Their names were Johan and Britta. They lived in the land their seafaring forebears had settled a thousand years earlier. They were in love and wanted to start a new life together, but those were hard times. Some of their family had gone to America, a young nation just emerging from a vicious civil war and urging immigrants to come to help it heal and move across the continent. That was an era when the the United States realized they were all immigrants, each ethnicity and religion bringing the best ingredients of the old into the “melting pot,” as the poets described it. As Johan and Britta looked beyond the sunset, they saw themselves as part of this new generation. The letters from the other side of the Atlantic spoke of good farmland and opportunities for prosperity.
The couple had also been deeply changed by a spiritual renewal that had swept with revivalist fervor through their home country a few years earlier. It had given them a strong faith in Providence to carry them through the challenges that lay ahead. Their Lutheran beliefs persuaded them that God would guide and protect them all the way to the new world.
There were tears at the port of embarkation when they departed; it was assumed that that the newlyweds would never return to see parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. When words of farewell were spoken in the language of the Vikings, there was a finality to them. A benediction.
The voyage was stormy. The billows rolled, the vessel quaked. The quarters were cramped and conditions were cruel. Children died and tears flowed among the huddled pilgrims. The little ones were laid to rest in the dark ocean, amid prayers that the One who walked on water would carry them to their immortal home.
Britta and Johan arrived in New York and boarded a westbound train. Their tickets had been purchased by kinsfolk awaiting them at their final station. They didn’t have to travel across the Great Plains. They settled in Western Pennsylvania, where their family welcomed them into the circle of evening fires. Meals, shelter, and staples were provided to augment the meager supplies Britta had carried in a wooden basket aboard the ship. The basket became an heirloom for generations to come.
Johan found employment in a nearby factory, since he couldn’t yet afford the farm of his dreams. The hours were long, the work was strenuous, even for a young man in good health. Later in family conversations, the elders would tell of how he was weakened in the dusty workshop and died too young. Britta would never marry again.
Johan also faced the bigotry that many foreigners endured at that time. He spoke no English; Swedish was his mother tongue. The ethnic slur, “Dumb Swede,” pierced him when he learned its meaning, and the pain stayed with him all his remaining years. He never forgot. But he forgave the perpetrators because his faith told him to pray in the language of his childhood, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Johan persevered and labored long enough to buy a small farm in the forests and rolling hills of Pennsylvania. I recall going often in my childhood to that verdant haven. The saga of the Swedish couple continued with the birth of a son, who helped them till the soil and tame the land. They named the boy “Oscar.”
The rest of the story is found in the annals of my family. Johan Alfrid Gustafson and Britta Sophia Larsdotter changed their names when they traveled from Stockholm around 1880. They became John Alfred and Sophia Johnson…and Oscar Alfred Johnson was my maternal grandfather.
And so the story goes. And keeps going.