crown had a direct hand in its management. The company was reorganized again in 1654-55 and documents indicate that from this point on, it was called the American Company. In September of 1655 Sweden lost the colony to the Dutch, who were led by the energetic and skillful Peter Stuyvesant. Dutch rule, in turn, ended in 1664 when the English took control of the area.

Sweden sent a total of twelve expeditions to their colony, of which ten arrived safely. The first of these left at the end of 1637 and the last one departed in November of 1655. One of the ships destined for the colony shipwrecked near Puerto Rico in August of 1649. As a result of a navigational error, the expedition which left Sweden in the spring of 1654 arrived in Manhattan, the center of Dutch activity and was seized by the Hollanders.

The last expedition sent out by the Swedes arrived safely, but not until March 1656 by which time New Sweden had already come under the control of the Dutch. In fact, Sweden had already lost the colony by the time the last expedition set sail. Some years later, immigrants from Värmland's Finnish forest regions arrived in Delaware on their own, that is, they were not sent by the Swedish government. The last of these did not arrive until the beginning of the 1660s. When these immigrants are added to the ones who had arrived in the colony during the Dutch period, then a total of about 1000 immigrants came to North America.

Economic factors played a key role in the founding of the colony. The Swedish Crown expected trade with the Indians to be lucrative. When the colony finally materialized, however, the objectives established for this trade were never achieved. The traders, of course, managed to buy furs from the Indians, but the most important item in the trade was tobacco, which the Swedes had tried to grow by themselves with dismal results, but which they managed to buy from Europeans in nearby areas. The sale of the tobacco was easy and highly profitable, since the company enjoyed a monopoly in the tobacco trade during the years 1642-1649. This monopoly was broken at the beginning of the 1650s, but when Charles Gustav X ascended to the throne, he restored the company's sole right to tobacco importation.

Merchants, Soldiers, and Settlers from Värmland

In the beginning the New Sweden colony was specifically a trading post to which Sweden sent soldiers and government officials. As with all true trading outposts, the ships that established the colony soon returned to Europe, leaving only some two dozen soldiers and civil servants in the settlement. It was their fate to wait for two years until another expedition arrived. At the beginning of the 1640s these ships had already brought over some people who intended to settle, although they were still few in number. Thus, by 1647, or nine years after the establishment of the colony, its inhabitants numbered 180, of which 28 were considered permanent settlers. The colony did not receive reinforcements again until 1654 by which time the number of inhabitants had dropped to about 70. There were 350 settlers that had started out with the expedition of 1654. Although a part of them died along the way, the colony's population rose to over 300. The last expedition dispatched from Sweden brought over an additional 100 settlers. As already noted, a group of Finns came to the region in the 1660s from Sweden, but even after this, the Delaware settlement was still quite modest in size, numbering only about 500-600.2

Since nearly all of New Sweden's inhabitants came from regions within the Kingdom of Sweden, they were obviously all called Swedes. This has been the point of departure in much of the Swedish research into the Delaware settlement. But the origins of the inhabitants can also be studied in another way. We can ask, how large a percentage of settlers came from the region of Sweden which later became Finland? In the same way we can ask, how large a share of the colony's inhabitants came from Värmland's "Finnish Forests" in Sweden itself These questions, of course, have greatly interested Finnish American as well as Finnish researchers.

It is quite possible that there were no Finns in the first Swedish expedition that arrived on the Delaware River in 1638. At least none are mentioned in the sources. This is reflected in indecision that the Finnish American planners of the 1937 Delaware celebration underwent over the question of whether to celebrate with the Swedes in 1938 or wait for a few years. A Finnish celebration several years later would have been more accurate since by then the New Sweden settlement would certainly have included Finns.

The recruiting of soldiers, officials and settlers for New Sweden was a difficult task at the beginning of the 1640s and thus, already in 1640 the Swedish government made plans to sentence Finns for deportation to New Sweden. These were Finns living in the forests of the Swedish countryside who had earned a bad reputation for their burnbeating methods of deforestation. In 1640 at least four Värmland Finns, who had been sentenced to military duty for burnbeating, petitioned for deportation to New Sweden. Their request was approved and the Crown decided to round up even more of the Finnish burnbeaters. At this point, the government also found some Forest Finns who volunteered to go.

In 1643 the Governors of several Swedish provinces received orders from the Crown to imprison burnbeating Finns for deportation to New Sweden. This action apparently brought additional Värmland Finns to New Sweden. At the same time, some petty thieves from prisons in Finland were also sent to the colony. This forced migration could not have been very extensive, since the population of New Sweden in 1647 still numbered under 200 and the settlers formed a very small part of this number. The majority were still soldiers and civil servants.

In time, forced migration was no longer necessary, for at the end of the 1640s a veritable "America fever" spread among the Värmland Finns. Thus, in 1649 Matts Erickson of Värmland wrote to the Swedish Privy Council on behalf of 200 Finns and petitioned to have this group sent to New Sweden. From the Council's records for the same year, it becomes clear that there were close to 300 who desired to emigrate. A few, perhaps a tenth of the applicants, succeeded in sailing with the ninth expedition, but very few of this group arrived at their intended destination. There are no existing details about the composition of the large group which arrived in New Sweden in the spring of 1654. Since we know that recruitment work for this expedition was carried out in the forest regions of Värmland and Dalarna, it is quite likely that the group included Värmland Finns. The recruiter (Sven Skute) came from Kronoby in western Finland.

lstar152a.jpg (12715 bytes) lstar152b.jpg (13490 bytes)
Commemorative medal struck by the Government of Finland in 1938, designed by the Finnish artist Alpo Sailo. One side portrays the leader of the colony, Admiral Fleming, and a Finnish family. The other side portrays the settlement, its wooden fortress and church, in the midst of newly-cleared fields. (Photo: Suomen Silta, April-June, 1938, p. 69)

Of the 105 settlers who arrived in the spring of 1656, we know that at least 92 were of Finnish origin and apparently came from Värmland. As we have already noted, two expeditions arrived in Delaware in 1663. One was made up of 30 Swedish settlers, the other of 32 Finns. The last group to arrive in Delaware (in 1664) was made up entirely of Finns. These settlers who came by way of Norway and Holland, had found out by letter of the possibilities in New Sweden. There are 140 arrivals, both young and old. At least a part of the group's members had come from Värmland.

On the basis of these facts, it seems quite likely that at least half of the settlers in the New Sweden colony were individuals who are identified as Finns in the records of the day. The greatest part of them came from Värmland. There were only a handful of people from Finland itself. In addition, it also seems quite probable that of the permanent settlers in the Delaware River valley, an even greater number were Finns who had gotten into trouble for burnbeating in Värmland's Finnish forests. The soldiers and civic officials in the colony came from elsewhere, notably Sweden, Finland, and even Holland. Of these civil servants and soldiers, the majority returned to the Old World after serving their tours of duty. The Värmland Finns, on the other hand, gave no thought to returning. It is highly probable that up to 3/4ths of Delaware's permanent settlers were people from Sweden's Finnish forests.

In the available sources from the 1600s little mention is made of which language the Finns spoke in New Sweden. However, in his study Amandus Johnson has established one of the problems found in the colony at the end of the 1650s, that is, after the Dutch had assumed control. It appears that part of the inhabitants - those who spoke Finnish and Dutch - did not understand the Swedish of the officials. Since the bulk of the settlers came from the Finnish forests of Sweden, and since Finnish was still widely spoken in those regions as late as the 1800s, it seems reasonable to assume that within the Swedish colony of the 1660s the majority spoke Finnish, a smaller group spoke Swedish, and several other western European languages were also in use. That the Swedish government only sent Swedish speaking pastors to the colony at the end of the 1600s is probably an indication of the Swedish Crown's lack of interest in fostering the language of its former Finnish speaking citizens.

At what point did the Finnish language disappear from use? Apparently quite soon after the Finnish speaking generation of immigrants from the Swedish forest regions had passed away. The use of Swedish, on the other hand, remained well into the 1700s. Thus, when Pehr Kalm, prior to becoming professor at Turku Academy, visited the Delaware area in the mid 1700s, he met many old, Swedish speaking settlers. He does not mention anything about Finnish.

How was the Swedish language preserved? It seems likely that Swedish speaking pastors had a significant influence on language maintenance. It is reasonable to assume that the preservation of the Swedish language in Delaware long into the 1700s is directly linked to the preservation of the religious heritage. Religious activity well into the 1700s appears to have been dependent on clergymen sent from Sweden and most of these pastors were only able to carry out their pastoral duties in Swedish.

Problems of the Colony

New Sweden endeavored to be a trading post, whose primary function was to maintain an ongoing trade, particularly with the Indians, with whom the Swedes traded European goods for furs. Already at the beginning of the 1640s the Swedes also sought to turn the colony into an region inhabited by Swedish settlers who cleared land and built farms. However, all of the Swedish plans depended on the maintenance of good relations between the colonists and the Indians.

Many Delaware studies emphasize how the settlers from Sweden got along better than other Europeans with the Indians. This seems to have been the case, for the number of New Sweden settlers killed by Indians was under ten and the Indians never carried out the kinds of raids against New Sweden as they did in areas to the north and east as well as in the Delaware River region.

The good relations between the Swedes and Indians can be explained from a number of standpoints. Researchers point to the mandate from the Swedish Crown to the settlers to maintain friendly relations with the Indians, who, after all, were their trading partners. In addition, the Indians at this time were at war with both the Dutch and the English. One of the more unusual explanations points out how the New Sweden settlers were Finns, who were accustomed in the old country to dealing with aborigines, namely, the Lapps.3

Except for the Lapp theory, all of the foregoing factors make sense. The Indians in the 1640s and 1650s had poor relations and frequent wars with the Dutch and English, and it is reasonable that they viewed the settlers of New Sweden as a welcome, although quite weak, ally. As far as is known, there was never a documented alliance between the Indians and the Swedes. However, the Indians in the 1600s were not known for putting their agreements and desires into written form. While it is probable that the Indians saw the Swedes as an ally, we also have to take into account that the Swedes had a strong incentive for living at peace with the Indians. This was imperative because the Swedes were a relatively small group at this point in the 1650s. New Sweden was a trading post and without peaceful relations there would have been no trade.

The actual Swedish view of the Indians and what should be done with them probably did not differ substantially from the Dutch or English view. The Indian was important to the settlers of New Sweden, as well as to the English and Dutch colonists, only because it was possible to inexpensively buy from them the furs that were prized in Europe. At least this is the way that the colony's long time leader (1643-1653), Johan Printz, saw the Indian. In 1644 Printz wanted for his use 200 soldiers with which be could have "broken the necks of the river Indians." To Printz's consternation the Swedes were such a small and weak group that they could only observe Indian militancy from the sidelines and conjecture on what might have been done with the Indians, if only there had been enough soldiers.4 In contrast, the Dutch and English colonies by the 1640s were already so well established that in some river shore areas they were able to carry out well organized attacks against the Indians.

Although relations with the Indians were trouble-free, the Swedes were nevertheless disappointed in the results of their trade objectives, since it appears in the final analysis that they were not able to buy very many furs. This was due in part to Dutch and English competition for the same furs. Also, it undoubtedly arose from a lack of necessary European trading goods. Sometimes, the colonists had to wait for years for the arrival of supply ships from Sweden.

Throughout the history of the Swedish colony, it is surprising how easily the Swedes were able to get property rights to certain land from the Indians. in their negotiations with the Indian leaders, the Swedes gave them gifts - usually simple and modest goods or trinkets that the Indians prized. For their part, the Indians either gave or sold large tracts of land to the Swedes.

How is this easy land accessioning by the Swedes to be explained? The ease probably arose primarily from the fact that the Indians did not understand what was at stake in land dealings with the Europeans. They did not understand the actual value of the land. And secondly, they did not realize that, as seen from the European perspective, in selling the land they were loosing in perpetuity their rights to it. To the Indians the sale of land was an easy way to get commodities and goods which were available only from the Europeans.

At least on one occasion, the Swedes experienced quite concretely how a land deal with the Indians was not the same as a land deal with other Europeans. The Swedes had acquired the rights to a certain area on the west side of the Delaware River. There was even a written record of the transaction, but after a few years the Indian chief Peninacka sold the same tract of land to the Dutch. His price was not high: in return he asked that the Dutch fix his rifle free of charge if it ever broke, and that they provide him with corn if he ever needed provisions. Despite the protests of the Swedes over the land issue, the Dutch kept the land and built a fortification named Fort Casimier.

The Significance of the Swedes and Finns

It has been typical of Finnish Delaware studies (although there are also Swedish examples) to ask the question: what significance role did the Finns and Swedes play in the birth of the United States and the development of its culture? Finnish analyses have usually entangled themselves in John Morton, who played his own small role in the independence process of the United States.

To evaluate the role of the Swedes and Finns in colonial America, it is necessary to begin by looking at the total number of Swedish immigrants. In the 1660s the number was about 600, while the total number of Europeans on the east coast of North America stood at 73,000. Thus, those who had come from Sweden made up less than one percent.

The immigrants who came from Sweden - namely those of Finnish ancestry - nevertheless played a more important part in the development of the colonies than the one percent figure would suggest. Even non-Finnish studies point to the fact that the Finns (or Savoans) were the group who brought two very important skills to America: The first of these was the deforestation technique of burnbeating and the construction skill of log cabin building. These claims may seem quite simple and unassuming, but on the other hand, they are claims which may well be true.

John Morton (1725-1777), of Finnish descent, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. (Photo: Institute of Migration, Turku.) lstar152c.jpg (28824 bytes)

The majority of the Finns who arrived in Delaware were the so-called Swedish Forest Finns. These first Finns were a group well suited to land clearing pioneer settlement, since they had been pioneer settlers already in Sweden. They were people who were accustomed to making their livelihoods on the fringes of the wilderness. The group had unusually good qualifications for setting a role model for others in how to carve out an existence in the wilderness, how to build homes and how to clear the land.

Among the Delaware Finns there were those who had been expelled from Värmland for their burnbeating activities. It is known that the Finns continued the practice in Delaware, where they put to good use the skills they brought with them. Since Sweden (including Finland) was the only region in Europe in the 1600s with no shortage of forests for deforestation, it is quite reasonable to assume that if any European group brought the burnbeating technique to North America, then it would have been the Forest Finns from Sweden. On the other hand, the Indians were also familiar with burnbeating, and perhaps already in a form adapted to North American conditions. American settlers may have learned the Indian technique, which was possibly better suited for the Delaware region and North American in general, rather than the method with which the Finns had turned Värmland's fir and birch forests into grain fields.

The use of logs in building early American domiciles can be easily identified with the settlers that came from Sweden. The Indians certainly did not build log dwellings. Even in Europe, only Sweden was the type of region, whose emigrants would be familiar with the construction of log cabins. The ones who brought this technique to North America were quite probably the New Sweden immigrants, perhaps the Swedes as well as the Finns.

The Finns on the Delaware, of course, were quite a small group among those who settled in America. By the beginning of the 1700s they had already lost their language. Nevertheless, the group left its mark to the extent that its existence was known in some form up until the 19th century, since the Delaware Finns still appear in American literature that dates from the beginning of the 1800s.5

We have already noted how Finnish Americans have perpetuated the myth of John Morton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, Morton has even been called "Rautalampi's gift to America".6

It is quite likely that Morton's roots actually went back to Värmland's Finnish forests. He was undoubtedly an influential individual in the America of the 1770s. Nevertheless, it must be noted that he played a modest role in the movement for independence. A much more important gift - if we want to use this term - was the creation of a model for pioneering settlement that the Finns and Swedes from Sweden brought with them to the American continent. The Finns may even have played a significant role in the early development of the land clearing techniques which were later needed by the pioneer settlers in the forest regions of the West.7


1 A good overview of conditions in the colony can be found, for example, in Stellan Dahlgren and Hans Norman, The Rise and Fall of New Sweden. Governor Johan Risingh's journal 1654-1655 in its Historical Context. Uppsala 1988, pp. 1-126.

2 The information comes from Amandus Johnson, The Swedish Settlements on the Delaware. Their History and the Relations to the Indians, Dutch and English 1638-1664, I-II. Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1911.

3 Juha Pentikäinen, Metsäsuomalaiset kaskenpolttajat Delawaren siirtokunnan pääasuttajina. In Siirtolaisuus-Migration. 1/1988, pp. 42-44.

4 For more on Johan Printz as leader of the colony see, for example, Dahlgren-Norman 1988, pp. 64-91.

5 Keijo Virtanen, Atlantin yhteys. Tutkimus amerikkalaisesta kulttuurista, sen suhteesta ja välittymisestä Eurooppaan vuosina 1776-1917. In Historiallisia tutkimuksia 144. Jyväskylä 1988, pp. 55-57.

6 Akseli Rauanheimo, Rautalammin lahja Amerikalle. Pilgrimien 300-vuotismuiston johdosta. In Kansanvalistusseuran kalenteri 1921, pp. 29-40.

7 On John Morton see, for example, Martti Kerkkonen, Finland and Colonial America. In Old Friends - Strong Ties. Ed. Vilho Niitemaa et al. Vaasa 1976, pp. 26-32.

Published in Turun historiallinen arkisto 46(1990), p. 1-11.

© Reino Kero

[ Beginning of article ]