From the Swedish parish records we learn that Anna Björkman was born in 1871 in Bäck, not far from the small town of Rättvik in the province of Dalarna. She was the second in a family of five surviving children. The only things we know about her life in Sweden are the few glimpses alluded to in the well-crafted description of her emigration to America in 1890. Anna seems quite familiar with Stockholm, and often uses it as a point of comparison to the things she experiences during her journey—the size of cities, towns and train stations, or the type of streetcars that are in use. She also surprises us by saying that she “knows” (recognizes?) from Stockholm a young boy who has an accident during the ship’s rough Atlantic crossing. And finally, she refers to a specific address in Stockholm, “Nybrogatan No.16,” in a manner that suggests that it was well known to her family. Perhaps it was a place where she had been employed as a maid or a domestic.
From the Swedish parish records we can glean a few more snippets of family history. On July 6, 1887 (3½ years before her emigration), we learn that her father dies at age 42, and six weeks later her youngest brother is born. Perhaps it is these events that set things in motion. In October 1889 her oldest brother Anders Björkman leaves for America and comes to Portland, Oregon, becoming known as Andrew Birchman. Almost exactly a year later he sends her sister Anna a second-class ticket to the same city where he has secured a job for her as a maid in a well-to-do American household.
In Göteborg, Sweden, on December 18, while waiting to cross the North Sea to Hull, England, Anna starts a long letter to her family in Dalarna. The letter is presumably never mailed, but merges with her diary and evolves into a seamless description of her entire emigration journey. From a comment in the text (where she says that “I have heard stories over here …”) we realize that she must have completed the text at some later date in Oregon. Whether a copy the final text was ever sent to her family in Sweden we don’t know, but the original remained in the United States.
Anna Björkman was observant and skilful at describing things, and occasionally even includes a literary flourish. Many of her reactions and comments also reflect her keen awareness of class differences, her social aspirations, and her unwavering loyalty to her fellow Swedes. She does not engage in conversations with “rough talking” people, and again and again she lets the reader understand how grateful she is to her brother for not having to travel on a third class ticket. When Anna speaks to strangers she is meticulous with the formal and informal forms of the word “you” (“ni” or “du”) that was used in Swedish at the time. She also records interesting minutiae from the trip, such as attire, furnishings and food, and she is keenly aware of the cost of things – and how limited her funds are. (If one is to believe the text, the Swedish currency, the Krona, the “Crown” [which consists of 100 öre], had the following exchange rate in 1890: $1.00 = 3.65 Krona.)
Another interesting aspect of her experiences in 1890 is how often she runs into, and is assisted by, fellow Swedes in America. Of course, her ability to speak English is extremely limited (the book she is reading on the train is an English dictionary), and she naturally gravitates to any Scandinavian speaker for help, information or company. Among other things, her lack of English leads to misunderstandings, the most significant of which is that she never checks her trunk onto the train New York City. We never learn for certain whether or not she actually gets it forwarded to Portland, but it probably worked out in the end.
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In 1974 the Swedish text, with an anonymous translation into English, was donated to the Oregon Historical Society. The donor was Margaret Freeborg, Anna Birchman’s oldest daughter. Margaret Freeborg was probably the translator of the text as well. To a Swedish-speaking reader it quickly becomes apparent that there are a few misunderstandings of the original text in the English translation, and these have been silently corrected. The English text has also been lightly edited for fluency and style, and in a few places obvious factual repetitions or mistakes have been eliminated.
Lars Nordström, Ph. D.