Peter Cassel and the Settlement of New Sweden, Iowa

by Kevin Proescholdt

The New Sweden colony lies in Jefferson County, in the south-eastern corner of Iowa, near the village of Four Comers in this map from an 1887 atlas. It is the oldest Swedish settlement still in existence in the United States.

Although 1996 will serve as the 150th anniversary of the start of the mass emigration of Swedes to America, 1995 could have served just as easily as the jubilee year. In 1845, a Swedish farmer named Peter Cassel led a group of over twenty friends and family members from the Kisa area in Ostergotlands lan across the Atlantic to settle in southeastern Iowa. Here they founded the New Sweden settlement in Jefferson County, the first lasting Swedish settlement in the United Stales in the nineteenth century.

New Sweden served as one of the earliest outposts of Swedish-America, attracting more Swedish settlers to the area and to the Midwest. Because it occurred so early in the migration to America and because Peter Cassel wrote a series of letters describing life in the New World (several of which were published in Swedish newspapers), New Sweden sparked one of the earliest and most contentious debates in Sweden over emigration to America.

Several earlier emigrations from Sweden had already occurred by 1845, such as Gustaf Unonius's short-lived Pine Lake settlement west of modern day Milwaukee (see Sweden & America, Autumn 1991), but these earlier emigrations usually involved people from the upper levels of Swedish society. Peter Cassel and his party carne from the more common levels of society, and he himself was among the first of the landowning farmers (bonder) who sold their farms to seek a better life in America.

Ingeborg Catharina Andersdotter (left) was the second wife of Peter Casscl. The Cassels had four children who lived into the early decades of the twentieth century. They were (from left to right): Carrie Cassel Jacobson, Andrew (Anders) Fredrik Cassel, Mathilda Cassel Danielson, and (in photo to the right) Carl.Johan Cassel, who settled Swede Point, now Madrid, Iowa. There is no surviving photograph of Peter Cassel.

Cassel was an energetic and innovative man. Born in 1790 in neighboring Asby Parish, he worked at various times as a miller, a building contractor, and a farmer. He had invented and patented a threshing machine, could read and write, and had studied English. He participated in the business of the parish council, and was chosen locally as an elector for the riksdag elections.

Peter Cassel was also considered something of a political radical at the time. He signed a petition in 1844 which called for reform in the representational composition of the riksdag, a change which did not ultimately occur for two more decades.

Cassel's friend and kindred political spirit in the Kisa area, Carl Gustaf Sundius, operated the apothecary shop. Letters from the Pine Lake settlement had been sent to the Kisa area, and Sundius and Cassel eagerly discussed the advantages of America and emigration. Finally in the spring of 1845, Cassel-by then a relatively old 54 years of age-and his party left Kisa and Sweden for America.

Originally planning to go to Pine Lake, the Cassel group learned after arriving in New York that the best available land for farming remained not in Wisconsin, but in the Iowa Territory. They eventually reached Iowa, found land some 40 miles west of Burlington, and settled clown to build new homes and open up farms in what they called New Sweden.

Cassel's departure from Sweden, and his letters hack home, started a major debate in the country over the merits (or lack thereof) of emigration, of Cassel's character and veracity, and even of his soundness of mind. Particularly because Cassel was the first landowning farmer to emigrate to America, newspapers such as Ostgota Correspondenten from Linkoping often printed his "America letters" and sparked a lively debate.

"The ease of making a living here and the increasing prosperity of the farmers, year by year and day by day, exceeds anything we anticipated," Cassel wrote home to Sweden in February 1846. "If only half of the work expended on the soil in the fatherland were utilized here, the yield would reach the wildest imagination; but the American farmer, content with enough to give him a living and comfort, confines himself to plowing, planting, and harvesting."

As if this description wasn't enough to spark interest in America, Cassel went on to compare the new country with the old one he left with its stratified social classes: "Freedom and equality are the fundamental principles of the constitution of file United States. There is no such thing as class distinction here; no counts, barons, lords or lordly estates. The one is as good as another, and everyone lives in the unrestricted enjoyment of personal liberty. A Swedish bonde, raised under oppression and accustomed to poverty and want, here find himself elevated to a new world ... and he enjoys a satisfaction in life that lie has never before experienced." Cassel's revolutionary words ignited emigration to the New World from Ostergotland and northern Smaland.

Peter Cassel and his family converted to Methodism. and joined the New Sweden Methodist Church. This sanctuary was built in 1872. (photo)

New Sweden sparked one of the earliest and most contentious debates in Sweden over emigration to America.

In part because of Cassel's letters, New Sweden grew through the years, from an early band of about twenty which came with Peter Cassel to nearly 100 by 1850, 350 six years later, and to just over 600 by 1860. The population peaked al over 700 by 1870 before dropping to 600 again by the next decennial census in 1880.

Always a rural, agricultural community, New Sweden nonetheless had at one time three churches a quarter mile apart from each other: Lutheran; Methodist, and, Baptist. The New Sweden Lutheran Church dates from 1848 and thus serves as the oldest congregation in what became the Augustana Synod. Its church building, built in 1860, still stands and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The New Sweden Methodist Church began in 1850, with the current church building dating from 1872. Peter Cassel and his family converted to Methodism and he served as pastor of this congregation for three years. The New Sweden Baptist Church no longer stands, but its cemetery, like those of the Lutheran and Methodist church just down the road, contains some of (lie early New Sweden pioneers.

This building in Kisa, Ostergotlands lan, served as the apothecary shop and emigrant agency of Carl Gustaf Sundius, one of Peter Cassel's strong supporters and a promoter of emigration to the United States. Today it houses the Emigrant Museum.

Peter Cassel remained in New Sweden until his death in 1857, serving as the honored leader of the New Sweden settlement. During his dozen years in America, Cassel had increased his farm acreage from an initial 40 acres to 120 acres. His wife, Ingeborg Catharina Andersdotter, survived him for another 20 years, and several of his children (Carl Johan, Anders [Andrew], Mathilda, and Carrie) remained pillars of the New Sweden community or, in the case of Carl Johan, of Swede Point (now Madrid), the second oldest Swedish settlement in Iowa.

So though the 150th Jubilee selected 1996 as the year to commemorate the beginning of the great migration-principally because 1996 marks the sesquicentennial of the founding in 1846 of the enormously important Bishop Hill Colony in Illinois - events in both countries this year will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Peter Cassel's bold decision to emigrate and the beginning of the New Sweden, Iowa, settlement.

Kevin Proescholdt

Kevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis serves as vice chairman of the Swedish-American Historical Society and has written frequently about New Sweden and his ancestor, Peter Cassel.

1995 Events Celebrate Peter Cassel and New Sweden

Two events, one in Sweden and one in Iowa, will mark the 150th anniversary of Peter Cassel's emigration and the start of New Sweden, Iowa.

June 18 - Peter Cassel Dagen (Peter Cassel Day) in Kisa, Ostergotland, Sweden. The Filbyter Lodge of the Vasa Order of America (located in Linkoping) and the Kisa-Vastra Eneby Hembygdsforening have sponsored an annual event called Peter Cassel Day since 1979. This year an even bigger event is planned for the 150th anniversary year. For more information, contact: Kurt Rodin, Abylundsgatan 7, 582 36 Linkoping, Sweden. Telephone: 013/130953.

October 7-8 (tentatively) - The Swedish-American Historical Society will hold its annual meeting in the New Sweden area, with tours of the surrounding community, including the county seat of Fairfield and nearby Swedesburg. The program will include a series of speakers on the significance of New Sweden. For more information, contact: Swedish-American Historical Society, 5125 North Spaulding Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60625. Telephone: (312)583-5722.

For a newspaper clipping, 1926, in Swedish of Axel Jacobson (1843-1935) and Carrie Cassel (1851-1942) on the occasion of their 50 th wedding anniversary, see: The Golden Wedding Anniversary

For a photo of Carrie Cassel, see: My great grandmother, Carrie Cassel Jacobson

For a photo of Jacob Axel Johansson, see: My great-great grandfather, Jacob Axel Johansson

For a photo of my mother, see: Dr. Marjorie Jacobson

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