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Our First Travelers to America

Karl G. Olin

Chapter I

The First Finlanders in the New World

During seventeen eventful years in the middle of the 1600's, the Swedish flag waved above a small enclave on the east coast of America. The site, which was called New Sweden, formed an unusual and at the same time fascinating chapter in the history of the then great power, Sweden/Finland.

The Scandinavian settlement stretched along both sides of the Delaware River over an area which today covers portions of the states of Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The colony was settled primarily by Swedes and Finlanders. That included freeholding farmers and craftsmen as well as men deported as minor felons and deserters. Additional groups were made up of the colony's leaders and those troops who were sent along to defend the colonists.

Quite a large group of the colonists were Finnish farmers who practiced "slash and burn" agriculture who, since the end of the 16th century, had moved from Savolax and Karelia, primarily, to the large forested wilderness areas of central Sweden and southern Norrland. The Finnish settlers, who cleared land for farming by burning off the timber, became persona non grata in Sweden once the lumber proved necessary to the burgeoning mining industry. In the beginning, those farmers were forcibly deported, but then an absolute fever for emigration to America broke out among them, and suddenly there were many more who wanted to go off to the new land than was possible to carry on board the small ships.

Eventful Years

Timewise, New Sweden occurred only seventeen years after the famous Mayflower expedition, scarcely 100 years before the American Revolution and 200 years before the beginning of the mass migration from Finland to America.

The middle of the 1600's constituted an important period in Finland's development. Governor General Per Brahe, who was himself involved in the New Sweden project, gave impetus to Finland's economic and cultural life. Brahe founded ten new cities, moved Helsinki to its present location, as well as laid the foundation for Åbo Akademi.

Another man important in the government was the new Bishop of Åbo, Isak Rothovius, who gave impetus to the translation of the Bible into Finnish, as well as to the persecution of witches.

The Thirty Years' War had cast its shadow over the whole kingdom. Army conscription agents were as sure as death and taxes in the parishes and just as unwelcome, and tens of thousands of young Finlanders' lives were sacrificed down on the European battlefields.

Twelve Expeditions

Including twelve expeditions which were undertaken during the New Sweden era, together with a number of later crossings, it is reckoned that approximately 1,000 people made the dangerous trip from Scandinavia to the New World. Among these there were many who simply never arrived. Privation and illness took their toll during the long journeys filled with hardships. One of the ships bound for America, Kattan, foundered in the West Indies, where the prospective colonists were sold as slaves.

Life itself was difficult in the colony. Several northlanders lost their lives when bloody conflicts arose with the land's native peoples, the Indians. But far more perished of disease.

Many of the pioneers and the soldiers gave up and returned home to the Old Country. Some of those returnees regretted their decision and once more had to make the dangerous journey across the Atlantic.

The Finnish contribution to the colony has held an obscure place in the literature, But with time it has been acknowledged that the Finlanders made up a large part of the colony's population. If one includes the crossings which occurred after the fall of the colony, one comes to realize quite simply that the Finlanders were in the majority.

There was also a Swedish Finn component in the colony. Even if numerically it was not a very large group, the Swedish-speaking Finns came to occupy a number of important posts and some of them played central roles in the history of the colony.

This book will narrate the story of these first Swedish Finn travelers to America.

Chapter II

A Secret Mission

Why not sell the air, the clouds and the huge ocean - as soon as sell the earth. Didn't the Great Spirit create all this for his children? (An Indian chief's view of the white man's incomprehensible desire to own land.)

When in March of 1638 the two ships Kalmar Nyckel and Fågel Grip sailed into the Delaware harbor on America's east coast, it signified the opening salvo of a 17-year-long colonial adventure by the great power, Sweden/Finland.

The expedition had behind it a five-month-long sailing voyage, and one can easily imagine the relief the crew on board ship felt upon encountering the beauty of America in spring. The first landfall took place at Mispillion Creek, a spot which the newly-arrived named "Paradise Point" out of pure joy.

The leader of the expedition was Peter Minuit, a German-French Huguenot, who had long been in the service of the Dutch. Minuit wrote his name on the pages of history as early as 1626 when he made a fantastic real estate deal. For items worth not even a Finnish hundred mark note he bought the Island of Manhattan from the Indians. There he founded the city of New Amsterdam, the one which in our day goes by the name of New York. For six years' time, Minuit was the governor of the Dutch colony which was called New Netherlands. At the same time he was also the general director of the powerful Dutch West Indian Company.

The reason Minuit now led an expedition from Sweden/Finland to the new land was that a schism between him and the leadership of the Dutch company had arisen. Bitter about being forced out of his powerful post through intrigue, Minuit turned to the Swedish crown and offered his services.

The Swedish regency government at that time was in desperate need of additions to the royal treasury. After Gustaf Adolf II had fallen at Lutzen, the Swedish troops had experienced repeated setbacks. Sweden had been weakened economically as a result of losing several of the Baltic ports so important because of their customs receipts.

Minuit's offer to make himself available and the prospect of being able to pursue profitable trade tempted those governing Sweden to go together with the Dutch in a trading company. The first expedition in what was to becomes a series of twelve crossings was outfitted in absolute secrecy. The reason for such secrecy was that they didn't want the other colonial powers to find out that they planned to lay hands on a bit of the North American continent.

The partners in the company hoped to be able to import primarily tobacco and furs from America. In addition they hoped to find a market for the copper which was one of Sweden/Finland's most important exports at that point in time.

The ship's officers and crew on board the two ships came from Holland. The simple explanation for this is that there was no experience of ocean trips across the Atlantic to be found in Sweden/Finland.

The expedition's military leader, Lt. Måns Nilsson Kling, in any case came from Sweden/Finland. He had some 20 soldiers under him who were both Dutch and Swedish. Whether there were Finlanders among the Swedish soldiers is not known. Nevertheless it has been assumed that Kling himself probably was a Finlander. This was because he later came to enlist settlers from the Finnish populated forests of Sweden. Another connection which suggests that Kling was of Finnish stock is that he lived after the New Sweden epoch in Säminge outside Nyslott and later settled down at Libelits (Liperi) baronial manor in eastern Finland.

Purchases from the Indians

After the long-distance travelers had rested up a few days at Paradise Point, the journey continued up the river. On the place where the City of Wilmington lies today, the expedition ran into the Indians' settlements. They lowered the anchor and after firing a Swedish salute Minuit and several of his men went on shore at the place which afterwards came to be called "The Rocks".

No Indians were seen, so the white men made reconnaissance trips inland along the river. They were gratified to verify that there was no trace of other Christians in the area. By the time Minuit and his men returned, the Indians had come paddling in their canoes out to the ships, attracted by the cannon salutes.

According to the instructions Minuit had received from the Swedish Chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, he was to attempt to purchase land from the Indians. The proceedings were carried out through the interpreter Andreas Lucassen, who had accompanied Minuit on the expedition. On March 29 (or April 8 according to our calendar) they had reached an agreement which satisfied all parties. On board the Kalmar Nyckel, then, these five Indian chiefs, Mattahorn, Mitatsimint, Eru Packen, Mahomen and Chiton, signed the sales contract which gave the Swedish company right of ownership to land on both sides of Minquas Hill. From the purchasers' side the contract was signed by Peter Minuit, Måns Kling, Hendrick Huygen, Andreas Lucassen and Jakob Evertssen Sandelin.

The area which the Indians sold included 67 English miles from Buck Creek in the south to Schuylkill River in today's Philadelphia. No boundary to the west was established; instead the purchase included the ground "as far as the sunset", which could, of course, be interpreted as the whole North American continent.

That the Indians agreed so lightly to sell their land to the white strangers was due to the fact that they were very pleased to be able to pursue trade with them. In their society the land was owned jointly and not something one could own privately. The thing the Indians believed they were selling was not therefore the right of ownership but the right to tenancy. In the future these different interpretations would lead to repeated problems for the Swedish colony.

After the exchange of goods the retinue stepped on land at "The Rocks", where the Swedish national flag was formally raised. Then the newly-landed Europeans built Fort Christina nearby. The fort was constructed with four sides and with sharp spear-shaped corners. It was built of earthworks reinforced with palisades.

The fort was constructed on a hill from which they could check on the traffic on the Delaware River. From the standpoint of defense the position was well-chosen, since on the mainland side there were swamplands difficult to penetrate. The new fort was equipped with three cannons from the Kalmar Nyckel.

The area they bought from the Indians was surveyed and marked with stakes inscribed with the initials C.R.S. - Christina Regina Sueciae [Queen Christina of Sweden].

The Dutch Protest

The Delaware River was not as empty of Christians as the expedition had first believed - or wanted to believe. Further up along the river, level with today's Philadelphia but on the other side of the Delaware, the Dutch had constructed a little stronghold called Fort Nassau, which was manned periodically. During one of their journeys along the river Minuit was actually stopped at the fortress. When the Dutch thereby found out about the Swedish plans for the neighborhood, it led to an official protest since the Dutch West Indian Company was of the opinion that it had the right to the land. The protest was waved aside by Minuit; the Swedes had come to America to stay.

The relationship between the new arrivals and the Indians was on the other hand good. The Europeans traded for both provisions and valuable furs. In Maryland they tried to trade with the English for tobacco, but there they were refused because the expedition lacked a trading license. Fågel Grip then sailed to the West Indian Islands instead, where they hoped to be able to capture Spanish ships carrying silver. Those plans were not successful. The only thing Gripen returned with was one Negro slave. He was named Antonio and came from Angola in southwestern Africa. The slave lived a long time in the colony and was called Anton Swartz, short and sweet.

During another trading journey in the West Indies, Kalmar Nyckel ran into a terrible storm. Peter Minuit, who had just gone on board another ship, was killed in the hurricane. Kalmar Nyckel managed to escape the tempest and was able to continue to Amsterdam.

In April of 1639, Fågel Grip began the long sailing voyage home to Sweden. Remaining at Fort Christina were the Dutchman Hendrick Huygen, who was responsible for business dealings, and Commandant Måns Nilsson Kling and 23 soldiers.

One can easily imagine the feelings of those left behind while they stood on the shore looking at the sails disappearing on the horizon. The hopelessly broad ocean separated them from their home countryside; surrounding them lay the unknown wilderness, the Indians, and the neighboring European colonies, disposed to enmity.

Karl G. Olin is a journalist with the Jakobstads Tidning, Jakobstad, Finland, and an independent historical author. These chapters were translated from Swedish by Syrene Forsman.

Published by SFHS Newsletter 1996, Vol. 5, No.2

© K-G Olin

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