Introduction To Hill's Diary

More often than not, early Swedish immigrants to Oregon did not come directly from Sweden, but moved west after having lived in other states for many years. Many seemed to have been attracted by the milder climate and relocated from the Midwest. This was the case for Samuel Magnus Hill (1851 – 1921), who had arrived in the United States with his family as early as 1868, but who did not settle in Oregon until 1915. Before arriving, Hill had spent most of his adult life at the Swedish-speaking Luther College in Wahoo, Nebraska. In the late spring of 1901, during his first and only trip back to his native country, Hill had made an unsuccessful attempt to find a job in Sweden and relocate his family. Then, following his 1914 retirement from Luther College, Hill instead moved west to Oregon where he became the minister in a small Swedish settlement colony called Carlsborg.

During the summer of 1914, the year before he moved to Oregon, Samuel Magnus Hill started spending a great deal of time in front of his Swedish typewriter. He typed up a large stack of old letters to and from relatives and friends in Sweden and the United States, and he cleaned up the diary he had kept during the family’s emigration in 1868. Hill also made a typescript of his journal from the 1901 trip to Sweden, and he typed up many of his poems and songs. In addition, Hill composed two memoirs. The first he entitled: Biografi: Eller hvad jag minnes ur mitt lifs historia [Biography: Or what I remember of my life’s history], and it contains recollections from his life in Sweden prior to the family’s emigration. The second he entitled Andra afdelningen. Hvad jag minnes om mit lif i Amerika [Part Two. What I remember of my life in America]. None of these approximately 400 manuscript pages (all of which were written in Swedish) have been published before, even though some of the material in “Part Two” has been quoted by James Iverne Dowie in his study Prairie Grass Dividing (1959).

Today it is impossible to know what was behind Hill’s sustained burst of typing at age 63: Was it simply an enjoyable task in order to fill days suddenly freed up by his unexpected retirement from Luther College? Or was it preparations for an autobiography that was never completed, or an attempt to preserve an easily read family record for his nine children? Whatever impetus was behind Hill’s effort, one document remains an especially vivid and interesting text today, and that is the diary he kept during the emigration. In part it has to do with the classic Aristotelian structure of the narrative, moving from a beginning (the native parish in Sweden) through a middle (crossing the North Sea and the Atlantic) to an end (reaching a destination in the United States). But the quality of the diary also has to do with the fact that Hill was an intelligent and observant 17-year-old, and that the descriptions reveal many of the tribulations that the emigrants had to face. The Hill family was part of the early phase of the great migration from Sweden to the New World, and his diary provides an informative glimpse into what such a journey entailed. In addition, it is also very moving document because it turns out to be a tragedy – the family’s first task after getting off the train in the small town of Altona, near Galesburg, Illinois, was to bury August, the younger brother, who died just four hours after their arrival.

The Hill family left Sweden during a time that saw increasing numbers of emigrants departing for America. The main reason driving the exodus was clearly to escape poverty. In 1868 Sweden was an agrarian society that had run out of arable land, and industrialization and urban expansion had not yet grown to a scale large enough to absorb a rapidly growing population. This made life increasingly difficult for a large number of rural people. In addition, the years 1867 – 68 saw widespread crop failures and even famine in some areas, and this helped accelerate emigration even further. There had also been tensions between the State Lutheran Church and various Christian revivalist movements sweeping through Sweden, and this had already caused some people to emigrate.