Saturday, August 25, 2012

Coming to America

Where I learned all about my Swedish heritage

"No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate," GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said during a recent stump speech in Michigan. "They know that this is the place that we were born and raised."

While the candidate denied that it was anything more than a nod to his native state, it's hard to ignore that the statement was made in context of a larger, ongoing controversy regarding our democratically elected President's country of birth.

A small but powerful faction of people still seem to believe that President Barack Obama's birthplace is somehow in dispute and that this should somehow discredit his presidency, despite the fact that he was born in the United States and was democratically elected by a majority of registered voters following the rules that our revered founding fathers and whoever else was super important in history laid out like a million years ago. It also seems that even if members of this small and powerful group say that they don't actually believe Obama was born someplace other than the United States, they don't have any qualms about bringing it up over and over again.

"The governor [Romney] has always said, and has repeatedly said, he believes the president was born here in the United States," one of his aides said later.

Did I do that? No way! I'm just a regular guy who likes pratfalls and jokes all kinds!

Yup, the sitting President of the United States was born in the United States. I'm not sure why a person would need to make multiple statements on the topic, but I digress. Go back a generation, and Barack Obama's dad was born in Kenya. Mitt Romney's dad was born in Mexico. Go back a few generations, and it turns out a shit ton of most everyone's ancestors were born some place other than the United States.

Our country is an immigrant nation. This isn't something to laugh at or deride. Someone having come from somewhere else is perfectly American. We all got here somehow, and it was not by a spontaneous cosmic happening. Okay, so maybe some people got here by way of star ship, but I'm sure most of those folks descended from the heavens together and woke up primarily in Berkeley, Sedona, and Yellow Springs.

For the rest of us, our progenitors came from somewhere else right here on the planet Earth.

The chariot of travelers without a country or planet of origin.

Though I'm an American, just like Mitt Romney, and I was born in Michigan, just like Mitt Romney, I, the bits and pieces that formed together to make the me of me, came from somewhere that was not here. I'm pretty sure the esteemed GOP candidate did not wake up, bathed in light and fully formed in some hospital in Michigan. If he had, then I would be forced to vote for him out of sheer amazement. His family came here from somewhere that was not here, so that he could be born here. He didn't have any hand in it.

Ellis Island, where a lot of our foreign, immigrant ancestors first entered America.

I understand that who I am is not where my family came from. I'm an American through and through (whatever that means). And, no, you don't need a birth certificate to know this is the place I was born and raised.

I don't imagine I'd have any need to wonder or care about anyone else's birth certificate.

Although if you REALLY need to see it, you can buy this mug.

My family's story is the quintessential American story. It is also the quintessential immigrant story.

On the one side, my family came from Sweden during one of the great immigrant waves of the early 20th century.

My relative, Leif, got here WAY before everyone else.
Feeling smug in his discovery, he went home before the actual party started.
This is totally a family trait.

From what I understand, at the time, life in Sweden was not all free health care, progressive thinking, murder mysteries, punk rock girls with motorcycles and large dragon tattoos, and tasty sandwiches. While I'm not exactly sure why my family decided to leave for America, I'll take a wild guess, and say they were poor. Like so many other typical immigrant families of the period, they looked West hoping for better opportunities. In America, there was land, and I think that was something my people wanted: land to call their own and a land to make their own.

The superior American adaptation of a Swedish novel

Our early family history in Sweden is full of stories of births, deaths, marriages & shack-ups, and surprisingly (or maybe not), arrests. The arrests were the result of crimes of poverty:

"She and her brother Olof were sent to the county prison at Gavle in September 1852 for petty larceny, which was for milking goats in the field in order to survive. These goats belonged to someone else, and she received seven days in prison on bread and water and three days in a special prison for a total of ten days."

My distant cousin Arden Eckstrom wrote in our family history of a great many times removed aunt, Anna Persdotter. "They were very poor," Arden repeats in his text. I imagine jail wasn't so bad compared to the alternative of starvation.

All I know about Swedish cuisine: meatballs, lingonberries, and lutifisk.

My Swedish family were country people. They came from a place named Los. In Los, there is a cemetery in in a church yard, and my ancestors are buried there. Before 1901, they all had surnames that ended in -dotters and -ssons, following the patronymic practice of naming at the time. Reading our early family records, I cannot keep track of all the Anders Mattssons and Matts Anderssons. I wonder, if I ever made it to Los, would I be able to sort them out?

In the latter half of the 19th century the system of naming children after their fathers fell out of favor. It really is confusing. Some families "froze" their patronymic surnames. Nobles kept their noble type surnames, soldiers took soldier type surnames, and people with particular professions often took their surnames from their craft.  

Our family, with its questionable lineage, and being neither noble or professional, took its name from nature: Eckstrom. This  means "oak stream" in English, is lovely, and probably says something about their low status in society.

Sven Leander Eckstrom

The first Eckstrom on record was Sven Leander Eckstrom, my great, great grandfather, born 1868, in Los. He was said to be a tall, robust man, a practical joker who liked his drink. In Sweden, he worked as a forest ranger, a laborer, and a mail carrier. He married my petite great, great grandmother, Evelina Andersdotter in 1899, and together they lived a rustic life in the woods about two miles from Tackasen, Sweden, where they inhabited a small one room cabin with a dirt floor covered with pine branches. Sven built the cabin near a roaring river that "tumbled out of the mountains," and sometimes it was so loud it kept them awake at night. Sven shot wild turkeys to supplement the family's diet, and Evelina washed clothes in a spring that bubbled up out of the ground.

That sounds idyllic to me.

But for my great, great grandparents, and vast numbers of Europeans like them, something was lacking. Sven's brother, Ulrik, and his family had already left for America, and in May 1910, Sven said goodbye to his wife Evelina, and their five children (Ebba Kristina, Emma Davida, Ebbe David, Elsa Margreta, and Ester Maria) and boarded the SS Arabic in Goteborg, Sweden. He traveled first to Liverpool and then on to New York.

Sven had only $6.00 in his pocket and a train ticket to Cayuga, North Dakota.

Though all of this seems amazing, improbable and scary, it was a common experience for new Swedish Americans who emigrated to the United States for the most part between the 1840s and 1910, the year Sven and his family arrived in the country. Swedes set up communities all through the Midwest, the West and the Pacific Northwest. They lived among each other, spoke the language of their homeland, wrote and published in Swedish, worshiped with other Swedes, and conducted primary school in Swedish. They developed their own Svenskamerika community.

Svenskamerika? I don't know, dude. I'm from Michigan.

In essence, they had a thriving and established Swedish community in the United States. Apparently, some parts of this culture is still alive in some places in this country today. Sven knew this community was here, and perhaps it made the critical difference in his decision to come. He had left his homeland, but he wasn't too far from his home culture.

In September 1910, my great, great grandmother, Evelina arrived in New York at Ellis Island with five children in tow, among them, my seven year old great grandmother, Emma.

"Upon exiting the ship, Evelina immediately combed and brushed her children's hair and then inspected their heads for lice, which was common to have received during a trip under those conditions for a long period of time. Evelina had problems because she somehow lost her passport and did not speak any English." 

Anyone who has studied the history of emigration to America or to make it easier, anyone who has seen the popular movie Titanic, knows that the conditions in-between decks on the great steamships of the time were pretty uncomfortable. As often as I think of Sven arriving alone with virtually nothing to his name, I think of Evelina traveling all that distance by herself with five children all under the age of nine. She didn't speak the language of the country, and her passport was missing. Her husband was half a continent away. What did she do? How did she feel?

Evelina Andersdotter Eckstrom

Once the passport issues were sorted out, Evelina and her five children traveled by train to North Dakota, where Sven met them with a team of horses and a wagon. They all lived together in a room upstairs in Sven's brother's house, while Sven established himself. First he farmed. Then he shoveled coal for the Great Northern Railroad. "Sven loved hard, physical work and never complained. It was said that he was so strong that when he left for Anaconda, the railroad had to hire five men to replace him," my distant cousin Arden said of my great, great, grandfather.

I often get cranky about my life and how hard I think it is. I don't always want to get up at the same time every day or participate in the hustle and bustle. It's hard. Most days, I ask myself, "Is it too early to go to bed?" And I know I can't because there is always something to be done to further my own existence.

When I'm exhausted from being a 21st Century lady working in an office in Berkeley, living in a beautiful neighborhood in Oakland, eating organic foods from grocery stores and markets where people shop with sustainable hand crafted baskets, I try to remember my ancestors, and everything they went through, so that I could live this exhausting but not-so-bad-at-all existence. I know that I live with a different set of challenges, but it would be difficult to scrape together enough personal experience to add up to an authentic understanding of how hard it must have been for them to come and establish themselves here.

ABBA: the sum total of my knowledge of Swedish music culture

I'm nothing but proud of my immigrant roots, and I'm a fully assimilated American. No one needs to see my birth certificate to know I'm from here. The truth is, I don't know a damn thing about Sweden. Besides my surname, there isn't one vestige of the old home culture left in me, not a concept, or a phrase, or a recipe, or a tradition. Sometimes I feel a sadness about this, and sometimes I don't, because in the end, I figure, this is exactly what my family wanted all those years ago when they came here: to become American.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

~From "The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus, 1883


  1. Love this immigrant story & its context, Sarah. Just lovely. And I'm really interested in your gleaning process.

  2. "Sven loved hard, physical work and never complained. It was said that he was so strong that when he left for Anaconda, the railroad had to hire five men to replace him."

    The works of George Orwell and the works of Upton Sinclair has a secret relationship and the bastard, love-child issue of the affair was this sentence.


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