A Family Transplanted

(Excerpted and condensed from articles written by Robert E. Dunham for the Valley Voice)

               In 1866, Alexander and Kristina Carlson lived in Sweden. Sweden is a country in northern Europe. The Carlsons had a small farm where they kept chickens, pigs and a few cows. They also raised potatoes for food and to sell. Alex and Kristina had five children, all girls. Everyone, even the young children, were expected to help with farming and household chores. During this time, many of the Carlsons’ neighbors and friends were talking of moving to a new country, the United States of America.

               People had a number of reasons for wanting to go to America. Some people had a hard time earning a living and supporting themselves in Sweden. Land was expensive, and taxes were high. Many people heard that America was “the land of opportunity,” and that they could get land easily in America. Letters from friends and family who had already left for America encouraged others to come. People who had traveled to America often sent money back to Sweden to help other family members make the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1866, Alex Carlson received a letter from his best friend, Gus Swanson, who had traveled to America. Gus was living briefly in Kane, Pennsylvania and he had been encouraging the family to come to the United States.

               In the spring of 1867, Alex and Kristina decided to sell their farm and take their entire family to America. They had just enough money to pay for seven tickets on a boat heading to America and to pay for the train tickets which would take them to Kane, Pennsylvania. The Carlsons only had enough money to buy steerage tickets on the boat. Passengers who traveled in steerage had the cheapest and worst rooms on the ship. Passengers in steerage slept in crowded bunks which were stacked quite high. They usually had to cook their own meals as well. Most steerage passengers spent a lot of time on deck, if they could, in order to avoid their crowded, airless compartments. Before steamship travel, the journey could take a month or more and people became sick during the trip.

               During the trip, Alex and Kristina had difficulty keeping track of their young daughters who would get lost on the crowded deck. To prevent this, Alex tied his children onto a length of clothesline and rounded them up at mealtimes. In spite of this restriction, however, their daughter Cecelia succeeded in throwing both of her wooden shoes overboard in order to hear them splash in the ocean.

               Arriving in Kane without any money in the summer of 1867, the family was aided by Mr. Kane who felt sorry for the family that spoke no English and knew no one. Mr. Kane helped Alex get a job on the railroad. Alex earned a dollar a day, and this was considered a good wage. One of Alex’s fellow workmen told him his name sounded “too Swedish,” and he recommended changing it to something more American. Alex did, and he changed his name from Carlson to Colson.

               The young girls were expected to help support the family by doing chores and odd jobs. In the summertime, the older girls would pick wild berries and sell them. In the 1860s and 1870s, a type of bird called passenger pigeons were plentiful in Pennsylvania. People claim that flocks of passenger pigeons were so large, they would block out the sun as they flew by. The Colson girls would take a sack and go out to the trees where the birds slept, or roosted for the night. They would pick up the sleeping birds, wring their necks, and drop them in a gunny sack. Once the gunny sacks were filled, the girls would take them to the railroad station to sell. The sacks would be shipped east, and restaurants in big cities would serve their customers dishes made from fresh pigeons. Because passenger pigeons were so easy to hunt, millions of them were killed over the years, and eventually they became extinct. Today, there are no more passenger pigeons left.

               Like many other Swedes, the Colsons were farmers, and as soon as they had enough money Alex bought a farm on JoJo Road and raised cows. Although the girls were able to go to school, the work that they did to help the family survive came first. Salma was the youngest daughter, and it was her job to help her mother with the family washing. Monday was always wash day, so Salma could never go to school on Mondays because she was needed at home. Most other mornings, Salma was late to school because she had to deliver milk from their farm to customers in the area.

               By the time she was twelve years old, two of Salma’s older sisters, Cecelia and Hulda, were working in Warren. They came home for weekends with new silk dresses and fancy hats. Salma looked forward to her sixteenth birthday when she would be old enough to leave home and get a job so she could be rich like her sisters.

               When she was sixteen, Salma took a job as a maid in the Hoffman household in Warren. Like most servants during that time, she lived in the house where she worked. Her living quarters consisted of a small living room and bedroom. Salma came and went from the house by the side porch near the kitchen door. Servants had their own entrances. When her sisters, Cecelia and Hulda, began introducing Salma to their friends in Warren, people had a hard time believing Salma was related to them. Although Salma was Swedish, she had an Irish accent which she picked up from her closest friends in Kane, two Irish sisters.

               In 1888, Salma was married to a man named Alexander Erickson. Alex worked as an oil driller in Cherry Grove when they were married. Salma and Alex built a house on Jefferson Street in Warren. Salma had a daughter, and later adopted a son. Both Salma and her husband lived in the house on Jefferson Street for the rest of their lives. They taught their children some of the traditions, foods, and language that her parents had brought with them from Sweden all those years ago.


A Family Transplanted: Questions

1. Why do you think Alex and Kristina decided to move their family to America?

2. Why did the family decide to come to Kane? Do you think it would be better to move to a place where you already had friends or family? Why or why not?

3. Why did Alex Carlson change his name to Colson? Would you have wanted to change your name? Why or why not?

4. How did the girls help their mother around the house and earn money for the family? How do you help around the house and help support the family? Is it different from what these girls did in the past?

5. What do you think the hardest thing about moving to a new country was for this family? Would you ever move to another country to live? Why or why not?


Courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society