I grew up in Philadelphia with a father whose parents and siblings were born in Scandinavia—his mother in Christiana (Oslo), his father in Uddevalla. Both sides of my father’s family, however, had originated in Sweden.
Unfortunately, we knew little of their lives. It’s not that we hadn’t heard about our Swedish heritage. My father’s sisters were proud of having been born in the “old country,” as was my father, and they all spoke of Sweden and Norway fondly.
But because our family, like others before us, wanted to become assimilated Americans, Swedish was not spoken in our home, nor were authentic Swedish meals cooked, holidays celebrated, or literature read.
Over the years, I had become more interested in the Swedish side of the family and wanted to know more about our roots. As a family, we had often talked about where we came from but felt that any search would be complicated by the fact that my paternal great-grandfather had changed his name from the ubiquitous Olsson to Thorell.
Still, we decided to try. So this October, I flew from Philadelphia to Copenhagen, took the train to Malmö, and then headed for Växjö. That city, a typical Swedish city, of approximately 81,000, is located in Småland, in southern Sweden, home to the National Glass Museum. Växjö is considered the capital of the “Kingdom of Crystal,” sitting as it does in the middle of Sweden’s famous glass-designing and producing region.
The other notable institution in the city is the Svenska Emigrantinstitutet (House of Emigrants). The institution, founded in 1968, holds the records of some 1.3 million Swedes who left their country (between the 1850s and 1920s) to emigrate to the United States. Armed with a scrawny little family tree and a few facts, my daughter and I descended on the Institute to see what we could learn about our family.
With the help of a wonderful researcher, we learned many things about both sides of our family from the Husförhör – or Lutheran church records – and the emigration records. The Institute is a repository of expansive data about not only Swedish emigrants, but also those who stayed in Sweden, using church, emigration, and embarkation records and various genealogical databases.
We eventually found out that my grandmother’s side of the family had come from a small village in Värmland in the area known as Karlanda. Hanna Amelia Olsen (my father’s mother) was born in Norway; however, her father, Gustaf, one of nine children, was born in the district of Bjarn on January 27th, 1847. He would later die in the Germany occupation of Norway, in 1941, after being run over by a German tank.
His father, Olaf Håkansson, (9/15/1803) was also born in Karlanda’s Bjarn district. He was apparently know as the klockare, which we first thought was a clock repairman, but later learned that he was the musician in the village church and played at all the services.
He married Märta Anderdotter, from Karlanda, in December 1807. We later found, in the surveyor’s office in Årjäng, the original deed (with signature) for the house that Olaf Håkansson bought, the so-called Klockaremon hus, which though unoccupied is still in the family today. Eventually, my great-grandfather Gustaf emigrated to Norway through Töcksfors.
On my grandfather’s side, we found the name of his parents, who lived in Uddevalla. My father’s father, Algot Thorell was the son of Herman Olsson (8/18/1850), from Lane-Ryr, a suburb of Uddevalla. He was a machinist and later became an instrument maker.
His wife, also from the Uddevalla area, Anna Kristina Johansdotter, was born (9/14/1854) in a little town called Forshalla. Sometime before 1890, Herman Olsson changed his name, calling himself Herman Olsson-Thorell for some years, then eventually dropping the Olsson altogether. His son seemed to use the Thorell name early. My grandfather also had a sister, Ellen Kristina, who is noted on the Husförhör documents as an “idiot,” which could mean anything from being deaf, dumb, having epilepsy, or even Down syndrome. There is no record of what her real condition was; she was still alive at age 24.
My grandfather left Sweden (apparently without emigration registration papers) to find work in Norway, where he married my grandmother, Hanna. Emigration and ship records indicate that he left Oslo on June 13th, 1906, on the Montebello, traveling to Liverpool, from where he took the Baltic to New York, landing in the United States sixteen days later.
The records indicate that he was able to read and write. He listed his profession as mechanic, stated that he was married; he had $12 on him at the time he landed. He answered no to ever having been in prison, being a polygamist, or an anarchist; he was in good health and he was not crippled.
For anyone wanting information about their family in Sweden, there is an abundance of records that the orderly and Church-going Swedes kept. My daughter and I found out much about our heritage from these records, going all the way back to Olaf Håkansson’s grandfather, who had the same name and was the architect and builder of the church for which his grandson was the music director.
We were able to go back to the 1750s on our maternal grandmother’s side of the family, and with the data that we found we can go even further on both sides of the family. Now, all we need is time.
Marge Thorell is a Philadelphia-based author who is currently writing a book about Karin Bergöö Larsson – the “Mother of Modern Swedish Design”