Skip to main content

Features

A journey up the family tree

How one man from New York discovered his roots in Argentina and traced his Baptist ancestors to the Arctic Circle

Nyköping, Sweden- Paddling a yellow kayak past hundreds of green islands and through the dark, choppy waters of the Baltic Sea south of Stockholm, the mind wanders: How did this trip begin?

The travel industry calls this a heritage trip-genealogical tourism. A scientist would call it a DNA vacation. An anthropologist might call it a journey into the family tree.

My guide, Elisabeth Nilsson, sparked my visit to Sweden when we met randomly at a conference in Argentina on the global steel industry. Nilsson is executive director of Jernkontoret, the Swedish steel producers association, and I was at the conference as a Wall Street Journal reporter also covering steel.

She looked familiar but I could not place her. At a reception we started talking and, 20 minutes into the conversation, she asked the names of my great-grandparents who left Sweden for America. When I said, "Sven and Emmy Eklund," she laughed.

"I can't believe it," she exclaimed. "We're relatives!" Her grandmother Elin was a sister of my great-grandmother, Emmy. It's clear why her features reminded me of my late great-grandmother as well as my lovely grandmother, aunts, and sisters. In fact, she had met my grandmother and some aunts and uncles who live in the United States.

A chance encounter with a blood relative from Europe half a world away in the Southern Hemisphere rekindled my desire to visit Sweden, a place where my late great-grandparents Sven and Emmy grew up in a small fishing village named Påläng, 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle, before they immigrated to Chicago and later to Minnesota.

So as Elisabeth and I paddle through the beautiful archipelago, I think about our ancestors. Were they on fearsome Viking ships or part of the national Lutheran movement that swept Sweden in the 1500s? How hard was it for Sven and Emmy to immigrate in the 1920s?

I am not alone in my quest. Overnight stays by foreigners in Sweden are growing nearly 9 percent a year, compared to 4 percent in the rest of Europe, and government officials say heritage tourism drives much of that growth. To assist the descendants of immigrants to the United States, the Swedish consulate in New York has published a popular, free guide to "Tracing Your Swedish Ancestry," and a cottage industry is springing up to serve the demand for cross-country genealogical tourism and language links.

"Find out as much as you can and even locate living relatives before you go on your trip," says Jill Seaholm, a genealogy specialist at the Swenson Immigration Research Center at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. "Spend your time with your relatives rather than looking for them." The center has a genealogical library and extensive web links to help Swedes in the United States track down their ancestors. It's easier for Americans to find Swedish relatives than Swedes to find relatives in America because Swedes kept careful track of genealogies through Lutheran church registries and other methods. In the United States immigrants essentially lose themselves, changing their last names and moving frequently.

My grandmother, Gladys Ohnstein, often traveled to Sweden, maintaining close ties with her uncles, aunts, first cousins, and great nephews and nieces. She proved to be an invaluable resource for my trip, providing names, phone numbers, and addresses. She even mailed me a packet with family tree and biographical information for relatives. Her excitement and tales of her visits to Sweden also inspired me-as a child and an adult. I listened to a Swedish language CD and managed to learn a few simple words, like hej! "hey" (hello) and "hay-doe" (good bye).

There were so many things I didn't know well enough as a child, namely my great-grandparents, and so I write out questions. Why did Sven and Emmy leave Sweden? What were their lives like growing up? What kind of Christian heritage (or other religious heritage) did our Swedish family have? What other life lessons do our relatives in Sweden offer to my larger family and future family? What would life be like had I been born in Sweden?

When I land in Stockholm for a short tour of the capital, I stay with relatives, Maria and Joakim Soderberg (both government economists) and their son Elvin.

As we tour Stockholm, we discuss the difficulties the Swedish government is having with its welfare-state policies and open-ended immigration policies. These have created ethnic pockets in the city that many Swedes blame for increases in crime and a less helpful welfare system. The issues are different in Sweden and in the United States, but the tension is the same.

After a kayak journey with Nilsson, I fly north, where relatives pick me up in the northern city of Luleå to meet other relatives, play a game of basketball, and enjoy tea. Then, we drive an hour north to the small town of Påläng (population: about 400), just south of the Arctic Circle where my great-grandparents were born and where most of my Swedish family lives. The relatives joke that I'm related to half the town, and I feel like a celebrity because everyone knows I'm the great-grandson of Sven and Emmy, the two who left.

Between Stockholm, Luleå, and Påläng I visit nearly 60 relatives. We communicate using "Swenglish." A journey up the family tree, I find, is both analytical and experiential. Some afternoons, I find myself sitting with relatives drinking tea and paging through old photograph books, making notes on family tree charts and recounting stories. I discover my family had several members who worked in the steel industry, which bridges my connection to them and to Nilsson.

With a brief road trip to Finland, visits to other small towns in Norbotten (North Sweden), and trips across the smooth water in the Gulf of Bothnia to small tree-topped islands in the Archipelago, we eat and eat and eat, meals alternating between salmon, reindeer, moose, and berries, all washed down with Swedish coffee. It's important to eat everything (a) so as not to offend any hosts and (b) because it is so good.

Word spreads that I like books and the local berries. Relatives stop by where I'm staying to leave fresh lingonberries, to say hello, and to drop off books about the region.

The visit gives me a window into the psychology, lifestyle, and perspective of my late great-grandparents, Sven and Emmy, who lived in Minnesota much as they had in Sweden, on a small farm in a Swedish-style house where they farmed, fished, cooked on a wood stove, wove rugs, and knitted wool mittens and scarves with reindeer patterns. They spoke with heavy Swedish accents and were full of kindness and good humor. Sven (known to us as "Morfar" for the Swedish "mother's father") passed away when I was in high school. Emmy (known as "Mormor" or "mother's mother") died when I was in college.

Like many of the other 1.2 million Swedes who left their homeland from 1850 to 1930 to escape hunger and poverty, Sven decided to leave for better opportunities. Swedish immigrants produced about 12 million descendants in North America-a group larger than the current population of Sweden (9 million). Although few of those offspring speak Swedish, apparently thousands like me return each year to research family history, meet relatives, and visit ancestors' homesteads.

During my time in Påläng, I ask several older relatives what they remember about Sven and Emmy's first visit back to Sweden in 1949, two decades after they left for America. Voices go silent and tears well in their mostly piercing blue eyes before they recall the joy of reunited mothers, siblings, and cousins.

Relatives show me a scaled model of the village (one of the locals made it) as it looked in 1930, a few years after Sven and Emmy left. They take me to the original homesteads to experience salmon fishing the way Sven did when he was a young man.

While my great-grandfather was a country boy from the outskirts of Påläng (pronounced "Poh-lang"), my great-grandmother grew up in the center of town in a farmhouse and grounds known as Inigården, which is still there. I learn that the older generations of my relatives held to the idea of "living off the land" as lumberjacks, farmers, and fisherman.

Many of their children and grandchildren, meanwhile, have gone to universities, moved to cities, and work as IT professionals, business people, or economists. The trip makes me appreciate the generational change and sacrifices made by the great-grandparents and grandparents.

My great-grandparents were active in their Baptist church in Quamba, Minn., and left a legacy of faith throughout our family. During the trip, I notice that my great-grandmother's side of the family seems to be closer to one another and to have stayed in better contact over the years. This side of the family is active in the Mission Covenant Church. One aunt spent years as a missionary in Africa and showed me photos.

Recently Sweden's Scandic hotel group put New Testaments back in guest rooms after Swedes boycotted the popular chain for removing Bibles. Even though only 3 percent of the population goes to church each week and the state-sponsored Lutheran church is minimally attended, evangelical groups are finding Sweden is not as secular as many think. The decline of state-run "monopoly" churches like the Lutheran Church in Sweden has created an opening for more entrepreneurial approaches by religious organizations and missions.

Ryan Emis, an Arkansas native who has moved with his young family to a suburb outside Stockholm as a Young Life missionary to high-school students, says that many young Swedes he encounters want answers about life and are more questioning than their parents are of what can be a conformist and complacent culture. Gang violence, shootings, murder, and other social problems also spark questions. "You often hear people say it's nice and safe here in Sweden," he says. "But every day there are things like that going on here."

Although 75 percent of Sweden's 9 million people belong to the state church, very few worship regularly. The evangelical churches in the country have only 31,000 members but worship regularly and are slowly growing. These churches, however, represent a competitive threat to the monopolist state churches.

Heavy taxation rates, generous welfare policies, and an open policy toward immigration have brought a wave of immigration that has started to weigh on Sweden's economy. Some of my relatives, raised on the socialist theories, are now more skeptical of the political economic structure and want to see political reform. Christian leaders in the country say these reforms bleed over into religion as many people want to embrace real faith in the midst of change.

Back in Stockholm, I have dinner with five blood relatives who have never met one another. It's gratifying to be the reason they are meeting. Now cousins in Sweden and the United States have joined a Facebook group to stay in touch. Several of us plan to visit each other in the future. The older generation sent me home with several books in Swedish and English to deliver to my grandmother. I wonder if this is similar to the way it feels for someone who has been adopted to finally meet his or her birth parents.

On the plane back to New York, I remember my grandmother's words: "When you are on your way home, you will be trying to figure out a way to go back there."

Starting points for heritage tours

Several businesses connect Swedes in America to Swedes in Sweden: Anderson Scandinavian Tours (toursweden.com) of Lindsborg, Kan., (Little Sweden, USA) and Scandinavian Seminar (scandinavianseminar.org) in Amherst, Mass., offer a variety of travel and study abroad options for people of all ages who want to experience Sweden and other Scandinavian countries.

Internet sites offer to do genealogical research for you, with many specializing in Scotland, Ireland, or Sweden. Genline (genline.com) specializes in Sweden. ScandGen (scandgen.com) offers genealogical research and custom-made tours.

Other nations, from Scotland and Ireland to Antigua, China, Israel, and South Africa, promote roots tourism, and the internet has made it easier to find relatives and to arrange visits. Scotland's tourism authorities have designed special websites with links to genealogical offices.

Ireland in recent years has relaxed some of its citizenship rules, in part to maintain the interest of Irish descendants abroad. The Irish consulate says anyone born outside Ireland who had a parent born inside Ireland is an Irish citizen. Rule changes to the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act in 2001 also create several new ways to become Irish-including a way for those who marry an Irish citizen not living in Ireland to become Irish.

A Scottish roots website (scottishroots.com) offers genealogical research probes ranging from $185 (95 pounds) for an "exploratory probe" into records post-1855 up to just over $1,000 for a search that includes old parish registers, census returns, and ordnance survey maps.

Genetrack Biolabs Inc. offers research surveys into surnames and DNA ancestry (DNAancestryproject.com) that is particularly helpful for Americans tracing their roots in Africa. The company offers DNA tests ranging from $119 for a standard paternal ancestry line test to a $319 advanced combo package that employs a swab method to use DNA to trace one's ancestry through both the paternal and maternal lines.

During my trip, I realized that social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace are a new area for global family tree networking. The Glader cousins in America created a Facebook group to help us stay in touch. To my surprise, some of our second and third cousins in Sweden also are members of Facebook. While I was in Sweden, others decided to open Facebook accounts and we have since linked to one another. Several other social networking websites-amiglia.com, myheritage.com, and geni.com-are attempting to carve out niches across the genealogical divides.

Paul David Glader

Paul David Glader