Just Passing Through

Prominent on the Omaha horizons as the nineteenth century drew to its close were Central School to the northwest and the Union Pacific Missouri River bridge to the southeast. This bridge had occupied the labors of large numbers of Swedish immigrants to Omaha, as had the other infrastructure which that railroad was developing in this, its headquarter city. Upon completion of this work so many Swedes were left unemployed that it caused specifically the westward migration to Saunders County. Lutheran pastor S.G. Larson was the shepherd of this movement as we have indicated elsewhere.

A bronze buffalo head marked the U.P. Omaha bridge
welcoming Swedes to the West

It is fascinating to speculate just how aware the Swedes in Omaha might have been that so many thousands of their countrymen passed over the U.P. bridge during those years bound for Brigham Young's Zion in Utah. There must have been some awareness of the Saints' Mormon Winter Quarters on the bluffs visible to the north in Florence. It was no doubt known that Kanesville across on the Iowa side was also a wintering waypoint, and that the "Mormon Trail" extended through Iowa and Nebraska. It should be noted that the migration of the Saints was for the most part ahead of most Swedish immigration to the area. The stories of the handcart and wagon era are more dramatic than those of later rail travellers, but just what percentage of Swedes were in each group remains vague.

But these were Swedes who may have passed as "ships in the night" to a great degree. Religious Omahans might have been warned by their pastors that these followers of the restored church were misled and their leaders were to be avoided. For their part, the Saints probably received similar warnings. Yet these countrymen were known for their penchant for sticking together in the new land of America. How had this peculiar divergence come to be?

When the new teaching reached Sweden from its American birthplace, it may be instructive to note these emphases which it shared with other such new religious ideas then current:

Lutheran NO*: not in the "instantaneous conversion" embraced by the others

(The Swedish Baptists were most inclined to formally joining Adventism. Had it not been for their sabbatarianism might not many more have joined?)

No such scheme will satisfy all, but the point is to establish that Smith's teachings conformed at many points with the movements of the time. It then added a couple of distinctives to the categories above. It added to the canonical scripture, especially the old testament whose kingdom it purported to restore, new "revelations" which outlined the place of America in the divine plan. It is hard for us to imagine, but this material was written in the style of the canon and addressed popular questions left unanswered in canonical scriptures.

Also, the mode of the time was in missions, with laymen meeting other laymen bringing literature and personal urgency to the task of recruitment. Another mode was cross-national: the Wesleyan Scott, and the American Baird were influential in Sweden. And the lure of the freedom and opportunity of America was at the core of the Saints' message. Though they did not simply provide free passage as critics thought, their Perpetual Emigration Fund company supplied a structured revolving fund and a structured escort to Zion.

Missionaries to Scandinavia

The results of these missionary labors in Scandinavia speak for themselves: forty-five thousand plus converts. In "Deseret", as Young and the apostles called their Utah kingdom, the settlements of Hyrum, Mt. Pleasant and Manti were Scandinavian centers. Swedish Bishop Liljenquist was a leading community builder. These stories are told in William Mulder's "Homeward to Zion: The Mormon Migration from Scandinavia." Read there of Utah Saints of the restored church celebrating Julotta!

Swedish Bishop Liljenquist's grave in Utah

Exact statistics from these early days are elusive, though none seem more thorough or deliberate than those preserved by the Utah Saints. Some figures from Mulder's book serve to illustrate the signifigance of the Scandanavian element: "In 1870, when Mormon Territory counted nearly twice as many Scandinavians as Nebraska, 68 percent of Utah's population was of foreign stock...In 1900 Scandinavians in Utah formed 34 percent..." p. 197

Though Danes formed the largest segment of these Scandinavians, the reports from Sweden listed 16,695 converts. These were approximately in equal thirds from Stockholm, southern Skåne, and "elsewhere." Of these, a reported 44 percent emigrated to America.

Though told from a sympathetic viewpoint, many facts reveal themselves in Mulder's book. The numbers of defectors from the journey (called "apostates and backtrailers") were enough in the above author's opinion to form the nucleus of settlements such as the Blair Danish community! Another aspiring Saint, One Charles H. Thompson, received visions of his own, and established a "mini Zion" in the Loess Hills Preparation Canyon...till his band brought him before the law to reclaim the property they had credulously entrusted to him.

The overlook at Thompson's Preparation Canyon

Those interested in the immigrant Swedish church will be fascinated to note that none other than G. Unonius was alarmed by the numbers of Swedes attracted to the teachings of Smith and Young. In 1883 he published an "anti-Morman" book. (Mulder, p. 91) Earlier he had hounded Augustana's founders in the interest of promoting affiliation with his Episcopalians. Neither does our old friend Fredrik Franson go unmentioned. "Meanwhile, in November 1879 two Swedish evangelists of the Free Christian Church (sic), the Rev. F. Franson and Mr. J.B. Fredrickson, arrived in town to make some thirty converts, and sixteen more in neighboring Ephraim." (p. 280, see his story in the Saunders County section)

We cannot pass over the events of "the Swedish uprising" in the valley of Zion. Otto Rydman, a Swedish Saint journalist, seems to have been more animated by anti-Danish than anti-Mormon feelings. These impulses of his came to a head when church officials locked the doors of their ward meetinghouse to his 1901 Julotta service! The ensuing uproar gained the title "Swedish uprising," though peace eventually was restored.

Also we must mention discoveries made with local librarian and former Knox County Scandinavian, Tami Sorensen Langlois. Her reports of a band of Saints wintering in our home county 100 miles "off the trail" led to uncovering the story of Bishop George Miller and his 1846 trip. At the request of Peter Sarpy, Brigham Young dispatched Miller and a group to Grand Island to transport 25 tons of buffalo hides back to Omaha. Being stranded at the mouth of the Loup River, this group wintered with the accommodating Ponca Indians at their camp near Niobrara on the Missouri. It is doubtful the saints knew just how far away this was. In any case, they built a fort there whose site is still marked and their trek, if taken as a straight line, would have come very near our Creighton, Nebraska, neighborhood.

For the most part, the migration of the Saints of the restored church through Omaha was transient, so far as we know there was no permanent congregation or settlement then established. It was their purpose to reach their "Zion" and their waystations in Iowa, Nebraska and elsewhere were deliberately disenfranchised as their mission was accomplished.

Old Florence Mill survives in 2007

Reports on the extensive Florence winter quarters state that all that remained in a few years were the Florence Mill, still standing, and the cemetary which is now adjoined by the recently built commemorative Winter Quarters Temple. The logs from the winter quarters buildings were scavanged by later settlers. The museum at the site preserves remarkable drawings and relics of this early and unique chapter. When Nebraska was no longer Indian Territory those remaining at Florence were obliged to move back across the river to Kanesville. But whether along the trails or rolling beneath the bison head on the U.P. bridge, many thousands of Swedes passed by in those early days.

Legacies: Saints' cemetary and commemorative temple

Another source for Saints history Click here

Continue: Swedes Across the River in Council Bluffs Click here
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