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The history of Sweden - a summary

Ice age to industrialization

When the last ice age began 115 000 years ago the land that today is Sweden was covered with an ice sheet, which remained until 10 000 years ago when the last parts melted. It was around this time the first people arrived. The time since the glacier melted until the 11th century is the period one usually refers to when talking about the prehistory of Sweden. During this time people went from a hunter-gatherer way of life to agriculture and from using stone to bronze and eventually iron tools. The Iron Age of Sweden is generally considered to end with the mythical Viking era. Most Vikings lived like farmers but they knew how to build highly advanced ships and many travelled to raid or trade in lands far away.

The Vikings did write in runes as the many runestones testify about, but the historical time with more written sources is considered to begin with the transition to the Middle Ages in the 11th century. Although there are older traces of Christian graves the christianisation took place in the end of the 11th century, and it was around this time Sweden got its first kings. In the middle of the 12th century the crucades and conquests against Finland began and in the 13th century it became a part of Sweden (until 1809). In the middle of this century Stockholm was founded by Birger Jarl and plenty of others cities started growing.

At the end of the Middle Ages Gustav Vasa took the power and crowned himself the king of Sweden in 1523. This was the start of what is referred to as the Vasa Age, and during this time Sweden developed into a more united kingdom and became Protestant. During the 17th century the Era of Great Power - or the era of the Swedish Empire - began and it was a period of many wars and conquests of land. During the reign of the King Gustav II Adolf, parts of the Baltic States (Estonia and Latvia) and Poland were seized, and later also parts of Germany. Among the areas that were conquered and still remain a part of Sweden are Jämtland and Gotland (in 1645) and Halland and Skåne (in 1658). By the end of the 17th century the two most prestigious universities of Sweden had officially been founded; Uppsala in 1477 and Lund in 1666. The era of the Swedish Empire ended in 1718 - the year when the warrior King Karl XII was shot in an attack against Norway.

After the Era of Great Power the Age of Liberty began and progress was made in, among other things, science, with prominent scientists like Carl von Linné and Anders Celsius. Sweden got its first political parties - the hats and the caps - and both the Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Swedish Academy were founded (the latter by King Gustav III). At this time the vast majority of Sweden's population consisted of farmers.

Before and during the emigration

At the beginning of the 19th century, Sweden lost Finland but compensated this by conquering Norway (in 1814) for nearly a century. Throughout this century land reforms were carried out and the cultivated areas increased at the same time as the industry developed in the cities. One of the inventors of significance for the industrialization was Alfred Nobel who invented the dynamite. Important was also John Ericsson from Värmland who designed the warship USS Monitor (in 1862) which played an important role in the American Civil War.


By the middle of the 19th century the potato was the most important food in Sweden and the population increased. Towards the end of the century the numbers of farmers decreased. The urbanization and the population growth made it harder for the Swedes to support themselves and this is when the emigration to the United States started. Between 1850 and 1930 as many as 1,2 million Swedes emigrated (although 200 000 of them eventually returned), mainly from Småland and Halland but also from Västergötland, Östergötland, Dalsland and Värmland.


The first major emigration wave occured during the years of bad harvest 1867-1868 which was the last period of starvation in Sweden. Most Swedes went to the Upper Midwest and Minnesota became the most distinctive Swedish district (where both the climate and the environment reminded of home). But many also ended up in Chicago, and for a while around the turn of the century it was the city where most Swedes lived after Stockholm!


By 1907 one fifth of Sweden's population had left and the government became desperate to stop the emigration. Between 1907 and 1914 the so-called Swedish Emigration Commission was mandated, but the "problem" came to an end when the World War I broke out shortly after and the emigration in principle ceased. Despite the fact that so many had left, the population of Sweden had still grown due to the decline in mortality - from 1850 to 1930 the population increased from 3,5 to 6 millions. It is now estimated that there are nearly as many Americans with Swedish ancestry as there are Swedes in Sweden - which is around 10 millions.

Orlando, newly built (1870) emigrant steamer for the journey from Gothenburg to Hull. After "Illustrated London News". (Image from Gothenburg City Museum)

(The picture is from Gothenburg's city museum: Orlando, a newly built steamboat for trips between Gothenburg and Hull. After "Illustrated London News".)

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