Introduction to The Swedes of Yamhill

During the last decades of the 1800s—a period that coincided with the peak of Swedish immigration to the United States—several factors combined to stimulate a Swedish influx to the Pacific Northwest. First of all, Oregon’s State government had decided to encourage farmers from northern Europe to come to the region by having various promotional material translated into Swedish (among several other languages). In addition, there were the activities of Ernst Skarstedt, a somewhat romantic and inept pioneer, but highy capable journalist, newspaper editor and author who tirelessly promoted the Pacific Northwest in several Swedish-American newspapers and books. Two of his books deal with Oregon at great length: Oregon och Washington (1890) and Oregon och dess svenska befolkning (1911). So word quickly spread among the Swedes, who had one of the highest literacy rates in Europe at that time, that this corner of the United States had an almost Scandinavian-looking environment where one could practice the things one knew from home—farming, fishing and logging.

Around the turn of the 20th century a number of Swedish farming communities established themselves in many places in Oregon. Some Swedish wheat farmers settled east of the Cascades and formed the Valby congregation in Morrow County, but most found the land and climate west of the mountains more attractive. A large group came early to start farms in Powell Valley near Gresham, but the most ambitious settlement was probably the Carlsborg Swedish Colony established in Colton, Oregon, organized by Pastor C. J. Renhard (another tireless promoter who, among other things, also founded Emmanuel Hospital in Portland). C. J. Larson managed to attract a large number of Swedes and Swedish Finns to Warren, an area along the Columbia River between Scappoose and St. Helens. Valdemar Lidell, who was the Swedish vice-consul in Oregon around 1910, promoted a Swedish colony called “Newhem” near Sheridan (also in Yamhill County), and yet another group called the American-Scandinavian Realty Company advertised two Swedish colonies east of Oregon City called “Elida” and “Outlook.”

Not all the rural Swedish communities in Oregon were, of course, organized and actively promoted “colonies.” Many came into being spontaneously in areas where large numbers of Swedes had settled. These areas include farm country all along the lower Columbia River and the Pacific coast, especially around Tillamook and Marshfield (near Coos Bay). In addition, there were also large agricultural businesses operated by Swedes, the most famous of which was the Western Oregon Orchard Company in the Medford area, run by John and William Westerlund.

Today, a hundred years later, all of these Swedish rural communities are gone, even though descendants of the original settlers occasionally still live on the farms that their great grandparents started. Some of the old farmhouses and most of the churches built by the original Swedish settlers still stand, and visits to the adjoining cemeteries usually reveal many familiar-sounding names. And driving around in these areas we often recognize the names of many of the roads as well—whether it be Olson Road, Lindberg Road, or Carlson Road.

Martin Peterson’s article “The Swedes of Yamhill” is a valuable contribution to the Swedish history of Oregon because it illustrates how a coherent Swedish farming community happened to come into being in the 1890s, how it managed to remain an ethnic community, as well as giving us a glimpse of what farm life in Oregon was like more than a hundred years ago. It is also of great value to us because it is the only in-depth article written about a Swedish farming community in the state of Oregon.